Saturday, January 31, 2009

Has the Internet Killed Print Journalism?

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Margaret Atwood: On Writing Poetry

Margaret Atwood
On Writing Poetry (Waterstone's Poetry Lecture)
Delivered at Hay On Wye, Wales, June 1995.

I'm supposed to be talking in a vaguely autobiographical way about the connection between life and poetry, or at least between my life and my poetry. I recently read an account of a study which intends to show how writers of a certain age – my age, roughly – attempt to "seize control" of the stories of their own lives by deviously concocting their own biographies. However, it's a feature of our age that if you write a work of fiction, everyone assumes that the people and events in it are disguised biography – but if you write your biography, it's equally assumed you're lying your head off.

This last may be true, at any rate of poets: Plato said that poets should be excluded from the ideal republic because they are such liars. I am a poet, and I affirm that this is true. About no subject are poets tempted to lie so much as about their own lives; I know one of them who has floated at least five versions of his autobiography, none of them true. I of course – being also a novelist – am a much more truthful person than that. But since poets lie, how can you believe me?

Here then is the official version of my life as a poet:

I was once a snub-nosed blonde. My name was Betty. I had a perky personality and was a cheerleader for the college football team. My favourite colour was pink. Then I became a poet. My hair darkened overnight, my nose lengthened, I gave up football for the cello, my real name disappeared and was replaced by one that had a chance of being taken seriously by the literati, and my clothes changed colour in the closet, all by themselves, from pink to black. I stopped humming the songs from Oklahoma and began quoting Kirkegaard. And not only that – all of my high heeled shoes lost their heels, and were magically transformed into sandals. Needless to say, my many boyfriends took one look at this and ran screaming from the scene as if their toenails were on fire. New ones replaced them; they all had beards.

Believe it or not, there is an element of truth in this story. It's the bit about the name, which was not Betty but something equally non-poetic, and with the same number of letters. It's also the bit about the boyfriends. But meanwhile, here is the real truth:

I became a poet at the age of sixteen. I did not intend to do it. It was not my fault.

Allow me to set the scene for you. The year was 1956. Elvis Presley had just appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, from the waist up. At school dances, which were held in the gymnasium and smelled like armpits, the dance with the most charisma was rock'n'roll. The approved shoes were saddle shoes and white bucks, the evening gowns were strapless, if you could manage it; they had crinolined skirts that made you look like half a cabbage with a little radish head. Girls were forbidden to wear jeans to school, except on football days, when they sat on the hill to watch, and it was feared that the boys would be able to see up their dresses unless they wore pants. TV dinners had just been invented.

None of this – you might think, and rightly – was conducive to the production of poetry. If someone had told me a year previously that I would suddenly turn into a poet, I would have giggled. Yet this is what did happen.

I was in my fourth year of high school. The high school was in Toronto, which in the year 1956 was still known as Toronto the Good because of its puritanical liquor laws. It had a population of six hundred and fifty thousand, five hundred and nine people at the time, and was a synonym for bland propriety. The high school I attended was also a synonym for bland propriety, and although it has produced a steady stream of chartered accountants and one cabinet minister, no other poets have ever emerged from it, before or since.

The day I became a poet was a sunny day of no particular ominousness. I was walking across the football field, not because I was sports-minded or had plans to smoke a cigarette behind the field house – the only other reason for going there – but because this was my normal way home from school. I was scuttling along in my usual furtive way, suspecting no ill, when a large invisible thumb descended from the sky and pressed down on the top of my head. A poem formed. It was quite a gloomy poem: the poems of the young usually are. It was a gift, this poem – a gift from an anonymous donor, and, as such, both exciting and sisnister at the same time.
I suspect this is the way all poets begin writing poetry, only they don't want to admit it, so they make up more rational explanations. But this is the true explanation, and I defy anyone to disprove it.

The poem that I composed on that eventful day, although entirely without merit or even promise, did have some features. It rhymed and scanned, because we had been taught rhyming and scansion at school. It resembled the poetry of Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe, with a little Shelley and Keats thrown in. The fact is that at the time I became a poet, I had read very few poems written after the year 1900. I knew nothing of modernism or free verse. These were not the only things I knew nothing of. I had no idea, for instance, that I was about to step into a whole set of preconceptions and social roles which had to do with what poets were like, how they should behave, and what they ought to wear; moreover, I did not know that the rules about these things were different if you were female. I did not know that "poetess" was an insult, and that I myself would some day be called one. I did not know that to be told I had transcended my gender would be considered a compliment. I didn't know – yet – that black was compulsory. All of that was in the future. When I was sixteen, it was simple. Poetry existed; therefore it could be written; and nobody had told me – yet – the many, many reasons why it could not be written by me.

At first glance, there was little in my background to account for the descent of the large thumb of poetry onto the top of my head. But let me try to account for my own poetic genesis.

I was born on November 18, 1939, in the Ottawa General Hospital, two and a half months after the beginning of the Second World War. Being born at the beginning of the war gave me a substratum of anxiety and dread to draw on, which is very useful to a poet. It also meant that I was malnourished. This is why I am short. If it hadn't been for food rationing, I would have been six feet tall.

I saw my first balloon in 1946, one that had been saved from before the war. It was inflated for me as a treat when I had the mumps on my sixth birthday, and it broke immediately. This was a major influence on my later work.

As for my birth month, a detail of much interest to poets, obsessed as they are with symbolic systems of all kinds: I was not pleased, during my childhood, to have been born in November, as there wasn't much inspiration for birthday party motifs. February children got hearts, May ones flowers, but what was there for me? A cake surrounded by withered leaves? November was a drab, dark and wet month, lacking even snow; its only noteworthy festival was Remembrance Day. But in adult life I discovered that November was, astrologically speaking, the month of sex, death and regeneration, and that November First was the Day of the Dead. It still wouldn't have been much good for birthday parties, but it was just fine for poetry, which tends to revolve a good deal around sex and death, with regeneration optional.

Six months after I was born, I was taken by packsack to a remote cabin in north-western Quebec, where my father was doing research as a forest entomologist. I should add here that my parents were unusual for their time. Both of them liked being as far away from civilization as possible, my mother because she hated housework and tea parties, my father because he liked chopping wood. They also weren't much interested in what the sociologists would call rigid sex-role stereotyping. This was a help to me in later life, and helped me to get a job at summer camp teaching small boys to start fires.

My childhood was divided between the forest, in the warmer parts of the year, and various cities, in the colder parts. I was thus able to develop the rudiments of the double personality so necessary for a poet. I also had lots of time for meditation. In the bush there were no theatres, movies, parades, or very functional radios; there were also not many other people. The result was that I learned to read early – I was lucky enough to have a mother who read out loud, but she couldn't be doing it all the time and you had to amuse yourself with something or other when it rained. I became a reading addict, and have remained so ever since. "You'll ruin your eyes," I was told when caught at my secret vice under the covers with a flashlight. I did so, and would do it again. Like cigarette addicts who will smoke mattress stuffing if all else fails, I will read anything. As a child I read a good many things I shouldn't have, but this also is useful for poetry.

As the critic Norththrop Frye has said, we learn poetry through the seat of our pants, by being bounced up and down to nursery rhymes as children. Poetry is essentially oral, and is close to song; rhythm precedes meaning. My first experiences with poetry were Mother Goose, which contains some of the most surrealistic poems in the English language, and whatever singing commercials could be picked up on the radio, such as:

You'll wonder where the yellow went

When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent!

I created my first book of poetry at the age of five. To begin with, I made the book itself, cutting the pages out of scribbler paper and sewing them together in what I did not know was the traditional signature fashion. Then I copied into the book all the poems I could remember, and when there were some blank pages left at the end, I added a few of my own to complete it. This book was an entirely satisfying art object for me; so satisfying that I felt I had nothing more to say in that direction, and gave up writing poetry altogether for another eleven years.

My English teacher from 1955, run to ground by some documentary crew trying to explain my life, said that in her class I had showed no particular promise. This was true. Until the descent of the giant thumb, I showed no particular promise. I also showed no particular promise for some time afterwards, but I did not know this. A lot of being a poet consists of willed ignorance. If you woke up from your trance and realized the nature of the life-threatening and dignity-destroying precipice you were walking along, you would switch into actuarial sciences immediately.

