Writing with Katie

Todd, an editor over at the excellent “Our State” magazine is tricky. He is always trying to get me to write stuff for them. I have told him repeatedly that while I'm flattered, and I love the magazine, I really don’t have time to do any more writing. And he always answers by saying something like, "OK, sure, but if it's all right, I'll send you an idea now and again."

And I always say, "Yes, that's fine, but really, I don't have time. Really."

Then, he sends me an idea like this: "We want you to go up to Asheville. They have a pinball museum there. We want you to play pinball all day and then write about it."

I loathe Todd. He knows I'm going to do that pinball story. Of course I will. He knows I could never tell the 12-year-old version of myself that I TURNED DOWN a chance to play pinball all day, and on someone else's quarter. He had me. And he knew it.

But that was it. That was the last time. I told him, "Todd, I love doing these things, but I really don't have time. Really." He understood. Sure, he said. No problem, he said. "But, you know, if it's all right, I'll send you an idea ..."

A few months ago, I got an email from Todd. It went something like this:

"We were thinking maybe you'd like to write a story about root beer."

I loathe Todd. He knows I'm going to do that root beer story. Of course I will. Root beer just happens to our daughter Katie's single favorite thing on planet earth. Somehow, I think Todd knew that. Somehow, I think Todd has done reconnaissance work. He knew that I could never tell Katie that I had turned down a chance to write a story about root beer.

I don't know if I mentioned this but: I loathe Todd.

* * *

There are certain things experienced parents always say to new parents. Stuff like: "Cherish every moment." Stuff like "It will go by faster than you think." Stuff like: "It seems like yesterday that my 38-year-old daughter who is now a doctor was your daughter's age (and did I mention that she's a doctor?)."

But the most popular parent-to-parent phrase in my experience comes involves parents with two or more children. The line goes like this: "You'll be AMAZED at how different they are."

Yep. They're different. Elizabeth, our oldest, is easily recognizable to me. If someone had asked me 15 years ago what it would be like to be a parent, I more or less would have been able to predict what it has been like with Elizabeth. I suppose it's because she's a lot like I was.

Katie on the other hand ...

Start here: Katie has worn out every eraser we have in the house. Every now and again, we will buy some new funny-shape eraser set for her -- we just got her erasers in the shapes of macaroons -- and within a few days, they will be worn into shapeless blobs of nothingness just like all the rest.

Sure, I have known perfectionists. I write about them all the time in sports. I have a few friends with perfectionist tendencies -- they insist on things being precisely right, they can't tolerate sloppiness of any sort, etc. My wife Margo is like that. But until Katie, I don’t think I fully understood what perfectionism really looks like.

“Is that a good ‘3," she asked me as she pointed at the number she wrote. She was probably 6 at the time.

“Yes, that’s a very good 3,” I said. She erased it and wrote it again.

“Is that a good ‘3?’ she asked again.

“Yes, that’s a very good 3,” I said. She erased it and wrote it again.

“Is that a good 3?” she asked again. This somewhat repetitive exchange could last for hours until the paper had been rubbed raw, and her Mom and I would shout: “It’s the perfect 3, OK? It's the greatest 3 that any human being has ever drawn. The person who invented the No. 3 never drew such a perfect 3. Pascal never drew such a perfect 3!"

"Who is Bass Cal?"

"Just stop!”

At which point, she would stop and cheerfully go on for about 45 seconds before saying, "Is that a good 5?"

We are proud of her, of course. What parent wouldn't be proud? She will not stop until she gets something exactly right. She never meets anyone -- ANYONE -- without complimenting them ("I love your earrings!). She is the sort of girl that, when I call from the road and ask her how her day at school was, will respond: "Great! How was your day?" I say this only to reiterate the point, but her parent-teacher conferences are absurd lovefests; at one, the teacher literally broke down crying when talking about how much she loved our Katie. I'm sure that teachers cried at my parent-teacher conferences, but it was different.

How different are Elizabeth and Katie? I remember once telling Elizabeth to stop procrastinating.

“What does procrastinating mean?” Katie asked.

“It means to put off something that you should do,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. “I HATE procrastinating.” And she does.

Because of this, Katie offers a very different challenge as a parent, one that is never quite clear. We never have to motivate her (frankly, we have to UNmotivate her by saying things like, "It's good enough"). We never have to ask her to put in more effort. She instinctively knows what the right thing to do is, and she is relentless about doing it. So what do we do all day with her? Well, mostly we spend our days answering question (Which she usually precedes by actually saying: "Question").

