She swiftly pulls out her notebook, and places a set of colored markers beside it on the desk. Next, she opens her laptop and slides it to the left side so she has room to angle her notebook. She’s right-handed. I watch her intently, so close I could reach out and touch her, though I wouldn’t dare. Not here. This isn’t the place. I’m no longer balanced on the tiny, wooden chair in her playroom, sharing a box of crayons with her, praising her choice of colors. Here, she exudes a confidence in herself I’ve never been privy to until now. Her meticulous routine and confident posture is foreign to me.
My daughter and I recently took a screenplay writing class together. Monday evenings for seven weeks, we attended school, side by side, desk to desk. The instructor, the writer behind Walker, Texas Ranger, offered a free class at a local school. I suggested we register with the idea in mind that it would be another activity we could enjoy together. I’ve never had the desire to write a screenplay, although as most writers, I have an idea for one floating in my head. I figured I would take away writing tips that could be applied to other areas of my writing. Yet, what I learned went beyond the instructor’s lesson plan.
Week after week, I watch the toddler who hid behind my leg when someone new was being introduced to her, confidently raise her hand in a class full of strangers. In awe, I witness the curly-haired little girl who was so painfully shy she struggled to make eye contact when spoken to, participate in class discussions regarding character development. The irony is not lost on me. When the conversation turns to defining the inciting moment of a story, the moment without which the story cannot happen, I wonder how I missed that moment in my own life. The moment in my own story that led to my child becoming this intelligent, young woman beside me now? An example is mentioned of an inciting moment taken directly from a scene in The Wizard of Oz. It is the scene when Dorothy is swept up by the Twister. Torn between pride and a sense of loss, though I’m not quite sure what I’m mourning, has me feeling a bit like Dorothy. Or, is it my little girl who is being swept away?
As the weeks progress, we cover conflict, complex vs simple storylines, and how it is the writer’s responsibility to put value on the want or desire of your main character. The more value you put on it the better. My pen flies over the pages of my notebook as I fill line after line with writing concepts I am already familiar with, having attended enough writing workshops to be capable of reciting this information in my sleep. This time, however, the concepts hold new meaning to me. Words float off the page and into my heart without warning.
Glancing over at my teenager, I hold back a laugh. Who hasn’t experienced conflict with their teenager? Yet, this is also the girl who fills various roles in my story. She is my shopping partner, my makeup artist, my Broadway musical watching buddy. She listens to my brainstorming sessions regarding my book. She is the one who laughs out loud with me over silly internet memes about otters because she gets my obsession with them. She is the one who has clocked numerous Netflix hours, on the couch with me, watching Gilmore Girls, Downton Abbey, Grey’s Anatomy, and Sherlock. When the instructor stresses the importance of “having a rhythm to your writing” I think of the rhythm I had with her as a baby, when the feedings, changing of diapers, and bedtime stories held a repetitive beat so different from the easygoing rhythm our relationship has now become. When they are babies, we don’t stray from the critical path, following a formula similar to that of the characters I now write. Focus on the objective. Don’t digress. Overcome the obstacles. Define your stakes. Know your ending.
Except, at some point before the ending, you must insert a twist. This is sometimes referred to as an “uh-oh” moment, a reversal. As I sit beside my daughter on the last Monday night of our screenplay writing class, I have my own “uh-oh” moment as I face the revelation that while it is not necessarily an end, a chapter has closed on her childhood. In the last seven weeks, she has given me a glimpse of what she is capable of on her own.
As she discusses her idea for a screenplay in great detail and with tremendous passion, I sit up a little straighter. I only thought I knew her character – her inner story and outer story. The realization hits me that while I may have given this strong, smart, passionate young lady life, I am not writing her story. She is in control of what comes next as she follows her own critical path to an ending yet to be written. She will now be the protagonist of her own narrative. I will step aside, and with great effort ease into the role of supporting character, but not without conflict. As her mother, I will forever struggle with the anticipation of what her next chapter holds and the yearning to flip the pages back to the beginning.
As we gather our materials, and make our way out of the classroom, she turns to me.
“That was fun, mom. Maybe we should take his next class together.”
As the tears threaten to spill, I think about how our rhythm will likely change numerous times in the coming years, and while I can’t revisit the early rhythm of her childhood, and I certainly can’t write the next one, I can hang onto this one as long as possible.
“I’ll sign us up tomorrow.”