Thursday, September 30, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Groucho Marx

This week, October 2nd, we celebrate the 120th anniversary of the birth of Groucho Marx.

I recall reading that Groucho (his real name was Julius) became a performer at his mother's insistence. He and his brothers left school at an early age to become first singers and later comedians on the vaudeville stage. Julius felt the lack of education keenly and compensated for it by becoming a voracious reader. My favorite Grouch0 quote: "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it is too dark to read."

I didn't have a dog when I was growing up, but I sure did have books. I had a local library that I could have found my way around blindfolded. (To this day, I remember just where the biographies were.) I also had a set of "classic " children's books at home: fairy tales, LITTLE WOMEN, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and the like. When I'd read all of those--and I read them all several times--I started in on the encyclopedias. I'd sit with my back against the bookcase and just thumb through a volume or two, the old fashioned version of Wiki-surfing I guess.

If you're reading this, I'm betting you recognize yourself in what I've just written. We writers began as readers and we readers are addicts. We aren't happy unless we have something to read nearby. We crave words like chocolate and delight in savoring a particularly satisfying phrase. We know each other without speaking. We are the ones toting a book or a Nook or a Kindle to the dentist's office or the kids' little league games. I'm embarrassed to admit I took a book on my first date (well it WAS the beach).

Groucho's not around any more. But it's nice to know that under the wisecracks and the double entendres and the funny mustache, there was a reader like me. I wonder what he liked to read.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Michelangelo's David

This week (September 8), marks the 506th anniversary of the unveiling of the magnificent David by Michelangelo.

There are certain moments in history which I would give the pinky of my writing hand to have witnessed: the signing of the Declaration of Independence, for example, or Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. But unquestionably at the top of my list is the first appearance of Michelangelo's masterpiece in the Piazza della Signoria on September 8, 1504. What must it have been like to stand elbow to elbow with the Florentines as they held their breath, waiting for the first sight of their David?

For it was their David after all, as much as it was the artist's. They had been waiting for it for forty years, longer than Michelangelo had been alive. The stone had been selected. Artist after artist had been offered the project. One or two had even begun to cut into the marble. But because the block was tall and narrow and half-started, they gave up and left it unfinished. Only Michelangelo could see what they didn't: the glorious potential waiting within the raw marble.

I've often felt, and I've written here, that writing nonfiction is much like sculpture. We begin with a block of material, as inert as stone. It's up to us to see the story within the research and to cut away what doesn't belong to reveal that story. It takes vision. It is not easy. It is even harder when others have left the job unfinished, and try to persuade us that there is no story there to tell. I try to remember Michelangelo and his vision at those times.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from J. R. R. Tolkien

This week (September 2)) marks the 37th anniversary of the death of J. R. R. Tolkien.

For those of us children's writers who every Thanksgiving have to endure well-meaning relatives who ask if we're still writing "just" children's books (not my relatives, of course), Tolkien is the name with which to counter. THE HOBBIT after all was "just" a children's book. But it was so immensely succssful that its author was asked to write a sequel. The result, of course, written over the next 12 years, was the fantasy epic THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

As writers we all know how important it is to create fully fleshed out characters, and I've written before about creating place and time. Tolkien took the art to unheard-of heights. He created an entire alternate world and peopled it with not just realistic characters, but with highly detailed new species. His world was complete with maps, calendars, and family trees. And it was so real for so many that, according to the Tolkien Society, the author would get calls in the middle of the night from fans demanding to know, for example, if balrogs had wings. To escape he was forced to move and change his phone number.

Come to think of it, maybe I'll stick with my fan letters written in pencil.