Chasing Seuss’s Magic
Follow a poem as it goes into the teeth of design techniques and bears the blunt feedback of sticky third graders before being rescued by a talented illustrator and coddled by a wannabe entrepreneur.
“Book promotion never ends,” I vented to the few sets of ears in the corner of the worn down bookstore. I have not been to a therapy session or a drug rehab meeting but the same personal disappointment that I imagine people feel during those experiences tugged at me now. I pretended to be happy about the opportunity to speak at a local bookstore that early in the morning, with the sagging bookshelves and smell of second-hand-everything. This wasn’t your quirky brand of independent bookstore — the kind that makes second-hand things look fun and part of a communal vibe. Instead, the owners of this bookstore stuffed the innards with mismatched shelves and furniture scouted at garage sales. A handful of local authors filed into the store that morning, ready to read and chat with a group of parents and kids who were supposed to have shown up for the children’s book panel. Unfortunately, nobody showed. To make the most of it (and because I’m nobody, anyway), I stayed and told my story to a group of my new peers, whose backgrounds varied from high-powered Machiavellian PTA moms to folksy, bearded, I-find-stuff-in-the-woods-with-my-dogs-types. After getting into character (I don’t wake up charming…just handsome), I told the group a caffeinated version of how a poem I wrote transformed into a children’s book. The upshot of my message: a creative work, like a poem, song, or painting, lives a life of its own, changing as the creative process unfolds. Few people know the journey that creative works take to arrive at their final forms. And to appreciate a creative work to its fullest, it helps to understand the processes, experiences, and the luck that shape it. That’s a story you don’t hear often, which is why I shared it with the leaky ceiling and stained carpet that day in the bookstore, and why I’m telling it here.
Part 1: Frustration on paper
I sat down and nudged the greasy, balled up breakfast sandwich wrapper into the corner of my desk. My roommate’s snores penetrated the wall and filled the empty common room. I typed some thoughts at the top of the blank word document about what I wanted the poem to capture. The seat at my (now greasy) desk offered me the exact same inspiring view of off-white cinderblock wall that students in the Politics, Society, and Law Scholars Program at Ohio State University have had for decades (a similar view can be had at most elementary school lunchrooms). My creative process unfurled messily, at first (not just because of the breakfast sandwich), and involved as much deleting as typing. The start of writing a poem is a lot like trying to find the loose sheet on a toilet paper roll. You just spin until you catch something you can pull. Eventually, my concentration forced my brain’s gears to lock into each others’ grooves (that’s exactly how a brain works if you didn’t know) and a floodgate opened, spilling weirdly inspired metaphors and descriptions of feelings all over the page. I wrote silently and alone until my coffee ran out. It would take a month of breakfast sandwich sessions like this to chew up and spit out a rough draft worth barely the cost of printing a single sheet of paper on most college campuses (and I’m not even talking printing in color). As the room’s box fan hummed (I had turned it on to mask my roommate’s wall-penetrating breathing), I had no clue how the poem I was writing would evolve over the next decade.
Nine-and-some-change-years ago, during the first few months of my freshman year in college, I launched a string of failed attempts to join student teams, clubs, and organizations of all stripes (including the Stripes Club, which is a small group of diehard Stripes brand gum chewers). I wanted more than anything to get my feet under me immediately—to make a significant life transition look easy by staying ambitious while avoiding failure. I had used the same strategy to finish toward the top of my high school class despite divorce plundering the supportive home around me.
Unlike in high school, though, I failed in the early months of college, almost exclusively. After tryouts, interviews, and evaluations, gate keepers for organizations all across campus said “no thanks” — at one point, even the scholars program denied me a spot on its co-ed flag football team. In desperation, I turned to the only thing that gave me energy — writing poetry.
Poetry has long been a preferred medium for stories describing failure and the weight of failure’s fallout. When I turned to poetry to express my frustration, I walked a well-trodden path. But what becomes of the story shared through poems is unique and unpredictable. Many creative works evolve over long periods of time, through all kinds of creative processes, and by crashing into the people and works already in existence. In one example, the poet William Wordsworth worked intermittently on a poem for 40 years…and never even published it (his estate published it three months after his death and it is now considered his greatest work) . In a more modern example, as Malcolm Gladwell explains in the Revisionist History podcast, it took multiple musicians working their unique creative approaches to produce the version of the song “Hallelujah” with which most of us are familiar. Specifically, Leonard Cohen spent five years writing and revising the song, which flopped when released. The song passed through two more artists before achieving its fame — 15 years after Cohen released the original version .
