Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey: A Lesson in Letting Kids Follow Possibly Unprofitable Dreams

Elmo is an international hero to millions of children. But the story of the soft-spoken man who gave him life really inspires.

“I’m going to law school,” I used to tell people in college, mainly because I was stubborn and the occupation seemed fitting enough to convince people I was headed for greatness. When I told people I was a philosophy major, I got many jokes about how I was going to be the most educated burger flipper in town.  But I showed them.  I wouldn’t be the most educated anything in town, because I dropped out of college.

Not once, not twice, but three times.

After I got married, I enjoyed writing, but wasn’t terribly good.  I wrote unpublished novels and magazine articles.  I answered ads in Craigslist for writing assignments, none of which ever paid. For years, I unsuccessfully tried to place articles.  I was rejected ninety-seven times by potential agents.

One summer, it all changed.  My first “sale” earned me ten free copies of the magazine. Then, I sold an article to a Christian living magazine for $20, making me a “professional writer.” Years later, I sold an article to The Philadelphia City Paper, called “Blue City Blues.”  I got $100 for my 600 word column, more than all of my writing — put together. Over the course of two months, I published an article to the Philadelphia Inquirer, my city’s largest and most prestigious paper. Then, I wrote a piece for the Daily News, the grittier little brother of the Inquirer.

My writing career had already spanned seven years and I’d made – almost – enough money for a good pair of shoes.

“What do you do?” someone at church asked me one Sunday.

“I’m a writer,” I said, for the first time in my life.

My husband, on the way home from church, said, “You really shouldn’t tell people that.  Writers actually make money from writing.” He was right, of course. I was only a “writer,” in the sense that I “wrote.” But I felt like a writer, wanted to be a writer, and — in my mind — was a writer.  I always had been.

You know the rest of the story, because, well, you’re actually reading my writing.  Since that devastating day on the way home from church, I’ve written several books. Two have been New York Times Best Sellers. I’m the editor of a channel at Patheos.

And my honest-but-caring husband David was there every painful step of the way. He’s always been my biggest cheerleader, encourager, and friend.  A former legal writing instructor at Cornell, he was actually the one who really sat down with me and taught me how to write.

Why am I thinking about this today?  I saw a wonderful documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey about the life and work of the puppeteer behind one of the most popular Sesame Street characters.

Red, furry, huggable Elmo is an international hero to millions of children. But do you know the story of the soft-spoken man who gave him life?

Kevin Clash grew up in Baltimore, and he loved the muppets.  He began making them out of materials around his house — once, he even cut up his dad’s coat to use the fur. Though kids at school made fun of him for “sleeping with dolls,” he pushed forward, even performing shows for kids in the neighborhood.    His parents encouraged his hobby and arranged for Kevin to meet with a famous puppeteer who later introduced him to Jim Henson.  Who would’ve thought this love of puppets would’ve eventually ended up creating the most beloved muppet?  (And one who started the 1996 Tickle Me Elmo riots that probably made Rodney King shudder?)

“Do what you love,” financial expert Dave Ramsey says.  He encourages people to figure out that one thing they enjoy.

Then do it.

And perfect it.

Then, make money off it.

This, of course, was true for my own occupational trajectory, but I had the best possible scenario for pursuing my dreams.  I was married to an attorney and knew my work didn’t have to put food on the table.  This freed me to fail miserably for years without any consequence but a broken heart.

More than a gently captivating follow-your-dreams movie, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is really an inspiration for parents to embrace their kids’ passions and gifts. And because it offers a peak behind-the-scenes of Sesame Street since 1969, it’s a movie that will delight all ages.

Kevin’s story is an inspiration, because it so beautifully portrays this “do what you love” mantra.  What parents would see their son sticking his hand up the backside of a handmade puppet, and think “We’re going to make sure our son can follow his dreams.”

Even if it means a Singer Sewing machine, a high pitched voice, and lots and lots of fur?

Who’s inspired you in your occupation?

Do you feel like you’re job matches your God-given talents?

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About Nancy French

Nancy French is a three time New York Times Best Selling Author.


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