Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘G.K. Chesterton

Quote of the Day

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March 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Ballad of John the Pig

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John the Pig

For the last month or so, one of the first things my daughter has said to me every morning, as well as one of the last things she says before she goes to bed at night, is: “Talk about John the Pig.” She’ll ask about John while eating breakfast, while we’re out in the stroller, when we’re together in the car, or when I’m giving her a bath, and I usually oblige, to the point where I’ve spent maybe a hundred hours over the past several weeks talking to her about John the Pig. Who is he? He’s the anonymous little pig who appears on the rightmost edge of page 13 of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, playing happily in his sandbox at the playground. I’m not sure exactly why I latched onto that particular image, but it was probably just the first one that happened to catch my eye. John’s name was similarly plucked out of thin air.  When I initially brought him up, I had the vague idea that I could make up a few stories about John to amuse my daughter, since we’d already gone through the book from cover to cover. Ever since, John’s story has expanded beyond anything I could have imagined. He’s acquired a family, a huge supporting cast—Molly the Rabbit, Mary the Mouse, Little Elephant, Sam and Sally the Sand Crabs—and a life that takes him through the city, the school, the park, and the beach, in a narrative that rivals any soap opera or oral epic in terms of length and density of incident. In short, he’s quite the little pig.

Many parents, I imagine, have undergone this kind of experience, and occasionally, the stories we make up take on a life of their own. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland famously began as a tale that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson told to amuse the Liddell sisters on a day in the country, while Ted Hughes’s stories about the Iron Man—later filmed as The Iron Giant—originated in his stories for his own children. Until now, I’ve never quite understood how a bedtime story can grow and develop into something that deserves to be put down on paper, but now I do. My daughter’s questions and requests about John the Pig are inexhaustible, and it’s often all I can do to keep up with her appetite for more. (Often, they’ll take the form of oddly specific pitches: “I want John the Pig to get lost.” “I want John the Pig to hurt his knee.” “I want John the Pig to knock over his sand castle.”) Originally, the stories took place within the pictures provided by Best Word Book Ever, with John accompanying his parents or his friends to the grocery store or airport or zoo, but by now, the book has long since been put away, and we’re only limited by whatever events or settings the two of us can imagine. Not everything I make up on the spot is worth remembering, and the stories have a way of petering out toward the end. But not always. And sometimes even I’m curious to know where John will end up next.

Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever

And it’s starting to feel like an adventure for me, too. I’m the kind of writer who likes to plan everything in advance, but I don’t know how a John the Pig story will end, and it amuses me to come up with a conclusion that ties back into where the story began, or to figure out a reasonably clever way for John to get out of one of his predicaments. There’s an evolutionary process at work here, too. Most of my ideas are discarded as soon as the story is over, but occasionally, one of them sticks, and we’ve even had a few breakout characters. (Sam and Sally the Sand Crab were introduced to get me out of a particular narrative problem, but like Urkel or the Fonz, they’ve practically become the stars of their own spinoff.) It’s the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to improvising for an audience, although it also helps that my daughter is a forgiving listener. She likes stories in which John goes on improbable adventures, but she’s equally interested in hearing about a day at school or a play date with Molly the Rabbit, and I’m often put in mind of G.K. Chesterton’s wonderful observation:

A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.

It can be a little exhausting, of course, and there are times—particularly after I’ve been dragged out of bed at five in the morning—when my invention sputters and I’d rather do anything but spin another interminable story. (Whenever I can’t think of what comes next, I fall back on something tried and true, like a visit to Molly the Rabbit’s house, which has convinced me that the formulas we find in so much oral storytelling are just ways to buy the poet time as he thinks his way through to the next plot point.) But I’ve also learned a lot in the process. Beatrix craves conflict, and she’s much more interested in stories in which John the Pig is sad than when he’s happy. And she’s starting to take an active role in the act of composition herself. Whenever I find my energy flagging, I’ll ask her: “And then what happened?” She’ll usually have a few good ideas of her own, and I get a sense that she doesn’t distinguish between the details I provide and the ones that she comes up with independently. Ultimately, my dream is that she’ll take up the thread herself and start telling me her own stories without any need of prompting. Busytown has plenty of characters and locations, and exploring it with her through it has turned, rather unexpectedly, into one of the great joys of my life as a father. John the Pig loves his sandbox, but the real sandbox is the one in which my daughter and I play every day.

Quote of the Day

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G.K. Chesterton

The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.