If I had not been ignorant in this particular way, I would not have announced to an assortment of my high school female friends, in the cafeteria one brown-bag lunchtime, that I was going to be a writer. I said "writer," not "poet;" I did have some common sense. But my announcement was certainly a conversation-stopper. Sticks of celery were suspended in mid-crunch, peanut-butter sandwiches paused halfway between table and mouth; nobody said a word. One of those present reminded me of this incident recently – I had repressed it – and said she had been simply astounded. "Why?," I said. "Because I wanted to be a writer?" "No," she said. "Because you had the guts to say it out loud."

But I was not conscious of having guts, or even of needing them. We obsessed folks, in our youth, are oblivious to the effects of our obsessions; only later do we develop enough cunning to conceal them, or at least to avoid mentioning them at cocktail parties. The one good thing to be said about announcing yourself as a writer in the colonial Canadian fifties is that nobody told me I couldn't do it because I was a girl. They simply found the entire proposition ridiculous. Writers were dead and English, or else extremely elderly and American; they were not sixteen years old and Canadian. It would have been worse if I'd been a boy, though. Never mind the fact that all the really stirring poems I'd read at that time had been about slaughter, mayhem, sex and death – poetry was thought of as existing in the pastel female realm, along with embroidery and flower arranging. If I'd been male I would probably have had to roll around in the mud, in some boring skirmish over whether or not I was a sissy.

I'll skip over the embarrassingly bad poems I published in the high school year book – had I no shame? – well, actually, no – mentioning only briefly the word of encouragement I received from my wonderful Grade 12 English teacher, Miss Bessie Billings – "I can't understand a word of this, dear, so it must be good." I will not go into the dismay of my parents, who worried – with good reason – over how I would support myself. I will pass over my flirtation with journalism as a way of making a living, an idea I dropped when I discovered that in the fifties – unlike now – female journalists always ended up writing the obituaries and the ladies' page.

But how was I to make a living? There was not a roaring market in poetry, there, then. I thought of running away and being a waitress, which I later tried, but got very tired and thin; there's nothing like clearing away other people's mushed-up dinners to make you lose your appetite. Finally I went into English Literature at university, having decided in a cynical manner that I could always teach to support my writing habit. Once I got past the Anglo Saxon it was fun, although I did suffer a simulated cardiac arrest the first time I encountered T.S. Eliot and realized that not all poems rhymed, any more. "I don't understand a word of this," I thought, "so it must be good."

After a year or two of keeping my head down and trying to pass myself off as a normal person, I made contact with the five other people at my university who were interested in writing; and through them, and some of my teachers, I discovered that there was a whole subterranean Wonderland of Canadian writing that was going on just out of general earshot and sight. It was not large – in 1960 you were doing well to sell 200 copies of a book of poems by a Canadian, and a thousand novels was a best-seller; there were only five literary magazines, which ran on the life blood of their editors; but it was very integrated. Once in – that is, once published in a magazine – it was as if you'd been given a Masonic handshake or a key to the underground railroad. All of a sudden you were part of a conspiracy.

People sometimes ask me about my influences; these were, by and large, the Canadians poets of my own generation and that just before mine. P.K. Page, Margaret Avison, Jay Macpherson, James Reaney, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, Al Purdy, D.G. Jones, Eli Mandel, John Newlove, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Michael Ondaatje, Pat Lane, George Bowering, Milton Acorn, A.M. Klein, Alden Nowlan, Elizabeth Brewster, Anne Wilkinson – these are some of the poets whowere writing and publishing then, whom I knew, and whose poetry I read. People writing about Canadian poetry at that time spoke a lot about the necessity of creating a Canadian literature. There was a good deal of excitement, and the feeling that you were in on the ground floor, so to speak.

So poetry was a vital form, and it quickly acquired a public dimension. Above ground the bourgeoisie reined supreme, in their two-piece suits and ties and camel-hair coats and pearl earrings (not all of this worn by the same sex); but at night the Bohemian world came alive, in various nooks and crannies of Toronto, sporting black turtlenecks, drinking coffee at little tables with red-checked tablecloths and candles stuck in chianti bottles, in coffee houses, – well – in the one coffee house in town – listening to jazz and folk singing, reading their poems out loud as if they'd never heard it was stupid, and putting swear words into them. For a twenty-year-old this was intoxicating stuff.

By this time I had my black wardrobe more or less together, and had learned not to say, "Well, hi there!" in sprightly tones. I was publishing in little magazines, and shortly thereafter I started to write reviews for them too. I didn't know what I was talking about, but I soon began to find out. Every year for four years, I put together a collection of my poems and submitted it to a publishing house; every year it was – to my dismay then, to my relief now – rejected. Why was I so eager to be published right away? Like all twenty-one-year-old poets, I thought I would be dead by thirty, and Sylvia Plath had not set a helpful example. For a while there, you were made to feel that, if a poet and female, you could not really be serious about it unless you'd made a least one suicide attempt. So I felt I was running out of time.

My poems were still not very good, but by now they showed – how shall I put it? – a sort of twisted and febrile glimmer. In my graduating year, a group of them won the main poetry prize at the University. Madness took hold of me, and with the aid of a friend, and another friend's flatbed press, we printed them. A lot of poets published their own work then; unlike novels, poetry was short, and therefore cheap to do. We had to print each poem separately, and then disassemble it, as there were not enough a's for the whole book; the cover was done with a lino-block. We printed 250 copies, and sold them through bookstores, for 50 cents each. They now go in the rare book trade for eighteen hundred dollars a pop. Wish I'd kept some.

Three years or so later – after two years at graduate school at the dreaded Harvard University, two broken engagements, a year of living in a tiny rooming-house room and working at a market research company which was more fun than a barrel of drugged monkeys and a tin of orange-flavoured rice pudding – and after the massive rejection of my first novel, and of several other poetry collections as well – and not to mention my first confusing trip to Europe, I ended up in British Columbia, teaching grammar to Engineering students at eight-thirty in the morning in a Quonset hut. It was all right, as none of us were awake; I made them write imitations of Kafka, which I thought might help them in their chosen profession.

In comparison with the few years I had just gone through, this was sort of like going to heaven. I lived in an apartment built on top of somebody's house, and had scant furniture; but not only did I have a 180 degree view of Vancouver harbour, but I also had all night to write in. I taught in the daytime, ate canned food, did not wash my dishes until all of them were dirty – the biologist in me became very interested in the different varieties of moulds that could be grown on leftover Kraft dinner – and stayed up until four in the morning. I completed, in that one year, my first officially-published book of poems and my first published novel, which I wrote on blank exam booklets, as well as a number of short stories and the beginnings of two other novels, later completed. It was an astonishingly productive year for me. I looked like the Night of the Living Dead. Art has its price.

This first book of poems was called The Circle Game; I designed the cover myself, using stick-on dots – we were very cost-effective in those days – and to everyone's surprise, especially mine, it won a prize called The Governor General's Award, which in Canada was the big one to win. Literary prizes are a crapshoot, and I was lucky that year. I was back at Harvard by then, mopping up the uncompleted work for my doctorate – I never did finish it – and living with three roommates, whose names were Judy and Sue and Karen. To collect the prize I had to attend a ceremony in Ottawa, at Government House, which meant dressups – and it was obvious to all of us, as we went through the two items in my wardrobe, that I had nothing to wear. Sue leant me the dress and earrings, Judy the shoes, and while I was away they incinerated my clunky rubber-soled Hush Puppy shoes, having decided that these did not go with my new, poetic image.

This was an act of treachery, but they were right. I was now a recognised poet, and had a thing or two to live up to. It took me a while to get the hair right, but I have finally settled down with a sort of modified Celtic look, which is about the only thing available to me short of baldness. I no longer feel I'll be dead by thirty; now it's sixty. I suppose these deadlines we set for ourselves are really a way of saying we appreciate time, and want to use all of it. I'm still writing, I'm still writing poetry, I still can't explain why, and I'm still running out of time.

Wordsworth was sort of right when he said, "Poets in their youth begin in gladness/ But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness." Except that sometimes poets skip the gladness and go straight to the despondency. Why is that? Part of it is the conditions under which poets work – giving all, receiving little in return from an age that by and large ignores them – and part of it is cultural expectation – "The lunatic, the lover and the poet," says Shakespeare, and notice which comes first. My own theory is that poetry is composed with the melancholy side of the brain, and that if you do nothing but, you may find yourself going slowly down a long dark tunnel with no exit. I have avoided this by being ambidextrous: I write novels too. But when I find myself writing poetry again, it always has the surprise of that first unexpected and anonymous gift.

