*I have a story in this collection: Witches, Stitches, & Bitches, and the collection is free on Kindle this week!*
I work part-time at an after-school program, and my job is to make sure everything runs smoothly. This means when a Kindergartener wets her pants during “Fun With Clay,” I’m the one who helps her clean up.
Which is why, not long ago, I found myself squatting in the girls’ bathroom, pulling a pair of drenched pink corduroy pants off of a 5-year-old who was babbling incessantly about salmon.
This girl was kind of a mess. Not only had she peed a lot – her socks and shoes were completely soaked – but her blond hair was in tangles, and it looked as if she had recently taken a bad fall off her bicycle . She had some bright-red scabs on her cheeks and forehead, and a long scrape down one arm.
“And on Friday – or maybe another day – we’re gonna release the salmon,” she told me, “and they’re gonna go back in the ocean and get big.” (The school has a fish tank in the front hallway with recently-hatched salmon, which we had passed on the way to the bathroom. She had wanted to stop and watch; I had insisted that we change out of her dirty clothes first.)
“That’s neat.” I was currently struggling to pull off her little pink socks. I was trying not to be grossed out by the smell, or by the thought that I was actively touching something soaked in someone else’s pee.
“After this,” I said, “we’ll wash our hands realllly good.”
“And the salmon, they used to be eggs, but then they hatched and they ate their eggs. I think. Or maybe they ate fish food. Or bugs.”
I had assumed I would need to tell the girl not to be embarrassed – that everyone pees their pants sometimes – but instead she was so obsessed with the salmon that she hardly noticed when I handed her her a clean pair of panties and stuffed her soiled clothes into a plastic bag.
“When you get home you might need to clean your shoes.” I tied the laces, which were also soaked with pee. “Now let’s go wash our hands!”
Later, after the students were gone, I talked to the Fun With Clay teacher. “Thanks for taking care of that,” she told me.
“That’s what I’m here for.”
“She was so engrossed with her project, she didn’t even notice. I went over, and there was a puddle on the floor, and I was like, ‘honey, did you pee in your pants?’ and she says, ‘yeah,’ and just keeps on working. It’s a compliment to my teaching, I guess. I’m going to put that on my resume: is able to so fully engage students that they pee in their pants and don’t even notice.”
As I walked out to my car, I was reminded of something Jeff Kleinman, a literary agent for Folio Lit, has said about how he decides to take on a book. “I basically have two criteria,” he says. “First, I miss my subway stop reading the book. And second, I gush about it to any poor slob who will listen.”*
You can see why this reminds me of our little pants-wetter. She was so into her clay project that she missed nature calling. And she was so into the salmon that she gushed about them to me, the poor slob who was tying her pee-soaked shoe laces.
* * *
When I think about books that have fit this criteria for me, a few come immediately to mind. Most notably, at least in recent history, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I could not put that books down, and when I finished it, I recommended it to everyone I knew.
Gone Girl was a mystery novel, although it was much more than that. I’ve heard people say that most stories are mysteries, and one writer told me that in a good book the first page promises mysteries or asks questions that are answered by the end. I think it’s that sense of mystery – those questions needing answers – that keep people reading past their subway stop. I plan to read more mystery novels in order to better understand how to write in a way that keeps people turning the pages.
But I’ll need more than just a good mystery to make people gush. I’ll need beautiful language or amazing characters or a unique point of view or a poignant epiphany or something. The mystery and the something more combined is what will make my book stand out from the others. It is what will keep people engrossed and reading. Hopefully, however, they’ll take a break to use the bathroom.