Grammar, which knows how to control even kings.
My friend Jon invited me to the summer tenth birthday party of his daughter at their condo lawn near the pool. As his wife placed after-candles cake slices in front of us, Lisbeth exclaimed, “Dad! I don’t have school for the whole summer! How about doing a lemonade stand!”
I looked at Jon’s face—dismay, knowing he’d have to shepherd the project. Then he smiled enthusiastically.
“Okay, honey. Great idea, but do you know what we have to do?”
“Sure,” she said, digging into her three-layer triple fudge-mint-chocolate-chip ice cream cake. “We get a table, make lemonade, and print a sign. We can set it up by the building pool on weekends.”
“Kiddo, there’s a lot more to it than that,” Jon said. He patiently explained the steps—get permission from the high-rise building manager, buy frozen lemonade and some real lemons for better taste, round up pitchers, mix small batches, unearth a cooler for ice, buy sturdy-enough paper cups, create an eye-catching sign, keep records of expenses and income, and show up at the same time both weekend days.
Lisbeth stopped eating and stared at him. He continued, “And you’ve got to stand outside in the sun for a good two to three hours each time. Are you still up for it?”
She thought for a moment and took a forkful of cake. “I can charge a dollar a drink. How about adding cookies and raisin packets?”
Later Jon proudly reported to me that they ran the lemonade stand for six weekends. Two customers even asked if they’d come back in the fall. Jon sacrificed the prime of his weekend afternoons watching over the stand and running back and forth to the refrigerator to get the reserves. Lisbeth made $55.00 almost every weekend and learned a lot of lessons. So did I.
Lesson One: Jon’s Response
I see parallels with writing in everything. At the birthday party, I noticed how Jon responded to his daughter’s idea—he quickly reversed his initial negativity and didn’t torpedo or ridicule Lisbeth’s eagerness. He took her idea seriously and answered with consideration and kindness. Yet he pointed out the realities: forethought, planning, preparation, hard work, and sweating in the sun.
Jon’s answers to Lisbeth spurred me to reconsider my responses to a fellow writer. He asked for my critique of his memoir. At the opening pages, I reacted like Jon first did—with instant dismay. How could my friend write this crap? Then I recalled Jon’s second, almost immediate reply: even though he pointed out what would be involved, he recognized his daughter’s desire and honored it.I see parallels with writing in everything. At the birthday party, I noticed how Jon responded to his daughter’s idea—he quickly reversed his initial negativity and didn’t torpedo or ridicule Lisbeth’s eagerness. Click To Tweet
With Jon’s method in mind, I approached my friend’s work. I had to honor myself and him by being honest—just as Jon had been in telling Lisbeth about all the needed and maybe less-than-pleasant requirements of the lemonade project.
So I dove into my friend’s memoir. Happily, passages appeared that I admired, evidence of my friend’s talent. I interspersed my praise with details of the parts I found superficial, awkward, or obtuse and suggested possible rewrites.
Two days after I sent him the critique, my friend called. “Finally!” he exclaimed. “Criticism I can use!” Others who had read the book, he said, had “massaged” him and overpraised his work. But he knew better. “Thank you!” he said to me. “You helped me see the flaws. Now I’ll jump into the editing.”
“Great,” I said, relieved.
As if my colleague didn’t already know, writing, like starting and running a lemonade stand, takes planning, discipline, and consistent hard work. And like the stand, writing takes our tolerance of tedium, repeated actions, and sweat.
Lesson Two: More Practice of Honesty and Tact
Since then, I’ve had other testy opportunities to critique gently but truthfully, and I’ve used Jon as the model. Another friend called excited about her latest project. I thought it was impossible and crazy for a new novelist—a multi-volume saga of five generations of her family. But I pointed out its merits (broad overview encompassing history, room to develop characters and their offspring) and the heroic lemonade-stand efforts needed to get it off the ground (clearcut sense of purpose and point, multiple outlines and intricate timelines, definitive plan for writing). She emailed me gratefully and undaunted.
An older writer, incapacitated and able to write only an hour a day, sent me his young adult novel. I felt for him and greatly admired his perseverance. When I reviewed the novel, I found it was underdeveloped in many ways, cliché in others, and repetitious in others. But I also found aspects to commend: his evocative scenes in turn-of-the-century London, the fourteen-year-old protagonist’s moving desperation at his family’s dire poverty, his father’s attempt to overuse alcohol to assuage his inability to provide for his family.
I wrote this writer a long letter detailing my thoughts, with references to his page numbers. He replied with gratitude and said he felt so buoyed that he willed himself to a second writing hour a day. I felt very good.
Lesson Three: Continuing
Jon’s response to Lisbeth and my experiences with the other writers prompted questions. How would I want another writer to respond to my work? Wipe out my work with a single withering phrase? Decimate my effort with a hail of critical bullets? I’ve heard writers complain of critique partners, writing group members, and self-appointed blog critics delivering unbelievably vituperative judgments, probably to shore up the critiquers themselves. (See also Mandy Wallace’s post “Critique Group Etiquette” on Writer’s Digest There Are No Rules, March 15, 2018 (Wallace, 2018).
No. I want to respond like Jon, Lisbeth’s good father, who, despite flaws in his daughter’s plan, encouraged her fervor and creativity. True to my moral and editorial compass, I can still be the responsible critic and good mother, as I was with my fellow writers. I didn’t demolish their work, efforts, and delicate egos (we all have them) but pointed out what, in my judgment, could be improved and showed I believed in their desire and abilities.
So, whenever another writer risks entrusting me with the fruit of his or her imagination, and every time I’m tempted to be meaner and smaller, I think of Jon and his daughter. And I act on the precious writing lessons from the lemonade stand.
© 2018 Noelle Sterne
Photo Credit: www.thescrapshoppeblog.com
Dr. Noelle Sterne
Author, editor, writing coach, writing workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and short stories. Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, The Write Place At the Write Time, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Academic editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees. As part of pursuing her writing Dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach their own and create the lives they truly desire.
Author, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams. Unity Books, 2011.
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