People tend to think of creativity as complete freedom, but often it is not freedom but playing within constraints that creates art. This example, about children’s author Dr. Seuss, comes from Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing by Ben Blatt.
Besides made-up words and rhymes, Dr. Seuss’s biggest trademark is the simplicity of his writing. Even compared to other children’s authors, Dr. Seuss pushed the limits. We can partly thank his Houghton Mifflin editor, William Spaulding, who after a string of successes presented Seuss with a list of just a few hundred simple words in the mid-1950s. Seuss had already published Horton Hears a Who!, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and If I Ran the Zoo. But, as detailed in the New Yorker article “Cat People,” Spaulding wanted Seuss to go after an even younger audience: “Write me a story that first graders can’t put down!” Seuss would later describe how he struggled with Spaulding’s challenge: He sent me a list of about three hundred words and told me to make a book out of them. At first I thought it was impossible and ridiculous, and I was about to get out of the whole thing; then decided to look at the list one more time and to use the first two words that rhymed as the title of the book— cat and hat were the ones my eyes lighted on. I worked on the book for nine months— throwing it across the room and letting it hang for a while— but I finally got it done. The result was The Cat in the Hat. It clocks in at 220 unique words, and to this day ranks as the second-most-selling book of Seuss’s career. The one book ahead of it? It’s Green Eggs and Ham, which uses just fifty words. All but one, anywhere, are one syllable. Seuss’s two most popular books are those in which he restricted himself the most: Simplicity brought success.