Saturday, October 8, 2011

Why Homeschooling Is So Exciting For Me Right Now, Part 1: Fiction

"[C]hildren learn by example. Most importantly home-school teachers must serve, through their own behavior regarding their own work, as good examples for their students."-[Source]

That quote is written in the red "Trigun" notebook; I use it for making homeschooling-related notes.1 

When I was a kid, I made a couple attempts at writing fiction stories. I only remember two of them right now. The first consisted of a rabbit who, over the course of a few pages, solved all the world's problems. The second one was slightly more realistic; it involved time travel, talking trees, mysteriously appearing paint-sets, a gnome, and a mad scientist, but instead of ending with all the world's problems being solved, the characters just lived happily ever after2.

Sometime after that, I came to the conclusion that I wasn't meant to write fiction. I think it was because I had kids, and when I attempted to tell them bedtime stories, my mind drew a complete blank. It was like trying to draw water out of a dry well; no matter how I reached down, nothing was coming up3. I could write non-fiction essays, especially in the form of blog posts, but ask me to make up a story and I'll just stare blankly, racking my brain in vain.

Every now and then, though, I'd have a flash of a thought. A plot twist, or a partial scene, would flash through my mind. An image. A character. Since it was never a whole plot, I figured these flashes didn't do me any real good; I couldn't turn them into stories without being able to think up of a plot.

Then I read The War of Art.

I didn't think of it in terms of fiction-writing at first. It was awesome, and I applied to it my life in various ways, the most immediate one being that I started the No-S diet, which I'm still on. But when it came to fiction, I just figured that was the author's thing, and not mine. Over time, though, I think the idea gradually leaked into my mind that maybe this belief that I wasn't good at fiction wasn't true; maybe it was just that Resistance that Pressfield talks about.

One day, when one of those flashes came to mind, I wrote it up for my blog. It wasn't a whole plot, but I told myself, hey, I wasn't trying to sell it to a publisher. I was just posting a Moment of Fiction. If people didn't like it - well, it would be replaced in a few day's time anyway.

That was the first toe-dip into this pool of fiction-writing.

Then there was that whole thing where I made Kyrie write a fiction story. Kyrie is insanely like me; her every personality quirk is something that I see in myself (especially myself at her age)4. Some part of me was thinking that if I could write fiction, so could Kyrie. If Kyrie could, so could I.

And then, thanks to Like Mother Like Daughter5, I read a fairy tale called The Enchanted Pig. And it occurred to me that some of these older tales, they just don't do plot like I'm used to. When I read Pinocchio - because it was on Elijah's reading list, and I'm having a blast with all the learning I'm doing from reading their books - I had the same impression. These tales lack the sort of focused plot where everything that happens forms a sort of coherent whole. Instead these tales have characters and a lot of apparently random things happen to them, although there is probably a moral involved. If The Enchanted Pig was a modern story, you would expect the older princesses to suffer for their disobedience, instead of having the younger princess - the one who wanted to do the right thing in the first place - be the one who has to go through hardships. If Pinocchio were a modern tale, he would have either gone to school or else worked a job, rather than starting the one only to end up doing the other. Maybe I didn't have to have a full-fledged plot all ready before I wrote the story, after all.

So, finally, one day when I was telling the kids they had to do some creative writing, I opened up a journal and wrote something.

Can you read this? Not that it's that interesting.

The plot was a little random. The ending was preachy6. It was a kids' story at best. But by golly, it was a story, and I had written it. 

So now I'm going to type up for you something that I've written since then - a "flash" that occurred to me during Mass. It ends poorly, because I didn't know where to go with it, but I hope you will find it worth reading.

I was so inspired by writing the boy-rabbit story that I went out and got a proper (lines-only) writing journal for future stories. Even though I already had some. I really like this kind of journal.

