Monday, August 30, 2004

Kiss-Kiss, Bang-Bang

'It's like Fred Astaire used to say: give it size, give it style, and give it class. That's an incredible Bible to follow.'
--John Barry, music composer for several James Bond movies, on NPR's Fresh Air last week. He went on to say that the Italians had a nickname for Bond: Mr. Kiss-Kiss/Bang-Bang.

A Sensible-Sounding Fellow. I'm proud to be a new board member of the Cleveland chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, a group I've been otherwise affiliated with for some time. It's populated by some wonderful, serious professionals who care about the future of their craft and especially about how it impacts average citizens. And I'm even prouder to be associated with the group after I read this piece about the incoming national president, Irwin Gratz, an anchor for Maine public radio. He makes several important points about how journalism is becoming even more relevant even while becoming more complicated, and especially about the need of journalists to reach out to average citizens and engage them in a dialogue about journalism and public affairs. Stay tuned for news here on an interesting slate of upcoming SPJ programming that seeks to zero in on that very topic.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Gore Vidal's Villa Up for Grabs

The Times had a wonderful piece in yesterday's edition about the aging, dyspeptic writer Gore Vidal, and his decision to sell his famous villa in Ravello, on Italy's stunning Amalfi coast. After the recent death of his longtime lover, it seems he wants to move back to Hollywood fulltime (egad). The piece was one of the longest, most-detailed real estate ads in history. It included the fact that he's asking $17 million for the 5,000-square-foot villa perched on a hill, but somehow omits the price he paid for it 30 years ago. But who cares, really, with those beautiful photos of his view, and some even more beautiful sentences sprinkled throughout. The piece talks about "pasta-infested" dinners for visiting luminaries. But my favorite line was this: "Houses in Ravello are opportunistic, built where the slopes give way to small ledges, just as wildflowers find cracks in the high walls holding up terraced fields." With writing that lovely and visual, you almost don't need accompanying photos.

Elsewhere in the Times, David Carr, who has covered the media brilliantly for a couple of years but who has been angling to get off that beat in order to spread his wings on other topics, yesterday showed why the editors were smart to just let him write about whatever the hell he wants. The middle-aged writer, who has overcome a heroin addiction, shows why his star continues to ascend in the profession, by rendering this brilliant piece on the culture clash between D.C. (which he knows well as the former editor of the town's alt-weekly) and New York. Here's the payoff passage:
In spite of sharing an interstate and a conviction that the universe pivots on them, Washington and New York have never got on well. Each city views the other through the wrong end of the telescope and lasers in on the other's shortcomings. Washington, seen from Manhattan, is drab and humid, a swamp-city populated by doughy people in brown suits and heinous ties that always seem to be askew. And many Washingtonians return the disregard by lampooning New York's pointless clatter, a big noisy town whose chief product seems to be some tawdry combination of smoke and mirrors.
That, my friends, is writing which demands to be read.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The Sublime Z Returns, Only Now a Designated Master

One of the best things about being out of school, as I've observed before, is the added time for pleasure reading. When you're in any kind of academic program, especially those leading toward a degree, there tends to be a guilty feeling that wells up from deep inside whenever you read merely for the sake of reading, because there's always some additional bit of studying or reading you could instead be doing for school. And that goes double for blogging. I'm just thrilled that my close pal Anton Zuiker, a sublime wordsmith ("he wields a mean pen," as his friend Joe Cimperman has observed) and the person who has more of his life on the web than anyone I know is back to regular, almost daily, blogging since completing his master's degree in journalism this spring. Lord knows, he's got plenty to write about these days: he's a new father (again), a new homeowner (my prayers go with you, Z) and a new job-hunter. And I'm REALLY looking forward to rooming with him up in Boston in early December for what has become the best annual journalism conference in America, the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, at Harvard. I would suggest heavy security for that event, because if a bomb ever went off at that conference, it would pretty much obliterate the craft of serious long-form literary journalism in America. Look for Anton's relaunched Zuiker Chronicles sometime soon...

