People of a certain generation may remember the children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. This was the pen name of David Johnson Leisk who lived from 1906 to 1975 and wrote the classic in 1955. I was five years old in 1967 and the book was everywhere — classrooms, libraries, my bedroom and friends’ homes.
The background for the story is a completely blank page. Harold draws his reality with his big purple crayon and sometimes this reality — falling off a hill, stumbling into the ocean, not being able to find the window that leads to his bedroom from among the dozens of windows he’s drawn — seems threatening. But all ends well with Harold drawing a bed, climbing into it, and falling asleep.
I’ve always loved the story. For one thing, my favorite color is purple. Always food-oriented, I like it that Harold draws his nine favorite kinds of pie and eats a slice of each even though we never see him eating and I wish I knew more about those pies. (Do you have nine favorite pies? I could only come up with six: key lime, pecan, banana cream, strawberry-rhubarb, cherry and apple.) I like it that, although in some ways he appears to be alone throughout the story, the moon he drew accompanies him everywhere. Most of all I love the idea that he can draw any reality he wants. The book succeeds very well in bringing his interesting imaginings to life.
Perhaps the story is especially on my mind right now because I’m dealing with my own blank page. They say there are two ways to approach writing: as an “outliner” or “discovery” writer. The former maps out in advance story structure, back story, details of the world inhabited by the characters and of course, plot. Discovery writing means understanding who your characters are, putting them in interesting situations and then seeing what happens. It means you don’t decide the twists and turns of your plot; your characters do. A discovery writer doesn’t force anything that isn’t true to the personalities of the people in the story. In my case, that includes a cat.
Before now, discovery writing would have terrified me. Everything in the plot was mapped out in detail in my previous fiction efforts. This time, not so much. I know who the characters of Shopat are though I expect to learn a lot more about them as I go along. I know roughly what happens in the beginning, middle and end, but I expect that changes and surprises will come to me the more I write. It feels good to be balancing both approaches and to be unafraid about where this will lead me.
I cashed in all my chips. Quit my job, sold my condo and sold my car. It may all end with waving a Jiffy Lube sign but there was a part of me that felt that if the world really is going down the tubes as quickly as it seems to be doing, then what is there to lose? I wanted, at least once, to see what it feels like to live and work as a writer. This may seem like a perversely pessimistic view to some. And of course, as long as you’re alive, there’s always something to lose. But I have to say the philosophy feels liberating. Likewise, taking the discovery approach to my novel feels like my own purple crayon and I love it.