Tag Archives: writing

getting glad

20 Feb

It’s dark out this morning when I wake up, as it has been every morning since October. There’s something pleasantly surreal about being up before the sun. Maybe it fulfills some romantic desire to work on a farm like my parents. Or maybe it’s just my version of solitude. With a single lamp and the shades drawn, I begin my day hours before I need to shower, pack my lunch, and head to the Blue Line.

Work begins at 9:30. The train ride is twenty minutes, bookended by a five-minute bike ride and a ten-minute walk. If I wanted to, on any given morning I could watch an entire feature-length film and still make it to work on time. But I wake up wanting to move, think, plan, organize, and (when I have something good on the boards) write. This morning is no different, and if I was in the habit of keeping an activity log, today’s would read:

  • made coffee (too weak)
  • emptied dishwasher
  • mapped route from Chicago to the Carolinas (by way of Louisville, Kentucky)
  • read ten pages in The New Jim Crow
  • prepped vegetarian chili in slow cooker (sweet potato, bell pepper, fire-roasted tomatoes, two kinds of beans, and lots of cumin)
  • read Vanity Fair article about the influence of 1982’s Diner
  • made lunch (roast beef sandwich, cherry tomatoes, orange)

No matter what I’m doing, one part of my brain keeps trying to figure out what to say about Galactic’s new album, Carnivale Electricos. My review is due sometime today, but until I make it to the train and find that Presidents’ Day has emptied the Blue Line of its normal cast of commuters, I don’t have anything good to say about it. But never underestimate what getting a seat on a train will do for the imagination, for de-cluttering a head. I’ve noticed that I really can’t think straight until I’m in a situation where I’m a captive audience to myself.

I put on the album, starting with “Magalenha,” a remake of a song made famous by Brazilian composer Sergio Mendes. From there, I skip around, noting rhythms (rumba clave), instruments (saxophone), and references (Black Eyed Peas). I agree with Scott, my editor, that the best tracks are the ones without the guest artists, except for “Karate,” which features the KIPP Renaissance High School Marching Band and brings it about has hard as Mucca Pazza, Chicago’s salvaged marching-band outfit. By the time the Clark/Lake station blurs into view, I’ve got a good start. Two-hundred words isn’t a lot anyway.

I’m at work early enough to devote some time to my Google Reader. Today, I’m surprised to see activity on the blog of a good friend. There are more than a few of us waiting for Derek Hamm to break his radio silence (at least consistently), so I hit that link first. It’s a quote from Malcolm Gladwell, not from Blink or The Tipping Point or any of his other sociological studies, but from a conversation he had with behavioral economist Dan Ariely:

“I’ve learned that if you tell your story properly, people are very, very open-minded—far more open-minded than I would’ve thought. Or to put it in a more sophisticated way: People are information-rich and theory-poor. If you can give them a way of organizing their experience, then their minds are wide open. Which I would not have not have necessarily thought. And if you can frame questions appropriately you can overcome all kinds of ideological—what you would have thought of—as ideological constraints. So I’ve been continuously surprised. I always thought my book, because I am a political liberal, that my books would have heavily liberal audiences. But in fact they don’t….”

He could’ve stopped at the first line. “…If you tell your story properly, people are very, very open-minded….” That’s a powerful truth we keep forgetting. It also hints at our big failure: our relegation of the story to a world of impractical art-making.

Our storytellers are not people of power. Yes, we’ve got folks like Graydon Carter or, well, Malcolm Gladwell, who wield the same kind of influence that politicians do. But others work their miracles from the periphery. Most accept it, maybe prefer it. But we’ve let things like voting records and rhetoric usurp story’s place in the way we learn about others and the type of people they are. Stories can be corrupted, obviously, but it’s a fairly straightforward medium. No one expects a story to say everything. Fortunately, it seems like there has been a resurgence of the idea that the stories we tell—both true and false—are not just important but completely inimitable. That nothing communicates the same way a story does.

A few minutes after the first quote, I’m reading Gladwell again. Liz Danzico apparently read the same conversation as Derek. She pulled out a different bit:

“To be a writer I think you’re kind of constitutionally disposed toward optimism.”

