Wednesday, February 28, 2007



-Barbara D’Amato

Writers, do you self-censor? I’ll bet you do. I do it too, but should we?

The whole issue of political correctness is troubling. I was reminded of it again when a comment from a blog-reader came in on Marcus Sakey’s recent post. Marcus had called two very good-looking women “hotties” in his report on the Love Is Murder conference and was taken to task by a reader who said the word was not respectful of women.

I think of myself as pretty much of a first amendment absolutist. But there are limits. Certainly I don’t think people should be permitted to write racist, sexists, anti-gay, anti-ethnic, or even lookist graffiti on students’ dorm doors, for example. But the idea of limits on free speech is distasteful too.

Remember Don Rickles’ attack humor. Was it funny? Or was it only funny until your ox was gored?

Remember Jerry Lewis’s make-fun-of-the-handicapped movies? He is rumored to be ashamed of them now.

What about all of us as writers?

Suppose you’re writing a crime novel [and why else are we talking?] You want to characterize someone as potentially a villain. Do you make him unattractive? And bear in mind even the word “unattractive” implies there is beauty out there and some people just don’t have it. Okay. Does he have buck teeth? Is he bandy-legged? Does he have bad skin? People can’t help these things and they aren’t bad just because they’re unattractive by current standards, are they? Well, unattractive habits, then? Doesn’t bathe? Picks his nose? They’re okay. No p.c. offense there.

I don’t know what to think about all this. I don’t know what to do about it when I’m writing and I suspect if I worry too much about it, I’ll be like the centipede who was asked how he knew which leg to move and wound up confused in a ditch.

I don’t know the answer, but I do have some questions:

Shall I include a bigot as a character? It depends on the story, you’ll say. And we can claim that including them and showing what asses they are is a Good Thing. For myself, though, it takes me about a year to write a book, and it’s distasteful to spend all that time with a disgusting personr. Kill him off early? Cop-out.

How about epithets? Can I use the n-word? The f-word? The other f-word? The c-word? They are out there in the real world. Most of us use them mainly in dialogue.

Is it okay to use stereotypes? If I’m writing a mobster, do I give him an Italian name, a big nose and a cigar? I probably can, because I have an Italian last name, but should I?

I find myself sometimes making evildoers tall, good-looking white folks, partly to work against expectations, but that expectation is a form of bias, too, isn’t it? Partly, I’m afraid, it’s cowardice. When we do it, we can claim we’re “casting against type” to surprise or fool the reader. Certainly Agatha Christie did this to great effect. She said she was intentionally using readers’ biases against them when she set up a child as the killer or an elderly man. But in many cases, it’s p.c. caution.

If I really look into myself, I do self-censor, and I’ll bet you do, too.

Is that good or bad?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Have Novel, Will Travel

by Marcus Sakey

Here's a little test to measure intelligence. When planning a book tour, should one:

A) Schedule it for February
B) Do it in the Midwest in February
C) Make it a driving tour through the Midwest in February

A clue: Pick any of these and you ain't that bright.

Sean and I just returned from a Type C tour through 8 cities, 7 scheduled events, and more than 50 drop-ins. Other statistics include several hundred signed books, 3 snowstorms, 14 Powerbars, and 2 minor car accidents (we're fine, thanks).

Suffice it to say, we had a great time.

Touring is a strange experience, especially for debut novelists. The truth is that we still don't really believe that our books exist, that people across the country can go into a bookstore and buy them. So it's a tremendous thrill to see your book on the tables in a city you've never visited.

Better still are the people you meet: indulge me in a quick shout-out to all of the booksellers who hosted us, especially Jim Huang of the Mystery Company, Paul Klein of Barnes & Noble, and the folks at Joseph-Beth (Rachel, Hali, Jeff, Amy and the rest of the awesome crew ). Thanks also to the friends that came out to see us, especially Meryl Neiman and Jim Winter, both of whom took special care of a couple of road-weary guys.

It's funny -- my book came out in early January, and since then, the bulk of my time has been spent in self-promotion. Things are finally starting to wind down; I have a few more appearances booked and a couple of speaking engagements, but no more marathon touring or serious traveling. Which is perfect, because I'm getting the first tingles of excitement (terror?) about starting my next book.

