The Furious Finish: On Deadlines

511pND32q4LIt’s 1979 and the Mad Men-esque execs were in a cab, on the way to present a corporate identity theme to the bigwigs at GE. The current version was pretty clunky and they knew it: We make the things that make life good.” Their agency teams had spent weeks researching, brainstorming, even songwriting.

Ad man Phil Dusenberry writes about the final moments before the cab dropped him off, “As we honked, bounced, and stalled our way through traffic, a beautiful thing happened. Maybe it was the last pothole, but the theme line, full-blown, popped into my head. ‘GE… We bring good things to life.’” That GE slogan lasted for more than twenty years.

Why is that some ideas seem to, at the last minute, congeal in a way that they didn’t when you had all the time in the world?Continue Reading

And Then We Came to the End: One Year & Fourteen Books Later

dauphine2I suck at endings.

But that’s something a lot of people say, isn’t it? As if everyone else is really good at quitting a job or relationship or saying goodbye or ending a story. (I’ve never met anyone who claims special talent at this. Ever.)

So much rides on an ending—it’s the final impression, the takeaway, the taste in your mouth once it’s all over. The pressure of it can be, well, paralyzing. That’s where I find myself now, a few days into 2014, my year of reading 100-year-old books decidedly over. I feel the need for some grand conclusion, some glittery lesson learned.

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The Internet: Savior of the Short Story?

short_stories_1927_10_10_a1When my daughter was in her first few months of life, I made a sort of peace with the nighttime feedings by reading through a short story collection. One story usually lasted the amount of time she needed to feel satiated, and I had something to look forward to when I first heard those hunger wails—something besides wondering if I’d be able to fall back to sleep before the next round.

A good short story (especially when I’m well rested) can pack such a punch I’ll be dizzy for days. I love ‘em—and not just because they helped me through the days of early parenthood. There’s something about the limits resulting from such a compact form that makes me want to consume them more so than any other kind of writing.

Short stories didn’t start out as the rather “high art” that they are now known to be. In the 19th century, they were more commercially-driven, a way for a writer to make some quick money in a newspaper or magazine. And they used to actually make a writer money. Cosmopolitan once had a contract with Jack London (yes, that Jack London and that Cosmo) for a short story a month at $1000 a story. (Cosmo, believe it or not, was a literary mag before turning into a women’s mag sometime in the 60s.)

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Finding the Formula in a 20th Century Fiction Factory

photo (14)I was only a few pages in when I understood I wouldn’t be finishing The Outdoor Girls In a Motorcar, a 1913 book from a series called, appropriately, The Outdoor Girls. I’ve already written about not finishing good books, and that wasn’t the issue this time. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The whole first chapter of In a Motorcar felt, well… Too predictable.

But that, I’ve come to understand, was intentional.Continue Reading

The Little Dictionary That Could

It’s a skinny thing, Gustave Flaubert’s Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues, not even 100 pages. And The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas also isn’t the source you’d turn to when someone peppers a conversation with a few big words. It is, however, the dictionary you could pick up and read during, say, a federal government shutdown.

Flaubert’s definition of America: “Famous example of injustice: Columbus discovered it and it is named after Amerigo Vespucci. If it weren’t for the discovery of America, we should not be suffering from syphilis and phylloxera. Exalt it all the same, especially if you’ve never been there. Lecture people on self-government.”

The_Dictionary_of_Accepted_Ideas__300_432In 1913, thirty-three years after Flaubert’s death, the little book was published in French. Forty-one years after that, The Dictionary debuted in English. Translating was no easy task. The linguistic nuances of humor and satire, particularly when it comes to language, can often be lost, literally, in translation. And though Flaubert’s original work takes aim at a French society he loathed, it turns out that there are still quite a few similarities across the pond and the years.


COMPROMISE. Always recommend it, even when the alternatives are irreconcilable.

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On Reading Diaries: It’s Not Just for Pesky Little Brothers

We were in our green Ford Aerostar, my high-school self trying to engage my parents in a serious discussion, when my brother began quoting, softly at first, lines from my diary. The kinds of lines you write for yourself, lines that are embarrassing and incriminating when recited out loud by an obnoxious sibling.

