Reader’s Corner: Living in the Worst Place in America

ifyoulivedhere-bookcover

One of the year’s more interesting books is Christopher Ingraham’s If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home By Now. A data reporter for the Washington Post, Ingraham became the  focus of some viral blowback after publishing a story in 2015 about how federal government-compiled data showed that Red Lake County in Minnesota was supposedly the worst place in America to live.

The residents were not happy. He went to visit, ended up moving his family there, and wrote a book about the experience.

My interview with Ingraham ran in Publishers Weekly.

Writer’s Desk: Be Humble, Yet Great

Back in 2010, Wild author and backpacker extraordinaire Cheryl Strayed was still writing the “Dear Sugar” advice column for The Rumpus. She received a lengthy and pained missive from a self-described “high-functioning headcase” who was depressed over not being able to write a book.

Strayed’s response is beautiful, funny, dirty, dead-solid-right-on, and worth reading in its entirety. But here’s the gist of her explanation about how she finally got over her issues and wrote her first book, what my journalism-school profs would call the “nut graf”:

I’d finally been able to give it because I’d let go of all the grandiose ideas I’d once had about myself and my writing—so talented! so young! I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely no-where-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do…

It’s great advice. Know you’re awesome. But remember that you’re never going to be the most awesome. Be okay with failing, sharpen your pencil, and march into that arena.

Nota Bene: Skip Prime Day?

Next Monday and Tuesday, Amazon is having its annual Prime Day sale (shouldn’t that be Prime Days?).

For many, this provides an opportunity to load up on all the consumer goods they want and don’t need (100″ TV, voice-operated device that records everything you say and sends it back to Amazon’s server farms for future use by…?). For others it’s an understandably good time to save a few well-needed dollars buying essentials they actually need (diapers, clothes for the kids, food).

But of course, it’s not so simple as a great deal. John Oliver recently broke down what it’s like to work at an Amazon warehouse, where things get particularly Dickensian during the run-up to Prime Day(s):

And now some workers at Amazon’s facility in Shakopee, Minnesota are planning a strike to protest working conditions.

Over at Moby Lives, Ryan Harrington—who noted that some white-collar Amazon workers are flying to Shakopee to join the strike—used the situation to make a helpful suggestion for what to do come Prime Day: Maybe shop somewhere else that day(s).

That applies particularly to books. The American Booksellers Association noted a number of things that your local indie store provides that Amazon, whatever your feelings about them, simply cannot (union labor, drag queen storytime, a cute place to get engaged).

One thing not on their list that absolutely should be: Bookstore cats.

Reader’s Corner: Summer Graphic Novels

I reviewed three new graphic novels—well, a graphic memoir of self-discovery and heartache by Ulli Lust, one immersive graphic biography about Stephen Hawking, and George Takei’s internment-camp memoir, to be precise—in a summer roundup for this weekend’s book section of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

They’re all smart, absorbing reads and well worth your time.

Check out the reviews here.

Writer’s Desk: Walk to Run

In his autobiography Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen explains that when it came time to write that album, he knew it was a make-or-break moment for his career. It couldn’t just succeed, it had to break through. So, he took his time. Per Justin Cox at The Writing Cooperative:

It took Springsteen six months to get Born to Run on paper. Six months for 344 words. The words had to stew. They had to develop. Then they had to be finessed and rearranged until they properly told the story that Springsteen envisioned.

Not every story needs to take half a year, but there is something to be said for not rushing. Spend time with the stories you’re working on. Pause them. Come back to them. Don’t hit the publish button until the story matches the vision in your mind.

It’s all about finding the right balance. Procrastination is one thing. You cannot just mull a piece over forever. Get things down on paper. Do the work. But if it doesn’t feel right, keep working the piece until it does.

You’ll know.

Writer’s Desk: Buy Some Cards

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When in a bind, creative people do a number of things. Stare at the wall. Fidget. Groan. Panic. Eye the whiskey bottle. Open the whiskey bottle. It’s all stalling mechanisms in the hope that in the midst of all that prevaricating, lightning will strike.

Some artists have tried to break those logjams in a more proactive fashion. Philip K. Dick, John Cage, and others have used the Chinese divination book I Ching in the hope that kernels of wisdom from the ancients (though the hectoring tone of some, like “all day long the superior man is creatively active,” might prove to cause more delays in the long run).

Inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s Distant Early Warning card deck (mostly random quotes from other thinkers), Brian Eno and his artist friend Peter Schmidt came up with the idea for the Oblique Strategies card deck in 1975.

According to Salon, each card had:

… a specific, utilitarian purpose. The quirky cards were designed to help artists and musicians get out of creative ruts and loosen up in the studio. Each Oblique Strategy had a different aphorism: “Accept advice,” read one. “Imagine the music as a series of disconnected events,” read another. “Humanize something free of error.”

Get yourself a deck. Or maybe just play solitaire or flip through Bartlett’s Quotations.

See what happens.

Writer’s Desk: Write Like You Speak

Christopher Hitchens (Fri Tanke, 2008)

In one of his last pieces for Vanity Fair before cancer stole him from us, Christopher Hitchens wrote about the loss of his voice and how he advised writers to not just read but listen to their words:

I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice…