The 39 Steps: a primer on story writing by Frederick Barthelme

Frederick Barthelme
Frederick Barthelme

Author and writing teacher Frederick Barthelme used to hand out at the beginning of his workshops. This is great advice. Be sure not to follow it to the letter.

  1. Step one in the great enterprise of a new and preferable you in the house of fiction is: Mean less. That is, don’t mean so much. Make up a story, screw around with it, paste junk on it, needle the characters, make them say queer stuff, go bad places, insert new people at inopportune moments, do some drive-bys. Make it up, please.
  2. Don’t let it make too much sense.
  3. Do use stuff that you care about when you’re making it up. If you’re mad at your mother, husband, boyfriend, wife, lover, neighbor, dog, take it out on a mother, husband, etc. and put it in the mouth of one of your characters. If you’re full of love for the sea, say something nice about the bath.
  4. Leaven the piece with some merchandise (figurative) you don’t particularly care about but that seems to you odd, intriguing, curious, baffling, quirky. Attach this material to your characters.
  5. Do not use the above to rationalize disconnected, ersatz, or unrelated oddball debris. “I’d like to talk to you but there’s a giant in my room” isn’t the answer to any narrative question.
  6. Long plot explanations aren’t going to get it. Like, when something neat (horrible?) happened to one of the characters a real long time ago, and you really really want to tell us about it, you know? Don’t.
  7. It doesn’t particularly matter which characters these things you care about (see #3) get attached to (these are things like pieces of dialogue, bits of description, some gesture, a look somebody gives somebody, a setting, tabletops). In fact, you’re probably better off if the stuff attaches itself in unexpected ways to wrong characters (so you don’t go meaning too much, see #1).
  8. Remember: Many things have happened which, to the untrained eye, appear interesting.
  9. Grace Slick.
  10. At every turn, ask yourself if you’re being gullible, dopey, pretentious, cloying, adolescent, Neanderthal, routine, dull, smarty-pants, clever, arty, etc. You don’t want to be being these things.
  11. Be sure there’s a plot for the reader to grasp; while not necessarily the center of the story, it’s key to lulling the reader into that comfort zone where he’s vulnerable.
  12. We can’t care about sand mutants; if you do, or think you do, kill yourself.
  13. Coherence is a big part of the game. Make sure the story is coherent, that the scenes flow each from the last, that the reader has the clearest sense at all times of what is going on. Err on the side of clumsiness to start with; back away later.
  14. For dramatic purposes you’re probably well-served sticking close to an objective narrative (1st person unvoiced, or 3rd person objective-in either case, the camera view). This forces you to write scenes in which characters do and say things to/with/for each other; these things will then construct the story for you. This expedient blocks the “telling” problem.
  15. Organize the story’s structure around the simplest available strategy. For example, if there’s no obliging reason that the story be told in flashbacks, don’t use flashbacks. Don’t use flashbacks simply because you get to a certain point and then think of something that requires telling in flashback if it is to be told at that point. Instead, return to the front of the story and add the material in its appropriate spot.
  16. Plain chronological storytelling is a good idea. Rules on deviations:
    (a) avoid disruptions in time as much as possible;
    (b) flashbacks (and similar) are ten times more confusing to the reader than they seem to you (keep in mind for use in strategically confusing parts);
    (c) flashbacks, dream sequences, drug-induced beatific appreciations, Mongol hordes, etc. are not good excuses for lumbering attempts at the high rhetorical bar;
    (d) deviations from a norm tend to draw attention away from the story, away from the characters, away from the emotional/spiritual center of things;
    (e) sometimes you may want to do this.
    16(a) In the redundancy department: Give us as much of the ground situation as you can as soon as possible. The first paragraph is not too soon. The first page is not too soon. Tell us who, what, when, where, etc.
  17. Do not do this “artfully.”
  18. Remember that you want something to change over the course of the story. Something big and visible to the reader. Start with one situation and end with a clearly different situation. In between tell us how you got from the one to the other. Don’t be subtle designing this change-for purposes of nailing dramatic structure be as reductive as humanly possible.
  19. Remember this simplified structure is not the story, but the hanger on which the story hangs. The story is shirts and jackets, ribbons, the perfumes of the closet, details, bits of persuasion, rubber gunk underfoot, attitudes, hints, suggestions-everything you can attach to this hanger.
  20. Obviously, these carefully hewn 39 steps must be adapted to your way of working. If you’re murky, then take these as bible and pare away. If you work bare bones, then murk up what you do. Throw stuff in. Make a mess. Don’t clean up.
  21. If you write a sentence that isn’t poignant, touching, funny, intriguing, inviting, etc., take it out before you finish the work. Don’t just leave it there. Don’t let anyone see it.
  22. To repeat, there is no place for rubbish & slop in the highly modern world of today’s fiction. Every sentence must pay, must somehow thrill. Every one.
  23. Also: Obscurity is not subtlety; intentional obscurity is pinheaded and unkind.
  24. Doing odd stuff is good, especially like when you make characters do it in the story, like when stuff i s happening to them and they just do this unexpected, even inappropriate stuff, and then somehow it makes a little sense. This fills the heart.
  25. Don’t let too many paragraphs go by without sensory information, something that can be felt, smelt, touched, tasted. Two or three paragraphs is too many.
  26. Don’t be enamored of the idea you start with, or the idea that comes to you after you’ve been working on a piece for a time. If you’re lucky the idea will keep changing as you write the story.
  27. Don’t reject interesting stuff (things for characters to say and do, things to see, places to be, etc.) because the stuff doesn’t conform to your idea. Change your idea to wrap it around the stuff.
  28. If you have a story in mind to start with, leave it there. Ditto a “character.”
  29. Apropos the big issues, note that parents don’t sit around getting heartbroken about abortion, they get heartbroken because they killed the baby.
  30. Or, because the baby was born with fins for hands. It’s the particular.
  31. Sometimes it’s useful to shut your eyes and imagine a scene as if it were in a movie; this helps flatten things and helps you “see” what the scene looks like.
  32. Also, when doing the above, notice the things you notice in your own “real” life-like what’s at the horizon, how the sun is in the sky, what kind of light’s going on, the way the street, ground, grass, dirt looks, your interest in bushes, what’s happening at the edges of things-buildings and signs and cars, the sounds of stuff going on around the scene-who’s that wheezing? what’s that rattle? are those leaves preparing to rustle? Etc.
  33. No characters named Brooke or Amber.
  34. Study steps 1,7,13,16a, and 24

