Judith Viorst, 1998
by Dottie Witter
In November, the extraordinary Judith Viorst flew in to Oklahoma on a two-day break from her latest project: a musical version of her children's book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which would open the day before Thanksgiving at the Kennedy Center. Not only that, she wrote the lyrics for eight of the songs.
Children aren't the only ones falling under the charm of her prose or poetry for children or adults. Viorst said she once got a letter from a woman who said she was a short, plump, blonde Methodist Iowa farm wife, who thought Viorst was a tall Jewish East Coast lady, and that they lived the same life.
"I think my themes are very much integrated in whatever I write. I'm talking about all human things no matter their race, color, creed or geographical location, what people tend to struggle with in the course of their lives, or enjoy, or worry about, and how they deal with it," she said.
She emphasized that she doesn't do advice on aging or losses, even though those themes have played a prominent role in her writing. "I only give advice to my children, my husband and my personal friends, and not to the world at large. But I certainly think that it helps to understand that the losses of life, the experiences of aging, are not something that you have been singled out for by a malevolent fate. They are part of the human condition," she said.
Viorst believes there is something comforting in knowing that everyone is in the same boat with millions of others. "We've all been there, we've all gone through it. As you look around, you see people survive it, handle it, grow from it, and move on from it," she said. People are not isolated, but are a part of the flow of life that goes through different stages, she said. "I don't know why it cheers me up to know that I'm not the only person my age with sagging kneecaps, but it does," she said.
At the age of 7, her poems were about death. "I took my writing very seriously, and I thought everything I wrote was a masterpiece and couldn't understand why people weren't publishing it," she said. "I didn't get published until I was in my 30s, but I always wrote."
She doesn't need "props" to write, she said. "I was getting published at the same time I had my children, so I had to write when I could," she said. "If I'm working on an article, I'll write longhand in the airport and in the airplane, and it doesn't matter what kind of noise is going on. I'm very disciplined about that."
She is the mother of three sons, Alexander, Nicholas and Anthony, all in their 30s. Yes, THAT Alexander. She used the names of her sons in her books. Once, when a photographer came to shoot a book cover photo, he said he had read her entertaining little stories about how boisterous her children were, "charmingly exaggerated, but so much fun to read," he said. "By the time he left two hours later he decided they were understated rather than charmingly exaggerated," Viorst said.
Readers chuckle when they see the titles of her books, especially her children's books and poetry books, such as: If I Were in Charge of the World and Other Worries, I'll Fix Anthony, Sad Underwear and Other Complications. "I love naming everybody's babies and I love choosing book titles," she said.
Her work, especially her poetry, is distinctive in style. "I guess what you try to do is find your own authentic voice that doesn't sound like anybody else," she said. "I loved it when my son Alexander read Necessary Losses, and said, 'it sounds just like you, mom.'"
Viorst, a New Jersey native who said she hasn't been able to shed her accent, has made her home in Washington, D.C. for nearly 40 years with her husband Milton Viorst, a political science writer.
Judith Viorst on libraries
Be Inspired by Judith Viorst who is Unexpectedly Eighty
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
How Did I Get to Be 40 & Other Atrocities
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