Agatha and the young man

   Agatha was an old lady now. For some years, she had found that she lacked the strength to lean over and pull down the kneelers at church. Perhaps if her church had lighter kneelers instead of the heavy, solid wood ones, she might have managed it. But her feet and hands, once quite capable, had grown weaker and frailer, and she could no longer pull it off. She could, however, just manage to get herself onto her knees on the cold, hard, stone floor. She hated kneeling on the floor; it hurt and it distracted her from the Mass and it made her grumpy. But, stubbornly determined to submit to the Lord, she made herself do it. On Sundays she could sit with someone else who would put the kneeler down, but for some months she had been the only one at daily Mass besides the priest. She was grateful that he kept saying Mass for just her.
     This day, though, just before Mass started, a young man came in and sat behind her. He was dark-haired, overweight, and a bit on the tall side. Agatha, not about to let this opportunity pass, scooted as quick as she could back into the pew he had chosen, so that she would share kneelers with him. Old as she was, her scooting was not quick enough, and the priest was already done with his entrance - she hadn't even said the entrance antiphon - by the time she got in position. She felt a twinge of guilt for disrupting the mass this way, but brushed the thought aside as not worth worrying about.
     As Mass got started, it became clear that the young visitor had no idea what he was doing. He held the book in his hands, turning the pages at first and then putting it back as he realized he had no hope of figuring out how to follow it. He mumbled a couple of responses, with a moment's delay that made it clear he was repeating after Agatha. But mostly he was just silent through the spoken parts. He sat or stood a moment after Agatha did, and looked very uncomfortable about the whole thing.
     Agatha's heart went out to him, but she wasn't keen on disrupting the Mass further by whispering instructions to him. As the priest gave his brief homily, though, it dawned on her that the young man probably had no idea what kneelers were for, and would not know to put them down for her unless she said something. She decided that if she was going to be whispering then, she might as well be whispering all along. So she grabbed her book and scooted all the way over next to him. She found the spot in the book that they were on now, held the book where both could see it, and pointed to the spot, following along with her finger until it was clear he had caught up. Whispering additional instructions as necessary, she found each new section of the Mass in the booklet for him.
     When it came time to kneel, the soft padding of the kneeler felt like heaven on her tender knees. Absorbed as she was in helping the young man follow the Mass, she paid a new attention to the words of the Mass and experienced them in a deeper way than usual. At the Eucharist, her heart overflowed with joy at God's goodness.
     After Mass, the young man, looking somewhat lost and troubled, headed for thedoor. Agatha knew he must have come to Mass because he was searching for something. She felt tired again, but she called out to the man and said, "Young man, you really must come back again tomorrow. You have no idea how helpful you were."


1. Other people post pretty pictures of homeschooling things. I use notebooks with guys with guns on them. Because that's just what life is like in our apartment.

2. Calling myself a "kid" may be stretching it a bit; I know I started the first story in third grade - I think it took me some 6 years or so to get around to finishing it - but that second story was probably written in college. I would love to get my hands on a copy of that second story now. I think I have a version saved on one out of a stack of old floppy disks; unfortunately, I no longer have a computer that is capable of reading those old 3x5s. My aunt offered me an old computer for the kids; I jumped at the chance. Sadly, she's in the hospital now and definitely not up to getting me this computer. Prayers for her would be appreciated!

3. This lack on my part was especially vivid for me, because my dad always told us the greatest bedtime stories, and I went through a time of wishing I could do the same with my kids.

4. And Elijah is Ken's little mini-me.

5. That LMLD blog played another role in this, too. I have been getting so much out of it lately. It seems to me that there isn't really anything in there that I haven't heard from someone else, but somehow the way Leila says things is just exactly what I need to hear right now, over and over. It reminds me of a quote where some bishop explained why he was Dominican: it wasn't that he felt the Dominicans were a superior expression of the kingdom of God, but that they were, in fact, living out the kingdom of God right in front of him. In a similar way, it's not so much that the LMLD blog does something that is never done elsewhere, but that the blog is doing its own good right where it's at. This was an important insight for my writing, because I feel as if anything I write has been written better by someone else, and I'm just repeating what I have read. I need to be able to tell myself that it doesn't matter if someone else has done it better; all I have to do is write however well I can, and maybe it will reach people who won't be reached by that other, better writing.

6. I just noticed that, like the first story I wrote in grade school, once again a rabbit saved the day. Huh.

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