Theodor Geisel, best known to fans as Dr. Seuss, would have been 109 years old on March 2. He is beloved for his intricate rhymes and curious, inimitable style. But Dr. Seuss was about more than a curious turn of phrase and the creator of fantastical creatures. He was a serious writer and artist with a social agenda.
Personally, I learned about prejudice from his book The Star-Belly Sneetches:
Now, the Star-Bell Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”
And, whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They’d hike right on past them without even talking.
When the Star-Belly children went out to play ball,
Could a Plain Belly get in the game? Not at all.
You only could play if your bellies had stars
And the Plain-Belly children had none upon thars.
I learned about conservation from The Lorax:
At the far end of town
where the Grickle-grass grows
and the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows
and no birds ever sing excepting old crows…
is the Street of the Lifted Lorax.
And deep in the Grickle-grass, some people say,
if you look deep enough you can still see, today,
where the Lorax once stood
just as long as it could
before somebody lifted the Lorax away.
What was the Lorax?
Any why was it there?
And why was it lifted and taken somewhere
from the far end of town where the Grickle-grass grows?
The old Once-ler still lives here.
Ask him. He knows.
Now that I am an adult and a writer myself, I marvel at Geisel’s technical expertise and his ability to make the seemingly simple deeply meaningful. Here is his explanation of what it means to “write simply.”
Happy birthday, Dr. Seuss.
“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” ~ Stephen King, On Writing
Pictured above is Stephen King’s own attic writing space at his home in Bangor, Maine. In contrast to his statement above, his desk does appear to be in the middle of his room, but surely he means “corner” to be taken metaphorically; that is, any place that is quiet, that is yours; the place where you sit to write your work. While there are some writers who purportedly can write in the midst of chaos, most of us require a place of retreat. I believe it was J.K. Rowling who said that she cleared out a walk-in closet, put a desk and a lamp in there, and sealed herself off from the rest of the family while she was composing her first Harry Potter novel.
Here are ten intriguing places where writer’s write, along with some advice for all who write:
1. Neil Gaiman‘s Gazebo/Cabin
- Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
- Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
- Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
- Remember: when people tell you somethings wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
- Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
- Laugh at your own jokes.
- The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But its definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
2. Edith Wharton‘s view from “The Mount” in Lennox, Massachusetts
“Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.”
3. Dylan Thomas‘s Boathouse at Laugharne, Wales
“Go on thinking that you don’t need to be read and you’ll find that it may become quite true: no one will feel the need to read it because it is written for yourself alone; and the public won’t feel any impulse to gate crash such a private party.”
4. Ernest Hemingway‘s Home in Key West, Florida
“Writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done.”
“There’s no rule on how it is to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”
“Ordinarily I never read anything before I write in the morning to try and bite on the old nail with no help, no influence and no one giving you a wonderful example or sitting looking over your shoulder.”
5. Rudyard Kipling: Dummerston, Vermont
“I am, by calling, a dealer in words; and words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
“I never made a mistake in my life; at least, never one that I couldn’t explain away afterwards.”
“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
6. Ian Fleming‘s home, GoldenEye, in Jamaica
“All the greatest men are maniacs. They are possessed by a mania which drives them forward towards their goal. The great scientists, the philosophers, the religious leaders – all maniacs. What else but a blind singleness of purpose could have given focus to their genius, would have kept them in the groove of purpose. Mania … is as priceless as genius.”
7. Norman Mailer‘s Fourth Floor Apartment, Brooklyn Heights, New York
“I’ve written at times about the spooky element in writing. You go in each morning, and there’s a blank page. Maybe it takes five minutes, maybe it takes an hour. Sooner or later you start writing, and then the words begin to flow. Where does that come from? You can’t pinpoint it. You always wonder, “Will it all stop tomorrow?” In that sense it’s spooky. In other words, you’re relying on a phenomenon that’s not necessarily dependable. ” (“Norman Mailer Interview,” The Academy of Achievement, June 12, 2004)
“Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write.”
8. Virginia Woolf‘s Writing Desk at “Monk’s House,” Sussex, England
“Mental fight means thinking against the current, not with it. It is our business to puncture gas bags and discover the seeds of truth.”
“To write weekly, to write daily, to write shortly, to write for busy people catching trains in the morning or for tired people coming home in the evening, is a heartbreaking task for men who know good writing from bad. They do it, but instinctively draw out of harm’s way anything precious that might be damaged by contact with the public, or anything sharp that might irritate its skin.”
“Arrange whatever pieces come your way.”
“The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true. “
“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen. “
“The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty.”
“In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. “
10. Roald Dahl‘s “The Gipsy House,” Buckinghamshire, England
1. You should have a lively imagination
2. You should be able to write well. By that I mean you should be able to make a scene come alive in the reader’s mind. Not everybody has this ability. It is a gift, and you either have it or you don’t.
3. You must have stamina. In other words, you must be able to stick to what you are doing and never give up, for hour after hour, day after day, week after week, and month after month.
4. You must be a perfectionist. That means you must never be satisfied with what you have written until you have rewritten it again and again, making it as good as you possibly can.
5. You must have strong self-discipline. You are working alone. No one is employing you. No one is around to fire you if you don’t turn up for work, or to tick you off is you start slacking.
6. It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humor. This is not essential when writing for grown-ups, but for children, it’s vital.
7. You must have a degree of humility. The writer who thinks that his work is marvelous is heading for trouble.