-- By Margaret Atwood. Copyright © O.W. Toad Ltd.

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Spotlight Sites of the Day
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The Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference/Feb. 20th

On Friday, February 20, 2009, a select group of poets will come to this place: a turn-of-the-century Colonial revival estate, nestled in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, and there they will work closely with poets and editors Jeff Shotts (Graywolf Press), Martha Rhodes (Four Way Books), Fred Marchant (Suffolk University), and Joan Houlihan [Concord Poetry Center].

For more info, go to:
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Imaginary Writing Process

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Writing Quotes of the Day

"To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the music the words make."
Truman Capote

"Great literature must come from an upheaval in the artist's soul. If that upheaval is not present, then it must come from the works of any author which happen to be handy and easily adapted."
Robert Benchley

"Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in the mirror which waits always before or behind."
Catherine Drinker Bowen

"I think you must remember that a writer is a simple-minded person to begin with and go on that basis. He's not a great mind, he's not a great thinker, he's not a great philosopher, he's a story-teller."
Erskine Caldwell

Many people hear voices when no-one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing."
Meg Chittenden

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Poll: Why do you write?

Just put up a poll in the upper left hand corner. Please vote. You can choose multiple answers if you'd like. The poll ends in two weeks and I'll post results afterwards.

And feel free to comment with an answer all your own!

Thanks so much for participating,


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The Seven Wonders of the World

A group of students were asked to list what they thought were the "Seven Wonders of the World." Though there were some disagreements, the following received the most votes:

1. Egypt's Great Pyramids

2. The Taj Mahal

3. The Grand Canyon

4. The Panama Canal

5. The Empire State Building

6. St. Peter's Basilica

7. China's Great Wall

While gathering the votes, the teacher noted that one student had not finished her paper yet. So she asked the girl if she was having trouble with her list. The girl replied, "Yes, a little. I couldn't quite make up my mind because there were so many"

The teacher said, "Well, tell us what you have, and maybe we can help."

The girl hesitated, then read, "I think the 'Seven Wonders of the World' are:

1. To See

2. To Hear

3. To Touch

4. To Taste

5. To Feel

6. To Laugh

7. And to Love."

The room was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.

The things we overlook as simple and ordinary and that we take for granted are truly wondrous!

A gentle reminder—that the most precious things in life cannot be built by hand or bought by Man.

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Historical Video about Journalism

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The 2009 Green Book Festival has issued a call for entries to its annual competition honoring books that contribute to greater understanding, respect and positive action on the changing worldwide environment.

The 2009 Green Book Festival will consider published, self-published and independent publisher works in the following categories: non-fiction, fiction, children's books, teenage, how-to, audio/spoken word, comics/graphic novels, poetry, science fiction/horror, biography/autobiography, gardening, cookbooks, animals, photography/art, e-books, wild card (anything goes!), scientific, white paper, legal and spiritual.

Entries can be in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese or Italian. Our grand prize for the 2009 Green Book Festival Author of the Year is $1500 and transportation to our April 22 Earth Day celebration in Los Angeles OR an equivalent amount donated in your name to the environmental charity of your choice.

A panel of judges will determine the winners based on the following criteria:

The overall writing style and presentation of the work.

The potential of the work to enhance understanding of the environment and its issues.

More information and entry forms are available at
Click here

Entry forms can be emailed or faxed to you by emailing:

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Writers in New York City

Are you a writer in New York City and want to meet others like you?

Here you go:
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Garrison Keillor: Advice to Writers

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Stay Positive!

As many of you already know, I’m a big believer in staying positive and running as fast as I can from sucking-all-the-air-out-of-the-room negativity.

I don’t like hearing the phrase “writer’s block” said in my presence; don’t like listening to writers whining constantly about bad editors, bad editing, or nasty rejection letters.

If we are to succeed as writers and enjoy the fruits of artistic fulfillment, we must fight through all these temporary setbacks, all these trivialities, all these minor inconveniences.

We need to stay strong and inspired and spiritedly creative. We need to believe in who we are as writers and what we have to say in our work.

So repeat after me:

I am a good writer getting better every day.

I am strong enough to fight the hard fight of the publishing world.

I believe in my words, no matter what anyone says.

I will not let distractions bother me.

I will continue to write my heart and my soul, and I will make it as a writer in the face of all the odds against me.

Got it? You better. Or else I’m running from you like a sprinter bursting off the blocks.

Best always and, yes, stay positive,


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The Susan Orlean Reading

Went to the Susan Orlean reading last night down in the West Village. Held in cozy little box of a room within a brownstone on 10th street, a place call the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House. Must've been 40 people crammed in there, all utterly glued to the this tiny red-headed lady behind the podium. As usual, Susan was drolly funny, but it was her passion for words, for storytelling, still so strong after all these years of writing, that was truly inspiring. She made me want to write better, want to try harder to get it right. And I know--I'm certain, in fact--that if I told her this, she would be positively thrilled.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Tip of the Day

Words are your tools, so constantly fill your toolbox by building your vocabulary.

When you see a word you don’t know, don’t just skip over it. Write it down in a special notebook. Look it up in the dictionary. Jot down the meaning. And exercise with it by using the word in sentences. Unusual words, especially, could add spice—and an entertaining surprise—to your writing.

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Amy Tan: Finding Meaning Through Writing

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Please Show Your Love and Support for Paula Berinstein's Writing Show

Paula is one of the great supporters of the writing community. I'd love for readers of this blog to return the favor and let her know how much you appreciate what she does.

Listen to The Writing Show, where authors, screenwriters, playwrights, poets, and other writers in all stages of their careers reveal:

• How they work
• What they worry about
• How they make their writing sparkle
• How they deal with obstacles
• How they market
• Why they write

Interviews, reality shows, contests, writing makeovers, and more from Paula B. and the gang!

The Writing Show, where writing is always the story.
Information and inspiration for writers.
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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Doubt's John Patrick Shanley on Writing

Spotlight Interview: Nelson George

Nelson George, Writer, Author, Screenwriter, Filmmaker, Historian

One of the great chroniclers of African-American life in the past two decades, Nelson George has done it all. He’s been a journalist, screenwriter, historian, filmmaker, and novelist. The New York Times Book Review once said of him: “As a critic, Mr. George is an intelligent informed insider; as a storyteller he presents fascinating characters.”

He’s authored several influential books, including: “The Michael Jackson Story,” which made the New York Times paperback bestseller list; “Where Did Our Love Go: The Rise & Fall of the Motown Sound,” which won the ASCAP Deems Taylor award; “The Death of Rhythm & Blues,” which won the ASCAP Deems Taylor award and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award; “Elevating the Game: The History and Aesthetics of Black Men in Basketball,” which won an American Book Award and an Amateur Athletic Association award; “Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Bohos: Notes on Post-Soul Culture;” “Hip Hop America,” which won an American Book award and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award; “Blackface: Reflections on African-Americans and the Movies.”

He also wrote the highly popular column, “Native Son,” for The Village Voice from the late 1980’s through the early 1990’s; worked for Billboard, Record World, and Playboy; co-wrote the Russell Simmons autobiography “Life and Def;” won a Grammy Award for contributing to the liner notes of James Brown’s boxed set, “Startime;” co-wrote and produced the feature film starring Chris Rock, “CB4;” co-wrote the feature film starring Halle Berry, “Strictly Business;” worked as a consulting producer for HBO’s “The Chris Rock Show;” directed a made-for-TV movie for Black Entertainment Television titled, “One Special Moment,” and was an associate producer for the critically-acclaimed “Just Another Girl on the IRT.”

His short film, “To Be a Black Man,” featuring Samuel L. Jackson, played in film festivals in New York, London and Amsterdam, as has his documentary, “A Great Day in Hip Hop.” Nelson also created the online film project, “Blacker,” a look at racial identity through poetic short films

In recent years, he’s taken his genius to fiction, publishing “Urban Romance,” “Seduced: Life & Times of a One Hit Wonder,” “One Woman Short,” “Show & Tell,” ”Night Work,” and “The Accidental Hunter.”

Here is my exclusive interview with Mr. George:

Mike: What writer influenced you the most growing up?