But before I switch gears, I've been thinking about the value of all of this self-promotion. This is hardly a new topic; my friends J.A. Konrath and M.J. Rose have both dedicated their blogs to the subject. But as this is my first time around, I wanted to reflect on my own feelings.

Basically, I think it comes down to this: Are you in it marathon or sprint? If you want to write a book a year and build a career, hopefully growing more successful with each book, hitting the road is an important component for a couple of reasons. First, every bookseller you shake hands with has the potential to become an evangelist, someone who hand-sells your books. This is a very good thing. Second, though debut authors don't draw huge crowds, the folks who do come out really, really love your work, and chatting with them is both the right thing to do and a great pleasure. And finally, the effort that you put out there demonstrates to your publisher that you are committed -- that this is a job to you, one you take seriously.

That said, even with Priceline and Powerbars, it costs a lot of money, and it requires a lot of time. Time that could be spent writing.

For me, it's worth it. But that's just my opinion. What do you guys think? Is a regional tour worthwhile? Are there better ways to get your name out there?

For you readers, does it matter to you that an author comes to your town, or that you can find signed copies of a book? Would you hold it against an author if they didn't tour?

I'd really like to know. Because it'll be February again sooner than I'd like to admit.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


Put whatever is not working away for a while, then try to reread it as if someone else wrote it. Maybe the story isn't what you originally envisioned, but it may be much better if you go with what it's turned out to be.

Or try working on something else. (I have seven novels in progress right now and expect to finish all of them one day.) If your subconscious is like mine, it wants to work on anything but what your conscious brain is trying to do.

I also find that research sometimes helps. It may give you a fact or line of inquiry that connects apparently unrelated ideas.

Try bouncing the story off another writer, a librarian, creative writing teacher, or local full-service book seller familiar with your kind of story.

Join a writer's group in your area (geographically and genre-wise). Be careful. Some groups are toxic--it's always easier to bitch than come up with constructive comments. Don't put up with criticism like "I just didn't like it." Good criticism goes something like "Too many sentences start with participle phrases" or "You spend too many words describing scenery or clothing, not enough developing character or describing action" or "The paragraph has two run-on sentences" or "Your pronouns don't agree with the nouns they refer to" or "You put your entire backstory in chapter one. Save most of it for later." Good groups are hard to find and hard to get into, but well worth the trouble.

If you haven't already, read On Writing by Stephen King, The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, or Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

Also check out How to Write Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat, Getting the words right: How to Revise, Edit & Rewrite by Theodore A. Rees Cheney, and Story by Robert McKee.

Attend a writer's conference like Love is Murder or Left Coast Crime. Hanging out with other's who share your passion usually fuels the creative fire.

Go to a great movie, play, art exhibit--something stimulating and unrelated to your story. It will ignite your creativity.

Take a ride on a bus or the El (or Metro, or subway). Eavesdrop in a restaurant or in line at the grocery store. Take a walk and read the graffiti.

Keep writing but don't try too hard.

Don't give up.

Do have fun.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Reading and Writing

by Libby Hellmann

I admit it. I was in a slump. A funk. I didn’t want to face the computer. I was honing the art of procrastination. Nursing a full blown case of Writer’s Block. Part of it was probably the cold weather. Part of it is that I’m in the saggy, baggy middle of my thriller. And part of it is just my perverse nature.

At the same time, there’s been some recent blog chatter about process and what to read when you’re writing. Whether you should read at all. Whether you should read Books about Writing. Or take courses. Since I’ve been in procrastination mode, I’m happy to weigh in.

I’m one of those writers who never took a writing course or workshop before I started writing. (I walked five miles to school in the snow, too). I took the requisite English courses in college. But that was it. I wasn’t on any kind of crusade against the written word. It was simply that I had no plans to become a writer. I was going to be a film-maker. The Lina Wertmuller of the US, in fact. Making dramatic, layered, and beautiful films. I did get a masters degree in film production. I even worked on a few features. Unfortunately I never became Lina. Or even a distant clone.

