Tall Lady Short but Sound

It’s unfair to say one feels let down by a free program. It’s more unreasonable to feel let down by a non-performer’s performance. Alas, several of us did; I asked around afterward.

Writer Joyce Carol Oates, 75, still teaching at Princeton and other campuses, was fascinating for her 45 minutes onstage at the Fayetteville Town Center on Monday, April 21. Suddenly, it was all over but the book-signing.

Joyce Carol Oates.
Joyce Carol Oates.
Photo from University of Arkansas

She was the 2014 Distinguished Reader of the Programs in Creative Writing & Translation of the English department of the University of Arkansas. Earlier in the day, Oates met with Master of Fine Arts students.

After two introductions, Oates went onstage about 7:15, and the several hundred seats were over three-fourths occupied. She ended at 8, noting there would be no Q-and-A.

In between, the noted author was delightful. She read one story, an older one, “Small Avalanches,” the title piece from a collection. Oates to a modest but effective extent acted the parts of the narrator, a naive 13-year-old girl, and other characters, even gesturing at points with hand movements and shoulder shrugs.

The second half of her presentation was a reading from a draft of a memoir she is calling The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Memoir. The section concerned her parents and some grandparents. She read this quickly with no drama.

Before reading the fiction, Oates emphasized how she rarely writes in her own voice. It helps her, she said, to move through the cadences and inflections of the voice of the main character.

Her stories, she said, are mixed from three sources: made up (invention), acquired (observation) and self (memory). After “Small Avalanches,” where the young narrator is walking home followed by a man with apparent bad intent, she noted which parts came from which.

It was slight but sufficient for my literary evening, to learn Joyce Carol Oates’ view of “made up, acquired and self.” After all, she’s published more than 50 novels, dozens of short story, essay and poetry collections, and books for children and young adults.

She gave us a big clue.

Dinting Not Daunting: Daily Diary for December

I lost in “NaNoWriMo” this past month. The goal of National Novel Writing Month, held every November, is to craft at least 50,000 words of a new novel (not revising a draft nor picking up an abandoned manuscript) in those 30 days. This was my fourth try, beginning in 2007. I “won” in 2009. Alas, 2013 will go down with my having written 29,001 words.

Having my MacBook in the shop six days mid-month did stall my momentum, but I won’t blame that. I could’ve written longhand on a letter pad or tapped on an iPad then moved the copy over. No, my heart wasn’t in it this fall.

But the attempt got me thinking about writing goals.

• • •

NOTE: This column was originally published in the December 2013 edition of The Columnist, the members’ newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. It has been edited slightly.

• • •

Writing as a freelancer is one thing. You find projects, and, when lucky, projects find you. As work, these head the queue of to-dos. Now, writing as an artistic goal — a blog, a poem or two for an upcoming “open mic,” a long-term project like a novel — these require all sorts of tricks for motivation.

Ever since we met in 1991, my wife of 20 years has been disturbed by a series of signs posted near my writing desks, such as “The Writing Comes First,” “Write Daily,” “Butt in Chair” — familiar to many of us in NSNC. She wants to come first in my life. My assurances never have persuaded her, and I am told this eight or nine times a year.

That may have changed last month. She is satisfied from a response I figured out after reading Dani Shapiro’s new book, Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life. Shapiro’s extended essay is the latest in such volumes that shows even eloquent, popular writers have similar issues.

1) I need NO reminders of the most important matters in my life: Wife, home and family. They’re obvious. They’re constant.

2) For writing, even though I claim to enjoy the practice, I need reminders. Writing is so easy to duck that any gimmick that gets me back to a pad must be given a shot. My wife seems to accept this. For now.

Reading writing tips of others I respect also inspires. Just in late November, Salon.com posted “Nicholson Baker’s Best Advice: Writers Must Write Every Day.”

My latest desk sign has been to copy the screensaver of the fictional mystery writer Richard Castle, which appears on the eponymous, Monday night ABC series. My laptop now reads “You Should Be Writing” after a minute of inactivity. It beckons me and makes me laugh.

• • •

Since 1998, I’ve aimed to write three pages of free writing, longhand, first thing every day. The practice is called Morning Pages, from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I was consistent the first couple of years. Until last month, I have done the Pages once or twice a week, at most (it’s a great warm-up on NaNoWriMo days).

One help has been to move this journal habit to the keyboard. A fellow coded up 750words.com as that was his length estimate of the average pen-and-paper Morning Pages. Besides counting words and some interesting features, 750words.com serves as a “cloud” back-up. It is not entirely secure, but what is, anymore?

