Showing posts with label Dr. Seuss. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dr. Seuss. Show all posts

04 March 2013

Green Grits, Anyone?

by Fran Rizer


Two days ago, March 2, 2013, was the anniversary of the birth of someone who inspired me tremendously in my writing efforts--someone who has played a varying role throughout my life.

Dr. Seuss sold millions of books and won many
notable awards for his art as well as his writing.
Theodor Seuss Greiss was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 2, 1904, to a successful brewmaster, Theodor Robert Greiss, and his wife Henrietta Seuss Greiss.  The young boy became famous as Dr. Seuss.

I've always loved disguises and costumes.  When I taught secondary English, I used to dress up as Lady Macbeth and deliver the "Out, out cursed spot," passage to interest my students in beginning the study of Macbeth. Seuss's work provides many opportunities for costumes.

Some might think that Dr. Seuss's material is too young for fifth graders, but they loved it, and we explored all kinds of books and poetry including Shel Silverstein and Edgar Alan Poe. Seuss's work also served as inspiration for writing and illustrating the students' own books.  The class wrote and illustrated  a group project called The White Haired Man with the same meter and rhyme scheme as Green Eggs and Ham.

When I demoted myself from secondary English to teaching fifth grade, we made a big deal out of March second each year.  I'd wear my Cat in the Hat costume and my students would make and wear costumes for other characters.  A baker friend and I made a gigantic four tier birthday cake styled like a wedding cake decorated with Seuss characters.  My students hosted every other class in the building to our room by scheduled invitation.  While there, the younger students celebrated Dr. Seuss's birthday by eating cake, drinking juice, and listening to my fifth-graders read Dr. Seuss books to them at reading centers around the room.

We also did a following directions lesson on St. Patrick's Day that involved preparing and eating green foods.  We drank green Kool Aid and ate green deviled eggs and ham, green peas, green beans, asparagus, green spinach (a little Popeye strength), and other green foods the parents provided, along with cooking instructions, for the children to prepare.  Since I lived and taught in the South, we also had green grits, but the students' favorite green food each year was green Rice Krispy Treats.  We read Green Eggs and Ham at that lunch.  Our math lesson that afternoon concentrated on converting measurements we'd used that morning into metric.

The biography of Dr. Seuss is repeated many times in different places on the Internet, so I won't inflict that on you.  Google it if you want to know how he was kicked off the magazine staff at Dartmouth College for drinking in his dorm room (it wasn't green Kool Aid either), quit future studies at Oxford University and returned stateside with his recently married wife Helen; and became a cartoonist, then an advertising director for Standard Oil for fifteen years. 

You'll also read that he and Helen bought and moved into an old observation tower in La Jolla, California, where he wrote for a minimum of eight hours a day.  A major turning point in his writing career came when he was asked by Houghton Mifflin and Random House to write a children's book with a limited vocabulary of 220 words.  Seuss's The Cat in the Hat was published in 1957, and the rest is history.

At my retirement luncheon, the school presented me with a fancy desk clock and a book.  The book is Dr. Seuss's You're Only Old Once which is one of his few books not written for children.

I've enjoyed reading Seuss to my sons, grandson, and students through the years, but the event that makes me so fond of him happened on my last day of teaching.  Kim, a delightful ten-year-old approached me just before the school buses rolled.

"Ms.Rizer," she said, "didn't you say you're going to write a book now that you're retiring?"

"Yes, Kim."

"Well, don't get discouraged if it takes a while to get it published.  Dr. Seuss's first book was rejected twenty-seven times before it was published in 1937."

"Have you been watching ETV?" I asked.

"No, I saw that on MTV." 

Her bus number was called over the intercom, and away she went,  I looked it up.  Kim was correct.  Dr. Seuss's first book, And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected twenty-seven times before being accepted by Vanguard Press.  I use this fact in my book talks when I remind potential writers that music executives told Elvis Presley to go back to driving a truck in Memphis when he went to Nashville and that several American recording labels turned down the Beatles before they made it to "the reeely big shew."  These facts fit with my theory that talent and craft skills are important, but possibly the most important characteristic for success is perseverance.
My disappointment in
Dr. Seuss almost
brought tears.