George: Without question, Ernest Hemingway. Far and away. From the time I read “Our Time” at 14, then later with all his brilliant short stories, which still hold up. He influences me to this day. His purity of prose is amazing. That brevity—I’ve kind of modeled myself after that. I’m not a long-winded writer. I tend to write concisely, picking only the right details. In describing a person, a scene, or articulating an idea, some writers write everything. I’m more like a microscope, going straight to the heart of things. That focus crosses through all my writing, taking the reader straight to what’s most important.

Mike: Do you write easily or are you what they call “a bleeder”?

George: Easy. I can write anywhere and all the time. I carry a notebook or pad everywhere I go, and I’m constantly writing.

My whole theory about people getting blocked: They’re probably thinking about one thing too much and not letting their subconscious mind work for them.

If I’m having problems writing my novel, let’s say, I’ll stop working on that for awhile and go write a journal entry, or go to my blog, or work on a magazine piece. In other words, I never stop writing. I just change what I’m writing.

That’s big, in my opinion: You should never ever stop writing. Once you stop and give into that sense of impotence, you open yourself up to all kinds of bad psychological stuff about sitting down at the table and you’re screwed.

Trust me, if you keep going, keep at some sort of writing, it’ll all come to you.

Mike: So, are you saying that writing has never been painful for you?

George: No, it really never has been. I love writing. In fact, there have been times that I wish I didn’t have to do anything but write.

I don’t know what I’d do without it. I have no idea. I’d be in bad shape. It means that much to me.

Mike: How did you get your start in writing?

George: I worked as an intern for both a black newspaper called the Amsterdam News and Billboard, while I was still in college.

Mike: So I assume you recommend internships.

George: Absolutely. They’re crucial. Basically, at the beginning of your writing career, you need to be willing to be a slave for awhile. You also need to know what it is to be a professional. By the time I graduated college, because of my internships, I had so much experience and all these clips and contacts. It was a great advantage over other writers my age.

Mike: What’s the best strategy for breaking through at the start of a writing career?

George: Find a niche. Become a specialist. For me, I always loved reading the back of record albums as a kid. I wanted to know who produced the album, wrote the songs, things like that—the story behind the album. So I got into both reading and writing record reviews. Then I realized that nobody was writing about the type of music that I was interested in. The popular black music. So I became an expert, reading every book, every magazine and newspaper article, on things like Funk and R&B and Jazz and Blues.

Whatever it is that you have a passion about, hang your hat on that expertise and then later, if you want, expand out of it.

Mike: Did you learn how to write from writing books or some other way?

George: Well, I never read any writing books until recently, when I wanted to know how to do screenplays. I learned by reading great writing, especially literary criticism and music reviews. And later on, when I started working professionally, I learned from good editors. They taught me how to construct them to make them work better.

Mike: Are you good about being edited?

George: Yes, I am. I never had a big ego about that.

Mike: What are your writing habits?

George: I’m a binge writer. I like the feeling of the subject matter building inside me, but without writing. While I’m preparing and researching the story, I’ll think about it wherever I go, whether it’s to the movies or playing basketball or whatever. Then, when my gut tells me I’m ready, when the critical mass of the stuff becomes overwhelming in my head, I’ll attack it. I’ll write intensely, virtually day and night, for three, four straight days. I’ve learned over the years to trust my subconscious. Which means that if I’m thinking about a piece on, say, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, I’ll allow my mind to percolate on it for awhile, to make the connections internally. I might make a note or two, but I wait patiently for the ideas, the major themes, to start coming, before I start writing.

Mike: What do you think about outlining?

George: I’m a big believer in outlines. I outline all my writing, whether it’s a magazine piece, a book, or a screenplay. It keeps you from getting lost, especially with longer writings. I never did the index card thing, but I do it on pieces of paper. In fact, I won’t start something now until I have a good sense of the ending. Because when you’re writing a story, you’re building your case toward whatever particular ending you decide. Going back to the Miles Davis piece, I knew that my ending would have to answer the questions: Did Miles renounce his talent by going electric and plugging in his trumpet? Was that a terrible mistake on his part? Once I had that clear in my head, I was clearer on how to approach that story.

Mike: Do you write only at the computer?

George: No, I write by hand quite a bit. I see the computer as best only for the second draft. I’ve written just one book strictly on a computer, and I didn’t like the result. I read that book now and it reads too fast for me. Like I wrote it too quickly and didn’t think enough about the material. Looking back, I’m convinced I could’ve gotten so much more out of the material if I wrote it first in longhand. The process of going from paper to computer, I believe, slows me down just enough to make the writing better.

Mike: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten about becoming successful?

George: It came from Quincy Jones, while I was interviewing him around 20 years ago about Michael Jackson. I asked him what in his opinion made Michael so successful and he said, “Ass power.” He went on to explain that some singers will come in and give you a little lead vocal, a little background, and then call it a day, while Michael will “sit his ass in the chair” all day in that studio until the work is really done. He’ll knock out the lead and backing vocals, harmonize his backing vocals, and listen to the tracks over and over again trying to make it better and better.

What this all means for anyone looking to become a great artist is this: Do you have the ability to stay there with your art when your friends are out having a good time, going to movies or playing sports or going out drinking? Do you have what it takes to separate you from all the others?

You have to ask yourself those questions, because all great works of art are done inside and often in dark, small, ugly places. Are you willing to put the time in? Are you committed enough? Does it mean that much to you? Do you love your art enough?

Mike: What advice can you offer new writers about query letters?

George: Not much. I only wrote query letters very early in my career and I didn’t get much work, if any, from them. My advice is, develop relationships with editors. That’s more important than merely coming out of the transom.

Mike: What’s harder for you—fiction or nonfiction?

George: Fiction is easier. Not in terms of the writing, but the pure physical work. I’ve done a lot of nonfiction books, and to do a great nonfiction book you need to work so hard. It’s labor-intensive. You’ll have boxes of taped interviews and magazines and newspaper clippings. You’re never quite done with the research. It’s daunting. I know that when I embark on a nonfiction book, I have lots and lots of heavy lifting ahead of me.

In fiction, when you’re stuck, you just make something up. Which is obviously something you can’t do in nonfiction. So I find fiction liberating. It frees me from the burden, the real obligation of a journalist, to be factual.

Mike: Which do you enjoy more—fiction or non-fiction?

George: I’ll always be best known for my non-fiction. That’s how I started my career and it's what made my reputation. Still, my fiction is probably closer to my heart. I write non-fiction with my head, my fiction with my heart. It's an oversimplification but there's a lot of truth in that sentence nonetheless. I’m channeling emotional stuff in my fiction that I wouldn’t be able to mess with in any other way.

Mike: What’s your view of blogging?

George: Well, believe it or not, I had my site for several years before I blogged. For a long time, to be honest, I didn’t really know what a blog was. I’m not even sure I do now, but I know that I enjoy doing it. It’s wonderful fun and has been a great way for me to connect with the readers. I also understand who goes to my site now.

The thing is, I don’t like drivel and I won’t write drivel. If I don’t have something important to say, I don’t write anything.

I began my blog in the fall of 2004, and while I think it’s a great way to spout, and for some writers it can definitely develop a voice, it can also give you bad habits. Especially if that’s all you’re doing. It can be too much haphazard stream of consciousness, writing without discipline. Editing is good for a writer, and with blogging you never get to experience that. Very few writers are brilliant enough to simply write off the top of their heads and dazzle you in a blog.

Mike: Why do you think you made it as a writer, while so many others didn’t?

George: I have an old-fashioned view of that. I believe in corny things such as determination and diligence.

Mike: What was it like doing your “Native Son” column?

George: Well, before I started it, I was a little nervous about doing it. I just felt that it was a lot of writing to do every two weeks. I wasn’t sure if I was that smart to have something to say that often. But my editor gave me some great advice that continues to stick with me. He said, “Describe as much as possible. Use the column as a vehicle to use your descriptive powers. The ideas will come out of it.” And that, I found, worked a great deal for me.

It actually helped me with my fiction later on, and eased the transition from nonfiction to fiction.

Mike: How about your transition to screenwriting?

George: That was the toughest. It took me a long time to write what I considered “good” screenplays. I’ve written screenplays professionally for 10 years, but in only the last three did I think I was any good at it.

The turning point for me was seeing screenplays as something similar to books, structuring scenes like chapters. Like Paul Schrader did so wonderfully with Taxi Driver. Once each scene had a name, I felt so liberated. I began attacking screenplays like any piece of writing.

