July 6th, 2006

ozarque figure

Writing something entirely different....

One of the most challenging -- and in the long run, most interesting -- writing assignments I've ever had was for a large nonprofit religious organization. The assignment was to take a set of Bible stories and "adapt" them to be used as literacy primers for children. (That word "adapt" was carefully chosen, since theological propriety ruled out saying that I was writing them, rewriting them, or revising them.) In addition, I was charged with writing the art specs -- that is, writing instructions for the artists hired by the nonprofit, telling them what the illustrations should look like in as much detail as possible, with special attention to making sure that they would be as historically correct as possible.

This was extraordinarily complicated. (If I had realized in advance how complicated it would be, I don't think I would have had the courage to try it.) Every one of the primers had to be exactly 28 pages long -- with page one being a righthand page and page 28 a lefthand page, and a generous proportion of double-spread pages -- with just a few words of text on each page. The words had to be tailored for children who either couldn't read at all or were just barely able to read; on the other hand, there were some words that were obligatory no matter how unsuited they might otherwise be for primers. Like "fruit," in the Garden of Eden story; and "light," in the creation story.

Fortunately, most of the stories could be said to be simply terrific stories in the first place, no matter what your religious orientation or lack of same. Great plots. Fantastic characters. There's the one where Peter sees Jesus walking on the water and decides to try it for himself, and he gets out of the boat and for just a few seconds he can do it -- until suddenly he realizes what he's doing and gets scared clear to his bones, and he starts sinking. There's Jonah, trying to run away from God by boat and not getting away with it, convincing the sailors to throw him overboard to save the other passengers, spending lots of miserable time inside a huge fish, getting vomited up on a beach, and deciding in the end that it would be best to get on with it. There's Jesus making a whip out of rope and running the salespeople and all their merchandise -- and the moneychangers -- out of the temple at Jerusalem. You take stories like that, and you add a solid art budget .... lovely. The problem was boiling the stories down to those 28 pages of just a very few words without leaving out anything important. Having been a poet so many years helped, because it meant I'd had lots of practice poring over dozens of words in an effort to find exactly the right one. Having the illustrations to fall back on as a place to put information I couldn't make room for in the words helped. But it was hard.

I can't give you any examples of the results, because the copyright belongs to the nonprofit, not to me, and none of the books are available online to be linked to; I'm sorry about that. But I think you can imagine what it would be like. If not, try it for yourself; you'll immediately understand what it was like.

Most of the stories were simply terrific stories in the first place, as I said. That's true. But then there was the story where the angel shows up and tells Mary that she's going to have a baby, that the child will be God's son, that it's going to happen despite the fact that Mary's not married, and Mary agrees to this arrangement. In that story, from the point of view of a child, nothing happens. Well, an angel shows up -- but after that, nothing happens. The angel says blah blah blah; Mary says blah blah blah. There is no action in this story. That's at least 27 pages of no action.

I didn't know what to do. My contract required me to do that story; it appeared to me to be impossible to do that story. I spent endless hours trying to turn that narrative into a 28-page story that a child could enjoy reading -- and that would waltz carefully around the indelicate aspects -- and every draft I wrote was more child-boring than the one before. And then I had an idea: Put a cat in the pictures. Show the cat backing away from the angel; show the cat looking really scared of the angel; show the cat running behind Mary to hide from the angel; keep that cat moving. So that a child would have something to look at while the conversation between Mary and the angel was going on.

It wasn't easy to get permission to do this. I was adapting, remember, and nowhere in the Bible does it say that a cat was present when the angel appeared to Mary. Much stodgy polysyllabic scholarly argument had to go on, back and forth. Research had to be done to prove that in New Testament times it would be historically plausible that there were both rodents and cats around. The cat had to be an outdoor cat, not a housepet. It took a very long time, but I did eventually get permission, after a fashion. I say "after a fashion" because I wasn't allowed to keep the cat moving the way I had wanted to, or to have it do all the things I'd wanted to have it do -- but I did get permission to put the cat into the illustrations in enough strategic places to make it possible to do that book. I can nevertheless say honestly that it was the most difficult text I've ever constructed, bar none.

I learned an enormous amount doing this assignment. About saying a great deal in a very few words. About how a children's book is written and illustrated and put together. About doing research of a kind I'd never done before. And about negotiation.