Thanks, Ed.

Last Saturday was my 46th birthday. Maybe I should be more upset over that, but I suspect I’m saving up my angst for the big five-oh, so I was calmish about it. Ed gave me a quite lovely gift. Back in college, my Nanna and Pop-Pop gave me 8 slide carousels with pictures from the years that they raised me, from six months of age to six years. We have carried those slides with us since then, storing them when we were out of the country and making room for them everywhere else we went. Now and then we’d pull out the slide projector and actually watch a few. For my birthday this year, Ed bought a nice scanner and scanned all 900 slides for me, carefully cleaning each slide and color correcting each image. Wow.

Seeing them again, in chronological order, was an emotional thing. I lived with Nanna and Pop-Pop and they raised me until the day after my sixth birthday, when my mother, who had recently remarried, showed up and reclaimed me against my will and their wishes. Seeing the early pictures was delightful and nostalgic. Seeing the ones later, knowing what was coming, made me uneasy. And seeing the ones taken after I no longer lived with them, knowing how homesick and displaced I felt in those pictures and knowing their smiles masked how deeply they missed me, was upsetting. But it was a gift to see the pictures, to be reminded of how extremely blessed I was to be in their care for those years, and to have them in my life until they passed away. Thank you, Ed, for giving me that gift.

Thanks, Joel.

I was catching up on Facebook last night when I ran across the following exchange:

Chet Farmer
“hey, that guitar looks familiar.”

Joel Frank Black
“Man, that guitar didn’t mess around nohow– it wouldn’t take no jive turkey crap from NOBODY, had solid yttrium pickups, was carved from the finest particle board plank available in Guangdong prefecture, spoke several languages including esperanto, and, when not actively holding the fabric of the universe together, reposed in a case made of interwoven Chic-O-Sticks.”

It has triggered some tremors in my brain. I don’t know what Joel’s day job is, but I don’t think he puts bacon on the table as a writer. My business card says writer, but I haven’t written a thing in years that was as alive and energetic and fun as that post of his.

We knew each other in Hattiesburg, had common friends. We both got out, heading in different directions. He headed west to California. I headed east to Atlanta, and after bouncing around a bit have landed in SLC.

I left to escape the lack of opportunity. I was too special, too free thinking, too creative for that one-horse college town. But after 25-odd years that have passed since burning rubber outta town on Hardy Street, I find myself in another small city, doing work that is in no way special, creative, or free-thinking, at least not in the sense I understood it then.

