“It doesn’t matter what object you pick. You just have to tell a story.”
Eli was freaking out. His first homework assignment of the year: write a personal essay. My thought: “Finally, an assignment I can help with.” When my kids get stuck on their math homework, they’re on their own. Eli’s seventh grade curriculum last year is when math became too intangible for me to understand. Personal essays, I have some experience with those.
His actual assignment was pick two objects, one that represents you, and one that represents your family. Put them together into a four-paragraph essay.
“Why don’t you write about your guitar?” Last spring, out of nowhere, Eli decided to buy an electric guitar and an amplifier. I tried to talk him out of it. “Why don’t you just use Sophie’s guitar?” She has an acoustic she barely uses. It’s just sitting there for another family member to pick up and play. I envisioned a second guitar facing the same future.
“It’s got to be electric. I’m going to teach myself to play this summer.” He bought the guitar. Actually, he only bought half of it. I bought the rest. Musical education is something we encourage. Four months later, he’s pretty good. Apparently, it’s easy to find guitar instruction on You Tube. Instead of watching videos of teenagers blowing shit up, he watched videos of teenagers playing Green Day. Now Eli can play Green Day, too. And Deep Purple. And Black Sabbath. And Los Straightjackets, And…
“Whatever I write about, I’m supposed to bring in to school. If I bring in my guitar, they’re going to make me play.” So, not his guitar.
We spent forty-five agitated minutes talking about what objects would work. Forty-five minutes of me making suggestions and Eli dismissing them as stupid or embarrassing. “Honestly, Eli, any object will work. Why don’t you write about our family hike last weekend and take in a water bottle?”
The next day I was thinking about the first sentence of this essay. “It doesn’t matter what object you pick. You just have to tell a story.” Do I believe that’s true? Can a decent writer pick any topic and create something readable? This is the theory behind writing prompts. The prompt gets you started, the story is already there, waiting to be teased out. Sweet Bliss ponders this topic in her blog post “Personal Essays, The Ability.” And her post got me wondering whether I could write a story about our family hike using “water bottle” as a writers’ prompt.
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In the decade that Susan and I lived in the semi-suburban fringes of Washington, DC, we hiked the Billy Goat Trail a dozen times. A week after meeting Susan at the Insect Club—a popular DC beer-drinking bar with dancing, pool and a nice combination of pop music and punk—I asked if she would spend an afternoon with me hiking the trail just across the Maryland line. A warm autumn Sunday with plenty of time to linger on the trail, we hiked and talked and got along so well, we decided that we’d clear our decks. Make some space for one another in our lives. The Billy Goat Trail has always felt like “our place.”
It’s a hard hike. Yesterday, Eli suggested that to blaze the trail, they released a billy goat in a jumble of rocks and followed behind with a can of spray paint. There isn’t much hiking; it’s mostly rock-scrambling. So it’s challenging, but it’s also beautiful. Countless vistas of the rocky Potomac River and the forested Virginia shore appear as you climb up and over the various natural obstacles. Last Sunday, after traveling to Bethesda, Maryland to meet my father for lunch, Susan, Sophie, Eli and I attacked the Billy Goat Trail.
Unlike many of our hikes where one or more family members (e.g. the children) feel like they’re being dragged along on a family outing, at the start of this hike, we were all enthusiastic. We had a large, tasty, lunch and we were all eager to work off some calories. Thirteen years out of DC, sixteen years with children, it’s been quite some time since Susan and I have been to the Billy Goat Trail. And while we have years of experience and a sense of ownership of the trail, we forgot about the difficulty. Before we hiked a third of the distance, enthusiasm faded. Some dragging along ensued.
“God! Are we almost done?”
I wouldn’t say the hike was too hard. It was simply too hot. As an avid trail runner, I act like I’ve got hiking all figured out. Because I’ve got gear, I think I’m always prepared. For this hike, I brought my hydration vest. What’s that? A vest designed to carry two small water bottles in pockets on your chest, and whatever you want to stuff in the back pocket. The water bottles that came with the vest are absurd. Each carry six or eight ounces of water. Whenever I ran more than five miles, I always ran out of water. I stretched out the pockets and started running with twenty-ounce bottles crammed in each pocket. This is what I brought on the hike.
Ninety-five degrees, beating afternoon sun. Twenty minutes into the Billy Goat Trail, I knew we would run out of water. Susan and I stopped drinking, letting the kids take sips when necessary. It’s a great hike, it really is. But it’s hard to have fun when you’re dehydrated.
The next evening, sitting around the kitchen table, each of us comparing the headaches we endured all day, Susan looked up the Billy Goat Trail on the internet. They recommend two liters of water per person for the hike. That’s sixty-seven ounces each. We brought forty-ounces for the four of us to share…. in August.
Eli wound up writing his essay about our hike, and he killed it. He brought in one of our water bottles and read his story to his class. This isn’t the sort of thing he likes to do. But his essay was great—tight, informative, maybe a little funny—hopefully that gave him confidence. If I were him, I’d be pretty proud of that chunk of writing. I know he’s proud of the hike.