Still, during my film days, I read a lot. Mostly thrillers: Le Carre, Ludlum, Follet, Deighton. After a while, I moved into mysteries. My first was Jerry Healy’s The Staked Goat, thanks to my mother, who passed it along after I complained that thrillers were all sounding the same. I read widely. I read often. And then I started to write. It was that simple.

I still read all the time. Especially when I’m writing. And I agree with James Hall, whose recent essay in the MWA newsletter
talks about the importance of doing just that. For me good writing is a template. I deconstruct it. I see how another writer builds their action scenes, how they combine dialogue and narrative, how they develop the voice of their characters. Not only is it fun – almost like working a puzzle or er—a detective story – but sometimes it even gets me unstuck.

Which brings me to Books on Writing. Again, I think the best way to learn to write – besides reading -- is to write. Join a writer’s group. Get some feedback. In fact, I usually avoid books on writing. But I’ve just run across a book (thanks, Judy!) that’s different, because its thesis is that in order to learn how to write you must read. Period.

It’s called Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose. In it the author says the best way to learn how to read is by close reading. She says those who say “oh I can’t read so and so…” or “I can’t read anyone while I’m writing” are basically full of beans. That you absolutely SHOULD and MUST read good writers while you’re writing. Not to plagiarize… but to see how they constructed things. The architecture of their books. For example, how they move from lyricism to violence, or how they parse the rhythm of their prose. Prose (the perfect surname, isn’t it?) loads her chapters with excerpts from authors like Flannery O’Connor to James Baldwin to Emily Bronte, Raymond Chandler, and more. There are chapters on sentences, paragraphs, narration, character and dialogue. There’s even a chapter on “Books To Be Read Immediately,” although as it goes on for five pages, I’m not sure how immediately I’ll get through them.

If you have a love of language -- and what writer doesn’t? -- you will happily inhale this book.
You might even find inspiration in its pages. Or a path that cuts through Writer’s Block.

I did. I’m back to writing. And feeling much better, thank you.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Hoist the Flag

This post is entirely off-topic but it's something I haven't been able to get off my mind since the sad news about Barbaro and I can't think of a way to bring it into the narrow scope of things we try to write about around here without posting an entirely gratuitous photo of a Dick Francis novel. So apologies in advance.

When I was in college I worked each summer as a houseboy for a man named Stephen C. Clark, Jr. He was from an old money family whose fortune was boosted early in the 20th Century by the success of the Singer Sewing Machine Company and many other wise investments. My boss's father, Stephen C. Clark, Sr. was one of this nation's great collectors of European art. He founded several museums himself, and became the father of the American sports hall of fame when he started the baseball one in Cooperstown in 1939.

The Mr. Clark I worked for wasn't so much interested in art. I remember a conversation we had in a McDonald's somewhere around Albany (a lunch stop while driving supplies to his summer home in Saratoga) when I mentioned a Van Gogh I had studied in an art class that had, at one time, belonged to his family. He chewed his Big Mac a few times and asked me, "Van Gogh? Which one?" I told him it was titled Cafe de Nuit which meant nothing to him, but he told me he was pretty sure he remembered it. "My father liked art," he explained.

What this Mr. Clark liked was horses. He raised thoroughbreds at his ranch in Virginia and the walls of his home were covered with paintings of horses. English fox hunts. Regal portraits of thoroughbreds. Most of these were of a horse called Hoist the Flag.

I am a very casual fan of horse racing, and certainly no student of the sport. These days I probably make one trip a year to Arlington Park. So at the time the name Hoist the Flag meant nothing to me and when I asked him about the paintings he would say only, "That was a horse I used to own" and I knew nothing more. Until one day when Mr. Clark asked me to clean his attic.

Now being a houseboy for a widowed millionaire is not really the most stressful work. In addition to me there was cook and a butler and a maid and a laundress and two groundskeepers. And it wasn't like Mr. Clark made a big mess. I polished doorknobs and brass. I restocked the minibars. I helped mow the lawn and rolled the clay tennis court. I straightened Dick Francis novels on bedside tables in the guest rooms. So I was almost always looking for something to do and I figured his request for an attic cleaning pretty much amounted to busywork, an opinion confirmed when I climbed up and found it immaculate. I swept some cobwebs and put some crates in neat rows and finally found a few boxes that had deteriorated from moisture or mice so I brought in new boxes and began transferring the contents.