Joel is still in California. And no matter what his day job is, his post reminded me that he is more creative and free thinking than I will ever be, without even trying. I’m not being self-deprecating here. Joel and his ilk were always able to shake it up and spray it out in the most mind-bending ways. Clearly, that’s still the case.

Maybe the punchline is that regardless of where think we belong, we end up where we’re meant to be. Maybe in spite of all the years of running and working like a dog, I was meant to live in a small town and write dull stuff. In which case perhaps I shoulda just stayed in Mississippi. For all the energy expended, I haven’t really moved forward very much. Not that I didn’t have the opportunity. It’s just that again and again, I chose what I thought was quality of life over career. Which led me here.

Not complaining. Life is good. Comfortable house in a safe place, great coworkers, gorgeous city, haven’t been laid off in awhile. And I had the pleasure of reading that brilliant rant. Now you have, too. What does it all mean? In the words of Mr. Natural, don’t mean sheeit.

Thanks, Bob and Mary Alice.

Never had a large family, and over the years it has dwindled. The husband has a large family, and they have kindly adopted me as one of their own, so it hasn’t trouble me too much. I have a sister in Mississippi, a father somewhere in Texas, probably extended relatives out there somewhere. It has its advantages, like never having to juggle two families at the holidays. But as the years has passed, I’ve missed having family of my own.

My closest relatives were my grandparents. My Nanna and Pop-Pop deserve a book of their own. They raised my until I was six years old, and played a central role in my life, well, all through my life. They’ve been gone a long time now. Still miss them. Pop-Pop was one of five brothers, all raised in Pennsylvania, sons of a policeman who became one of the biggest bootleggers in Philadelphia during Prohibition. Irishmen all, true Lindsays, with fair hair and skin smooth as milk when they were young men, then ruddy as they aged. I have it, too; pink arms covered in faded freckles. Not loud freckles like a readhead; subtle, like links of sweet Italian sausage in the casing, ready for the frying pan. Pop-Pop’s arms, hands, fingers all had that look, and his brothers had it, too. They looked like brothers, all cut from the same cloth, alike but different from everyone else.

They had other things in common. A laugh I loved to hear, a similar way of speaking. Pop-Pop had a wonderful voice, as did his brothers. Gentle Philly accent, low register, a texture that was so smooth but not at all slick. No one else sounds like that.

In 1976, I was 11 years old. Nanna and Pop-Pop took me to up to Philadelphia for the Bicentennial, and to see his family. I met uncles and aunts and cousins-once-removed, and experienced a sense of family I had never known before. It was so comforting to sit around on the patio, listening to them tell stories of their youth and their adventures. I come from somewhere, I thought. There is more to my family than the small, quarreling outpost in Mississippi.

July 4th we spent at the home of Pop-Pop’s nephew, Bobby. He and his wife, Mary Alice, had a gorgeous historical home with a wraparound porch. The railing were spread with red, white and blue bunting, and similar crepe paper wound around every porch railing. The house was filled with friends and relatives, cooking, talking, cleaning, carrying plates in and out. Overwhelmed, I went upstairs to use the bathroom. I stuck my head into the open door of a guest bedroom. The afternoon sun glowed through the window. The room was simply furnished with an antique bed, dresser, perhaps a small side table and rocking chair. On the dresser there was a pair of Ben Franklin-style spectacles lying on an open book from a similar time. I could hear the distant, happy din of the party downstairs, but in the room it was quiet. It was the most calm, tidy, lovely room I had ever seen. Nanna’s house was always clean and homey, of course, but this was something else. Someone has put thought into this room, composed it, created a haven. It was so completely different from Nan’s house. I knew then how I wanted my life to be.

The person responsible for that room was Bobby’s wife, Mary Alice. She had married into the the Lindsay clan but she might as well have been one of them with her blonde hair, rosy cheeks and laugh that pulled you right along with it. She was her own person, though. More upbeat and bubbly than the deadpan Lindsay style, she was a terrific foil for Bobby, who was very much a Lindsay himself. I liked her immediately. She was a teacher, and while some people there thought of me only as Harry and Peg’s granddaughter (to be clear, an honor that suited me just fine), Mary Alice thought of me as Ann, as a person in my own right, in a way that only people who spend a lot of time with kids can. She was enthusiastic but not in superficial way, and she changed my life that day.

