What I Read, Drew, and Wrote

Alfred E. Neuman

Help for Writer’s Block

An Alfred E. Neuman bobble-head sits on my L-shaped desk, next to my laptop. Having finished one novel, I set up an array of de-stressers: Alfred (as in “What—Me Worry?”), a few quieting yoga stretches, diaphragmatic breathing, and a mellow glass of pinot noir (a fruity zin will work, too). They soothe me as I craft the second follow-up novel to Malevir: Dragons Return, work on my short stories, dare to submit work to journals, or anguish over a future reading at my writers’ group.

Alfred, the iconic cover illustration of nearly every Mad magazine, had his debut in the 1950’s. He signified the kinds of mischief that ‘good’ kids then wouldn’t do but would have loved to have done if they could have gotten away with it. My brother had a copy that I borrowed and read in the teen privacy of my room. Every one of its graphic stories, satires, or pseudo-adventure comic strips felt transgressive. Every page- turn offered innuendos or outright depictions of sex, violence, and mayhem that were unimaginable in my everyday life—and I loved it. Vicarious naughtiness.

Drawing on the Right Side

Even before I first secreted myself away with a copy of Mad, I was creating transgressive art and text of my own. After an incident in fifth grade, however, I hid it. My talent for figurative cartooning and a fascination with all things of Ancient Egypt provided me with the means to attract attention in my crowded public classroom–the attention of cute boys. I drew Egyptian princesses, anatomically correct and clothed in gauzy linen.  The boys sitting around me asked for personal copies and their clamoring attracted the attention of Mrs. Brown, my teacher.  She sent me to the office of Mr. O’Rourke, our otherwise kindly principal. My mother came to school within the hour. Mr. O’Rourke announced that I would be suspended until the end of the Thanksgiving break. This happened early in the week before Thanksgiving.

My mother defended me. She reminded the principal that she was the PTA Poster Chairman (all work was done by hand then) and she exhorted him to respect and nurture artistic talent (she was an accomplished amateur painter herself), but Mr. O’Rourke insisted that I had been inexcusably disruptive and provocative. Period.

Well, fine then, my mother retorted. She told him that we’d be happy to start our vacation early and he ought to be ashamed of himself. She walked me home without reprimand, or at least these many decades later, I don’t remember feeling at all guilty, just amused. The incident stayed with me and I recall it whenever I see work by Jeff Koons or other ostensibly transgressive artists.

Ready to Write

Throughout adolescence, I had an Olivetti portable typewriter, now a design classic, but then my pleasurable tool for concretizing my imaginings. Title #1: Sheena, Girl of the Jungle. Title #2 My Life as a Slave. Clearly, I was not drawing from personal experience.

In the first case, I’d just closed the exquisite covers of my father’s copy of Green Mansions by William Henry Hudson. A man travels to the Guyana jungle of southeastern Venezuela and encounters a forest dwelling girl named Rima. I remembered the girl as a very strange bird-like creature whose provocations fatally stirred the superstitions of the native people living nearby. I thought I could write a better story and I did try but never finished it.

In the second case, my seventh grade classmates and I were assigned to write research papers on injustice in American history. Having also read at that time a biography about George Washington Carver and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I chose to write about slavery in America.  I wrote in the first person as if I myself were the young man kidnapped in Africa and brought to the American South. Although naïve and arrogant, I did live in the old Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago and couldn’t help but notice economic and social inequities of the time. A burgeoning indignation spurred me on.

I illustrated the story and every sketch of mine brought me closer to compassion and outrage for the people who suffered the pain and injustice of slavery. I wish I still had that paper, to get into my young adolescent head, to see what I did not know, could not understand.

Over the years I have written creative non-fiction related to the curricula I produced, first as an elementary school art instructor, then for nearly two decades as a museum education curator. While any curriculum I wrote was based on facts as well as best and accepted practices, to add imaginative interest and encourage my students’ engagement I put those facts in the context of stories, situations invented but accurately portrayed that brought to life the remote or unfamiliar.

Once my career in education ended, I set my imagination free, no longer anchoring it on historical facts or art history, but letting it roam in many unconstrained and magical worlds. Hence, my first novel, Malevir: Dragons Return, available to order on this website.

So, Alfred E. Neuman, it’s you and me, kid. On we go, into the world of novel #2.



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