When I looked up Dr. Seuss to obtain illustrations for this blog, I read something about him that disappointed me tremendously. Be the first to guess what it is in Comments and I'll send you a free copy of my next Callie book, Mother Hubbard Has A CORPSE IN THE CUPBOARD when it's released in April.

Aside from the above-cited fact, I tip my red and white striped hat to Theodor Seuss Greiss!

Until we meet again, take care of … you! 

26 February 2013

Constrained Writing

by Dale C. Andrews
[C]onstrained writing designates a form of literary production in which the writer submits his or her text to specific formal (and to a lesser extent also thematic) constraints. On the one hand, such constraints function as boundaries that explicitly limit the possible realizations of a text in some respects. On the other hand, those constraints are not primarily intended as strict limitations but rather as creative stimuli for the artistic process; they reduce the endless possibilities—the common, rather naive association of literature with boundless freedom and complete originality—and thus contribute to a stronger focus on the mechanisms on which genuine literature should be based: formal control and a maximal artistic concentration within an appropriate frame of constraints.
                                        Constrained Writing, Creative Writing, copyright De Geest and Goric,
                                         PoetryToday 31:1 (Spring 2010)

    Although we may not consciously be aware of it, everyone who writes as a vocation or an avocation does so subject to constraints.  Most fundamental are the constraints imposed by language, accepted style, and grammar.  We all learn certain rules and are taught to adhere to them.  We are expected to know when to use “which” and when to use “that.”   If we vary the rules in a given instance, it is supposed to be only with foreknowledge of the rule and with a good reason for varying it, such as to avoid contextual awkwardness.  (Remember Winston Churchill’s famous observation that “ending a sentence in a preposition is something up with which I shall not put?”)

    The types of constrained writing referenced in the above quote, however, go further.  Beyond the universal constraints, which apply to us all, authors also may find themselves subject to genre, or thematic constraints.  As the article referenced above notes, such is the case with romance novels, which tend to follow a fairly established formula.  So, too, the “fair play” mystery, which is expected to rigorously adhere to the rule that all clues must be fairly presented to the reader in advance of the solution.  And, as discussed in previous columns, anyone writing pastiches – stories in which another author’s character is used – practices even a higher degree of constrained writing, attempting to capture the characters, the style, and the approach of the original author.

    So, like all limiting principles, constrained writing is a spectrum.  At its outer limits are writing forms that go beyond the generally applicable constraints involved in fashioning a work that is consistent with the norms of the reading public and instead impose more artificial constraints devised by the author.  An excellent example of this is the book Green Eggs and Ham, written by Dr. Seuss.  The book was written on a dare from publisher Bennett Cerf that Seuss could not write a bestseller using only 50 words.  Obviously the good doctor prevailed and, one would hope, collected. 

     Other literary constraints are used often by mystery writers (myself included), as devices to hide clues.  These include anagrams, in which the letters of a word are phrase can be re-arranged into a different word or phrase, and the acrostic, a favorite of Lewis Carroll, in which the first letter of successive lines of text, usually a poem, can be read vertically to reveal a hidden message.  Another device is to restrict a portion of the text to only certain letters – an Ellery Queen mystery (nameless here; no spoilers!) does this in a message that is drafted in its entirety without utilizing one rather popular letter. As a general rule, particularly when the device is used to hide a clue, the goal is to apply the constraint in a manner in which it is undetected, at least initially, by the reader.  The constrained prose or poem should read as though it was freely drafted, in other words, as though it was written without the constraint. 

    The self-imposed constraints discussed above are fun for the mystery writer.  They allow the writer to stretch his or her wings, and can provide means to hide the obvious; they challenge the writer’s skill to pull off the ruse.  But as I said, constrained writing is a spectrum.  Let’s take a deep breath and then explore what lies several turns down the trail.

