Holds Ideas Together


Plain English Hits Information Mark

Lately, I have found a book called Plain English at Work: A Guide to Business Writing and Speaking by Edward P. Bailey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) that helps anyone trying to do business writing. He provides all kinds of chapters on style, organization, and layout.

Bailey gives terrific examples of poor bureaucratese in the opening chapter. He also follows up with a better way to write the piece. Bailey asks us to listen to good English to help our own writing. He urges us to use personal pronouns within reason, so we sound like a human being when writing. As you know, I encourage you not to use "I" at the beginning of the paragraph.

Mr. Bailey strikes out the word, never, when he quotes a classic work, Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing about the Seven Nevers:

I have a little trouble accepting a formal paper with sentences beginning And or But. Sometimes, the pill is hard to swallow to ask that an infinitive be split. I wouldn't necessarily advise it. Perhaps, we will have to rethink one-sentence paragraphs.

The book is provocative reading.

The Courage to Write Strikes a Strident Chord

Often, I like to read books that have a message to improve our writing. Such a book, The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes has such a message. He writes about the great novelists and writers who have found the courage to write. I never thought of it that way, but, when you write your report paragraphs, you are experiencing the courage to write. Keyes talks a great deal in the opening paragraphs about E.B. White, the writer and coauthor of The Elements of Style, a book we should all be acquainted with. Keyes says he expects a writer to possess skill, imagination, and persistence. Still, courage becomes the top of the list. He is quoted as saying about the art of writing: "Writing is a daring act." Remember when I suggest to you about being nervous during a presentation. You hear me say I will worry if you are not nervous. Keyes phrases this same idea in the following manner: "If you're not scared, you're not writing." He even takes this idea a step further and reiterates: "Writing is both frightening and exhilirating."

Your reports come to mind when I think of the last two quotes. It is exhilirating to see the progress you have made from the first memo writing. The maturity in your writing shows you care about the task. According to Keyes, people worry about their words on paper. Someone is going to read those words. The chapter called "The Devil in the Inkstand" will be attempted later.

Palumbo Teaches How to Overcome Writer's Block

You are about to hear the words of wisdom from the major screenwriter for the former TV series, Welcome Back, Kotter about an embattled high school teacher, starring Gabe Kaplan. He has also written for the TV series, Love Boat, and the film, My Favorite Year, with Peter O'Toole. Please meet Dennis Palumbo, author of Writing from the Inside Out.

Mr. Palumbo has proposed three cosmetic rules for writing:

  1. You are yourself.

    Thoughts: We don't as business writers or writers in general have to be so hard on ourselves. Often you hear writers say: "If I were only this . . ." That is a self-defeating concept that won't get the book or the memo written.

  2. Work with what you are given.

    Thoughts: Write about what you know. If you are a salesperson, write about selling. According to Palumbo, what you are living with right now is what you are given. Tolstoy, the famous author of War and Peace, could be paraphrased this way: Love that which is before you. Think about the famous mystery and horror writer, Stephen King. He writes about what he knows with tremendous imagination. All writing is autobiographical. The novels you read are written by people who understand their fantasies.

  3. Writing begets writing.

    Thoughts: Some of you like to write in journals; that is writing. Feelings are expressed when we write. Writing a sentence simulanteously affects the reader and the writer. Writing frees you from the worries about writing. You communicate through the work of writing. Palumbo does not believe in divine inspiration; writing is sweating the words. Still, inspiration exists. The writer of the famous rabbit, Harvey, looked up from his breakfast table one morning and saw that huge bunny. We can't cultivate inspiration, but we can cultivate imagination.

    Writing is all about the process. You must have happiness and contentment with your work. As you gain a new perspective in writing, you change and grow. Writing becomes a self-trusting experience. In a business communication you have to ask: What information do I want to convey? You provide an emotional feeling about the information. What is your agenda? How worried are you about the information?

    Writing is an art and a technique. Palumbo is a great believer in the craft of writing and suspicious of the rules. Stephen King would paraphrase our thoughts about the task of writing: What makes you think I have a choice?

    Jack London Always Creates Controversy

    As a died-in-the-wool fan of Jack London, I have always been interested in his life and his ability to convey raw life on paper. His White Fang, The Sea Wolf, and Call of the Wild remain classics in American literature. A recent book by Kershaw, Jack London: A Life, provides considerable detail about London's life and his ability to write. You often hear London was able to commit so many thousand words to paper each day. Kershaw writes about this phenomenon:

    As soon as Jack put pen to paper, word after word flowed from his store of mental imagery, tumbling onto the page faster than he could scribble them. By dawn, he had summoned 4,000 words.