These boxes were filled with photos and memorabilia of this horse named Hoist the Flag.

And he was hardly just some horse Mr. Clark used to own.

His grandsire was War Admiral and his great-grandsire (is that a word?) was Man O'War and he never finished a race worse than first. He won his maiden race by two-and-half lengths. His second by five. His third by almost two. In his fourth race he won by three lengths but was disqualified for bumping. Afterward, a reporter asked his jockey why he was crying--it was just one race after all--and the jockey replied, "Because this is the only race this horse will ever lose."

He was right. Hoist the Flag was the undefeated two-year-old horse of the year in 1970 and years later, that jockey, Jean Cruguet, still claimed Hoist the Flag was the greatest horse he had ever ridden. This was even after he had led Seattle Slew to the Triple Crown.

But there was more history inside those boxes.

Hoist the Flag was a prohibitive favorite to win the 1971 Kentucky Derby, even the Triple Crown. He was a once-in-twenty lifetimes kind of colt for a horseman like Mr. Clark. No expert could name a three-year-old who could beat him on a half-decent day. But a month before the Derby, Hoist the Flag broke his right hind leg in a workout at Belmont Park. The injury was "catastrophic." His career was over. Most agreed his life would surely be, too.

Like the media storm around Barbaro the shocking news about Hoist the Flag was the only sports story any newspaper seemed to cover that week.

Then there was a miracle of sorts. Using revolutionary techniques, a pair of surgeons saved Hoist the Flag's life. And the cards came pouring in from animal and racing fans all over the world. In the attic, I turned hundreds of pages of sincere well-wishes, all lovingly preserved by Mr. Clark and his wife. And reading those cards I began to understand my employer in a way that I never could have cleaning his pool or even driving with him to Saratoga. Through the heartfelt words of other horse lovers I learned what it must have been like to almost lose an animal that you loved and a chance at immortality in the same instant.

Hoist the Flag had a successful career as a stud. Mr. Clark lived for several more decades as a great and humble philanthropist (every student at my high school who went on to college, including me, did so partially, or even wholly, on his dime). He had other horses.

But the rest of the time I knew him I understood there would always be a lingering sadness over one particular horse and one especially bad step during a routine workout on an empty track.

And when I watch a horse race I no longer see just odds and perfectas. And when a horse goes down I still feel worse about it than, as a distant observer, I probably should.

Every horse, I know now, is somebody's dream.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Valentine's Day

It was on a beautiful Valentines Day much like this one that Al Capone ambushed Bugs Moran and eliminated his north side gang. The slaughter was horrific. At the end of the massacre, Capone dressed some of his men in Chicago police uniforms and had them lead two others out of the building at gunpoint, to create the illusion in the eager bystanders that the police had the situation under control. You can read all the sorry details about who provided the brains and did the actual massacreing, but basically it gave Capone total control of Chicago's bootlegging operation. Unfortunately, it also brought him to the attention of the feds; 2 years later he was caught on income tax evasion. His life went steadily downhill, until he died of syphilis -- not a pretty sight!

For most of the last century, Chicago has been famous as the home of Al Capone. In a remote Japanese fishing village, when someone asked where I was from, they aped a man with a machine gun. Only during the brief reign of Michael Jordan was Capone eclipsed as The World's Most Famous Chicagoan. For some reason, Oprah is not Chicago identified--she seems to represent America in general, not her second home in particular.

