March 30, 2012

The Whole News Movement

I caught just a little bit of Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet, in Bob Edwards Weekend a couple of weeks back.  I followed up and listened to a talk he gives on Youtube.  Fascinating stuff.

Clay’s argument is that information overload is a problem, just like obesity is a problem, and he extends the metaphor to suss out the parallels. 

Michael Pollon, in books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, argues that we should “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”  We have a proven obesity epidemic in this country ~ decidedly NOT theoretical ~ and that’s because “pizza tastes better than broccoli” (Clay’s phrase).  Indeed, we are hardwired for the stuff that isn’t good for us; our physiology has not caught up with our environment evolutionarily.  The consolidation of Big Agriculture has caused the production of food with lots of calories but little nutritional value. Michael and others have started a slow-food whole-food movement.

Clay draws the parallel to information.  “Seek information, not comfort, and not too much.”  Or, alternately, “Read, not too much, mostly facts.”  Clay’s argument is this.  What big information producers want to put on the internet, and what we vote for every day with our clicks and our attention, is entertainment, affirmation, and fear.  (The average person takes in 11 hours a day of information, he says.)  “Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear they are right?  Who wants to be informed when they can be affirmed,” Clay says.  It isn’t news we’re getting ~ it’s opinion.  A prime example:  the headline “AP Poll: Economic Worries Pose New Snags for Obama” was changed by Fox News to be “AP: Obama has Big Problem with White Women.”  And it’s not just conservatives. 

Just like we’re voting for pizza rather than broccoli with our hard-earned dollars, we’re voting for opinion rather than news, rather than facts.  We’re not looking for high-quality investigative journalism.  So, as a consequence, more information is actually making us more ignorant and more polarized, just as more food is less nutritious and making us more unhealthy.  This information problem is not just in our heads ~ it affects our political and social decision making (for example, health care and social welfare), and so it has real and dire consequences.

What Clay argues for is a whole-news movement, a slow-news movement.  Don’t skim off the top for opinion and entertainment.  Just as there is a food pyramid and we should eat from the bottom, we should get to the bottom of our news, get the facts, go to the source, and journalists should “show their work” and broadcast the raw data of their work.

How to reach there, he says, is 1) “read my book The Information DietJ , 2) seek information, not comfort, and not too much, and 3) seek out, if you’re a reader, and show, if you’re a journalist, the raw data, 4) as a consumer, pay for good information and don’t rely on advertising to cover the bill for you (e.g., the iTunes and Netflix model), and 5) content is not a commodity to be sold by the highest bidder, and  make it nutritious.

Very interesting stuff!  The reader in me disagrees with his assertion of “don’t read as much,” but everything else I totally agreed with, on so many levels.  It’s like what I’ve been saying about literary fiction ~ the reason I like it is it tries to represent lived experience, with all its contradictions and subtleties.   I love long-form journalism and memoir for the same reason.  It dives deep and represents the real world.  I like point of view (therefore opinion, I suppose) but when it is reasoned, not when it is vituperous and divisive and reductive. 

I guess the way I think about it ~ I’m just realizing this ~ is that on one end of the spectrum, the long-form indepth one, is love, and on the other end, the short snappy opinionated one, is hate.  That’s what it comes down to for me.

It means, as a writer, you need to trust your audience.  I believe in you, my readers, and I think you’ll get this.  Not only that, you have to trust yourself and push yourself and REPRESENT, you know?  You can’t be lazy.  Make your stuff nutritious, for heaven’s sake.

Finally, Clay pointed out that at big content companies (Aol, e.g.) , they want cheap entertaining content, nothing more.  They don’t want to spend more than $80 on a piece of content.  That’s for EVERYTHING.  A writer’s share is, what, $5? $10? for 500 words?  I know this for a fact from trying to do freelance stuff.  Let’s say it takes you 5 hours to write a really good well-researched 500 word article.  That’s $1 an hour.  And people want to be writers so badly they do it for free. 

You know what this means?  All your blood, sweat, and tears are not worth a hill of beans.  YOU, the writer, aren’t worth anything.  So then why should you write good accurate nutritious content?   This devalues what we do on so many levels, and when writers accept these terms, they drag all the other writers down with them. 

I totally agree with Clay:  we need nutritious things on the internet.  Go forth!  Seek it out! And write it!

March 29, 2012

A Boy Named Sue, by Shel Silverstein

Did you know that Shel Silverstein wrote this poem?

A Boy Named Sue

Well, my daddy left home when I was three,
and he didn't leave much to Ma and me,
just this old guitar and a bottle of booze.
Now I don't blame him because he run and hid,
but the meanest thing that he ever did was
before he left he went and named me Sue.

Well, he must have thought it was quite a joke,
and it got lots of laughs from a lot of folks,
it seems I had to fight my whole life through.
Some gal would giggle and I'd get red
and some guy would laugh and I'd bust his head,
I tell you, life ain't easy for a boy named Sue.

Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean.
My fist got hard and my wits got keen.
Roamed from town to town to hide my shame,
but I made me a vow to the moon and the stars,
I'd search the honky tonks and bars and kill
that man that gave me that awful name.

