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Life Lessons from Shel Silverstein

"Anything can happen, child, Anything can be."

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • September 25, 2020

Follow The Beat of Your Own Drum

Never explain what you do. It speaks for itself. You only muddle it by talking about it.

Shel Silverstein may be known primarily as one of the world's most renowned children's authors, but his path to success wasn't a direct line, nor did he ever get tied down to any one genre. On his way to becoming the award-winning author of such gems as Runny Babbit and A Giraffe and a Half, he dropped out of college, served in the U.S. Army, sold hotdogs, traveled the world, studied music, and worked as one of the lead cartoonists for Playboy magazine. Check out Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book if you're interested in seeing some of his adult-oriented material.

An avid musician, Silverstein wrote hit songs for artists like Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash, among others. The Grammy winner wrote more than 800 songs and released nearly twenty albums, displaying a wide range of styles and subjects.

Success Takes Work

If the track is tough and the hill is rough,
THINKING you can just ain't enough!

The author of several expansive anthologies like Where the Sidewalk Ends, Silverstein was nothing if not hardworking. He started drawing at age seven, initially tracing the popular comic strips of Al Capp. In describing the development of his work ethic, Silverstein told Publisher's Weekly, "When I was a kid—12 to 14, I'd much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls, but I couldn't play ball. I couldn't dance. Luckily, the girls didn't want me. Not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write...By the time I got to where I was attracting girls, I was already into work, and it was more important to me. Not that I wouldn't rather make love, but the work has become a habit." For a warm, enlightening portrait of the freewheeling, one-of-a-kind artist, pick up A Boy Named Shel by Lisa Rogak.

Life Doesn't Always Turn Out the Way You Want it to

I keep meeting all the right people
At all the wrong times.

Although he had countless friends (romantic and otherwise) Silverstein seemed to have little interest or success with longterm relationships. Many of Silverstein's stories and poems stress the importance of individuality over companionship. The Missing Piece, for example, is the story of an incomplete circle shape searching for a perfectly sized wedge to fill his empty space. Ultimately, the character decides he is better off on his own.

His work was often permeated by a bittersweet darkness. In fact, he had a hard time finding a publisher for his most famous story, The Giving Tree, because editors found it too depressing for children. The author was no stranger to heartache. His only daughter Shoshanna, born in 1970, died when she was only eleven years old. His collection A Light in the Attic is dedicated to her.

Use Your Imagination

If there is a book you want to read but isn`t written yet, write it.

Silverstein's work was known to be wildly inventive. His first children's book, Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back, published in 1963, featured a marshmallow-loving lion facing an identity crisis after becoming a celebrated marksman.

His concepts for poems and stories, like those found in Falling Up, often defied logic and embraced the absurd in a way that children (and adults) found irresistible. These lines from his poem "Put Something In," seem an apt description of his philosophy:

Do a loony-goony dance
'Cross the kitchen floor,
Put something silly in the world
That ain't been there before.

Have Faith in the Future

When I am gone what will you do?
Who will write and draw for you?
Someone smarter—someone new?
Someone better—maybe YOU!

Silverstein suffered a heart attack and passed away in 1999, but his legacy lives on. A self-taught artist, he is a marvelous example of someone who succeeded because he worked hard and created art that was utterly unique. He often conveyed this powerful affirmation: that anyone could do what he did—as long as they did the work and stayed true to themselves. Hear, hear!

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