Over and Over Upon a Time

I can’t say that I always knew I wanted to be a father, but bedtime stories were something I looked forward to when I thought about the possibility. I had read about how Tolkien developed The Hobbit in sessions with his children, incorporating elements he knew they would enjoy, like Beorn the werebear, because they were into bears at the time. Stephen King also made up stories in collaboration with his kids, drawing a little street map and telling the child, “If this is happening over here, and there’s a guy over there, what should he do next?” I know–it’s a little scary to imagine the specifics of a SK word problem for a child.

When my own son was younger and I was trying to get him to sleep in his crib, I would improvise wild variations on the classic fairy tales. But I knew he couldn’t understand the words, just needed to hear the sound of my voice in soft cadences to reassure him I was there. Still, I was entertained.

We went through the phase of reading favorite board books over and over each night until I had every rhyme memorized and could recite them while driving.

Now, at almost three years old, he’s starting to ask me to make up stories for him. The problem for me is that, knowing what he likes, I hit the mark right away and he has been requesting the same story ever since, in an endless loop.

He’s obsessed with firefighters these days, so my little tale is all about how he rides his bike to the fire station and goes out to fight a fire with his uncle (a real fireman) and turns on the sirens, shoots the hose, etc. Before I can say “The End,” he says, “Me at the fire station again.”

I can get away with some variations: where the fire is, or what the guys at the station are eating for dinner when the call comes in. Sometimes, it’s even a rescue operation instead of a fire. And that’s cool with him.

But last night, I made a BIG MISTAKE and tried to spice it up a little by having them go to the scene in a helicopter instead of a fire truck. Holy shit, he had a total meltdown, screaming at me and crying about how it was all wrong, NOT a helicopter, a fire truck! I want a new story! I couldn’t even get a sentence in to fix it with a landing and a transfer to the truck.

I’ve gotten used to rejection as a writer, but this was visceral. Storytellers don’t usually get real time feedback, and while we ask our friends and early readers to be brutally honest, we know they’ll give their critique in a polite, adult fashion. Imagine writing a line and hearing your reader go nuts yelling at you that you’re screwing it up.

I got them back on the truck because I aim to please.

I’m sure there’s a lesson here about giving readers what they want and to some degree what they expect. I’d like to think that people who read novels are more sophisticated than toddlers, but on the emotional level, when we encourage someone to tell us a bunch of cool lies to thrill and entertain… we know what we like, and sometimes if we don’t get it we feel like screaming.


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