The party was one for the ages. People played horseshoes on the lawn, ate and drank and laughed. Women crowded the kitchen, with its high ceiling and plush appliances. At dusk we all walked over to a neighborhood park to watch the fireworks. There was a little brass band playing Sousa marches, blankets and folding chairs on the grass, kids with sparklers. There, surrounded by relatives, watching Nanna and Pop-Pop so happy and in their element, I was as happy and safe as I have ever felt in my life. Everything was so beautiful. It was like something out of a Sunset magazine or Martha Stewart Living spread, long before Martha. It was the genuine article. And it forged a vision for me of what life could be. In a way, everything I’ve done since then was to get myself back to that place, to make it my own, to make it permanent. It was a beacon for many, many years.

Mary Alice, too, made a tremendous impression on me. She paid attention to me, talked to me, showed an interest. Maybe she was just being a teacher, a good hostess, a fine person, but it, too, made a lasting impact. She read something I wrote, and she told me I could write. I hadn’t thought of myself as a writer, per se, until she said that. Her words crystallized that idea in my mind, though. I was not a writer when I went up to Philadelphia, but I was one when I got back. It helped me define myself. Mary Alice says I can write, so I can. It wasn’t that she bestowed any talent on me; she recognized something, pointed it out, and brought it to my attention. In doing that, she gave me a real gift. I began to think of myself as a writer, to work toward that goal, and now it is the most valuable skill I have to offer. That trip, and my friendship with Bobby and Mary Alice, was quite literally a life-changing experience for me.

I never got back up there, though. As I got a little older I became more absorbed in my own selfish life, and Nanna and Pop-Pop went without me. Because I was young, and they were the keepers of the family flame, and because I assumed they were going to live forever, I never much worried about keeping in touch with Bob and Mary Alice. But they didn’t live forever. And when they were gone, I completely lost touch with that part of my family. A great loss, indeed.

But that’s not what I’m here to tell you about.

Somehow we got back in touch a few years back. Since then it’s been Christmas cards, the occasional phone call, all thrilling. But earlier this month they wrote to say they were spending the winter in Nevada, just a few hours from where we live in Utah. Joy! I replied and offered to drive down and visit. But they beat me to the punch. They drove up to Salt Lake City a couple of weeks ago, and I got to see them for the first time in 33 years.

They were staying at the Staybridge Suites on Main Street, and I met them at their hotel. Standing in the lobby, I was nervous. What if it was weird? What if there was nothing to talk about? What if they didn’t even recognize me? Then I saw them. I’d have recognized them anywhere. Mary Alice looked exactly the same, and Bob, a bit older now, looked every inch a Lindsay. Mary Alice immediate ran over to me, gave me a big laughing hug, took my face in her hands and psaid something I was unprepared for: “You look just like Peg!!” Peg. Nanna. Nobody ever told me that because no one in my life knew us both. I’m bawling just writing about it now. It was the very best thing she could have said.

Then Bob was there, giving me the biggest, best bear hug. And I’m not gonna lie, I know them and love them for who they are, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was seeing Nanna and Pop-Pop again. It was like they were there. I don’t know how I held it together. I guess it was just the joy of seeing them again. The joy of having family.

I needn’t have worried. We had a long, lovely dinner, never stopped talking, and just barely scratched the surface. They spent two wonderful days touring the city and visiting with Ed, the kids, and me. The kids, grandparent-deprived as they are, were thrilled to pieces to meet them. They came over to visit and I made Nanna’s sticky bun recipe and showed them dozens of family pictures they hadn’t seen before. Ed was a prince and scanned them all, so they could leave with high-res copies they can share with the family back east. Family I hope to meet someday soon.

The most astonishing part to me was how easily we all fell back in together. Mary Alice was such a delight to be around, with the same infectious enthusiasm I remembered, The woman is like bottled sunshine. And Bob and I had a great time trading quips, just like Pop-Pop and his brothers used to do. He has a sly, sharp sense of humor that was totally familiar to me, and that I love. And he looks like a Lindsay—same face, voice, mannerisms, accent. And just like 33 years before, it was deeply comforting. I come from somewhere, I thought again. There is more to my family. I am truly blessed.

So thank you, Bob and Mary Alice, for all you have given me. I resolve to do a better job staying in touch in the next 33 years that I have in the last. I love you both very much.

Hey Kevin. Thanks.

Don’t tell me chance doesn’t run the craps table in the casino of life. And don’t tell me there’s any such thing as a self-made man. I know better. Everything I have I owe to sheer dumb luck, and to the generous spirits of the people I have had the good fortune to know.

