Eli and the Morning Monster

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.

 

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16 Responses to Eli and the Morning Monster

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    I agree that we need as writers to think about how to meet the reader’s needs — how to make the reader care. Particularly those of us who write less popular types of work need to be cautious about not blaming readers for not enjoying the things we’ve written.

    At the same time, obviously there are limits to an audience-centered approach to writing. Part of the satisfaction of writing comes, not from an audience’s reception of our work, but from our own interaction with the process and product of our efforts. And the satisfaction we get from readers caring about the stories we write depends, I think, on the fact that we care equally about those stories. Writing stories we don’t care about as authors will, in the end, be just as unsatisfying as writing stories we care passionately about but that no one else wants to read.

    None of which I think conflicts with what you’ve written here. For me, though, it was something of a revelation — coming out of a graduate program where I had learned to interpret literature as audience-driven.

  2. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I wrote this with the assumption that we write stories that matter to us and never meant to suggest any wisdom in writing things a particular audience might like that the writer doesn’t. I write what I like to read, so the biggest part of the process in understanding audience expectations is, in fact, understanding myself and learning to isolate what in a piece of literature moves me, or how each component of, say a short story, manipulates me, how each element builds toward the effect I feel. So yes, even focusing on audience is, in a real way, writer driven. I mean to point out, however, that we need to have a firm grasp on how words, phrases, scenes, and so one can or will be received by audience.

    I balk a little at the term “audience-driven” and yet I agree that term sounds like it’d fit in my post. In some genres, audience expectations will drive a plot or characterization more than in others, so I think its fair to include the term under the wider umbrella. My love is, of course, lit fic and so audience-driven feels less applicable because audience expectation maybe doesn’t hinge quite as firmly on plot or character expectations as, say, a romance or even a popular mystery.

    In terms of lit fic, then, I’m speaking less of audience as a driving force of story and more of audience as…hm…as a part of the mechanism of storytelling (?). Or as a companion in the story telling process (?). Whatever flawed analogy is adopted, the writer of lit fic needs to be studied in the nuances, not only of literature, but of the human psyche. (Which isn’t to imply that genre fiction does not, but I think its reasonable to suggest the degree to which this is true is greater for lit fic.)

    The question still stands: Can you teach writing, especially of literary fiction? I think part of the unmeasurable, or unteachable, element of lit fic is that tender sensitivity some writers have about what makes people tick. Some call it intuition, namely those who haven’t set out to closely observe the observable connections between how humans react and the stimuli that surrounds us. I think we can improve our “intuitive” abilities by concerted observation and by applying the rule that our own psyche will be much as the psyche of others. In these ways, we become more aware of audience and better fill that need.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      I like this formulation — particularly the part where you write, “the biggest part of the process in understanding audience expectations is, in fact, understanding myself and learning to isolate what in a piece of literature moves me.” I think that even in the less “literary” genres, authors are in trouble when they start writing things that they care less about in order to (supposedly) sell better — as opposed to writing things that they do care about in a way that will connect better to readers.

      In order to succeed, a story needs to matter to both the writer and the readers. In this way it creates a common ground for shared emotion and experience.

      • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

        Agreed. But for me, a story won’t matter to me the writer IF it doesn’t matter to a reader. So I emphasize that part.

  3. O it is true. (the manipulation.) And because my biggest pet peeve is… manipulation… sometimes I feel completely schizophrenic, parenting.

    FOr me, sometimes it comes down to talking. No, I’m not punishing you because I’m mean. You are punishing yourself. So be mad at yourself, not me. (That is a line I use a lot.) Or conversely: You should be so proud of yourself. You worked hard for this… you did this yourself. Maybe that makes it less about manipulation, and more about… creating a sort of safe encapsulation of life, for children to learn from and participate in–experience natural consequences (artificially provided by me) in a way that their short attention spans still retain the fact of action=consequence.

    I wish all my kids were like your nephew. They get up at 6:30 am. Without fail.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      Well, Sarah, I’m not really the parent. So there is a different dynamic between Eli and myself and he and his mom or me and my own children. Its funny because when I began writing this post, I intended to talk about theoretical critics. I mean, here I am, an experienced mom, implementing a theory of parenting on a child who is not my own–and ta da! I prove it works flawlessly. But when the parent actually tries the same theory on her own child, well, the results are often less spectacular. That’d be when the theory-pusher says, “You have to be consistent!” or some such thing.

      So I thought maybe I’d use the Eli story to talk about how applying theory doesn’t work for me, as a writer. Theory is rarely created by a writer, much as parenting theory isn’t being created by the parent of the child its being exercised on. I’ve always felt theorists do things backwards. The look at what is completed and decide why it did or did not work. That’s a very different process than creating a work from scratch. While I love the Boys Town method and Love and Logic, the reality is that parenting is a forward moving creative process and so often we just wing it, pulling in as many helpful ideas as we can. I didn’t really have success w. Eli because of Boys Town, but because a) of years of practice creating my own relationships with my kids, and b) I don’t have any mommy-baggage with him. In the end, I think writers succeed after tons of practice. I think our practice and what we learn from it may lead us toward acknowledging some correct aspects in lit theory, but, as they say, people really only learn through doing. Its why I’m more interested in hearing a writer’s theory on successful writing than an academics.

