Friday, April 27, 2007

What's in the Bag?

Our "stuff" says much about us, and it's fascinating to get a peek at (and sometimes great ideas from) other people's things: the contents of a house, a car, a drawer, a purse. (For me, a pocket: as often as I can, I leave the house with just keys, my driver's license and a credit card.)

Flickr, a photo-sharing website, gives thousands of these peeks through its cluster of “What’s in Your Bag”-tagged photos. Some people even include descriptions of their bag's individual contents -- click on a photo, then hover over it to see descriptions -- the best ones use specific details that hint at the person's "voice" and open up a backstory.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Twisted Dictionary

Comedy takes something expected and twists it to prompt a surprise. For example, Bill Maher's joke in March, when Cheney saw a doctor about leg pain: "Do you stretch?" the doctor asked. "Are you kidding?" Cheney said. "I linked 9/11 with Saddam Hussein!"

Beyond the smile, I love a twist's illumination of character and voice. Consider this, from an e-mailer to Suzanne Beecher's Dear Reader book club, about a time she was baking with her mother: "I asked my mom if I could have a job. She gave me some suggestions, and then I told her, 'I mean an eating job!' "

For me, the hard part is taking a sentence less literally ... learning to recognize a springboard word.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Take a look at Hawaii's beach cams from Starwood Hotels and Resorts.

Surf-watch or people-watch -- you decide which, because you can control the camera's direction and zoom views for 3 minutes. You can even snap pictures to save to your computer ... inspiration to write the story up later, offline.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

O Happy Day

What are the four signs
of aging?

The answer is in the Comments.

[Source: Valerie Monroe in the October 2003 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. Photo source: Hawkin's Bazaar]

Monday, April 16, 2007

Chicago 2016

The Eiffel Tower stood as an engineering marvel at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. Colored text in this 2005 photo markets "Paris 2012" … from before the International Olympic Committee awarded the summer games to London instead.

Similarly, the first Ferris Wheel stood as an engineering marvel at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. And, similarly, now Chicago needs international Olympic marketing -- having been selected over the weekend as the U.S.'s applicant city to host the 2016 Summer Games!

Following Paris’s precedent (though hopefully not its outcome), how about erecting signage on Navy Pier’s Ferris Wheel?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Sand Story

I'd seen lots of places of worship but I hadn't seen one with a sand floor until this Caribbean synagogue:

The surprise made space for curiosity, and I learned the sand is likely a profound symbol: a reminder of the ancient desert sands, a reminder of the need to muffle the sounds of secret worship.

One detail opened up a whole backstory.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Pet Cemetery

Argh! -- the consequences of a badly framed snapshot:

Although … not knowing the reality does open the door to imagination.

What DID Eugenie produce??

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Book Pride

Turning 180-degrees from yesterday’s acknowledgement of Book Embarrassment, here are two books whose covers I’d wear as a sandwich board:

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. It was the 1960s and I was very young, on a family road trip where all I heard was my mother saying, "Yossarian." All I saw was her laughing so hard she could barely keep reading aloud to my dad as he drove. Decades later, I learned Yossarian is the protagonist in a war novel (anti-war; anti-bureaucracy, really), and more decades later I finally picked up the book. The mess of its incoherent, non-linear presentation tempted me to set it aside, and the only thing that kept me in it was the hilarity.

I’ve talked to more readers who abandoned the book than finished it, so there’s an element of pride in having persisted through a difficult read … and come out loving it. Because, counter-balancing the hilarity, Heller does things like arranging just six discrete words to haunt us about the horrors of war:

"I’m cold," Snowden said. "I’m cold."
"There, there," said Yossarian. "There, there."

If you’ve read the novel, you’ve gone now to get a tissue. We’ll wait.

Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie. I stumbled on this book about creativity (by a former sketch artist at Hallmark) while on a lunch break during a business conference. The title annoyed me and I remember leafing through the book and thinking, "Yech!": the pages were a mess of weird fonts and weird art and scribbles. I put it back.

But then I pushed myself to take another look. It would do me good to stretch toward something eclectic, I decided. And I found the content as different from what I was accustomed to as the design: Creative. Spontaneous. Curious. Encouraging. Supportive. Fun.