The poem I wrote during college was no different in that it would undergo significant changes from a handful of creative processes. It would head into the teeth of design and innovation techniques and bear the blunt feedback of (sticky and) opinionated third graders. It would be rescued by a talented illustrator and coddled by a shameless, wannabe entrepreneur. The people who would eventually read the poem in its final, children’s book form would have no idea where it had been for the past decade.
I sat at my desk and shared lines from the poem with my roommate. Based on his polite but unenthusiastic midwestern responses, I knew a lot of edits and rewrites lay ahead. To this day, my writing process involves frequent touch points early on to get directional feedback on pieces. Even after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (a big deal), novelist Jennifer Egan still consults the same group of writers for critical feedback on her works, saying “think very carefully about which is worse: finding out now that this work has problems or finding out after everyone’s told you it’s perfect and you’ve published it,” .
Each creator has his or her own process (another part of my process involves visiting Target to know what new items I can reference to mock basic white people — a staple of my pieces). But as the book Creative People at Work: Twelve Cognitive Case Studies points out, creative processes have a few commonalities. For instance, “It must be understood that creative achievement is accomplished chiefly through purposeful work (i.e. it’s not an accident).” The authors go on to say,
“People who lead creative lives and people who don’t have much in common. But they differ in one fundamental way: creative people commit themselves to creative tasks — they hope to make some change in the sum of human knowledge and experience. This is a choice, and it is entirely possible to make the opposite commitment: to live to not create ripples,” .
Some other keys to creative work:
- Creative work evolves over long periods of time, and with a constant interplay among purpose, play, and chance. When you stick with your work, you’re naturally forced to revise it as you engage it while in different states of mind, with different information and inspiration.
- The creative person combines many insights, metaphors, social relationships, projects, and heuristics. Staying curious even while focused on a work can make the difference between a breakthrough and floundering.
- The work is always conducted in relation to the work of others. At the same time, the creator works alone — you may create alone but don’t shut yourself off to other works and creators, let them feed your creation machine.
Following a work through the creative process is a fickle pursuit. A poem, for example, is something you brush across online or glimpse as you pass through Target and see the season’s new line of home decorations — many of which have “poetic” quotes painted on them. (One framed poster starts, “Live the life you’ve always dreamed of. Be fearless in the face of adversity…” I’m sure you’re doing just that, Lauren). But when it’s not decorating chain store home decor, poetry is one of the fastest growing genres in the publishing industry . As the Guardian explains:
“The resurgence of poetry is cyclical and perpetual. It’s always engaged a new generation of youth who have brought it back to the forefront of culture and put new terms on it, whether its beat poetry, bebop poetry, slam poetry — there’s always been these resurgences.”
One of the most captivating evolutions of the genre has to be slam poetry. The name slam comes from the position the audience is in to celebrate or destroy a poem, and from the high-energy performance style of the poets . A construction worker and local poet named Marc Kelly Smith, from Chicago, Illinois, created the concept in the 1980s to reinvigorate poetry readings. In slam competitions, poets perform their works, acting them out, yelling, crying, etc. Slam poetry is like when the girl takes her glasses off in a movie and everyone realizes she’s beautiful.
In its original design, a poetry slam would allow poets to perform their work and then be judged by five random audience members on a scale of zero to 10. Out of the five scores, the highest and lowest were dropped and the three remaining scores were added to give the poet an overall score. Whoever had the highest score at the end of the competition was declared the winner. Slam poetry is one way poetry can engage with the world, inviting criticism and reactions, which can foster changes to the work. Another way, which is far less common, is through design processes, like design thinking — the process I applied to my work. But to apply that process, I had to go back to a place I had not been in decades — elementary school (exactly like Adam Sandler’s movie, Billy Madison…minus most of that movie’s key plot points…and all of the funny parts).
