The Boss knows what the hell he's talking about. Every good, fiery idea needs that first little spark. And the flicker that ignited my writing journey came in the most unlikely of places: the auditorium of my daughter’s high school. At the time, I’d spent the past 17 years as a stay-at-home mom to our four children. I loved the job, but as the kids were growing more independent and their eventual 'coop-flying' loomed in the distance, I was beginning to get the inkling that some facet of my identity was longing for a change.
That night in the school auditorium, a perky guidance counselor was explaining the college application process to a room full of anxious parents. As the presentation wore on- as more dos and don’ts were added to our list- the process began to feel as elaborate as Patton’s D-Day invasion plan, with stakes just as high.
Unfortunately, the only part of the entire night I even remotely understood was when the guidance counselor began discussing the essay portion of the application.
Now that I could get into. As a former Journalism major (and by former, I mean it was my major freshman year before I realized those pesky little deadline thingys were going to interfere with my five days a week drinking schedule), essays were right down my alley.
The guidance counselor was adamant that the students’ essays be original. None of those saccharine ramblings on how your grandpa’s death affected you, or how your dad is your hero, or how losing that basketball game in eighth grade taught you how to overcome tragedy in your life. No. You had to find a way to STAND OUT. You had to WOW the admissions officers; grab them by the throat and scream in their face I AM NOT LIKE YOUR OTHER 600,000 APPLICANTS! Pick Me! (But with a lot less desperation of course.)
As my daughter and I drove home from school that night, my mind was alight with possibilities. We could write about our huge extended family. Surely no one else in the world had 50 first cousins who converged every summer on a plot of land in the Catskills we affectionately described as “like the Kennedy compound, but with unwinterized cabins.”
Or we could write about how she single-handedly raised her 3 younger brothers for a few months while her mother struggled with some obsession issues. (I mean, all those tangled up plot points from the T.V. show LOST weren’t just going to unravel themselves, were they?)
Or we could write about when her grandma taught her to sew a dress and maybe turn it into some kind of symbolism for stitching together the lessons of life. (Cheesy I know, but my daughter had very little hardship to draw upon in her short life; a situation I was now kicking myself for. Why hadn’t I had the foresight to kick her out of the house and make her live on the streets for a while just so she’d have some kind of interesting story to tell?)
As you’re reading this, you’re probably already sensing the problem here.
That pesky little WE I keep typing. So yes, maybe I got a little too involved in the whole essay writing thing. Maybe I did accidentally start living vicariously through my daughter just a ‘WE’ little bit. So, I may have whipped off just a few rough drafts, you know, ‘just to get her started’. And maybe when she asked me to proofread the essay she’d written herself, maybe I did kind of imply that mine was way better and she should just throw hers out and use mine in its entirety because it was just that good and no one would ever know our little secret anyway.
Luckily my daughter inherited her moral code from her do-gooder father and not me, and- understanding the nuances of plagiarism a bit more fully than I did- refused to submit my essay. (Which BTW, was supremely polished, had a bunch of banging jokes, and a killer ending that would’ve left the admission counselors in a pool of tears. But hey, what do I know?) And long story short, I’m not currently writing this blog post from a shared prison cell with Lori Loughlin.
But while I admit I lost my mind there for a brief moment, that experience gave me a gift. There was something about writing those concise little stories about “how I overcame an obstacle” or “challenged a common belief” that sparked something in me. Reawakened that girl inside that used to write about her horse in elementary school, her heartbreak in high school, her home in college. For a few brief moments that girl crawled out from under the piles of laundry, and carpool schedules, and PTO meetings and in her best Monty Python voice called out “I’m not dead yet!” Then added, “Not only am I not dead yet, but I still have something to say!”
So that, my friends, is where the first spark to this whole convoluted journey to writing a book began: with me trying in vain to convince my 17-year-old daughter to commit college admission fraud with me. And yes, I’m still a little disappointed that she had to go all ‘high road’ and ‘morally upstanding’ on me. And yes, I may have implied she was ungrateful when she gently suggested something along the lines of ‘get your own life mom!’ But in the end, her tough love was why I picked up my pen (i.e., MacBook), sat my butt in the chair, (guiltily snuck away for a few minutes each day), and started writing again.
And now, instead of being in jail, I’m leading a life so creative and fulfilling I can barely believe it’s real. I did just what she’d asked me to: I got my own life. And, as Robert Frost once said about some road in a woods, that has made all the difference.
So now I ask you about what kind of ‘own life’ do you have for yourself?
Is your former child buried somewhere inside there, telling you they're not dead yet either? And if so, what else is its ragged little voice trying to say to you?
As the old TV show title goes: Kids say the darndest things. Which usually only shocks us because of how much of it is true.