Imagine for a moment that you’re a single parent, living in a small one-bedroom apartment in a big city with your three-year-old daughter (for some of you this won’t require much imagination). And you dream of making a better life for yourself and your daughter by writing a best-selling novel.
So every night you put her to bed around 7:00, pour a cup of coffee and sit down at the kitchen table to write. She’s curious, of course. Some nights you hear the bedroom door creak open and you find her standing there in her pajamas, peeking through the doorway. You explain to her that she needs to go to bed, and it goes about as well as when anyone tries to explain bedtime to a three year old. Most nights she doesn’t leave you alone until 8:30, maybe 9:00. But once she’s down you write, and do the best you can with the time you have to yourself.
Eventually you submit a manuscript to a publisher, and it gets rejected. You get frustrated – you know deep down it wasn’t your best work. If you just had more time you know you could write something great. Your daughter is getting older, and now she can engage in simple conversations. She asks you what’s wrong. You explain that you’re writing stories, just like the ones you read to her at night, and that you really need peace and quiet to write.
Miraculously, the two of you reach a compromise: she can stay up until 8:00 in the kitchen for one hour of “quiet time.” She can read books or play quietly with her toys, and you get an extra hour of time to write in silence.
Well, almost silence. She keeps asking about what you’re writing. Of course it’s much too complicated to explain to someone her age but she keeps asking:
“What’s it about? What’s it about? What’s it about?”
You finally say it’s about a girl and a boy who fall in love but then something happens and they can’t be together. She asks if the girl is a princess, and you laugh and say no. You don’t bother explaining that the story is set in Midtown Manhattan and that the protagonist is far more complex than a fairytale character. Your daughter yawns, suggests the story might be more fun if the girl were a princess, and you carry her to bed.
Years go by, and more of your stories get rejected. Your daughter continues to stay up past her bedtime, giving you more unsolicited advice involving princesses and dragons and knights in shining armor. You want to be encouraging and so you concede a few points here and there, just so she feels like she’s contributing. After all, the protagonist is kind of a princess. Just to make it easier, you start to refer to the character as “the princess” when discussing the story with your daughter, and eventually you do the same with the other characters.
And then one evening you get really stuck. You just can’t get past a certain part of the plot. Your daughter is following the story by now, and has come up with a new refrain:
“What happens next? What happens next? What happens next?”
In a desperate attempt to get her to shut up so you can concentrate you just spill out everything – you tell her all the ideas you’ve had and explain why none of them work and how you’re going to have to start the entire thing from scratch. She shrugs her shoulders and says,
“Why doesn’t the prince just tell her he’s sorry?”
That’s it! Now you know exactly what happens next. But before jumping back in you compose yourself, smile at your daughter and say, “That’s a good idea.”
And then you pull up a chair.
She sits down, and then the adventure really begins. You start circling paragraphs and explaining to her what you were trying to do. She makes playful suggestions, most of them bad. But over time you notice that they’re getting better. After a while, you start to rely on them.
Now you’re the one keeping her up past her bedtime. Sometimes you push her too hard – you point to a problem and ask her to figure it out and she can’t and you can’t and now you’re yelling at each other and it’s not fun anymore and she goes to her room and slams the door. You learn that you have to keep it fun, otherwise she won’t come back.
More years go by, and then one night the two of you find yourselves staring at a masterpiece. It’s ready, and you both know it. As you pack the manuscript in your bag she’s chattering a mile-a-minute, telling you to make sure you tell the publisher this and that and make sure that they know why this character is important and that the princess and the knight were actually in love all along they just didn’t know it yet. You smile and nod and put her to bed, but neither of you get much sleep. You go to meet with the publishers that afternoon.
And it gets rejected. Not just rejected – they absolutely tear it apart. You blow up, tell them that they have no idea what they’re talking about, and storm out. You’re fighting away tears as you walk in the door of your apartment.
She made dinner. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with milk and chips laid out on paper towels on the kitchen table. She put music on, but you can’t hear it over the sound of her squealing as she snatches the manuscript from your hands:
“What did they say? What did they say? What did they say?”
And telling her is worse than you could have possibly imagined.
You’re frustrated, but she’s devastated.
She throws the manuscript across the room, knocking over the dinner and spilling the milk. She says she hates the publisher and you and the story and she never wants to write anything again. She runs into her room and slams the door.
You start to clean up the kitchen in silence, glancing at the door once in a while, imagining her huddled in the corner of her bed. You remember that she’s just a kid. Then you remember she’s your kid.
And it’s time you earned your keep as a parent.
She has to come out. Knock, yell, slam, kick down the damn door if you have to but get her out of that room. And when she’s standing in the kitchen in her pajamas, cheeks soaked, lips quivering, the last page of the manuscript clutched in her tiny hand, you grab her by the shoulders, look her in the eyes, and say,
“I’m so sorry.”
Not because the work wasn’t good enough – you both know you tried your best. And not because the world can be vicious – you know that’s never going to change.
You tell her you’re sorry it took you so long to pull up a chair.
If you do this properly, she’ll forgive you. She’ll sit down, and the two of you will start a new adventure – a better one.