Dr King and Economic Justice

Fifty-three years ago Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis. He was in the city to support striking sanitation workers who marched carrying signs that bore a simple statement: I am a man. The slogan was chosen, striker Elmore Nickleberry told NPR, because “most of the time they’d call us boys.”

The night before his death, which was the night before a protest march, Dr King gave a speech famed for its rousing finale: ” I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

Each term I share this speech with my students as a masterpiece of rhetoric, a master class in persuasive writing. I ask them to listen to the whole speech, including the less-often quoted part that made Dr King’s existence a threat to a certain segment of society.

***

“Now the other thing we’ll have to do is this. Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal…

“We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles. We don’t need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say,

“God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.”

And so, as a result of this, we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy — what is the other bread? — Wonder Bread. And what is the other bread company, Jesse? Tell them not to buy Hart’s bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair…

But not only that, we’ve got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a “bank-in” movement in Memphis. Go by the savings and loan association. I’m not asking you something that we don’t do ourselves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We are telling you to follow what we are doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an “insurance-in.”

***

Photo by Project 290 on Unsplash

‘I have a dream’? Cool. Black kids and white kids joining hands? Fine.

Black citizens boycotting racist corporations and seeking economic empowerment? That’s dangerous talk.

When we honor Dr King, let’s honor him as a warrior for economic justice. He knew there was no chance of equality, freedom or social justice in a system predicated on economic oppression.

Listen to Dr King’s speech today. The truths and challenges he speaks are still with us.

“We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world,” he said that fateful night. “And that’s all this whole thing is about. We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.”

41 – The Comedy & Magic Society

This was one of my all-time most rewarding commissions. The Comedy & Magic Society asked me to write their bio. Mark Phillips, Bob Sheets, Brian Curry and Barry Wood sat for long interviews to make this word-portrait possible. Rereading it, I am struck now, as I was then, by their wit, intelligence, humility and generosity.

Photo by Kovid Rathee on Unsplash

Picture a quiet Friday night in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Most of its 60,000 citizens are unwinding in familiar ways: having a drink with friends, going on a date, playing with their kids, or catching a movie. They’ll gossip, kiss, laugh, or maybe get tipsy before they fall into bed and when they wake up on Saturday life will continue as it always has. Tonight, though, 99 people have set aside their usual end-of-the-week rituals to go to the Comedy & Magic Society’s monthly show at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn.


Founded in 2005 the Comedy & Magic Society is the joint project of four hard-working professionals: Mark Phillips, Bob Sheets, Brian Curry and Barry Wood. They have over 100 years of cumulative magic experience and each of them could (if he weren’t too modest) justifiably claim to be one of the world’s finest magicians. But this is only part of the reason why one Friday of every month 99 people turn up at the Arts Barn, eyes
popping with anticipation.


Many of them have been before because live magic performed at this level is strangely addictive. You get hooked on the thrill of anticipation and the little adrenaline bursts of surprise. It isn’t something you can DVR, download or Google, so people come back – and bring their friends. First time visitors to the sturdy red-brick former stable building enter a little more cautiously. Some are excited, others are skeptical; some of them want to be entertained, others have notebooks tucked in their pockets. All are curious.


The magic begins as the audience mingles and makes its way to the alternating bright purple and lime green seats. Nick DeCuites and George Woo, the Comedy & Magic Society’s resident close-up men, circulate through the theater picking pockets, popping cards or conjuring the unexpected. Grown-ups laugh and gasp. Kids crane their necks to follow the flying fingers but their eyes can’t move fast enough. Then the lights dim, the curtain rises and the Producer arrives on stage. CMS’s four co-producers take it in turn to host and emcee the shows. Tonight let’s say it is Bob Sheets, the avuncular comedian with a grin as big as the Ritz.

If you want to know anything about magic or, indeed, the history of American popular entertainment in the 20th century, Bob is your man. He was born in California, the land of prospectors, dreamers, and professional make-believers. One of these was Paul Winchell, a ventriloquist who also patented the first artificial heart. Inspired by Winchell’s TV show, Bob taught himself ventriloquism. But when his dad bought him a magic kit he gave up voice-throwing because, at the ripe old age of 10, he thought it was “kid stuff”. Magic, on the other hand, merited study.


The wisecracking schoolboy (“I always had to have the last word,” he chuckles) used to rush home after class to practice new tricks. Unlike most kids, he didn’t mind getting sent to his room because it meant more time to perfect his craft. Bob joined the San Diego Junior Magic Society. At 13 he was performing at parties and clubs; at 15 he was a seasoned performer – as well as being America’s youngest Fuller Brush Man. Door-to-door sales and magic require many similar skills: you have to engage with strangers, win them over, put them at ease, and convince them you have something they need. Bob, with his effervescent enthusiasm, was darn good at it. Academics were a different matter. “I was a D+ student,” he says. “They only let me graduate because they
knew there was no point in keeping me.”

Photo by Devon Rogers on Unsplash


Bob finished high school in 1968 when the military was snapping up men to send to Vietnam. He joined the Navy but was discharged 17 days later when they found he was allergic to the regulation wool blankets. Instead, he went down a path trod by many legendary entertainers: he joined the circus. Between pounding tent stakes, driving trucks, and packing down, he polished his performance skills in the main ring and his close-up skills as a sideshow act. Working with the circus was more than a chance to perfect tricks. It was Bob’s initiation into a centuries-old fraternity of itinerant entertainers whose heritage runs from medieval minstrels and court jesters to vaudevillians and, of course, illusionists.


All four of the Comedy & Magic Society co-producers are enmeshed in the traditions and history of magic. This enthusiasm shapes and spurs their careers, and is integral to the CMS ethos. Brian Curry, the youngest member (Mark describes him the D’Artengean of their troupe of magic musketeers) began his education at the renowned Denny & Lee Studio in Baltimore, and was tutored by card wizard Peter Galinskis. “He’d make me rehearse one little move over and over,” Brian says. “He wouldn’t let me start a new one till I learned the last one.” Brian was a young teenager at the time, but magic was already more than a hobby. “It helped me break out of my shell,” he says. “I wasn’t very good at talking to people and it was a way for me to communicate.”


The son of an IBM executive, Brian spent most of his childhood in Tokyo and Paris. Moving between countries on a regular basis fostered independence and resilience – traits that stand him in good stead as a professional magician. As soon as he learned his first trick in sixth grade he was hooked, and regularly spent two or three
hours a day practicing. “It was luck,” Brian says of his career. “So much luck.” But, like his co-producers, Brian works ferociously hard for his good luck. When he was 15 he contacted Mark Phillips at a magic convention and asked if he could show him a competition routine. It was a memorable meeting. Mark turned up with a handful of other famous magicians and the youngster promptly bombed. “His act was a disaster,”
Mark laughs. “He had problems you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.” Still, they took
him to dinner afterwards.


Years later that friendship would help form the Comedy & Magic Society but first Brian had to perfect his craft. Luckily (this time it really was luck) Clyde’s, a local restaurant, booked a magician who also happened to be a conman. The conman/magician got busted and his prison sentence was Brian’s big break. The shy 15-
year-old went to work doing close-up magic for diners waiting to eat. Seventeen years later Brian still works there, delighting Clyde’s hungry customers. He credits the gig with helping pay his way through college – and honing his skills so he’d never have to use his degree.


None of the Comedy & Magic Society men took for granted that they would be successful as professional magicians. Mark Phillips, a corporate magician who spends most of his time performing at industry trade shows and events, holds a degree in microbiology. “My parents wanted me to have something to fall back on,” he explains. By the time Mark went to university, though, he’d already laid the foundation for a future
far from microscopes and laboratories. His father was a career Army officer and Mark was raised in military outposts like Fort Hood, TX; Fort Leavenworth, KS and Fort Huachuca, AZ. As the smallest kid in the class, Mark was a self-professed class clown and discovered that doing magic was a way to get noticed and make people laugh.

Also, you had to make your own entertainment on remote military bases. Fort Huachuca, where they moved when Mark was in eighth grade, is in arid high-plains country 15 miles north of the Mexican border. There isn’t much to do there, or in neighboring Sierra Vista where Mark went to high school. One of his activities was playing trumpet and trombone in the school band, which often performed on base. Mark, ever the over-achiever, would perform magic on stage while the band was taking its break, thus earning his stripes in front of a tough military audience.

Photo by Wayne Low on Unsplash


By the time he earned his degree Mark knew he wanted to pursue magic full-time and moved to New York to make his way as a corporate entertainer. It was the boom years of Wall Street and Mark dove into his profession with the same gusto as the traders and bankers around him. The dizzy world of high finance has long since spun itself out while Mark, by contrast, has honed his craft and career with discipline that must make his dad proud. He attributes his perfectionism to a lifetime of playing classical and orchestral music (he now plays the French horn, which has a reputation for being fiendishly difficult to master). “I have very high expectations of skill level,” he says. “A performance has to be well-rehearsed.”


These expectations infuse every Comedy & Magic Society show. Ask any of the coproducers what their biggest challenge is, as a magician, and they’ll tell you it is trying to change an audience’s expectations. Most people’s experience of live magic is limited a performer at a kid’s birthday or a friend showing off card tricks. “People don’t see much good magic so winning them over can be an uphill battle,” Bob says. As a result, CMS is incredibly protective of its audience’s experience: “We don’t lower the bar. Our guests are professional magicians and they have to hit a certain level before we let them in front of our audience,” he adds. The Gaithersburg Arts Barn shows usually feature one or two guest performers, in addition to Mark, Barry, Brian or Bob, and these guests are culled from the co-producers extensive contact books.


“Bob’s been a big name in the magic world for a long time and has a lot of friends,” Mark says. “If anyone is passing through he’ll buttonhole them and say ‘come do our show, it’s a lot of fun’.” Fun is one word to describe the CMS shows. Others are: exciting, social, electric, family-friendly and, above all, funny. Most magic shows are about highlighting the dexterity and skill the magicians. Add comedy, though, and the whole dynamic changes. The relationship between audience and performer shifts. Barriers melt away. As a magician, it is tempting to treat the audience like the enemy: you want to fool them, put them on the wrong foot. Mixing comedy and magic, however, requires a different mind-set. “It’s easier when the audience goes with you willingly,” Mark explains. “You need charm and personality. You need to be a good communicator.”


Communication skills don’t come naturally to everyone, though – not even magicians. Barry Wood, the group’s resident actor and improv expert, says he was “kind of a loner at school. Magic was a hobby I could retreat into.” He’d go off to the library and read about the history of magic and the lives of famous performers. “I was fascinated by every aspect of the art,” he recalls. This fascination drew him out of his shell and into Barry Taylor’s legendary magic shop. The elder Barry became his mentor, and Wood credits him with taking an introverted kid and putting him on the path to being a world-class performer. Young Barry learned that communication could help smooth out a less-than-perfect trick. “At first, I was just trying to fool people, but once I learned about presentation the challenge was to weave a story and connect with my audience.”


The best magic is about making connections and a gifted performer with enough tricks up his or her sleeve can weave a spell anywhere. After an apprenticeship that included working weekends at Barry Taylor’s shop, Barry Wood filled in for a friend doing magic at a pizza restaurant. He left his first paying gig “on cloud nine,” with a bellyful of pizza and cash in his pocket. The die was cast. Barry went to college and majored in marketing but he funded his degree by performing magic. “I always enjoyed giving class presentations – maybe in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to do magic,” he recalls. Still, the penny didn’t drop until Barry began looking for a marketing job after graduation. When interviewers found out he did magic they were intrigued; they wanted to talk about shows they’d seen, or tricks they knew. Many asked why he wasn’t
doing magic, since it was clearly his passion. “I thought, ‘maybe they’re right.’” To his relief his parents were supportive, and Barry began his professional career in earnest.


