Sunday, May 31, 2009

Writing is Difficult, and Short Cuts Are Few

'During the early days of my life as a writer, I devoured all sorts of how-to books, from the aforementioned classics to the more absurd. The latter were my porno, my bad TV; they offered nothing of any value, really. I forgot everything shortly after I read it. The titles always included some type of promise like Dare To Be Great, Write to Sell, Write To Break Out or Write To Live. Even if I could remember anything, I couldn't apply what I had learned. My writing brain lived in a faraway land; I could not find any direct route to this learning. The same thing happened in graduate school. The knowledge gained from reading, reading, reading, talking, talking, talking and workshop, workshop, workshop sat in one impervious mound of dirt inside my head only to be doled out over time by an invisible (and stingy) hand. I suppose there are those who find prescriptive advice about writing helpful, writers who can look at a project, identify a structure, use an outline, and get to writing. One, two, three...poof! But I cannot imagine a world where this is true, a world where one creates great characters in five steps, a world in which one pops books out like laying eggs. In my world, writing is difficult, and short cuts are few. The only real way to learn how to do it is to read the work of authors who write well and to, well, write--a lot. Along the way, of course, it is always helpful--and interesting--to talk or listen to writers discuss their process and the work of other writers.'
--from Lee Montgomery's introduction to The Writer's Notebook--Craft Essays from Tin House.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Best Lead of the Month

'If you arrived late for “Terminator Salvation” and missed the name of the director, at what moment would you realize that you were not watching a Mike Leigh film? I would nominate the scene in which a rusty tow truck, armed with a wrecking ball, is pursued by a riderless robot motorbike, armed with automatic machine guns. A wrecked car falls into the bike’s path, at which point we are given privileged access to the display screen inside the robot’s brain. We get a blood-red projection of the obstacle ahead, and with it, for a second or two, the words “Analyzing alternatives.” Slide under the wreck, crash through it, or skirt around the side? I felt sorry for this anxious bike, which may have been having trouble at home, and it certainly delivers a more measured performance than some of the leading actors. Nonetheless, that brief digital readout gives the game away. The business of the film is not to tell a cogent story or earn the devotion of our sympathies but to analyze alternatives, and, when in doubt, pick whichever is louder.'
--From a movie review in the current New Yorker by Anthony Lane, who we enthused about six years ago here. Our runner-up this month is this pithy little gem from the Washington Post: "The whole world is on Twitter. Yawn." As we noted in our initial best lead of the month item three years ago, if a piece of writing doesn't begin well, it might just as well not have been written. Anyway, you can review earlier best leads of the month here.

Friday, May 29, 2009

On Being Unencumbered
By Your Former Nonsense

'Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.'
--Ralph Waldo Emerson. You can review earlier mentions of him here.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Finding a Fresh Way to Make One's Point

"I once responded to a girlfriend’s love poem by critiquing its imagery. That relationship didn’t last long." Besides that classic opening line, we found this rumination on love poems interesting in other ways. We especially liked how one unusual formulation startled us just a little: the idea that a young poet's main handicap springs from being "an inexperienced feeler." A nice reminder that saying something in a fresh, interesting and possibly unexpected way is what good writing is really all about.
UPDATE: The newly installed Poet Laureate of Great Britain says all poems are love poems.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Here's a Writing Market We Never Considered

The L.A Times, in a piece that will no doubt prompt a flood of new material being offered over the transom, notes that despite union rules to the contrary, the David Letterman show regularly uses jokes supplied by freelance comedy writers. So we ask you: waddayagot that's good enough for prime time comedy? We welcome your jokes, good, bad and in between. Meanwhile, you can review earlier Letterman-related items here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Few Things We Couldn't Help Noticing

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Power of Praise

'I can live for two months on a good compliment.'
--Mark Twain. You can review earlier mentions of our favorite snowy haired bard

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Stronger at the Broken Places

