The Art is in the Distance: On Arnold Lobel and Making Work in the Closet

June 9, 2016 § 5 Comments

Arnold Lobel

Arnold Lobel

A guest post from Jennifer Berney:

This week, nearly thirty years after his death, Arnold Lobel (author of the Frog and Toad books) was outed to the world in a New Yorker piece by Colin Stokes titled “Frog and Toad”: An Amphibious Celebration of Same Sex Love. I read the piece with interest because as a parent and a writer, I’ve been an abiding fan of Lobel’s work. In the countless hours I’ve spent propped against pillows, reading Frog and Toad books aloud to my sons, I find myself always half-immersed in story, and half-immersed in my own wonder at how flawless those stories are. As a writer who works primarily in the genre of memoir, I cannot read fiction without wondering where the author’s life intersects with his art. I am nosy that way.

Most Frog and Toad stories are composed of brief, everyday moments that, when arranged with Lobel’s precision add up to something that is at once startling and funny and layered with meaning. For instance, in one of my favorite stories, “A Swim,” Frog and Toad go swimming in a river. Toad requests that Frog avert his eyes as he leaves the water because he’s afraid that he looks funny in his swimsuit. But then a turtle comes along, and then a group of lizards, a snake, a mouse, and finally a pair of dragonflies. When Frog asks them to leave so that Toad can come out of the water, they insist that if Toad looks so funny, well then they are going to wait around to see.

Each time I read the story (even though by now I know the ending), I halfway expect that it will end with Toad being reassured that he looks fine, not funny, that he was silly to worry after all. But instead it ends with all of the animals—even Frog—laughing, because of course Toad does look funny in his swimsuit. How could he not?

In this and all his other stories, Lobel presents us with a world that is at once candid and charmed, a world that acknowledges that we do look funny in our swimsuits, that our friends may look when we ask them not to, and laugh even if they mean us no harm. It is a world where, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that cookies taste better than willpower. Lobel’s stories always teach lessons, and yet they never moralize.

And so, each time I’ve read Frog and Toad to my children, I’ve wondered about Arnold Lobel himself. One time I looked him up to find the picture above and to learn that he had a wife and two children and that he had died in 1987.

This did not really answer my questions.

I wanted to know where his stories came from, and how he had learned to master the art of storytelling. I wanted to know if he had studied Zen koans or Aesop’s fables, or if he was just some kind of genius. [1] But I did not want to learn anything that would ruin his stories for me, like for instance that he had been a drunk or an adulterer, or some kind of religious zealot, and so I stopped researching his life and began to simply picture him as the author with the impressive mustache.

It never occurred to me that Arnold Lobel was gay, just as it never occurred to me that Maurice Sendak was gay—a fact I learned just after his death in 2012. Now that I know, I wonder what it means that two of the greatest minds in children’s literature were men who spent much of their lives in the closet. I think that it is more than coincidence, that there is something about having to live in secret that disposes one to work well in metaphor. When we can’t tell our literal stories, we must either get creative or give up.

I think also that the strongest children’s literature is work that explores buried desires and impulses, work that builds worlds where wild things can actually be tamed, and where, if you wait on your front porch long enough, a snail will eventually deliver you the letter you’ve always wished for.

I believe that it’s important to understand Lobel’s sexual identity as a part of his legacy. As a lesbian writer, I feel that I’ve reclaimed some small part of my history any time I learn that an author I’ve admired is gay. I can also acknowledge the possible connection between Lobel’s orientation and the tender affection that Frog and Toad share. However, I worry about the suggestion that we re-read Frog and Toad as (to refer back to Colin Stokes’ title) “a celebration of same-sex love.” Ever since Stokes’ post appeared last Tuesday, others have been quick to hop on that bandwagon. People ran a story titled Are Frog and Toad Gay? and Slate published How Frog and Toad Author Arnold Lobel Explored Gay Intimacy in his Work. But here’s the thing: Arnold Lobel did not explore gay intimacy in his work. That’s kind of the point.  He was writing from the closet, compressing his experience into something that readers would find universally true. Frog and Toad are neither gay nor straight. They are archetypal characters and as such their identities don’t require labels—that is a part of their appeal.

Arnold Lobel was not a memoirist. His work doesn’t invite us into his life, but still we want to find him there. We are like the animals who sit on the river bank—the turtle, and the lizards, the snake, the mouse and the dragonflies—all of us gawking at Toad in his swimsuit when he’s so clearly asked us to look away.

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[1] I did find an archived interview with Lobel as I was writing this, and it turns out that he did not study koans or fables, nor did he consider himself a genius. Lobel said, “I’m really rather insecure about writing, which is why I always write my stories complete before I draw pictures. Drawing the pictures is nothing for me. I know how to draw pictures. With writing, I’m in quicksand a bit. I don’t really know what I’m doing. It’s very intuitive.”