I haven’t read the whole interview, so I can’t say whether I agree or disagree, but my instinct is to lean toward the latter. I’m aware of the irony of it: An optimistic person would readily agree. But that wouldn’t necessarily prove Gladwell right, just that he and this hypothetical reader are both optimists. My skepticism about this exact statement notwithstanding, I am a fairly optimistic person, to the point of naivete at times. So I’m hoping that not only is Gladwell right, but that it’s reversible, that simple optimism begets a disposition toward writing good stories.

Now, the question remains: how to tell the story of Carnivale Electricos “properly?” And how to do it in 200 words?

why we write: timothy schuler

7 Dec
The following is the second installment of “Why We Write,” a series of personal reflections on the craft of writing. Each installment is poignant in its own way, but in sum the series is a sincere and astounding collection of thoughts, emotions, and ambitions regarding the profession of writing. Take of each what you will.

:: :: ::

Timothy Schuler

It comes down to patience. And television. The warping of neural pathways and higher education and thinking ourselves into abstraction.

It’s about the Puerto Rican cafe around the corner and its plain black coffee in its plain white cups and the guava-and-cream-chese turnovers, which stick to their paper and shed sugary flakes like dead leaves. And how you can’t ask someone to sit there and listen to you calculate the mathematical correlation between suicide rates and GDP. Or hash out conspiracy theories about the Obama and Google based on the public listings of White House visitors. You can’t expect someone to listen as you tell them feminism isn’t working because it’s just making women into men. Tell them it’s like using money as the measure of success for the poor but no one else.

“This is what it comes down to. The absence of an infinite reciprocity.”

You can’t expect this because your coffee is hot now, but it will cool and you’ll take a drink and they’ll slip in a word edgewise. Like a wedge. And it’ll open up a chasm. And their ego will spill into the conversation and it will battle yours like beetles in late summer. Fifteen minutes and there’s no consensus or memory of the idea, which is fine because you weren’t saying it right anyway.

You need to go back and reread the Wall Street Journal article. There was something about work and family, about the brain and crime, about teacups and relationships and recycling in Switzerland and it was all canned and on the shelf earlier today, but something fell and now everything’s everywhere and they’re just looking at you, waiting for you to take a sip. Because they can’t clean it up either, and things are piling up, and the leak is getting worse, and there’s a clanging that sounds like armageddon.

This is what it comes down to. The absence of an infinite reciprocity. Relying on the page because it won’t ever disagree. It won’t check its phone for the time. It won’t change the topic. It comes down to synthesis. It comes down to understanding.

:: :: ::

“Why We Write” originated as part of Hostel Tuesdays, a writer’s collective that meets in the south study room on the seventh floor of Chicago’s downtown library. It meets on Wednesdays.

Previous authors: Sean Conner, Michael Danaher.

chicago, a redaction

23 Nov

A redactive poem by Ashleigh Hill fit for the day before Thanksgiving.

"Chicago." Redaction by Ashleigh Hill

on top of
deep snow
on top of
snow up on his knees.

They were home.

:: :: ::

See more at Palimpsests

why we write: sean conner

22 Nov
The following is the first installment of “Why We Write,” a series of personal reflections on the craft of writing. Each installment is poignant in its own way, but in sum the series is a sincere and astounding collection of thoughts, emotions, and ambitions regarding the profession of writing. Take of each what you will.

:: :: ::

Sean Conner

I attended the baptism on a Sunday. I stood on the sand of a fake beach and watched a pastor tilt the heads of people into the stillness of Clinton Lake and bring them to Jesus. I always assumed God’s water, the holy stuff, the H-2-O of rituals and ceremonies, had to be blessed and ordained by some spiritual guru like the Pope, or an archbishop, or their hierarchal equivalents in other Christian denominations. It was hard to imagine that the molecules of holy water and the molecules of the water in this man-made lake were the same. Well, the molecules would be the same, but there’s my assumption that holy water has a little more magic powder thrown in. Some vestige of authority. Holy water, by my understanding, hadn’t been idly weaving towards shore day after day. Holy water doesn’t have gasoline in it, or fish shit. At the edge of the water I think about this and have a tough time disassociating this baptism from summer afternoons at the pool and the friendly dunking that oft ensued.  Continue reading

on reading, etc.