But it was Gatlinburg in mid July and I had
just hit town and my throat was dry.
I'd thought i'd stop and have myself a brew.
At an old saloon in a street of mud
and at a table dealing stud sat the dirty,
mangy dog that named me Sue.

Well, I knew that snake was my own sweet dad
from a worn-out picture that my mother had
and I knew the scar on his cheek and his evil eye.
He was big and bent and gray and old
and I looked at him and my blood ran cold,
and I said, 'My name is Sue. How do you do?
Now you're gonna die.' Yeah, that's what I told him.

Well, I hit him right between the eyes and he went down
but to my surprise he came up with a knife
and cut off a piece of my ear. But I busted a chair
right across his teeth. And we crashed through
the wall and into the street kicking and a-gouging
in the mud and the blood and the beer.

I tell you I've fought tougher men but I really can't remember when.
He kicked like a mule and bit like a crocodile.
I heard him laughin' and then I heard him cussin',
he went for his gun and I pulled mine first.
He stood there looking at me and I saw him smile.

And he said, 'Son, this world is rough and if
a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough
and I knew I wouldn't be there to help you along.
So I gave you that name and I said 'Goodbye'.
I knew you'd have to get tough or die. And it's
that name that helped to make you strong.'

Yeah, he said, 'Now you have just fought one
helluva fight, and I know you hate me and you've
got the right to kill me now and I wouldn't blame you
if you do. But you ought to thank me
before I die for the gravel in your guts and the spit
in your eye because I'm the guy that named you Sue.'
Yeah, what could I do? What could I do?

I got all choked up and I threw down my gun,
called him pa and he called me a son,
and I came away with a different point of view
and I think about him now and then.
Every time I tried, every time I win and if I
ever have a son I think I am gonna name him
Bill or George - anything but Sue.

March 28, 2012

Smoky the Cowhorse, by Will James

I’ve been reading the classic Smoky the Cowhorse by Will James to my five-year-olds.  They love it.  Will James actually lived up near the summer pasture of the ranch where I grew up, up in southern Montana in the Pryor Mountains.  He wrote great books for kids and illustrated them himself.  His drawings are so lifelike, very Remington/Russell.  Here’s the part that leaves my kids rolling in the aisles, and when I read it, I exaggerate, “big mountains TWO FEET HIGH” and “wide valleys SIX OR EIGHT FEET acrost” and make the hand motions.

The rest of that day was full of events for Smoky. He explored the whole country, went up big mountains two feet high, wide valleys six or eight feet acrost, and at one time was as far as twelve feet away from his mammy all by himself. He shied at a rock once; it was a dangerous-looking rock, and he kicked at it as he went past. All that action being put on at once come pretty near being too much for him and he come close to measuring his whole length on Mother Earth once again. But luck was with him, and taking it all he had a mighty good time. When the sun went to sinking over the blue ridges in the West, Smoky, he missed all the beauty of the first sunset in his life;--he was stretched out full length, of his own accord this time, and sound asleep.
The night was a mighty good rival of what the day had been. All the stars was out and showing off, and the braves was a chasing the buffalo plum around the Big Dipper, the water hole of The Happy Hunting Grounds. But all that was lost to Smoky; he was still asleep and recuperating from his first day's adventures, and most likely he'd kept on sleeping for a good long spell, only his mammy who was standing guard over him happened to get a little too close and stepped on his tail.
Smoky must of been in the middle of some bad dream. His natural instinct might of pictured some enemy to his mind, and something that looked like a wolf or a bear must of had him cornered for sure. Anyway, when he felt his tail pinched that way he figgered that when a feller begins to feel it's sure time to act, and he did. He shot up right under his mammy's chin, let out a squeal, and stood there ready to fight. He took in the country for feet and feet around and looking for the enemy that'd nipped him, and finally in his scouting around that way he run acrost the shadow of his mammy. That meant but one thing, safety; and that accounted for and put away as past left room for a craving he'd never noticed in his excitement. He was hungry, and proceeded right then and there to take on a feed of his mammy's warm, rich milk.

You can read the whole book at Project Gutenberg.

March 27, 2012

This American Dream

I don’t usually blog politics, but here we are.

Exhibit A.  A state where people work hard and are able to achieve a home of their own, food on the table, a good job, a retirement, a healthy life.  The very old and the very young are taken care of, and there is room for love.

Exhibit B.  A state where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness means life for me, liberty for me, and my pursuit of happiness, screw you.  Might makes right, and I am the exception to the rule.  Old people don't matter.  Young people don't matter.  American Exceptionalism gone mad.  And not only that, I have the right for it to be free, at no cost to me.

It seems as if, in these debates over tax and health care reform, the American Dream has morphed from A to B.  Which makes me very sad.

March 26, 2012

Are We Making Progress?

This last issue of Newsweek is fabulous!  It’s a double issue that is a throwback to 1965.  Everything in it is designed as if it were 1965 or about then or the difference between then and now.  All fascinating stuff, and don’t get me started on the delicious design of everything, most especially the advertising.  You should check out a physical copy of it when you get a chance.