Newest Blogger. Sleaze peddler/film director Quentin Tarantino, whom I would suggest should have remained a clerk at Blockbuster Video, recently began a blog (sorry, I know I should link to it, but I just can't summon the psychic energy). If you have somehow missed this seminal cultural event, here's a typical gem-like passage that you have missed, a response to a question from one fan about why a prior post was erased.
I met Justin yesterday in LA. Of course I remember! He's a cool guy! He likes Sergio Leone films, too. In response to your other question, I had to delete some of the entries because my lawyer told me it wasn't wise to call a kid negatively influenced by PULP FICTION a "dumbass," and then create a "stupid rant with way too many fucks in it for your own good."I apologize to those who read what I said yesterday, but I was a bit drunk in the evening. That's what happens I guess. It wasn't wise at all to post some of the bullshit I posted. No offense meant to anyone.
This would be funny if it weren't so pathetic, and if Tarantino wasn't considered a serious person by far too many otherwise intelligent people. His Pulp Fiction was so sick and twisted, while fumbling around in a vain attempt at some kind of theological profundity, as to leave me feeling sick. But then, it doesn't stand out much in Hollywood in that regard...

Joseph-Beth Featured in WSJ. My fav neighborhood indy bookshop, Joseph-Beth's, was nicely featured with a splash in a front-page piece in yesterday's Wall Street Journal (online only for subscribers). It contained some interesting details I didn't know: that the six mega-stores gross $50 million and have profit margins of 2% (or about $1 million), and that they make their largest margins on the food served at their full-service restaurants. But most interesting of all was the fact that founder Neil Van Uum (a Cleveland native and an Ignatius grad) got his start in the business through an ironic marital connection with the founders of the archrival Borders Books chain, which sold to K-Mart a decade ago. His ex-wife's brothers gave him advice on retailing and purchasing, and his father-in-law lent the couple money to open their first store, in Kentucky. The piece nicely captures the difficult balancing act Jo-Beth manages between at least seeming indy (it is, after all, a chain, if only a small one) while also beating the dreaded B chains (Borders and Barnes & Noble) at their own game, by building even larger individual locations than they have. As I told the company's marketing manager when she emailed me from Kentucky (after googling their name and finding an entry last August on Working With Words, entitled Bookstores We Have Loved), Joseph Beth does a good job at remaining just local enough to remind me of the sadly defunct best Cleveland independent bookstore ever, Joan Hulbert's Booksellers on Chagrin (where the aforementioned Anton once worked). Oh, how I would love to have that hallowed place back again...

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Thoughts to Frame Your Day

'Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can't, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep saying it.'
--Robert Frost

'The most important thing about education is appetite.'
--Winston Churchill

'Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.'
--Matthew Arnold

Royko, Pre-9/11. Senator Ted Kennedy caused a little ruckus last week when he disclosed that he had been prevented from boarding flights a number of times, under a mistaken suspicion that he was a terrorist (as it turned out, his name was similar to that of someone on a watch list). Even with one of the most recognizable faces in America and a 40-plus-year perch in the U.S. Senate, he nevertheless got caught up in the dragnet. But just imagine what might have happened to Chicago's iconic columnist Mike Royko if he had had the following meltdown after the terrorist attacks in 2001. This is taken from the introduction to Royko--A Life in Print. The author, Richard Ciccone, recounts how after meeting Royko in Washington, D.C., he convinced his fellow Chicago writer to fly back to the Windy City with him, even though Royko had a fear of flying which dated back to his time in the military, when his plane nearly crashed. Everything went just fine until they purchased their tickets and headed toward the departure gate.
"'I can't do this,' Royko said. He began shouting, 'I've got a bomb, I've got a bomb.' Two airline security people came running up. I convinced them Royko was hopelessly drunk. Terrorist bombing was not a real fear in 1977. The security people gave us a smirk and allowed us to board the plane.' "