Mike: What books did you read about screenwriting?

George: I actually read quite a few, but the one that hit me the hardest, the only one I really remember is, William Goldman’s “Adventures in the Screen Trade.” Awesome book. A must-read for anyone entering the film business.

Mike: Any last words of advice?

George: Remember that any great artist must live in the world. Make that your calling card and bring whatever expertise you have to your readers.

Please visit Mr. George’s Web site at:
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Lewis Black on His Publisher

Susan Orlean Reading in New York City on Friday Night

Susan Orlean, a friend of this blog and the brilliant staff writer for The New Yorker, will be be reading along with Judith Baumel as part of New York University's Friday Happy Hour Series on Jan. 30th between 5-6pm.

Where: New York University Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, 58 West 10th Street, New York, NY 10011.

And if you go, look for me. I'll be there!

Carl Bernstein on Journalism


Unusual but cool sounding, interesting words to occasionally sprinkle into your writing.

Suggestion: Go very gently and wisely, lest you risk over-spicing your prose to point of the reader’s irritation.

Bumptious—Overbearing or self-assertive to the point of being obnoxious; conceited bordering on arrogant. Salespeople in trendy, expensive shops can be bumptious.

Lubricious—Slippery, smooth, oily, lewd.

Imperious—Commanding, bossy.

Spluttered—To make a rapid series of spitting sounds, to speak rapidly or indistinctly, as in a rage.

Lambent—Soft radiance, lightly brilliant.

Aquiline—Hooked like an eagle’s beak.

Permeable—Able to be passed or flowed or spread through.

Abstruse—Complicated; difficult to comprehend. Like the theory of relativity, atonal music or the philosophers you pretend to understand in college. The next best thing to understanding Hegel would be to describe him as abstruse and move on.

Jangled—A harsh metallic sound, to cause irritation to the nerves, etc. by discord. Think of the sound of keys bouncing around in someone’s pocket.

Prig—One who is arrogantly pedantic or moral, and whose attitude bores others.

Final Caution: Before you unveil these words in public, look them up in your dictionary, learn all the different shades of meaning and uses, and roll them around on your tongue—and inside your head—until they feel comfortable to you.

Advice from Poet/Author Nikki Giovanni

Award-winning poet/author Nikki Giovanni offers this advice for would-be poets: “A poem is a way of capturing a moment. I don’t do a lot of revisions because I think if you have to do that then you've got problems with the poem. Rather than polish the words, I take the time to polish the poem. If that means I start at the top a dozen times, that's what I do. A poem's got to be a single stroke, and I make it the best I can because it's going to live.”

And quoted on the Web site Writers on Writing, Books and Publishing, Giovanni said: “Writing is a conversation with reading; a dialogue with thinking. All conversations with older people contain repetition. Some of the ideas mean a lot to me, just interesting, so I both embrace and attack the ideas because I found them, well, delightful.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mike Wallace Interviews Rod Serling in 1959/ Two Parts

Guest Post: Get Writing Assignments Without Querying

Get Writing Assignments Without Querying
By Dawn Allcot
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I have built a full-time career as a freelance writer without querying. How do I do this?

1. Word-of-mouth – Anybody whose ever read a book about marketing knows the importance of word-of-mouth. Its significance is exaggerated in Web 2.0, where WOM extends to social networking. I’ve landed several assignments through my social networks on Twitter, Facebook, and various forums. But my favorite story about word-of-mouth relates to a long-term client I began working with about 5 years ago. While shopping for paintball gear, I revealed to the marketing director at one of the top paintball distributors in the country that I was a freelance writer. He immediately hired me to write press releases. That job turned into a position as Editor-in-Chief at a leading paintball magazine. I share the story here, on one of my favorite sites for writers.

2. Assignments - My cash cows as a freelancer are regular clients who give me assignments every month. They generate the ideas in-house and, in most cases, provide sources. Since coming up with unique ideas and finding sources are two of the biggest challenges in freelancing, this makes my life a lot easier and my business more lucrative.

3. Ads – Sure, responding to ads takes time, and you’re up against intense and copious competition. But if you craft a basic letter that you can tailor to each specific ad, you’ll save a lot of time. The site Freelance Writing Jobs ( is a great place to start, but you can have even more success by mining sites that aren’t regularly visited by every other aspiring freelancer on the Web. One caveat—there’s never any need to pay for job listings.

4. Letters of Interest – Want to write for a specific publication but don’t have an idea on tap? You can save time and capture the interest of an editor with a Letter of Introduction. LOIs, as they are known, work best if you have some credentials and quality clips. In this letter, rather than presenting an idea (as you would in a query letter) you sell YOURSELF as a writer. Start with a strong lead, emphasize why you would make a positive addition to the magazine’s team, and end with a call to action, asking for an assignment. Include clips and possibly your resume in the body of the e-mail (never send attachments).

I’m not saying you can easily break into a national magazine without a query (although it could happen) but you can build a successful freelancing career without spending hours on query letters!

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Rachel Kramer Bussel
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Is There Life After Newspapers?

From American Journalism Review
Is There Life After Newspapers?
Thousands upon thousands of newspaper journalists have lost their jobs in recent years in endless rounds of layoffs and buyouts. What happens in the next act?
By Robert Hodierne

Erica Smith has a job as a graphics designer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. At least for now. There are few journalists in America who know as well as Smith how tenuous a steady newspaper job is these days. For the last year and a half, she has spent 10 or 12 hours a week at an old oak table in her sixth-floor loft with her Mac laptop, a bottle of Pepsi and her cat, tallying the fallen: 18 more jobs cut at the Tallahassee Democrat, 15 at the Desert Sun , 13 at the Jackson Sun. And the list goes on and on. Eight at the Visalia Times-Delta, 12 at the Statesman Journal , 125 at the Virginian-Pilot, 60 at the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Smith tallied 15,554 newspaper job cuts for 2008, and she was still updating in January. Her research is artfully rendered on a Web page called "paper cuts" and appears to be the only such comprehensive list.

"I started out because I was curious about the number of cuts. Now it's because I have too many friends who've been laid off," says Smith, 32, who got into the newspaper business right after graduating from Northwest Missouri State University.

Her tally, which she builds from news releases, wire reports, blogs and tips from colleagues, includes all newspaper jobs, not just those in the newsroom. But she estimates half of those 15,000 cuts were journalists. And that means the newsroom population of American papers shrank by about 15 percent last year, down from 52,000 at the start of the year. That's three times larger than the single greatest annual newsroom employment decrease since 1978, when the American Society of Newspaper Editors began making estimates of the editorial workforce.

But it's worse than that. Smith cautions that her count actually understates the total because many newspapers don't announce layoffs. What's more, her total does not include jobs lost through attrition.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' count for all newspaper jobs – from reporter to delivery truck driver – shows the payroll shrinking from 336,000 at the start of the year to 313,600 through October, a drop of 22,400 positions.

Smith, a cheerful woman who laughs easily, finds this all a bit depressing. "I can only update so many at a time without wanting to jump off the ninth floor of the building I live in," she says, with not a trace of a laugh. The 2,000 layoffs that Gannett announced during the holiday season did nothing to improve her mood and kept her swamped for a week.

All of which raises a question: What happens to all of those laid-off and bought-out journalists? Is there life after newspapers?

To read the rest of this story:

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John Updike's Classic "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu"

Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu
by John Updike

Author: John Updike ©. Published: 1960-10-22. Appeared On: The New Yorker.

Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man's Euclidean determinations and Nature's beguiling irregularities. Its right field is one of the deepest in the American League, while its left field is the shortest; the high left-field wall, three hundred and fifteen feet from home plate along the foul line, virtually thrusts its surface at right-handed hitters. On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 28th, as I took a seat behind third base, a uniformed groundkeeper was treading the top of this wall, picking batting-practice home runs out of the screen, like a mushroom gatherer seen in Wordsworthian perspective on the verge of a cliff. The day was overcast, chill, and uninspirational. The Boston team was the worst in twenty-seven seasons. A jangling medley of incompetent youth and aging competence, the Red Sox were finishing in seventh place only because the Kansas City Athletics had locked them out of the cellar. They were scheduled to play the Baltimore Orioles, a much nimbler blend of May and December, who had been dumped from pennant contention a week before by the insatiable Yankees. I, and 10,453 others, had shown up primarily because this was the Red Sox's last home game of the season, and therefore the last time in all eternity that their regular left fielder, known to the headlines as TED, KID, SPLINTER, THUMPER, TW, and, most cloyingly, MISTER WONDERFUL, would play in Boston. "WHAT WILL WE DO WITHOUT TED? HUB FANS ASK" ran the headline on a newspaper being read by a bulb-nosed cigar smoker a few rows away. Williams' retirement had been announced, doubted (he had been threatening retirement for years), confirmed by Tom Yawkey, the Red Sox owner, and at last widely accepted as the sad but probable truth. He was forty-two and had redeemed his abysmal season of 1959 with a—considering his advanced age—fine one. He had been giving away his gloves and bats and had grudgingly consented to a sentimental ceremony today. This was not necessarily his last game; the Red Sox were scheduled to travel to New York and wind up the season with three games there.