I was especially interested in the Read All About It section, where they compare the Top 10 bestseller nonfiction and fiction lists of March 1966 with those of today. They list the books and tell a little bit about them, and then declare a winner, which presumably means the better book.

Some interesting things.  In March 1966, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood topped the nonfiction list.  What a great book.  It was so stylish and well written no one cared that it was labeled nonfiction.  Barbara Tuchman, whom I love, was on the 1966 list, and Games People Play was number 5.  On the fiction list in 1966 was James Michener and Valley of the Dolls.

But what is even more fascinating is which books are declared winners.  On both nonfiction and fiction lists, seven of the 1966 titles were named winners, two 2012 titles, and one a tie or “reader’s choice.”  Now, I wonder why that is?  The only trends I could spot is that the books back then seemed to be bigger, about bigger issues or more about morality, while today’s books were very personal or self-help or, I don’t know, by zealots.  All of today’s fiction seemed to be about serial kills and CIA agents, while the 1966 fiction was about Nazi death camps or other big topics and/or very stylishly done.

So was 1966 the winner in these lists because people thought more deeply and more broadly and about bigger issues and thought about more than themselves?  Or is it because publishing has become more timid and narrow in their view of what they want to publish?  Or have writers been more concerned with what sells than about style?  Is the reading public getting dumber?  Or …? 

What do you think?  I'm really curious.

March 23, 2012

Expand your Vocabulary

Because the novel I'm working on is historical fiction, I've been able to use all these great words.  So, in honor of that, from Neotorama, 10 great words to expand your vocabulary (some less politically correct than others ~ the 1800s were a different time, to be sure)! Please see the Neatorama website for further explanation. 

1. FRENCHIFY ~ 1) To make French in quality or trait 2) To make somewhat effeminate, and 3) To contract a veneral disease (a 19th century slang). (My apologies for this one.)

2. BESCUMBER (v) ~ To spray with poo.

3. MICROPHALLUS (n) ~ An unusually small penis.

4. COCCYDYNIA (n) ~ Pain in the butt.

5. NINNYHAMMER (n) ~ A fool or a silly person.

6. BUNCOMBE (n) ~ A ludicrously false statement. Basically it means bullshit or nonsense.

7. HIRCISMUS (n) ~ Offensive armpit odor.

8. CORPULENT (adj) ~ Very fat.

9. FEIST or FICE (n) ~ 1) A small dog of uncertain ancestry, a mongrel. 2) A person of little worth or someone with a bad temper, and 3) Silent fart.

10. CACAFUEGO (n) ~ A swaggering braggart or boaster.

March 22, 2012

Geez! Lighten up, Francis!  I seem to have fallen into pedanticism lately.  In an effort to break out of it, here's some great Facebook posts by  If you don't follow them, you should! Plus you can get your grammar checked on their site.


March 21, 2012

Important vs. Urgent

My day job is as editor for the University of Wyoming Foundation.  I love my job.  Such good folks and such a fabulous place to work.  I had my annual review the other day, and one of the things my great boss Toby said was, “We need to get to the things that are important, not just the things that are urgent.”

It strikes me that that is a good policy for life ~ because there’s always things that are urgent, you know?  The world, made up of so many people, wants things from you all the time, and they’re urgent, oh so urgent. And some of them are.  You have to pay the bills, take care of your family, do the laundry, and all that. 

But what about those things we convince ourselves are urgent but aren’t, really? Those things that are easier to do than the things that are important, those things you can turn the crank and get done and have a sense of accomplishment.  Cleaning the bathroom, putting away the laundry, raking the yard, having the best decorations for Halloween, volunteering on every committee available, making sure the cookie jar is always full, alphabetizing our bookshelves, remembering our second cousin’s stepson’s fifteenth birthday when he won’t care a whit.  We can fill our lives with “should.”  (A counselor once told me, “Don’t should on yourself.”)  If we do that and only that, what do we get at the end of that life?  Well, we’d get the satisfaction of living our lives for other people.  If that’s what you want, I think that’s great.  But with that often comes bitterness and pain and a little voice inside saying, “What about me?”  Some of the most unselfish people I know are also the most angry and bitter.

So, what in your life is urgent?  What is urgent and important?  What is just important?  We must ~ must!, I say ~ plan our lives accordingly.

And, by the way, Toby, I’ll be getting to that communications plan directly.

March 20, 2012

A Sentence

Don't you just love coming across one of those sentences that just knocks your socks off?  Here's one from James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues." Wow.

"These boys, now, were living as we'd been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities."

March 19, 2012

Shift Your Plate

Black Child Eating A Burger by Ginette Callaway

When my five-year-olds sit down at the table to eat, if their chairs are not aligned with their plates, they do not shift either the chair or the plate. They contort their bodies in such a way that they have one leg on the chair, the other on the ground, and they continue to reach for their food.

