Pearls of Writing Wisdom – a review

pearls-cover

There is something inside you constantly threatening to explode; an urgent feeling that simply refuses to be ignored. It keeps you from focusing on conversations. It keeps you from sleeping. It tears at the very fabric of your existence.

Now, unless you have recently ordered the taco salad at Chipotle or travelled interstellar space with Sigourney Weaver, these symptoms suggest you might be a writer.

Ned Hickson knows these feelings well, and recounts some of his own experiences in his latest book Pearls of Writing Wisdom: From 16 Shucking Years as a Columnist.

In many ways, the book is a writer’s version of that dreaded conversation between a child and loving parent/teacher about sex…and it’s just as awkward.

In his own nervously jovial way, Ned tries to encourage writers to explore their budding bodies of work and yet caution them about the challenges that lie ahead without scaring (or scarring) them into creative celibacy.

Without photos or illustrations, Ned routinely contextualizes the lessons he is giving with self-deprecating anecdotes—like that time he walked around a mall for four hours before someone mentioned his participle was dangling. The point being (I think) to highlight that even with these personal failings, he still managed to fool people into reading (and paying for) his stuff.

Given the subtitle, I originally expected this book to be a chronicle of things he’d learned in his day job with Oregon’s Siuslaw News, a newspaper for which he is Editor and writes a syndicated humor column.

Nedwork

Ned offers insights on sex…I mean, writing

Instead, I found a book that covered all aspects of writing from understanding the inherent urges to the mechanics of satisfying wordplay to dealing with the social and legal ramifications of your actions…hunh, this really is about sex.

And speaking of sex, Ned’s book isn’t very long (97 pages) but what he accomplishes in those short, floppy pages is quite effective in nurturing new talent, as well as reminding those of us sliding into senescence why we write.

Whether you are a writer or know someone wanting to act on those urges, I highly recommend Pearls of Writing Wisdom as a way to bolster courage and encourage good practices, and maybe laugh a little.

 

P.S. If Sigourney Weaver happens to read this review, I would happily risk alien infestation to meet you at the Chipotle of your choosing.

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See also:

Humor at the Speed of Life (Ned’s blog)

Humor at the Speed of Life (Ned’s other book)

Port Hole Books (Ned’s publisher)

Contemplating Toronto street art

I have become a massive fan of street art, lately, taking time out of my day to not only see the art that once was hidden behind my mental blinders, but also to truly appreciate the craft that goes into it.

Perhaps, my awareness is simply a component of my desire to slow my life down and spend more time in the moment. All I know is that I now spend as much time looking behind me, while walking the streets of Toronto, as I do looking in front of me (except when crossing roads).

Walking home from my favourite bacon restaurant – Rashers – the other day, I took the time to wander down a single alleyway just off Queen Street West…a SINGLE alleyway…and captured some of the art I found. Enjoy.

12 Days of Gratitude – Ned

Ned Hickson

I’d like to introduce you to my friend Ned, perhaps the greatest man that I have never met…well, not in person or on the phone at any rate.

A great wit in a world stuck in the Witless Protection Program, Ned is a loving father, husband and friend who not only writes heartfelt humour but also gives of his time to protect his community as a volunteer firefighter. And yet, for as much as Ned gives, you are never left in doubt that he has time and energy for you.

I look forward to the day Ned and I finally meet in person…and likely discover we hate each other’s guts.

P.S. You can follow Ned’s insane perspectives on life on his blog: Humor at the Speed of Life (also the name of his book, available on Amazon)

(Part Six of my 12 Days of Gratitude…because the rest of the news sucks)

Oh Muppets, where are’t thou (UPDATED)

TheMuppetsGroupshot2011

Yesterday, Deadline: Hollywood announced that Bob Kushell, co-creator and showrunner for The Muppets, would be leaving the fledgling show while Bill Prady and a new showrunner (possibly Kristin Newman) would work on retooling the ABC series that has garnered vast quantities of media and social media coverage.

As the Deadline article suggested:

“But after a highly-rated premiere, ratings dropped. The Muppets has done an OK job opening Tuesday night for ABC at 8 PM, with its numbers on par with lead-out Fresh Off The Boat, but because of its marquee title, The Muppets has been held to a different standard, so its performance has been  considered somewhat disappointing, and there has been a concern about its creative direction.”

