Writing Advice from the Funny, Kvetchy, and Profane Maurice Sendak

Bringing out the dead.
May 9 2012 11:06 AM

“Wield a More Subversive Sword!”

Writing advice from the scabrously funny, theatrically kvetchy, lovingly profane Maurice Sendak.

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Maurice Sendak with a character from Where the Wild Things Are, in 2002

Spencer Platt.

In the fall of 2010 my partner, Robert Weinstock, spent a month at Maurice Sendak’s guesthouse in Ridgefield, Conn., as part of the first group of “Sendak fellows”—a kind of writers’ colony Maurice was just starting, that would invite four children’s book author/illustrators to live and work there each fall. Over the year and a half since then, Maurice and Robert remained in touch: Every few weeks one of them would call the other, and I’d overhear one-half of a rambling conversation about the best kind of sketchbook paper or the shameful decline of the picture-book industry or—always a fallback topic for the lighthearted Maurice—the inexorability of aging, loss, and death. Once every few months Robert would go up to Connecticut for the day, picking up pastrami sandwiches at Katz’s on the way to the train for an afternoon feast of Maurice’s beloved “Jew food.”

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Over the brief time they knew each other—less than 2 percent of Maurice’s 83-year-long life—Maurice and Robert came to be friends despite an age difference of almost four decades. Though they were different in important ways, at some level they got each other: Both were short, cranky, depression-prone Jewish author/illustrators whose work came within one shade of being too weird and dark for children. Each looked like a character the other might have drawn, Maurice with his fireplug body and beetling brows and Robert with his shock of Wild Thing hair. And though Robert insists that I stipulate that he doesn’t consider himself on remotely the same artistic plane as Maurice, their interests overlapped eerily at least once: When Maurice mentioned that he was working on a rhyming book about a man who loses his nose, he was amazed to learn Robert had a long-shelved manuscript about a runaway nostril. (I can attest to this: I remember reading, with some bafflement, a early draft of the nostril poem.) They tried to collaborate on a joint project for a while, but it became clear that their nasal epics were developing along different paths, so instead they would just use the visits to show each other whatever they were working on: stories, poems, sketchbooks.

Though I heard a lot about these visits secondhand—when he got back from Maurice’s, Robert would undergo a thorough debriefing—I only got to meet Maurice in person twice, once at the very end of the monthlong fellowship (which was quite austere in its expectation that participating writers not receive visitors on the weekends—they were there to work) and once last fall, just as the second crop of Sendak fellows was about to settle in to the guesthouse (a place the first-year fellows had dubbed “the Nuthouse,” both for the constant rain of acorns on its roof and for the four insane people who lived there.)

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I expected my encounters with Maurice, however friendly, to be the sort of stiff colloquies one tends to have with very celebrated people, who are often (for good reason) fiercely protective of their private selves. Instead, his lack of a social and emotional carapace—that same wide-open quality that allowed him to write and draw straight from his own vividly recalled childhood, and that made him such a killer interview subject—was immediately apparent in person. From the moment he hugged you hello, he was himself: scabrously funny, theatrically kvetchy, needy and paranoid and observant and discerning—in short, totally crazy, but also crazy good company.

Talking with him about any kind of art—painting, music, literature, film—was a joy. His critical sensibility was marvelously astute (as can be seen in a book of his collected essays on children’s literature, Caldecott & Co.) and the pleasure he took in beauty was boundless. He adored Melville, Mozart, and Mickey Mouse (and would have noted the alliteration with pleasure—he wrote in different places about the mysterious significance he attached to the letter M, his own first initial and that of many of his characters, beginning with Max of Where the Wild Things Are). During one visit, he showed us a portable writing desk that had belonged to Melville, which still contained some of the author’s pen nibs and dried-out inkpots. Maurice was as excited and awed to be handing us the writing implements of his favorite author as we were to be hanging out with him. He collected all kinds of wonderful things—first editions of American literature, William Blake prints, James Marshall sketches, early Mickey Mouse memorabilia—and he loved to bring them out and show them to guests, not to brag about his possessions, but because touching and sharing and talking about beautiful objects made him happy.

Maurice wasn’t a mentor to the fellows in the sense that he line-edited their work or dispensed sage counsel about how to make it in the world of children’s book publishing. He mentored them by loving them, by making them love him back, and by insisting, repeatedly and ferociously and profanely, that they not give up on their own work no matter how the market judged its worth. (Asked to recall some typical Maurice advice, Robert provided these three inspirational koans: “Don’t let those fucking bastards beat you!”; “Wield a more subversive sword!”; and “You need to become a better spy.”) I can’t speak for the other seven former Sendak fellows, but I know my own fellow was deeply grateful for, and changed by, the experience of having gotten to know Maurice and his longtime friend Lynn Caponera (who lived with and cared for him for many years).

Late at night on the day he died, Robert and I spent a while talking about Maurice. I asked questions I hadn’t thought of asking before, he told stories I hadn’t heard, and we discovered that each of us had been squirreling away something to tell Maurice the next time we saw him. I was planning to ask if he’d seen Louie, because it struck me, watching it one day, that he might admire the way the show combines self-lacerating honesty and deep humanism. For his part, Robert had been waiting to show Maurice a new book idea he’s just started. The last time they’d talked, he’d sworn he was done with children’s books for good, and he knew Maurice would be happy to hear he was working on one again, that he hadn’t let the fucking bastards beat him. The next day we knew we’d read about how Maurice Sendak’s books changed children’s literature. That night, we just missed him.

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