Writing Lessons from Dr. Seuss

A question that all writers get asked–by interviewers, by readers, by family members who don’t really understand the inclination to write–is when did you know you wanted to be a writer.  My answer to when I decided to begin writing seriously vs when I decided writing was a wonderful thing is necessarily different.  As an only child, books were my friends, my entertainment, my solace.  I loved nursery rhymes, and strange German fairy tales where children were always having their ears boxed (I still don’t know what this means, but it sounds unpleasant), and stories of witches and ghosts and mad scientists. My first true love, however, was Dr. Seuss. There were the stories themselves, which never pandered orZax condescended; the drawings, which were strange and delightful; and the rhymes, oh, how I loved the rhymes. I loved his books so much I memorized them, and can still recite good portions of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Too Many Daves, and The Zax, which I even acted out in my bedroom with my mother, our relationship not dissimilar to that of the obstinate North-Going and South-Going creatures.

Unlike many first loves, mine for Dr. Seuss has remained strong, unconditional, and full of admiration and delight after all these years.  (Johnny Cash is the only other artist that has retained my absolute devotion for over four decades.)  So when I heard that a long lost book was discovered, I was curious, excited, and filled with anticipation.  The only thing I knew was the title, What Pet Should I Get, and as a small celebratory gesture, I wrote my own version to tide me over until his arrived.  Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, and I hope that Theodore would be flattered by my attempt to walk his path, or at least to tiptoe behind him.

I have yet to read his new tale, which I believe is being released today, and will hopefully fill me with glee, but here is my version, with love and respect.

What Pet Should You Get?

So you want a new pet
A bosom delight
Who will  bounce
on your coat tails
but never take flight

questionThere are questions to ask
There are things to review
As you try to finagle
The best pet for you

What do you fancy?
What are your wishes?
It’s not as easy as
bobbing for fishes

Don’t get a dog
If you live by a bog
A dog on a log
is not like a frog
Why, that dog is sure
to fall into the bogfish
And a dog in a bog
is a very sad thing
As sad as a walleye
with a fin in a sling


A frog may be fond
of life in a pond
But a frog will be down
if he lives in a town
His hopping is slow

bluefrogso he’ll miss the bus
And can’t pay the fare
so will make a big fuss
A foot in the door
will not convince Gus
To let your blue frog
onto his bus

A birdie will cheep
when you’re trying to sleep
A cat will not stay
when you want it play
turtleA turtle will hide
when you bring it outside
A goldfish will mock
then retreat to his rock
A ferret will try
to eat all of your pie

A bear will sneer
when he sees you come near
A monkey will snipe
when you’re lighting his pipe
A parrot will chatter
until all your friends scatter
A mouse will chew
through your sock and your shoe

gnu2So perhaps a gnu
is the best pet for you
Do you know all the things
a gnu can do?


A gnu can make your bed
And sort your socks
And knead your bread
And change your locks
And eat your peas
And grill your cheese
And a gnu never needs you
to say please

electric-eel-cartoon-i15

 

A gnu can pitch a tent,
And start a fire,
And catch an eel,
And play the lyre

 

He’ll come to school
and do your math,
He’ll chase the bus
and take your bath

Play catch in the park
until after dark
Blow tunes through his horn
at the crack of morn
momWhen your mother comes in
and yells “what’s all this din?”
He’ll crawl under your bed
and always play dead
Then he’ll giggle with you
till you both turn blue

There’s no topping a gnu
He’s the best pet for you!

Brought to you by the Gnu Breeders of East Gnu

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Your Secret is Safe with Me–Part 3

Part 1, Part 2

Philomena Zapponi owned a button shop on what was called Tailor’s Row by the locals. It had been opened by her grandmother Delphina after her grandfather Cosimo was lost at sea. As Delphina packed her dead husband’s clothes to donate to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, she found herself unable to part with the shiny buttons on his ceremonial uniform. Before she could stop herself, she had cut them all off, and not only those fine gold buttons, but all the lesser buttons on his shirts, on his trousers, on his winter coat. She absolved herself of her guilt over this act of vandalism by telling herself that buttons were inexpensive, and even the poorest parishioners could afford them. They were, after all, still getting Cosimo’s fine clothes—a blessing, with or without the buttons. Delphina collected his in a big glass jar, which she placed on the dresser across her bed. As there was no body to bury, no grave site to visit and tend, she polished the jar and its contents daily and spoke to it every night before she went to sleep.