So I say, let's all celebrate our sordid history. We have a mayoral primary coming up. Does anybody know? Does anybody care? Little Richie looks like a shoo-in, despite the hiring scandals that dog his administration. And I will give a kopek to anyone who can name either of his two opponents. He won't debate or talk to them, or even mention them. He gave us Soldier Field by fiat, took up Meigs Field in the middle of the night, and now is proposing to plunk down an Olympic Stadium in my neighborhood, also without discussion. I don't think a stadium, five years of construction, and several million visitors will help the south side--ask the people near Montreal's Olympic STadium--but I could be wrong. Still, when you have the opportunity for massive scandal, when many of your friends are under federal indictment and a lot of your employees are following them, doesn't it make sense to give the city bread and circuses?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Chicago, Chicago

by Barbara D'Amato

Where shall I go?
You’re planning a trip to Chicago?
You live here and you have your in-laws coming to visit and don’t know what to do?
You live in the suburbs and know you should take advantage of the city but don’t know where to start?

We have the solution.

I have spared no expense to bring you a carefully selected group of Chicago experts to give advice, my fellow blogopolitans.

Michael Allen Dymmoch says, “Depending on the person, The Art Institute, The Cultural Center, The Fine Arts Building (410 S Michigan Avenue), the Holograph Museum, 26th & Cal. We would travel by El of course. And a car trip up Lake Shore Drive. “

Marcus Sakey says, “Two choices leap to mind immediately: the Poetry Slam at The Green Mill, and "Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind," the sketch/improv show run by the Neo-Futurists. And for bars, I gotta go with Jakes (2932 N. Clark), a perfect example of the Chicago tradition of amazing corner bars. Oh, and the Hopleaf. Sheffield's, too. The L& L. And I love Brick's, the subterranean pizza joint, for pitchers and great pie.”

Libby Hellmann says, “The Botanic Gardens... even in winter... they have a lovely greenhouse and usually an interesting exhibit or two... for drinks, I’d go to the Signature Room on the 95th floor of the Hancock... then to the Parthenon in Greek Town for dinner.”

Sara Paretsky says, “In the summer, I always take visitors on the Architectural Foundation boat tour. I think people need to see the Rookery, no matter what time of year. The cultural center does neighborhood tours. Bronzeville is a wonderful trip, a microcosm of African-American history in Chicago and by extension, America. Time at the DuSable museum is included. “

Kevin Guilfoile says, “It depends on the individual, of course, but I'd probably take them to The Hideout or the Beat Kitchen or the Elbo Room or out to Fitzgeralds, depending on who's playing where. In the summer, I'd take them to Wrigley. I love the Sox, but for a neutral party a day at Wrigley is all around more fun. After the game, I'd run up to Sheffield's as well and then maybe over to the Music Box for an old noir film. In the winter it would be burgers at the Billy Goat and then a Hawks game and then Harps at the Brehon Pub (site of the infamous Sun-Times "Mirage" corruption sting). Most folks who come visit me from out of town want pizza and while I'm personally still a NY, fold-it-over pie guy at heart, Lou Malnati's gets my vote for deep dish.”

I have to second Michael’s mention of the car trip up Lake Shore Drive. If you can possibly manage one in the daytime and one at night, you get two splendid, different views of a magnificent city. People who have not visited Chicago before are amazed, looking for steel mills and stockyards and finding a waterside more beautiful than New York, certainly the equal of Rio or San Francisco. I totally agree with Sara on the boat tour of Chicago architecture. Even if the guest doesn’t start the tour with an interest in architecture, he or she will end up fascinated.

And last, Greek restaurants. Friends from New York, San Francisco and Europe have told us that the Greek restaurants in Chicago are the best in the world. My personal favorite is Greek Islands at Adams and Halsted, while Libby favors the Parthenon, but the whole Halsted Street Greektown is good.

Chicagoans out there – what Chicago offerings do you like best?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Love is Murder

My name is Marcus Sakey, and I'm an addict.

I love writing conferences. Can't get enough of them.

If you've never been to one, I urge you to go, whether you're a writer or a fan. The beautiful thing about conferences is that it doesn't matter. Everybody is welcome, everybody is friendly, and perhaps most importantly, everybody is drinking.

Last weekend was Love is Murder, a great con in Chicago. It's not the biggest, but it'll always hold a special place in my heart. A lot of good memories of the Wyndham O'Hare.

Just this year, for example, there was the opportunity to not only meet, but sit down and share numerous pints with Ken Bruen (shown here with my second wife, Judy Bobalik). And if you stay up late enough, you might get to watch Ken barter his watch for James Lavish's cowboy boots.