• • •

NaNoWriMo is a daunting but achievable goal, 1,667 words on each of 30 days comes to 50,010. Daunting is fine every once in a while, unless one actually is a novelist.

But instead of daunting goals, how about dinting ones? As in by dint of labor, meaning “force or power,” achievable with just a little extra effort.

So beginning in December, I have set up in my word processor Scrivener a monthly target of 20,000 words. They’ll come from any original writing, including copy for hire.

Here’s the arithmetic: The easy goal would be to write from my heart whenever I feel like it — so zero words a month and above that anything is gravy.

That doesn’t work well.

Coming up with 750 words a day times an average of 20 weekdays a month is a target of 15,000 words. That’s just a hair too easy, but 750 words times 30 days equals 22,500. Month in and month out I would fail.

What about 20,000 words every month? That would come from the Morning Pages of four weekdays and either Saturday or Sunday, plus one or two articles or blog posts per week. Besides, by the time I hit 750 words in Pages, I’m on a roll and find 1,000 takes just another few minutes.

• • •

Another writer’s take on NaNoWriMo was published in early December. George Anders wrote in Forbes, “Type Faster! My Month Inside A Writers’ Colony Of 308,000.”

• • •

Dude, where’s my etymology? My favorite Web story of the month comes from Slate.com. The word “dude,” as in a laid-back but very hip fellow turns out to have begun in the 1880s and was a nod to Yankee Doodle, the easygoing “dude” of the previous century.

Sportin’ Life, Eh, Old Sport?

I knew a Jay Gatsby.

Click for Rotten Tomatoes website archive of top critics on the 2013 adaptation of The Great GatsbyWe were in grade school in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and stayed close through high school. It probably wasn’t until junior high when I saw this trait of his — simply put it’s a person sure he can buy friends with money. But that is so simple it sounds sociopathic, when it’s the most natural impulse, encouraged by the praise heaped generally on the virtue of generosity. I’ve spotted it in other people, either full-onset or the tendency.

I don’t recall tying the personality to the classic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald any time that I have read it or the several times I’ve attempted to sit through the earnest Robert Redford vehicle. But the reality of the psychological impulse is obvious in the unusual yet successful approach taken by director and co-screenwriter Baz Luhrmann.

The Great Gatsby is a great motion picture this spring.

Those who criticize it, those I’ve read at any rate, have a film shot in their minds from the vivid but reflective little book, and this isn’t it.

The volume is quiet, a noisy story told in hindsight by the third wheel, Nick Carraway — the other wheels being Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, Nick’s cousin whom Jay loves but whom World War I and ambition separated.

This movie is loud, with decidedly non-Jazz Age music used. Maybe music written 80-90 years later would be jarring to reviewers with sensibilities as tender is the night.

I’m not sure how rap star Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, who scored the film, succeeds, but he blends the latest pop tunes with standards written by Gershwin and others of the 1920s — some “performed” by a lookalike of a young Cab Calloway, (Gershwin modeled the drug dealer Sportin’ Life in his Porgy and Bess on the bandleader).

The musical smorgasbord gives authenticity, not to the times but to the timeless story of youth and lust and love and greed. This most American novel is taught as having painted unique Yankee characters, especially that coming out of the 19th century, but Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo would’ve known them.

Mad Men’s Don Draper is very much this century’s Jay Gatsby, set a half-century ago. We may see ourselves most clearly with a little distance.

If Gatsby the book is a classic it is because of the eternalness of its story and characters. Thus, Hollywood’s choice is to honor the pre-Depression glitz, but as the actors and audience are us, and get today’s soundtrack.

The script acknowledges the time gap by having characters see Gatsby’s habit of calling anyone “old sport” as being behind the times, theirs or ours.

The look of this motion picture is that of Francis Ford Coppola, not so much the Godfather movies but The Cotton Club and even Apocalypse Now — the color palette, long and tight shots, and cuts. I saw the 2-D version because of the day and hour I chose, but I understand the intention of why it was shot 3-D. This story comprises a complex fable, which should have that larger-than-life magic that the 3-D look provides.

Luhrmann’s wife, Catherine Martin, deserves Oscars for both costumes and production design. There won’t be better-dressed movie sets or actors this year.

What gives Gatsby realism isn’t the loneliness implied in gaining friends-at-any-cost, but his shyness. Daisy has her layers, too.

