Parenting tool: write letters to your children

Marieloes says, “The head...the glance, the mouth and the expression together afford a revealing view into our inner selves.

I write this blog to collect and explore relating experiences. I begin when I see, hear, remember, or read something. Today it’s a letter written by a father to his teenage son.

I found it on Maria Popova’s blog post. She highlights Sherwood Anderson’s letter (taken from Posterity Letters of Great Americans to Their Children) to his seventeen-year-old son to show an example of a parent supporting a child's “quest to find one’s purpose and live the creative life boldly.” Popova reminds us that this work is neither simple nor easy, especially for a young person trying to make sense of the world and his place in it.”

Anderson’s suggestions are not just for a teenage son. This one, “Write not to make salable pictures, write to save yourself,” makes sense to me.  I show up here without any thought of result. Wait. Let me be more honest. I practice showing up here to write without those kinds of thoughts. 

I also want to practice making things with my hands, specifically drawing. Old beliefs sometimes get in the way of my self-discipline. I realize I’m held back by a belief that I need a degree or specific training to be able to draw. Lessons and training help, but I don’t need a degree to write or draw. I can do whatever I put my heart, willingness, and energy to. 

Anderson encourages his son and me when he writes:

“Learn to draw. Try to make your hand so unconsciously adept that it will put down what you feel without your having to think about it.

Then you can think of the thing before you.

It’s what you feel about it, what it means to you.

Draw, draw hundreds of things.

There is no special trick about writing or painting either. I wrote constantly for 15 years before I produced anything with any solidity to it.

You won't arrive, it's an endless search.”

I talk to my friend Cindy. She’s a textile artist, someone who sews hours every day and a person I openly share my thoughts and feelings.

Cindy says, “Do you know about the ten thousand hour rule? I’ve been stewing about this idea of skills and how you get them. I’ve always been troubled by ‘innate talent.’ This book I’m reading (Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell) has me thinking. He writes about keys to mastery—they are opportunity and practice!” 

Ours is a phone conversation since she lives in another state. I imagine her holding Gladwell's book as she reads, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good. Ten thousand hours of practice makes perfect.” Cindy says, “Do you know how many hours that is?” And then I hear laughter.

In Ann Lamott’s book Bird by Bird she tells a childhood story about her father’s encouragement when she struggles to write a book report about birds. “Just take it bird by bird,” he says. Bird by bird! She says it's an instruction that remains with her today.

My husband writes. He shares his practice, Sit down and write every day for an hour, even if you don't feel like it. I watch him accept whatever words flow from his fingertips onto the page. 

I know what to do. 

Ten thousand hours. Bird by bird. Draw, draw, hundreds of drawings.  Write, write, whatever flows whether you feel like it or not. You won't arrive, it's an endless search. Practice. It’s the journey not the destination. Which puts me in familiar ground. My meditation practice works exactly like this.

Sherwood Anderson was an American novelist and short story writer. His most enduring work is the short story sequence Winesburg, Ohio. Writers he influenced include Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Thomas Wolfe.

Dorie McCullough Lawson wrote Prosperity Letters of Great Americans to Their Children. NPR interviewed her in 2004. Listen or download the interview here.