Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh
chris_walsh

Easy to do badly, hard to do well

You know what almost always sucks? Somebody's attempt to write like Dr. Seuss.

There's a very good 2019 biography that reminded me of this, Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the making of an American imagination by Brian Jay Jones, who's also done strong bios of George Lucas and Jim Henson. The book portrays Geisel as someone who was brilliant, and who also wrote and rewrote and further rewrote and reworked his work. He revised mercilessly. He was open about the challenges of writing rhyming verse and compared it to knitting a sock, often realizing you'd made a mistake that meant the verse wouldn't work, and unraveling the sock to a point where you could do something else.

Dr. Seuss's Beginner Books, with a limited vocabulary list from which he could only deviate for a darn good reason, were an even deeper challenge. The Cat in the Hat used 236 distinct words; Green Eggs and Ham, inspired by a bet between Geisel and his friend and publisher Bennett Cerf, used 50. And had to rhyme, and teach meaning by pairing them with the artwork. Geisel took this seriously; he'd gotten into kids literature mainly to have something different to do than the advertising for which he first got famous, but he quickly came to respect children, both as an audience and as critics who'd see through writerly bullshit. As soon as 1947, decades before his most famous works, he loudly spoke of how so many children's books condescended to kids; he did his best not to repeat the mistakes of those other books. Which meant lots of discarded words, pages, and paintings.

And he made it look simple. Even though Geisel often said it most definitely wasn't, people looked at his writing, with simple words printed big, and found it easy to believe it was, well, easy. It became a writing exercise to review Dr. Seuss books in rhyme, but the resulting rhyme work was never nearly as interesting as his.

I've been guilty of this. In 1998 at my newspaper job, I was covering the Seuss-inspired event Read Across America, and did it in verse. I worked at it, though quickly because I had a very short time, maybe an hour, to get it done and submitted. I lucked into finding a rhythm much like Geisel's first book And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Looking back at it, while still proud of that piece I see where I cheated. My description "skyscraper-sized hats" has to pronounce it "sky-SCRAY-per," not "SKY-scray-per," for instance. Geisel would have backed up and tried something else.

(At least I didn't try to make up words, a particular part of his genius but another part he spent a lot of time on. His made-up words and names had to look and sound right: a subjective standard, of course, but he made the effort to revise them until they were catchy, memorable, and able to be pronounced and not mispronounced, which is such a danger in English. His efforts had effects beyond colorful character names: he literally coined the term "nerd" and redefined the existing (if archaic) word "grinch.")

A line's been in my head more and more: "It's easy to do badly, hard to do well." I've thought of this in relation to this book, to the ability to dance — most of us can't dance like Gene Kelly, but a lot of us at some level think we could — and to local politics (ugh, I wish we'd voted out Mayor Ted Wheeler, who I feel so badly mishandled this summer and fall's protests).

I've not done certain things because they'd need to be done well in ways that I couldn't be sure I would, or even could, be able to do. I've turned down assignments and even whole jobs. I like to think I've done my paid jobs well, but for example I've never worked graveyard shift and I hope never to, because I believe my productiveness on graveyard would drastically fall. What will I do well next? Will I ever come close to being a genius at anything? Geniuses can make the difficult seem easy. As proud as Theodor Geisel was of his work, and as much as he'd joke about being a genius, he knew what he did was work. He mostly liked the work, but it was work.

More things are difficult than you think — but more things are doable than you think.
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