    The message to us is clear. Write a little each day so the task does not become too formidable at the end.

    Booknotes Presents Liberating Writing Ideas

    For years I used to watch Lewis Lapham on the public broadcasting channel when he discussed various books with their authors. Finally, that program moved to the cable channel with a different narrator. I lost track of this excellent program until a book recently appeared, Booknotes: America's Finest Authors on Reading, Writing, and the Power of Ideas by Brian Lamb, Host of C-SPAN's Booknotes.

    This book details in three or four pages for each author the concerns about writing and the writing task itself. Each of us is striving to become an author of our business communications. We can learn from the well-known historians, novelists, and essayists of the present and the immediate past. I am always interested in whether these famous writers use word processing on their personal computers. Some do; some don't. As I reminded by an author of a Zane Grey (famous novelist of Western stories) biography met in Colorado Springs, he believes in the pen touching the paper. There is something therapeutic about that activity. David Halberstam, author of The Reckoning and The Fifties, put the idea of using old-fashioned writing tools differently:

    I used to be an old-fashioned typewriter, hunt-and-peck. I never went to an electric typewriter. Then, about 10 years ago, friends convinced me to try word processors, and it has liberated me and probably doubled my productivity. It's a great instrument with which to rewrite, to clean up. In the old days, you made one typo and you had to retype the whole page because of a typo. I make a lot of typos. I'm a fast hunt-and-peck man. Now it's like playing Pac-Man cleaning up the typos, so it's really made my life a lot easier. (Booknotes, p. 170)

    We Can Learn from the Writers of Old

    Sometimes books overwhelm you. I have found such a book called Visual Explanations by Edward R. Tufte. Tufte provides beautiful illustrations of graphics from the past as well as the present. His illustrations often rival the finest art books. Tufte often quotes from well-known authors about weak writing reflecting weak thought:

    "Neither can his mind thought to be in tune, whose words do jarre (sic.)," wrote Ben Jonson in the early 1600's, "nor his reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous." (p. 48)

    Mrs. Ladybird Johnson's Diary Gives Us a Message

    Mrs. Lyndon Johnson (Ladybird) was interviewed on Ted Koppel's Nightline about her diary kept during the momentous events of 1963. As she discussed President Kennedy's assassination, she relayed to Mr. Koppel some of her concerns about writing:

    I love words. I love writing.

    Isn't that a message we all need as business students? We need to spend our lives and, certainly, our working lives writing. We needs those words and the right words. If you can at least somewhat enjoy the task of writing, your business career will sway in a firmer direction. Heed Mrs. Johnson's advice.

    Festival of Books Holds Promise

    For the past three years UCLA and the Los Angeles Times have hosted the Festival of Books that brings together some of the finest writers in the City and the country. This year (1998) I attended for the second year and was more impressed with the offerings than ever before. Some of the writers' sessions that proved particularly noteworthy included:

Taylor Branch Catalogs Civil Rights Movement

You expect to be impressed when you enter a ballroom seating about 1,000 people. That was my impression when being greeted by some of the prominent writers on Civil Rights. After having browsed through Parting the Waters (Pulitzer Prize-Winning Work) and Pillar of Fire, I was somewhat prepared to hear Taylor Branch. Branch has spent about the last 14 years cataloging the Civil Rights movement up to 1965 with the King Years (Pillar of Fire). He spoke eloquently at the microphone about how rare are the words of the Movement and how fragile the history remains. We find our common humanity by studying the Civil Rights Movement. The freedom movement of race is flesh and blood. It is upsetting about our notion of democracy. We make progress in this country when we have prophetic voices. Dr. King spoke to us about the Constitution and equal citizenship. If we are not careful, future generations may not even remember the names, such asFannie Lou Hamer and other Civil Rights activists. The Civil Rights Movement is narrative.

Gaunier Offers Analysis of Politics

At the Festival of Books, Lani Gaunier spoke next. You may remember the controversy about Lani Gaunier being considered for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Mrs. Gaunier took the high road and wrote a book about her experiences, Lift Every Voice. When she began to speak, I realized the power and emotion behind her words. She introduced her mother-in-law in the audience. This woman had told Lani to "always watch her back." Good advice for anyone.

Ms. Gaunier urged all of us to make a difference in whatever we did. She relayed a story from Nelson Mandella, President of South Africa, about how two or three sheep tend to have the rest of the herd follow them. As Lani explained her disappointments, she was reminded these disappointments were simply steppingstones to something better. Gaunier worries about how politicians are influencing our society. We are too institutionally socialized by the concept of winning. I was taken aback in her recent book with the suggestion of something other than one-person, one vote type of rule. As I understand Gaunier's concept, she would like a person given seven votes for various city council seats in a district. You could as a voter spread the votes for one candidate or for several candidates. That way even the minority candidates would have a chance of participating in the democratic process.