This must be an adaptation of childhood ~ accepting the world as it is and trying to fit yourself into it.  You have to because you have so little agency in the world, so little effect.

Maybe that’s one of our jobs as parents ~ to convince our kids that they can have an effect on the world.

And maybe this is the reason for teenage rebellion, the 60s, and the Occupy movement, these sorts of movements that are cyclic and reoccur every so many years.  Kids suddenly realize that in fact they can affect the world.  They’re also at the most idealistic of ages, and so they try to make the world a perfect place.  And they always think that their generation was the first.

Related to this is identity and career choice.  When you’re a kid, people make it seem like there’s one right choice for you in a career.  “Whatcha going to be when you grow up, Tommy?”  So you try on all these things, and rarely do you land on one thing that seems perfect.  One of my brothers is an exception ~ he always knew he wanted to be an engineer.  There must be something very comforting in that. And as it turns out, there was only one right thing for me ~ a writer and editor ~ but it did not seem to be the practical thing to do.  How can you make a living as a writer?  I vividly remember the day in college when I realized I could be literally anything in the world; I could learn anything in the world from a book.  What a day!

Maybe some of this is the reason we sometimes feel like we’re pretending to be grownups, you know?  I catch myself every once in a while and think, oh my gosh, I’m a grown up with a grown up life.  I AM.  Not someone else.  I’m responsible and I have a job and a house and a family.  That’s what grown up people do.

But I guess my main point is that there are some people who believe they have no agency in the world.  Sometimes it’s true ~ they don’t have the money or power or social influence. But sometimes it’s not true.  Sometimes the only thing that is holding us back is ourselves, our fear.

Yesterday, I read the story “Death in the Woods” by Sherwood Anderson in the wonderful collection The Story and its Writer, edited by Ann Charters.  This and The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, are hands down the best anthologies of short fiction in existence, IMHO.  The story is about an old woman who spends her life feeding animals and men and freezes to death in the woods. She did not have agency, to be sure.  Also in that collection is Dorothy Allison’s wonderful “River of Names,” about whole generations without agency.  Yet Dorothy herself was able to rise above it.  I’ve met her a couple of times, and I just love Dorothy.

Like Dorothy and so many others, we have to reach over and bring our plates to us.  Either that, or shift our chairs to be in front our food.

March 16, 2012

Art and Our Digital Lives

As I’ve mentioned before I’ve been doing a Project 365 this year, posting an (amateur) photo a day on my blog, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and Pinterest.  It’s so much fun!

It’s prodded my long-fallow visual artistic/creative side.  When I was a lot younger, I was artistic and crafty in so many ways.  I did embroidery and hooked rugs and plush art and quilts and sewed my own clothes.  I cooked.  I took art every year of my schooling (Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Mr. Somer!), and even double-majored in English and Art in college ~ until I realized how long it was going to take at one class a semester.  I always wanted to do more photography, but in the era of print images it was cost-prohibitive. 

(Just now I do a search online for Mr. Somer, thinking perhaps there might be some of his artwork, or at least a mention of him.  I had him for art all through middle school and high school.  A thin wiry man with a great sense of humor but also able to enforce discipline.  He lived in a geodesic dome outside of town.  One time he found out my cousin Dennis was phobic about spiders, so he ripped a bit of canvas with a long string, painted it black, and dropped it over Dennis’s shoulder onto his drafting table desk. Dennis shoved the desk completely across the room.  Also, Mr. Somer may have seemed small, but if a guy gave him guff in class ~ not very often ~ he would grab the guy by the scruff and let him know he was out of line. But Mr. Somer had that wonderful quality of having discipline but also letting your muse take you where you wanted to go.  Sure, sometimes he would lead class, but mostly he just let us choose what we wanted to do and he’d then support us with materials and by showing us technique. Basically independent study.  But do you know what is infinitely sad?  There is absolutely no mention of him online. Not an image. This man gave his artistic life to be an excellent teacher, but any work he created sank like a stone, without a ripple, under the waters of time.  I find his picture in our yearbook.)

Today, there’s this whole visual photography culture online!  I’ve found my people!  Or more of my people I should say ~ first I found my writer people.  For me, Facebook is about writers, Pinterest is about photography and art, Twitter is about current events and the inside scoop, and Google+ … well, I actually don’t spend much time on G+.  I guess it’s about connecting internationally because so many of my G+ friends are from all around the globe.  It’s also very visual too.

Do I consider these people my friends?  Unequivocally yes. They may be mere acquaintances ~ but with potential, you know?  With good feeling and exciting possibility.  But, too, many of them I consider good friends.  We’ve talked a lot and commented and interacted.  In some ways, online connections are like reading ~ you get the insides of a person without the messy part of body odor and bad days. But isn’t that really what we want from our friends, to connect soul to soul?  (Unless of course we’re looking for that messy body interaction. J )

Go forth, and find you peeps!

March 15, 2012

Who Needs Photoshop?

I recently came across this great series of photos at Images You Won't Believe Aren't Photoshopped, put together by Joe Russo.  There are at least eight parts in the series.  I've posted some below, but make sure to check them out on the website!