“Oh Cosimo,” she said, “the children are sneezing and skinny as gypsies, the city has turned off the gas, and it’s so cold under the blankets without you.” Sometimes, when the moon was full, a flame ignited inside Delphina, and she told the jar secrets she would have never dared tell Cosimo while he was alive, then pasted her lips against the cool glass and did things with the buttons she could never tell anyone.

There was no pension for the widows of seamen, so Delphina’s pantry emptied day by day, her children’s shoes wore out, and her spirit waned. Without any skills other than those of a housewife, she was forced to sell off her jewelry, then her imported china and crystal, then the inessential furniture, and finally the essential, until the house was almost bare and the children slept in flour sacks on the floor. She could not, however, part with the jar of buttons. Desperate, hungry, and humiliated, Delphina wept into it, corroding the buttons with her salty tears, begging Cosimo, God, the buttons for a solution to her woes. “You could have asked earlier,” all three might have justifiably replied, “before the children were forced to wear rubber tires on their feet, and before little Agatha developed rickets.” But Cosimo had been a kind man, and even God had His moments of compassion. The buttons, the most practical of the trinity, shone brightly and screamed “Sell me! Sell me! Sell me!”

And thus Delphina’s Button Shoppe came into being—first in what had been their living room, and eventually in the storefront on Tailor’s Row. Delphina greeted customer’s from behind a long glass display case, where the shop’s finest buttons rested like gems on velvet cushions. They were illuminated from above by a chandelier of Bohemian crystal that sprinkled the whole shop with stardust. On the side walls were large gold frames that displayed all manner of buttons like abstract pointillist art, their copies kept in the little drawers of an ebony apothecary cabinet so immense that it took up the entire back wall. No other shop carried as large and eclectic a selection of splendid buttons made of rare wood, of ivory, of hand-blown glass. And even after Velcro and plastic snaps invaded the market, barnacling themselves like zebra mussels to otherwise respectable garments, the most discerning and difficult-to-please seamstresses and tailors still frequented Delphina’s shop in search of the perfect button.

Soon Delphina’s house was filled with furniture much finer than the hand-me-downs that she and Cosimo had been given as wedding gifts. The children skipped to school in new shoes of the butteriest, most expensive leather. Agatha was attended to by a specialist who fed her oranges and grapefruits until she stood up straight and glowed as if sun-kissed. And although Delphina never married again, she was the most sought after guest at balls on Tailor’s Row, where she danced the cha-cha and the rumba in beautiful dresses, bedizened with the most exquisite buttons money could buy.

After Delphina’s death at the age of 79, the shop was passed down to Agatha, who was efficient but nowhere near as glamourous as her mother. And when Agatha got so old that she confused a box of pink and black striped enamel buttons for licorice candy, she was promptly placed in a nursing home by her children, where all of her clothes were fastened with Velcro. This encouraged her to flash other patients, orderlies, unsuspecting visitors, and her children when they came, which was not often. The sound of the two prickly strips being ripped apart made Agatha laugh out loud, and she would do it over and over, much to the chagrin of everyone, especially her only son, Augusto, who was the first to stop visiting.

It was expected that Philomena, the youngest, would take the reigns. None of her three sisters, and certainly not her brother Augusto, wanted anything to do with “the button racket” as they called it. “Philomena, you’re the most organized,” insisted Melina, the pretty sister who had snagged a rich husband at the Tailors’ Spring Cotillion. “Philomena, you are the most knowledgeable,” pointed out Lucretia, the brainy sister who had gone to medical school while Philomena toiled behind the button counter from the age of six onwards, enduring her mother’s incessant criticism, obeying her increasingly bizarre whims. “Philomena, we have families who need us,” argued Augusto and Delphi, the oldest daughter who was named after her illustrious grandmother.

Though this was all true, Philomena couldn’t see how this excused them. They had jobs they went to every morning, jobs that the buttons had provided by putting them through school, and by making their suits more appealing and professional-looking at interviews. Were they really prepared to deny the power of a properly-chosen and well-placed button? These were good arguments, which might have even moved her siblings to contribute at least some of their time to the family business had Philomena actually pronounced them. But just as she had never been able to stand up to her mother, she proved equally inept at standing up to her siblings. She just nodded dumbly as they left the shop, and as if foreordained by the jar of her grandfather’s buttons itself, Philomena became the Button Mistress, or the Button Spinster, or the Old Crazy Button Lady, depending on who was speaking of her, friend or foe.

More buttons coming up…

Your Secret is Safe with Me–Part 2

Here is the second installment from my collection of stories In Love with the Dead. For Part 1, click here.