Monday, August 23, 2004

All Serious Daring Starts From Within

'Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'
--Samuel Beckett

'I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.'
--Eudora Welty, in One Writer's Beginnings

'The writer, perhaps more than any of his fellow artists, has access to the human subconscious. His words sink deep, shaping dreams, easing the pain of loneliness, banishing incantations and omens, keeping alive the memories of the race, providing intimations of immortality, nourishing great anticipations, sharpening the instinct for justice and imparting respect for the fragility of life. These functions are essential for human evolution. Without them, civilization becomes brittle and breaks.'
--Norman Cousins

Sunday, August 22, 2004

In Memory of Michael Drexler

'Writing is a religious act: it is an ordering, a reforming, a relearning and reloving of people and the world as they are and as they might be. A shaping which does not pass away like a day of typing or a day of teaching. The writing lasts: it goes about on its own in the world. People read it: react to it as a person, as a philosophy, a religion, a flower; they like it, or do not. It helps them, or it does not. It feels to intensify living: you give more, probe, ask, look, learn and shape this. You get more: monsters: answers, color and form, knowledge. You do it for itself first. If it brings in money, how nice. You do not do it first for money. Money isn't why you sit down at the typewriter. Not that you don't want it. It is only too lovely when a profession pays for your bread and butter. With writing, it is maybe, maybe-not. How to live with such insecurity? What is worse, the ocassional lack or loss of faith in the writing itself? How to live with these things? The worst thing, worse than all of them, would be to live with not writing. So, how to live with the lesser devils, and keep them lesser.'
--Slyvia Plath, in a journal entry dated Dec. 12, 1958

Saturday, August 21, 2004

The Conscience of Cleveland Finally Gets His Due

Over the years, he's been variously referred to as a curmudgeon, a pamphleteer, even an angry prophet. The Chicago Tribune once called him the conscience of Cleveland--appropriately in my view and in the view of many of his longtime readers.

I'm speaking of course about Roldo Bartimole. But prophets are generally more popular with average citizens than with institutions, which sometimes give them their due (if at all) only after they're dead and gone, no longer able to stir up trouble and ask uncomfortable questions. The late PD reporter Harry Stainer once offered the opinion that Cleveland will erect a statue to Roldo, "but only after he's gone."

The Press Club of Cleveland has a Cleveland journalism hall of fame. Each year since its founding in 1981 it has added a handful of new inductees. And for years, I've chuckled aloud as I read over the list. It's full of some great names that are no-brainers for inclusion, to be sure. But it's also larded with people that--well, let's be kind here--have been more modestly endowed with talent, perseverance or journalistic courage. And some of these names elicited that much more snickering--and often outrage--because certified giants of journalism aren't among them. But that was their problem, I figured. It was rather like the Nobel Prize for Literature, which has suffered more lack of respect from failing to have chosen a few literary geniuses than have the geniuses' reputations suffered from never having won a Nobel. It's safe to say that a Cleveland journalism hall of fame without Roldo Bartimole isn't much of a hall of fame, really, and raises doubts about the credibility of the entire enterprise.

But all that changed this week. We got word that the membership of the Press Club, to its everlasting credit, has finally decided to give the man his due while he's still very much with us and still writing. In fact, Roldo attracted the highest total of votes in his category. He'll be honored at a dinner at Windows on the River in the Flats on the evening of October 28th. I hope you'll keep that date open, and join us in Filling The Room For Roldo. We expect to use this occasion, and the weeks and month leading up to it and after it, to find various ways to celebrate Roldo's vital life work and his unique legacy for community and alternative journalism in this town. His life and his work constitute a walking, talking curriculum on journalism as community activism and engaged citizenship. For two generations, through his Point of View newsletter and his columns in the Cleveland Edition and the Free Times, and now in his columns distributed by Cool Cleveland and the What's Up in Northeast Ohio listserv, he's been an example to literally thousands of journalists, writers, activists, theologians, urban planners, government figures, academics--you name it. And he's been a personal mentor to easily hundreds, constantly giving his time to educate, arouse and inform anyone who sought him out. In short, he's been--and continues to be--a community treasure.