22 Nov

Mandy Brown, by Carrie Levy.

I do know Mandy Brown. I just didn’t know I knew her.

Since my friend Derek turned me on to The Great Discontent, I look forward to Tuesdays, when they post a new interview. A majority of the time, I abandon the text at about question three or four. It’s mostly about design, and I don’t know enough to really engage with their stories. But I enjoy going nonetheless.

But now, today, a designer and a writer. Predictably, I’m all ears. Then I realize I’ve seen her stuff before—also via Derek.

Mandy Brown created A Working Library and helped found A Book Apart. She does many other things as well. In reading the interview, I was drawn toward the aphoristic quotations off to the right, which had been pulled from Mandy’s writings and appear below.

What I found most intriguing was how many of them remarkably mimicked my thoughts of the past two days, as I’ve meditated on a new essay I plan to write for Anobium. Which, in the end, is a brilliant example of precisely what she’s talking about. Enjoy.

:: :: ::

Always read with a pen in hand. The pen should be used both to mark the text you want to remember and to write from where the text leaves you. Think of the text as the starting point for your own words.

:: :: ::

Reading and writing are not discrete activities; they occur on a continuum, with reading at one end, writing at the other. The best readers spend their time somewhere in between.

:: :: ::

A single book struggles to balance on its spine; it pines for neighbors. Keep as many books as you have room for.

:: :: ::

Read voraciously, many books at a time. Only then will you hear the conversation taking place among them.


26 Jul

Dyslexie is a typeface for dyslexics.

the barcode :: history & future

28 Jun

Today is the anniversary of the purchase of a pack of gum.

“On June 26, 1974, a white male by the name of Clyde Dawson entered Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. He loaded up his cart with groceries and approached the checkout line. The cashier that day was Sharon Buchanan. At 8:01 a.m., she picked a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum out of his cart and scanned it. The gum has now been immortalized at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.”

The reason the gum has become something of a national treasure, writes Peter Smith for GOOD, is because it was the first item to be scanned using the Universal Product Code, or UPC, “the nondescript, monochrome rectangle that adorns nearly every retail item we purchase.”

Creative branding by Vanity Barcodes

Oddly, though the barcode has since been used as a “social surveillance tool, a sign of the devil, and an embodiment of the dull commercial uniformity of packaged supermarket goods,” the concept is evolving to something rather interesting. We look to Smith again (yet via a different article) to explain a phenomenon known as “ichthyologic name-swapping,” an intimidating term that simply refers to the fact that fish vendors are making up new types of fish, or selling one species as something else.

“Argentine Roughy, Cherry Snapper, and Salmon Trout only exist at the fish market. They’re fictitious names for fish that don’t exist. … Despite growing awareness about the origins of our food, we’re often served a completely different fish species than the ones we order. This comes with economic costs…[and] obfuscates the origins of fish, so contaminated or toxic food causing health problems often can’t be traced to the source.”

It’s in the next part that the barcode comes back into play.

“What’s interesting is that the same technology scientists and amateur sleuths have been using to detect mislabeled seafood could help combat the confusion and fraud. It’s called DNA barcoding, and it works by comparing gene sequences of a sample fish flesh to the 8,000 varieties stored in the International Barcode of Life Project.”

That project seeks to use its DNA barcodes to combat the market substitution Smith is talking about, but also assist researchers in understanding the natural history and ecology of fish species. Thirty-seven years ago, the barcode was first used to price a pack of chewing gum. In another ten, Smith conjectures, we might see inspectors with hand-held DNA sequencers, reading the genetic codes of the fish being sold around the world.

the ear or the eye?