One of his formative experiences was working with Bob Sheets at the Brook Farm Inn of Magic, a restaurant/magic haunt in Maryland run by Bob Sheets and partner Steve Spills. At first, Bob and Barry seem like polar opposites: Bob is the bluff, ebullient journeyman firmly rooted in the great American tradition of life on the road. Barry is reserved, thoughtful and precise; he likes bookstores and wineries with nice views. But they have a lot in common when it comes to magic. Both cite street magic as the ultimate challenge. “If people don’t like you, they walk away,” says Bob. “It doesn’t get any tougher, or more honest, than that.” Barry, who taught himself fire-juggling to avoid dead time while doing street performances at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, agrees. Always eager to develop his skills, Barry began to study acting and improv. He joined an improv group then helped found comedy sketch troupe Dropping The Cow.


“Barry can do anything,” Brian says. “You would never pick him out in a crowd as a professional entertainer. He’s so quiet and humble. Then he gets on stage and destroys. It’s awesome.” Brian jokes that he’d like for Barry to suck at something “because it would make me feel better” but they are more alike than different. Both have a passion for working with kids – which is probably only slightly less demanding than street performing. Brian does school assembly shows, including a magical mathematics review and a book club, while Barry works with a professional counselor doing an anti-bullying show that tours schools in the greater Washington DC region. He is also a long-standing member of the Big Apple Circus Clown Care program. To Barry, cheering up sick children is the apotheosis of his magical art: “I’ve found an audience for all the skills I learned that were inner-focused, that I learned for myself. I don’t know if it’s destiny or what, but now I have an opportunity to use my abilities in a positive way, whether it’s helping school kids dealing with tough situations, or making a child laugh in his hospital bed and seeing the relief on his parents’ faces. I’m lucky to be able to use my abilities in a positive way.”


Ask any of Barry’s colleagues and you’ll hear similar sentiments, in different terms. Brian, along with Mark and Bob, does regular gigs on cruise ships, and delights in the way magic transcends culture and nationality, helping him unify a room full of strangers who don’t even speak the same language. Mark gets a buzz out of magic’s ability to transform the ordinary: “When an audience sees magic, they think about things they don’t usually think about. They have a chance to think about the everyday things they take for granted.”

Photo by Raul Varzar on Unsplash


This passion for making the impossible real fuels all of the Comedy & Magic Society members. Make no mistake: magic is hard work. They travel a lot and pulling together their beloved Arts Barn shows requires commitment and sacrifice. “We work so much we’re rarely in town at the same time,” Bob says. “But when we are it’s a killer show.” In addition to long stints on the road they face the physical and mental rigor of regular performance. One of Mark’s corporate trade-shows, for example, involves eight-hour days of repeat performances to an ice-cold audience that has to be won over; over and over again. And anyone who knows kids can imagine how tough it is to convince school kids to take an interest in math.


In addition to the challenges of the work itself, is the challenge of finding or creating work. “You have to be really self-motivated,” says Brian. “There is no manual telling you how to make a living. You have to constantly evaluate how you run your business, your show, your website….” They each have their own way of thriving: Mark taught himself German so he could work trade shows there; Brian has a crop of entrepreneurial side projects; Bob spent 15 years mixing drinks and conjuring surprises as a bar-tending magician; Barry does everything from one-man shows, to toddler’s birthdays to Presidential inaugurations.


To some it might seem like a hard way to earn a living but Barry, Mark, Bob and Brian brim with joy and enthusiasm for what they do. “I’m grateful to be getting paid to do something I love,” says Barry. “I’m blessed.” This gratitude and energy flows through their work both as individual magicians, and as the Comedy & Magic Society collective. That is what lends the air inside the Arts Barn its sprinkle of magic dust one Friday a
month. Magic, as performed by the CMS and friends, is the art of celebrating what’s possible. “Magic can lift people’s feet off the ground, if only for a moment,” says Bob. “You never know what the result will be. You get a kid in front of an audience and he realizes it’s okay to get in front of people, it’s okay for people to laugh at – and with – you. It gives him confidence.”


Children and adults alike leave the Arts Barn wide-eyed and flushed with laughter not just because of the flawless routines and peerless patter, but because Brian, Bob, Barry and Mark are walking, talking, juggling proof that you can fulfill your dreams and that the world is alive with possibilities. “Magic reminds us there are a lot of things in the world we take for granted,” Mark says. “If we experience a moment of magic and
wonder in a performance we start paying attention to the wonder in other parts of our lives.”

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

40 – Dodging the Magic Bullet

A version of this piece was published in Transition, a Canadian magazine on mental health.

Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash

In 1980, the year I was born, the board of directors of the American Psychiatric Association voted to allow pharmaceutical companies to offer paid symposiums at its annual conference. Thirty years later I was sitting on coarse beige upholstery in a doctor’s surgery in Glasgow. “Are you sure the results are normal?”

He sighed and repeated that my blood, hormones, iron level and thyroid were all fine.

Disappointment lodged in my oesophagus. Please tell me something’s wrong: hypothyroidism, Vitamin D, anaemia, hormone imbalance, anything.

I had moved to the rain-wracked west coast of Scotland to do a Master’s degree in writing but, after a few weeks, I could barely read. Obsessive thoughts snarled and snapped: you’re stupid, you’re hopeless, you’re a failure. Glasses leapt from my hands at my part-time waitress job. Burns crept up my arms as my reflexes slowed. My boss reprimanded me for being “snappish”. I craved sugar, wolfing my flatmate’s ice cream and cereal then slinking out the next morning to replace them. I slept 12, 15 hours a day, exhausted by the weight of my body.

