Thursday
Dec182014

Something I'm thinking about

Today was my father's retirement luncheon here at Wellesley College. One of his colleagues in a talk recalled an instance years ago in a classroom when my father in conversation about The Odyssey quoted this from Walter Benjamin: "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism."

Saturday
Dec132014

This month's Findings

Three things I underlined in the new Harper's:

1. A person's belief in free will is negatively correlated with how urgently he or she needs to urinate.

2. The hearts of penguins beat faster in the presence of a human than in the presence of a plush penguin toy on wheels.

3. Each extra euro in public benefits received by an elderly East German after reunification correlated with three hours' more life.

Saturday
Nov292014

Re-reading Writing for Story

27 things I underlined in Jon Franklin's classic manual:

1. I started looking more closely at human motivation.

2. I know, in short, what a story is ... and equally important, I know what a story isn't.

3. The straightforward definition of a story is as follows: A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.

4. A complication is simply any problem encountered by any human being; it's an event that triggers a situation that complicates our lives ...

5. It raises a question in the reader's mind as to how the problem will be solved ...

6. Whenever you see someone do something, anything, ask yourself: Why did he do that? What was his motive? Your answer will lead you to a complication. That's because human action is taken for one purpose and one purpose only, which is to solve a complication. Without complications we would all be as inert as stop signs.

7. Complications that are more fundamental to the human condition, involving love, hate, pain, death and such, are very basic to the human dilemma and thus are fair game for the professional storyteller.

8. The writer sees the resolution and tracks it backward to discover a complication.

9. Most news stories are endings without beginnings attached.

10. ... successful stories generally have happy endings.

11. Most stories, and especially the good ones, have more than one complication.

12. Sad endings are tricky, tricky, tricky. ... For this reason the unhappy ending, when it is written at all, is the preserve of the master craftsman.

13. The thing that will make him a satisfied customer is partly the fact that he was entertained. But the deeper satisfaction comes when the reader learns with the character.

14. ... words are not, repeat not, the basic unit of literary structure.

15. ... what we most want is story — which is to say, structure. That's what's important to us, as readers. And words, as wonderful as they truly are, play a role analogous to that of the atom in biology.

16. If you begin your story without knowing precisely where you're going, any mistakes you make at first, any small omissions, take on added significance as you proceed.

17. A story is not a line of dominoes, it is a web, and tugging on any filament causes the whole thing to vibrate.

18. Stories consist of actions! Stories consist of actions! Stories consist of actions!

19. If all else is done properly, the most dramatic aspect of any story is growth and change in the main character. This growth and change should be made a central part of the outline, so that it will emerge as the backbone of the story.

20. The most valuable thing about the outline isn't the outline itself but the fact that you thought the problem through thoroughly enough to create one.

21. The most obvious misconception is that the "rough draft," because of its name, is somehow permitted to be sloppy. In reality, the rough draft is only "rough" in the sense that the writer doesn't worry overmuch here about the veneer of finish.

22. In the case of carpentry, the rough-in process is the most time-consuming and critical period of construction. Though the studs and beams may not seem particularly pretty to the uninitiated, and though they won't even be visible to the ultimate consumer, the quality of craftsmanship that goes into them will determine the ultimate strength and durability of the house. If the rough-in is done carlessly or amateurishly it may still serve as an adequate basis for plasterboard and paint ... but it will not long survive the stresses of seeping water, gnawing termites, strong wind or heavy snow.

23. The rough draft is not a product, it is a process ...

24. You could, of course, set aside a dozen paragraphs or so at the top of your story and give a mini-lecture on the subject at hand. You could ... but you won't, not if you want to sell your story. What you'll do, instead, is teach as you go, tucking concepts into the action, positioning your reader's mind to understand, A phrase here, a sentence there, and by means of foreshadowing your educational message will unfold with your story.

25. ... polish is probably the most overemphasized aspect of the writing craft.

26. Polish is but the plaster on the walls of the structure.

27. The brutal fact is that structure is far more fundamental to storytelling than polish.

Saturday
Nov292014

Another mystery monkey?

In this morning's paper:

TAMPA — Two people called police on Thanksgiving Day to report a monkey on the loose.

The callers said they saw it near Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo — first in a yard, and then running along Sligh Avenue. But the zoo told police it wasn't one of theirs.

"The monkey was described as being approx 3 ft tall, brown and fast," Tampa police wrote on the agency's Facebook page.