Part 2: Dr. Seuss with an Edge
A husky, booming voice forced the chaotic group into a temporary state of organization. All five-foot-two-inches of drill-sergeant-discipline channeled the room’s budding energy. “Jayden, if I have to remind you to make better choices one more time, we’re calling your mom,” Ms. Daddario barked. Her tiny frame, wrapped in a gray teachery cardigan, projected to twice its size. Behind her chestnut hair, her temples throbbed with a combination of sinus infection and irritation — her command of the group betrayed her youth.
Leading a third grade classroom is no joke. “If you give them an inch, they will make you regret it,” she explained to me. “I have to create an environment where students can learn, and I have to teach them how to react positively to challenges…75 percent of my class is at least one year of academic progress behind. If they’re not caught up at the end of third grade, they’re unlikely to ever close the gap in their education. I guess in some ways, I’m kind of their last shot to catch up.”
Putting that insight into numbers, a longitudinal study of nearly 4,000 students found that 25 percent of third grade students who were far below reading proficiency failed to graduate high school on time. In comparison, only four percent of students who did read proficiently in third grade had not graduated high school by age 19 . Things were even more dire in Ms. Daddario’s classroom, as many of her predominantly Hispanic students were not native English speakers and did not speak or read English at home. Another challenge was the school’s Title 1 status, which signifies its large concentration of low-income students. Although Ms. Daddario’s school is part of the Fairfax County Public School System, the largest school system in Virginia, the additional resources were not necessarily translating into reading proficiency.
I visited Ms. Daddario’s classroom in Fall 2017 to see for myself the challenges elementary school teachers and their students face. These in-person observations and interviews kicked off the design process. I hoped to discover what problems to solve by understanding each groups’ needs and pains. I had a hunch that my long-dormant poem could be repurposed into something useful. It had been four years since I graduated from college and moved to Washington, D.C., which meant my poem was almost as old as the students I was now interviewing — eight.
“What do you like about the Malala book,” I asked one girl, who had shared that her favorite book was an illustrated biography about Malala Yousafzai — the Pakistani activist who Taliban gunman tried to assassinate in response to her advocacy for female education rights. I jotted down notes as the student walked me through what she liked about the book. I had no idea that eight-year-olds could comprehend and engage with such provocative topics, and, in fact, preferred them (I started to wonder how a more edgy Dr. Seuss might compete in today’s children’s book market…titles like Don’t Eat One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, or Blue Fish: The Effects of Mercury Poisoning; You Can’t Hop on an Absent Pop; and The Cat in the MAGA Hat came to mind. Some students’ preferences were slightly less profound but still insightful. “Why do you like books about volcanoes,” went another line of questioning. I captured “mountains that fart” from a chubby boy with basketball shoes, and moved on.
Ms. Daddario shepherded the flock of third graders to the carpet for a read aloud. I settled down on a sticky patch of matted carpet, in between two students—Diego and Jimmy—who poked at my shoes and tried to guess where I got them.
“How much money do you make?” the boys asked.
“How much money do you make?” I responded (my improv classes were paying off).
The teacher calmed the class like a conductor bringing an orchestra to attention. The colorful pages of The Most Magnificent Thing turned before the wide-eyed students. Their mouths hung partly open, eyes fixed on the book’s twists and turns. By the time Ms. Daddario reached the last page of the book, the class was already pleading to hear it again, bargaining art class and math time in exchange for another pass through. Ms. Daddario fought off her amusement, pushing the class to summarize the book’s lesson on what it looks like to not give up when your ideas don’t work the first time you try them.
As the school day wound to a close, Ms. Daddario and her colleagues shared with me the important role they see their picture books playing in introducing and reinforcing lessons about all kinds of nuanced and tricky but critical topics. “There’s not really a worksheet to encourage kids to be true to themselves, and it’s hard for teachers to fight against things like peer pressure,” said one teacher. On the other end of the topics spectrum, Ms Daddario shared, “I had to explain terrorism to my class the other day.” Often, it’s picture books that help tackle these topics. Teaching students how to react to failure was another one of these tricky topics. As one teacher explained, “You can’t just teach [failure] through a generic mantra…it has to be through age-appropriate examples.”
