Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Tribute to The Phantom Tollbooth

I decided to re-read The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I don't remember a lot of it, so I'm re-discovering as I go along.

Do you remember Milo and Tock? Milo is "every boy," or "every child," and he is consumed with boredom and laziness. Ennui rules his every breath. (I just like that word. Say it with me: ennui. Don't you feel sophisticated?) Tock is a Watchdog. Literally. A watch and a dog. But he goes "tick" instead of "tock." Milo assembled the Phantom Tollbooth from a mysterious box in his bedroom and drove into the Lands Beyond, starting with Expectations, where all you can do is wonder. Just ask the Whether Man! Milo's travels then expand to the Doldrums, where he arrived by letting his mind wander and by "not thinking at all."

For procrastinators everywhere, I present a quote from Milo's visit to the Doldrums.

"As you can see, that leaves almost no time for brooding, lagging, plodding, or procrastinating, and if we stopped to think or laugh, we'd never get nothing done."

"You mean you'd never get anything done," corrected Milo.

"We don't want to get anything done," snapped another angrily; "we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help."

Yay! Oh, me, me! I can do that, too!

Aside from the 1961 writing style (annoying dialogue tags and an unnecessary adverb), I quite enjoy this so far.

Sometimes, when writing, I feel like scratching my head in confusion, as Milo does here at the entrance to Dictionopolis.

"I never knew words could be so confusing," Milo said to Tock as he bent down to scratch the dog's ear.

"Only when you use a lot to say a little," answered Tock.

Oh, I would never do that. Never. No writer would ever do a thing like that. Not even if they have a word or page count deadline looming the next day and they needed to pad a few pages with dialogue about sipping tea. Never I would use extraneous or superfluous language to fill a page. Unnecessary, nonsensical, additional, avoidable, repetetive, random, redundant, exorbitant, and/or haphazard dashes of linguistic irrelevance are not in my writer's toolbag.

Not me.

While in the market at Dictionopolis, Milo and Tock run into the Spelling Bee and the Humbug, who disagree and cause a mess. Or maybe Milo causes the mess, because he is blamed for it.

The Humbug throws out this little gem to the Spelling Bee:

"A slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect," roared the Humbug, waving his cane furiously.

I'm just going to ignore the dialogue tag and the unnecessary adverb. But really, I spell things correctly 99.99999999% of the time. I believe my intellect functions adequately, possibly more than adequately, depending upon many factors, including sleep, and pain levels. This statement from the Bug to the Bee seems to me to be similar to the old adage, "Those who can't write, edit." I have done both, and both are challenging positions. And believe me, without a writer, there's nothing to edit, so both sides should just quiet down.

Speaking of arguments, when Milo and Tock find themselves sentenced to prison for six million years for making the mess, they meet a Which. Not a witch, but a Which. Her name is Faintly Macabre, and her job in the past was to pick which words for used for what purposes. She was jailed because she became stingy and decided to keep the good words for herself. They eat them, you see, and most are quite tasty, juicy, and sweet. Now the only things Faintly is allowed to eat are sugar-coated punctuation marks, such as commas and exclamation points.

The best bit of advice the Which passes on so far is this:

"An ill-chosen word is the fool's messenger."

A bit of writerly wisdom, indeed. Of course, this proverb was intended to make the people of Dictionopolis stop using so many words so the Which could eat them all.

Here's my bit of wisdom to all writers everywhere today: Don't let the Which eat your words. Type them as fast as you can! You can always edit later. Don't keep the words inside, even when you visit the Doldrums. As Tock said to Milo, "It's bad enough wasting time without killing it."

And as Milo recognized when he escaped the Doldrums by starting to think again about anything, anything at all, "how much could be accomplished with just a little thought."

For instance, I didn't think I had anything to say in a blog this afternoon. Hm. And I've only read through chapter five so far!

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  1. Anna,
    This is the best post I've seen all day! (Don't tell anyone else I said that.) It was funny, and yet informative at the same time! Well done! Well done!

  2. I've never heard of that book. Should I be embarrassed to admit that?

  3. I never heard of book, but I loved your post

  4. Yes - the book is awesome; however, there is an equally awesome 70'sish cartoon movie version of the book floating around somewhere. I think you can get it off Amazon.

  5. Indeed, the book deserves tribute - ceaselessly charming and as timeless as an oyster with no pocketwatch.

  6. I was thinking about hanging up the illustration of 'procrastination' on my wall, as a way of procrastinating from tackling the work on my desk. Searching for Phantom tollbooth/procrastination, I came across this page....

    1. I'm glad you did, and I'm sorry it took me so long to reply to you!


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