Read the first chapter ("Where Have All The Geniuses Gone?") and you’ll be hooked. (Hint: the geniuses are all still here. They're us.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Book Embarrassment

Prompted by yesterday’s post about hidden things, here are three books that I’d hide:

1. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I hadn’t read this novel until last year, but was lucky enough then to do so as part of an online book group with a history-professor moderator. A number of readers in the group (including me) confessed to being embarrassed to carry the book in public. We’d absorbed societal messages of outrage against the novel: some of us wrongly assumed it had pro-slavery themes, others had heard anger directed at the portrayal of the title slave as docile rather than militant.

A highly recommended read. But so much controversy remains attached to Uncle Tom that, unless I were in a situation that allowed real conversation, I’d still carry the book with the title hidden.

2. Any of Mary Higgins Clark’s last ten novels. Her breakthrough book, Where Are the Children? is the best suspense story I’ve read. And her next few novels, published in my twenties, are the only books to have kept me reading late into the night -- mostly because I was too scared to pull my arm from under the safety of the covers and reach all the way over to turn off the bedside lamp. But as I grew self-sufficient, Clark’s protagonists grew frustrating. Her women-in-peril stories grew formulaic and sugary-simple. By my thirties, I’d stopped buying her novels. By 40, I’d stopped reading library copies.

Now this year’s novel was just released, and I find myself staring at it in the bookstore … still so doggone sad that it doesn't fit anymore.

3. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. First published in March 2003, Amazon tells me I purchased my copy a month later, in April. I remember not reading it immediately, preferring to savor the anticipation of a story that postulated an ancient (and continuing!) Catholic conspiracy. I’d still read just the first chapter by early June, when I sat on a folding chair in a tent at Chicago’s Printers Row Book Fair, with perhaps 200 people, and listened to Brown talk about it. The man next to me and I agreed: we looked forward to reading this “smart” thriller. Alas, although the premise was smart, Brown’s execution was so-so.

How could that have been only four years ago? Now, with a hundred million readers and film-goers yakking about it, even Dan Brown has to be sick of The Da Vinci Code. It’s gone from smart to pedestrian, and the last thing a youngest-child like me wants to be seen as is a lemming.

Tomorrow: Book Pride

Monday, April 9, 2007


From the archives on Jerry Weinberg’s writing blog, a terrific exercise: “Pay attention and see if you can notice five things that were not meant to be noticed.”

I love this! And even stronger than "not meant to be noticed" is "meant to be not noticed." Details like these show character like a cut-away medical illustration shows anatomy.

I should be good at it -- after all, I read Harriet the Spy in fifth grade, then spent the next three or four years recording observations in my own series of spy notebooks. Instead, it turned out to be a difficult exercise. I discovered that I have strong rules against noticing these things -- outing people about what they’re trying to keep private. Heck, it took me a month to collect these five:

The wind blew open a woman’s spring jacket and she quickly pulled it closed again over her midriff bulges.

A friend saw her job -- her current job -- posted on Craigslist.

During the Consecration (the most sacred part of a Catholic Mass), a door opened at the side of the church. No one appeared and the door closed. A few seconds later, it opened again, then closed halfway. The moment the Consecration was finished, the door opened again and the associate pastor came in to assist with the distribution of Communion.

A woman sneezed with the teeniest choo! choo! Then, not having cleared the irritant, her nose proceeded to run, making her sniff! sniff! sniff! for the next 10 minutes.

Everyone renewing their driver’s license at the DMV wore dark, drab overcoats. But one woman removed her coat for her photo -- and underneath, she wore a pretty outfit.
How about you? I’m going to keep noticing, and I’ll report back when I’ve got the next 10.

Friday, April 6, 2007


These wind farms provoke plenty of tension in some people ... spoiling the landscape and all.

But for me? The horizontals and verticals ... the deep colors ... the rhythm of the blades moving in a breeze ...


Thursday, April 5, 2007

Secret Prompt

What could be a better prompt of fiction than the tension of a secret?

There are compilations of secrets, such as PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives and its two (so far) sequels. They come from a project whereby people write their secrets on homemade postcards and anonymously mail them in.

