If Dr. Seuss is like a whimsical father, Maurice Sendak is the even more eccentric uncle.
The beloved and award-winning writer and illustrator—author of “Where The Wild Things Are”—died Tuesday morning at age 83.
This evening, countless parents who grew up with Sendak’s words and illustrations will pay tribute to the artist by pulling “Wild Things” off the shelf to read to their children.
In the meantime, Sendak’s life and his life’s work offer important lessons and reminders for writers, designers, and social media professionals—in other words, content creators, a term he probably despised—whose blank page is the Web.
Break every rule you can.
Until Sendak starting creating children’s books, the vast majority followed a tight script: Well-groomed and well-behaved young people faced a challenge, which they rather easily conquered by the end of the story.
Not the case with Sendak’s characters and tales.
The children are on the rough side—they’re outspoken, sometimes irritating, even a bit menacing. Max from “Where The Wild Things Are” threatens to eat his mother. Max and other characters from Sendak's stories are experiencing problems with no easy solution. As The New York Times’ obituary
of Sendak explained:
“Sendak’s characters, by contrast, are headstrong, bossy, even obnoxious. (In ‘Pierre,’ ‘I don’t care!’ is the response of the small eponymous hero to absolutely everything.) His pictures are often unsettling. His plots are fraught with rupture: children are kidnapped, parents disappear, a dog lights out from her comfortable home.”
Follow suit in your work. If your competition—whether it’s another company or a fellow blogger—is publishing blog posts about new products, try writing about the problem your product or service solves. Break from tradition as much and as often as possible.
Embrace an economy of writing.
“Where The Wild Things Are,” considered one of the greatest children’s books, is a mere 338 words. Yet the story is epic.
Max’s mother, fed up with her child’s behavior, sends the boy to his room. It quickly becomes a forest, and then a vast ocean that Max sails for nearly a year, until he reaches the land of the menacing Wild Things. Ultimately, Max tames the beasts and becomes their king.
“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start.”
Read that iconic quote from the book aloud and think of Max—you’ll grin and feel chills run up your spine. The line is only 60 characters, less than half a tweet. You don’t need to be verbose to spark a reaction, to inspire your readers. You need to use strong, descriptive language and, when possible, include powerful art.
Think like an artist.
Sendak was more artist and illustrator than writer. Although he’s known to many as the author of children’s books, Sendak illustrated a number of other writers’ books and designed sets and costumes for adaptations of his work. His career began as a window dresser at FAO Schwartz.
The masterful art in his many books enables the brevity of his writing. Put yourself in this mindset when planning your content. After all, 2012 is the year of the image thanks to the rise of Pinterest, Tumblr, and infographics. The Web seems to have outgrown (for now) its obsession with exotic multimedia, such as videos and virtual reality, and has instead embraced the simple, yet powerful image.
That means the art you use to complement or tell your story is more important than ever.
Unplug when you need inspiration.
Sendak wasn’t an Andy Warhol or Truman Capote, lighting off from one party to another, surrounded by celebrities and those struggling to become famous.
He lived in the woods with his partner of many years (who died in 2006).
Here’s how the Times
’ obit described it:
“[Sendak] could be dyspeptic and solitary, working in his white clapboard home in the deep Connecticut countryside with only Mozart, Melville, Mickey Mouse and his dogs for company.”
We’re not advocating brooding and melancholy, but a little bit of solitude (and Mozart, Melville, Mickey Mouse, and a dog—or cat) can go a long way. Take at least a little bit of time to disconnect, decompress, and think. You’ll be amazed at the sort of inspiration you’ll find for your next project, whether it’s personal or professional.
Go ahead and take that break now, by watching this reading of “Where The Wild Things Are” (or this one
read by President Obama):