Yes, I should add: Katie is the most literal person I have ever met. The time-travel story has become a family favorite. A couple of years ago, when she was 9, we saw the third Harry Potter movie and, not to offer any spoilers, there's a time-travel sequence at the end. Katie was confused by this (Question: How does time travel work?) and because her mind is so ordered, because she cannot let go of stuff, because she needs to understand something 100% before she can move on, I spent several hours answering her time travel question. I should add that much of this time was spent in the grocery store, where we were walking up and down aisles as amused shoppers snickered. By the end of my Carl Sagan explanation of time travel, there were cans of soup in the store that understood fictional time travel, but Katie was still saying, "Oh! I see ... no, wait, I still don't get it."

We've had countless conversations like that ever since, conversations about everything from movies ("Did that other guy [editor's note: Completely unimportant character that was on screen for like 2 seconds] die?) to history to science to why she can't have more M&Ms. She will ask me question after question after question after question until I am raw like the papers she spends so much time erasing.

And so, I want to find ways to challenge her. That's the real test with Katie. So when Todd hit me with the root beer idea, I knew I had to do it. And I knew that I would co-write it with Katie.

* * *

I have occasionally helped both daughters on their writing. It is, like everything else with those two, a very different experience. Elizabeth is creative in all ways. She's a creative thinker. She's a creative speller. She's a creative sentence constructor. She will craft the most beautiful and fascinating sentences, stuff I can't believe comes from a 14-year-old. And the very next sentence I literally will not understand.

"What does this mean?" I say.

"It's obvious," she says snippily.

"'Her sweet book toad ruckus heartstring' is obvious?"

"Oh, you know what I mean."

Katie's writing, not surprisingly, is immaculate. Not a comma out of place. Not a word misspelled. And it's imaginative too -- it's not like she writes dry stuff. She's funny. She's concise. But with her, the challenge is getting her to break the rules a little bit, to step out of her comfort zone and take some chances. I once told her the story about my writing "breakthrough." It happened when I was in college, taking an English class of some sort, and the assignment was to "be a fly on the wall and write about a conversation between two characters."

Well, I had never heard that expression "fly on the wall." I don't know how I missed it, but I did. And so when I saw that was the assignment, I literally wrote as if I was a fly on the wall, you know, I wrote stuff like, "And now they're talking about the weather and ... HEY, is that a hot dog over there? That sure looks like a hot dog." The professor wrote on that paper, "Now I teach you in my class, someday I hope to teach you to my class." He thought the fly thing was genius when it was, in fact, sheer stupidity.

"I don't get the point," Katie says. "Were you supposed to write about the fly?"

"No. It's an expression."

"So why did you write about the fly?"

"I'm just saying you want to break the rules sometimes with your writing."

"You want me to break rules?" she asked. She was horrified.

Well, we're working on it. When I told her about us writing the root beer story together, she did exactly what you might have expected. She looked up the history of root beer. She found how root beer is made. She wrote up a list of questions for the Uncle Scott Root Beer people we were interviewing. She, of course, demanded the chance to drink root beer (for professional purposes only).

"How should we start?" I asked her after we finished all the reporting.

"Well," she said, "you want to start off by telling people how awesome root beer is. That will capture their attention."

I began the story like this: "Root beer is the happiest of beverages."

She then broke down how the story should go. A little history of root beer. A bit about the Ramseys, who are the Uncle Scott Root Beer people. And then, we should finish with how delicious root beer is.

It was exactly what I had been thinking.

There's a scene in the movie "A River Runs Through It" that I love. It's a scene where the son writes a story of some sort for his father and teacher. "Half as long," the father says as he hands the paper back. The son returns with the new paper. "Again, half as long," the father says again. Finally, the son gives him the twice-reduced paper, and he says, "Good. Now throw it away."

I always imagined doing something like that myself, teaching them about writing, demanding they write half as long, giving them long boring lectures about pacing and rhythm. But I never have. I never will. I just give them a little advice when they're doing a school paper or something. They can figure out the rest.

And that's the craziest part: They do. When I wrote a magazine story with my 11-year-old daughter -- a sweet little perfectionist whose personality could not be more different from my own at her age -- I found that she thinks exactly the way I think. She forms the story in her head the way I do. She writes using the same sorts of words, and thinking the same sorts of ideas I do. She's me.

Well, sort of. When the story was done and published, I asked Katie what she thought about it. She said it was wonderful and then she paused.

"Yes?" I asked.

"Well," she said, "there were a couple or run-on sentences."