Ms. Gaunier cautioned the audience to not accept news as gossip. Politics does not just have to be entertainment. Many people who have made contributions are "below the radar" and the crawl space of history. What we all have to do in this world is build a sustainable community.

You can see how inspired I was with Lani Gaunier's remarks. She is a lady worth listening to, whether you agree with her premises or not.

Suro Speaks of Major Immigration Concerns

Roberto Suro, author of Strangers Among Us: How the Latino Immigration Is Transforming America, next spoke about how the Latino population will overwhelm the U.S. population after the turn of the Century. You would like his book, because he speaks from the perspective of a Puerto Rican father and an Ecuadorian mother. He relates one incident in the first chapter where a young Latina has her coming-out party, and the next day moves in with her boyfriend in Texas. Suro makes the point that this new welfare mother will now become a drain on the tax system and the governmental services. The U.S. needs to recognize that Latino immigration brings many unforeseen problems.

Fiction Writers Teach Us Narrative

Nothing was expected to be learned from the fiction writers. That last statement proved misleading. Fiction writers have a great deal to teach us as non-fiction and business writers. Fiction writers teach us about the need for preparation. Fiction writers teach us about their keen observations of people and events. Fiction writers enrich our lives through their descriptive narratives. Therefore, I want to share some brief ideas from James Carlos Blake (historical fiction), Jane Smiley (Pulitzer Prize winner), and Brad Leithauser (fiction writer).

All these writers on the Festival of Books panel talked about preparation and the need to maintain notebooks. One writer kept at least five pages of names that could be used to name the characters in a story. Leithauser mentioned he remembered the remark by Ernest Hemingway (author of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea) about "not wanting to face the empty page." He also commented on how Robert Louis Stevenson (writer of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Kidnapped, and David Balfour) provided us as readers a map of Treasure Island. Fiction writers have to help their readers follow the plot.

Biographers Share Rare Insights

On Sunday morning I experienced three biographers who provided insight into their writing lives. They were: Tad Szulc (biographer of Castro and now Chopin, the famous composer), Laurence Bergreen (biographer of Capone, Irving Berlin, the famous pop composer, and Louis Armstrong, the famous jazz trumpeter), along with Noel Riley Fitch, female biographer of the famous cooking specialist and author, Julia Child. Mr. Szulc, with his many years as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, let it be known he does not send a manuscript to his publisher and editor until the seventh or eighth draft. He lets his friends and colleagues see the manuscript after the second or third draft. I guess there is no need to complain about five-page memos.

The author Fitch says she does about 400-500 interviews before starting to write. She described how, in one interview, of a person who did not respect Julia Child, the arrival at that person's apartment. She looked around at the kitchen table and discovered every Julia Child cookbook turned to the page the individual disagreed with. Ms. Fitch knew she had a good interviewee.

The moderator of this Researching a Life panel posed some tough questions to the panelists about the effect of the Internet. Bergreen liked the Internet and thought it speeded communications, while exchanging reflections with people more readily. He commented e-mail was so easy to use. We have connected the libraries of the world. The Internet has made people begin to write.

Szulc worried about the preservation of information with the Internet. He did think this medium was an easy way to talk to scholars in your field. You have to have enough patience to use the Internet. The Internet is like a thread.

Pinker Stretches Our Imagination about the Brain

The session that caught my interest on Sunday morning became Dr. Steven Pinker from MIT. His latest book, How the Mind Works, has already received a major Los Angeles Time book award for non-fiction. Dr. Pinker's first book, The Language Instinct, had already received recognition for his emphasis on understanding the construction of sentences.

Pinker in his opening remarks with the questioner, Dr. Robert Hotz (well-known in brain research) discussed the evolution of the brain as being entirely different from a computer. To borrow from the famous scientist Crick (of DNA fame), the mind is what the brain does. Crick's astonishing hypothesis maintained the mind is in the brain.

The issue always comes up about whether we can communicate with the dead. Pinker bluntly said that, when the brain dies, so does the person. We are talking about at least 1,000,000,000 cells with at least 10,000 connections to the brain cells. To compare with a computer the brain comes out way ahead. The computer is a facile way of thinking how the brain works. We process information all the time with the brain. In artificial intelligence we capture the idea of information processing. Artificial intelligence is not anywhere as subtle as the brain.

We have the ability to close our eyes and mentally scan from one image to another. After scanning these images, we test out our hypotheses about the brain involvement. We are always looking for causality and gene. That looking is an ancient problem. Eventually, we reach the subject of ethics. We need a notion of responsibility or otherwise ethics collapses.

