This is Eli. Do not be fooled by his clean-cut appearance. He is five years old. He is my nephew. His favorite toy is his mouth and he runs with it nearly non-stop. Unless, of course, it is 7 am and time to get up for kindergarten. Then his jaw cannot move, nor his legs, nor his arms, and certainly not his eyelids. He is comatose.
I know this because Eli is my nephew, and he, along with his two brothers and his mother, are living with my family for a few months while she, a mom with a full-time nursing job, finishes additional schooling. I get to wake Eli up two mornings a week. The task is not for the faint of heart, and has, I admit, on at least one occasion involved cold water, but no board.
The two mornings a week I’m assigned to wake Eli weren’t going well. So I decided to exercise D&C 121:43 and reprove with a little sharpness. I lifted him off the bedding by both arms and held him in mid-air while I shook until his legs unfolded and touched the ground. I took his favorite toy away. I growled at him. I even spanked his little tush and put him in time out. Aunt Lisa truly became Morning Monster and she wasn’t going to listen to any whining or complaining. Eli got no breakfast, not that he would’ve eaten it; he was that contrary. In other words, I was harsh. Oh, yes. I was. Much to his older brother’s delight.
After I had the kid absolutely miserable, crying but trying to keep from crying lest I grow claws in addition to the new horns I’d suddenly sprouted, I knew it was time to exercise the other half of that scripture and show forth an increase of love toward my Eli so he wouldn’t forever see me as Morning Monster. I pulled the little cutie on my lap and he melted there, relieved to still be loved.
After a little petting and cooing, I asked him a series of questions that led him to answers I wanted him to give: Are you happy? Do you like being unhappy? Do you want to be happy? Then: Do you like staying in bed? Do you like getting in trouble because you stay in bed? Do you like Spongebob? Would you like to watch Spongebob tomorrow morning before school?
You get my drift. He agreed to get up peaceably the next morning and do as he was told. In return, he’d get to watch Spongebob, a favorite show, before school. I had given him a good kid-reason to comply. Ever since my reproval and reward, all I have to do on my mornings with Eli is call upstairs, “Eli, Spongebob is about to come on!” and he pops out of bed, all smiles, and comes down. I am one awesome aunt.
I am also a master manipulator. Poor kid didn’t stand a chance. I’ve raised two children to adulthood and have passed the half-way mark with my last. I learned to manipulate children over a decade ago when I took a community parenting class centered on the Boys Town method. Boys Town teaches parents to find kid-reasons and rewards to motivate (manipulate) children into desired behaviors as opposed to offering reasons/rewards that are adult-centered. A very simple concept, so simple in fact, I nearly dismissed it out of hand as something so obvious, surely I must be practicing it already. The teacher humbled me regularly by showing me how adult-centered my disciplinary actions tended to be. I tended to say things like, “Do it or Mommy will be unhappy with you and you don’t like it when Mommy is unhappy.”
We all understand successful parenting is largely about successful manipulation. However, the most amazing and beautiful part about manipulating Eli that morning was that, when all was said and done, I got what I needed out of him, but it was Eli who felt emotionally satisfied. Think about what a miracle that is. I got what I wanted: his emotional need was met.
Manipulation is what writers do. We put a few black marks on a screen or page and, when done well, our creation can make a happy man weep or a sad man laugh. Our words can change minds and hearts, can teach and can destroy. If we manipulate properly, we can get what we want . . . but what is it we want? Unless someone really aspires to be that cast-away on a lost Pacific island, shouting his poetry into the wind, most writers want one thing first and foremost: a sustained audience. But how do we get it?
I take the answer from my experience being the Morning Monster: Readers are basically as self-motivated as children. No one picks up a book to make the author happy, unless, of course, there is a personal bond of some sort. People follow a storyline because they want to be satisfied by it. My job as a writer is to provide elements most likely to satisfy them. If I meet their emotional need, I get what I want, a sustained readership. I know. Its so simple. Its so obvious. It doesn’t need to be said.
But if it doesn’t need to be said, why do we hear writers talk about how they need to get a story out of them or they will burst from holding it in? We may know what I said above, but we often feel like spontaneous combustion is a real possibility if we don’t express the story within. When I was younger, I heard this more than I do now, probably because I hung out with younger writers, but I used to hear it so much that whenever I saw Kool-aid splotches on a wall, I’d think some poor writer had exploded, much the way I think of an angel getting its wings when a bell rings.
Its very easy for me-centered reasons to enter into our motivation to write: I don’t want to explode. I want to get published. I want to earn a living at this. I want my Father to finally accept me. And so on.
But the principles of service, of giving, hold as true for writing as they do parenting:
To parent well, understand and meet the need of your child instead of seeking to meet your need. Then you will get what you want and the child will be emotionally satisfied.
To write well, understand and meet the need of your audience ahead and instead of your own need. Then you will achieve what you need (a sustained readership) and that audience will be emotionally satisfied.
The great truth for writers is the great truth of life: Forget yourself. Step into another’s shoes. And write the story that will inspire, engage, entertain, provoke, or challenge the reader in the way that reader not only expects, but needs. Then the miracle will occur and both you and your reader will have what you need. I’ve waxed more soap-boxy than I intended, but I truly do believe that, like everything worth doing, putting the audience’s desires over our own self-serving motivations works. Of course, this takes conscious practice, repetition, especially because it seems so easy, so obvious.