'The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.'
--Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms. To review a particularly resonant line from another of his books, A Moveable Feast, you can go here.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

How Writing is a Long Apprenticeship

'Teaching yourself to write is simply a matter of practice, generating words and words and words until you figure out how they really fit together. I don't believe the ability to write is a gift. I believe that anyone can write if they are willing to put in the work, and I believe those who have tried to write but have failed have failed only in their ability to sit down long enough and produce enough apprentice words.'
--from a recent entry on Michael Ruhlman's blog. We invite you to read the entire post, and also to dip into at least one of his many fine books. You can review an earlier mention of Mike here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Here's How One Comment Can Change a Life;
Try Being Interested Rather Than Interesting

'During my first year on the Stanford faculty in 1988, I sought out Professor John Gardner for guidance on how I might become a better teacher. Gardner, former Secretary of Health, Education & Welfare, founder of Common Cause, and author of the classic text Self-Renewal, stung me with a comment that changed my life. "It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting," he said. "Why don't you invest more time being interested?"'
--from a slim new publication, Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer, by Jim Collins, author of Good to Great. You can review earlier mentions of John Gardner here.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Turning Innovation Inward

'We've all become great innovators on behalf of our companies and our work environments. Now we need to turn that spirit of radical innovation to our own lives.'
--Candice Carpenter, founder of the women's web community iVillage.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Leaving Nothing to Chance

'Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.'
--Helen Keller. You can review an earlier mention of her here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

One of the Most Effective Book Covers
That We Can Recall Ever Having Seen
We were drawn in by its minimalism, an especially effective storytelling device in a world ever more full of noise and hype. Sometimes, whispering works better. Thoughts?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Our Favorite Book Title,
Part 17

The Geopolitics of Emotion--How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation and Hope are Reshaping the World. With a title like this, it's hard to pass up. But we had a couple of strong runners-up this time. They include How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories--Evolutionary Enigmas, and The Story of Yiddish--How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews. You can review earlier favorite book titles here.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

On Breaking the Inertia of Dead Ideas

'It's time to step back and consider the big picture. We all know in our own lives how powerful the inertia of a dead idea can be, though often it's only in retrospect that we appreciate how hard it was to recognize and break free of its grip. People spend years in therapy examining reflexes formed in childhood that control their behavior decades later. Companies are often pushed to the brink of extinction before admitting that 'the way we've always done things' no longer makes sense. the hunger for certainty and continuity in a changing world is part of being human. Even when it no longer serves our interests, we cling to what we think we know.'
--from The Tyranny of Dead Ideas--Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity, by Matt Miller.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

We've Got it All Backwards

'We are not human beings trying to be spiritual, but spiritual beings trying to be human.'
--Jacquelyn Small, a "soul-based" psychologist and author.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Savoring Writing Good Enough to Eat

'Flavor, in Italian dishes, builds up from the bottom. It is not a cover, it is a base. In a pasta sauce, a risotto, a soup, a fricassee, a stew, or a dish of vegetables, a foundation of flavor supports, lifts, points up the principal ingredients. To grasp this architectural principle central to the structure of much Italian cooking, and to become familiar with the three key techniques that enable you to apply it, is to take a long step toward mastering Italian taste. The techniques are known as battuto, soffritto and insaporire.'
--from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan. We admit to never having heard of her or her work until reading
this recent profile of Marcella and her husband.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Surrendering All One's Secrets To The
Magnetic Resonance Imaging Machine

'A woman in an MRI tube has few secrets. The man at the control console knows the size of her heart and the contents of her womb. He knows if she's had her breasts enlarged or her stomach stapled. He can see into her bladder and knows whether she's wishing she'd stopped by the restroom before climbing onto the exam table.'
--from Bonk--the Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. We've only grazed through the book, but found this passage to be especially compelling.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It Was Supposed to Be Updike