One more test. The doctor gave me a single sheet of paper. I tend to score well on tests; this was no exception. The Beck Depression Inventory1 is a common screening for depression, intended to “identify [its] presence and severity”2. He skimmed my responses about sadness, guilt, irritability, hopelessness, sleep disturbances, and suicidal thoughts.

“I’ll write you a prescription.”

“Is there someone I can talk to?”

Referral in hand, I walked to another basement office.

That doctor cut me off after ten seconds: “Do you want a prescription?”

He huffed audibly. “If you want to talk to someone go to the counselling service. All the other American students are on meds.”

***

In Anatomy of an Epidemic award-winning journalist Robert Whitaker describes how the “notion that [pharmaceutical] ‘magic bullets’… would bring miracle cures”3 became psychiatric dogma — despite the fact no one fully understands the organic processes of mental illness. Do psychotropic “bullets” hit their target? If so, what happens? No responsible physician would prescribe thyroid and hormone treatment without a lab test. But nobody checked my serotonin or dopamine levels. My doctor had never seen me before. He knew nothing of my family, temperament, or situation, but on the basis of 21 questions offered a drug that would dramatically, maybe irreversibly, alter my brain chemistry.

Photo by Aliane Schwartzhaupt on Unsplash

The most common antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI)4 like Prozac. As it happens, I spent several years toying with a fast-acting antidepressant. Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine, like SSRIs, boosts serotonin levels in the brain. It obliterates unhappiness in a rush of euphoria, confidence, clarity and empathy. Everything is better: music, lights, colour, conversation, friendship, sex, and cigarettes.

Until the comedown.

“Suicide Tuesday” was a semi-serious joke among club kids. We compared notes on nightmares, hallucinations, and memory loss. We counted the days till jaws stopped aching and appetites returned.

Prozac is legal but brain chemistry is no respecter of legislation. Trials on SSRIs show that “rats fed high doses… ended up with neurons that were swollen and twisted like corkscrews”5. The human evidence is compelling: the Food and Drug Administration received 39,000 complaints about Prozac in the nine years following its approval, including reports of suicidal and homicidal outbursts, “psychotic depression, mania, abnormal thinking, hallucinations, hostility, confusion, amnesia, convulsions, tremors and sexual dysfunction.”6

***

Instead of antidepressants I took the second doctor’s advice and went to the student counselling service. Every Friday afternoon between three and four (after dark, for most of those moths) I went to a basement room where a white-faced, gold-rimmed Seth Thomas clock sat in a disused fireplace. A tiny glass pitcher and two small glasses stood on the hearth beside a box of Tork tissues. I had fold them in half to blow my nose.

“I’m scared.”

“Of what?”

“I feel like I’ve lost control.” I threw another fistful of sodden tissues in the bin. “You know the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’? It feels like that.”

Words that come to mind now are no less true for being clichéd. Nouns: storm, cloud, void, chasm, maelstrom, black hole. Verbs: choke, crush, frighten, smother, horrify. Adjectives: miserable, catatonic, helpless, damaged, trapped, angry, sad, frustrated, lost.

***

In 1988 the United States Food and Drug Association green-lighted Prozac and America’s National Institutes of Mental Health set up the Depression Awareness Recognition and Treatment (DART) program. Its mission was to promote “greater acceptance of depression as a disorder” and, perhaps not incidentally, spread the word that “antidepressants produced recovery rates of ‘70% to 80% in comparison with 20% to 40% for placebo.”7 Eli Lilly, which held the patent on Prozac, helped pay for eight million DART brochures that highlighted the merits of serotonin-boosting pharmaceuticals.

***

Photo by Wherda Arsianto on Unsplash

If you’re trying to dodge the magic bullet you need other weapons. I’ve been running since age 13, hooked on the peace and clarity that follows the effort. In Glasgow I got up at 5:30AM, pulled on ski socks, leggings, sweatshirt, jacket, hat, gloves and battered Sauconys then ran for an hour. I swapped my restaurant job for a coffee shop and found comfort in the routine of making espresso, toasting sandwiches, and gossiping with the regulars. At home I baked caraway rye bread, bagels, and lemon cookies to combat the chill seeping through the single-glazed windows. I bought kilos of oranges and taught myself to make marmalade; experimented with vegan mac-and-cheese and coconut milk smoothies. On black afternoons I tiptoed up the ice-slick hill to the gym and did squats, bench presses and seated rows. I used holiday photos for bookmarks and saved quotes on index cards: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside you,” wrote Kafka.

***

“In a [1998] World Health Organization study of the merits of screening for depression,” writes Whitaker: “Those diagnosed and treated with psychiatric medications fared worse – in terms of their depressive symptoms and their general health – over a one-year period than those who weren’t exposed to the drugs.”

***

One year is 365 days of wondering why am I still breathing? It’s a long time to resist the temptation to drag the tip of a knife down your arm just to see how it feels. I scurried and feinted but depression was a patient cat to my mouse. There were still tears in writing workshops, still mornings huddled beneath the espresso machine gnawing my fingers, still cake binges followed by penitent cups of vegetable broth.

Depression is a black-hearted octopus tenderly, insistently probing for weakness. Resistance is the only secret to survival; fight the beast with every cheap, inadequate weapon at your disposal. Work and running were my best allies. I got better at snatching pleasure and being selfish about delight. When insomnia chipped at my fragile defences, I went to the doctor for sleeping pills. At the end of the year I left Glasgow, bruised but stronger. A magic bullet might have been swift relief. But the grit, patience, and humility I learned on my way are side-effects worth having.

Photo by Nathalie Désirée Mottet on Unsplash

31 – Fake Writing Gurus

This originally appeared on Medium. It’s a subject close to my heart.