Now, my friends, it's payback time...

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Hang In There...

'The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.'
--C.S. Lewis

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Put That Mission Statement Right Where They Can See It

'The purpose of our education is to give a young man the tools whereby he can answer the question what does god want from me?'
--Sign in the St. Ignatius High School quad

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Wisdom For the Ages

Here are three quotes I recently came across that played some rock 'n roll with my soul. They're all contained in the book Invisible Leadership--Igniting the Soul at Work. If you don't like them, we'll gladly refund your money.

'To the dull mind, nature is leaden. To the illumined mind the whole world burns and sparkles with light.'
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

'One should not give up, neglect or forget his inner life for a moment. But he must learn to work in it, with it and out of it, so that the unity of his soul may break out into his activities.'
--Meister Eckhart

'Searching for the invisible is not for the faint-hearted.'
--Stephen Hawking

Monday, August 16, 2004

Anti-Bush Sentiment Seems to be Gaining Momentum

I was struck by three recent anti-Bush tirades, from three very different sources. The first, coming from a certified radical leftist, professor Cornell West, wasn't surprising. But it was, I thought, nonetheless eloquent. The second, from the traditionally cautious and centrist New Yorker editor David Remnick, was surprising in its pungency and directness. And since it was embedded in the opening "Comment," the newspaper equivalent of the lead editorial, it at least implicitly carried the weight of an institutional position. And coming from that singularly distinguished 80-year-old institution, it had special resonance, not unlike the forcefully eloquent (though unsigned) essays by E.B. White during World War II or Jonathan Schell during the Vietnam era.

But the final outburst was the real surprise, coming (unlike the other two) in person, from a guy I've known since childhood, and someone whom I always thought of as something of a cultural, if not political, conservative. As I walked to the Feast in Little Italy this weekend, I passed by Dave Rossi's law office and noticed a sticker on his window. It read "Drop Bush Not Bombs." I've known Dave since we attended Catholic grade school together, beginning in the first grade, and he's now a lawyer and father of eight, who routinely teases me about how I can have such a tiny family. The son of a (now-deceased) manual laborer, "a ditch digger" and immigrant to America, Dave proudly notes, he's something of an unofficial "Mayor of Murray Hill." Even though he lives in Cleveland Hts., he owns lots of rental property in Little Italy, keeps his law office there and just generally keeps a close eye on things. In short, hardly the profile of a doctrinaire left-winger. More like a Reagan Democrat, you might say. So I pointed to his anti-Bush sticker with raised eyebrow. That set him off on a brief rant about Bush & Co. "They think we're so stupid! Like we can't make out they're lying about all of this Iraq stuff, like we were some unsophisticated immigrants like our parents, who had to go ask the priest" for help in interpreting the world. I was taken aback by his unexpected vehemence. And silently pleased, I must admit. After knowing the guy for 40 years, really more as an acquaintance than anything, I felt a new kinship with him. Anyway, here are the other two comments that caught my eye:

'...the nihilistic policies of the current administration represent a different mentality than many previous moments in the growth of the American empire. Even Ronald Reagan believed that he had to disguise his policies with crypto-conservative arguments. That's not true of this administration. They do what they want and then make their arguments after the policies have already been implemented. If they lie, they try to cover their lies until they're caught. It's the Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Get Caught.'
--Cornell West, writing in Tikkun Magazine.