Between these insights and the student interviews and observations, I had what I needed to develop some design criteria for a book that could serve teachers and students. More important, Ms. Daddario and her curious students offered a unique opportunity to collaborate and transform the poem into a children’s picture book they actually needed. Now the poem had to be shaped into a book, which meant inviting more creative processes into the fold.
Part 3: That Monster Is Not Scary
It’s been hours since the the sun went down, the room lit only by the cold glow of a screen. A hair tie keeps Alyson’s blonde hair out of her cool blue eyes, as to not impede the flow of her stylus. She transforms a blank screen into character sketches with surprising speed. This is another marathon sketch session, where her natural energy for creating feeds her hours of illustrating, uninterrupted. “I kind of have an idea of what I’m going to draw before I create it. Like for this project, as soon as I read the story (the story version of my poem), images popped into my head and I just ran with them,” she explained.
David Galenson, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago who studies creativity, argues that just like other creatives, artists tend to fall into two categories: experimentalists or conceptualists. According to Galenson, “What I’ve tried to do is find the process…the mechanisms behind the discoveries.” His work suggests that experimentalists create by trial and error — by tweaking and tinkering, and methodically moving the needle an inch at a time. For example, the French artist Paul Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire (a mountain near where he lived) about 50 times over a period of about 30 years, each time making subtle tweaks and starting anew.
In the other camp, conceptualists, like Pablo Picasso, “…come to a new discipline, [they] learn the rules, and [they] say, I don’t like some very basic rule. And I get rid of it.” To illustrate this camp’s creative process, let’s take Picasso’s approach to producing Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In total, Picasso made between 400–500 preparatory drawings for this single work. “That’s the most preparatory works that have ever been made in Western history for a single painting, as far as we know…So, he’s deliberately creating a masterpiece,” explained Galenson. The key takeaway, as the economist puts it:
The difference between experimental and conceptual artists…it’s not just that they paint differently, but they want to paint differently. The conceptual artist wants to know, before he starts — before he picks up a brush — he wants to know exactly what the painting is going to look like. Whereas the experimental painter goes out of his way to avoid that. They want to make discoveries in the process of painting. So, it comes down to this fundamental question: Do you make the discovery before you start working or while you’re working? And in discipline after discipline, that is going to be the key question separating the two types of innovator .
Alyson and I connected online at first and then over the phone, after I stumbled upon her portfolio of dark yet playful character illustrations. Her style fit perfectly with the feel I envisioned for a book in which a monster was to be a main character and outer space one of the settings.
“I’ve never done a children’s book before,” she shared over the phone.
“Neither have I,” I responded. We agreed to figure it out together.
I transformed the poem into a suitable children’s book using design guardrails that would ensure the story connected with eight-year-olds: limited page length, simple sentence structure, and message clarity. I made sure to keep the poem’s rhyming lines in tact, too. Then Alyson created gripping illustrations to help tell the story.
“That monster isn’t scary,” one of Ms. Daddario’s students blurted out when he saw the book’s sketches.
“Yeah, I’m not scared of that,” another joined, a consensus building.
Having taken the book back into the classroom to see how the illustrations and story resonated, we were able to iterate and refine the book — keeping students and teachers an inseparable part of the creation process. Once the product reached a reader-ready version, I unleashed the fourth and final creative process — that of the entrepreneur.
Part 4: Mom is a Huckster
My clammy hands gripped the cardboard, each step shaking the box’s contents: a plastic book stand, two permanent markers, a few business cards, and a dozen copies of My Friend, Failure — the final product of my poem-turned-children’s-book. A lazy afternoon sun lobbed shadows on Old Town Alexandria’s quaint streets and the surrounding red brick buildings and trim yards. I strolled past Hooray for Books, the independently owned bookstore that hosted the Love Our Local Authors Book Festival (it was my first book promotion event so similar to a bank robber, I cased the place — trying to get a feel for the store’s environment and the buzzing people inside). On my second trip past the storefront, I reached for the door handle and swaggered in with the confidence of someone who had just cased the place. I wandered through a few aisles, absorbing the bookshelves, which were overflowing with picture books, plush toys, and everything else a kid might want (short of amusement park rides and bubbles — kids love bubbles). I found my designated spot at one of several large round tables and set up my station to sign and sell books after the author panels had taken place.