"There is no probable cause for this monkey's arrest, however, we will work tirelessly to apprehend him," police wrote. "If anyone has any information on the monkey's whereabouts or has future sightings, please call the Tampa Police Department ...

The last mystery monkey:

He's fast, he's strong, he's smart. He's uncaged and to this point he's uncatchable. The monkey on the loose around the Tampa Bay area for the past year and a half is a young adult male rhesus macaque. He has been everywhere from East Tampa to Temple Terrace, Oldsmar to Gulfport, Clearwater to south St. Petersburg, backed by Twitter chatter, late-night TV talk, tens of thousands of fans on Facebook and a catchy community-wide battle cry: "Go, monkey, go!"

Raves the rooting public: I want to be free like the monkey. I want to trade lives with the monkey. I want to be the monkey. Enough with the rat race. Give me the monkey race!

But "Go, monkey, go!" is our cheer. It's not like that for the monkey. The monkey doesn't run because he wants to. The monkey runs because millions of years of evolution tell him to. He's not running from something — he's running toward something.

Primates are social creatures, and this monkey, say scientists who study his species, is looking and looking and looking for a partner he can be with when it gets quiet in the dark.

Total freedom is social isolation. And "it's a cruel punishment," says Notre Dame monkey expert Agustin Fuentes, "for any primate to be alone."

The longer he runs, the lonelier he gets.

Wednesday
Nov262014

The sun rises, the sun sets

1. One day in Hernando County, in December 2006 in the St. Pete Times:

Out on U.S. 301 in the county's rural east end, the bands of brush-stroke orange seemed to come from the tops of the trees and push the fog down close to the ground. The sun came up over the slow hills and the fat live oaks and the fences made of wire and wood. It was 7:14.

"Just the coffee?" said the clerk at the Circle K at 301 and State Road 50.

2. One day in Alabama, this week in Sports Illustrated:

You get 29,000 mornings, if your life is the average length, and some of those mornings follow sleepless nights, and sometimes your head feels like broken glass, and sometimes you rise in a stumbling frenzy because every minute you spend getting ready is one more minute you're late for work.

But once in a while you have another kind of morning: charged with anticipation, alive with possibility, and you get out of bed thinking maybe today will be incredible. In Alabama they get this feeling on Iron Bowl Day, two days after Thanksgiving. This state has more college football fans per capita than any other state, and these fans wait all year for the day the Auburn Tigers play the Alabama Crimson Tide.

"If your team wins," says David Housel, former Auburn athletic director, "you're a better person on Monday than you were on Friday. You're certainly better than the person whose team lost.

"That's how people feel, and that's why it's so big, and sometimes so poisonous."

On Nov. 30, 2013, Alabama is No. 1 in the country. Auburn is No. 4. The two teams have never been this good on the day of the game, which means very few mornings in Alabama history have been so charged with anticipation.

The first rays of the sun cross the Chattahoochee River at 6:20 a.m., in a forest at the southeastern corner of Alabama.

Tuesday
Nov252014

Cheryl Strayed in Smithsonian

The question: Why do you think people who feel lost are often drawn to the natural world?

Her answer: "In nature there is constant evidence of destruction and rejuvenation. It's proof that we're all part of the web of living things that's greater than our own small lives. People feel a sense of belonging, rather than isolation."

Sunday
Nov232014

This month's Findings

Three things I underlined in the new Harper's:

1. A male flamingo in Mississippi died of injuries sustained while defending its mate from members of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity.

2. Concerned American consumers will pay an additional 16 cents for eco-friendly ornamental plants.

3. Momentary human happiness is determined not by actual outcomes but by whether outcomes exceed expectations.

Friday
Nov212014

What I wrote about the FSU shooting

Today on 1A:

TALLAHASSEE — Student Jason Derfuss walked with books in his backpack out the front of Florida State University's Strozier Library just before 12:30 early Thursday morning and heard a shot behind him. He turned and watched a man with a gun five feet away fire twice more, straight and close into the torso of another person, who collapsed. Derfuss ran.

Inside, on the first floor of the crowded building, a group of Delta Alpha Chi sorority sisters were sitting together and working on papers for classes about religion when they heard shots, too.

They and hundreds of other students scattered, diving under desks, cowering under tables, hiding in rows of shelves, sprinting down stairs, up stairs, toward far walls and dark corners, screaming about a shooter, leaving behind computers, keys and shoes, barricading room doors with carrels and chairs.

Keep reading. And read this, too, by Lisa Gartner, Michael LaForgia and Mike Van Sickler. It's so good.