G.K. Chesterton

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January 23, 2015 at 7:30 am

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“A certain disdainful generosity…”

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G.K. Chesterton

Very delicate, slender, and bizarre talents are indeed incapable of being used for an outside purpose, whether of public good or private gain. But about very great and rich talent there goes a certain disdainful generosity which can turn its hand to anything. Minor poets cannot write to order; but very great poets can write to order. The larger the man’s mind, the wider his scope of vision, the more likely it will be that anything suggested to him will seem significant and promising; the more he has a grasp of everything the more ready he will be to write anything. It is very hard (if that is the question) to throw a brick at a man and ask him to write an epic; but the more he is a great man the more able he will be to write about the brick. It is very unjust (if that is all) to point to a hoarding of Colman’s mustard and demand a flood of philosophical eloquence; but the greater the man is the more likely he will be to give it to you.

G.K. Chesterton

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April 12, 2014 at 9:00 am

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The lost art of the commonplace book

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The author's commonplace book

Over the last few days, I’ve had occasion to mention W.H. Auden’s A Certain World, which I picked up on Friday at the Newberry Library Book Fair, but I don’t think I’ve fully explained the charms of this wonderful book. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s Auden’s commonplace book—that is, an annotated personal anthology of quotations, excerpts from interesting works of fiction or nonfiction, and short notes and observations on subjects ranging from “Bands, Brass” to “Kilns” to “World, End of the.” In short, it’s like the best blog in the world in hardcover form, and it’s impossible to browse through it for more than a minute without having one’s eye caught by some new marvel. Here, for instance, is a quote from G.K. Chesterton:

A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.

I’ve always been drawn to commonplace books, which provide both a valuable autobiographical portrait of the author and a mine of fascinating material—assuming, of course, that the compiler is someone with interesting tastes. In college, along with Auden’s collection, I browsed happily through the commonplace book of E.M. Forster and the marginalia of Samuel Coleridge, and one of my favorite bedside books is Hodgepodge by J. Bryan III. Bryan is an intriguing figure in his own right: he was a freelance author, journalist, and peripheral member of the Algonquin Round Table who published his own commonplace book in his eighties. It’s chattier and fluffier than Auden’s version, studded with amusing quotations and haphazardly verified facts (“The eggshells of all members of the hawk family are green inside”), and it’s probably the most charming book of its kind I know. I read it over again, in bits and pieces, every year or two, and if you’re the kind of person drawn to the oddments of a lifetime’s reading, you might want to pick up a used copy—it’s widely available online.

The author's commonplace book

Not surprisingly, I was inspired at an early age to put together a commonplace book of my own. My most ambitious effort, maintained throughout most of my freshman year in college, was an ordinary black sketchbook in which I copied down quotes from the books I was reading at the time, from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to Boswell’s Life of Johnson, along with short journal entries. In the end, like most books of its kind, it met the same fate as the one described by Virginia Woolf:

Most of the pages are blank, it is true; but at the beginning we shall find a certain number very beautifully covered with a strikingly legible hand-writing. Here we have written down the names of great writers in their order of merit; here we have copied out fine passages from the classics; here are lists of books to be read; and here, most interesting of all, lists of books that have actually been read, as the reader testifies with some youthful vanity by a dash of red ink.

Every now and then, though, I’ll leaf through it, and I’m as much struck by the idealism and curiosity it expresses as for the quotations themselves. And although my Quotes of the Day here have served much of the same purpose, I can’t help feeling that such discoveries would live more happily in the pages of a physical journal.

Because in the end, a commonplace book is most valuable for the quality of mind it encourages. When you’re always on the lookout for interesting material, you read books with a collector’s eye, knowing that a passage that attracts your attention now may acquire additional meaning when set apart on its own or juxtaposed with something else. The best commonplace books generate a kind of collage effect, of the sort that we see in the works of Montaigne, Thomas Browne, or Robert Burton, in which the excerpts and commentary create a synergy that none of the individual pieces would possess. It’s no accident that these books are often the liveliest in print: they come very close to capturing how our minds really work, with chunks of memories and scraps of culture bound together with a thin tissue of personal reflection. For a writer or poet, it’s an essential tool, a way of preserving impressions and striking fragments that would otherwise be forgotten. It absorbs material from the world around you and makes it your own, in the most pleasurable way imaginable. Why not start one today?

Written by nevalalee

July 30, 2013 at 8:52 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Books, Quote of the Day, Writing

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Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 5, 2012 at 7:30 am

Posted in Books, Quote of the Day, Writing

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