Jackson, Mississippi was, and is, a backwater. Thank God. They don’t take kindly to the pompous and uppity. It’s slow there. There’s time to burn, time to waste, time to think and not think, to reflect on the nature of existence and to make dumbass mistakes. Time to listen.

Jackson was boring. It has always had that going for it. It was good, because things that were not boring towered above the landscape like a radio tower above a pine forest. Like the rock station there, WZZQ-FM. Maybe there were a hundred other stations just like it across the country. Maybe not. Either way, it was a special thing. While other stations were trying hard to sound professional and produced and airtight, ZZQ never gave a shit. It was staffed by a small band of guys who had great taste in music and the priceless gift of being themselves whether the mic was on or off. Working out of a studio in the middle of a cow pasture north of town, they perpetrated an artistic vision so pure that Kubrick would probably have been impressed. All while partying their asses off.

ZZQ, in that town at that time, was more than just a slice of bandwidth for hawking used car lots and mortgage lenders and traffic reports. It was a like a living person, a hub, as much a member of my circle of friends as any of us. It entertained us, brought us together, exposed us to music we’d never have known of otherwise, rallied us, and became the soundtrack for the movies we imagined our lives to be. Drinking in the woods in silence? Creepy. But partying out at Lost Rabbit with Houses of Holy blasting on ZZQ from the car radio is the stuff you dream of as you sit in your cubicle waiting for 5 o’clock to come around yet again.

Say these names to most anyone between the ages of 35 and 50 in Jackson, Mississippi, and they will nod and grin: Kevin. Perez. Wayne. Dave. Victor. Sergio. They were the DJs, (the ones I remember). Through some fluke of the universe, which in reality was the management who decided AOR was the best format for selling ads, these young, shaggy dudes came to be the keepers of acres of airtime. They filled it well. They were completely authentic; brilliant fuckups who managed to create unforgettable radio without even trying. Committed amateur musicologists and professional smartasses who showed up when they felt like it, which was pretty much all the time. Seriously talented people who took the world, the audience, and the music seriously, but never themselves.

They weren’t just playing records. They were building a cult of music and personality. Fuck market research and Billboard and Arbitron. They played what they wanted, what they knew and what they wanted us to know. Listening to ZZQ was like being at the coolest cocktail party ever. It was loose, sloppy, funny, live. Dead air wasn’t uncommon. Perez had no problem flipping on the mic after a song and saying “Talk amongst yourselves” while rummaging through stacks of vinyl looking for the next song. Thirty seconds might go by, and I’d stop whatever I was doing to listen to the ambient sound, the chair rolling to the back of the studio, the shuffle of cardboard album covers, the shouts toward the mic to be patient. And we were patient. It was vastly more interesting than anything else on the dial there or anywhere else in the country because it was so damn personal. These were real people. That guy scrambling around in front of a live mic looking for Space Oddity was doing it in real time just 20 miles north of my house. At that very moment. It was like witnessing history, made fresh every day. Next day at school: “You hear Perez last night?” “Yeah, he was totally fucked up.”

But I never thought it was drugs. They may not have realized it at the time (I certainly didn’t), but they were pranksters in the tradition Ernie Kovacs, Milton Berle, and Chuck Jones. They were playing with the medium of radio, treating it like a toy, bashing it around, taking it apart and winding it up to see how much they could do to it. The station was their private science experiment and we got to listen.

They were each distinctive personalities. Wayne was the hottie. Kevin was fast, witty, political, intellectual. Dave was completely laid back, a furry music guru. Perez was just strange, with a deep, smoky voice and a habitual disregard for on-air convention. None of them could be controlled much, by management or anyone else. I imagined their control booth as a cross between NASA mission control and an opium den. I listened daily, whenever I wasn’t sitting in class. We all did. You could walk down the hill to school in the morning and hear it playing in each Camaro and GTO and Ford pickup, all the way down. It was a great time.

Then it died. Management decided a country format would sell more ad time, so one night they played “The End” by The Doors, said “This was WZZQ” and flipped off the transmitter. The next morning it was MISS 103, with cheez-whiz country music, a jingle package fresh outta Nashville and tight, perky announcers. There was angst. We held candlelight vigils. There were letters to the editor, black armbands, recriminations. But soon enough we all dispersed and went on with our lives. In my case that meant high school. I was 15.