During the book signings, I asked Dr. Pinker about the notion of contingent sentences. For example, we read: The more we run, the better we perform. Technically, Dr. Pinker believes the previous illustration is a sentence. The verb is understood even though we don't physically see the verb.

Dissident and Author Speak Eloquently of China

After entering one of the older halls on the UCLA campus, I was greeted by two major Chinese authors, Harry Wu, former dissident from China and author of Bitter Winds, and Iris Chang, author of Rape of Nanking, sitting on a large stage. I was directed by a usher to a back seat, because the presentation of the panelists had just started. Iris Chang has said that at least 300,000 Chinese were killed in Nanking in 1937. I talked to one neighbor about this holocaust, and she suggested the number could have gone as high as 600,000. Certain political, as well as military ones, were evident in this holocaust.

Harry Wu spoke in a similar vein to Iris Chang. We have to remember history. We cannot, according to Ms. Chang, suffer from historical amnesia. The Americans also have a role in this forgetfulness. Ignorance and intimidation still exist. Chang believes the next generation of Japanese will not recognize the war of aggression against the Chinese.

Harry Wu believes the human rights in China is going in one direction, and that is a positive scene. He commented strongly that exile is torture. Many people in China are fighting for their religious freedom. The Catholic Church is still illegal. The human rights situation is worse today, because Western governments want the Chinese market. To me both Iris Chang and Harry Wu spoke eloquently of concerns we should all understand about history, human rights, and remembrance. China needs the West, and we should never forget that.

Biographers Run the Long Distance

The title heading of this section, long-distance runners, was suggested by Noel Riley Fitch, the moderator of the artist biographies. I suspect the designation came about because biographers spend so many years writing a book on some famous person. At the 1999 Book Fair I heard the biographers of Matisse and Hugo. When I hear the names, Henri Matisse and Victor Hugo, their contributions appear a little misty. Naturally, I have heard about Les Miserables and the Toilers of the Sea from Victor Hugo, as well as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Matisse appears more fading with only a little knowledge that he had a "blue period" in art history.

Festival of Books 1999--

With a limited background in these artists and writers, I listened with considerable interest at the UCLA Book Fair, 1999, to Graham Robb and Hilary Spurling describe their books and the writing of them. Spurling attacked the adage that Matisse's life was too dull to write about. She soon discovered in her research that Matisse needed a drama a day. Ms. Spurling, author of The Unknown Matisse: 1869-1908, described herself during the writing of the Matisse biography as the greatest scavenger. Digging up data suggests a garbage disposal and a squalid job. When Spurling, an English lady, starts to write, she does her writing as rapidly as a novel with a certain intensity. Her research proved most fruitful when she found Matisse's letters that provided a "stream of consciousness."

You have to know Graham Robb as a teacher of 19th Century French literature. He saw Hugo as a romantic drama. In writing Victor Hugo: A Life, Robb was amazed to find Hugo never threw away a piece of paper. Graham did not have to face the ethical dilemmas of what to say because the person was still alive. Robb used the technique of creating what his contemporaries might have said about Hugo. Robb found many Hugo contemporaries thought of the great writer as a "huge, self-inflated balloon." During the session with the biographers, Robb and Spurling, the moderator Fitch posed a question about the footnotes and the reliance on footnotes in a biography. Robb said he liked footnotes because they allowed you to receive credit from others who had written about the same personage. You become as well known as the footnotes you have written. Writers, according to Mr. Robb, give an anthology to the character and the writer's version of that person's life.

True-Crime Writers Probe Unknown

Have you ever spent a delightful Saturday afternoon? I experienced that phenomenon in listening to Larry Schiller, author of Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, and his true-crime author friends describe how they wrote their books. True-crime as a writing genre represents the non-fiction world that we associate with Agatha Christie and A. Conan Doyle in the fiction world. These writers gather information, conduct interviews, and write lurid tales of heinous crimes.

Schiller didn't even start out writing true crime stories. He came from the background of being a photographer and reporter. Edward Humes, author of Mean Justice, did his work as a crime reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper. Gary Indiana, author of a new book on Andrew Cunanan, killer of Versace, the clothes designer, in Florida, also worked for newspapers and magazines. Barry Siegel, author of White Bear Lake also received his start in the newspaper business.

