Archive for December 10, 2011

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss Biography: Final Cuts, Part 3. Does This Make My Manuscript Look Fat?

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeI’d intended to post more of these in process, but literally had no time.  The manuscript was due back to the copy-editor yesterday — I mailed it today, and it will reach her Tuesday.  Some of her suggestions were dead-on, some were not, and others were somewhere in between.  I accepted the first type, rejected the second, and the third… required a lot of thought.  (The copy-editor was also charged with finding ways to reduce length.)  To help me evaluate my feelings about what to lose and what not to lose, I repeatedly asked myself: Does this change serve the story I’m trying to tell?

So. Here are some more things you will not see in Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (coming from UP Mississippi, fall 2012).

I kept coming back to this passage, but couldn’t come up with a way to restore it.  It was right near the beginning of chapter one, and uses a photo of infant Ruth Krauss to offer a glance forward at the woman she became:

She was an only child, and her parents doted on her.  In the above photo, six-month-old Ruth looks over her left shoulder at the camera, conveying the impression that she is in charge, and she wants you to know it.

The photo (of course) remains, the “doting” part has been worked into the previous paragraph, and the copy-editor did a nice job in condensing the family history.  I ultimately decide to let it go, since there are other moments in which an incident from her childhood permits us a glimpse of her future — which constitute some of my (clumsy, perhaps) attempts to create character.  Having no experience writing fiction but requiring the skills of a creative writer, writing this biography has pushed me more than any other project has.

Since this is a critical biography, I need to include some analysis of the creative works of Johnson and Krauss.  The final manuscript does indeed include a bit of this material, but some also got cut in this last round. Although analyses of Ruth Krauss’s verse remain, my thoughts on her poem “Yuri Gagarin and William Shakespeare” have been excised.  Here’s the beginning of poem (also quoted in the book):

Winnie: How sweet to be a cloud

W.S.: when daisies pied and violets

Winnie: floating in the blue

W.S.: and lady-smocks all silver-white

and cuckoo buds of yellow hue

Winnie: Iniquum fatum fatu

W.S.: Cuckoo cuckoo cuckoo

And here’s my analysis (which will not be in the book):

When a late sixteenth-century song about cuckolding encounters an early twentieth-century song of a bear pretending to be a cloud, we might be reminded that Winnie-the-Pooh’s song is also motivated by both desire and deceit: To get the honey he craves, he masquerades as a cloud.  Or we might not see it this way, having forgotten either Shakespeare’s song, or Milne’s, or both. Without the contexts of the originals, the combination may instead be whimsical, playful, and even lyrical.

I’m not conflicted about cutting this.  My other analyses of her verse are better than this, which is fine but not brilliant.  And so… it’s gone!

I did have a hard time excising narrative and, indeed, often resisted suggestions to remove narrative. The copy-editor, for instance, had a tendency to summarize a conversation.  But a conversation works better dramatically — it’s better for storytelling than a summary is.  So, here’s something I cut. Later in life, Crockett Johnson (known as Dave to his friends) grew interested in the Bible, and began reading it carefully:

Mischa Richter asked him, “Well, what about it?  Are you still reading the Bible?”

Dave responded, “I had to stop.  The begats got me.”

I permitted that cut because I have another similar conversation between him and Andy Rooney (which I restored). Also, Mischa Richter is well established in the book — he was a close friend of Johnson’s.  Rooney was not a close friend; they were acquainted, but that’s all.  So, this is a chance to give him a “walk-on” part, as it were.

Omitting examples of Johnson’s dry wit was particularly hard for me.  To offer another example, I ended up cutting this summer 1950 vacation that he and Ruth took with Gene and Marian Searchinger:

Back in Connecticut and unaware that they were under investigation, Dave and Ruth drove off for a brief summer holiday with their friends Marian and Gene Searchinger, a filmmaker who was then working on NBC’s Today show. Each couple in their own car, they traveled up to Nova Scotia. Planning to park the cars on the ferry, they were surprised to learn that one needed to reserve spaces well in advance.  Between two pillars, there was one very small space left on the boat, just large enough for Dave’s little Austin Tudor sedan.  They left the Searchingers’ car on the mainland, and the four of them toured Nova Scotia in Dave’s small car.

They didn’t mind the close quarters, but getting a decent cup of coffee was a challenge. Since all four travelers required regular doses of caffeine, they developed a system. When they came upon a promising restaurant or cafe, one member of the group would enter, and order a cup.  He or she would then signal to the others whether they should come in or not.  The signal was a fist with one finger, two fingers, or three fingers extended — depending on the quality of the coffee.  After the trip, Dave gave Gene a gift commemorating their Nova Scotia holiday.  On a piece of wood, Dave painted a hand rising out of an ocean of coffee: only one finger was sticking up.

I’m a little conflicted about having cut this, but how important is it to the larger narrative?  I ultimately decided that it wasn’t as important to keep as some other stories were, and (a bit reluctantly) let it go.

On the whole, the result of my collaboration with the copy-editor is a better manuscript. That said, I do wish I’d had more time with this. At the busiest time of the term, I’ve had to respond to a heavily-edited manuscript that represents a dozen years of my labor. On the other hand, there is almost no moment during this semester that would have been great timing. The past four months have been the busiest of my professional life.

But that’s always the way. Just when you think you couldn’t get any busier, you do. Or, at least, I do.  And the important thing is that the manuscript is better for this work.  I’m really looking forward to sharing it with the world — in the fall of 2012!

Should this post have proven even slightly interesting, then there’s a remote chance that posts tagged Crockett Johnson or Ruth Krauss or Biography might fail to bore you.  Indeed, if you have read to this point and do not find yourself slipping into unconsciousness, you might test your stamina with some of these related posts.

Comments (1)