 

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Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Brain, Child, The New York Times, Motherlode, Mutha, and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blogGoodnight Already.

Writing Is the Antidote (to publishing in the digital age)

June 22, 2015 § 15 Comments

Acceptances, every one

Acceptances, every one

A guest post from Jennifer Berney:

It sounds quaint to say it now, but a decade ago, before the internet took over the world of publishing, I used to get excited for the mailman’s arrival. Most afternoons, he left me nothing but bills and credit card offers, but sometimes I opened my mailbox and spotted one of the bright red self-addressed-stamped-envelopes that I’d been waiting for.

During that era, I printed short stories every Sunday afternoon, stuffed them into manila envelopes, and sent them off, several at a time, to various literary journals. I purchased red envelopes for my SASEs, in part because they were easy to spot in the mailbox, but also as a kindness to myself. I couldn’t control whether the SASE contained an acceptance or a rejection, but I could ensure that it was packaged in a way that pleased me.

In those days, the process of submitting and waiting for a response wasn’t so unlike the work of writing itself. There was a ritual to it, a set of superstitions. It took discipline to muster up the nerve to send out my work, just as it took discipline to sit down and write. Both the act of writing and the act of submitting required stores of patience—I often revised a story multiple times before deciding to abandon it, and it often took nearly a year for any given rejection notice to arrive. Neither the writing process nor the publication process ever offered instant gratification, and yet they both felt important, character-building, and mutually supportive—the rejections pushed me to try harder, and the occasional acceptance kept me from losing hope.

I took a long hiatus from submitting my work, and when I returned just over a year ago, I discovered that the world had moved online. I no longer need a stockpile of red envelopes, and I no longer wait for the postman. For the most part, this is convenient. Electronic submissions save me time and expense. However, I find that there’s a surprising emotional cost. Because news of publication might arrive in my inbox at any moment, that sense of anticipation—once confined to my thirty-second walk to the mailbox—must now spread itself over the course of the day. Furthermore, there is no rhythm or regularity to the replies I receive. When I submit to an editor these days sometimes I hear back hours later, or sometimes months, or sometimes never. I wonder constantly how to train my brain to bury that anticipation, that curiosity. It’s hard, I find, to focus on the writing itself when there might be news awaiting me just two clicks away.

The process of publishing no longer complements my writing; it competes with it. And, of course, it’s not just the submission process that has changed. Now that most of our work appears online, writers are now privy to all sorts of information that would have once been left to mystery.

When I published my first short story in a small literary journal in 2005, I assumed that some people subscribed to it, that it arrived in their mail and landed on their coffee table. Probably plenty of these copies went unread, or were read selectively, but it seemed likely that some people—a few of them at least—would read my story. I would never know how many, or who they were, or what they thought, or if they caught the typo on the second page of the story—an error I’d noticed too late. I would never know these things, and in some ways it was better that way.

Today, when an essay or story goes live, I have access to data that I can track from moment-to-moment. I can see how many people liked it, tweeted it, or otherwise shared it. I can track how many people clicked over to my blog. If I were bold enough, I could probably ask the editors how many visitors clicked on my story. I can read not only the comments that appear below, but comments on the website’s Facebook page which are often less kind. All of this information means that my readers are less imaginary, more immediate. When comments are kind, they are gratifying, but when they are critical they add yet another layer of chatter to my brain, more voices in my head that I must contend with every time I sit down to write. These voices are louder than the snail-mail rejections, which never contained any clues or explanations. The voices of internet critics speak in no uncertain terms; they carefully enumerate all of my sins.

I do not wish we could go backward. The digital age has offered writers so much—it has allowed us to find each other more easily, to build meaningful communities; it has brought more good work to more people. But while online publishing has undeniably enhanced our writing lives, it has also complicated them. All of the opportunities for submitting and promoting our work, for making connections, for tracking responses—all of this perpetual anticipation and over-stimulation can leave me feeling like an old rubber band stretched nearly to the point of breaking.

When I began writing in the first place, it was because it helped me avoid the constant feeling of being worn thin. And so, at the end of the day, writing itself turns out to be the only antidote I’ve found to the chaos of the information age. Now more than ever, the blank page provides a source of comfort and stillness and silence. The act of engaging with that page, of diving deep to fill it with words, has become the only way I know to quiet the voices of distraction, or ease the feeling of vulnerability that comes from sharing your stories, your truth, and your secrets with the internet.

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Jennifer Berney is a queer mama, writer, and teacher. She is a contributing blogger at Brain, Child, and her work has also appeared in The Manifest Station and Mutha Magazine, among other places. She lives in Olympia, Washington, and blogs at Goodnight Already. You can find her on Twitter @JennBerney.

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