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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The 'real' and emotional

“I can't speak for readers in general, but personally I like to read stories behind which there is some truth, something real and above all, something emotional. I don't like to read essays on literature; I don't like to read critical or rational or impersonal or cold disquisitions on subjects.” – Laura Esquivel

The author of the award-winning novel (also an award-winning film) Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel is a Mexican novelist, essayist and screenwriter who was born on this day in 1950.  

She has been honored for both her fiction and screenwriting, but has perhaps had her biggest impact with her powerful essays on life, love and food and their impact on the culture of her native Mexico – themes that resonate around the globe.  Esquivel has stated that she believes the kitchen is the most important part of the house and characterizes it as a source of knowledge and understanding that brings pleasure. 

Laura Esquivel

Despites great success in each, Esquivel gravitates toward fiction writing ahead of screenwriting.

“In film you can use images exclusively and narrate a whole story very quickly, but you don't always so easily find the form in cinema to dig deeper into human thoughts and emotions,” she explained.  “In a novel you can much more easily express a character's inner thoughts and feelings.”

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

New worlds to conquer

“A life lesson for me is, how do you muster the courage to take on a new risk? Whether it's starting up a business or taking on a new project or expedition. I think the risks that we take are all relative to the risk-taker. – Ann Bancroft

One of the fun feature stories I got to write was about Ann and her co-explorer Paul Schurke shortly after they returned from conquering the North Pole via sled dog team (on the Steger-Schurke Expedition).   They came to Northfield, Minn., where we were living, to share stories about their harrowing trek, sign autographs, and do a fund-raiser for a couple more trips each was anticipating.

Ann had become the first woman to cross the ice on foot to the North Pole, and a few years later she would lead the first all-female team across the ice to the South Pole.  She remains the only woman to achieve this.  Since then she’s founded the Ann Bancroft Foundation, “to give girls an opportunity to explore their potential and find their place in the world.” 

On that visit to Northfield, Paul -- whose further explorations have included retracing Theodore Roosevelt's 1914 trek through the Amazon -- brought along his lead sled dog Zap and stopped by our house to ask if Zap could stay overnight in the garage while he and Ann ran around town.  “What do we feed him?  How do we walk him?” I was both shocked and surprised that he would entrust this valuable animal to us, since we’d only just met.

“Oh, don’t worry,” he said.  “He’ll let you know when he needs a walk, and you know the old saying ‘What does he eat?’ and the answer is ‘Anything he wants to.’”  It turned out – and part of my story explained – sled dogs only eat a couple times a week, and then they pretty much gorge themselves.  This wasn’t one of those days.  Our kids became the center of the neighborhood universe as other kids dropped by to see Zap, a gentle giant when he wasn’t leading his team.


My time talking with both Paul and Ann was equally amazing and I was mesmerized by the power that Ann exuded – a “giant” in her own right even though she’s only about 5 feet tall.  Today is her 60th birthday and she’s still looking for new worlds to conquer.  “This journey is not over,” she said.  “Our education initiatives have so much momentum, and we're committed to sharing even more stories … when we return.”

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Monday, September 28, 2015

That 'persistence' factor

“The difference between people who believe they have books inside of them and those who actually write books is sheer cussed persistence - the ability to make yourself work at your craft, every day - the belief, even in the face of obstacles, that you've got something worth saying.” – Jennifer Weiner

Born in 1970, Weiner jump-started her writing career by developing a column called  Generation XIII, i.e., Generation X – the generation to which she belongs – at a small Pennsylvania newspaper.  After a stint at the Lexington, KY, Herald-Leader she moved over to the Philadelphia Inquirer where she continued to write her columns, did feature stories, and freelanced for such notable magazines as Mademoiselle and Seventeen.

After earning awards for her newspaper work, she started writing novels in the 2000s and has had great success, including the terrific In Her Shoes  (also made into a feature film). To date, she has authored 9 bestselling books – 8 novels and a collection of short stories – with a reported 11 million copies in print in 36 countries.

In addition to writing fiction, Weiner is known for "live-tweeting" episodes of the reality dating shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.  In 2011, Time magazine named her to its list of the Top 140 Twitter Feeds "shaping the conversation."

“I don't write literary fiction,” she said.  “I write books that are entertaining, but are also, I hope, well-constructed and thoughtful and funny and have things to say about men and women and families and children and life in America today.”

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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Read and reflect on your writing heroes

“My writing improved the more I wrote - and the more I read good writing, from Shakespeare on down.” – Dick Schaap

And, the famed writer added, “I was also in love with the English language.”

Born on this date in 1934, sportswriter, broadcaster and author Schaap was one of my early writing heroes.   I always thought it would be cool to write sports stories like he did and that he must have been a natural at it from the get-go.

But Schaap said he struggled to learn the profession just like the rest of us, even though, unlike the “rest” of us, he began his career at the ripe old age of 14 at the New York City-based Nassau Daily Review-Star, while working for famed writer and editor Jimmy Breslin.  He would later follow Breslin to the Long Island Press and New York Herald Tribune.

After earning degrees from Cornell and the Columbia School of Journalism, he was assistant sports editor for Newsweek, and then moved to television, doing both news and sports for NBC, ABC and ESPN and earning 5 Emmys in the process.  In between he broke into the book world co-authoring the wonderful Instant Replay with Green Bay Packer all-pro guard Jerry Kramer (one of my all-time favorite sports books that came out just as I was finally getting into sports writing myself).  

Dick Schaap, shortly before his untimely death
from complications in hip surgery in 2001

As a young sportswriter, I had the chance attend a talk by Schaap and afterward ask him for advice on how to write good sports story leads and about writing style in general.   

“Read and reflect on writers you admire,” he told me.  “And then model your writing after theirs.  If writing captures your attention, then don’t you want to write that way yourself?”  It’s hard to fail if you follow advice like that.

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Helping 'refine' the language

“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” – T.S. Eliot

Born Thomas Stearns Eliot on this day in 1888, T. S. Eliot was an essayist, publisher, playwright, literary and social critic, and one of the 20th century's major poets.  He started life as an American and ended it 76 years later as an English citizen and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, "for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry."  The award came in 1948 and he lamented that he was almost sad to have the award because “No one has ever done anything after he got it.”

Having said that, he promptly wrote his 1949 award-winning play The Cocktail Party, then went on to author two more plays, dozens of poems, and several highly regarded works of nonfiction before his death in 1965.

T.S. Eliot

Eliot first attracted widespread attention for his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915), which is seen as a masterpiece of the Modernist movement. It was followed by some of the best-known poems in the English language, including The Waste Land (1922), The Hollow Men (1925), Ash Wednesday (1930), and Four Quartets (1945).  

“Poetry should help, not only to refine the language of the time, but to prevent it from changing too rapidly,” he said.  “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” 

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