I arrived early. The Orioles were hitting fungos on the field. The day before, they had spitefully smothered the Red Sox, 17-4, and neither their faces nor their drab gray visiting-team uniforms seemed very gracious. I wondered who had invited them to the party. Between our heads and the lowering clouds a frenzied organ was thundering through, with an appositeness perhaps accidental, "You maaaade me love you, I didn't wanna do it, I didn't wanna do it . . ."

The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories. It falls into three stages, which may be termed Youth, Maturity, and Age; or Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis; or Jason, Achilles, and Nestor.

First, there was the by now legendary epoch when the young bridegroom came out of the West, announced "All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.' " The dowagers of local journalism attempted to give elementary deportment lessons to this child who spake as a god, and to their horror were themselves rebuked. Thus began the long exchange of backbiting, bat-flipping, booing, and spitting that has distinguished Williams' public relations. The spitting incidents of 1957 and 1958 and the similar dockside courtesies that Williams has now and then extended to the grandstand should be judged against this background: the left-field stands at Fenway for twenty years have held a large number of customers who have bought their way in primarily for the privilege of showering abuse on Williams. Greatness necessarily attracts debunkers, but in Williams' case the hostility has been systematic and unappeasable. His basic offense against the fans has been to wish that they weren't there. Seeking a perfectionist's vacuum, he has quixotically desired to sever the game from the ground of paid spectatorship and publicity that supports it. Hence his refusal to tip his cap to the crowd or turn the other cheek to newsmen. It has been a costly theory—it has probably cost him, among other evidences of good will, two Most Valuable Player awards, which are voted by reporters—but he has held to it from his rookie year on. While his critics, oral and literary, remained beyond the reach of his discipline, the opposing pitchers were accessible, and he spanked them to the tune of .406 in 1941. He slumped to .356 in 1942 and went off to war.

In 1946, Williams returned from three years as a Marine pilot to the second of his baseball avatars, that of Achilles, the hero of incomparable prowess and beauty who nevertheless was to be found sulking in his tent while the Trojans (mostly Yankees) fought through to the ships. Yawkey, a timber and mining maharajah, had surrounded his central jewel with many gems of slightly lesser water, such as Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, Rudy York, Birdie Tebbetts, and Johnny Pesky. Throughout the late forties, the Red Sox were the best paper team in baseball, yet they had little three-dimensional to show for it, and if this was a tragedy, Williams was Hamlet. A succinct review of the indictment—and a fair sample of appreciative sports-page prose—appeared the very day of Williams' valedictory, in a column by Huck Finnegan in the Boston American (no sentimentalist, Huck):

Williams' career, in contrast [to Babe Ruth's], has been a series of failures except for his averages. He flopped in the only World Series he ever played in (1946) when he batted only .200. He flopped in the playoff game with Cleveland in 1948. He flopped in the final game of the 1949 season with the pennant hinging on the outcome (Yanks 5, Sox 3). He flopped in 1950 when he returned to the lineup after a two-month absence and ruined the morale of a club that seemed pennant-bound under Steve O'Neill. It has always been Williams' records first, the team second, and the Sox non-winning record is proof enough of that.

There are answers to all this, of course. The fatal weakness of the great Sox slugging teams was not-quite-good-enough pitching rather than Williams' failure to hit a home run every time he came to bat. Again, Williams' depressing effect on his teammates has never been proved. Despite ample coaching to the contrary, most insisted that they liked him. He has been generous with advice to any player who asked for it. In an increasingly combative baseball atmosphere, he continued to duck beanballs docilely. With umpires he was gracious to a fault. This courtesy itself annoyed his critics, whom there was no pleasing. And against the ten crucial games (the seven World Series games with the St. Louis Cardinals, the 1948 playoff with the Cleveland Indians, and the two-game series with the Yankees at the end of the 1949 season, winning either one of which would have given the Red Sox the pennant) that make up the Achilles' heel of Williams' record, a mass of statistics can be set showing that day in and day out he was no slouch in the clutch. The correspondence columns of the Boston papers now and then suffer a sharp flurry of arithmetic on this score; indeed, for Williams to have distributed all his hits so they did nobody else any good would constitute a feat of placement unparalleled in the annals of selfishness.

Whatever residue of truth remains of the Finnegan charge those of us who love Williams must transmute as best we can, in our own personal crucibles. My personal memories of Williams begin when I was a boy in Pennsylvania, with two last-place teams in Philadelphia to keep me company. For me, "W'ms, lf" was a figment of the box scores who always seemed to be going 3-for-5. He radiated, from afar, the hard blue glow of high purpose. I remember listening over the radio to the All-Star Game of 1946, in which Williams hit two singles and two home runs, the second one off a Rip Sewell "blooper" pitch; it was like hitting a balloon out of the park. I remember watching one of his home runs from the bleachers of Shibe Park; it went over the first baseman's head and rose meticulously along a straight line and was still rising when it cleared the fence. The trajectory seemed qualitatively different from anything anyone else might hit. For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill. Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out. Irrelevance—since the reference point of most individual games is remote and statistical—always threatens its interest, which can be maintained not by the occasional heroics that sportswriters feed upon but by players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art. Insofar as the clutch hitter is not a sportswriter's myth, he is a vulgarity, like a writer who writes only for money. It may be that, compared to managers' dreams such as Joe DiMaggio and the always helpful Stan Musial, Williams is an icy star. But of all team sports, baseball, with its graceful intermittences of action, its immense and tranquil field sparsely settled with poised men in white, its dispassionate mathematics, seems to me best suited to accommodate, and be ornamented by, a loner. It is an essentially lonely game. No other player visible to my generation has concentrated within himself so much of the sport's poignance, has so assiduously refined his natural skills, has so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.

By the time I went to college, near Boston, the lesser stars Yawkey had assembled around Williams had faded, and his craftsmanship, his rigorous pride, had become itself a kind of heroism. This brittle and temperamental player developed an unexpected quality of persistence. He was always coming back—back from Korea, back from a broken collarbone, a shattered elbow, a bruised heel, back from drastic bouts of flu and ptomaine poisoning. Hardly a season went by without some enfeebling mishap, yet he always came back, and always looked like himself. The delicate mechanism of timing and power seemed locked, shockproof, in some case outside his body. In addition to injuries, there were a heavily publicized divorce, and the usual storms with the press, and the Williams Shift—the maneuver, custom-built by Lou Boudreau, of the Cleveland Indians, whereby three infielders were concentrated on the right side of the infield, where a left-handed pull hitter like Williams generally hits the ball. Williams could easily have learned to punch singles through the vacancy on his left and fattened his average hugely. This was what Ty Cobb, the Einstein of average, told him to do. But the game had changed since Cobb; Williams believed that his value to the club and to the game was as a slugger, so he went on pulling the ball, trying to blast it through three men, and paid the price of perhaps fifteen points of lifetime average. Like Ruth before him, he bought the occasional home run at the cost of many directed singles—a calculated sacrifice certainly not, in the case of a hitter as average-minded as Williams, entirely selfish.

After a prime so harassed and hobbled, Williams was granted by the relenting fates a golden twilight. He became at the end of his career perhaps the best old hitter of the century. The dividing line came between the 1956 and the 1957 seasons. In September of the first year, he and Mickey Mantle were contending for the batting championship. Both were hitting around .350, and there was no one else near them. The season ended with a three-game series between the Yankees and the Sox, and, living in New York then, I went up to the Stadium. Williams was slightly shy of the four hundred at-bats needed to qualify; the fear was expressed that the Yankee pitchers would walk him to protect Mantle. Instead, they pitched to him—a wise decision. He looked terrible at the plate, tired and discouraged and unconvincing. He never looked very good to me in the Stadium. (Last week, in Life, Williams, a sportswriter himself now, wrote gloomily of the Stadium, "There's the bigness of it. There are those high stands and all those people smoking—and, of course, the shadows. . . . It takes at least one series to get accustomed to the Stadium and even then you're not sure.") The final outcome in 1956 was Mantle .353, Williams .345.