There are two kinds of people who give advice to writers: those who want better writing, and those who want payment.

Teachers, from the unsung heroes singing the ABCs with snotty toddlers to college professors hacking through forests of sophomoric prose, are mostly the former.

Once you venture beyond formal education, though, the search for guidance can lead straight into the slough of despond where some self-proclaimed guru will offer you the keys to the kingdom, on an installment plan. There are also wonderful writing teachers who ought to be paid for their time and expertise.

These five questions will help you to avoid hyenas and find legitimate guides —

1. Do non-writers read their books?

This is important because, if you’re going to take writing advice from someone, it might as well be an actual writer. Not someone who has set him/herself up as an expert on the basis of figuring out MailChimp.

When a writer who is read and loved by millions, like Ray Bradbury, E.B. White or Stephen King dispenses writing advice, I’m happy to pay.

2. Do they tell you how much they earn?

The above mentioned writers never, to my knowledge, sent emails to their readers bragging about their income. If a so-called writing guru leads by telling you how much they earn, it’s a con.

Writers can and do earn great salaries as writers. But if a person’s primary income stream is other writers s/he is a huckster, not a writer.

3. Do they promise you a secret formula?

Writers are wishful thinkers, in the best possible way. We wish to understand, report, illuminate, entertain, and above all connect. This fundamental optimism keeps us at the keyboard. It also makes us susceptible to slicks who claim to have discovered a secret to striking rich as a writer.

This prospect is pure mirage — and enticing as an oasis.

If someone really had the secret to endless, effortless cash from freelance writing clients s/he would simply enjoy the income. If the technique were valid and replicable, teaching it would create competition.

4. Do they try to up-sell you?

A writer who earns a comfortable primary income from writing shouldn’t be hustling. I’ve encountered sales pitches ranging from $199 for an online journalism course to $10,000 for one year of “mentoring”.

The give away, whether at the low or high end of the price scale, is the guru’s insistence that this is great value. Two online courses for the price of one! Access to a “community” (as if there aren’t a gazillion free writers forums and Facebook groups)! Cheaper than college! Cheaper than a weekend in Vegas! Only 20 percent of your annual income!

The people most likely to be tempted by dubious expertise are those worst-placed to pay these rates, which makes fake gurus opportunistic dickwads.

5. Do they tell you it’s all in your head?

Without fail, every single fake writing guru will preach some version of “failure is a mindset”.

Never mind that writer’s median income has dropped by 42 percent since 2009, according to the New York Times, and that royalties and advances are down by 30 percent in that period. Or that more than 1,800 newspapers have closed in the U.S. since 2004. Or that magazines like GlamourRedbook, Cooking Light and ComputerWorld ceased print publication in 2018.

Photo by Alex Boyd on Unsplash

PayScale data show only 10 percent of all writers earn more than $83,000 per year, meaning even fewer earn above the much-hyped six figure mark.

Failing to earn scads of money as a writer is not a mindset — it’s a reality.

The only people who tell you it’s all in your head are the ones who are ass-covering for the inevitable moment when you realize that over-priced bottle of secret sauce isn’t going to make you a millionaire.

Where to find the real thing

Don’t despair of getting sound, disinterested writing guidance— and don’t pay through the nose for it.

Sites like Funds for Writers and Freedom with Writing are a great way to learn about contests, publishers and grants.If you want advice on the craft of writing, hit the library or bookshop.


My favorite books on writing include:

  • Zen and the Art of Writing — Ray Bradbury
  • Bird by Bird — Anne Lamott
  • Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind — Natalie Goldberg
  • On Writing Well — William Zinsser
  • Steering the Craft — Ursula K. LeGuin

For honest first person advice, join a writing group or workshop, or take a class. Some of the best, wisest writers I know work in community colleges or extension programs, for little reward and less recognition, because they want other people to experience the life-altering power of writing.

Seek the positive

Writing should be a source of joy, even if it’s a job.

A writer worth listening to embraces both its struggles and its delights.

“Writing is survival,” Bradbury wrote. “Any art, any good work, of course, is that. …We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory.”

6 – Trembling Blue Stars

The following excerpt is from an interview I did for Pennyblackmusic in Dec ’01 or Jan ’02. I’d only been in London a couple of months and found the West End as dizzying as did Mr Wratten. Despite being one of my first profiles, this remains one of my favourite pieces. You can read the full feature at Pennyblackmusic.

Photo by John Higgitt on Unsplash

The first thing you’ll notice about Trembling Blue Stars frontman Bobby Wratten is that, well, nothing stands out. No requisite dangling cigarette, no Mick Jagger sneer, not even any Bono specs, just a very slender, slightly balding man with light hair, blue eyes and a spaniel smile; a thoroughly unprepossessing rock star. Not that Bobby would like the term rock star: too clichéd, too aggressive.

Wratten doesn’t appear to be fond of the hectic or overstated. Even on a weeknight the routine bustle of London’s West End seems to unnerve him slightly. And he only looks marginally more comfortable settled into a low-lit pub. He’s not, it turns out, drinking orange juice in deference to his slight cough; he just doesn’t drink. Most of the nervousness, though none of the soft-spoken courtesy evaporates though as Wratten begins to talk about what really interests him – his music.

Though for someone who has devoted his life to making music, Wratten didn’t have a particularly polished beginning. Wratten confesses that he and [bassist] Michael Hiscock “couldn’t even tune our guitars,” in the early days of his first band, The Field Mice. When asked how their now-cultishly-adored whispery, twee-pop style developed he smiles, “you copy the bands you like and get it wrong, so that’s where you end up.” But press on and ask what bands he liked as a youngster and he rather incongruously names The Jam, The Clash, XTC, and Joy Division.One wonders exactly what strange things have to happen to bass and guitars, etc to get – accidentally – from The Clash to The Field Mice, but then the studied innocence of Wratten’s expression hints that he’s being more than a little disingenuous. And when he adds that, “there was nothing deliberate about any of it” it seems certain that the dim light of the pub is masking a twinkle in his eye.

