WRITING LIFE: One Letter at a Time by Vanessa Stirling

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Before my elementary-aged son’s diagnosis of dyslexia, I would coach him word by word, second by second, through a battleground of writing homework. This one about empathy:

“What would you do if your friend got on the team instead of you?”

We need ten sentences.

Shrug. His gaze determinedly fixed anywhere but on his wide-ruled paper.

“What,” I said, “Do you think he would want you to do?”

“I’d get a giant nerf, hide behind the trees and get him.” He leapt from his seat, acted out the attack, which devolved into a tussle with our dog, Trout.

“OK,” I plead, “Write that.” I’m concerned by the violence in a school assignment, but it’s due today, we got two or three sentences, and I only have nine minutes to get us out the door. “You can write anything, it’s your story.”

“My pencil broke.”

As is normal in these scenes, he and I then went on a downward spiral from the snap of the graphite to his giving up, to his tears then my shouting. Trout flattened himself under the kitchen table, and I, bewildered, wretched with guilt, wanted to crawl under there, too.

A lifelong reader and new writer, I revert to where I am comfortable to understand my son’s diagnosis. I order four books.

My husband and son fish. They have outfits. They meet people named Catfish Mike. They pee on trees in the woods. I carry note cards–just in case. I use voice memos for scenes while hurtling down freeways.

 Nothing I create is what I envision: maybe a dozen blah poems, two not-quite-right short stories and my unwieldy first novel. Yet, I must keep trying. Word combos appear in my head in the way I see an apple’s color or its taste–as does dialogue or poetic phrases about Indian food. “Inspiration” comes from the Latin word for breathe into. I write to breathe.

How can half my DNA not live inside my world of reading and writing?


My son avoids reading on his own.

His handwriting is below grade level despite the determination he shows over and over.

He has an unexpected difficulty in reading in an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader.

I develop a plan. I find a site that describes creating joy in words as a stepping-stone to greater literacy and comfort with writing. Start with a word, then each person switches one letter at a time to make a new word. I’m thrilled. It’s not peeing on a tree together, but it seems sensible, plus, we can do it in the car on our commutes.

We swung into the HOV lane with my offer of “cat.”

I feel his silence smack into my rearview mirror. I prompt, “You could say bat.”

“Can I just play on my iPad?”

Disappointed, but as I watch him turn away from my gaze, I gotta take one for the team. In honor of Miss Marple, Nymphadora Tonks, and Tom Joad, I throw out, “Dart. As in Nerf dart.”

And I wait.

As inevitable as a knock-knock joke, I heard him giggle and shout, “FART.”

His laughter, half-snort, and half-doppler wave comes from over my right shoulder.

A rhythm develops as I maneuver across five lanes of I-66. I rarely get a turn, as he runs with the game, but I do grin foolishly at the construction worker operating a bright yellow digger by the exit for school.

My son slides from word to word, “Boop, a boop on the nose. POOP…um…Mark, as in Trouty marking his territory. You know PEEING.” He pauses, then he says, “Lark, as in the bird.”

How does he know that word ‘lark’? Are there larks where we live? That’s my boy, right there, my 50% DNA.

New and in a struggle with my writing, I have learned over and over to return to my work in a different way.

And I will–over and over–help this kid in different ways. Because he is brilliant and funny and has freckles and shakes his entire body when he dances. I jiggle way more than his string bean frame (sadly not my DNA). With a snap like teeth into an apple, I see his version of my glee in words. That’s my kid with the great dance moves, sense of humor and one heck of a vocabulary.

He will adapt to a different way of learning. And I will bring my work breath.

Words are life and life is joy. For both my son and me.

All the rest: mechanics and training.

Meet the Contributor

vanessa stirling with dogVanessa Stirling tries to balance her marketing career with creative work focusing on motherhood, the workplace, and why those relationships feel so strange. Her work has appeared in Eat, Darling, Eat, and Literary Mama and is forthcoming in The Field Guide Poetry Magazine.

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