27 Jun

David Smay on literature vs. music:

“Let me posit it this way. Fiction enters the eye and takes a circuitous route through the brain, which only gets to the heart after sustaining an almost dreamlike immersion. Whereas songs enter the ear and start jerking around with your heart or hips immediately, only rarely bothering to engage the brain. A poorly written story will just bore you, but a bad song inspires real ire and resentment that something so stupid is affecting you. It’s not so strange that cheap music is potent; that’s what cheap music does.”

man as industrial palace

22 Jun

You’re Part of Technology, Too

I use Radiolab as an escape while I work out. As a radio show, it can be fascinating, funny, cute, and gruesome in a single episode. It’s the perfect distraction while I lift weights or bike—things that don’t come naturally to me.

I was at the gym when an episode stopped me in my tracks. I felt the wind go out of me, and I ceased moving. Robert Krulwich, one of the hosts, was interviewing Kevin Kelly, author of What Technology Wants, and something Kelly said was chilling. Going back to it now, I can’t recreate the poignancy of the moment, but it was a haunting realization for someone who avoids technological gadgets and fancies himself “set apart” from the fast-paced world of technology.

Let me set the scene. Krulwich has been talking to Kelly for nearly 20 minutes, and Krulwich has repeatedly made known his discomfort with several of Kelly’s ideas. At this juncture, Krulwich reads someone else’s summary of the book, and asks Kelly if he too is not at least a little creeped out by these notions.

Robert Krulwich (quoting): “‘Humans cannot direct or prevent technology’s course. Like water contained behind a dam, relentlessly seeking escape, technology will eventually find its own way.’ Now doesn’t that creep you out a little?”

Kevin Kelly: “No, no—”

RK: “Oh, you’re just you.”

KK: “No, no, no. Seriously. If you said the same thing about life, would that creep you out?”

RK: “No, I’m part of life; I’m just worried about the things—”

KK: “No, you’re part of technology too. Don’t you understand? We humans have invented ourselves. We have this external stomach we call cooking, that has changed our diets, that has changed our teeth, our jaws. We remade ourselves when we became literate; our brains are rewired, we think differently. We’re not the same people that left Africa. We have domesticated ourselves. And we’re going to continue doing that.”

Now, I’ve read about technological devices as extensions of human ability. The telephone was an extension of our mouths; it projected our voices across impossible distances. But this was an eye-opening way to see myself: An invention. Not readily separable from technology.

I found myself the next morning trying to imagine life with no technology, not just without our MacBook or Civic, but without the building systems that were used to create our apartment building 80-some years ago. Without the pipes and pumps that bring water up three stories and into our tub. And, yes, even more basically: without the books on our shelves or a simple pencil or written language at all.

If technology is not just gadgetry but the whole invented world—every machine, no matter how simple—then I can’t distinguish myself from that world any easier than I can pretend I’m not part of the natural system of sun, water, and air.

:: :: ::

Right up there with Swaziland

No matter how you run the data, you get a correlation between technology—whether you buy the above definition or not—and a change in the way we work. Faster, everyone says. And they’re right. In college, we learned it by rote: “Technology may mean that things get done faster, but you’re now expected to do ten times as much.” They were trying to prepare us for the real world. Except, what we didn’t learn was that this real world wasn’t everywhere.

Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans. The differential isn’t solely accounted for by longer hours, of course—worldwide, almost everyone except us has, at least on paper, a right to weekends off, paid vacation time, and paid maternity leave. The only other countries that don’t mandate paid time off for new moms are Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Samoa, and Swaziland.

Now, certain economic systems that sound great don’t always live up the hype. Greece, for instance. It probably offers weekends off, paid vacation time, and paid maternity leave. But it also has zero accountability, which means government officials there make about three times as much as a private-sector employee and collect bribes to boot. One IMF official put it this way:

“The way they were keeping track of their finances—they knew how much they had agreed to spend, but no one was keeping track of what he had actually spent. It wasn’t even what you would call an emerging economy. It was a Third World country.”

So we don’t want to always call the European grass greener, but I must admit that my views on work don’t necessarily align with American culture’s, and yet from within such a powerful system, it’s difficult to see a way out. Not to say I’ll quit trying. Just like I won’t quit creating ways to limit—or at least remain in control of—my relationship with technology.