I particularly love this last one.

March 14, 2012

Relying on Your Reader

As I’m working on a short story and also thinking about yesterday’s post, I’m struck by how much the reader is responsible for making the meaning in a story. 

When constructing a story, you want every detail to matter, to contribute to the whole.  That’s why “he was five foot ten inches with hazel eyes” rarely adds to a narrative.  It’s not meaningful.  Now, if you say, “he was six foot two in his stocking feet with piercing eyes” (a la Louis L’Amour) that means something.  It means he was tall and observant, and it says a lot about where he comes from and the narrator’s voice, even if it’s become cliché.

But sometimes we make the details too closely matched while at the same time too expected.  In other words, we make them clichés.  I’m basing this current story I’m working on partly on real video footage, and I’m here to tell you the actual actions within the video are much more telling and wonderful than the received images of grief I could concoct, though I hope I would push past that to more fully imagine things.

So I guess I’m saying we should put more emphasis on the specificity and uniqueness (which shouldn’t be a word) and word choice of the detail and less on its aptness ~ because if it is too apt, it is expected.  And I’m realizing that it’s the reader who makes the connection.  Disparate details amount to something in the reader's mind. Sure, we try to craft the resulting reaction, but if we’re in there trying to lead the reader by the nose, he’ll resent it.  Let the lovely details of the world speak for themselves.

PS Pix stopped by in the comment section and pointed out this great video by Kurt Vonnegut. Thank you!!

March 13, 2012

In Which I Throw the Book Across the Room

Last night, I tried, yet again, to read a memoir I had picked up.  I won’t mention its name.  It had such potential.  Very dramatic events.  Heart-wrenching life changes.  But the writer refused to settle, kept jumping around in time, and kept telling me everything instead of showing.  It just made me frustrated.  She didn’t trust herself or the events to be dramatic enough in their very existence, in the simple details of what happened.  If she would have, I’d’ve been there with her every step of the way.  Rather than beginning by stating in bare facts what had happened, she gave us two full chapters of now and of interpretation, and she kept telling us what the effects were.  She should have just said what happened, laid out in scenes and details, and then gone back and told the story from the beginning linearly, with scenes connected with summary. It was very frustrating.

I found myself wishing deeply for my friend Ken Olsen’s memoir.  I’ve only read a bit of it, but it’s deeply moving, and it’s set in scene and summary with lots of rich detail.  It reads a bit like Steinbeck.  It hasn’t been published yet, and Ken does not yet have an agent (hint, hint, all you agents out there).

March 12, 2012

Writing Prose Is Like Making Sausage

Image: Margaret Stratton via USA Character Approved Blog

Writing prose is like making sausage ~ no one wants to know what really happens behind the scenes. They don’t want to see the hog slaughtered, nor the bits of gristle and offal that go into the mix.

Last week, I got to see a reading by the wonderful and provocative John D’Agata.  I took a lovely workshop with him in 2000. An essay of mine that started that class will eventually continue to evolve into a memoir, I think. 

One of the many things I learned in that class was that the Medieval French word essai means to try, and that’s exactly what it is for John.  An essay is not a genre of nonfiction; rather, it is a mode, an approach to writing.  It means to leave yourself open, not to try to come to a conclusion too quickly.  Don’t go into a piece with a fixed idea of what it is.  Even up until the final editing, be open to the true nature of the piece, and don’t be afraid to cut or make drastic changes up until you final submit it. 

It also means that, for John, the essay is closer to memoir or personal essay than it is to a nonfiction magazine article.  For those of you who haven’t thought of it in this way, it might come as a surprise, but memoir or personal essay is not a recording of “the facts.”  It is the recording of one person’s interpretation of the facts, or the effect of the world on one person.  It’s purely point of view.

Now, if you want to get technical, everything is point of view, even so-called unbiased newspaper reports.  Where do reporters get their facts?  From someone, a point of view, telling them what they saw, whether it’s a police report or a first-hand account.  They pull together these and the physical information they find and then they present it as a coherent narrative.  Is your life a coherent narrative?  Is anyone’s?  We would like to believe it is, and that’s why we are so strongly drawn to narrative, but the real world is much more complicated than that. Heck, think of this one thing: how much of the real world did the report leave out?  Ay, that should get you.  I mean, how does the reporter ~ or the lawyer or the researcher ~ know they haven’t missed some vital bits of information?  Did the guy kill his wife because he was jealous?  Or was it because deep down, though even he didn’t know it, it reminded him of a childhood humiliation related to his mother?  Or both?  Why couldn’t it be both?

My point here is that the world yearns for a coherent narrative, and we believe that what we are presented with is the truth.  I would say that this drive is so strong that we will believe even out-there kinds of things if it seems coherent.  We believe movies present real history, don’t we?

It’s always odd to me that when you label something as fiction everyone wants to know how close it is to the writer’s life and when you label something nonfiction they’re trying to figure out where you lied.  I have news for you: there are a lot of “lies” in nonfiction.  That’s the sausage part.  Do you think someone can remember dialog from their childhood?  Do you think life can be reduced to 12 column inches? People don’t want to know this.