'There's a case to be made that it hardly matters how eloquent or effective John Kerry was at the Democratic National Convention last week. What matters infinitely more is that George W. Bush is the worst president the country has endured since Richard Nixon, and even mediocrity would be an improvement. Indeed, if one regards the Bush Administration's sense of governance--its distortion of intelligence in a time of crisis, its grotesque indulgence of the rich at the expense of the rest, its arrogant dissolution of American prestige and influence abroad, its heedless squandering of the world's resources--as worse than the third-rate burglary and second-rate coverup of 30 years ago, then President Bush is in a league only with the likes of Harding, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan.'
--David Remnick in the New Yorker

Sunday, August 15, 2004

I Think it's Time to See Glengarry Glen Ross Again

'Don't compromise yourself, honey. You're all you've got.'
--Janis Joplin

'Stanislavsky once wrote that you could play well or badly, but play truly. It is not up to you whether your performance will be brilliant--all that is under your control is your intention. It is not under your control whether your career will be brilliant--all that is under your control is your intention. If you intend to manipulate, to show, to impress, you may experience mild suffering and pleasant triumphs. If you intend to follow the truth you feel in yourself--to follow your common sense and force your will to serve you in the quest for discipline and simplicity--you will subject yourself to profound despair and loneliness and constant self-doubt. And if you persevere, the theatre, which you are learning to serve, will grace you, now and then, with the greatest exhilaration it is possible to know.'
--playwrite David Mamet

Friday, August 13, 2004

Defining Presidential Articulation Down

The late, great Daniel Patrick Moynihan, perhaps the last of the true public intellectuals to serve in the Senate, wrote an influential article a decade ago in the American Scholar entitled "Defining Deviancy Down." In it, he bravely waded into the issue of liberal guilt, pointing out that the culture has stood by and mostly accepted an appalling race to the bottom in underclass behavior that tears at the fabric of society, and more importantly stands in the way of the poor improving their situation.

over the past generation, since the time Erikson wrote, the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can"afford to recognize" and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the "normal" level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard. This redefining has evoked fierce resistance from defenders of "old" standards, and accounts for much of the present "cultural war" such as proclaimed by many at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

I wish he was still around to sound a similar alarm about the steadily lowering baseline of presidential literacy and articulation. Okay, so everyone knows we have a not-too-bright man now occupying the White House, a fellow whose stunning lack of the ability to articulate simple English sentences led Gail Sheehy to build a credible case in Vanity Fair back in 2000 that he's dyslexic. But what's far more galling is how even bright people who should know better (like those in the media) let themselves become part of the cultural chorus that accepts this as normal, in the process speeding along the dumbing-down process. This Boston Globe columnist, Joshua Green, plays into it by a piece in which he explores some of the criticism over John Kerry's adoption of a line by the poet Langston Hughes (a Cleveland native) as his campaign motto. Seems that since Hughes was an avowed Communist, the right is imaginatively trying to red-bait him. "Lapsing into Kerryspeak, the senator goes on to recount that he was 'not unmindful of this duality of meanings' when his campaign adopted Hughes' phrase," Green writes, suggesting that this phrase is somehow bizarre or otherwise problematic because it's not composed for a third-grade reading level. Sorry, pal, but that locution is perfectly good English, understandable by the average reasonably intelligent adult. To suggest otherwise means you've either succumbed to the disease of spriraling simplicity or you're in the wrong profession (get out of writing and into local TV, where you won't be bothered by complexity).

Oh, Joy: Sandy's Back. Glad to see that my friend Sandy Piderit is back from the Big Easy and blogging once more. I've come to rely on her wit, insight and interesting blend of observations from multiple realms to help keep me up on the world. And I think I'll get ahold of this book, Tempered Radicals, since she points to it on her Ryze page as an overarching metaphor for how she'd like to teach her Weatherhead students to approach the world.

Nixon Revisionism. The 30th anniversary of Nixon's historic resignation has touched off a mini-flurry of commentary suggesting that the Bush gang's sins may even be worse than those of the Nixon White House before it. Sorry, folks. You may have gathered by now that I'm no fan of Bush 43 and his band of arrogant toughs, but I think that to suggest that they're worse than the cancer of Nixon's administration is merely the latest sign of our general historical amnesia. These guys may have started a war under false pretenses, but I'm convinced they did so for reasons that are perhaps (only perhaps) otherwise defensible: remaking a troubled region and providing stability where instability reigns. The fact that they were ignorant of history, blind to complexity, deaf to the lessons of those who actually have prosecuted war don't, in the end, mean they can be called worse than a band of henchmen who calmly and with great seriousness discussed the use of assassination, arson and other crimes as political tools. Let's get some proportion here, kids. As always, that begins with going back and reading some history...