But even more accessible are the secrets posted on the project’s website. They simply beg for a backstory and a what-happens-next.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007


Here's another mathematical model of my writing process (like the previous one, this image is supposedly from a student's test paper).

I conceive an idea for an article and outline its basic components (represented here by the equation and its variables). Then it's time to expand the outline by substituting real information (research data, anecdotes, quotes) for those abstract variables. And my first pass is to do essentially what Peter did -- I press the Enter key a bunch of times throughout the outline, introducing white space as a placeholder for the concrete material.

But unlike Peter, I then gradually add the material. The white space disappears and the outline's loose weave tightens. Where it remains loose is a call for attention: maybe more research, maybe a reconsideration of whether the section is necessary.

In the meantime, the smile I get from Peter's response buoys me through the hard work.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007


Sometimes, fictional antagonists seem more conceptual than real. So I was delighted to find Julianne Dalcanton’s post about nemeses over at Cosmic Variance. And one of the blog’s comments gives a nod to Chuck Klosterman’s accessible and funny 2004 Esquire article about the same.

Considering nemeses and archenemies leads to some of the juiciest musing possible ... it's fascinating to track the lightning bolt that shoots from one person to someone else’s deepest fears and motivations. And it reminds me that the best antagonists are powerful inducers of emotion and action in a protagonist.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Two Oldies (One Goody)

I’ve made my Almond Cream Puff Ring for many parties -- but never in the 20 years that I’ve been married. Until last weekend.

Baking is tricky. It’s chemistry, and while chemistry hasn’t changed in those 20 years, agriculture and eggs and dairy farming certainly have. Would those changes make the ingredients in my present-day kitchen too different from their predecessors in my 1980s recipe? Isn't that why recipes are updated -- because things change over time, and baking can have disastrous results if we ignore the changes?

Admittedly, I was still skittish from a laundry debacle a few days earlier. I’d wanted to use another object from the 1980s -- one of those luxurious Vellux blankets -- on the bed this spring until the weather was warm enough for only the light summer quilt. The blanket just needed a wash to freshen it from years of storage in a sealed bag.

But upon removing it from the bag, I’d ignored my surprise that the blanket looked tan now, instead of pink. I’d ignored having to brush away lint from wherever the blanket touched my shirt and pants. Instead, I filled the washer, added detergent, loaded the blanket and heard the deep whoosh-whoosh of the agitator. To be sure I’d chosen a cycle with enough water to cover the blanket, I lifted the lid and peeked inside. In just ten seconds, the blanket had completely disintegrated into a huge skeleton of mesh and what looked like a tub full of bean soup. I stopped the wash cycle and used a kitchen strainer to hand-empty the material into a trash basket.

So, my eyes narrowed in suspicion, I began to make the pastry. I watched the butter melt in the water and wondered about the changes in dairy farming over the past two decades -- five or ten generations of cows. The butter foamed more than I remembered and I wondered whether to proceed. But the mixture promptly came to a boil and I had no choice but to dump in the flour and hold my breath while I vigorously stirred. And magic! (chemistry!) -- it balled up perfectly. And the rest of the recipe was perfect, too, and the finished dessert -- delicious.

Almond Cream Puff Ring

Pastry Ring
1 cup water
½ cup butter
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
4 eggs

Heat water, butter and salt until butter melts and mixture boils. Remove from heat and vigorously stir in flour all at once until mixture forms a ball and leaves side of saucepan. Add eggs, beating after each. Cool mixture.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Grease and flour a cookie sheet. Drop mounds of batter in a 7"-diameter circle on cookie sheet. Bake 40 minutes; turn off oven and keep pastry ring in oven 15 minutes more. Cool on wire rack.

Slice pastry ring horizontally. Lift off top half and fill bottom half with Almond Cream Filling (see below). Replace top half and drizzle with Chocolate Glaze (see below). Refrigerate.

Almond Cream Filling
Prepare one 3½-ounce package instant vanilla pudding as label directs but use only 1¼ cup milk. Fold in 1 cup whipping cream (whipped) and 1 teaspoon almond extract.

Chocolate Glaze
Melt ½ cup semisweet chocolate chips with 1 tablespoon butter, 1½ teaspoon milk, and 1½ teaspoon light corn syrup. Stir until smooth.