Have I known any Daisys? That may be the point of the book and at least this film version, a proof-text of the carelessness of the rich and the difference between richness and wealth. Gatsby is merely wealthy (1st-generation nouveau riche).

Is Nick an authentic stereotype? Sure. I’m a Nick. Lots of writers are.

Carraway in the book and certainly this moving picture, and perhaps the previous film attempts, has scant complexity. He is Fitzgerald’s vehicle through which the romance can be told.

Thus I am not bothered by the biggest change from the book, placing Nick in “Perkins Sanitarium,” for alcoholism treatment a few years later, telling his therapist — Dr. Perkins — the saga first orally then at the doc’s suggestion in writing — making the show a series of flashbacks.

A novel’s narration can just happen; in a movie there needs to be a reason. Big deal — it gives Luhrmann a way to bring out Fitzgerald’s stately prose outside of dialogue. Plus it honors Scott’s famed editor Max Perkins. Heck, this doctor in a late scene arranges a sleeping Nick’s pages — editing, in other words.

In between is knowing of the bits of autobiography that Fitzgerald planted here and in some other stories. Luhrmann shows echoes both of Southern belle Zelda in Daisy and a whisper of their daughter Scottie.

The other allusion is nearly a distraction, the water motif played against the actor who plays Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio. After all, he was the tragic hero of Titanic from 1997. DiCaprio disappears in this vulnerable performance.

Tobey Maguire is the perfect Stingo of this story (Peter MacNichol’s narrator in the 1982 screen version of Sophie’s Choice).

Carey Mulligan more than matches the men, so strong as Daisy in that her weakness — not obvious for quite a while — also was hidden to Gatsby. Or is that fault evil?

I don’t often see movies twice, Old Sport, but I’ll spring the extra $3 for those 3-D glasses to see the Luhrmann Gatsby again.

Describing a Rectangle

When I’m driving somewhere with My Beloved, when (not if) she corrects my navigation, I recall the junior high geometry class phrase “describing the sides of a rectangle.” The distance and time are roughly the same: My over then down, or her under then up, and there you are, thptpth.

Content Retangle
A plus B equals C plus D. ... Unless ...

This is the feeling I had when rereading “Denver Post, Bay Area News Group Revamp Story Editing with Fewer Copy Editors” by Steve Myers from Poynter’s Latest News blog, including the thptpth raspberry.

Yet, the first time I went through the May 23, 2012, piece I grew as angry as those critical of this, such as John E. McIntyre’s Baltimore Sun column, “The Empty Copy Desk.” They’re upset that Editor Greg Moore in Denver and Editor Dave Butler of Bay Area News Group are gutting their publications’ copy desks, continuing a trend seen elsewhere in the nation. They’re either keeping some copy editors but decentralizing them or losing all of them, giving that task to colleagues, where reporters edit one-another’s work as time permits.

Me, too, until the vague familiarity crystallized.

First, why more — or fewer — editors: Periodical writers do their thing and their supervisors edit those pieces. But for a good century-and-a-half, that didn’t take care of correcting the texts as perfectly as humanly possible. More eyes are needed. The copy desk comprises two-to-four more editings where flaws in form and content are discovered and fixed. Also, you see copy editors in ad agencies, magazines and book publishers. Online-only publications have copy editors. Big nonprofits and corporations employ copy editors in their public relations division. In the latter groups, these professionals may be free-lancers or the copy-editing may be part of another job title.

But if you’re a 21st-century newspaper manager and have to choose between laying off a content generator (a reporter) and a content inspector, then you might take your chances and reduce the secondary, to retain the primary. You tell the reporters’ supervisors to be extra careful and. yes. read each other’s work. Another option seen in newspaper chains is to have a central copy desk in a hub with sister publications sending their stories in.

Inevitably, typos and factual errors increase. And, yes, errors did sneak past all the layers of editors in traditional systems. And they did in your grandparents’ day, too, don’t let anyone tell you differently — check the microfilm or microfiche archive at any library.

Greg Moore is reducing his 23-member copy desk to nine. “The Denver Post is … moving away from an assembly-line editing process.” Not all are layoffs, as buy-outs are offered and some are transferring within the Post. Those nine, he said, “will become ‘assistant editors’ assigned to desks (business, features, Metro, sports) throughout the newsroom. Each of those desks will operate as ‘self-contained publishing units.'”

The Bay Area group, according to the Poynter article, is keeping the singular copy desk but “reducing the amount of copy editing for routine stories and moving deadlines up so stories are published earlier in the day.”