I am part of that ratings drop, for reasons I will discuss shortly, but I have several friends and associates within the puppetry community who have struggled mightily to stem the tide, lauding the show’s freshness and energy and chastising its critics. I feel bad that I have let these people down, but I feel it is for good reason.

Briefly stated: The Muppets (the TV series) is a pale, anemic shadow of the Muppets (the icons).

My biggest concern about The Muppets is that the Muppets aren’t leading the way…they are following someone else’s formula. This feels like total anathema to all of what Jim Henson was.

The current incarnation is little more than The Office but with felt-fleshed characters. Look no further than the show’s logo which is presented in the same manner as that of The Office and with an almost identical typeface. And the setting within a late-night talk show makes it a pale imitation of The Larry Sanders Show.

the Muppice

Although parody has long been a staple of the Henson way—consider “Veterinarian’s Hospital” and “Pigs In Space”—The Muppets is not a parody but rather is being sold as original. And ironically, while the new content is supposedly more adult, I would offer that it is not nearly as edgy as it used to be. The humour isn’t nearly as sophisticated as it was in times past. (I appreciate that it is now property of Disney.)

Case in point: References by members of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem to illicit drugs and rehab have become much more overt in the new series whereas they were only really implied previously. It is as though the showrunners don’t have faith in the audience “getting” the jokes.

“Oh, my God! Did Floyd say rehab? That’s edgy.” No. No, it’s not.

But back to the leadership discussion.

Henson and his gang were innovators. They took an ancient format—the puppet show—and brought it to heights never before imagined. They didn’t pander to their audience but rather challenged them to follow along or be left behind.

Fraggle-crystal

Sometimes that became wildly popular: The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock.

Sometimes it never found a wide audience: The Dark Crystal, Muppets Tonight.

[NOTE: Dear purists, I know that Muppets are Muppets and the others are not…I am trying to make a point about innovation here, so please bear with me.]

And, as I understand it, even the now idolized The Muppet Show almost never existed for lack of interest by American networks that couldn’t see the vision and felt variety shows were on their way out—in 1976, only The Carol Burnett Show remained, Sonny & Cher and Tony Orlando & Dawn having ended a year earlier. That’s why the show was created in the U.K. under the financial benevolence of Lew Grade.

From a mechanical perspective, the artists working on The Muppets are doing an admirable job. These are incredibly skilled men and women performing a technically challenging art form that combines the illusory world of puppets and the frailties of human flesh.

But all that skill and effort is for naught without a heart and soul. And these, in my opinion, are what the current show is lacking.

Ironically, when I watch The Muppets, all I see are puppets, characters trying to entertain an audience. I don’t sense the humanity within the puppets, and it was that humanity that made the Muppets so special in the first place.

Perhaps this is just a case of old-man-itis on my part—“when I was a boy…”—but sadly, I am putting down the empty toys that The Muppets represent and mourn the (hopefully temporary) loss of old friends—the Muppets.

I wish everyone the best of luck with the reboot.

PS I love the work of Bob Kushell and Bill Prady, and place no specific criticism on anyone’s shoulders for my concerns about The Muppets. Not saying this is the case here, but sometimes talent and creativity is not enough to overcome a bad match between artist and vehicle.

See also:

Breitbart‘s “The Muppets’ Reboot: What Hollywood gets wrong about family entertainment”

Although I think the writer (Melissa Henson) has made some valid arguments about the writing of The Muppets, I think her overarching belief that this was intended as family viewing is wrong. Although these are beloved characters from film and television, this show was very much centred on an adult audience. To repeat an earlier point, calling this family entertainment would be to ascribe the same to The Office.

Standoff (a short story)

The Inquisitor

Too much a creature of urban comforts to ever be called a Nature lover, Henry nonetheless considered himself a Nature liker. And yet, as his eyeballs threatened to dry into powdery husks, he also recognized that Nature had a dark side. And today, that dark side came with bright red epaulets.

In an exchange that may only have been minutes, but felt like hours, Henry held the gaze of his ebon Inquisitor, afraid to look away lest the wraith take wing again, strafing him in violent indignation.

Moments earlier, Henry was taking a lovely stroll along the waterfront, leaving the breezes of the beach for the verdant comfort of the giant reeds and a secluded pond.

His soft-soled shoes barely whispered as he wound his way along the wooden deck that cut a swath across the still, algae-laden waters. Instead, his silent steps were accompanied by the cheerful chirrup of so many sparrows and the steady whine of cicadas complaining about the damp heat.