You want to know what those lines were, don’t you? Well, that’s the power of the diary.

belloc-lowndes-portrait-CROP-100I stumbled into the Diaries and Letters of Marie Belloc Lowndes 1911-1947 by accident. I’d been hunting for an appropriate 100-year-old read for the month of October, something slightly spooky, and I landed on her collection, Stories in Love and in Terror. Her diaries were shelved right beside it, and I picked them up as an afterthought.

The stories, it turns out, were the perfect smash-up of Halloween and Valentine’s Day. Even with a century on Lowndes’ slightly twisted love stories, I still had that cold heartbeat that comes from the macabre—or advancing macabre—into a character’s life.

And after finishing the stories, I wanted to know more about herWho was this woman who sent her characters off to die in sunken submarines or had them wrestle out how to love a madman?

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Self-Help Seduction

There are certain books we all hide. You know them. The ones purchased late at night when no one we know is in the bookstore. Or better yet, ordered from Amazon for further anonymity. These are books we don’t want anyone to know we read, certainly not our literary pals.

These, readers, are the self-help books.

“Anyone wanting to damage their intellectual credentials,” writes Swiss/British philosopher/writer Alain de Botton, “… need only do one simple thing: confess they read self-help books. There’s no more ridiculed genre in the literary canon…”

Despite that, some of us do read them, because our lives or selves are, from time to time, a mess. Desperate, we suffer through the cheesy titles and chapter headings, and the demeaningly simple prose, all because we want what we believe these books have to offer us: change. Or at least a chance at it.

AMECoverSelf-help books haven’t always been this way. When Tasso Vance Orr published Applied Mental Efficiency in 1913, the self-help genre was neither a billion dollar industry nor widely ridiculed. For a mere $1.50, those eager to improve themselves personally and professionally could buy Applied Mental Efficiency without any cultural baggage, and choose from 48 easy-to-read chapters ranging from Card Indexing the Mind to The Purchasing Power of a Smile to The Art of Asking Questions.

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Between Centuries: A Six-Month Perspective

The year is more than half over, which means those of us who attempted New Year’s resolutions have either mastered, given up, or heavily revised them. It also means my year of reading 100-year-old books is halfway finished.

BooksIt all started, in February, with a dead poet and a road trip. And while I had planned to traipse into various used bookshops around the country to find hidden gems, after that, it turns out there were some not-so-hidden gems right under my nose—classics like Jack London’s The Valley of the MoonEdith Wharton’s Custom of the Country, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and a slice from L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, The Patchwork Girl from Oz.

Then there were delights like Blanche Ebbutt’s marriage manuals, the cookbook with a recipe for cooking calves’ feet, and a morality book for kids.

For the last six months, I have been living between two centuries.Continue Reading

Raising ’em right: Fiction & Parenthood

Within the next few weeks, I’ll be officially responsible for introducing another human being to a sense of ethics—of how to be in this world. Granted, she and I will be initially concerned with a few other things, but the time will come when we will talk about right and wrong, justice and injustice. And I’m not exactly sure how one does that well.


In addition to the many books already on this yet-to-be-born freedom fighter’s bookshelf, I recently stuck in one from a century ago—The Goody-Naughty Book. This 1913 collection of morality stories for kids arrived on my porch one spring afternoon, just as the weeds that I could no longer bend down to pluck started crowding the sidewalk. The symbolism was not lost on me.

And so I read, just like the instructions on the inside of the book suggested. (These were something along the lines of this book doesn’t end! ever! flip it over to read another set of stories.)Continue Reading

Series Junkies: We Are All “Loving Tyrants”

PWozWhat to do when, as a writer, you’re ready to move on from a world you’ve created, but your fan base is not? L. Frank Baum, the originator of the Oz world and all its charming characters, had exactly that experience.

It goes like this. Beginning in 1900, he put out, roughly, a book a year in the series: The Wonder Wizard of Oz, The Marvelous Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, The Road to Oz and The Emerald City of Oz. In 1910, with what he saw as the final book in the series, Baum had the oh-so-good witch Glinda turn Oz invisible, cutting it off from the rest of the world. As the Oz Historian, Baum no longer had access to the world his readers demanded. He was (he now assumed) free to pursue other ideas.

But the “loving tyrants”—his term of endearment for his young readers—had other plans. The new story series he pitched didn’t sell half as well as his Oz worlds.

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