The goal for both, the article says, is that even though more mistakes will be missed, is “publishing stories during the day when people are online” rather than posting to the web overnight while paper editions are printed and distributed.

Right two blocks, left one block; left two blocks then right one block

On the second reading, “during the day” hit me. I had written something parallel as a memo to someone who since has left the company.

That person did confirm he received it and would study it. Now it’s probably buried in the former executive’s shuttered email queue.

I am claiming it back.

This person had written the staff in late January asking for ideas big and small to save money in the newsroom. (The resignation came in late April.)

Here is the memo. I have elided anything that might be too revealing, for the sake of this person’s privacy and for me to not risk all of my remaining job security.

Problem:

Saving money in the newsroom.

Restated:

Transition to a modern, more efficient newsroom.

Our newspaper has essentially a daily cycle. While each [of its two zones] has two print editions, they run about an hour apart, around midnight. [Our two websites], outside of a few “breaking news” posts, key from the print editions out at midnight and post before dawn.

While some U.S. newspapers had an all-day strategy — morning-evening or multiple cycles such as bulldog-early afternoon-final — all of them presumed that readers ingested each paper once a day. (In the ’60s, my family would take the Arkansas Gazette in the morning and also the Fort Smith Times Record, which arrived about when I came home from school.)

It’s not just the Internet that has changed most-everything in most ways, but that the audience for journalism has discovered the enjoyment and convenience of checking the news several times a day.

Multiple times daily, contemporary news junkies (our most desirable readers) check news sites directly but more often click on links to news in social media, links posted by news junkies who checked online publications moments earlier. The readers are using smartphones, e-tablets and even their work computers.

[Because of our minimal midday postings but mainly because our publication has a firm paywall charging for online access, w]e are letting TV and radio stations get away with providing most of these links on Facebook and Twitter. (Online publications and newspapers both are essentially text media.)

Advertising.

I understand that the success of ads comes from multiple views: The more times I see the shoe store ad the more likely I’ll check it out. However, print and online ads seem to be set up with the presumption they’re viewed once a day. But what if we got our key readers to check our website(s) multiple times a day? More views (not necessarily more “unique visitors”) should equal more results.

Tangent.

They’re all newspapers. Calling nytimes.com an online newspaper makes no more and no less sense than calling time.com an online magazine. Both update several times a day. Both continue to have weekly features — sections, columnists etc. The Internet community has no common, catchy name for these: The awkward but correct “Online Publication” and “News Aggregator” serve until a catchphrase takes. My take: They’re all newspapers. The function that washingtonpost.com, newsweek.com and thedailybeast.com all fulfill is most similar to the print-on-paper daily. Jets are still called planes, and plane parts use railroad terminology, which in turn came from ship jargon.

Solution:

Rather than the current dominant print cycle with a mirror online cycle, the news staff ought to think of itself as the modern-day version of an all-day metro paper, with multiple editions. In 2012, that means the earlier editions are online and the latter are print. Online and print editions would have a nearly equal footing. Print of course would continue to define the “final” edition.

The papers still would run continuing features on schedules. Reporters and photographers, though, would file on the earliest practical deadline. Articles would be edited by the writers’ supervisors and an all-day news copy desk, then posted on the next website cycle. Reporters could submit updates or a final version later in their shifts.

The online editions’ pay wall would not be of concern. The local midday news links on my Facebook account are from TV stations, and their pieces are no longer than the synopses that our websites provide before asking for the subscriber log-in.

This means all routine stories, not just strong spot news, are posted during the day. The reason is the “long tail” theory: With readers/subscribers in six digits, hundreds or thousands will be interested in even minor pieces.

Facebook and Twitter, iPhone and Android, may well be superseded in a few years by other formats, technologies or companies. The all-day multiple web/print editions can accommodate that evolution.

Saving Money in the Newsroom:

To answer the question you posed, [name], inefficiencies will surface shortly after implementing this strategy.

This is a concept, not so much a concrete change, but a way of viewing output. We state (to ourselves) that online editions lie on a continuum with print. The production of news content continues as in future years the demand for print distribution decreases and forms of electronic transmission increase.

Staff can be reallocated, retrained as needed, as the shift occurs. The need for proprietary, semi-customized software [word processing and desktop publishing] — and paying to update it — will decrease.

Oh, it’s what came to me.

[End of memo]

Deja news

Sure my memo could be bass-ackwards as we used to say in Fort Smith, but now it’s posted in Brick so it won’t be totally a waste.

