This wonderful guest post is by Mark Robertson. Have a talk with him on Twitter @markosul. A new friend with some great ideas – thanks for this post, Mark!
When was the last time you were lost in a picture book? Are there certain images, words, storylines—even smells—that seem seared into your memory?
I can remember when my mom read me “Runaway Bunny,” by Margaret Wise Brown. I recall being fully absorbed in the images, and can feel the mother bunny’s fierce, almost supernatural love for her rebellious son. How did Brown know what was written in my three-year old soul? How did he know my mommy was Mother Superior—and the sense immense love and dense loyalty it transmitted?
I didn’t know that “Where the Wild Things Are” was a parable of the primal nature—especially among boys—to enter the “shadow world” of adventure. All I knew that it was gripping, that MAX was MARK and that Sednak articulated my deepest stuff in images and an economy of words.
How did these stories capture my soul, lift me into flights of the imagination, and take me back to a richer homeland, “where the soup is still hot”?
Picture books and blogging
My reflection on the power of storybooks has made me think of ways these “hypnotic powers” can be applied to internet writing. The trifecta of image, word, and organic storytelling transmits deep meaning—simply and clearly. Like good blogging.
Very few children’s writers have the engaging power of Shel Silverstein. I began reading and writing independently, called by Silverstein’s “Invitation”:
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, A Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer, If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire …
Silverstein had an appetite for the offbeat. Like me. But his poems and stories were also laced with the kind universal existential folklore that captures the primal joy and anguish that follows love’s absence.
Here are four simple writing lessons I’ve learned (read: am still learning) from Shel:
- Simple line driven words and visuals (let’s not call it minimalism) are attractive because there is less visual information to digest. Create visual images that give only enough information—allow your reader to enjoy co-operation and co-creation. While few blogs are entirely black and white, attractive ones have a simple palette (see the earth tones and grayscale in Jonathon Mead’s Illuminated Mind).
- Flex your love, not your vocabulary. Silverstein has rich understanding of human psychology (the “Giving Tree” is one of the finest examples of Carl Jung’s archetype of the anima), but simplifies BIG IDEAS it into small, elegant stories and poems.
- All space on page or screen is real estate. Like poet William Carlos Williams, Silverstein used white space brilliantly. For example, the text of the poem “Falling Up,” seems to be pushing the child into the clouds. The left page is nearly empty. Lazy Jane drinks water by “waiting for the rain,” and the words fall from the top of the page into her mouth. Like poets, bloggers measure “real estate” in picas and pixels. All space is useful and can add or detract from the message.
- Be fearless. Shel clearly had no qualms with nonsense, hilarity, and moments of transcendence. He tackles issues from laziness (“Lazy Jane”), overeating (“Hungry Mungry”), stupidity (“Smart”), peeing in the garden pots (“Gardener”), experimentation (“Alice”), to unconditional self-sacrificing love (“The Giving Tree”).
Perhaps “everything we need to know [about writing], we learned in kindergarten.” If so, Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, Sednak and the gang are here to remind us.
What are some elements from Silverstein that you see in your writing? Please feel free to help me add to my list of lessons we can learn from children’s literature.
Image by The Horton Group. http://www.sxc.hu/profile/hortongrou