A woman of about 35 sent him a yellow envelope with a photograph and the requisite dollar. He stared at her image, at her flawless skin, her troubled green eyes, and her mane of auburn hair that went down to her navel. On the back of the photograph was an note in neat and rounded penmanship: I am pretty and popular, yet I am still a virgin. This took Bruce’s breath away, and though he was aware that it might seem unethical, he contacted the woman immediately and invited her to the house. His purest intention was to offer her a cup of Lady Grey, then show her the stacks of letters from other virgins—male/female, ugly/beautiful, some as old as 93.

Marjorie arrived the next day wearing a lavender dress, white gloves, and a large straw hat. Over tea and biscuits, she told him she was an only child, adopted by a couple who couldn’t keep their hands off each other. They paraded around the house naked, making love whenever and wherever the spirit moved them. They even died in the act on a cruise she was not invited on when she was 14. “Seems they climbed into a lifeboat, which spilled them into the ocean in the middle of the night. I swore I’d never be like them.” Bruce noticed that she related the story without emotion, as if she had told it many times before, but that her bottom lip quivered when she whispered, “I think it’s time to let go of my grudge. Before it’s too late.” Soon after tea, Bruce gave her back her dollar and took care of her problem.
Marjorie quit her job in the listings department of the local telephone company. She had started as a proofreader 15 years earlier, and had worked her way up to supervisor of production, with a staff of 20 beneath her. After a quick wedding at City Hall, she moved into Bruce’s house and became his assistant, taking it upon herself to organize the secrets with the same zeal she had applied to the phone book all these years. “Have you ever seen a name misspelled or a business in the wrong category?” she inquired when Bruce asked her whether she knew what she was doing.

First, she opened all the neglected envelopes as well as those that arrived on a daily basis, then divided the secrets into groups: Physical, Emotional, Spiritual, Sexual, Psychological, Criminal, Edible. At the end of each day, she put on her straw hat, and deposited the dollar bills at Bruce’s bank on Bank Street. Though Marjorie didn’t thrill in the secrets like her husband did, it satisfied her greatly to put some order to them, and as a result, to the house. It gave her the impression that the world could also be ordered, one room, one secret at a time. It was also Marjorie’s idea that the secrets be made public so that people would not feel so alone, as she had for so many years, hiding her virginity in her underwear drawer. “If we all knew each other’s secrets,” she reasoned, “we could never use them against each other.” Though Bruce had his doubts, he nodded pleasantly. Who was he to disabuse her of her naïve notions, especially since they kept her so happy and motivated?

To humor her, he made an appointment with the editor of the Daily Reporter, who wrote a profile of Bruce that was published in the weekend edition. This attracted a few internet magnates, which in turn alerted a couple of magazine and book editors, who drew in a trio of harried television producers not wanting to be left behind. Bruce invited all of them to the conference room of a medium sized-hotel on Visitor’s Lane and told them his story while they took furious notes.

“As many people as there are willing to divulge their darkest secrets, there will be that many more who will pay to hear them,” he said, fanning a dozen unopened envelopes on the table before them. The publishers cleared their throats, the TV producers scratched their double chins, and the internet magnates drummed stubby fingers on the table. They were all used to making decisions based on statistics and market research and 30 page proposals written in legalese by experts, not on the sentimental and hyperbolical claims of a man who looked like a schoolteacher. But they were dying to know the secrets contained in the innocuous envelopes spread before them. Like rabid squirrels they descended upon them, tearing them open as if they contained a million dollars instead of one. And as they passed the hand-scrawled notes amongst themselves, they laughed and they wept, felt repulsed, afraid, and finally relieved. “There is nothing more tempting, more satisfying than a secret,” Bruce told them in closing, and the businessmen nodded solemnly and shook his hand.

A thick, glossy magazine featured an interview and a photo spread of Bruce and Marjorie at home receiving the bags of mail on their front porch from a smiling postman—not Murray, who was mildly offended. Though reluctant at first, Marjorie even gave permission for her secret to be included with the article after Bruce convinced her it would set an example. Hers was a story that everyone could get behind, he said, a love story and proof that telling your secret improved your life in ways you could not even imagine. Marjorie nodded and sighed, and went into the stacks to find her secret. After the article was printed, a support group called United Virgins of the Lower West Side wrote to Marjorie, declaring her their spiritual leader. She wrote back that although she was honored, she had no time to attend their meetings as there was far too much work for her at home. In addition, as she was no longer a virgin, she was uncertain whether she had anything to contribute. She had other secrets now, but these she kept to herself.

