September 25, 2020
By Ekta R. Garg
Most people who have met me in my adult life might be surprised to find out that I’m what might be classified as Type A. As a competitive speller in junior high and high school and a good student, I used to maintain a focused edge. I enjoyed winning spelling bees, and—sorry, sis—even liked beating my younger sister at board games.
(Was there cheating involved? Maybe. Maybe not. Hey, look over there, cookies! What? Half your Monopoly money’s gone? I have no idea what happened.)
((But, seriously, half of the fun in cheating came in the fact that it was so easy. And it was my kid sister. She’d generally forgive me—mostly because she didn’t know I was doing it—because I was the big sister, and she loved me no matter what. When it came to my peers, I didn’t cheat. Really. Because I derived a great deal of pleasure in beating them fair and square.))
Once I had children of my own, I found a switch in my brain and turned off the Type A. When the kids were babies, I kept myself in check. I didn’t push them—much—when it came to school stuff. The fact that they’re both naturally gifted students who enjoy academia and had teachers who gave them healthy, positive challenges helped.
Now, however, Fourteen is in high school. In those moments in the dark, before I fall asleep, I find the little competitive goblin inside me creeping toward the switch. It looks over its shoulder while I try to ignore it, hoping it might just disappear.
But I think Type A might be coming back.
There are many factors at play here. Part of it might be cultural. Indian people often naturally push their kids when it comes to schoolwork and academic success. In a country of a billion-plus people, where resources are limited and “survival of the fittest” can apply to something as innocuous as purchasing a train ticket, it can be hard to stand out. So there’s always a drive to get better, to succeed, to perform at a 110 percent because you know the person standing beside you is already putting in a hundred.
Part of it is the fact that Fourteen is in high school now. These four years will help determine her academic future. Like it or not, universities use grades as a factor when evaluating possible students. Even more of a “like it or not” idea is this: the institution’s name on your degree matters. Getting a degree from Harvard or Stanford, even if you just scraped by, even if you majored in “Watching Grass Grow,” will open doors for people faster than a degree from “Backyard University”.
(Tagline: It’s close to home, so you don’t have to put in much effort!)
((Note to self: Stop trying to write taglines for fake universities; you’re not that great at it.))
Another part of it is also the reality that my time to go to high school and college is done. I’ve had my experiences, made my friends, celebrated my victories, cried (yes, sometimes) about my defeats. I’m doing other things now, grownup things, which are fun (sometimes stressful,) but I’m past the point of the discoveries that happen at those ages. Now I have the luxury of looking back on those years of my life and pinpointing places where I could have done better or even pulled back the intensity.
(You know, the Type A goblin.)
Maybe, in a subconscious way, I’m trying to fix my mistakes by helping Fourteen not make them in the first place.
Her English teacher announced the syllabus a couple of weeks ago. Among the more standard readings and analyses of poetry, short stories, and novels, the teacher stated that students would be required to enter regional/national writing contests throughout the year. He provided a long list of contests and said the kids could enter whichever ones they wanted, but they were required to do seven of them from now until the end of May.
Just the thought of anything to do with writing makes my heart happy. Fourteen loves to write—she’s been working on her own Harry Potter fan fiction for a couple of years now—so she was happy too. Reading and writing for classwork? She’d do it all day long if they let her.
When I saw the part specifically about the contests, it made me pause. I know that if I let the Type A goblin out, it’ll want to dismantle Fourteen’s stories (all in the name of “editing” and “helping you be a better writer.”) I’m fighting, instead, to be a supportive parent who uses personal experience and skills to teach my children while still giving them breathing room.
(Also, I know how entering a writing contest can fill a person with hope and excitement, only to have all of that dashed when the writer doesn’t win. I know the sinking feeling of getting a rejection that is clearly a form letter, how the phrases of “so many talented writers,” “really strong entries this year,” and “don’t give up” all chip away at my writer’s heart. I’ve gotten better at finding those chips and reforging them to my spirit, but in the early days? It’s crushing. And I want to protect my child from that sense of failure, even as I know I can’t. It’s just the nature of the publishing industry and the reality of trying to be a successful writer in this day and age.)
((Note to self number two: Stick to telling stories, especially if they’re about writing struggles. You’re much better at that.))
On Wednesday morning, as I drove Fourteen to her orthodontist appointment, we talked about the story she’s working on for the first contest she’s chosen to enter. She explained her idea, and I started asking questions. As I kept asking and she kept supplying answers with increasing reluctance, it became clear to me that her story idea needed a little work.
So I started playing my favorite writing game, “What if,” with her. She resisted some of the suggestions coming out of the game, especially since I was adding my own bits of advice with the suggestions. After several minutes, it became clear to me that she didn’t really like the idea of me tampering with her story at all.
On the one hand, I get it. As a young writer, I would have been miffed if someone told me that my plot and characters needed work. Almost all young writers do bristle, I think. Our imaginations run wild, but we don’t have the tools yet to harness them and we’re having too much fun to submit to any structure.
Yet on the other hand, I craved this sort of structure and instruction when I was a young writer. I wish I’d found a writing mentor back then who would have been willing to take some extra time to teach me how to write. Because it needs to be taught and learned just like playing an instrument or performing brain surgery.
It takes practice and grit and writing drills and determination and more practice. And perseverance. That above all else.
I gave up with Fourteen after a while but felt weird doing so. Was I being a bad mom by not pushing my child to listen to my advice? Did pulling back on the editorial feedback mean I wasn’t doing all I could to help others as I had pledged to do so on my 40th birthday?
Was my child fated to spend her early writing years making the same mistakes I did?
Did the Type A goblin need to be reined in?
(See, that’s the problem. It’s hard, sometimes, to know where mothering ends and Type A begins.)
((Note to self number three: If the goblin has a name, does mothering get a name too?))
I let the uncomfortable weirdness follow me around during the day, even though I tried to ignore it, and eventually I got caught up enough in other things that it rubbed off. I thought Fourteen would shrug me off as teens are prone to do, so it surprised me when I saw the link to her story in my email.
Maybe, I thought, I was on to something. We didn’t say anything about the email or her writing after that. Then earlier this evening, Fourteen and I circled back to the topic of her story. We approached it in a roundabout kind of way.
“I need to think of a title for my story,” she said.
I didn’t say anything for a moment. I didn’t know if this was her broaching the subject or idle chit chat. I assumed the latter.
“I always have trouble with titles,” I said, explaining how they’re a challenge for me even after all these years of writing. We talked a little about titles in general, and then she circled a little closer.
“Do you know what my story’s called right now?”
“It’s ‘Title Wooooow’, right?”
She chuckled. “Yeah, but do you know how many Os it has?”
We joked about the number of Os, and then I couldn’t stop myself.
“Do you want feedback?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said, surprise in her voice that I hadn’t given it already.
I went on to use the praise sandwich—positive things first, constructive criticism in the middle, end with another positive—and today she took it much better. Maybe it was because I kept my advice a little more vague on purpose this time. It was still relevant but more amenable to the teenage mental palate. And she took it exactly the way I intended it.
So maybe it is possible to tame the beast. Maybe I can control the Type A goblin yet. Maybe I should just keep it turned toward my own work and ambitions and let it advise the kids only when advice is solicited.
(Maybe that switch in my mind doesn’t have to be a strict on/off. It can be a dimmer.)
((Note to self number four: Metaphors also work really well. Stick with the metaphors.))