After all, he insists that his music is neither as sad, nor as obsessive as some might like to believe. The acrimonious break-up of The Field Mice is well documented, as is the subsequent formation of Northern Picture Library by Wratten, and fellow former-Field Mice Annemari Davies and Mark Dobson. Even more legendary is the break-up of Annemari and Bobby’s long-term relationship, which led to the dissolution of Northern Picture Library after just one album and a handful of singles.

A self-professed incurable romantic, Wratten says, “like the idea you have a soul mate,” which goes a considerable way towards explaining the raw sadness captured in many of his lyrics. “I wrote a lot of songs about Annemari,” he says, perhaps understating the case just a little. The Trembling Blue Stars debut ‘Her Handwriting’, released in 1994, is an unabashed hankie-wringer of a CD recording the emotional devastation that came in the wake of the split with Davies. Unsurprisingly, Wratten reports that Davies declined to sing on ‘Her Handwriting’, though by the time he’d written the second Trembling Blue Stars record, ‘Lips That Taste Of Tears’ his ex-girlfriend was ready to rejoin him in the studio.

Which he claims is not at all creepy, in an “Every Breath You Take” kind of way. “I don’t [write songs about Davies] anymore but people still think I am, it’s just kind of funny,” he says. Then by way of supporting evidence points out a lyric from the third TBS record, ‘Broken By Whispers’: “it goes, ‘the way we left it was you would call,’ [from ‘Sometimes I Still Feel The Bruise’] which I thought made it pretty obvious that it was about someone you weren’t in contact with, but Annemari was in the studio with me when I recorded it!” What’s more, he says, they are good friends outside the studio as well; Davies minds his house for him when he’s away. Which, most recently, was on Trembling Blue Stars inaugural tour of the States. Their American label, Sub Pop funded a multi-city junket, which Wratten thoroughly enjoyed. “[We’re] treated more seriously [there]” he says; possibly, one imagines, because Americans prefer to forgo the irony that Britain almost requires of its musicians.

Not that all their tour was spent in front of fawning audiences; in Portland, OR Trembling Blue Stars were booked to play a club called Dante’s – a seedy gay/leather sort of club.“ There were a few people in front who were there to see us, and a lot of people who just looked confused… but there were no disasters” Wratten recalls. Playing bars and clubs also meant that the shows tended to start late, after a long day of driving (the band navigated all the way from New York to San Francisco in the course of their tour), so “you play the first song three times as slow as it should be.” And instead of throwing yourselves a backstage shindig afterwards, apparently, you pack up and climb back into the van for some kip. “We weren’t very rock’n’roll,” Wratten explains, unnecessarily.Though in a world where“quiet is the new loud”, sleeping, chatting, and hanging out at truck stops may be new rock’n’roll.

In any case, returning to Mitchum, South London was a bit of a jolt, “it felt really strange coming home to nothing… we don’t really know what happens next,” he says, betraying for the first time a sense of anxiousness. This has something to do with their bassist leaving the band at the end of the American tour, and perhaps more to do with the fact that Trembling Blue Stars have already far overreached their intended lifespan. Her Handwriting was meant to be a one off record, and now, four albums later Wratten still believes you should “treat each record like it’s the last one you’re ever going to make.” Great for raising the artistic stakes probably, but surely stressful?

Read the full feature at Pennyblackmusic.co.uk

10 Things I Love about “The Bold Type”

I’ve just finished binge watching all three series of The Bold Type. The only thing between me and mourning is the news that it’s been renewed for a fourth season.

Because this show won me over like no glossy American TV drama ever has. (I loved The Wire but glossy that ain’t).

For someone who veers inflexibly towards cynicism, The Bold Type might seem an odd affection. It is relentlessly, almost Pollyanna-ishly upbeat. Every problem is solvable with a bit of elbow grease and woman power, within the span of 41 minutes.

That should annoy me. Or I feel like it should annoy me. But it doesn’t. In a world where basically all news is bad news, and humanity is collectively excavating to find a new rock bottom, believing problems can be solved is a radical notion.

Believing that, as The Bold Type holds, love, friendship, integrity, hard work and learning from your mistakes is enough to craft a meaningful life verges on revolutionary.

I love me some revolution.

So here, in no particular order, are 10 things I love about The Bold Type.

  1. Sisters doing it for themselves

    Praise be: A show with three female leads whose priorities are A) career and B) friendships; and who are actually making a go of it. Disaster comedy is a dime a dozen (though, Fleabag…) but I cannot think of another female-focused show where the main characters are so functional. Jane, Sutton and Kat have their moments of doubt and despair but mostly, they have their shit together. And when it gets out of hand, they huddle in the fashion closet and figure out how to fix it. And do.

  2. Sisters doing it with each other (oh, and Lesbian. Muslim. Artist.)

    The Kat-who-thinks-she’s-straight-figures-out-she’s-not-by-falling-in-love-with-a-lesbian-Muslim-artist story-line makes me happier than a hamper of spaniel puppies. Everything about this is amazing, from how hard Adena rocks a turban to Kat’s punching a racist guy in the face for hassling her. The scene where Adena calls her out for not going down on her, followed by a conversation where cunnilingus is not a punch line should be required viewing.

    kissing.jpg

    Photo by Juliette F on Unsplash

  3. The powerful lady boss is not a bitch

    As a newbie journalist, I would have given my left leg for a boss as wise, fierce, insightful and supportive as Jacqueline Carlyle. I still would. Scarlet’s editor is an ideal we’re too rarely shown: a take charge, takes-no-prisoners woman who is also compassionate, self-aware and able to admit her mistakes. Oh, and she has a handsome, adoring husband and a couple of cute kids. Hey, girls, you can have it all.

