The Fourth Set of Ears

In his book On Writing, Stephen King writes about the importance of having one ideal reader. It’s my favorite passage in a book full of hundreds of compelling passages about the craft, because I’m fortunate to have one such ideal reader.

My son.

His are the fourth set of ears to hear the rough draft of my work. I first time I read the draft aloud—to catch glaring errors my eyes don’t see, to listen to the cadence of the language, and to ensure that the dialogue rings true—three sets of ears hear it: my own and those of my cats, General and Olivia.

The cats’ critiques are useless, though.

Not my son’s. His fourth set of ears listens to my second draft. My son has no problem telling me straight that a chapter is boring, hilarious, or creepy. He is as honest and unflinching a critic as you’d be lucky to meet. If his eyes glaze over, my next few days are spent in rewrites. When he begs me for “Just one more chapter”, I know I’m on to something.

And when my book is finally ready for the eyes of my editor, the boy who owns those fourth set of ears gives me celebratory presents.

The fourth set of ears gave me this skull after I’d finished The Pirate’s Booty.

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The fourth set of ears gave me this tiger after I’d finished The Crystal Lair.

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The fourth set of ears has been listening to readings of the third book in the Inventor-in-Training series. A few rewrites are in order, but he’s been asking for “one more chapter of your creepy book”, so perhaps it’s nearly time to send it to the editor.

I’m hoping for another present soon.

Obligation 4: Daydream

Do you daydream? I do. I admit it. I was that kid with her head in the clouds, too wrapped up in her own imagination to see the giant mud puddle she was about to land face first in. I was able to focus in school—I always loved learning new things—but I lived for weekends and summers when I could read, write, and draw to my heart’s content.

I grew up, went to college and graduate school, landed one job and then another. To the naked eye, I look like your standard, no-nonsense, serious-minded adult. But that’s all a front. I’m really not. I’m a dreamer.

Dreamers get lost inside their own heads. We boil water on the stove, and then step outside for just one minute to look at a flower we want to paint, and return to the stench of melting Teflon. We file records or enter information into databases, then nearly die of fright when a coworker says, “Hello”, because we are secretly far away in an adventure story of our own creation. We miss due dates of assignments while we contemplate the Lego structure we are going to build after school.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist, lecturer, and poet

Don’t get me wrong. We need to attend to today’s business. We must get the job done, complete our homework, meet the project deadline, and fulfill our commitments. And we will. But we dreamers need some quiet time tucked into our rush-rush lives. We don’t want to have every waking hour scheduled. We need time for our dreams to fill our heads with ideas, solutions, and characters. We need time to practice our knitting, guitar riffs, and paint strokes. We need time to try something new, fall on our faces, and then try something different.

Today’s dreamer may be tomorrow’s great inventor, sculptor, musician, painter, civil rights activist, or teacher. Do you think Thomas Edison, Alexander Calder, Scott Joplin, Grandma Moses, Susan B. Anthony, and Anne Sullivan dreamed? We all know Martin Luther King, Jr. did. The distracted child you are frustrated with today might be dreaming of a vaccine for cancer. She might be solving environmental problems that will save our Earth. He could be our next Ralph Lauren or Ralph Waldo Emerson.

We need to play hard, explore freely, and dream hugely. And we must encourage our kids to do so also.

Do you daydream? Feel free to admit it.

(This post was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s lecture at The Reading Agency.)