Thursday, January 21, 2016

Lessons from my 7-year-old

My daughter Keeley (the youngest of my three daughters – Delaney and Audrey are the other two, hence the pseudonym) gets off the bus each day, and the same conversation ensues. 

Dad: How was school?
Keeley: GREAT!

What was great about it? Well, she's a first-grader: everything. New books make her smile. Getting an addition problem correct draws a fist-pump. Playing sharks and minnows in P.E. is something she talks about. And art class leads to lots of after-school stories.

Shouldn't we all go through life this way? I'm teaching an independent study this semester, working with a young woman who will surely be a novelist one day, and we're reading Rick DeMarinis's The Art and Craft of the Short Story. In it, Rick stresses the writer needs to be alive, to be awake, to drink in all of life's details. Keeley sure does that.

There's more, though, I think. When asked what it takes to be a writer, I never hesitate: empathy is my answer.

Empathy – the ability to walk in another's proverbial shoes – is the No. 1 requirement for anyone looking to take up the writing life. Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day. The boarding school where I live and work celebrates MLK Week, offering students different speakers and other opportunities to learn about diversity and social justice each day this week. I took Keeley to the opening event, an hour-long presentation about who MLK was and what he accomplished. Three times during the session Keeley broke down in tears. Her best friend is an African-American girl. "It should be equal," Keeley whispered to me, when I asked why she was crying. "I want it to be equal."

How does it feel to be African-American in the U.S.? I can't know. I can ask. I can read. But at the end of the day, I'm a middle-class white male with a master's degree. Privileged for sure. Characters in my books often discuss racism, sexism, or oppression. I think about those issues, and my characters talk about them. Now, I'm writing from the perspective of a female protagonist. This means I play the role of a female US Customs and Border Protection Agent for a couple hours a day. What is it like to be a female in a male-dominated, militaristic profession? I try to imagine it. What's it like to have men treat you a certain way? In essence, what's it like to not be a middle-class white male in my society? I'm privileged, I know, but writing pushes me to look beyond my boundaries.

And, as my 7-year-old daughter (the real Keeley) can tell you, that's a good thing.

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