All of these previously mentioned writers have now turned to true-crime writing. Schiller interested me the most because of his extensive research on the JonBenet Ramsey case. When I asked him during the autograph signing how did he achieved the level of detail in his books, his answer proved worthwhile. He eased back in the lawn chair and talked about recording thoughts: He usually spends anywhere from 40 hours to 80 hours with many of his inteviewees. He said the situation of gathering research eloquently in the panel discussion with Miles Corwin, last-minute moderator of the true-crime panel and of the Los Angeles Times: "I love the challenge of getting people to talk." Schiller attributes his success, including his coauthored book on O.J., American Tragedy, to fine writers he has known, including Otto Friedrich, editor at Time and the Saturday Evening Post. Otto Friedrich was quoted as saying to Schiller when Larry presented thousands of photographs for a layout: "What would happen if a writer came in with 10,000 words and tried to make a story out of it?" Schiller never forgot Friedrich's advice. We could benefit from this editor's advice that we need to summarize what we are saying or photographing.

As you would expect in the question-answer period at the end of the true-crime panel, a question arose about ethics and research. Schiller says he tape records his interviews, and he did worry about an ongoing case, such as the JonBenet Ramsey in Boulder, Colorado. The adrenalin flows during the gathering of the data about the horrific events, but Schiller does admit that the tragedy of the situation may hit him years later. The emotion of writing can never be shelved.

Schiller gave good advice when he was asked about whether he stands by his quotes. Larry recommended the device by carefully stating: "It is likely he thought. . ." This device protects against being so certain that a lawsuit might ensue. One of the audience members commented she liked the way Schiller shifted from first-person narrative to the actual describing of events. I must admit Perfect Murder, Perfect Town is a real page turner. Schiller did admit some situations are invented in writing true-crime, because we (meaning the public) don't know exactly what happened in the kitchen, for example.

You must trust your data with skepticism when writing true-crime. Gary Indiana told of an AIDS counselor who shared considerable knowledge with a magazine editor who took the story and escapades of Cunanan to heart. That information later proved false and suggested a reporter or writer needs to check many sources before believing the firsthand accounts of witnesses.

Pulitzer Prize Winner Berg Tells about Lindbergh

The thrills kept coming at the Festival of Books, 1999. The most enjoyable and enlightening time came Sunday morning when A. Scott Berg, author of Lindbergh, brought his audience back to 1927 and 1935 when two major events happened, the solo flight across the Atlantic and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Berg provided actual Movietone coverage shown in theaters in 1927 when Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic alone in a plane put together with bailing wire and wood. Granted, the plane was specially designed by Lindbergh and the manufacturer, but it was a miracle the plane flew across the vast Atlantic and safely landed at Le Bourget Field outside of Paris.

When Berg began his quest to write a biography of Lindbergh, he never believed he would receive permission of Anne Morrow Lindbergh (wife and writer in her own right) to use the family papers. No other biographer to Berg's time had been given permission to use these papers safely locked at the Yale University Library Archives. Berg received permission to look at these valuable papers after an exhaustive set of correspondence with Mrs. Lindbergh. In one of his letters he wrote the communication as if he had already received permission, which is certainly an unusual technique. You have to realize permission to use these papers eventually culminated in viewing some 2,000 boxes of notes, documents, and business "miscellanea." Lindbergh in these papers and Berg's writing went from national hero to national victim to national villain.

Think about the last statement. Lindbergh was feted by all the major governments of the world after his historic flight. Lindbergh and his family were sympathized with after his first-born boy was kidnapped by Richard Bruno Hauptmann. Lindbergh was vilified after taking six trips to Nazi Germany and knowing the air minister, Herman Goering, personally. It was later shown Lindbergh was on a mission for the U.S. Government to find out the plans of German aircraft building before World War II and the progress in German flights. Lindbergh had also been a guest of Goering for the 1936 Berlin Olympics where American Jesse Owens had won all those gold medals.

President Franklin Roosevelt never forgave Lindbergh for joining and actively participating in the America First Movement. This movement espoused we should not get involved in World War II; that was a European war. Lindbergh still worked for Henry Ford during World War II and secretly tested aircraft during World War II. Lindbergh was not allowed to join the armed services and actively participate in the war effort. It should be noted Lindbergh did get in trouble with Jewish groups for some of his anti-semitic remarks at America First rallies.

Think about what Berg has accomplished. First, he wrote a biography about Maxwell Perkins, the famous editor of Scribner's publishing house and personal friend of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Then, Berg undertook to write a biography of Samuel Goldwyn of the famous Metro-Golwyn-Mayer movie studios. Now, Berg has received the same distinguished writer's prize, the Pulitzer, as Lindbergh received for the book, Spirit of St. Louis, at two different times in our history.

