5 Lessons Writers Can Learn from Ferdinand the Bull

The timeless children’s classic, The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, was written on a Sunday afternoon in 1935. Here's what writers can learn from it.
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By Kerrie Flanagan

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Munro Leaf's timeless children’s classic, The Story of Ferdinand, was written on a Sunday afternoon in 1935. Leaf’s wife had been reading manuscripts for a publisher to earn extra money. He kept bothering her while she worked and she told him to “get lost, go and amuse yourself. Do something.” Less than an hour later he came back with a story on a yellow legal pad, and Ferdinand was born. The book was published in 1936, and by 1938 it sold more than 3,000 copies per week. It has never gone out of print since and now the character stars in the new animated motion pictureFerdinand.

The story is about a bull who would rather sit under his favorite tree and smell the flowers than run, play and butt heads with the other bulls. Although the book is about a bovine who embraces his individuality, there are great lessons for writers to be learned in this charming tale.

1. Find your favorite writing spot.

Ferdinand likes to sit under the shade of his favorite cork tree and smell the flowers. This is his happy place. It is important to have a place to escape daily life in order to get into the zone and write. It should be a place that stirs your creativity and allows your mind the freedom to explore. It can be a home office, a local coffee shop, the library or your couch by a big bay window. If possible, keep this space designated only for writing and be sure to use it often.

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2. Stay true to yourself and your writing.

Ferdinand was not a fighter, which is why he spent his days under a tree. When five men came to pick the biggest and meanest bull for the next bull fight, the other bulls showed off, ramped up their aggression and butted heads with each other in order to impress the men.

Ferdinand had no desire to be a part of bull fight, so he went to his favorite spot to relax. Unfortunately, he accidentally sat on bee, whose sting sent him running around acting crazy and angry. The men chose him, but when they brought him to the ring, he just sat in the middle admiring all the flowers the ladies had in their hair. It was not in his nature to fight, so no matter what the Picadores and Matador did, Ferdinand stayed true to himself and remained peaceful.

There are going to be times in your writing life when you will be asked to change something about a piece you are working on. An agent may suggest you change the genre from adult to YA before she will consider your manuscript. A well-published critique group member may want you to completely change the ending of your novel. Writing is subjective, and just because one person doesn’t like something about your work doesn’t mean that everyone will feel the same way. If you don’t agree with those suggestions, then stay strong and write the piece you want to write.

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original book illustration by Robert Lawson

3. Sometimes you will get stung.

It is impossible to avoid all painful experiences in life. Ferdinand the bull was no exception. It certainly wasn’t his goal to find a bee and sit on it, but that’s what happened. In writing, when we submit our work to agents and editors, it is not our intention to get a “no thank you,” but it happens and it stings. It is the nature of the business. When we send out queries, proposals, manuscripts and even published work, not everyone is going to like it. Rejection letters and bad reviews come with the territory and they can feel like a horrible sting. It can be discouraging when they happen. Don’t wallow in a place of self-doubt and anger and use this as an excuse to stop writing. The pain will subside, allowing you to move past it and keep going.

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Grab the latest edition of Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market online at a discount!

4. Seek support.

Ferdinand behaved differently than the other bulls. Initially his mother became concerned that he did not run and play with the others. But when she saw how content and happy he was sitting under the tree, she accepted him. Writing can be a lonely venture and most of us need more than our mom’s love to navigate the ups and downs of it all. Cheerleaders can play a vital role, but you may also benefit from seeking out other means of support. Join a writing community, find a few writing buddies that you “talk shop” with, attend writer’s conferences, find a mentor or take workshops. All of these can give you the confidence you need to keep going. Seek out those other writers and be there to pull each other through the challenges and celebrate the successes.

5. Stop and smell the flowers.

Ferdinand was a master at relaxation. Obviously spending our days sniffing flowers isn’t a practical lifestyle for most of us, but Ferdinand was on to something. He understood the importance of downtime and appreciating the beauty around him. As wonderful as it is, writing can be exhausting at times. Characters, stories, information, dialogue—all of these elements can fill up our heads to the point where we can hardly see straight. These are the times you need to channel your inner Ferdinand and do something for yourself that will help you relax and clear your mind. Then the next time you sit down to write, you will be ready to go.

The Story of Ferdinand is over 80 years old and continues to resonate with readers, (and writers), showing us the power in a well-told story. It’s time you take your writing by the horns and get to work.

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Kerrie Flanaganis an author, freelance writer with hundreds of published articles and a writing consultant who works with writers, giving them the encouragement, support, resources and tools to find success on their writing journey. She is the author of 8 books under her label, Hot Chocolate Press. She is also the author of the forthcoming Writer’s Digest book, Guide to Magazine Article Writing, due out in the fall of 2018.

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