:: :: ::

Man as Industrial Palace

I didn’t initially see the connection, but I ran across something today that well symbolizes these complex thoughts on human evolution and industry. It doesn’t answer any of the questions, but it does provide a little room to breathe. It’s an animated installation of Fritz Kahn’s 1927 lithograph, “Der Mensch als Industriepalast,” or “Man as Industrial Palace.”

secret handshake

21 Jun

Tonight is the launch of a new journalistic endeavor here in Chicago, and it is the best approach I’ve seen. Do we need another lit journal full of soggy fiction and hyperinflated poems? Do we need another political rag for PC intellectuals? A new hub for citizen journalists’ petty anecdotes and diatribes? I don’t think so. We need a print journal that gives us one conversation, one interview, one essay, one short story, and one road trip—and that’s it.

The Handshake offers just that, and it looks to be head-and-shoulders above some of Chicago’s other independent publications. In its influences, informers, and heroes alone, it impresses: Studs Terkel, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace. These are some of the true greats in literary and narrative nonfiction, and if they are the standard, then The Handshake will maintain an excellence unseen in the independent publishing world as well as a spot on my coffee table. Check out what they’re up to, and if you live here, go to the launch tonight at Schuba’s.

If you’re looking for the story of its origins, you can find it, for the most part, in Daniel Duffy’s letter from the editor, which I’ve reproduced in an abridged version below.

:: :: ::

“This past Spring, I interviewed J.C. Gabel, who founded one of my favorite magazines, Stop Smiling, in the mid-‘90s. … [We] met at the Intelligentsia in the Monadnock Building in the South Loop of Chicago. Jackson and Dearborn. The Monadnock—that thing is unbelievable. It’s the tallest commercial load-bearing masonry building ever constructed. It’s made of this purple-brown brick that looks amazing when it rains, and its walls slope gently out at the base and top. Inside, it’s all wood and aluminum and marble. Beautiful and ornate. … I love that Intelligentsia. 

Gabel started Stop Smiling when he was nineteen. He got his first advertisers immediately. He got his first investor shortly after that, and he’s been on salary and working three jobs ever since—one with Playboy. And here I was, thirty years old, bartending two nights a week and living on school loans. And I was hungover. “I’m a piece of shit,” I thought.

But then this funny thing happened. … The brilliant motherfucker basically told me how to start a self-sustaining magazine. I stopped thinking about my faults then, boy. I started thinking about how I was going to do what Gabel had done sixteen years ago. I was going to start a magazine.

My high school English teacher … always called me Phineas, referring to a character in John Knowles’ novel A Separate Peace who was a nonconformist, constantly refusing to follow rules and regulations, doing stupid shit like wearing his tie on his head, and organizing a group called the Summer Suicide Society.

There’s another Phineas out there, as well. At 4:30 in the afternoon on September 13, 1848, a twenty-five year-old foreman named Phineas Gage was preparing a roadbed for the Rutland & Burlington Railroad in the forest near Cavendish, Vermont, when the accidental explosion of a charge he had set blew his tamping iron through his head. The tamping iron was 3’7” long and weighed approximately thirteen pounds. It entered on the left side of Gage’s face, under the cheekbone, demolished his left eye, and exploded out of the top of his skull before flying into the air and landing in the woods a good eighty feet away.

The most absurd part of this story is the fact that Gage not only survived, but also didn’t lose consciousness. He was speaking within a few minutes of his accident. … The thing is, however, that when Phineas was strong enough to return to work, the contractors who had employed him wouldn’t take him back because his personality had changed drastically. … Gage, in effect, reverted to savage-hood.

I want the Handshake Media Project to be our tamping iron. I want it to enter our faces, demolish our eyes, and explode out of the top of our skulls before flying into the air and landing in the woods eighty feet away. I don’t want it to turn us all into a bunch of emotionally-explosive, verbally-abusive assholes, necessarily, but I do want it to be a catalyst for change. I want it to change the way we think about things. The way we think about each other.

Phineas Gage, with tamping iron