Gay Talese Writes about Ordinary People

Gay Talese--a man for the ages. Why do I say that? This dapper gentleman has written books that will amaze us. He likes to write about the downtrodden in our society. He believes the forgotten workers are the ones to consider. He is now writing a book about restaurant workers, especially chefs, waiters, and waitresses. They tell fascinating stories.

When I first entered the auditorium room where Talese was speaking at UCLA, I was greeted with lights, camera, and action. An interviewer as moderator sat in the middle of an elongated table on a stage. Talese, apparently, was the center attraction. His cultivated New York accent soon became apparent.

He described to the moderator how his father and uncles fought in the Italian Army. His father, when Talese was quite young, listened to the World War II invasions in 1943 on the radio. His mother--to digress--was born in a Brooklyn-Italian section of New York. As Gay Talese grew older, he developed credentials to intrude in other people's lives. The same can be said for the recently deceased famous writer of The Godfather, Mario Puzo.

Talese eventually wrote for the The New York Times and Esquire. One of his articles concerned a famous boxer of the day, Floyd Patterson. In the Patterson article he described the career-threatening situation when one can no longer box. You may know Talese's book about the development of the New York Times.

Gay Talese concentrates on the human condition at its basest level. He often asks the question: Are ordinary people more interesting than celebrities? Gay Talese spends a great deal of time with his novel subjects. He becomes a partner in their lives as he views, for example, Godfather-like subjects. As he said at UCLA, as a writer you gain their trust. It is a public quest for a shared intensity.

Talese Watches for Language and Inner Workings

Talese is interested in the struggles for people to achieve. It takes a great deal of patience to learn people's inner workings. Think of the novel subjects as people of value. The interior of people's lives has to be validated. Gay has to be sensitive to the nuances of the language. It has to be a well-chosen language with standards and appreciation for the language. As a writer, Mr. Talese has to remind himself to avoid the experience of being seduced by going public. He keeps his humility in check.

You may recall I mentioned Talese is always telling a story. It is an interior monologue. You have to put in your time and pay your dues as a writer. It becomes the "art of hanging around." Talese has "hung" out with bridge builders, for example. You become enlisted like a soldier in the lives of other people. To Talese, some writers are very self-absorbed. You must view the future through other people's expectations. You become a tiger as you write.

During the question-and-answer period, Talese talked about his worries in compensating his novel subjects. You can never pay people of the so-called Mafia for their cooperation. Talese solved this problem by setting up educational trusts for the Bonano children of the crime lord, Joseph Bonano. That gesture made Talese feel particularly helpful.

Talese almost paints photographs of the people he chooses to write about. The story has to be dramatic and inventive for his novels to succeed.

The Army Expresses Its Own Message

As the so-called war wound down in Kosovo, various important military leaders were interviewed on news talk shows. Occasionally, profound statements are made that bear listening to again. One such statement came from General Montgomery Meigs, European Army Commander, when he commented on the mission of the Army:

Our mission is go in the dark and dance with the dragon.
That message is not the usual one you hear from the Army: "Be All You Can Be." It requires an insight only a general possesses. The general became something of a poet.

2000 Festival of Books

The April 29-30 UCLA Book Fair outdid all previous efforts. In my case I heard actors, political scientists, climbers and adventurers, sports enthusiasts, and social scientists. All these writers contributed to my understanding of the changing world. In time, I will devote a separate series of paragraphs to each writer heard at this outstanding conference and book fair.

Kirk Douglas Gives Considerable Writing Insight

When Kirk Douglas, the famous actor, sits at a table, you immediately hear the crustiness of his voice. He is to be admired for learning to speak after a stroke and a terrible helicopter accident documented in Climbing the Mountain. He started off his remarks to about 300 assembled people by saying he never expected to be a writer. The book, to him, including his autobiography, The Ragman's Son, was a catharsis to find about "me." As he described his debilitating stroke and accident, he commented that life hands you surprises. Imagine a man as gifted as this actor remembering two young people who died in that helicopter crash. He was feeling guilty in the hospital while recovering.

Douglas stated he was always the actor, always playing the character. He doesn't have any discpline while writing, however. He writes in spurts, which goes against everything we have been taught about setting aside a time for writing. Kirk's message is simple: "Keep your brain working." When it came time for questions and answers, Douglas reminded his audience not to ask for a job.

Extreme Adventurers Test Our Limits As Readers

Imagine you are greeted by four individuals who have experienced mountain climbing success, mushing dogs in Alaska, diving to the ocean depths, and crossing waves that killed Australian yachtsmen. You are sitting in a room of about 200 people who are waiting breathlessly for the proceedings to begin. You first listen to the engrossing comments of Stacy Allison, the first American woman to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. With her new job of raising two children, she doesn't have much time for mountain climbing anymore. Her message is particularly clear: Define who we are today. During the question-and-answer period she told the audience how she felt climbing mountains. The higher she gets, the better she feels. As a motivational speaker, she must bring the audience to its feet every time she utters magic words.