Yes, I do agree we try to come to a consensus on what constitutes an acceptable amount of lying. I have that line myself, of course, and I do say that John’s line is not mine. I wouldn’t have changed 31 licensed strip clubs in Vegas to 34, as he does in the essay.  (In a book labeled nonfiction, I wouldn't write the inside of anyone's head but my own, as happens in Devil in the White City.)  That’s because, like form in poetry, sticking to the facts that you know will often force a more complicated truth, and that’s what fascinates me. How do you take the stuff of life and make it art? But John says the reason he changed it was that it sounds better ~ and don't poets do that all the time?

However, John’s point as I understand it is that what he writes should not be labeled “nonfiction,” that there should not be just two binary categories, fiction and nonfiction, because this like everything else lies on a spectrum. Is memoir nonfiction? Some people think so, but really it’s not because it’s more inside-the-head than outside-the-head as community consensus. Genre is complicated because the world is complicated ~ no matter how much we would like to believe in binaries.

For the reading, John partnered with the writer Matt (whom I had the pleasure of meeting at Bread Loaf last year) to do a reading from the book The Lifespan of Fact co-written by John and the fact-checker Jim Fingal, a book that’s caused quite a stir. It follows the fact-checking process between John and Jim on John’s piece “What Happens There,” which was published in the Believer. The book itself is a constructed thing ~ who would want to read through pages and pages of boring email text? It reads like dialog, and it is at times hilarious. But a curious thing happened as I sat and listened. John would read his side of the argument, and I would nod and think, “Yeah. Yeah! He has a very valid point.” Then Matt would read Jim’s side of the argument, and I’d think, “Yeah. Yeah! That’s so true.” I don’t think it’s because I’m weak-minded or just because they were effective rhetoricians; I think it’s because elements of both arguments are true.

Our loud communal insistence on the legitimacy of fact in nonfiction and memoir points to our collective discomfort with what we know in our hearts to to be true: Life isn’t that simple nor that easy. We’re peeking behind the curtain, and we don’t like to admit what we see.

PS I'm aware that this assertion cuts at the very basis of journalism, and I want to be clear that journalism is the best tool we have and that I believe in the validity of the endeavor.  I am simply pointing out an often-unacknowledged point.

PPS An interesting discussion of the nuances here by Dinty Moore.

March 9, 2012

March 8, 2012

Lovely Characterization

Aaah, “the little shocks of good that crawled out from underneath the everyday.”

I’m reading Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, and in it is a fabulous characterization of NYC.  Just amazing. I love beautiful rambling characterizations, as I’ve mentioned before.

The theater began shortly after lunch.  His fellow judges and court officers and reporters and even the stenographers were already talking about it as if it were another of those things that just happened in the city.  One of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days.  New York had a way of doing that.  Every now and then the city shook its soul out.  It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.
He had a theory about it.  It happened, and re-happened, because it was a city uninterested in history.  Strange things occurred precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past.  The city lived in a sort of everyday present.  It had no need to believe in itself as a London, or an Athens, or even a signifier of the New World, like a Sydney, or a Los Angeles.  No, the city couldn’t care less about where it stood.  He had seen a T-shirt once that said: NEW YORK FUCKIN’ CITY.  As if it were the only place that ever existed and the only one that ever would.
New York kept going forward precisely because it didn’t give a good goddamn about what it had left behind.  It was like the city that Lot left, and it would dissolve if it ever began looking backward over its own shoulder.  Two pillars of salt.  Long Island and New Jersey.
He had said to his wife many times that the past disappeared in the city.  It was why there weren’t many monuments around.  It wasn’t like London, where every corner had a historical figure carved out of stone, a war memorial here, a leader’s bust there.  He could only really pinpoint a dozen true statues around New York City—most of them in Central Park, along the Literary Walk, and who in the world went to Central Park these days anyway?  A man would need a phalanx of tanks just to pass Sir Walter Scott.  On other famous street corners, Broadway or Wall Street or around Gracie Square, nobody felt a need to lay claim to history.  Why bother?  You couldn’t eat a statue.  You couldn’t screw a monument.  You couldn’t wring a million dollars out of a piece of brass.
Even down here, on Centre Street, they didn’t have many public backslaps to themselves.  No Lady Justice in a blindfold.  No Supreme Thinkers with their robes wrapped around themselves.  No Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil carved into the upper granite columns of the criminal courts.
Which was one of the things that made Judge Soderberg thing that the tightrope walker was such a stroke of genius.  A monument in himself.  He had made himself into a statue, but a perfect New York one, a gard for the past.  He had gone to the World Trade Center and had strung his rope across the biggest towers in the world.  The Twin Towers.  Of all places.  So brash.  So glassy.  So forward-looking.  Sure, the Rockefellers had knocked down a few Greek revival homes and a few classic brownstones to make way for the towers—which had annoyed Claire when she read about it—but mostly it had been electronics stores and cheap auction houses where men with quick tongues had sold everything useless under the sun, carrot peelers and radio flashlights and musical snow globes.  In place of the shysters, the Port Authority had built two towering beacons high in the clouds.  The glass reflected the sky, the night, the colors: progress, beauty, capitalism.
Soderberg wasn’t one to sit around and decry what used to be.  The city was bigger than its buildings, bigger than its inhabitants too.  It had its own nuances.  It accepted whatever came its way, the crime and the violence and the little shocks of good that crawled out from underneath the everyday.
He figured that the tightrope walker must have thought it over quite a bit beforehand.  It wasn’t just and offhand walk.  He was making a statement with his body, and if he fell, well, he fell—but if he survived he would become a monument, not carved in stone or encased in brass, but one of those New York monuments that made you say: Can you believe it? With an expletive.  There would always be an expletive in a New York sentence.  Even from a judge.  Soderberg was not fond of bad language, but he knew its value at the right time.  A man on a tightrope, a hundred and ten stories in the air, can you possibly fucking believe it?

