Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: biography outtakes, Part 8

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeOn Monday, I finished the eighth edit of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, and sent it to my editor.  I’m really happy with all of the edits I’ve made.  I finally understand his advice, and have cut anything that feels purely “completist,” and focused instead on the critical bio., keeping in mind a “trade”/general audience.  I have also removed any in-text image descriptions, taken out all discursive footnotes, condensed the footnotes (no need to replicate what’s already in the bibliography), restructured the early chapters (so that they once again alternate between Krauss’s life and Johnson’s), and attended to the second reader’s suggestions.  In sum, it’s good – without question, the best version of this manuscript to date.  So, that’s the good news.

The bad news is that I’ve fixed everything but word count.  It’s 23,000 words shorter than the last version, but still exceeds the word limit he’d like.  With notes, it’s 136,250 words.  He wants it no longer than 125,000.  My figure of 136,250 does not include bibliography or acknowledgments – and his limit of 125,000 does include both.  If he’ll accept it, I will then burn everything (full ms., plus images, permissions, etc.) to disc and send it to the press.  If he won’t, then I’m not sure what will happen.  But here are three possible outcomes:

  1. I’ve done my best, editing most paragraphs at least twice, often reading things aloud (sometimes to Karin, who has also offered her suggestions).  But I can’t see where else I should be cutting: either he or another editor will need to offer specific advice on what should go.  So, that’s one possibility.
  2. Another possibility is that I try a ninth time, but I won’t have time to pursue round nine until the fall. Receiving comments in early May, rather than earlier in the year, has complicated my work schedule for the early summer months, and I already have work lined up for the rest of the year.  Even in the fall, I’d need to squeeze this in amidst other tasks.
  3. A third possibility – which I really hope I don’t have to pursue – is to consider withdrawing the manuscript and taking it elsewhere.  I really, really do not want to do this.  For one thing, it would mean re-doing all the permissions… which I also really, really do not want to do.  For another, sheesh, what a mess that would be.  I just don’t want to go there.  If I have to go there to get this published, I will.  But it’s definitely a “last resort” option.

SisyphusMostly, I can’t bear the psychic burden of this unfinished project any longer.  I began this book during the waning years of the Clinton administration.  For the past year and a half (I sent in the complete manuscript in December 2009), I have been doing what the press asks of me, and then receiving feedback that indicates I’ve failed to do what the press has asked of me.  Each time, I figure, well, I’ve misunderstood – let me try again.  I try again, and the cycle repeats itself.  The whole thing has worn me out.

Having said that, from my editor’s point of view, I must seem a particularly slow study: he gives me advice, but I continue to make the same mistakes.  Further, I am positive that the manuscript can be better than it now is.  I’m also positive that it can be shorter than it now is.  I’m sure that further edits would improve it.  My problem is: I cannot see what those edits might be.

One reason – and one reason that writing this book has been more challenging than any other I’ve written – is that this book requires me to be a creative writer.  I’ve had to learn how to structure a narrative, create character, and do all the things that creative writers do.  I have no training in either writing or editing fiction.

Another reason that this has been so challenging is that I feel constrained by the facts.  Biography is informed speculation, but I’m wary of straying from what I know for certain.  So, for instance, the second reader asked for “some vivid details” about the moment that Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss met.  That’s a great idea, and would definitely improve the story.  Unfortunately, I have very little information on their meeting.  They met at a party either on Fire Island or in Greenwich Village (sources differ).  Of meeting Dave (Crockett Johnson) Ruth liked to say “We met and that was it!”  Also, they were both living in Greenwich Village at the time.  And that’s all that I know.  So, I’d already written this:

Though she and Dave were working in different parts of Manhattan, both lived in Greenwich Village.  That fall, at a party in the Village or on Fire Island (sources differ), the outgoing, energetic Ruth met the wry, laconic Dave.  He was tall and taciturn.  Seven inches shorter, she was slim, exuberant, and ready to speak her mind.

In an effort to follow the second reader’s advice, I added:

Her exuberance drew him out of his natural reticence, and into conversation. His calm, grounded personality balanced her turbulent energy.

I used what I knew about their respective personalities to infer a sense of what their meeting might have been like.  And then, the paragraph concludes with what I’d already written:

They were complimentary opposites who felt an immediate attraction toward one another.  As Ruth liked to say, “We met and that was it!”

The two additional sentences (about her exuberance and his calmness) are slightly more speculative than I like to be, but I like the emotional content they bring to the scene.