The famously cerebral and prolific writer Joan Didion appeared in Cleveland yesterday. But an even more famous and prolific writer (we'll leave it to others to decide the cerebral pecking order) was originally scheduled for that appearance: the late John Updike. We thought about him all day. As a form of tribute, we decided to select one of his books we've never read and add it to our reading list. We're taking suggestions from anyone who cares to offer them. Meanwhile, we plan to once more bug our friend Mike Gallagher (an accomplished writer himself) to dig out for our inspection that long-ago letter he received from Updike, an unfailingly polite response to Mike's invitation to come speak (he declined, citing the need to remain at his writing desk). I recall him reading it to me nearly 20 years ago, as I marveled over its faintly familiar, wholly alluring Updikean cadence.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Easier Said Than Done

'The goal of marriage is not to think alike but to think together.'
--Robert Dodds

Monday, May 11, 2009

Things You Learn By Reading

'Since 2000, the finance sector has funneled a total of $2.84 billion directly into the political system, $961 million in donations to candidates and political parties, $1.88 billion in publicly disclosed lobbying expenditures to influence Congress and the executive branch.'
--From former Washington Post reporter Tom Edsall's eye-opening
new piece in the Huffingtonpost. The emphasis was ours. Look for future installments of TYLBR.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fast Company Magazine Takes Note
Of Some Bold New Ohio Architecture

Not long ago, I got a sneak preview of the new additions to the Cleveland Museum of Art, from a friend who works there. When the new east wing is formally unveiled next month, it ought to draw some oohs and ahs, though there will no doubt also be some traditionalists who don't like messing with the classic original building, now close to a century old. I suppose a big part of me is in sympathy with that latter sentiment. Still, we do like to see some big, bold architecture now and again. Fast Company seemed almost shocked that dowdy old Ohio could be home to so many interesting new architectural accomplishments. I especially like that new glass pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art. Mental note to myself: make sure to visit Toledo sometime this summer.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Our Favorite Website of the Week...

Goes to this ad agency in Birmingham, Alabama, of all places. Their slogan seems to be "rethink everything." We rather like how their site broke through the clutter and demanded that we take a moment to look around the joint. Still, we realize you may well hate it. Love it or hate it, it certainly stands out. We'd welcome your thoughts, as well as your nominations for site of the week.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Giving of Yourself

'The only gift is a portion of thyself.'
--Ralph Waldo Emerson. You can review earlier mentions of him here.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Are You Spending Yourself Wisely?

'Life begets energy--energy creates energy. It is only by spending oneself wisely that one becomes rich in life.'
--Eleanor Roosevelt
UPDATE: This got us to thinking: what kinds of quotes & bromides from Michelle Obama might folks be repeating & admiring a half century from now? Thoughts, anyone?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Nothing Comes to He
Who Waits (or Floats)

'If your ship doesn't come in, swim out to it.'
--Comedian Jonathan Winters

Monday, May 04, 2009

Right Wing Dope Resurfacing Watch, Part 2

Last year, we brought you news of how a dismal dupe named Judith Miller went from being a senior New York Times reporter used as a willing tool by scheming, warmongering Bushies to a disgraced scribbler, trying to resurrect her career through articles in Reader's Digest and appearances on the FOX TV network (good luck with that strategy, Judith). This time, the resurfacing act is by former Karl Rove hatchet man Ken Tomlinson, whom the Bush Administration once installed as head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, evidently to try to undermine what it saw as pinko public media (the CPB oversees NPR and PBS). That effort failed in spectacular fashion, thanks to the way the quality media--including NPR itself--impressively rallied to the cause and smoked him out of his FOXhole. The CPB's inspector general later found Tomlinson guilty of a range of serious violations, leaving the dope thoroughly discredited. Anyway, this bumbling fool has lately begun showing up as a columnist for that egregious spewer of right-wing propaganda, the Weekly Standard. I love how the magazine simply omits that most recent chapter in his life, by referring to him in his bio tagline only as the former editor of Reader's Digest.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