March 7, 2012

Making You Feel, Part 4

Couple Reading, by Natoly Art

Today, an observation.  Women read fiction and men read nonfiction.

Vast generalization, I know.  I haven’t taken the time to do the research to verify this, but it seems like I’ve read this over the years.  I did look at the recent NEA report about our reading Reading on the Rise but couldn’t find it.

So why is this?  I have a theory.

Exhibit A.  At least the way I was raised, boys were taught to suppress their feelings while girls were expected to cultivate their emotional intelligence. Therefore, when they grow up, men are uncomfortable with emotion while women seek it out.

Exhibit B. The goal of most fiction is to make you feel, while the goal of a lot of nonfiction is to make you think.

Ergo, women read fiction and men read nonfiction.

What do you think?  Crackpot idea?

March 6, 2012

Word Cloud 1

Apropos of nothing, here's a Wordle word cloud of recent posts to this blog.

Making You Feel, Part 3

While I was home sick this past week, I got caught up on some great documentaries via streaming Netflix.  (I love that now I have access to all these offbeat things.) One of the documentaries I watched was Life in a Day.  Here’s the wiki about it.

Life in a Day is a crowdsourced drama/documentary film comprising an arranged series of video clips selected from 80,000 clips submitted to the YouTube video sharing website, the clips showing respective occurrences from around the world on a single day, July 24, 2010.
The film is 94 minutes 57 seconds long and includes scenes selected from 4,500 hours of footage in 80,000 submissions from 192 nations. The completed film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2011 and the premiere was streamed live on YouTube. On October 31, 2011, YouTube announced that Life in a Day would be available for viewing on its website free of charge, and on DVD.
The film was the creation of a partnership among YouTube, Ridley Scott Associates and LG electronics, announced on July 6, 2010. Users sent in videos supposed to be recorded on July 24, 2010, and then Ridley Scott produced the film and edited the videos into a film with director Kevin Macdonald and film editor Joe Walker, consisting of footage from some of the contributors. All chosen footage authors are credited as co-directors.

When I first saw its description, I thought, hmm.  Could be interesting.  Then I went on.  Came back.  If it isn’t, I thought, I can always skim it. Then I was riveted for the full hour and a half. 

What an amazing film!  It’s doing just what I want to do ~ taking small moments in people’s lives, the stuff of everyday life, and crafting it into something that feels of a part, a whole, Art with a capital A. 

It is structured as the day, so there is nighttime and a full moon at first.  Early risers getting on with their day, then everyone getting up, then breakfast, through lunch, then dinner, and so on.  But it’s not only grouped chronologically but also thematically.  So you get a part around breakfast that show the gathering and making of food.  You get a part around midmorning about having babies.  You have a part in the afternoon about love.  And at the end of the day, of course, you get a part about death.  It sounds much more chaotic than it feels ~ I felt like I trusted this movie and the movie makers, even though they take us to some dark places (the darkest of which is the slaughtering of a cow for food). 

Did I mention how much I love this film!?

It is not just little bits of people’s lives, though there is a lot of that.  It also chooses a couple of longer vignettes that are scattered throughout the film.  Also, it has people answer questions on camera.  What is in your pocket or handbag?  What do you fear?

There are many reasons it is so excellent.  They went to the trouble to view all the clips (through volunteers) and took the best of the best.  The editing and music is superb.  I read that some reviewers didn’t like it, and I was incensed on the filmmakers’ behalves!

But to making you feel.  This movie makes you feel. It’s funny and light and shows the brightness of the human heart, but it’s dark too.  It’s got all those things I talked about yesterday (details, composition and focus, juxtaposition of small and large, leading to the human condition).  The very best moments are those that juxtapose the everyday life with huge wrestling-with-angels kinds of issues.  A mother and father with their little boy, going through the day, all while the mother is just recovering from a mastectomy.  A father and little boy waking up and praying for their dead wife/mother. A man who just had his second heart transplant who talks about how thankful he is to his caretakers.  So human. So divine.

I urge you to see the movie when you get a chance.  You can stream it for free on Youtube. Or if you have Netflix.