The next year, I moved from New York to New England, and it made all the difference. For in September of 1957, in the same situation, the story was reversed. Mantle finally hit .365; it was the best season of his career. But Williams, though sick and old, had run away from him. A bout of flu had laid him low in September. He emerged from his cave in the Hotel Somerset haggard but irresistible; he hit four successive pinch-hit home runs. "I feel terrible," he confessed, "but every time I take a swing at the ball it goes out of the park." He ended the season with thirty-eight home runs and an average of .388, the highest in either league since his own .406, and, coming from a decrepit man of thirty-nine, an even more supernal figure. With eight or so of the "leg hits" that a younger man would have beaten out, it would have been .400. And the next year, Williams, who in 1949 and 1953 had lost batting championships by decimal whiskers to George Kell and Mickey Vernon, sneaked in behind his teammate Pete Runnels and filched his sixth title, a bargain at .328.

In 1959, it seemed all over. The dinosaur thrashed around in the .200 swamp for the first half of the season, and was even benched ("rested," Manager Mike Higgins tactfully said.) Old foes like the late Bill Cunningham began to offer batting tips. Cunningham thought Williams was jiggling his elbows; in truth, Williams' neck was so stiff he could hardly turn his head to look at the pitcher. When he swung, it looked like a Calder mobile with one thread cut; it reminded you that since 1953 Williams' shoulders had been wired together. A solicitous pall settled over the sports pages. In the two decades since Williams had come to Boston, his status had imperceptibly shifted from that of a naughty prodigy to that of a municipal monument. As his shadow in the record books lengthened, the Red Sox teams around him declined, and the entire American League seemed to be losing life and color to the National. The inconsistency of the new superstars—Mantle, Colavito, and Kaline—served to make Williams appear all the more singular. And off the field, his private philanthropy—in particular, his zealous chairmanship of the Jimmy Fund, a charity for children with cancer—gave him a civic presence somewhat like that of Richard Cardinal Cushing. In religion, Williams appears to be a humanist, and a selective one at that, but he and the Cardinal, when their good works intersect and they appear in the public eye together, make a handsome and heartening pair.

Humiliated by his '59 season, Williams determined, once more, to come back. I, as a specimen Williams partisan, was both glad and fearful. All baseball fans believe in miracles; the question is, how many do you believe in? He looked like a ghost in spring training. Manager Jurges warned us ahead of time that if Williams didn't come through he would be benched, just like anybody else. As it turned out, it was Jurges who was benched. Williams entered the 1960 season needing eight home runs to have a lifetime total of 500; after one time at bat in Washington, he needed seven. For a stretch, he was hitting a home run every second game that he played. He passed Lou Gehrig's lifetime total, then the number 500, then Mel Ott's total, and finished with 521, thirteen behind Jimmy Foxx, who alone stands between Williams and Babe Ruth's unapproachable 714. The summer was a statistician's picnic. His two-thousandth walk came and went, his eighteen-hundredth run batted in, his sixteenth All-Star Game. At one point, he hit a home run off a pitcher, Don Lee, off whose father, Thornton Lee, he had hit a home run a generation before. The only comparable season for a forty-two-year-old man was Ty Cobb's in 1928. Cobb batted .323 and hit one homer. Williams batted .316 but hit twenty-nine homers.

In sum, though generally conceded to be the greatest hitter of his era, he did not establish himself as "the greatest hitter who ever lived." Cobb, for average, and Ruth, for power, remain supreme. Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Joe Jackson, and Lefty O'Doul, among players since 1900, have higher lifetime averages than Williams' .344. Unlike Foxx, Gehrig, Hack Wilson, Hank Greenberg, and Ralph Kiner, Williams never came close to matching Babe Ruth's season home-run total of sixty. In the list of major-league batting records, not one is held by Williams. He is second in walks drawn, third in home runs, fifth in lifetime averages, sixth in runs batted in, eighth in runs scored and in total bases, fourteenth in doubles, and thirtieth in hits. But if we allow him merely average seasons for the four-plus seasons he lost to two wars, and add another season for the months he lost to injuries, we get a man who in all the power totals would be second, and not a very distant second, to Ruth. And if we further allow that these years would have been not merely average but prime years, if we allow for all the months when Williams was playing in sub-par condition, if we permit his early and later years in baseball to be some sort of index of what the middle years could have been, if we give him a right-field fence that is not, like Fenway's, one of the most distant in the league, and if—the least excusable "if"—we imagine him condescending to outsmart the Williams Shift, we can defensibly assemble, like a colossus induced from the sizable fragments that do remain, a statistical figure not incommensurate with his grandiose ambition. From the statistics that are on the books, a good case can be made that in the combination of power and average Williams is first; nobody else ranks so high in both categories. Finally, there is the witness of the eyes; men whose memories go back to Shoeless Joe Jackson—another unlucky natural—rank him and Williams together as the best-looking hitters they have seen. It was for our last look that ten thousand of us had come.

Two girls, one of them with pert buckteeth and eyes as black as vest buttons, the other with white skin and flesh-colored hair, like an underdeveloped photograph of a redhead, came and sat on my right. On my other side was one of those frowning, chestless young-old men who can frequently be seen, often wearing sailor hats, attending ball games alone. He did not once open his program but instead tapped it, rolled up, on his knee as he gave the game his disconsolate attention. A young lady, with freckles and a depressed, dainty nose that by an optical illusion seemed to thrust her lips forward for a kiss, sauntered down into the box seats and with striking aplomb took a seat right behind the roof of the Oriole dugout. She wore a blue coat with a Northeastern University emblem sewed to it. The girls beside me took it into their heads that this was Williams' daughter. She looked too old to me, and why would she be sitting behind the visitors' dugout? On the other hand, from the way she sat there, staring at the sky and French-inhaling, she clearly was somebody. Other fans came and eclipsed her from view. The crowd looked less like a weekday ballpark crowd than like the folks you might find in Yellowstone National Park, or emerging from automobiles at the top of scenic Mount Mansfield. There were a lot of competitively well-dressed couples of tourist age, and not a few babes in arms. A row of five seats in front of me was abruptly filled with a woman and four children, the youngest of them two years old, if that. Some day, presumably, he could tell his grandchildren that he saw Williams play. Along with these tots and second-honeymooners, there were Harvard freshmen, giving off that peculiar nervous glow created when a quantity of insouciance is saturated with insecurity; thick-necked Army officers with brass on their shoulders and lead in their voices; pepperings of priests; perfumed bouquets of Roxbury Fabian fans; shiny salesmen from Albany and Fall River; and those gray, hoarse men—taxidrivers, slaughterers, and bartenders—who will continue to click through the turnstiles long after everyone else has deserted to television and tramporamas. Behind me, two young male voices blossomed, cracking a joke about God's five proofs that Thomas Aquinas exists—typical Boston College levity.

The batting cage was trundled away. The Orioles fluttered to the sidelines. Diagonally across the field, by the Red Sox dugout, a cluster of men in overcoats were festering like maggots. I could see a splinter of white uniform, and Williams' head, held at a self-deprecating and evasive tilt. Williams' conversational stance is that of a six-foot-three-inch man under a six-foot ceiling. He moved away to the patter of flash bulbs, and began playing catch with a young Negro outfielder named Willie Tasby. His arm, never very powerful, had grown lax with the years, and his throwing motion was a kind of muscular drawl. To catch the ball, he flicked his glove hand onto his left shoulder (he batted left but threw right, as every schoolboy ought to know) and let the ball plop into it comically. This catch session with Tasby was the only time all afternoon I saw him grin.