How Productivity Can Grow Out of Brokeness

'Despair and a sense of loss are not static conditions, but goads to our labor.'
--philosopher and Harvard professor Stanley Cavell

Saturday, May 02, 2009

A Writing Syllabus for the Internet Age

'As print takes its place alongside smoke signals, cuneiform, and hollering, there has emerged a new literary age, one in which writers no longer need to feel encumbered by the paper cuts, reading, and excessive use of words traditionally associated with the writing trade. Writing for Nonreaders in the Postprint Era focuses on the creation of short-form prose that is not intended to be reproduced on pulp fibers. Instant messaging. Twittering. Facebook updates. These 21st-century literary genres are defining a new "Lost Generation" of minimalists who would much rather watch Lost on their iPhones than toil over long-winded articles and short stories. Students will acquire the tools needed to make their tweets glimmer with a complete lack of forethought, their Facebook updates ring with self-importance, and their blog entries shimmer with literary pithiness. All without the restraints of writing in complete sentences.'
--from a spoof in the online publication McSweeney's, which we found pretty entertaining.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Leveraging the Web for PR Practitioners
Notes from a March 11th Presentation
To the Independent Practitioners Group

A Few Questions We'll Explore:
  • What are your sustainable competitive advantages (in other words, how can you better distinguish yourself from the run of plain-vanilla PR providers)?
  • How can you leverage the web to strengthen and broadcast those advantages?
  • How can you slowly increase the pipeline of candidates ready to engage with you, and eventually (perhaps) do business with you?
  • How can you intelligently integrate your relationships (a big company would call it CRM, or Customer Relationship Management) into your marketing efforts?
  • How can you continue to add to the universe of possible clients (the saddest story I’ve heard in months was about a guy in advertising who complained all his clients got bought by other companies. How long did he go without adding to his client base—20 years?).
  • How can you find the time to deliver more value to clients while searching for business less?
  • How can you broaden and deepen your intelligence network to find more business? Or better yet, how can it better find you?

A Couple of Phrases We’ll Illuminate:

Inbound Marketing
Relationship Marketing

A Mantra We’ll Dissect:

People Tend to Buy from those they Know, Like & Trust

Seth Godin on PR:

"Most PR firms do publicity, not PR. Publicity is the act of getting ink. Publicity is getting unpaid media to pay attention, write you up, point to you, run a picture, make a commotion. Sometimes publicity is helpful, and good publicity is always good for your ego. But it's not PR. PR is the strategic crafting of your story. It's the focused examination of your interactions and tactics and products and pricing that, when combined, determine what and how people talk about you."

A Few Sites Worth Studying Regularly
Maintained by an NYU new media professor, it’s one of the best at keeping track of developments at the intersection of the business sides of PR and journalism.
One of the earlier & better guides to how the web is changing PR. Its author now works in new media for PR giant Edelman in NY.
The infamous Romenesko, read several times a day by nearly every journalist in America.
One of the better how-to sites about good online marketing.
Godin is simply the best, freshest thinker about the philosophies behind marketing in the 21st century. The original guru of “permission marketing.”
The best site on the web about the ins & outs (and value) of online copywriting.
Not what it used to be, but still worthwhile sometimes.
A newer-age Seth Godin (Seth was actually his mentor). Pretty sharp.
Never hurts to understand a little about how search engines work.

Some Good Local Resources/Ideas/Smart People to Watch
A great online tool for answering web questions and making new connections, by the Cleveland web development shop Insivia. A great example of an inbound expert tool.
Bill Sledzik, a PR prof at Kent State, offers fresh thinking about PR on his blog.
Matt Dickman, formerly w/Digiknow, is now the resident social network guru with the Cleveland office of Fleishman-Hillard, and is increasingly becoming a nationally recognized thinker on the topic.
A blog by Paul Roetzer, who runs perhaps Northeast Ohio’s only true inbound marketing/PR operation.