The similarity of old all-day metros and online access has a rectangle aspect, this way that way that way this way. Major media movie reviews are printed on Fridays but posted on Thursday — bulldog! The fun parts of the Sunday New York Times are available on Saturday — bulldog! It’s already started and accepted.

Lots of people are giving all this serious thought with fresh analysis. Here’s one from last week from Sean Blanda, a Philadelphia media techie: “We Need to Reinvent the Article; This Post is Outdated.”

Copyright 2012 Ben S. Pollock

Heisenberg? Not Bad, Heisen You?

This column first was published as the “President’s Message” in the March 2012 newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

With certainty, the renown physicist Garrison Keillor noted in his radio spot The Writer’s Almanac:

On this date [Feb. 23] in 1927, physicist Werner Heisenberg first described his Uncertainty Principle in a letter. In a nutshell, the Uncertainty Principle states that the more precisely we can determine a particle’s momentum, the less information we have about its position, and vice versa. …”

As social Darwinism is an informal, psychological interpretation of biological Darwinism, there seems to be a social Heisenberg, especially for writers.

Werner Heisenberg
Werner Heisenberg

(Werner and Elisabeth Heisenberg had seven children, and he enjoyed playing the piano and mountaineering, Wikipedia tells us. As people of his time saw these activities as mutually exclusive, we can see how he came up with his principle.)

The principle’s scientific application, as I understood from school, is if for example a researcher takes stock of an electron as a particle it looks like a particle and if the electron is sized up with wave calipers then it acts as a wave.

Nothing’s original, but what I call Social Uncertainty Principle first came up in an early journalism job.

In about 1982 I covered a master class of guitarist Lee Ritenour at Texas’ Irving High School with notebook and camera. The assignment became a photo page with five or six shots and cutlines. I’m still proud of it, because I am not much of a shooter yet this was pretty good. But I came out of that afternoon jarred by how little music I heard while working.

I realized I had precisely observed a news event, even told the world (OK, a few thousand readers), yet I missed the joy of the music. Labeling it Uncertainty Principle gave me a warning I’ve tried to remember since.

Is There a Column in It?

Watching a presidential debate as a concerned American, even as a well-informed voter, is a casual experience compared to watching Republican throw-downs while figuring out what to write — what’s the opinion, how should it be cast and defended, and how to make it different from those of other columnists.

This is true for nonpolitical columns. When misadventure falls to the writer or a family member, the writer — reacting to the situation or right after — will be casting about for material: Is this an anecdote or just another blood pressure spike? Continue reading

No Taking Ulysses for Granted

This column first was published as the “President’s Message” in the February 2012 newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Spring — OK, this is winter but I’m an optimist — is busy-time for the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

• We’re halfway through gathering entries for the annual Column Contest. Have you sent yours in? Bloggers: You can’t win if you don’t enter. Like previous years, online columns have two of the six categories. Newspaper is a proud part of our name, but newspapers these days take several formats. For the cost of two large supreme pizzas, you have a chance to be judged with your peers. If you’re one of the three finalists or, dare to hope, the winner, you earn bragging rights. Deadline is March 1, so there’s not much time.

Tell you what: For 2012, we’ll throw in an extra day to get your copy in: Feb. 29.

• Plans for the annual Columnists Conference are firming (detailed elsewhere in the newsletter). Like Easter and Passover, the conference is “early” this year, May 3-6.

For the first time in a spell, we’re convening in the South, Macon, Ga. Merle Haggard just left Macon the other day, feeling better than when the music legend arrived.

Expect to learn practical and current tips to improve your writing and improve the marketing of your work. Expect the informality and hijinks that other journalism and writing groups only wish they had.

US 50 dollar bill obverse, series 2004
He couldn't take any with him, no bill buried in Grant's Tomb.

• Underlying these is a call to join the NSNC. Annual membership is $50. That earns you discounts to the conference, $50 off registration for members ($100 off for nonmembers, though deducting the $50 for dues leaves …), and the contest, where the $45 fee is cut to $25. The contest fee is just 20 bucks’ different, almost half. That could add up if you enter in several categories. We allow that.

If you publish in different formats and styles, you can, say, enter three columns in a print category and three others as online works (that never were published in ink), as long as they’re all different columns. If you’re a broad-range scribe you might enter three serious pieces in General Interest and three funny ones in Humor (read the rules carefully). Is the NSNC treasury getting more cash from you? Sure, but you ARE upping the odds Continue reading