Good News: Essay Questions Slowly Winning Out Over True-False Quizzes. The Wall Street Journal reported a couple of weeks ago that the ACT college-entrance exam (that's the one you take only if you're headed to a school in your own state) will add writing tests beginning next February. The challenge: "...unlike the current test, which has only one correct answer per question, scores on the writing exams will depend on such highly subjective measures as voice, style, flow--and whether language is 'competent,' 'adequate' or merely 'under control.'" But that shouldn't be such a problem, because living, loving and working are open-ended essay questions rather than true-and-false quizzes. That's something they don't teach you in any school. But one way or another, we all learn it not long afterward.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The Swing-State Essayist

If you know Sandy Woodthorpe, and you should, you already know she's a swinging lady. She wears several hats: writer, networker extraordinaire and leading citizen of Lake County's coolest little place, Fairport Harbor. As head of the National Writers Union's membership outreach in Ohio, she's the local face for this group (a unit of the United Auto Workers), and for some time she has organized a popular writers' forum series at the Mayfield regional library, whose latest installment is this evening at 7. More recently, Woody (click here, here and here to learn more about her) has steered her group to valuable collaborations with the Society of Professional Journalists and the Writers & Poets League (more about which in coming weeks), and she plans to soon merge her writerly listserv with that of her pal, the similarly formidable communications maven Susanne Alexander. All of which is helping the regional writing community break out of its stale little mini-conversations and engage in a larger, more fruitful discussion that will benefit everyone.

But this former California resident has also encountered a rough time in the shifting job market. Sandy's specialties, technical writing and video production, have been hit hard by the economic downturn. So she's decided to make lemonade from her lemons, savvily capitalizing on the national media's mania for reading every possible tea leaf in a swing state such as Ohio. In June, the Boston Globe published this absorbing op-ed piece about her job struggles, in which she elegantly placed her situation into the larger macroeconomic context. And in classic he-said/she-said fashion, it paired her piece with a very different take by National City Bank's chief economist.

The idea of Ohio as the ultimate swing state in this presidential election was kicked off in a big way with a very fine New York Times Magazine cover piece by Matt Bai (who formerly specialized in reporting about Russia) in late spring, which focused on the slow but steady electoral balance of power shift from the liberal northern part of the state to the conservative central and southern portions. That touched off the usual media herd dynamic. The Economist magazine, whose expanding coverage of the U.S. is often better and less driven by pack mentality than any of its domestic competitors, has also done a series of reports on U.S. swing states, though oddly it hasn't yet gotten around to Ohio. The New Republic and some others have just started their own installments.

But back to Sandy and her op-ed argument for a moment. She and I have an ongoing debate, enlightening to me at least, about various related subjects, most of which center around economics, the role of markets and the realities of human behavior. And I'd respectfully submit that she, like a lot of other writers and analysts who focus on the narrower economic issues at work in today's job market, are missing important larger structural changes that we'd all better wake up to before they sweep us out to sea. As it happens, many of these subjects are wonderfully dramatized in an engaging piece of literary journalism by Katherine Boo, published in the July 5th issue of the New Yorker (sorry, it's not online--you'll either have to head to the library or cop a copy from your dentist's waiting room). The piece, The Best Job in Town, describes how India's fourth-largest city, Chennai (formerly called Madras), has become Wall Street East and home to an increasingly wide swath of outsourced back-office America. And it has happened not merely because of brutal "wage arbitrage," in which companies scour the globe for the cheapest labor rates. The work is often performed with more care overseas by workers who are hungrier for lower-wage work, in the estimation of the story's subjects, a pair of young former American Wall Streeters, who founded the offshore company Office Tiger. "It had become apparent to them that not every typist and copyist working the midnight shift in their investment banks--the moonlighting actor, the artist with the ring in his nose--was putting his heart, soul and syntactical memory into completing the PowerPoint presentations they needed to be done, perfectly, by morning. Randy began to speculate that workers overseas might invest more care in the menial jobs that Manhattanites seemed not to relish."

