St Albans School
In one of my past lives, I taught courses in creative writing. In these courses I often felt I was providing, not advice on how to write, but therapy. Nevertheless, I soldiered on for my paycheck.
The most essential concept a fledgling writer needs to understand and seek to master is voice. Most simply, voice is the personal, idiosyncratic, and distinctive way an artist puts words together—why William Faulkner doesn’t sound like Richard Wright and Maya Angelou doesn’t sound like Louise Glück. A great artist strives in poetry or prose to be so distinctive as to be recognized prior to being named.
Good teachers of writing ask students to imitate famous voices—write a sonnet about the woods in the manner of Robert Frost; describe a railroad station where a Hemingway story takes place or an oppressive drawing room in an Edith Wharton story. Students either give up, are satisfied with poor work, or in a slow, nonlinear, frustrating, and at times despairing way, mature through imitation into a voice they call their own.
Please indulge my use of this literary concept as a reminder of our most difficult task as parents, and that is, making it possible for our sons to seek their own voice. To do this, we must love our children so that (1) they don’t feel as if they must become who we are, and (2) they don’t feel they must become who we desire them to be, and (3) they feel they must become who they themselves are. We should love them in a way that helps them find their personal, idiosyncratic, and distinctive “voice.” Here, as promised, my use of a writer’s voice modulates into the same “voice” that we mean when we speak about vocation—a call, from God I believe, to find what American author and theologian Frederick Buechner calls our “deep gladness” and how that gladness best meets the world’s “deep need.” How awful life would be if our children’s “deep gladness” was not theirs and God’s alone to discover.
So what, then, do we do as parents? In general, I believe that, with our children and even with ourselves, we should strive to focus very little on our desires for the future, even on our child’s and our own present accomplishments. We should focus on both their and our own day-to-day way of living.
How do we do this in a concrete way? When we sit down with our three-year-old to play Lego one day because we think Lego is the neatest toy alive, and we read that it’s educational and will advance our boy’s learning, and he in turn demonstrates that he is more interested in some other activity, we stop. First, we are in contact with our children—this is a day-to-day example. We are in an age-appropriate activity together—another example of day-to-day living. This is also an example of the need not to draw the line in the sand and create the confrontation when we have more power than our children, but instead of being imaginative enough to work on a slant with our children. Each day, then, your imagination is not focused on how you could improve him by Lego, but how imaginatively you could respond to his personal, idiosyncratic, and distinctive desire. Rabelais said “a child is not a vase to be filled, but a fire to be lit.” We try to keep doing this every day, even when he’s five and could care less about the nature walks we absolutely love and are tempted to drag him on until he appreciates the woods the way we do, or when he tells us he finds our comfort foods absolutely disgusting and so on and so on. Remember we’re not talking about moral issues here, but letting the boy find his internal fire.
The rest of my examples will be briefer. When he comes home from school or at the dinner table or when we go on outings, we don’t have to answer all the questions because, frankly, we don’t know the answers and no one ever said that parents had to pretend as if we do. If we admit when we don’t know something, then he can do the same and feel comfortable about not knowing. We should tell the truth.
We should also admit that we have failed. We should never underestimate the value of sharing personal failures with our children. I read a joke once that adults are always asking kids what they want to be when they grow up because they’re looking for ideas.
While we might not be able to do this day-to-day, we should make certain our sons get out of their social milieu. We should encourage their listening to mentors, to teachers, to priests and rabbis and other religious figures—someone other than us. We should send them away from home on their own.
I’ve been a son for sixty-three years, a teacher for thirty-nine, and a father for twenty-nine, and what I know most convincingly is that this business of families has at its center of things a complicated and extraordinarily emotional mystery. We can say to our children, as we all do, we love you no matter what. But oh how often we convey the message of what the “what” ought to be in loving them no matter “what.” And so we pray to God that they will somehow find the “deep gladness” in their souls and that we will always remember it is not for us to determine what that gladness is.