The author who had already set up his station next to me reappeared, grinning from ear to ear and offered a handshake. “I’m Davon,” he said. “Perfect day for a book festival, huh?” he continued. Weather and all other observation-based niceties exhausted, I asked him about his background and the series of books he was promoting, including a picture book called You Are Different. After a few minutes of chatting, it was clear that this former teacher was deep into the self-published children’s book promotion circuit. He had been to several book store and conference events recently and had traveled all the way from New Jersey to the D.C. area for this event, which was scheduled to last just a few hours.
In meeting other self-published authors at local events like this one, I noticed similar types of authors tended to show up:
1. Mom + Pop — these mid-career adults, typically a mom or dad, thought it would be fun to create a children’s book and easy to sell it. You can typically identify this group by their jaded expressions and rancorous candor about the self-publishing process — they speak of their experiences as if they’ve had to manage a teenager all over again.
2. Hobbyists — these creators enjoy bird watching or obsess over their dogs, and decided to create a children’s book to share a story relating to that hobby. This group seems to enjoy spending their weekends — and savings — at children’s book events and conferences more to participate in this weird subculture than to be commercially successful.
3) Pipe dreamers — these passion project types have committed fully to trying to push their work to success (going as far as buying customized polos to present in). The creators in this group seem the least grounded in the objective quality of their books and seem out-of-touch with the market, driven seemingly by blind ambition, continually pushing a product that they personally believe in.
4) The misfits — believe it or not, the misfits are the savvy creators whose books and approaches to promotion are objectively impressive and thoughtful. The few folks in this group did their homework, and it shows — their books are much higher quality in terms of topics, design, illustrations, writing, and production. As the name implies, these creators are much less likely to be found at your typical local author’s event.
These archetypes also speak to the creative processes each group seemed to employ. Many authors shared stories about how they had hatched an idea they liked enough to then reach out to amateur illustrators they already knew in order to produce a sub-par product as hastily as possible (okay…my words, not theirs). For them, the learning process began during the promotion and marketing phases — mistakenly overlooking the craft of creating a product that resonates with readers and has what it takes to be competitive in a saturated market. That’s the danger of slapdash creative processes.
Regardless of categorizations, promotion is a constant slog for just about everyone. Promoting a self-published work is endless, grueling, and rarely immediately gratifying, which is why it requires its own creative processes. Just like a carnival huckster, promoting a children’s book takes a certain nose for opportunities (the candy-striped suit, straw hat, and “step right up” are optional). One woodsy, bearded author who could have blended in just as well at a pool hall (if those still exist) or a dive bar (I know those still exist) as this author group, recommended going to coffee and ice cream shops instead of book stores — places where kids are likely to be. The more advice I gathered, the more I understood and appreciated how these fledgling authors hustled to create or take advantage of opportunities.
I scoured the internet for the most influential school counselor blogs, sharing my story and process with any bloggers who would listen. I found these connections to be much more successful than any in-person event I had attended, including the handful of classroom visits and hometown book tour I made. The lesson: Connecting with the people who are most receptive to what you’ve produced takes creativity and open-mindedness as much as any other part of the creative process, and it is just as necessary to set up your work to have the most impact.
. . .
I settled into a creaky wooden chair as the next author went through a whole production, angling some props and his unkempt dogs into place. I let out a gaping yawn, making it unclear if my eyes were watering because of his ridiculous presentation or because that’s what happens when you yawn. When all of us had spoken, I made for the door, desperate to get away from the saddening scene.
On my way home, I priced up a custom polo, forcing myself through the motions and logic the other authors-turned-promotors had used. This is absolutely ridiculous and impossible to justify, I thought, concluding that the best way to cut through the noise is to invest in your creative process instead of hunting for shortcuts. It takes a commitment to creating and a mindset that’s comfortable with letting your work and your plans change — better yet, it should be expected. As consumers, we may not always know a work’s journey into existence but we can at least appreciate that each work has one, and it’s typically far from simple.
. . .
 Gruber, Howard. Creative People at Work: Twelve Cognitive Case Studies. Edited by Doris Wallace, Oxford University Press, 1989.