A nascent writer learns to cast spells.

Published November 10, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

A few months ago, I bought some sugar cookies shaped like the letters of
the alphabet. When Jewish children begin to study Torah, rabbis often give
them a spoonful of honey so they will always associate learning with
sweetness. I figured the cookies would provide a most delicious reading
lesson for my 5-year-old daughter. I could picture us at the table
together, spelling CAT and LOVE and APPLE on paper plates, our mouths full of shortbread and sugar and the lingering sweetness of words.

When I got home, though, I discovered my daughter had already created her own movable feast. Hannah had been sent to her room for some minor infraction while I was out, and she was not happy about it. Did she whine? Maybe. Did she cry? Most likely. I wasn't there to hear her protests. She did leave some evidence behind, though. She wrote.

Hannah had never written anything all on her own before, other than her own name and the names of our family members. She had never constructed a sentence, never sat down with the intention of getting her thoughts on paper. In the hour that I was gone, though, she essentially figured out the whole writing process.

As I walked through her door, Hannah handed me a piece of paper.

"DYR MOM," it said. "DED IS ALWYS MEYN."

Rough drafts of the letter were scattered around her room: "DRY MOM," one began. "DYR MAM" read another.

I was blown away. Not only had Hannah written a sentence for the first
time, she had edited her own work! After years as a writer, I have only
recently made friends with the revision process. Hannah shook hands with
it her first time out. My heart filled to bursting -- my little girl, a writer!

My husband was amazed, too, although he was not completely thrilled to be the villain of her first literary undertaking. This gave us a little peek into what it must feel like to read a daughter's tell-all memoir. Wait, the author's parents must want to say, that's not the whole story! We're not bad people! We bought her a Sno-Cone from the ice cream truck just
minutes before the alleged incident! And, you know, she never would have
been sent to her room if she hadn't thrown a stick at her brother's head!

Before we could get too worked up about her initial angry outpouring of
words, though, Hannah began another series of letters, sweet as any sugar cookie.

"DYR PYPIL," she wrote. "I LAV AVRYWON."

"DYR IDAHO," another said. "I WD LIK TO GO THAR."

It didn't take long for her to return to her writergrrl roots, though. In
a little heart-covered, pastel-papered notebook, she wrote more scathing
critiques of her dad, and even more of her brother. So far, I've managed to
escape her writerly wrath. " MOM," she wrote in her journal. "WY R YOU SO LAVEABL?" I know I won't be immune to her poison pen forever, but for now, I enjoy being the subject of her little tributes. Who needs good reviews when your own daughter writes "THAT DANS WS GROOVY" and "MI MOM IS A POET. YOU CN TEL BCS OF HR BUKS"?

Hannah often sits on the couch, one leg crossed over the other like a
stenographer from a '40s movie, pencil and notebook in hand. She loves to
ROOSDR" -- little inventories of the world she knows. She has her own
"dictionary of bad words," which right now reads "ASS ASS ASS HL." She
seems to know that writing is a safe place to explore the taboo, to delve
into rage and joy and the enchantment of the ordinary.

"I have my own way of spelling," Hannah says excitedly, like she's created
her own civilization. When she asks me how to spell something correctly, I
tell her, but I love the playful, fluid way she chooses to spell words. I
want to give her some more time to swim around in her own language before she has to worry about spelling tests and red pencils marks and grammar and precision. That will come soon enough.

I think of Margaret Atwood's poem "Spelling," which opens:

My daughter plays on the floor

with plastic letters,

red, blue & hard yellow,

learning how to spell,


how to make spells

Hannah is learning how to make spells. Her own spells. Her own magic.

Hannah and I never did have our sugar-cookie spelling lesson. Our family
polished off the container of treats like speed readers, spilling spelling
crumbs everywhere, before we had a chance to act out my plan. Hannah
taught herself more than those cookies ever could, though.

The very last page of Hannah's heart notebook reads, in large letters, "I
AM JIST FYN." Isn't that, ultimately, what we all try to say when we
write? Aren't we all trying to convince our readers and, even more so,
ourselves, that we are just fine? That our words are valid? That we
deserve to be heard?

Atwood writes later in the same poem, "A word after a word/
after a word is power." It is very cool for me, as a writer and a woman, to watch my daughter discover that power inside her. She helps me remember my own power as well: words sweet and biting, pungent and nourishing, in all of our fingers, on both of our tongues.

By Gayle Brandeis

Gayle Brandeis is the author of the Bellwether Prize winning novel The Book of Dead Birds. Her memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis, will be published next year

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