  4. Old white guys are the enemy

    When trouble comes to Scarlet it’s usually because of the board. A coterie of aging white men who don’t understand women, media, or social media — yet hold disproportionate sway over all three. Since forever, unless you were a rich white due, rich white dudes were there to do you harm. The Bold Type accurately reflects this universal experience, yet holds out hope.

  5. They say “I love you” a lot

    Kat, Sutton and Jane are always saying: “I love you” — to each other. Which I love. How often do we hear platonic female friends say, “I love you”? Not often enough. How often do we say it to our platonic female friends? Not often enough. If you take nothing else from The Bold Type, take this: Say “I love you” to the people you love, say it when you’re happy or sad, when they’re happy or sad. There is nothing going on in the world that won’t be improved by sharing the love.

    love you

    Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

  6. Nobody runs to mommy & daddy

    Sutton, Kat and Jane are each other’s biggest support. Kat’s therapist parents pay bills, but not much more. Sutton’s mom is an alcoholic with money issues. Jane’s mom is dead. This feels a lot more real than shows where benign parents lurk in the background, waiting to pick up the pieces. For me, and most people I know, parents ranged from merely absent to active liabilities. That reality shaped our lives, and it’s nice to see it reflected on screen.

  7. Supportive boyfriends

    Shows about asshole guys and terrible dating experiences are amusing. For a while. Then they are just discouraging. The Bold Type skips this trope entirely. Jane has an a douchey ex but in no time she gets over him with a gorgeous, clever man who proceeds to become a better person, fall in love with her and write a hit novel. Sutton is dating a company lawyer, 15 years her senior, who is respectful, supportive, and worships the ground she walks on (as he should!) Loving, equal, communicative, positive on-screen partnerships are the hens’ teeth in popular entertainment. The Bold Type is poultry dentures.

    love hands

    Photo by Kristina Litvjak on Unsplash

  8. Open relationships

    Speaking of positive relationship portrayals — Kat and Adena’s open relationship story-line is just. so. fucking.cool. A mainstream TV show portraying an open lesbian relationship as intimate, wholesome, and empowering? Yes!
    Honestly, if I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed.

  9. Body positivity

    This one is almost there. Kat, Jane and Sutton are all conventionally slender and feminine with curves in the approved places. Nevertheless, the show makes a point to discuss body positivity in so many words, with a story where the girls pose for a fashion shoot showing off their scars, freckles, stretchmarks. Better still, their colleague, Scarlet’s sex columnist is heavyset and mousy — a face and figure that would relegate her to “fat friend” status in a standard rom-com. Instead, she’s the one having the hottest sex and dishing the most divine gossip.

    wine.jpg

    Photo by Matthieu Joannon on Unsplash

  10. Booze

    When the going get tough, the tough knock back some white wine. Or tequila. Or mix a little whisky into their ice cream. America is stupidly puritanical about alcohol, and especially about women drinking. It is refreshing to see characters who can raise a glass to commiserate, or celebrate, without the next plot point involving rehab. They’re young, fun, gorgeous women who like a drink. And that’s cool. Gorgeous Muslim lesbian artist Adena doesn’t drink, and that’s cool too. Which makes the whole thing extra fucking cool.

Go on then, what’s your latest televisual delight? 

 

 

Blame it on the rain

Why do I feel uprooted (panicked, dismayed, trapped)?

I blame a four-letter word: Rain.

Remember Milli Vanilli? I was nine when “Blame it on the rain” came out. We weren’t supposed to listen to “secular” music but my big sister sneakily tuned in Casey Kasem’s Top 40. The chorus never left me: “Blame it on the rain/that’s fallin’ fallin'”.

 

Growing up on the central Oregon coast rain was a constant. The occasional days a high north wind pushed away the clouds were bitter. Wet and cold were the warp and woof of my childhood. They crept past windowpanes and under doors of the crumbling ex-holiday cottage where we lived. The small, square black wood-burning stove and ancient electric heater never made a dint.

The other constant was the wild fluctuation of my father’s moods. Fear permeated the air like water, raised goosebumps like a chill.

The things I carry

My brain learned, fast and young, to blur the present and project itself to the safety of the future. This let me survive and escape. It also sapped my ability put my experiences and emotions in context, leaving vast gaps in my self-awareness.

It took moving to Glasgow in an unusually cold, wet year to acknowledge rain’s hold over me. Rainfall elicits anxiety, hopelessness, depression, anger, helplessness. I feel like a child again.

Living in Glasgow catapulted me into clinical depression. I wanted to die; also, stubbornly, I wanted to live. Which, at that point, meant leaving as quickly as possible and promising myself to never again live somewhere that required GoreTex.

rain1.jpg

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Plotting the resistance 

Now, I’ve broken that promise in style, husband and cats in tow.

Maybe it’s a dumb risk to leave a lazy, sunny town for a cold house in rain country, thereby putting my mental health and relationship on the line.

How else can I overcome my fear of rain?

I don’t want to be a prisoner of my childhood anxieties. Avoiding uncomfortable emotions and circumstances is a strategy, not a solution.

To be happy anywhere, I need to cultivate my capacity to be happy everywhere.

As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

People have (with the help of convention) found the solution of everything in ease and the easiest side of easy; but it is clear that we must hold to the difficult…. We know little, but that we must hold to the difficult is a certainty that will not leave us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; the fact that a thing is difficult must be one more reason for our doing it.

Whatever the year brings, I want to live with intention and integrity, in the rain.

 

Storytelling: Framing

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 19: Framing

What a story is about, and the conclusion it reaches, depends on how you frame it.