For the most part, Marjorie was thrilled that her initiative had been met with such enthusiasm, and was even willing to give Bruce all the credit for it. But she had one concern. Despite her general trust in others (all those years as a virgin had shielded her from the most unpleasant of humankind’s neuroses), she was worried that with all the publicity, too many people now knew where they lived.

Part 3

Your Secret is Safe with Me–Part 1

Here is the first installment from my collection of stories In Love with the Dead. Like the serialized stories of old, I will be posting two sections a week, so get on board and enjoy the ride!

For reasons he couldn’t explain, people kept telling Bruce Lanzieri things that were none of his business: in elevators, in laundromats, in movie line-ups—wherever he went. It hadn’t always been so, and the first time it happened, he thought nothing of it. He was standing at the corner of Bank Street and Antique Alley, waiting for the light to change, when an old woman squinted at him through tortoise-shell glasses. “You look just like my brother Harry,”she said, sniffing the air like an offended cat. “He’s been dead now, 3 years.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Bruce replied, hiding his discomfort behind a sympathetic smile.
“We weren’t that close,” the old woman added, “never really got along.” She blinked a few times, and seemed to be done, but Bruce noticed a strange light in her eyes, a sparkle mixed in with a hint of anxiety. “It’s my fault, really,” she continued, her voice tinctured with remorse. “I always resented him because Mother thought he was the cat’s pajamas. So at night, after everyone was asleep, I’d sneak into his room and pour apple juice on his sheets.”

The next day, a woman with a blonde beehive mistook him for the high school sweetheart she’d never forgotten; then an old man with a parrot for a long lost friend he’d betrayed; then a man with a mole on his brow for a forgiven enemy. The reason, perhaps, for these optical delusions was that Bruce didn’t look like anybody in particular, thus he looked like everybody and was a threat to no one. It baffled him that even after these strangers realized their error, they divulged a secret they had never told anyone else. Soon they were approaching him in such great numbers that no matter what their shape or size, their age or even their gender, they blended into one non-descript being, as indistinguishable as a tree in a overgrown forest. At most, Bruce might remember an accoutrement or a physical oddity: the tortoise shell glasses; a red purse; a tie strewn with sunflowers; the startling mole, large and puffy as a nipple.

In the beginning, Bruce often wondered which came first, the wish to confess or his arrival at the traffic light? He no longer asked such questions. He accepted that he had been chosen by some higher power to receive their secrets, plain and simple, So instead of fighting it, he did what any reasonable man would do. Bruce quit his job as a schoolteacher to dedicate himself to his new calling full-time. He’d read somewhere that if he did what he loved, the money would follow. So he gave himself a title, and advertised on laundromat bulletin boards, in community papers, on telephone poles around the neighbourhood:

Bruce Lanzieri, Cryptotelist—Your secret is safe with me!

For one dollar the burdened could send him a secret anonymously, and in return they would feel, if not absolved, then at least relieved of carrying it around, afraid that it might slip out after a few drinks and ruin them. He provided his home address in these advertisements, and the secrets, with their accompanying dollars, began trickling into his mail slot:

Every time I walk on a subway grate, I pray it won’t collapse.
My husband’s twin brother is the father of our son.
I cheated my way through medical school.

Bruce made two piles on his kitchen table—one for the secrets, another for the dollar bills—which gradually grew taller as the weeks passed. Then, like a ripple in the ocean’s depth that gains strength as it travels towards the shore, the trickle became a tidal wave of mail. More than Bruce could read, more than he could count, more than he knew what to do with frankly. Mailbags bursting with longings, transgressions, wishes for revenge began filling up every room, floor to ceiling, of the small house he’d rented on his teacher’s salary. Soon it was difficult to get to the front door if someone rang—most often Murray the postman, who was none too pleased.

“Mr. Lanzieri,” he said one morning after he’d made three trips to his mail truck and was about to make a forth, “I got two things to say to you.” This was unusual as Murray generally dumped the bags on the stoop, rang the bell and was on his way before Bruce could make it to the door. He looked at the little bald man kindly, ready to receive his confidences. But Murray’s only secret was his lisp, which gave his advice the ring of truth. “You need to move to a bigger house,” he began, looking past Bruce’s body into the mailbag cramped hallway, “ and you gotta stop putting your address in them ads. This town is full of scallywags and crooks, and if they ain’t interested in the money,” he held an air mail envelope to the light, “they’s gonna want the secrets.”