PS Tomorrow, I’ll wrap up with a part 4 on making you feel.

March 5, 2012

Making You Feel, Part 2

A week or two ago, I linked to the World Press Photo winners from 1955-2011.  Those photos move us, as do Norman Rockwell paintings.  Today, I want to talk about why and how that translates into fiction.

I deliberately chose the Norman Rockwell painting above because I think it’s one most people are unfamiliar with.  Maybe we can see it a little better if it’s new.  Why does this painting ~ and all Norman Rockwell’s ~ move us so (as a generalization)?  I would suggest that it’s because 1) details, 2) composition and focus, 3) juxtaposition of small and large, 4) its very specificity points to a larger human condition.

Details.  What do we know from this painting?  This guy is a GI. We know that from the helmet and knife above and the badges to the side and the honorable discharge.  Because we know when NR was painting and because of world events, we can guess that this may be right after World War II when the GI Bill helped so many returning GIs get an education.  What he’s wearing screams college coed of that era ~ the turtleneck, the dress slacks, the shoes and the lovely detail of the socks.  Another detail ~ this isn’t a gawky kid.  He’s a grown man, filled out and experienced, yet there are details that show his awkward youth ~ the way his hair tumbles over his forehead, the shortness of his pants, the trying on of the pipe that doesn’t quite fit.  We know his name, Willie Gillis, because it’s written on his books.  We know he’s sitting in his dorm room studying.  Other details ~ the golf clubs, the edifice through the window ~ scream his aspirations.  He wants to do well.  My first impression was that the building through the window was a government building, which immediately made me think he wanted to go into politics, but actually it’s probably just a university building.  Still, the impression is there.

The composition and focus.  This, like many of NR’s paintings, lead the eye up and into the painting.  It’s darker around the outside and light toward the middle.  (Think of the Thanksgiving image of the family NR painted.  Same thing. And so many others.)  It’s framed by the window and walls.  The past is toward the outside and the future is toward the middle.    Our eyes first catch details around the outside but then are drawn inward to the face and then, inexorably, toward the light, toward the building, toward the future for this young man. We know that this young man dreams of a wonderful future, yearns, aspires.  It makes you ache for him, and I don’t think it matters if he’s white or black or any other race or ethnicity.  I think we all know what it means to yearn.

Juxtaposition of small and large.  By that I mean the everyday vs. our larger dreams.  In this image there’s the everyday details, as I mentioned above.  One person going about his day.  But there are also big things ~ life and death and hopes and disappointments ~ right there side by side. Now that I write this, I connect it with the fact that, in compelling fiction, the protagonist almost always wants something.  He or she can want nothing more than a drink of water, but if you show that, the reader is much more likely to be right there with you.

Specificity leading to the larger human condition.  This is a very specific scene with specific details.  This is one young man’s face.  He has a name.  His socks are a little worn.  He’s sitting at this window this fall.  He has a past.  All these details accrete to make a certain person in a certain situation.  But, then, gloriously, they also accrete to mean much more than the sum of their parts.  By their very specificity, they let us know so much about this man and we can identify with what he dreams for.  So many of NR’s paintings are this way ~ they show us a world of hope.

I wanted to point out that this painting does not include all the details in this guy’s life.  No.  They are very selectively chosen and placed and illustrated  to support the larger impression. Maybe this guy is from Texas or Oregon.  Do we know this?  No.  Because it doesn’t matter.  But each detail that is shown means something.

You know what I’m going to say next.  This is just like fiction.  We choose small details that mean.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, should be extraneous in a work of fiction.  (Sure, novels have more leeway than short stories.  Still, it’s all important.)  They should all be working toward a goal, an effect.  The composition ~ the sentences, the scenes, the energy ~ should all be put together to achieve the desired effect.  The “making you feel.”  These, hopefully, will then add up to the last thing ~ your specificity will point to a larger condition. 

Let’s look at the opposite for a second.  Telling us how to feel.  Generalization.  Does it work to make you feel sad to say, “She felt sad”?  Or do you get angry when it says, “She was mad”?  No.  We need the details to make us experience what the character is going through.  We don’t need to be told what to feel; we need to be shown so that it comes naturally to us.  Generalization. The best fiction is most often set in a particular place.  No accident, that.  Once again, it is the details that let us see and hear and feel. 

These craft things sound so easy.  Just write with detail.  Only it’s not, as I’m sure you know.  Which details?  In what order?  What effect am I going for?

The World Press Photo winners move us in the same way.  Their visceral nature.  The raw emotion on the subjects’ faces.  Small details vs. huge hopes ~ or dashed hopes.  The violation of violence.  Grief and loss. Now that I think about it ~ these photos are most often about loss.

Tomorrow, I’d like to talk more about making you feel as it pertains to this great documentary I watched while I was out sick: Life in a Day, which shows the world in a day, June 24, 2010.  It’s amazing. 

March 2, 2012


Sorry ~ been down with the crud the last few days.  I promise to resume blogging next week.  Have a great weekend!