Case study:

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

hill-trump

Who they are:

Respectively, the Democratic and Republican candidates in the 2016 American presidential election. Clinton won the popular vote by an unprecedented margin. Trump won the majority of Electors and is slated to become the next President of the United States.

Why it matters:

The bitter, split decision presidential election highlighted the fact that there is no single “story”. What we think a thing means and what we believe about people and events, is drawn from a rich mass (or mess) of facts, ideas, information and preconception.

After last week’s storytelling post a reader rebutted my assertion that Hillary Clinton is “a experienced, qualified, sane, humane politician”:

Surely this must be qualified as “by comparison?” Isn’t it a fact that Hillary Clinton:

1) Supported the Iraq War forcefully and was a key proponent as an opposition pol from NY

2) Supported overthrow of Libya forcefully

3) Supported overthrow of Syria forcefully

4) Was endorsed by entire Bush family and most of GWB cabinet officials

5) Received 100s of millions from wall street banks and multi-national corporations

So, if Hillary Clinton wasn’t positioned against Trump and you judged her by her policies she would be a rightwing neo-con Republican.

I think perhaps you should also consider the story telling of the Clinton campaign which would argue that perceived racism and sexism are more important than real policies that have killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries.

 

This is a perfect example of framing. My narrative frames Hillary’s experience and views as a positive; my reader highlights different, but equally legitimate, information that casts her in a different light. Trump can, likewise, be any number of things depending on how you frame him. He is either a robust example of American iconoclasm or a racist shit. He went bankrupt and made billions; the story depends on what facts you put in the picture.

In other words:

“While reality itself does partly determine the meaning we assign to it, it doesn’t insist on any one specific meaning. So, while we all live in the same reality, we interpret it differently. Most of the time, the differences are negligible: at the day-to-day level, we agree sufficiently about most things. But some differences are radical. And that’s what politics is about.

Politics is a colossal magnification of the differences in how we perceive the world around us. And an election is a simplified, brief magnification of that. In an election, time stops, and a complex, gradually evolving jumble of differences of opinion is frozen in a single statistical figure.” Rob Wijnberg via The Correspondent

Practice: “All I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor.” Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird

Remember: “One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.” ~ Tim Burton

Storytelling: Lying

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 18: Lying

Stories don’t have to be true. Sometimes the most powerful ones are pure fiction.

Case study: Donald Trump

donald-trump

Who he is:

Pathological liar who used exaggeration, hyperbole and outright 24k lies to concoct a shady business empire then successfully campaign for President of the United States.

Why it matters:

Trump is a racist, a misogynist, a xenophobic goon with an ego the size of the wall he promised to build between Mexico and the United States. He is a self-professed business guru who has gone bankrupt four times. He is a self-professed sexual abuser who has said on record he’d like to date his own daughter. He claims to represent the common man but rarely pays taxes.

Despite all this, Trump beat won the electoral vote from under the nose of Hillary Clinton, a experienced, qualified, sane, humane politician.

The only explanation? He told a better story. Because he made it up as he went along.

In their own words:

“In announcing his bid for the Republican presidential nomination this morning, Donald Trump started with what Forbes believes is a whopper. He claimed his net worth was nearly $9 billion. We figure it’s closer to $4 billion — $4.1 billion to be exact.

This discrepancy is noteworthy, since Trump’s financial success – he put his fortune at exactly $8,737,540,000 — is core to his candidacy. “I’m proud of my net worth. I’ve done an amazing job,” said Trump at his circus-like announcement, before referencing his autobiography. “We need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.'”

via Forbes

In fact, Trump even lied about that. The Art of the Deal was written by journalist Tony Schwartz. Howard Kaminsky, former head of the book’s publisher Random House said, “Trump didn’t write a postcard for us!”

 

Practice: “Counterattack. The fact is, just as most of us are uncomfortable telling lies, most are uncomfortable accusing others. This discomfort can be used in the liar’s favor. “You’ll often see politicians respond to accusations with aggression,” says Stan Walters, author of The Truth About Lying: Everyday Techniques for Dealing with Deception. “What they’ll do is drive critics away from the issue, so they’re forced to gather up their resources to fight another scrimmage.” Jeff Wise via Psychology Today

Remember: “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”
― Adolf Hitler

Storytelling: Character

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 17: Character

Characters drive stories. Make yours unforgettable.

Case study: Yoga With Paul

paul-1

Paul Dobson

What it is:

An umbrella brand for the professional activities of London-based yoga teacher, masseuse and former professional dancer Paul Dobson.

Why it matters:

Yoga teachers are two pence a dozen in London and students typically cram sessions into hectic schedules. In this environment convenience, rather than affinity for a teacher, is often the deciding factor in choosing a yoga class.

Yoga With Paul was created to buck this trend by sharing founder Paul Dobson’s character. Instead of saying why he’s a great teacher it shares what he believes and cares about. Through a blog and social media, Yoga With Paul (#YWP) has built a network of like-minded yogis who share Paul’s interest in yoga, meditation, clean eating, mindfulness, fashion, urban life, and more. The proof is in the success: Paul now teaches several styles of yoga across London, and his annual Yoga Holiday With Paul summer retreats sell out well in advance.

In his own words:

“My life changed radically when I became a Bikram yoga teacher and it made me realise how easy to get locked into a “ladder” mind-set in our careers, relationships, or even hobbies. What I strive to share with my students is the awareness that you grow and become more yourself by challenging your preconceptions and being open to new experiences. It’s never too late for Bikram and never too late to change your life.”
Read more

Practice: “Your readers will live in a house made of their own mental pictures while reading your fiction. Those pictures are based on your words, of course, and you will curate that mental gallery quite closely. And yet the infinite details that your readers will conjure up around the mental pictures suggested by your words are all their own.” via Michael Alexander Chaney

Remember: “Desire is the crucible that forges character. ~Kristen Lamb

paul-backbend

Yoga With Paul