The End of an Error
by Jennifer Paros
Once my youngest son and I were talking, and I suggested that at school, instead of running around pretending on his own during recess, he might try inviting another child to play with him. I made this suggestion believing that connecting more to children at school might help him feel better about going.
He responded: “I . . . don’t do that - that’s not my kind of thing. That’s not what I do.”
I challenged this a bit and then let it go, hoping to return to the subject another time. It didn’t matter if following my suggestion might make school more enjoyable and bring him the friendships he wanted. It didn’t matter because he had made a decision about himself and had lost track of who the Rule Maker was (Him!) and was now living in service to beliefs that were not serving his changing self.
When I was in the process of restructuring the children’s picture book I’d been working on for six years, I witnessed the same dynamic at play in ME. I was working with an editor at Viking Children’s Books (with no promises of publication, but much good will) through e-mail and snail mail exchanges. She would give me a creative nudge now and again, and I would then try to work with the nudge, to better develop the story. During this process, I revised, reworked, and revamped until my computer was loaded with drafts. And then one day she showed the latest version to her colleagues and they were enthusiastic but thought it was “too sophisticated” for a picture book and suggested I turn it into a chapter book. She conveyed this news to me over the phone with compassion and asked that I consider it.
Soon I found myself curious enough about the story’s potential to start working on a chapter book version. A little disappointed but still enthused, I set about “expanding” the story. And my first attempt was just that–sort of a stretched out, elongated version of the six pages of text I’d started with–now taffy-pulled into thirty. It was received by my editor with disappointment.
My experience of writing the next draft was confusing at best, although I continued to work fiercely. The emotional trajectory of the story was about the main character going from a locked down, fearful state of saying “No” to almost everything to opening up and starting to trust life. Of course, I was hoping to build to a main moment of conflict/challenge and then have a satisfying resolve. But after having completed and read the draft, I believed
I had labored for three months on a MESS. There was no big conflict and challenge that resolved, just a bunch of small situations depicting the character as stuck and afraid. There was no transformation.
I was distraught; it was clear I would not be sending this draft to my editor. I marched off disrespectfully clutching the story in hand-to find my husband and share the joy. He was in the kitchen innocently living his life, when I burst into tears and declared my hopelessness. I had been working on the same story for so many years! I threw up my arms to the Gods, asking why I would be given characters and an idea I loved so much and not be able to find a form for sharing them. It was at that moment that my husband took a beat and made a suggestion that changed everything. He suggested I give my main character a friend. And, for some reason, I listened.
For years I had been determined not to bring in any other characters (I had only one other and a dog). I held the idea that my character’s aloneness was part of what made her different and special. I wanted her to be unique and I wanted her internal struggle to be palpable, concerned that including more characters would diffuse the richness of her personal transformation. But of course, as of yet, I’d been unable to actually show that transformation. My error in perception and this early decision had kept me restricted in how I allowed myself to tell the story for years. But now, in a moment, my perspective changed and the whole story opened for me. And the next draft I wrote was the one that was accepted for publication.
Like my son, I had made rules about what I could or couldn’t do and then proceeded to try and write freely without realizing how I had restricted myself. I was trying to paint a rainbow with a limited palette – limited only by an error in perception. It was the end of an error when I introduced that new character, for with her came ease. No longer was I trying to paint a rainbow without a proper palette, now I was able to use all the colors – because I let myself.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.