Indeed, the dollar bill was visible through the thin blue paper, and so was the secret in its bold black letters. Murray shook his head as he went back for the last bag, and after Bruce dragged all four into the house he began the gargantuan task of opening the newly-arrived envelopes. With the stacks of dollar bills he extracted from inside, he bought a large house that was not on Murray’s route, for which the lisping postman was eternally grateful. The house’s six rooms, as well as the basement, both bathrooms and the attic, were immediately overrun by secrets, which multiplied and spread like jack rabbits. Bruce confined himself to the living room with its brown fold-out couch, and the adjoining kitchen, where he sometimes used the sink as a toilet. But since he lived alone, no one was the wiser, and from the letters he received, he knew he wasn’t the only one.

That was the saddest and most endearing quality of the secrets: so many were the same, but their owners were convinced that no other person in the history of the world had ever had sex with a cousin, regretted having children, or wished their spouse would never come back from war. And heaven help them if the husband actually got blown up by a roadside bomb, or the child fell through the window screen at a neighbor’s birthday party, or the cousin gave birth to a baby with a curly vestigial tail. Then they would flog themselves daily with a wet cat ‘o nine tails, a bamboo switch, a wire hanger, and might have done so indefinitely had Bruce not come along with his offer of respite for a buck. He was providing a valuable service, and in appreciation he was not only compensated financially, he was also sent a wife…

Part 2

Other People’s Secrets: The Stories I Won’t Tell

Once a week I volunteer at an active listening center, where I lend an ear to people in distress. In my eight months there I have spoken to people with Asperger’s Syndrome, with schizophrenia, with bipolar disorder, with borderline personality disorder, with depression, anxiety and paranoia. There also have been closet cross-dressers, frustrated poets, and at least one female masturbator, who kept me on the phone for 45 minutes–until she was done, I guess. Far from being depressing, I find it fascinating to talk to and listen to these people. I am a person addicted to stories, and their stories are more surprising, have more depth, pathos, strangeness and humor than most of the things I read. In other words, these people are the perfect characters, who willingly reveal themselves to me. But I am sworn to secrecy (one regular caller ends every conversation by asking me if our talk is confidential).

It is said that Dostoevsky stole the epitaph from his mother’s grave for a story. I have used incidents from my life, along with versions of the characters that have populated it for my stories and novels, and I have been called on it more than once. I have even abandoned a story more than once because it would probably get me into trouble. Dostoevsky’s mother was already dead, so he had nothing to answer for. As for the characters in my stories who recognize themselves, they are there because I am–my story couldn’t be told without them. But these anonymous callers are just passersby in my life, though I speak to a few of them at least once a week, know their first names in some cases, have heard the details of their life-altering story–the one that sent them to the hospital, that keeps them up at night, that no one else believes–more than once.

When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that every character has a secret that motivates or hinders him/her, and whether the writer reveals the secret in the story or not, he/she must always be aware of it. It is the secret that makes the character interesting, and the way it manifests that makes the story unique. My callers are dying to get their secret off their chests, to have it understood, untangled, justified, and most importantly, to not be judged for it. At the end of a good call, they will thank me profusely, bless me, tell me they love me or even adore me for the simple reason that I listened, responded, took interest, and possibly even helped them–at least in the moment. A bad phone call will end pretty much in the absolutely opposite manner, but luckily I don’t have too many of those. Unless someone is being pushy and disrespectful, I respect them enough to believe their distress, even if its cause is transparent to me. Carl Jung taught me long ago that psychological reality is that person’s reality. We all count on our brains to tell us what is real and how to react to it, and this is as true for person whose brain is not absolutely reliable.

When I teach literature, I give my students a list of hints that a character is unreliable, including explicit contradictions and other discrepancies in the narrative, contradictions between the narrator’s account of events and his/her explanations and interpretations of the same, and a high level of emotional involvement, including exclamations and repetitions. Many of my callers meet the criteria for unreliability, but that makes their stories no less fascinating. They are not stories, however, that I will be stealing for my own writerly purposes, not whole hog anyway. It would feel like I was stealing their souls. Perhaps a detail will eventually work itself into something I write, divorced from the person and his/her whole narrative. I do think the masturbator is fair game since she already used me for her own selfish purposes. But everyone else is too vulnerable, too beaten down and used by their families, their mental illness, the health system, by the world at large. Though some of their stories are heartbreaking, poignant, hilarious, I cannot become one more person who betrays them for my own benefit.

So they remain ephemeral, like the charming songs children make up while they are playing, to be felt, enjoyed in the moment, then forgotten. I do enjoy them immensely as they unfold over the line, and though I won’t forget them, I won’t repeat them either. They have nothing to do with me. They are not my stories to tell.