For any American whose family got ahead through hard work after immigrating to this country, basically just about all of us, it's a powerful argument, and one not so easily dismissed, I think, by the simple-minded cant about "Benedict Arnold CEO's" (John Kerry, during the period when he was slavishly following consultant Bob Shrum's tired script) and CNN anchor Lou Dobbs' transparently pathetic attempt to ape the faux-populism of Fox's Bill O'Reilly. Through the inevitable hydraulic pressures of capitalism, companies will always seek out those hungrier (and yes, less-costly) workers, just as money will always splash its way into politics, no matter what barriers we may erect. I'd argue that we'd be smart to understand and react to these forces rather than trying to wish, shout or even vote them away.

I thought of Sandy again today, when I read this surprising little Washington Post piece about how writers--generally of the non-union variety--are the unacknowledged but essential players behind so-called "reality TV" series, a category which will comprise no less than 17% of the coming fall TV season's prime time schedule. The networks are loathe to acknowledge them with credits, since that defeats the myth of their unscripted nature. And since the entire niche is predicated on its considerably lower production costs, the networks are trying their best to keep them non-union. As I finished the story, I envisioned Sandy reacting like some latter-day Civil War general, studying the intelligence from the field before repositioning her big guns, oratorical and otherwise, to blast away in the direction of this latest perceived injustice. May she keep firing away in support of scribes, building creative community and reminding everyone of the importance of good writing. And here's hoping she also does well for herself while she's doing all this good for others.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Gee, I Wonder if This Will Attract Any Resumes?

Research Associate/Personal Assistant:
New York City--Highly intelligent, resourceful individuals with exceptional communication skills sought to undertake research projects and administrative tasks for one of Wall Street's most successful entrepreneurs. We welcome applications from writers, musicians, artists or others who may be pursuing other professional goals in the balance of their time. 90K-110K to start (depending on qualifications). Resume to:
--Classified ad in a recent issue of The New Republic

Coming Across This Line Made Me Miss My Erstwhile Woods Even More. Long-time Working With Words readers may remember my ruminations of last fall, upon the occasion of the opening of Legacy Village, about how I was going to miss having such precious near-virgin (okay, re-virginized) suburban forest almost in my back yard. I used to wander around those grounds for hours on weekend walks, occasionally stumbling over a deer carcass that looked as if it had been there since the early Bronze Age. But when I recently happened upon this sentence, from the last line of W.H. Auden's poem "Woods," I missed that wild area even more. As the venerable one put it: "A culture is no better than its woods." Indeed...

Friday, August 06, 2004

'The Writing Process is Never Done'

Okay, I'm back. My self-imposed (if unnanounced) summer break from Working With Words has become something of an annual tradition, since this makes it two consecutive years in which it's happened. And at nearly three weeks this time, it's also my longest period of silence ever. Which only means I have that much more to share with you in coming days, weeks and months, since the mental faucet wasn't turned off during that time, nor did I stop watching and listening to the culture. I even accomplished a fair amount of other writing (click here for the latest dad's column and here for a new piece in the current issue of Northern Ohio Live. ). I'm also into the deepest part of the work on my latest book-ghostwriting project, which will be the fifth, and thus far it looks to be perhaps the most interesting subject yet. Since this one is shaping up as the least-secretive of the lot, almost more of a co-written thing, I'll perhaps share some details about it in coming weeks.

One thing that new writers don't always immediately grasp is how much gathering--reading, watching, listening and thinking--must happen before one can get down to any serious writing. Without all that input, there's no real output, at least not anything really worth reading. And that's why we should sometime just turn off the output spigot and step back for a time. I'm afraid that a hungry mind--and if you don't have that, find some other kind of work--will preclude you from similarly shutting down the input mechanism, for even a day.

