Lemonade stand writing lessons: Honesty and kindness

lemonade standMy friend Jon invited me to the summer tenth birthday party of his daughter at their condo lawn near the pool. As his wife placed after-candles cake slices in front of us, Lisbeth exclaimed, “Dad! I don’t have school for the whole summer! How about doing a lemonade stand!”

I looked at Jon’s face—it registered dismay, knowing he’d have to shepherd the project. Then he smiled enthusiastically.

“Okay, honey. Great idea, but do you know what we have to do?”

“Sure,” she said, digging into her three-layer triple fudge-mint-chocolate-chip ice cream cake. “We get a table, make lemonade, and print a sign. We can set it up by the building pool on weekends.”

“Kiddo, there’s a lot more to it than that,” Jon said. He patiently explained the steps—get permission from the high-rise building manager, buy frozen lemonade and some real lemons for better taste, round up pitchers, mix small batches, unearth a cooler for ice, buy sturdy-enough paper cups, create an eye-catching sign, keep records of expenses and income, and show up at the same time both weekend days.

Lisbeth stopped eating and stared at him. He continued, “And you’ve got to stand outside in the sun for a good two to three hours each time. Are you still up for it?”

She thought for a moment and took a forkful of cake. “I can charge a dollar a drink. How about adding cookies and raisin packets?”

Later Jon proudly reported to me that they ran the lemonade stand for six weekends, and two customers even asked if they’d come back in the fall. Jon sacrificed the prime of his weekend afternoons watching over the stand and running back and forth to the refrigerator to get the reserves. Lisbeth made $55.00 almost every weekend and learned a lot of lessons. So did I.

Lesson One: Jon’s Response

I see parallels with writing in everything. At the birthday party, I noticed how Jon responded to his daughter’s idea—he quickly reversed his initial negativity and didn’t torpedo or ridicule Lisbeth’s eagerness. He took her idea seriously and answered with consideration and kindness. Yet he pointed out the realities: forethought, planning, preparation, hard work, and sweating in the sun.

Jon’s answers to Lisbeth spurred me to reconsider my responses to a fellow writer. He asked for my critique of his memoir about his dissertation experience. At the opening pages, I reacted like Jon first did—with instant dismay. How could my friend write this crap? Then I recalled Jon’s second, almost immediate reply: even though he made it clear what would be involved, he recognized his daughter’s desire and honored it.

With Jon’s method in mind, I approached my friend’s work. I had to honor both myself and him by being honest—just as Jon had been in telling Lisbeth about all the needed and maybe less-than-pleasant requirements of the lemonade project.

So I dove into my friend’s memoir. Happily, passages appeared that I admired, evidence of my friend’s talent. I interspersed my praise with details of the parts I found superficial, awkward, or obtuse and suggested possible rewrites.

Two days after I sent him the critique, my friend called. “Finally!” he exclaimed. “Criticism I can use!” Others who had read the book, he said, had “massaged” him and overpraised his work. But he knew better. “Thank you!” he said to me. “You helped me see the flaws. Now I’ll jump into the editing.”

“Great.” I was very relieved.

As if my colleague didn’t already know, writing, like starting and running a lemonade stand, takes planning, discipline, and consistent hard work. And like running the stand, writing takes our tolerance of tedium, repeated actions, and mental and emotional sweat.

Lesson Two: More Practice of Honesty and Tact

Since then, I’ve had other testy opportunities to critique gently but truthfully, and I’ve used Jon as the model. Another friend called excited about her latest project. I thought it was impossible and crazy for a new novelist—a multi-volume saga of five generations of her family. But I pointed out its merits (broad overview encompassing history, room to develop characters, tracing the paths of their offspring). I also listed the heroic lemonade-stand efforts needed to get it off the ground (clearcut sense of purpose and theme, multiple outlines and intricate timelines, definitive plan for writing). She emailed me gratefully, undaunted and declaring her forward motion.

A further example: An older writer, incapacitated and able to write only an hour a day, sent me his young adult novel. I felt for him and greatly admired his perseverance. When I reviewed the novel, I found it was underdeveloped in many ways and cliché and repetitious in others. But I also found aspects to commend: his evocative scenes in turn-of-the-century London, the fourteen-year-old protagonist’s moving desperation at his family’s dire poverty, and his father’s overuse of alcohol to assuage his inability to provide for his family.

I sent this writer a long letter detailing my thoughts, with references to his page numbers. He replied with gratitude and said he felt so buoyed that he willed himself to write a second hour a day. I felt very good.

A final instance: In my work as dissertation coach and editor, when I request samples of candidates’ work, I am often shocked at the unpolished writing and gaps in required information and logic. But using Jon’s principles, when I report I don’t decimate their efforts—after all, they have worked long and hard and have suffered many setbacks, as any successful doctoral candidate knows. Doctoral students have enough trouble recovering from their chair’s and committee’s routs of six months’ work. So I praise what I can—generally the topic (often fascinating), mode of inquiry (often creative), and their keen insights (pleasantly surprising). And I praise the students too for their consistency and passion.

Lesson Three: Continuing

Jon’s response to Lisbeth and my experiences with the other writers also prompted questions. On the receiving end, how would I want another writer to respond to my work? Wipe it out with a single withering phrase? Annihilate my effort with a hail of critical bullets? I’ve heard writers complain of critique partners, writing group members, beta readers, and self-appointed blog critics delivering unbelievably vituperative judgments, probably to shore up the critiquers themselves.

I always want to respond like Jon, Lisbeth’s good father, who, despite flaws in his daughter’s plan, encouraged her fervor and creativity. True to my moral and editorial compass, I can still be the responsible critic and good mother, as with fellow writers and doctoral candidates. When they were brave enough to show me their work, I didn’t demolish it, their efforts, and delicate egos (we all have them). Instead, I commented on what in my judgment could be improved and showed I believed in their desire and abilities.

So, whenever another writer risks entrusting me with the fruit of his or her imagination, and every time I’m tempted to be meaner and smaller, I think of Jon and his daughter. And I act on the precious writing lessons from the lemonade stand.

© 2019 Noelle Sterne


Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 400 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com


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