Next, you need to meet John Balzar, a travel writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times. His background includes tour guide and rafter for tough rivers in Alaska. He has lived with Eskimo families. Then, he attempted the impossible. John wanted to write about the mushers who travel the dangerous roads from Whitehorse in the Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska. That comprises about 1,123 miles, and Mr. Balzar traveled 100 miles of it with his own dogs. What he wrote in his book, Yukon Quest, brings readers alive. You experience the crackling ice and the beautiful Aurora Borealis of the Alaskan wilderness. As an experienced journalist, he knew how to use words.

At first the mushers didn't trust John. He was from Los Angeles, not Alaska. He gained their trust and goodwill with a simple device. He carried a notebook around his neck with his name and journalist emblazoned on the outside. Everyone soon knew why he was journeying to the Yukon Quest, a grueling cousin of the Iditirod. John was asked a question about how he selected those wonderful words. John first referred to his debt to Jack London and then talked about an analogy. The world he comes from in Alaska lends itself to more than photographs. Mr. Balzar could bore friends with slide after slide of Alaska. The words mean more. John said the issue this way: "The imagery doesn't photograph." The words give the writer fresh eyes as the passages are being written.

We aren't done yet with out extreme adventures. Picture an assistant dean who is quite tanned from a major Floridian university. In her life so far she has spent two weeks in Aquarius, an undersea series of chambers for living underneath the water. She has been featured on most of the talk shows for her heroic efforts with five other men. Enter Dr. Ellen Prager, author of The Oceans.

Ellen is fighting to save this planet, especially the oceans. She commented humorously about the Giant Squid of fiction. The Squid may exist somewhere in the Ocean; we just don't know where.

We should contrast the exploration of the oceans with the heavens. However, our country has not invested the kind of money in ocean research that is devoted to NASA. These days Dr. Prager talks to math and science youngsters about the wonders of the Ocean. Ellen provided a true inspiration about what is possible to learn about another important part of our planet.

The last speaker was Martin Dugard, Little League coach, extreme adventurer, and resident of Orange County. He has personally experienced talking to the survivors of the terrible yacht race from Australia to Hobart, Tasmania. In addition, he is the author of Surviving the Toughest Race on Earth. When he writes about these extreme adventures, he carries two notebooks. In one of the notebooks he writes cues, such as the smell of wood floor in a boat. These cues allow his memory to operate when he begins to write. The other notebook is a written record of where he has been. That record can be read later by his children. He enjoys seeing blood or sweat on the page. That refractory cue also allows him to remember where he has been. To me, these four extreme adventurers brought forth worlds through their writing and speaking I will probably never experience. That is the beauty of communication.

Biographies in Music Hit High Notes

You probably won't be as interested in the session on Biographies in Music. However, my minor in college was music, and the roots go deep in jazz music because of my father playing in jazz bands during his 20's and 30's. For me the highlight was the presentation by Peter Levinson, who has authored Trumpet Blues, a biography of Harry James, the famous trumpeter who married the famous actress, Betty Grable. James ruined his life with alcoholism and gambling, but his music will live forever. He was with the famous Benny Goodman Swing Band in 1938 when Goodman created a near sensation at Carnegie Hall. That was the same hall where Frank Sinatra performed. James rendition of the song, You Made Me Love You, will be remembered forever, even by the critics who didn't like James's popular music.

Look into Rembrandt's and Reagan's Eyes

The first day of the Book Fair ended with Simon Schama and Lou Cannon. Schama became one of my literary heroes when he wrote the book, Rembrant's Eyes, about the famous Dutch artist. Rembrant was known for his portraits. He painted such penetrating eyes in a painting that you never forget the painting. Schama gave the audience considerable insight about how he imagines a scene where the historical records have disappeared. You should imagine as a writer you are sitting down to dinner in Rembrant's home in Amsterdam. Schama believes the story of Rembrant is heartbreaking. Rembrant's house was sold with all its possessions, including all his etchings, to pay debts. Rembrant became the original shopaholic of Amsterdam.

Yet, look what Rembrant did with his life after moving to modest quarters in Amsterdam. He lived across the street from an amusement park. He viewed the faces of people everyday; these people, eventually, became subjects for his paintings. To make a book like Rembrant's Eyes work, you need to reinact in your mind what your subject felt. As a writer of historical biography, the person is after the truth.