    Several months ago a friend gave me a book, Never Again by author and poet Doug Nufer, that takes constrained writing to an extreme.  Mr Nufer’s task?  He has written a novel that, in just over 200 pages, never uses the same word twice.  To fully comprehend what a Sisyphusian writing task this must have been, contemplate the first sentence in the book:
                When the racetrack closed forever I had to get a job.  
There goes “when,” “the,” “I,” “had,” “to,” “get,” and “a” all before breaking free of  the second line of the novel.

    The story that unfolds recounts the exploits of a gambler who, like the constrained author, has vowed to never do, or say, anything that he has said or done before.  The book is clearly a tour de force. But, unlike the more manageable constraints discussed above, this is hardly one that the author can pull off without the ruse becoming self-evident.  And suffice it to say that this also is a book that requires focused attention by the reader and should not be undertaken by a mind already mellowed by a few drinks! 

    The Nufer book reminded me of another example of extreme constrained writing that I encountered years ago, Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright.  This 1939 novel of over 50,000 words tells the story of a down-on-its luck town that is reinvigorated thanks to the help of the novel’s hero, John Gadsby.  The story, now in the public domain,  is a lipogram:  it is told without using any word containing a banned letter, here, the most prevalent letter in the English language – “e”. Wright’s mechanical technique in writing the novel is explained in the introduction as follows:
The entire manuscript of this story was written with the E type-bar of the typewriter tied down; thus making it impossible for that letter to be printed. This was done so that none of that vowel might slip in, accidentally; and many did try to do so!   
    The burden of the technique, while broodingly present in the construction of any single sentence, presented overarching narrative problems as well.  Again, the words of the author from his introduction:
In writing such a story, -- purposely avoiding all words containing the vowel E, there are a great many difficulties. The greatest of these is met in the past tense of verbs, almost all of which end with “—ed.” Therefore substitutes must be found; and they are very few. This will cause, at times, a somewhat monotonous use of such words as “said;” for neither “replied,” “answered” nor “asked” can  be used. Another difficulty comes with the elimination of the common couplet “of course,” and its very common connective, “consequently;” which will’ unavoidably cause “bumpy spots.” The numerals also cause plenty of trouble, for none between six and thirty are available. When introducing young ladies into the story, this is a real barrier; for what young woman wants to have it known that she is over thirty? And this restriction on numbers, of course taboos all mention of dates.
Many abbreviations also must be avoided; the most common of all, “Mr.” and “Mrs.” being particularly troublesome; for those words, if read aloud, plainly indicate the E in their orthography.
As the vowel E is used more than five times oftener than any other letter, this story was written, not through any attempt to attain literary merit, but due to a somewhat balky nature, caused by hearing it so constantly claimed that “it can’t be done; for you cannot say anything at all without using E, and make smooth continuity, with perfectly grammatical construction—” so ‘twas said.
    If the labors of Mr. Wright were not enough to shame those of us who at times profess writers’ block as an excuse to avoid lesser tasks, it should be borne in mind that there is also a French equivalent to Gadsby – La Disparation by Georges Perec, which also was written without using the letter “e,” and which was subsequently translated into English in 1995 as A Void.  The translator, Gilbert Adair, accomplished the translation also without using that banished letter.  Marvel at the feat of the author, but stand in awe of the constraints borne by the translator!

    As Wright noted, with severe literary constraints writing style invariably suffers.  That is not to say, however, that pathos cannot be found in all of this.  Think of the sad plight of that which has been left behind in constrained writing – the letters, or words, or phrases that are shunned, exiled from the story through no intrinsic fault of their own.  Think of the poor little “e’s.”  Mr. Wright, in his constrained zeal, did not ignore their sad plight.
People, as a rule, will not stop to realize what a task such an attempt actually is. As I wrote along, in long-hand at first, a whole army of little E’s gathered around my desk, all eagerly expecting to be called upon. But gradually as they saw me writing on and on, without even noticing them, they grew uneasy; and, with excited whisperings amongst themselves, began hopping up and riding on my pen, looking down constantly for a chance to drop off into some word; for all the world like sea-birds perched, watching for a passing fish! But when they saw that I had covered 138 pages of typewriter size paper, they slid off onto the floor, walking sadly away, arm in arm . . . .

