Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“It was a dark and stormy night…” March 15, 2013

Snoopy's GuideJUST THINKING about the scene—my husband and kids lying belly down on the carpet reading the Sunday funnies—makes me smile.

My mother’s heart swelled with love to witness this weekly connection between father and daughters/son. Back then, I considered only that bonding aspect, that break from full-time mothering, the laughter that spilled from the living room.

I’ve never been a reader of comics, considering them a waste of time. Besides that, I’m a serious person, not inclined to reading anything remotely humorous. But now, at age 56, it is not too late to admit that I was wrong. Comics offer not only laughter, but insights into life and much more. Duh.

Thanks to Minnesota writer Sue Ready, who blogs at Ever Ready, I discovered the value in comic strips via her recommended reading of Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life, published in 2002 by Writer’s Digest Books and edited by Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz.

It was the title, not the comedic aspect, which grabbed my attention. I am always interested in reading about writing and this volume offers insights from noted authors like Ray Bradbury, Fannie Flagg and Danielle Steel, among about two dozen others.

Their advice, though, isn’t presented in a straight-forward manner. Rather, the selected writers are prompted by cartoonist Charles M. Schulz’s Snoopy strips, specifically featuring Snoopy the writer at his doghouse rooftop typewriter.

Why had I forgotten that Snoopy was a writer? Perhaps because I have not read all that many Peanuts cartoons.

Snoopy faces the sometime issues of writer’s bloc, criticism (from the ever present loud-mouthed Lucy), rejection and more. But the problems somehow seem funny when faced by Snoopy and not me.

The canine is stuck on beginning his stories with “It was a dark and stormy night,” or a slightly revised version. How often do we writers also become stuck, writing in the same way or, even worse, writing how we think we should write?

Author Fannie Flagg advises:

The joy about writing is that as long as you write from your heart, a thousand English degrees cannot compete with that.

How true. Readers can sense when you write from your heart.

I found Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life packed with pieces of useful advice, some which I already knew, some not. Here are some paraphrased gems I plucked from the book:

  • Too much time on the typewriter (translate computer) can cause double vision. (Correct.)
  • Avoid boring descriptions and heavy explanations.
  • Understand your subject and your market.
  • Surprise is an important element of humor (and writing in general, might I add).
  • Stop seeking approval and advice and trust your instincts.
  • “Try to leave out the parts that readers skip” (direct quote that I could not paraphrase).
  • Plot develops from character, a point emphasized by more than one writer.
  • Just write. Every day.

Now, one of my favorite lines comes from Monte Schulz, the son of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz. Monte surmises that writers write “for the music of beautiful language.” I love that phrase because I totally get what he means. As a writer, and especially as a poet, my heart rejoices when I find the exact word or line which makes my poem sing. It is a glorious moment.

Then, on the second to last page of Snoopy’s Guide, writer J.F. Freedman throws in that element of surprise, at least for me, when he writes:

 Great comic strips…are a fine introduction into literature, and are damn good writing in and of themselves…

And after reading (in this book) more than 180 “Snoopy at the typewriter” comic strips, likely more comics than I’ve read in my life, I’d agree with Freedman. Damn good writing, indeed.

WHAT WRITING TIPS can you offer? Let’s hear them.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling