Anne Lamott, peerless at inspiring good writing, tells the story of her 10-year-old brother agonizing over his science report on birds. “He’d had three months to write [it]. It was due the next day,” she writes in her book “Bird by Bird.” “He was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
We’ve all been there — either as the report writer, the parent, or the teacher trying to coach and coax the writing project to completion. I remember my daughter Hilary struggling with just such a report. It was an English class assignment requiring her to go beyond a synopsis of the plot of “April Morning,” to delve deeper than a mere summary of the list of characters and their actions in the plot. She had to step outside of her reading and writing comfort zone.
A seventh-grader, Hilary was in a typical, bumpy transition from her competent, concrete summaries of the text to the subtextual observations her teacher was training the class to do. The time had come in her growth as a reader and writer to explore the abstract sense of things, the subjective figures in language. It was a painful struggle. It seemed to her like an unfair trick. How could words be about something other than what they say, their concrete meaning? Go figure!
“I can’t interpret what happens,” she moaned. “It just happens. There’s no interpretation. It’s about what it’s about. That’s all there is to it!”
I recalled the parallel scene in my own schooling. It was also during seventh grade, working long and hard one night to make my customary and time-honored book report poster by simply pasting a collage of magazine photos on oak tag to represent the characters. Summarize the plot, illustrate the trials and tribulations of the characters in “The Outsiders,” add a few photos clipped from the newspaper — voila! Done. As far as I was concerned, that was the acme of writing.
When my teacher Mr. Katz returned my dutiful work, his comment suggested I needed to interpret the story — to think about “the why” of the story and think about the writer’s motivation in telling the story. Apparently, the story meant something other than what happened in it. The writer had been saying one thing and meaning another. It was about more than it was about. Go figure. I felt Hilary’s pain. She, of course, had yet to be born.
But what a thrill I felt in the subsequent moment of revelation when the inner meanings started to become clear to me. I abandoned the illustrated book report (with fancy cover and huge titles) forever. A writer actually has control over this stuff? A writer isn’t just recording the way it happened? The story is something imagined? Words are carefully chosen for their resonance? I took a giant leap toward critical examination of the craft of assembling words in a particular order for a particular reason. One could say, an English major was born.
We’re accustomed, of course, to a world that is carelessly worded and expressed. “It’s about…” is a constant refrain, as if meaning were something obvious, declarative, visible, agreed upon or casually and conveniently distilled. And what Hilary was encountering, as we all do at some point in school, if we’re lucky, is the opening of the mind’s eye to the more that’s there. I don’t think even she thought it was just “about” a mere book report in seventh grade. The transition takes time, timing and patience, like anything deeply learned.
What would Mr. Katz’s progress reports have said about me, I wonder? “In Language Arts, Todd is taking it ‘bird by bird.’” They’re probably still filed away somewhere in my mother’s archive, and still classified. And at the parent-teacher conference? “Now, about his handwriting…” Some things haven’t changed, and probably won’t. How do you take cursive bird by bird?
Todd R. Nelson is a former teacher and school principal. He lives in Penobscot. Ariel R. Nelson, his daughter, is a graphic designer in Philadelphia.