A writer in the making

2011-08-11 00:00

“I wrote a poem,” Lael announced one day, “and we’d like to perform it for you.”

My heart sank — performance poetry. Until now, most of my children’s home-brewed concerts have been fairly arduous. Lael reassured me that this one would be different.

I followed her to their bedroom. The curtains were drawn, Anna was in full ballet regalia, and Joah was hovering over a drum in one hand and a makeshift, spotlight headlamp in another. Then suddenly the lights came on and Lael took centre stage:

“My name is Lance,” she chanted, to the beat of a rhythmic drum and a flitting ballet dancer,

“I come from France,

I like to dance.

And don’t forget,

I’ll have a bet

With a vet

To buy the biggest cat yet.”

At the end I could barely stop myself from shouting encore.

“Lael,” I said, “that was far superior to any of your other performances. You had rhyme, you had rhythm, you had humour — that poem was great.”

Lael beamed all over and spent the rest of the day working on her lyrics. That evening she announced at supper that she would become a writer.

A few days later, she handed me the first draft of a play. On a piece of paper was written:

Hannah: “Why hello Sarah!”

Lael: “Hello Miss Bossy Boots.”

Hannah: “You needn’t call such a dainty lady bossy.”

Lael: “I hate you.”

Hannah:“I don’t care.”

“What do you think?” She said, after I’d read through it once.

I didn’t want to disappoint her after the great success of her poem, but if she was going to be a writer she needed some constructive feedback.

“Well I think that it’s a bit harsh, the conversations aren’t very clever and there’s really no plot — it doesn’t go anywhere.”

“Hmm, I’ll keep working on it,” Lael said, disappearing back into her room.

A few days later, she announced that she had been working on a novel. She had five pages so far that I could look at. I spent a few minutes reading and laughing, and then said: “Lael, this has such potential. There are some great descriptions and colourful words, but the basic problem is that it doesn’t know where it’s going. It moves from someone being late for school, to someone having a feast, to someone being mugged, and then just as you begin to explore that topic you get distracted by telling jokes. What you need to learn is to plan your stories beforehand. Build up the problem, slowly uncover the solution and then quickly reveal the climax.”

Lael stared at me for a few moments and then said: “How old do I have to be before I can publish my own book?”

Those were the words that came out, but I think the actual question was, how old do I have to be before I can bypass your constructive feedback and just go straight for the glory and praise of being a famous writer?

“Lael,” I replied, “writing is not just about pouring your thoughts out onto paper, and it’s not just about saying whatever you feel. Writing involves discipline and hard work. It starts with your grammar, spelling and punctuation. That’s what you need to work on now. Soon you’ll learn how to put together a nice logical plot, and then you’ll learn to communicate that plot with style. Then you’ll leave school and you’ll write and write and write. Then you’ll send off five manuscripts and four editors will say, no thanks, but one will come back to you and say, it has potential, just change this and this. And then you’ll work again. Writing’s about hard work and it starts with your grammar lessons, now.”

“Hmm,” Lael mused for a bit, watching me as I lolled on the bed with the computer on my lap, “maybe I’ll just write for the newspaper then.”

Clearly, all I do is slop a few words together and e-mail them off.

• Sarah Groves is a freelance writer living in Pietermaritzburg.

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