Or hang with Jon & Ruth & Jennifer Jordan of Crimespree, the three sweetest people alive, and hear great stories about, well, everyone in the business. Jon is easiest to find -- just follow the trail of abandoned Red Bull cans.

Alison Janssen is not only an editor at Bleak House Books, but also a Roller Derby Girl. That's her in full battle gear. Where else but a conference would you meet someone like that? And if you really want to press your luck, ask her to demonstrate a hit. The girl is all gorgeous five-foot-nothing, and she knocked me on my ass.

Need another reason? Look at these two hotties:

Breaks your heart, doesn't it? Believe me, it's even worse if you've met Tasha Alexander and Laura Caldwell and know how talented and witty they are.

There's a lot of talk about how conferences are good for your career, how you go to pitch an agent or editor, or to spread word of mouth. And that's fine. But for me, it's more than that. This is a chance to hang out with some of the most interesting people in the world. And everyone, everyone is welcome. Is there a better way to spend a weekend than with engaging folks who want to talk about books, writing, and whose turn it is to pick up the next round?

If you love books but have never been to a conference, give one a try. You'll thank me.

And for all you folks who have been to conferences, which are your favorite? Any local faves or forgotten gems? Help me out. I gotta feed my addiction somehow...

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Donkey's Funeral

by Michael Dymmoch

When, after twenty years of service as pet and consumer of left-over vegetables, the donkey laid himself out in the barn­yard in a patch of attenuated sunlight, his demise was not unexpected (although he chose a particularly raw Good Saturday--Easter being early that year--to make his quietus). He had been retired for some years and was arthritic, and his coat had grayed like weathered oak. And toward the end, even his voice faded, until, finally, it was no more than a sigh. The donkey's departure was discovered by the daughter of the family, to whom his care had fallen in later years. He had been passed down from older child to younger, like sturdy shoes that are too ugly to wear out.

It was unthinkable for them to leave the donkey unburied. When the mother of the family heard the news, she said that she wanted him to remain on the property. She was a strong woman, having survived the deaths of a husband and child, but she spoke with tears, so her two sons took themselves out with their shovels to choose a gravesite. The younger son wanted to plant their old friend in full sunlight, in a scenic location. The elder, who had dug more holes in his lifetime and was more inclined to practicality, favored siting the grave nearer to the corpse. When a compromise had been reached, they began to dig, pausing to observe that although the donkey had kicked and bitten, and pushed adults into fences, he had never harmed a child. (Except once, when he'd tasted the curly blond hair of a toddler--perhaps he had mistaken it for oatmeal.) The two men worked with moderate urgency, keeping their eyes on the darkening clouds and on the approaching sunset. After a bit, the daughter joined her brothers, and as they took turns digging, they told each other donkey tales:

"Remember the time he ran away with Ma--dragged her halfway down the block and the telephone lineman nearly fell off his pole, he was laughing so hard?
Or "Remember the last time he got outside his fence and one of the neighbors came to say, 'Your donkey's loose'? I had the worst hangover of my life that day, and he made me chase him four blocks? He would wait until I got almost close enough to grab him, and then he’d take off again, But when he got tired of the game he came right home, as docile as an old dog on a leash."

Or "Remember the time he bit the gold button off the neighbor lady's coat and chewed it flat and spat it out, and instead of being angry, she was as delighted as a child and thereafter referred to the incident as her donkey story?"

The three siblings laughed and joked and Alas-poor-Yorick-ed as they worked, for the donkey had lived a long life and did not burden them by his death with any guilt or regret as their father had. The clay at the heart of the grave resisted their efforts, sticking to their shovels and boots and to the cuffs of their jeans almost as if to prevent them from completing their task. When they judged the hole deep enough, they threw in arms-full of straw to cushion themselves from the cold fact. Then they took the donkey by the feet and dragged him to the edge and tipped him in. Even in death he was uncooperative. He planted his legs in obstinate angles and had to be coaxed inside.