20 February 2012

NO NAME BLOG


by Fran Rizer

When I was a young divorcee, there was a very popular singles club where many of us liked to go listen to the live band. A young, fairly good-looking man stood outside the door every Friday night. When I went with a date, he ignored us, but when I went on girls' night out, he propositioned us as we entered.

"Wouldn't one of you like to save some time, skip this place, and just go home and spend the night with me?" he asked.

One night, I stopped and said, "Don't you think you're being ridiculous? Nobody's going to just meet you at the door and go home with you."

The man smiled. "You don't understand," he said. "Girls and women are hardly ever rejected. Men and boys face rejection frequently. I don't bother wasting a whole lot of time and money only to be rejected at closing time." He winked and ended his comment, "This might seem ridiculous to you, but sometimes I get lucky."

As I've interacted with other writers through the years, I've often thought of that man standing at the door, hoping to get lucky without investing time or money. In the world of writing, females are rejected as often as males, and we hope that acceptances are more than just "getting lucky."

Now, I could go two ways with this opening. I might talk about folks who write without investing time to edit and rewrite, then can't understand why their manuscripts are rejected, or I could take this opening in another direction.

The word - R E J E C T I O N - echoes in my mind to the tune of Elvis Presley singing "Suspicion." But, speaking of Elvis (young photo on right), does everyone remember that when he went to Nashville, the big dogs told him, "Go on home to Memphis and back to driving a truck.
You'll never make it."

When a publisher was presented with the Diary of Anne Frank (photo on left), the reader's response was, "a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances, and adolescent emotions." He also thought the characters were unappealing and lacked familiarity. Continuing to justify its rejection, he wrote, "Even if the work had come to light five years ago when the subject was timely, I don't see that there would have been a chance for it." His conclusion was that publishing wouldn't be worthwhile.

Am I the only one who was required to read The Good Earth in high school? The book won a Pulitzer and its author, Pearl S. Buck (photo on right), won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The manuscript was originally rejected because, "Americans aren't interested in anything to do with China."

George Orwell (photo on left) had his novel Animal Farm (1945) rejected because "Nobody will print this. It's impossible to sell animal stories in the United States." This allegorical novella, along with the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four have together sold more copies than any other two books by any twentieth century author. George Orwell was a pen name. His real name was Eric Arthur Blair. BTW, if you like biographies, his life is fascinating.

Many of you are familiar with the fifth-grader who cautioned me that Dr. Seuss was rejected eighteen times before his first book was published. In researching this, I found out Seuss was actually declined twenty-seven times for the first book and additionally turned down for some of his works after becoming successful. I'll save Dr. Seuss for fuller treatment on another day.

Several other Sleuth Sayers have already addressed the subject of rejection, and Rob wrote a fantastic piece about being turned down on February 1, 2012. Why am I writing about rejection? To me, it's personal today. A deal that was almost closed fell apart. I comfort myself with the tales of people who were rejected yet made it bigger than I ever even dreamed.

What will I do now? Exactly what all those others did. I'll just keep on keepin' on. Talent and craftsmanship count, but success requires perseverance as well.

I could go on with stories like these forever, but the night is late and I feel the need to call it a day so this can be posted on time. I entitled this NO NAME BLOG because I couldn't think of a good title. My brief tale about Mick Jagger and his picture to the right have given me the perfect name for this article.

When The Rolling Stones sought a recording contract, they were told they'd never get anywhere with "that ugly lead singer."

Here's Mick illustrating my title: THE LAST LAUGH!


Until we meet again. . .take care of YOU.