Writing lessons from Shel Silverstein

On May 10, 1999, the world lost a gifted author, playwright, songwriter, and human being. Shel Silverstein published The Giving Tree more than 50 years ago, but the story seems even more relevant and poignant in today’s struggles with technology-induced isolation and ongoing climate change. How is that possible? How does an unforgettably tender story written in the early 1960s become so much more powerful half a century later? I don’t have the answers. I just sit here in awe.

I was first introduced to Silverstein’s work in Where the Sidewalk Ends. When I was in fifth grade, I tried to write stories and poetry, but my writing focused more on telling than anything else (in my defense, I was only 10 years old at the time). My sentences were always grammatically correct and logically flowed to the end, so I couldn’t understand why my teacher was pushing me to delve deeper, experiment, get “messy” with my writing. She shared Where the Sidewalk Ends with me and suddenly everything clicked for me.

Creative writing wasn’t necessarily about detailing an event from start to finish, providing comprehensive and factual information. Writing had magic elements: It evoked an emotional response in the reader. The rhythm of the words and sentences were just as important as their flow.  And writing often didn’t come delivered in nice packages tied with a neat little bow. It could be messy, chaotic, shifting and swerving in unexpected ways.

Fifteen years after I fell in love with Where the Sidewalk Ends, I shared it with my students in Central Asia, where I was teaching as a Peace Corps volunteer. The poems helped them master the rhythm of speaking English while keeping them entertained during classes (we spent an entire class giggling over how to eat a hippopotamus sandwich).

I wanted to use Silverstein’s playfulness to inspire my response to today’s Carrot Ranch prompt, but alas, sometimes things don’t go as we plan. The prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) include insects in a story.

When the Sidewalk Ended

The calloused skin of my bare soles was no match for the sidewalk’s permeating heat. I jumped from side to side along the concrete stretching through the sandy loess.

And then the sidewalk ended.

I sunk my feet into gritty sand, sighing into the shaded coolness. But as my soles welcomed the relief, the heat latched onto my ankles, its fire crawling along my skin and spiraling up my calves.

Shrieking, I windmilled my arms, brushing at the fire ants swarming my legs. I raced back to the burning concrete’s safety, resigned to follow the well-traveled road.

For now.



  • Ah, what a loss it is to lose the writer, though his words remain and continue to influence. You also had a wise teacher to lead you deeper into writing. The heat of your flash is not pleasant either way, and makes me think of all we are damage with our concrete places and disrupted eco-systems. We are fortunate not to have fire ants though we have an interesting species that build huge three-foot mounds.

    Charli MillsMay 10, 2016
    • That’s what I love about writing. I didn’t see the environmental aspects in that piece while writing about it — not until you pointed them out. (Although since writing it, I have had phantom ant bites all up and down my left leg…hmmm…)

      C. JaiMay 11, 2016
  • The Giving Tree is one of my favourites. How wonderful to hear of the author’s influence on your own writing and teaching.
    Your flash really heats up with those fire ant stings. Unfortunately those cruel critters have reached Australia’s shores (through shipping containers I think) and are now a big problem in many areas. I don’t like the sound of your phantom stings.

    Norah ColvinMay 12, 2016
    • Oh no, not in Australia too! When I was a kid (like 4 years old), I actually stood in a fire ant mound for several minutes, not realizing where I stood or that the ants were biting me. When my brain finally made the connection, I ran screaming back home. My legs were swollen for days — and covered with bright pink calamine lotion up to my knees. Someday I’ll be able to laugh about the whole situation…maybe in a few more decades 😉

      C. JaiMay 12, 2016
  • Fire ants are the devil!

    So I just spent the last 10 mins lost in poems from Where the Sidewalk Ends. I forgot how much I enjoyed his work.

    Although I have to admit, I remember as a kid, being afraid of the cover! True story. Even at this moment, as I sit on my couch, the feeling of falling has overcome me as I look at those two kids and their dog! Freaky how the body and mind can play tricks on you, huh?

    Great short story C. Jai!

    Mira DayMay 13, 2016
    • It’s always good to be reminded of how much you enjoy someone’s work or how strongly it affects you 🙂

      C. JaiMay 15, 2016
  • The Giving Tree pissed me off.
    There. I said it.
    But I loved Where the Sidewalk Ends. I can recite many of the poems by heart to this day.
    And – Fire ants! ACK!
    – Ms

    MardraMay 15, 2016
    • Bwahaha — I can’t fault you for being honest, Mardra, and part of it rubbed me the wrong way too. Being a giving person is something I constantly aspire to, but giving and giving and giving until there is nothing left (especially when the recipient is unable to appreciate it) seems like the wrong message to be sending to readers (although I might be injecting my own personal biases at this point as I have been feeling sucked dry by others as of late). I try to focus on the “this is what could be if we don’t shape up as humans” message. Then I read news about the uses and abuses of women and children in the Bakken oilfield areas and realize we are failing from this side as well. ACCCCK. Only you, Mardra, can get me all twisted up about a children’s book about a boy and a tree. 😉

      C. JaiMay 15, 2016

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