As they wrestled him back into a fetal position, they recalled his legendary stubbornness: how he had refused entry into the horse-truck, though three Shetland ponies were led in and out to show him it was safe, and how he had accepted six Dairy-Queen cones as bribes and had not moved when they tried to chase him in with a stick, and how three men together couldn't pull him into the truck though they had broken the rope trying. He had never followed behind a car either--he would plant one hoof up on the ramp but had started kicking his feet and toss his head until the rope snapped--although he followed people even without a lead.

When they had the donkey arranged decently, the mother brought his favorite sandwich, PB&J, and a bouquet of carrots to put beside him in the ground. The daughter got down in the grave and presented the grave goods and patted the donkey a final time. She was more overtly sentimental than the sons, and she cried unashamedly.

They covered the donkey with straw and with earth as darkness settled over the land. And they all remembered how the donkey would bray when he was tangled in his tether-rope, or if he was hungry or thirsty or lonely, or when he was just bored, and six blocks away, friends would hear the strange sound and smile. They remembered, and they laughed.

Months later, the mother announced wistfully that she missed the donkey. The sons reminisced about how their lives had been in the days when the donkey was with them. And the daughter planted a black locust tree on the grave for a remembrance because, she said, it's such a hardy, stubborn tree with such a lovely flower.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Grace Kelly Factor

by Libby Hellmann

Barack Obama is a Wahhabe Muslim!

Hillary Clinton’s campaign said so!

Laura Bush was the go-to girl in college for weed!

Joe Biden’s a racist!

XXX (name any famous politician, athlete, or actor) is in rehab with Lindsay Lohan!

It’s hard to believe election season is still a year away. The Oppo campaigns – aided and abetted by certain media outlets -- are already slinging mud, and plenty of it. And refusing to stop even when the attacks prove to be lies.

Oh, that’s just politics, you say…

Then there are the reality shows that reward people by publicly humiliating them. And Donald Trump, (accompanied now by his daughter) showing us how to be shrewd enough to move up the ladder. Paris Hilton’s possessions are for sale online, Rosie and The Donald are feuding, and Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson has a small arsenal in his home.

Is anyone else fed up with the assault on our sensibilities? Okay... I know, it’s been happening for years. And I’m not immune -- I enjoy a little mud-slinging or practical joke, especially if the target is arrogant or pretentious. Still, I feel recently like I’m sinking into deep quicksand with no rope in sight.

It’s not just bad taste, although there’s enough of that to go around. What’s troubling is that the boundary between rumor mongering and lies has become too porous. We live in a viral online community with the potential to Swift-Boat anyone at any time. Opportunists, muckrackers, apologists -- anyone with an ax to grind… or a need to express their “truthiness”-- can throw up a website or write a blog. And they do. What used to pass for gossip very quickly assumes an importance – and credibility—it doesn’t deserve. Especially when it turns out to be untrue. Or exaggerated. At the very least, it cheapens the conversation and plays to our biases. And at worst, it destroy reputations, even careers.

Last weekend the Chicago Tribune predicted a return to class. As proof, they printed a photo of Angelina Jolie on the cover of Vogue wearing a gown reminiscent of Grace Kelly. That, says the Tribune, hopefully, is the answer. Bring back the Grace Kelly era, and people will be respectful. Polite. Our culture will be fixed. Forgive me, but I don’t think Grace, long gowns, or tuxedos are gonna do it.

But what will?

Most of you reading this are writers, or readers with respect for the written word. You know some of the tricks: the power of a well-placed adjective… the use of the passive voice to dodge accountability …the way conclusions are drawn from seemingly unrelated facts. What should we do when we read or listen to those screeds? How do we start to get rid of the ugliness we’ve created?

Do we need babysitters for the national conversation? Consciousness-raisers? Some carrot and stick scheme to make people more aware of what they read and write? Or do we just deplore it all, throw up our hands, and go back to our word processors?

Right now I’m listening to Richard North Patterson’s No Safe Place in the car. One of his characters says: “we ought to have a sense of shame; instead everybody’s looking for an agent.”

P.S. Speaking of class, we lost one of the smartest, wittiest, classiest columnists around this week. Molly Ivins was not only a fabulous writer, but she was about the only person I know who could deal the cards up straight and still make people laugh. She will be missed.