Merging waters

But as he reached the half-way point, he sensed a change even if he couldn’t yet identify it. The breeze died, the sparrows silenced and the cicadas stilled until all that remained was the low throb of his heart.

And as subtly as the stillness formed, it was macheted by an agonized screech that seemed to quite literally part Henry’s hair.

No sooner had Henry arced through his ducking motion than the demon struck again, piercing eardrum and scalp with equal vigour.

Terror’s impulse to flee was tempered by uncertainty’s steely grip as Henry found himself rooted in place. That something wanted to kill him, he was certain; but the complete absence of movement around him suggested it was all in his mind. His tingling scalp, however, said that whatever was happening was on his head, not in it.

Despite the glaring sunlight that baked the path, trickling tangy sweat into Henry’s fresh wounds, his pupils stretched to their anime widest, searching the chaotic tangle for the slightest signs of movement. He had no reason to believe his tormentor had given up, but all he saw was blue sky, brown tree limbs, green reeds and black water.

Yes, these had all taken on an ominous mantel, but nothing looked capable of launching an attack.

Even as Henry contemplated giving up his search, though, the air was pierced once more with an irritated cry. It was everything he had in him not to turtle.

And that’s when he saw it, the beast with the black eyes of death concealed behind a shroud of serrated alder leaves.

Hunkered down

The expressionless face bobbed lower and turned slightly to its left, determined to take in its quarry. Its oil-drop eye blended almost seamlessly with the void its plumage left in the sky, a puncture of midnight in the midday light. The only break in the evil blackness was a splash of blood red atop its shoulder.

“A bird?” Henry questioned silently, a blush threatening to overwhelm his budding sunburn.

Sloughing his tension like a skin, Henry rolled his shoulders to massage them. That was all the demon needed.

With blinding speed, the creature was upon him again. The flapping wings were matched by flailing arms as Henry swung at his attacker to no avail, his body instinctively twisting as the assailant passed.

It didn’t take Henry nearly as long to find the bird now, the monster standing proudly on an exposed limb, cackling his disdain upon his hapless victim.

“What is your problem?” Henry cried to the skies, briefly silencing the bird, which cocked its head a little further as though contemplating the question.

Henry unconsciously mirrored the action when it squawked back.

Annoyed, Henry turned to walk away but his motion was stopped by a shrill pierce. Spreading its wings, the bird quadrupled in size, a Rorschach nightmare.

As Henry relaxed his muscles, the bird drew in its wings. The stare down began.

Redwing on a reed

Unblinking, Henry met the bird’s gaze with his own, his every emotion reflected in that dead pool of emptiness, that glistening eye. A psychic vacuum, the bird seemed to reach into Henry’s body, threatening to engulf his soul.

Mired in a personal La Brea, Henry could feel his will slowly sink into the sulfurous malevolence. Only ego and will kept him from bowing to the inevitable.

“Look, momma,” a child’s voice squeaked through the tension. “Issa red-wing bla’ bird.”

Out of the corner of his eye, which otherwise remained glued to the bird, Henry could see a small boy trundle down the path, pointing wildly with one hand while waving a camera with the other.

More importantly, Henry saw that the bird caught the arrival as well.

Glimpse

Synchronized swimmers of the air, man and bird vaulted for the boy, whose mother remained several yards away, blissfully unaware of the horrors awaiting her budding family.

Every wing beat was matched with a stride, every fluttered feather with airfoiled arm hair. And Henry knew his job was twice as difficult as the bird’s.

Not only did he have to stop the bird from harming the child, but he had to do it without knocking the kid into next Tuesday himself. But one thing at a time.

It is said that when the conditions are just right, you can stop the flight of one bullet with a perfectly timed second bullet.

Henry didn’t know if that was true. Nor did he really have the time to contemplate what conditions such a thing might require.

Pond

All Henry could tell you for certain was that once airborne, a red-winged blackbird is a thousand times more agile than a middle-aged man. That, and it takes about eight days to get the stench of stagnant pond water out of your nostrils.

He has no idea what happened to the kid.

Tuesday troubles

Passengers crowd the Brown Line train in the Loop at evening rush hour, Wednesday, July 16, 2008. The CTA plans to eliminate seats in some train cars to alleviate crowding. (Chicago Tribune photo by Alex Garcia) ..OUTSIDE TRIBUNE CO.- NO MAGS,  NO SALES, NO INTERNET, NO TV, CHICAGO OUT.. 00296065A TrainSeats

Edward didn’t expect much from his day as he rode the subway into work.

