Have you ever had a truly inspired idea go bust? I don’t mean one that didn’t quite live up to expectations, or was moderately disappointing; I mean one that was a failure of such epic proportions that it felt like it deserved to be noted as a cautionary tale passed down through the generations.
Tuesday was the birthday of my second book, “The Voice Inside my Head,” which is the story of a boy, Luke, who hears the voice of his sister Pat in his head after she disappears off the coast of Honduras. Making insightful if sometimes biting observations, Luke’s sister guides him on his quest to find her. In a number of instances she even stops him from making big mistakes. Can you feel the irony coming?
For months I’d heard Pat’s voice as strongly as Luke did. I know that sounds weird but trust me it’s completely normal for writers. It doesn’t make it any less weird, but if you’re an author and your imaginary friends seem more real than the living breathing bodies around you, everyone accepts these obviously delusional thoughts as creativity.
Anyway, back to my story. On Luke and Pat’s birthday I was doing what I do every Tuesday night, teaching handicrafts to around 35 girls in the red-light district of Mumbai. I’ve been living in Mumbai, India, for a year now, working on my third book and doing a lot of volunteer work. Most of my volunteer work is with girls who have been rescued from the sex industry or with the daughters of sex workers, to try to prevent them from getting trafficked. Tuesday night was with just such a group.
At this NGO, I teach two groups of girls, one 6 to 9 year-olds and the other 10 to 16 year-olds. On the night of my book birthday, I had an overpowering desire to have them make wizards and dragons. Don’t ask me why. If Pat was with me she probably would have suggested I was hoping some of the magic would spill over and bring good luck to my book launch. Personally, I think I was just entranced by the prospect of working with glitter.
As always, I started with the younger group of girls. The design was two 3-D models, a wizard and a dragon, made out of paper cups with styrofoam heads and various limbs and clothes cut out of paper. There was only one problem. My little girls couldn’t actually cut, by which I mean they were on a cutting hiatus after an unfortunate stabbing incident a few weeks earlier.
However, not to be thwarted, I’d pre-cut 25 wizard frocks, 25 caps, 25 wizard faces, 25 wands, 25 dragon faces and 25 snouts, 50 nostrils, 50 legs, 100 arms (wizards and dragons), 50 wings, 50 smiles, 25 tails, and 25 glittery tufts of fur for the end of the tails. On reflection I realize I could have dispensed with the glittery tufts but they seemed important at the time.
I’d also painted 25 paper cups purple, for the wizard, and 25 green, for the dragon, and 50 styrofoam balls for the heads, since the girls were also on a painting hiatus after an unfortunate painting debacle, which I’d prefer not to go into, though I will say that washable paint would be a boon to the children’s craft industry in India.
Finally, in a naïve effort to mitigate potential chaos, I sorted the 550 bits and pieces into 25 homemade envelopes to ensure that each child had everything she needed. I also added 50 googly eyes and 26 gold stars to each envelope – 25 stars for the wizard’s frock and 1 large one for his cap.
At this point Luke’s sister, Pat, would be commenting that I was completely out of control, which would have been an unfair comment as clearly I was in absolute control, hence the envelopes.
Before handing out the envelopes I had the foresight to dispense the most critical instruction, i.e. “Only take out items from the envelope one by one, when you’re prepared to stick them on. Do not, under any circumstances, dump out the contents of the envelope.”
I cannot overstate how vital this instruction was. The room we work in has no furniture so we sit on the floor, and as it’s India the heat is intense so we’re surrounded by fans. Can you imagine how quickly a tiny star or wizard’s wand would get lost in a crowd of 25 children under the blow of several fans? If you can’t answer that question, you probably also won’t be able to guess how many of these same children immediately dumped the entire contents of their envelopes on the floor the second they received them.
And then things got worse.
You can’t expect a child whose own dragon snout has disappeared not to take whatever dragon snout she can lay her hands on, even if it’s not her own. Fortunately, being the experienced teacher that I was, I’d had the foresight to make extras of everything. Unfortunately, I’d left them unguarded and they too disappeared amid the chaos. I could almost feel Pat rolling her eyes.
But every cloud does indeed have a silver lining; in this case there were two. First, despite my painstakingly prepared examples, most of the girls still had no idea what a wizard or his dragon were meant to look like. With the few supplies they’d managed to salvage, they happily pasted dragon snouts on dragon stomachs and wizard wands on dragon butts, limbs were on heads, tufts were on limbs. The absence of a few stars or an eye was hardly noticed.
The second silver lining: A few girls did know what the dragon and wizard were meant to look like and were enraged by the theft of their cherished supplies. But not a single one of them had scissors!
So, unlike Luke, I muddled through without Pat’s helpful advice, which isn’t to say I couldn’t have used it. I only hope the seventy Picasso-inspired wizards and dragons that were launched that evening created just a little magic for the launch of my own creative effort, “The Voice inside My Head.”