The DJs worked different stations around town. Kevin went to WTYX, the top 40 station. He did what he could to make it tolerable, bent the format as much as he thought he could get away with. In the absence of ZZQ I listened to TYX. I imagined the control room at TYX to be different than ZZQ. More like an auto repair waiting room lit by florescents.

One night I called in to TYX to request a song. Even at 15 I had a decent phone voice with a lower pitch, made lower by the late hour and by years living with a chain smoking mother. I called, got through, Kevin answered. I requested my song in as close to a whiskey voice as I could muster, and he started talking to me. Whoa. Kevin, talking to me. Chatting me up, in fact. Then he asked me how old I was, and I told him. 15. I could almost hear him pulling up the emergency break with both hands. I figured that was the end of that. But then he said something that would change everything in my life, to this day. He said, “You should be in radio.”

I thought he was just kidding, but he asked me to come out to the station that night to record a :30 promo he’d written about TYX t-shirts. The guy could have been a serial killer and I’d have gone. I took my mother’s car (where was she? Passed out? Asleep? I don’t even remember.) and headed north, to Beasley Road.

These days Beasley Road is all strip malls and traffic lights. Then it was a dark drive though the wilds of north Jackson. I could see the stars through the windshield between infrequent streetlights. The station was near where ZZQ had been, on the same road. I turned off the two-lane and onto the gravel road leading to the station–a big metal building next to a transmitter, as butt-ugly plain as it gets. I parked next to a phone pole that held the sole streetlight with its halo of moths, crunched across the gravel lot and knocked. The industrial metal door opened and there was Kevin, lit from behind by florescents.

Kevin. He looked exactly like he sounded on air. Thin, tall, groomed beard and poboy glasses with clear plastic frames. Light blue/grey eyes that made him look strange and intense. He said hello, and walked me down a hall of windows to the booth. Gold records on black felt on the walls. He handed me the script. I did a readthrough, trying, poorly, to act like I did this every day. Then he gave me headphones and we did a few takes. He was doing this while running a board shift so he was businesslike, which I appreciated. He mixed the spot between breaks, gave me a dub of the spot and a TYX t-shirt for my trouble, and thanked me. The whole thing probably took half an hour. Then I was driving back down the gravel road in the Mississippi darkness, utterly thrilled. But not half as thrilled as I was when I heard the spot on the air.

That chance meeting and Kevin’s generosity started a chain of events that changed the course of my life. I took my TYX spot to another station, WCCL-AM oldies, and based on it they gave me a shot at working overnights. That led to other radio jobs (once you’re in, you’re in), and I was able to put work myself through high school and college in radio. I worked oldies, top 40, country, easy listening and adult contemporary formats, AM and FM, did board shifts and newscasts and cut spots. Got eight chances every shift, at the top and bottom of each hour, to time up to live ABC News feeds, and got pretty good at it. Learned how to edit AP reports on the fly and that it’s pronouced “double you”, not “dubya”. Got over hating the sound of my own voice in my cans. Totally botched saying “Apalachicola, Florida” during a newscast. Learned exactly how long thirty seconds is. And every time I wrote a spot, I heard Kevin and Perez and ZZQ in my head, and wrote it like I thought they’d write it. Loose, conversational, funny as I could make it.

When I graduated with a B.A. in English, I put together a reel and headed to Atlanta. I had the good fortune (chance and generosity again) to get an interview with Turner Network Television for an entry-level production assistant job. When I waved my degree at the creative director, he snorted and said, “We don’t care. Ted doesn’t have a degree.” Then he listened to my reel. He was mostly unimpressed, but one spot made him laugh. I didn’t get the job. But he helped my find temporary work and hired me for the next P.A position that came open, six months later. And once I got over the shock of it, I was good at the job because the audio part of it was already second nature.

Thanks to a lot more chance and generosity, the TNT job led to a job helping launch Nickelodeon UK in London, then to Turner Classic Movies and a host of fun freelance writing and production projects in Atlanta and New York. I was hired at iXL in Atlanta and learned a ton about creating content for the web. Now I live in Salt Lake City because I love it here. I’m an associate creative director for McCann Erickson (ad agency). I’ve been able to stay in this business of media for almost three decades thanks to (yes) chance and generosity. And it all began the night I called Kevin at WTYX to request a song. Wish I could remember what the damn song was.