Anyway, I've been saving this little gem that I first read in late June. It's by a woman who is in the process of making over her life, switching from a profession in finance to one as a writer (I don't know about you, but I find that I'm encountering that type with increasing frequency, the person who in mid life is moving toward writing, often going from a highly left-brained to a right-brained activity). "I came to writing after 20 years in accounting and finance. In my previous experience, things got finished...But things are not so simple with writing." She finds there's never really any clear end point to writing, that it's a never-ending process. And mostly, she takes inspiration in that. Anyway, it's well worth your time to read, and full of food for thought.

A Detour Into Medicine. In a recent interview on NPR affiliate WCPN, my fellow Cleveland writer Kristin Ohlson made a smart observation: she said that amid her larger writing projects, she always tries to make sure to reserve some time for the occasional freelance magazine assignment, because for her the researching and interviewing functions not unlike taking a course in some new and interesting subject. Any serious writer will immediately nod their head in agreement on that point. Sometimes we choose these topics, and other times editors help choose them for us. I was pleasantly surprised to be drawn into some intensive writing about medical topics in the last few months, which is not at all a usual subject for me. In fact, I probably hadn't written about medicine since back in the mid-'90s, when the late editor of CWRU's magazine, Roberta Hubbard, asked me to get my arms around some of the exciting developments taking place in the area of genetics at the medical school, and to then put it into English for a general audience. I remember reading for a solid week before even thinking about scheduling my first interview with a researcher.

Reading by Lantern's Light. My intensive summer hammock reading, whose end point has been pushed back an hour or more by the family's thoughtful father's day gift of a lantern, has allowed me to delve into a number of publications that I don't ordinarly get to in the course of my Darwinian squeeze between the limited time and the limitless supply of things I'd like to read. Business Week, for instance, has always been worthwhile, in my experience, and yet it doesn't really shout out as a must-read anymore in the expanding menu of possibilities. But this piece, which gives a brilliant layman's overview of the changes affecting media and marketing as "the country has atomized into countless market segments," makes me wonder how many other such gems I've missed in recent years. The same goes for a piece on the subject of leadership in the June edition of Harvard Business Review. Management guru Peter Drucker shows that his gray matter is still vital despite his 90-something years on the planet. It's a tightly written, no-bullshit treatise on what good leaders have in common, based on his 65-year track record in consulting. Treat yourself to it sometime you're at the library (sorry, it's not online). Anyway, I'll be sure to pass along more Hammock Reading Tips (HRT's) in coming days. Just think of it as pleasure reading rather than assigned homework.

Killer War Stories. I imagine you've had this experience before: you get together with a friend, and the conversation turns to some subject that prompts them to recall a long-ago experience. And sometimes the anecdote is so vivid that you find yourself wondering how such a great story has never come up before, in the many dozens or even hundreds of hours of conversations you've enjoyed with them in the past. Lately, I seem to be having that experience approximately on a weekly basis. Today, I was set to meet my friend John Polk for lunch in Little Italy, at the sublime east-side mecca of moderately priced but authentic southern Italian cooking, Mama Santa's. Only, I forgot one thing: every year, the place closes down in early August, in anticipation of the annual Feast of the Assumption (when the owners take their annual pause for refreshment). So I meet John out front, and as we discuss our plan B, he recounts a Murray Hill moment from a generation ago. Seems he was the night clerk at the old Bond Court Hotel in the late '70s, when the cast and crew of The Deer Hunter came to town to use the onion-domed Tremont area as a backdrop for the movie. Robert DeNiro, at the time far less famous than he is today (this was pre-Taxi Driver, remember) was staying at the Bond Court, and one night he came down to the lobby, anxious for recommendations on where the off-the-set action was. John related how he told him about the Little Italy feast, and the two were set to hit the town for some joint carousing. "But he dumped me," John recalled, no doubt for some female companion he happened upon. I figure that it's better to have been unceremoniously dumped by DeNiro than to never have met him at all...