Well to keep with the “outtakes” in the title of this post, here are a few more cuts.  Generally speaking, Crockett Johnson didn’t have art hanging on the walls and was skeptical of those who did.  But he did have Art Young’s last Christmas card hanging up.  That’s significant for many reasons: their shared left politics, the fact that they knew each other, and Young’s status as one of the great political cartoonists.  I still mention the card in this chapter (Chapter 11) and elsewhere touch on their acquaintance, but I’ve cut a lot of my description of this card, which:

reproduced at its top a glimpse of Young’s 1916 card.  That earlier card featured a caricature of Young, arms spread wide, his right hand pointing to “1916” and his left holding his cane aloft.  Framed by sunlight breaking through the clouds, its caption read “The road to tomorrow.” The lower two thirds show a much older Young, his right hand a fist with its thumb pointing up to “1944” and “FOUR FREEDOMS” (with “maybe more” in smaller letters below).  In the background, light breaks through clouds, as swastikas fly away in retreat. This caption read, “It’s a long road, but now we are getting somewhere.” Though Young is older and slightly hunched over, he looks determined and hopeful. Fascism is being routed, and perhaps can be expanded.

I’ve retained the card’s message but cut the extensive description (reproduced above).  Young died in late December 1943.

Had I space enough, I would love to reproduce Johnson’s entire Bosco ad parody in Chapter 20.  It’s hilarious, and gonzo before the term “gonzo” existed.  I don’t have space, and have in this round of editing trimmed the summary even further.  Fortunately for you, you can see the whole thing on my blog.

Likewise, I’ve trimmed my analyses of Ruth’s poetry.  I still retain some, but have also cut such passages as this one, which discusses two of her poems published in the first issue of the short-lived Nadada (1964) – an issue that included work by Allen Ginsburg, Frank O’Hara, Charles Bukowski, and Ted Berrigan.

Ruth’s more experimental contribution, the brief “Song,” juxtaposes images from mass culture with the repeated line “I was thinking of you,” as in: “when further down the page I saw Eat Five Kinds of Apples from Just one Miracle Tree / I was thinking of you.” In contrast, the longer “Poem” offers a lyrical exploration of Ruth’s favorite theme – the coming of spring. It begins, “I’d much rather sit there in the sun / watching the snow drip from the trees / and the milkman’s footsteps fill up with water / and the shadow of the spruce tree branches waving / over the sparkle on the leftover snow / and the water dripping in front of my eyes.”

I retain, elsewhere, some analysis of her verse, but this is one example of close-reading that just slowed the narrative down too much.

After Dave (a.k.a. Crockett Johnson) died, Ruth struggled on her own.  I have many examples of her relying on a boarder to help her cope with life’s daily challenges.  So, I’ve cut this example from Chapter 27:

When a blizzard hit in February 1978, water from the Sound rolled up the long driveway, pushed open the garage door, and flooded their cars.  Fortunately, Binnie and a visiting boyfriend – Ruth had no problem with male guests – were able to struggle with the cars, and get them cleaned up again.  The effects of the storm were too much for Ruth to face on her own.

Indeed, I have other examples featuring Binnie Klein.  I realized that one reason I’d been retaining this one is that the Blizzard of ’78 has special resonance for me.  When it hit, I was in grade school, in Massachusetts.  Three feet of snow closed school for a week, and snowplows created snowbanks over five feet tall.  That was significant for me, but not for Ruth and nor for this book.

All of the above were definitely superfluous and the book is better without them.  As I say, I’m sure the book could be improved by removing other pieces – only, I lack the ability to figure out what those pieces are.

By way of conclusion, here’s (Doozies creator) Tom Gammill parody of a Ken Burns-style documentary on R.C. Harvey’s Milt Caniff biography.  In addition to being funny, this clip makes me feel a lot better about my own manuscript. 900 pages?  Mine is a double biography and it ain’t even half that long.

Incidentally, that’s Jean Schulz (widow of Charles M.) near the end, using Harvey’s book as a nutcracker.

Gluttons for punishment may enjoy other entries in the Interminable Editing of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss:

Image sources: Crockett Johnson, from Ruth Krauss’s How to Make an Earthquake (1954).  The animated Sisyphus gif comes from the homepage of my friend, the late Desmond Dewsnap (1962-2004).


  1. Reply

    Yep, either Fire Island or Greenwich Village. As I recall, Ruth is the source for both of those alleged meeting places. Alas, I cannot verify whether or not any growling was involved. ;-)

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