      But I chose not to go in that direction because my brain couldn’t get that together and because the word “theory” is kind of like the word “taxes.” Just makes so many of us cringe.

      Mostly I just wanted to brag about what a miraculously awesome job I did with Eli.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      While Eli was certainly manipulated, I don’t think he was fooled. There were no false pretenses, only a mutually-accepted exchange of value. He knew that the goal was to get him up early (you told him so), and Spongebob was the proper reward (bribe) to get that done.

      That’s the difference for me in good writing—establishing mutually accepted terms, then following through. I am asking the author to manipulate me, but I do so with eyes open to the fact of it; my only evaluation is whether the payoff was worth it, and whether the author stayed within the rules.

      Where authors go wrong is when they treat their readers like marks or targets, not as partners. One shoves a story down my throat; the other invites me to consider, savor, chew, and willingly swallow on the basis of either direct or implied promise. That allows for surprise ingredients and unexpected flavors—as long as they fall within the terms of that initial promise.

      When that’s done right we call it cooperation; when done badly we call it manipulation. The difference is how the author treats the reader, not the practice itself.

      • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

        Excellent point. It is a partnership, a co-operation. But dang, I hate to give up my word “manipulation” because, while I reader may submit to a writer’s story, he’s supposed to lose sense that the writer even exists, but get lost in the story, the characters, the setting. Because he’s ideally lost and not thinking of the writer, the writer manipulates. This is the trick to overcome as a writer. We need to both allow ourselves to be led along without losing track of how a writer is doing it.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          The challenge of being both a reader and a writer is that as a reader I want to forget the author and immerse in the story, but as a writer I want to pull back the covers and examine how the author did it.

          Different tasks that use different modes of thinking. I think I may have lost some of the pure joy of reading since I became a writer, but I think appreciation of technique, style, and method provides a new and different joy that makes up for that other loss.

  4. I certainly respond to stories differently when I can read as a reader and as a writer. And when I comment on a story, I tend to comment on what the writer did in the writing as much as I do on the actual story.

    This also has the effect of making it a lot harder for me to find books about which I can say “I just couldn’t put it down!” In fact, I haven’t said that in a long time. The best I find I can say about a book any more is “I was anxious to get back to it.”

    And I don’t keep reading a book if I can put it down and find excuses to not get back to it. There really are too many books and too little time in which to read any of them.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      Yeah, I have the same problem. I guess its a problem? Since I’m very analytical about what others are writing (in the sense of how they move me, the reader), I tend to be very critical of myself as a writer. Hence my personal need to not think like a writer when I write, but think like a reader when I write. Weird. I can’t think like what I am. I think I’m heading for a split personality disorder. :)

      Thanks to all who’ve taken time to comment!

  5. Not being the parent does make a difference. Sometimes I feel like that’s when all my assumptions about parenting are suddenly put to the test. My kids watch to see if I’m going to enforce rules, even when the situation has changed. It can be hard.

    We just moved in next door to neighbors. For the first time, we have a bunch of kids that my kids play with regularly, right next door. This can get tricky, because my kids will do things because “the kids next door do them,” and just the other day I walked into the yard and chewed out the oldest boy for screaming at my three year old son. And had a long talk with the mom the next day, wherein we both agreed that we will have to figure this new situation out with a lot of communication between the two of us–we’re talking about two families with (very!) different ways of handling things, whose kids are learning from/sometimes even trying to parent each other! It’s been a good challenge for me.

    As to the writing metapohr–
    I’ve always had a certain amount of distaste for writing, or storytelling, described as manipulation (or worse, lies.) (ala Galaxy Quest, for instance). (Pretty much one of the best movies on earth.)

    I think a story is a different situation, because we’re (usually) talking about people who come to the table ready and willing to suspend their realities in order to be immersed in a new reality, one that you will try to create for them.

    Christ himself was a storyteller. All those parables could possibly have really occurred at some point in history, and Christ collected them to later use as a lesson. But I’m of the belief that he made up stories to illustrate points, to create larger understandings of concepts (that each listener would bring his/her own level of understanding to).

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      The idea of Christ as a manipulator bothers you, Sarah? :) Yes, the exchange of storyteller for manipulator is a weak one, I agree. Just haven’t found a would I like better, since “storytellers tell” doesn’t mean what I want to say. I used to have a very negative reaction to the word “manipulate” but I haven’t found one that fits betters. So I dumped all the negative baggage I’d always associated w. the word. Merriam Webster give three Definitions of the transitive verb MANIPULATE. The second two are negative, so I think in terms of the first:

      1 : to treat or operate with or as if with the hands or by mechanical means especially in a skillful manner
      2: to manage or utilize skillfully b: to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one’s own advantage
      3 : to change by artful or unfair means so as to serve one’s purpose : doctor

  6. Lol. I’ll take it, I guess. Us word nerds…

  7. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    where’s the “like” button?

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