I’m not a visually brilliant creative. My success has always come from the way I write. My party trick is that I can crank out copy that’s tight, smart, irreverent, easy to read, and fun to listen to. That’s because I grew up listening to the guys who did it best: the DJs at WZZQ. Their style was a huge creative influence on me. Even now, when I script a spot I hear them. I think of how they’d do it, how they’d subvert it, how they’d make it stick, just as fragments of the spots they made in the ‘70s are still stuck in my head. I think of how they’d play with it. That ability to play with the medium, to just have fun with it, has taken me farther than I could have imagined when I was a teenager in Mississippi. So here’s to you Kevin and Perez and Sergio and Dave and Victor and Wayne and everyone at WZZQ-FM. Thanks for all you did, and for what you created. You made a difference in Jackson. I owe you. And here’s to chance and generosity. Without ‘em I’d be flipping burgers.


We live a long way from our relatives. A plane ride with a layover long way. That means we generally eat Thanksgiving dinner by ourselves, just the four of us. I like it that way. But it doesn’t stop me from cooking a dinner big enough to feed a couple dozen aunts and cousins and assorted innocent bystanders who might happen to drop by. I cook a lot, and I enjoy it a lot. This year was no different. I went traditional–turkey, potatoes, stuffing, rolls, broccoli, pumpkin pie. Yummy, but a bit of a yawn.

There was a bright spot, however. Ed and I always assumed we didn’t like cranberry sauce, probably because we had only ever been exposed to the canned stuff. It squats there on the plate, naked, embarrassed, in need of a girdle, the shape of dog food. Wiggling. Kinda rust colored. Ew.

As I was making chitchat with a couple of the other school moms, day before Thanksgiving, I mentioned this. “Oh, you HAVE to make it from scratch,” one exclaimed, then they both went into a tag team witnessing session on the joys of homemade cranberry sauce. Seeing two intelligent, canned-cranberry-sauce-hating adults burst into a spontaneous rave piqued my curiosity, so I swung by the store on the way home (for the 11th time in two days) and bought a bag of fresh cranberries. I found the recipe online they recommended, and made it. Simple ingredients–cranberries, sugar, the zest and juice of an orange, and a bunch of fresh grated ginger. I cooked it, used my stick blender on it, and pushed it through a sieve to smooth it out. The whole thing took less than half an hour. Skipped the pecans the recipe called for. Not risking perfectly good pecan$$ on a culinary gamble.

Took a bit on a spoon and tasted. Total eye opener. It blew my mind. Lit my tongue up like a pinball machine. The subtle bite of the fresh ginger played perfectly against the cranberries. Every taste was so intense–the sweet, the tart, the bright citrus high notes–it was like three acres of flavor squeezed into one teaspoon of sauce. And it was so beautiful. A deep, bright burgundy color, shiny, with a great consistency, similar to applesauce but smoother. I was hooked. After that, there was no keeping me away from it. Tasting spoons piled up in the sink as I kept going back for just one more bite. Ed was the same, just as surprised, delighted, and addicted as I was. Next time I’ll be adding pecans. Next time might be tomorrow.

Here’s the recipe I found online:

Killer Cranberry Sauce

1-1/2 cup sugar
1 navel orange
1/2 t grated ginger
4 C cranberries
1/2 C (2 oz.) toasted pecans

Grate the orange peel and add to a pot with the sugar and ginger.
Add the juice from the orange into the pot and simmer over
medium heat until the sugar is dissolved.
Add cranberries and cook until they pop – about 5 minutes.
Add pecans and cool sauce.

(I blended and strained the sauce, and I think that made it even better.)

So here’s to confronting old prejudices, to the pleasures of homemade, and to the moms at Emmy school. Lots to give thanks for. I owes ya.

Yeah I know, it’s been awhile.

And I have a whole list of excuses that do nothing to mask the real issue: it’s easier to consume content than to create it. Also, I’m hesitant to create more white noise, and I haven’t had a lot to say in, oh, eight months or so. But I have recently been at once shamed and inspired by the blog of a coworker ( and have decided to suck it up and start blogging.  But not about work. Not today. Though sometime I’d be interested to see where you stand on the interesting-work-in-a-scary-urban-center approach versus the crazymaking-dull-work-in-a-freakin-winter-wonderland approach to one’s career. Not that I’m complaining. Happy to have the work.