It was Tuesday. And as any actuary will tell you, Tuesdays are the least eventful work day in any given week. Edward would know. He too was an actuary.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Edward was not dissatisfied with Tuesdays, or any day of the week for that matter. He just didn’t expect much from it, and definitely less than from say a Monday or a Thursday.

Unbeknownst to Edward, however, today was unlike a typical Tuesday. Today, in fact, was a Tuesday that actuaries dread. The outlier. The anomaly. Today was the Tuesday that lurks in the dark crevices of an actuary’s heart.

Jessica hadn’t expected to leave the house so late this morning. But with Maria’s daycare shut down and Todd’s absence at a business conference, nothing was moving particularly smoothly for the young lawyer and suburban mother.

Vomiting herself from the commuter train as the doors inched open, Jessica practically crowd-surfed to get across the chaotic platform and into the stairwell to the subway system. Today was the Witkenstein proposal and although she herself was not presenting it, the command had been all-hands-on-deck in a show of force. Rare is the law firm that doesn’t like to demonstrate its cannon-fodder for clients.

Catching the smallest of slivers through the human maelstrom on the subway platform—her rail-thin form finally offering her some advantage in life—Jessica slid to the rail-side edge just as the string of cars came to a halt. Unfortunately, that same eel-like body structure meant that she was no match for the human surge that blew her through the subway doors and wedged her against a man of middling height, middling complexion and middling posture.

With a middling acknowledgement of her existence, Edward shifted his elbow slightly so that Jessica could grab the same pole to which he clutched for support in the shifting ebb and flow of transit.

Now, if pressed, Jessica would swear an oath that the box in which her travel mug arrived the previous Christmas promised that it was designed with the latest in anti-spill technology. She had even tested it at home several times, marveling at the results.

But as any actuary will tell you, the chances of a scalding burn from the spilling of hot beverages rises 342% when that beverage is being consumed on mass transit. Edward would know. He too was an actuary.

Now, whether the next event fulfilled that statistic or the numbers were slightly off, the simple reality was that the precise moment the subway took a turn in the tunnel was the same moment that Jessica had tried to reposition herself to lessen the strain on her crooked elbow.

This moment was followed shortly thereafter by another moment in which the incorrectly positioned lid of her travel mug became even more incorrectly positioned and her coffee evacuated itself onto Edward’s shirt.

mug stain

Jessica was horrified as she helplessly watched the taupe liquid spread across the stranger’s chest and cascade as a beige waterfall into his trousers.

As surprised as Edward was by the turn of events, a small part of his brain was also relieved that Jessica liked to use non-dairy creamer, which slightly helped to temper the scalding liquid.

“Bloody hell,” Edward bellowed, his pain sensors over-riding his public decorum filters.

“Oh my god, I am so sorry,” Jessica cried as she struggled through her bag to find that pocket Kleenex pack she had purchased just the day before.

As Edward fought to literally calm his nerves, Jessica did what she could to blot his formerly white shirt, unaware of her increased range of motion as a halo of space had formed around the two of them, everyone retreating from the mess.

“Are you okay?” she asked, genuinely concerned that he might need medical treatment.

Edward was too engrossed in the sensation of slightly sticky dampness that was now encasing his genitalia to answer right away.

Coming back to the moment and realizing that skin grafts were unnecessary, Edward simply raised a placating hand.

“No worries,” he offered with a smile. “Accidents happen.”

Edward would know. He was an actuary.

Jessica did her best to return his smile, but her embarrassment was still too great for her to be comfortable. She had little time to worry, however, as the subway pulled into her stop.

“Here’s my card,” she blurted, pressing her card and the remaining Kleenex into his hand. “Please send me your dry cleaning bill.”

Before Edward could tell her that her offer was kind but unnecessary, Jessica slipped out of the car with the crowd. His thoughts then shifted to making a quick stop at the department store between his subway stop and the office.

Jessica would have had a funny if embarrassing story to share with her husband later that night had the first of the meteors striking off Japan’s coast not started the cataclysm.

Regardless, the nuclear winter that started later that day taught Edward a valuable lesson.

Actuarial science gets it wrong some times. Tuesdays can be eventful.

meteor