For the past two weeks I’ve had much more free time than usual. My Pilates trainer is on vacation with his family, the ballet school is closed for the summer…so I’ve been reading.
And – inevitably – I’ve been thinking about writing.
One of the books I read was a disappointment: Effective Time Management In a Day For Dummies by Dirk Zeller. I’m revising my own book about time management, so I was looking forward to picking up some new ideas. But the book is boring – or at least started that way.
After a few chapters, the book became livelier, and I finally realized what the initial problem was: Zeller had been writing in an textbook style. When he started talking personally about his struggles with time management, the book became more enjoyable and believable.
Of course stories (good ones) always help a book along, but I suddenly realized that there was something else involved: There was a surprise – the time management guru is one of us, engaged in his own struggle to get things done.
That revelation started me thinking. Surprise isn’t a word you’re going to hear often in a writing class – but you should.
The point really hit home a couple of days later when I picked up a book I liked much better. It’s called More than Happy: The Wisdom of Amish Parenting by Serena B. Miller. After I’d finished reading it, I checked to see who the publisher was. No surprise there: Simon & Schuster. It’s nice to know that there’s still at least one publisher who pays for editors and insists on quality.
And that surprise factor was there again. What, you ask, could possibly be surprising about Amish parenting? A number of things! I learned that Amish children receive only one gift at Christmas. Amish parents use rewards liberally to encourage good behavior. One Amish family owns a battery-operated DVD player so that the children can watch Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. Amish children are allowed to bring toys to church services.
Most of the book consists of stories, all well told, all illustrating a point. Many illuminate not only the character of the Amish families, but also…the author’s character.
My favorite story concerned a noodle casserole. It’s a dish that Serena Miller, the author, liked to cook. She was surprised to learn that her Amish friend had never heard of it. So Miller decided to cook it for the woman’s family. Word about the special dinner spread through the Amish community, and the author discovered to her horror that at least 20 people were coming (with little advance notice) to try the dish.
And there was another complication: Several children were sent to the kitchen to help, including a five-year-old. Miller did not relish having to supervise a small child while she was frantically trying to stretch her recipe.
And then she discovered that the little girl could break eggs, roll out dough, and cut noodles with the best of them.
Here’s the clincher: Miller did something she had often done for her own children: Bestowed a compliment. “What a good little helper you are!” she exclaimed.
The five-year-old ignored the comment – and Miller realized with embarrassment how condescending she must have sounded. The Amish, she realized, respect children and take them seriously.
It was very different from what I expected to read about Amish child-rearing practices (Set limits! Teach values! Hand down traditions!).
It’s a great book. And the takeaway is…Don’t tell your readers what they expect to hear. And whenever possible, resist the temptation to pontificate an all-knowing voice dripping with wisdom.
In short, surprise them.