On Not Editing Children

Originally published in Teachers & Writers Magazine (2011, Vol. 42, No. 4).

One day, many years ago, when she was about nine, my daughter proudly handed me a story she’d written. She liked to write, and was in the habit of scribbling down stories, or parts of stories. She had a jaunty, fresh style. I don’t remember what this story was about (a cat? a bear?) but I do recall I didn’t find it particularly captivating, unlike most of her others. This one, whatever it was about, struck me as unremarkable, plodding. No pizzazz.

The reason I remember it at all, is because of how she felt about it. She stood watching me eagerly while I read, sighing in a dreamy way, “Can you believe it? Isn’t it so beautiful?” I imagine I must have said something non-committal and teacherly, like, “You really love this don’t you? What’s your favorite part?”

It turned out to be one sentence, which she pointed to, buried in the middle of the page. This was the sentence: “What could they do; there was nothing to be done.”

“I just can’t believe I wrote that,” she said, shaking her head in bewilderment, after I read it aloud.

I don’t remember too much about the conversation that followed (nor who “they” were, or what there was “nothing to be done” about), but recognized, now that she’d brought the sentence to my attention, and kept shaking her head at the amazingness of it, that indeed it did have a kind of grandeur unlike any she’d ever written: it rang ancient tones, like the tolling of a great bell; it was full of portent, perhaps even sorrowful foreboding. In fact, it could have been in CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, which she was reading at the time. It was as if, through that one sentence, she had wandered out of the yard of her usual language, and found herself in a different, mysterious, elegant part of town.

If I, or a teacher, however well-meaning, were to cross out or otherwise dismiss this sentence, wouldn’t it be tantamount to cleaning out someone else’s room, and throwing out what seemed like junk, only to perhaps find out later that hidden there, had been a tiny ruby, stuck deep in a pocket?

In posing the question (minus a question mark) -“What could they do” –it was as if a bank of elders was being consulted; and her reply, speaking as these elders, relayed the somber verdict: “nothing.” In this sad exchange, she seemed to be speaking of deep and binding laws, of the inexorability of fate.

Also, it was one of the first times she’d ever ventured to use a semi-colon, and we both agreed that it added to the sentence’s allure. She loved semi-colons, she told me, and by way of expressing why, she put up one hand to denote Stop, and with the other hand, waved me to Go. A semi-colon seemed to tell you both things at once. Coincidentally, I had had a similar association to semi-colons as a child: the period over the comma was like a half-hinged door; it suggested a creaky lock on an old gate that you get to slip through into another world, even though you’re not exactly supposed to.

I found it interesting that I had skimmed right over this sentence, buried as it was in otherwise groggy prose. And even if I had noted its beauty, I couldn’t possibly have known it stirred such feeling in her. What if I had been critical of it, unwittingly? Or otherwise dismissed it?

Or had sought to actively edit her story, as was a current practice in her school. “It’s never too early to revise,” the school’s writing expert often said, advocating the idea that children as young as three be taught how to edit their drawings. “Children should find a main idea, and cut away everything that doesn’t fit that idea. Snip, snip,” the expert explained.

If I, or a teacher, however well-meaning, were to cross out or otherwise dismiss this sentence, wouldn’t it be tantamount to cleaning out someone else’s room, and throwing out what seemed like junk, only to perhaps find out later that hidden there, had been a tiny ruby, stuck deep in a pocket?

As it turned out, I don’t think I said much beyond telling her how intrigued I was by her writing, and discussing with her our mutual love of semi-colons. I might have wanted to say more, but recognized she was involved in an experience of discovery and experimentation with language that was best done alone; she had stumbled into being able to put words together so they evoked unsettling feeling; she had managed to figure out how to create a sense of foreground, background, and gesture to a future, however doomed it was. She had plenty of wealth to survey. I stepped back.

Also, the fact that she remained so surprised by her sentence suggested that its invention had occurred not through careful planning, or conscious design, but through a kind of dreamy intuition. She seemed to regard her having written it as one who finds herself plunked down in the middle of somewhere she’d half set out to find, but once arrived, is not at all sure how she’d gotten there. I was an adult sitting with a child in the mysteries of the creative realm.

I knew my support and appreciation of her was helpful. But was there something more I could offer? I wanted to encourage her to keep going, to enter more deeply.

Maybe I could read something to her? Something that spoke from the same charged realm she’d wandered in to. What text might sound the same mysterious tones? I looked through my shelves.

Remembering the strange first lines of Salmon Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I sat next to her and read:

There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy, even though the skies were blue.

She laughed and drew in close. “I don’t like that, but I like it,” she said. And then she added, “I want to write more. Go away.”

Barbara Feinberg is an award-winning writer and the founding director of Story Shop. She is the author of Welcome to Lizard Motel (Beacon Press), along with essays and articles about creativity in childhood, published in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Education Next, Brain, Child, Teachers & Writers Magazine, and elsewhere. She is working on a memoir about creativity and doubt, called The Wolf in the Garage.