Lou Cannon provided such a contrast to Dr. Schama. Lou Cannon, as a former columnist and journalist, spent his life writing about President Ronald Reagan. He had to recreate a life before most of us were born. Cannon had to find why people like to be associated with greatness.

Everyone provided a opinion about Reagan. Different themes of Reagan arise. A writer keeps his eyes open for how certain opinion carries much more weight and illumination. The word, definitive, should never be used in describing Ronald Reagan. Reagan was not consciously introspective. Reagan appears to be a surface man, but that does not tell the entire story. At times reporters were aghast at the comments President Reagan would make. He might ask where the English language came from. Why are the Blue Ridge Mountains blue? Then, he would surprise you with how much he had thought about a subject.

Cannon was asked how he wants his books to be remembered. Lou wants us to challenge our own prejudices. Perhaps we find something good about Reagan we did not see before. Cannon is still recognized as one of the fairest critics of Ronald Reagan.

Kozol Makes Us Reach Our Human Soul

You wouldn't think anything else could be learned in the Book Fair's 2000 second day. That was not the case. The second day proved even more fruitful than the first. I was mesmerized by the remarks of Jonathan Kozol, author of many books on education. He spoke for about an hour on his new book, Ordinary Resurrections. This book details his experiences with six and seven-year olds at one of the toughest elementary schools in the South Bronx, Mott Haven, P.S. 30. Mr. Kozol brought his audience alive by saying his heroes were public school teachers. He brought tears to the eyes of audience members, where about one-third were teachers. We all understand the brightness and gifts of elementary youngsters. Jonathan's words flow the same way in the book: short sentences and short phrases. The clipped message appears everywhere.

Jonathan made us remember the child, Elio. He let us picture St. Ann's Church near P.S. 30. We learned about the minister, Ida Rosa, and how she went from law at Radcliffe to divinity at Union Theological Seminary. Sister Ida Rosa is tough as nails. The heroin dealer on her street fears her more than the police. Sister Rosa helps the neighbors with their tenant-landlord problems because of her legal background. She doesn't talk the jargon of education. The words are simple: Do. Start. Copy.

Let's talk about Elio some more. When Mr. Kozol greets Elio, the child wants to know how Jonathan is feeling. As Kozol phrased it, kids can see through adults' deceptions. Elio strokes Jonathan's arm three times to make the guest at the school better. Elio and all the kids at P.S. 30 and St. Anne's want to know about Jonathan's family and his golden retriever, Sweetie Pie. Mr. Kozol told me how it was in the Bronx. Most of the parents, especially the men, are in jail, probably on notorious Riker's Island or its floating barge. The grandmothers are the secret to these children's survival. They keep the children living and going to school.

Mr. Kozol somewhat resents his wealthy friends who thinks he spends time with the children. These friends are probably worried about Jonathan's helping spread their wealth. Mr. Kozol says he hasn't lost his political soul, but he has found the children's soul. He is deeply worried about the list of punitive demands administrators and legislators place on public schools. To phrase Kozol's deep thinking, the fullness of children will outlive us all.

Plimpton Criticizes French and British Fiction

After rushing to a seat in a large auditorium, I was greeted with a heavy shock of white hair. I immediately recognized the face of the writer and editor, George Plimpton. Plimpton was there to talk about his work as an editor for Paris Review, a well-established literary magazine. In the ensuing comments Plimpton related stories about Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway. Because all of us become editors when we evaluate our own or somone else's writing, Plimpton's comments were particularly appropos. We look to make the piece better when we edit. We give the piece a critical evaluation. Plimpton looks for an article or a column that "takes the top of your head off."

Mr. Plimpton mentioned the famous editor, Maxwell Perkins, of Scribner's. In an earlier paragraph you may have read about A. Scott Berg. Berg wrote a biography of Maxwell Perkins. Maxwell Perkins became an editor for many famous writers, including Thomas Wolfe. Plimpton couldn't help relating how a recent chapter by Wolfe about the Battle of Gettysburg was recently discovered. This chapter was supposed to appear in Look Homeward, Angel, but Maxwell Perkins deleted that fine piece of prose.

You may be saying you don't know George Plimpton. Did you ever hear the titles, Paper Lion (a season with Detroit Lions) or The Bogey Man (about golf)? Those are some of Plimpton's writings. The most telling of Plimpton's comments now emerged. Most editors today are not like Maxwell Perkins. They are acquisition editors who are interested in bringing a book to fruition. Exceptions exist, but, for the most part, editors do not do the fine work of line by line. Plimpton ended his caustic remarks by mentioning that neither the French nor the British have produced fine fiction writers in the last few years. That comment would certainly generate a controversy.

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Last updated Thursday, April 3, 2003

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