My favorite site of the week is He’s an American cookbook author and gifted food photographer who lives in Paris. Think David Sedaris meets Julia Child.  I am so smitten that I’ve kept my browser open for days just so I can look at it in any spare moment. Also, I fear that if I close the window I’ll forget it ever existed and it will be just another unorganized bookmark at the bottom of a list with hundreds of other sites I found on the way to some place else and hastily bookmarked for a time when I can go back and read each closely, along with the complete works of Shakespeare and the Great Books. Sometime after I die, I suspect. But this is different. Every page brings me joy. Really, ditch this loser blog and go there now. If you’re a foodie, that is. If you think that Romano’s Macaroni Grill has it going on, well, go anyway. Great food is a great leveler. True foodies aren’t snobs. They go where the flavor is, whether it’s savoring a dinner at Chez Panisse or tossing back an RC cola and a moon pie at a truck stop. Food sustains us, connects us, comforts us, brings us pleasure. It’s my drug of choice. And David Lebovitz is today’s favorite pusher.

That said, I did okay eating today. Protein shake for breakfast, maybe too much coffee, steak and spinach for a late lunch, couple of slices of pumpkin pie. I made the pumpkin pie with a whole wheat crust, fat free evaporated milk and Splenda, so it wasn’t quite so heavy. Next time I’m definitely springing for the whole wheat frozen pie crust at Whole Foods. Better and easier. Or I might skip the crust altogether and bake it in custard cups, though I think the husband and kids might mutiny. So not the cleanest eating day, but not the worst, either. I’ll do better tomorrow. More veggies, more water, less flour.

I’m taking a few days off from work to burn off some vacation days. That and the upcoming holidays have me even more focused on food than usual. A week of vacation stretches out before me, the chance to do an endless number of useful tasks. But I know me. I’ll waste it. Always do. Don’t get anything accomplished, just wander around the house waiting for a starting gun that never fires. I’ll surf and answer random emails with intense interest and a defensive air of importance. I’ll check Facebook and LinkedIn and Craigslist and look for jobs that don’t exist. I’ll be bored. It used to bother me, my complete lack of time management skills. Now I rationalize it as the price of a rather stressful job. It’s ok. It’s my time off, I can waste it if I want to. But right now, here at the beginning, I’m still hopeful that I can get stuff done–clean my bedroom, do laundry, get ahead on Christmas shopping and cards, rake leaves, cook, spend time with my kids, and maybe, just maybe, blog.

Content done right, part 1: How It’s Made.

Ed (the husband) and I are currently hooked on the cable television show “How It’s Made”, airing on Discovery Channel. It shows, step by step, how common objects (paintballs, golf balls, hotdogs, bubble gum, etc.) are manufactured. It’s wonderful. It succeeds because it doesn’t try to tart up the content. No corny hosts, no flashy graphics or dizzying transitions, and none of the damned fast forwards that infest so many of the shows on HGTV. Just information, straight up, like a neat scotch. The makers understand that the information itself is what’s valuable, and the production should be as transparent as possible. Which is not to say that it’s not well produced. You can tell that they put thought into creating a consistent visual style. This ain’t no stock footage. At its best, it captures hypnotic, beautiful images of machines working with mindless precision. It’s slow and unpretentious and relaxing to watch. As a producer I love the way the show structure lends itself to language versioning. Weak spots: the music beds are awful. This is an easy fix. Find some kid who does his own ambient stuff and cut a deal on an original music package in return for international exposure. Lose the distracting needle drop. They could also lose the puns. Really. But on the whole it’s a great example of content done right. You wouldn’t believe what a weird, drawn-out process it is to make a trumpet.

The show airs often, which means it must be pulling good numbers. Which means that people are watching. Other cable channels, take note: maybe the era of compelling content being undercut by saccharine, condescending production is coming to an end. In my dreams I get the job of taking all of HGTV’s raw footage, cutting out the hosts and doing trance remixes like this on all their shows. Hey Scripps, ready to evolve the HGTV brand? Or at least consider a cheap way to transform dated content into a sleek new franchise? Let’s tawk.

Interesting content or white noise?

This remains to be seen.

I’m a copywriter, associate creative director and general promo ho who has been chewing on a few basic question for most of my working life:

What makes great work?

What makes a successful career?

What makes a happy life?

Have I got a shot at any of that stuff?

Those will likely be the themes of this blog. Cooking, family and any other shiny thing that catches my eye will almost certainly creep in, too.

Rather than read my honking and bleating on about myself, though, how about you check out my site at Should be good for a laugh. Or at least a derisive snort.

Thanks to Steve, David and Martin at Twelve Horses for inspiring me to finally birth a blog. Hope it doesn’t go the way of my Sea Monkeys, Chia Pets and that baby alligator I flushed.