A tight little flock of human sparrows who, from the lambent and pampered pink of their faces, could only have been Boston politicians moved toward the plate. The loudspeakers mammothly coughed as someone huffed on the microphone. The ceremonies began. Curt Gowdy, the Red Sox radio and television announcer, who sounds like everybody's brother-in-law, delivered a brief sermon, taking the two words "pride" and "champion" as his text. It began, "Twenty-one years ago, a skinny kid from San Diego, California . . ." and ended, "I don't think we'll ever see another like him." Robert Tibolt, chairman of the board of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, presented Williams with a big Paul Revere silver bowl. Harry Carlson, a member of the sports committee of the Boston Chamber, gave him a plaque, whose inscription he did not read in its entirety, out of deference to Williams' distaste for this sort of fuss. Mayor Collins presented the Jimmy Fund with a thousand-dollar check.

Then the occasion himself stooped to the microphone, and his voice sounded, after the others, very Californian; it seemed to be coming, excellently amplified, from a great distance, adolescently young and as smooth as a butternut. His thanks for the gifts had not died from our ears before he glided, as if helplessly, into "In spite of all the terrible things that have been said about me by the maestros of the keyboard up there . . ." He glanced up at the press rows suspended above home plate. (All the Boston reporters, incidentally, reported the phrase as "knights of the keyboard," but I heard it as "maestros" and prefer it that way.) The crowd tittered, appalled. A frightful vision flashed upon me, of the press gallery pelting Williams with erasers, of Williams clambering up the foul screen to slug journalists, of a riot, of Mayor Collins being crushed. ". . . And they were terrible things," Williams insisted, with level melancholy, into the mike. "I'd like to forget them, but I can't." He paused, swallowed his memories, and went on, "I want to say that my years in Boston have been the greatest thing in my life." The crowd, like an immense sail going limp in a change of wind, sighed with relief. Taking all the parts himself, Williams then acted out a vivacious little morality drama in which an imaginary tempter came to him at the beginning of his career and said, "Ted, you can play anywhere you like." Leaping nimbly into the role of his younger self (who in biographical actuality had yearned to be a Yankee), Williams gallantly chose Boston over all the other cities, and told us that Tom Yawkey was the greatest owner in baseball and we were the greatest fans. We applauded ourselves heartily. The umpire came out and dusted the plate. The voice of doom announced over the loudspeakers that after Williams' retirement his uniform number, 9, would be permanently retired—the first time the Red Sox had so honored a player. We cheered. The national anthem was played. We cheered. The game began.

Williams was third in the batting order, so he came up in the bottom of the first inning, and Steve Barber, a young pitcher who was not yet born when Williams began playing for the Red Sox, offered him four pitches, at all of which he disdained to swing, since none of them were within the strike zone. This demonstrated simultaneously that Williams' eyes were razor-sharp and that Barber's control wasn't. Shortly, the bases were full, with Williams on second. "Oh, I hope he gets held up at third! That would be wonderful,'' the girl beside me moaned, and, sure enough, the man at bat walked and Williams was delivered into our foreground. He struck the pose of Donatello's David, the third-base bag being Goliath's head. Fiddling with his cap, swapping small talk with the Oriole third baseman (who seemed delighted to have him drop in), swinging his arms with a sort of prancing nervousness, he looked fine—flexible, hard, and not unbecomingly substantial through the middle. The long neck, the small head, the knickers whose cuffs were worn down near his ankles—all these points, often observed by caricaturists, were visible in the flesh.

One of the collegiate voices behind me said, "He looks old, doesn't he, old; big deep wrinkles in his face . . ."

"Yeah," the other voice said, "but he looks like an old hawk, doesn't he?"

With each pitch, Williams danced down the baseline, waving his arms and stirring dust, ponderous but menacing, like an attacking goose. It occurred to about a dozen humorists at once to shout "Steal home! Go, go!" Williams' speed afoot was never legendary. Lou Clinton, a young Sox outfielder, hit a fairly deep fly to center field. Williams tagged up and ran home. As he slid across the plate, the ball, thrown with unusual heft by Jackie Brandt, the Oriole center fielder, hit him on the back.

"Boy, he was really loafing, wasn't he?" one of the boys behind me said.

"It's cold," the other explained. "He doesn't play well when it's cold. He likes heat. He's a hedonist."

The run that Williams scored was the second and last of the inning. Gus Triandos, of the Orioles, quickly evened the score by plunking a home run over the handy left-field wall. Williams, who had had this wall at his back for twenty years, played the ball flawlessly. He didn't budge. He just stood there, in the center of the little patch of grass that his patient footsteps had worn brown, and, limp with lack of interest, watched the ball pass overhead. It was not a very interesting game. Mike Higgins, the Red Sox manager, with nothing to lose, had restricted his major-league players to the left-field line—along with Williams, Frank Malzone, a first-rate third baseman, played the game—and had peopled the rest of the terrain with unpredictable youngsters fresh, or not so fresh, off the farms. Other than Williams' recurrent appearances at the plate, the maladresse of the Sox infield was the sole focus of suspense; the second baseman turned every grounder into a juggling act, while the shortstop did a breathtaking impersonation of an open window. With this sort of assistance, the Orioles wheedled their way into a 4-2 lead. They had early replaced Barber with another young pitcher, Jack Fisher. Fortunately (as it turned out), Fisher is no cutie; he is willing to burn the ball through the strike zone, and inning after inning this tactic punctured Higgins' string of test balloons.

Whenever Williams appeared at the plate—pounding the dirt from his cleats, gouging a pit in the batter's box with his left foot, wringing resin out of the bat handle with his vehement grip, switching the stick at the pitcher with an electric ferocity—it was like having a familiar Leonardo appear in a shuffle of Saturday Evening Post covers. This man, you realized—and here, perhaps, was the difference, greater than the difference in gifts—really intended to hit the ball. In the third inning, he hoisted a high fly to deep center. In the fifth, we thought he had it; he smacked the ball hard and high into the heart of his power zone, but the deep right field in Fenway and the heavy air and a casual east wind defeated him. The ball died. Al Pilarcik leaned his back against the big "380" painted on the right-field wall and caught it. On another day, in another park, it would have been gone. (After the game, Williams said, "I didn't think I could hit one any harder than that. The conditions weren't good.")

The afternoon grew so glowering that in the sixth inning the arc lights were turned on—always a wan sight in the daytime, like the burning headlights of a funeral procession. Aided by the gloom, Fisher was slicing through the Sox rookies, and Williams did not come to bat in the seventh. He was second up in the eighth. This was almost certainly his last time to come to the plate in Fenway Park, and instead of merely cheering, as we had at his three previous appearances, we stood, all of us—stood and applauded. Have you ever heard applause in a ballpark? Just applause—no calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a sombre and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it. It seemed to renew itself out of a shifting set of memories as the kid, the Marine, the veteran of feuds and failures and injuries, the friend of children, and the enduring old pro evolved down the bright tunnel of twenty-one summers toward this moment. At last, the umpire signalled for Fisher to pitch; with the other players, he had been frozen in position. Only Williams had moved during the ovation, switching his bat impatiently, ignoring everything except his cherished task. Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.

Understand that we were a crowd of rational people. We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball. Three innings before, we had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy; the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around a corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.

Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted "We want Ted" for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

Every true story has an anticlimax. The men on the field refused to disappear, as would have seemed decent, in the smoke of Williams' miracle. Fisher continued to pitch, and escaped further harm. At the end of the inning, Higgins sent Williams out to his left-field position, then instantly replaced him with Carrol Hardy, so we had a long last look at Williams as he ran out there and then back, his uniform jogging, his eyes steadfast on the ground. It was nice, and we were grateful, but it left a funny taste.

One of the scholasticists behind me said, "Let's go. We've seen everything. I don't want to spoil it." This seemed a sound aesthetic decision. Williams' last word had been so exquisitely chosen, such a perfect fusion of expectation, intention, and execution, that already it felt a little unreal in my head, and I wanted to get out before the castle collapsed. But the game, though played by clumsy midgets under the feeble glow of the arc lights, began to tug at my attention, and I loitered in the runway until it was over. Williams' homer had, quite incidentally, made the score 4-3. In the bottom of the ninth inning, with one out, Marlin Coughtry, the second-base juggler, singled. Vic Wertz, pinch-hitting, doubled off the left-field wall, Coughtry advancing to third. Pumpsie Green walked, to load the bases. Willie Tasby hit a double-play ball to the third baseman, but in making the pivot throw Billy Klaus, an ex-Red Sox infielder, reverted to form and threw the ball past the first baseman and into the Red Sox dugout. The Sox won, 5-4. On the car radio as I drove home I heard that Williams had decided not to accompany the team to New York. So he knew how to do even that, the hardest thing. Quit.