Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Spelling update

More examples of "dumbth." Reviewed a play last night. The Imaginary Invalid. The program front said "Invaild." The program inside said "Invailad."

Checking for Hurricane Katrina news updates, I found a major network's website announcing that "Marshal Law" had been declared in New Orleans. I'm sorry, Mr. Dillon is not on duty down there. It's "martial."

And I hope you weren't taking barbiturates when you worked on last Thursday's spelling assignment. That was the only word spelled correctly on that list.

Please add any and all examples of "dumbth" as you find them.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Writing Workshop Lesson 3 & Assignment 3

Greetings, writers!

If you're just joining us, scroll down to Lessons 1 & 2 to catch up. Work at your own pace and post your answers and short assignments in the "Comments" areas of the appropriate posts. Everything automatically forwards to my in-box, so I read everything no matter when it's added.

I had a ball this week reading all of the Chandleresque (Raymond, not Bing) similes and the overheard bits of dialogue. Many laugh-out-loud moments in both.

Personal faves among the similes:

"Nervous as a mohel with hiccups" from "the procrastinator," who didn't live up to his/her name by being the first to post with the homework.

"Her eyes were as green as her teeth" -- a hot one from "cold potato."

"Nervous as a border collie on methamphetamines" -- elizabeth.

"She held me like she was holding a grudge" -- julesbgood.

"...as bold as a seersucker suit at a job interview" -- anonymous.

"Her eyes were as empty as her pockets" -- shorty1kanobi.

"The house was decorated in early DeMille" -- chittavrtti.

"Her eyes were as sad as a faded velvet Elvis" -- mnturtle.

"...as hot as a 32-year-old virgin in a Harlequin romance" -- sarah the great and wise.

Well, I could go on and on. Excellent work, everyone.

Why are we doing these little exercises, you ask? So far, in just two weeks, you've worked on lead sentences, lively figures of speech and realistic snatches of dialogue. See where we're going?

Details, details. Good writing is the sum of its parts. The better the parts, the more specific the details ... yadda, yadda, yadda...readers love you.

Speaking of which, you know the first sentence I posted last week from Nice Girls Finish First by Alesia Holliday? What arrives in my email but a nice note from the author herself:

A reader pointed out your very funny and interesting blog to me...So of course I had to scan my own books and my shelf of other people's books and read first sentences for an hour. (Of course I'm procrastinating; I'm on deadline!) I think it's interesting how often the quality of the first sentence mirrored what I perceived to be the quality of a book, and yet I'd never considered it in that light before.

It is true, however, that I always work to make my opener a 'grabber' - to pique the reader's interest. The first line of the legal thriller I have coming out next spring is "Nobody ever tried to stab me when I did corporate work."

Thanks for mentioning me and thanks for the intriguing line of thought. I hope Nice Girls lived up to its first sentence for you.
It did, indeed, Alesia! And I look forward to that thriller.

Interesting that Alesia mentions procrastination. That brings us to this week's topic.

My old professor, Paul Baker, called it "resistance to work." It's all the stuff we do instead of what we should be doing. For us, it's what we do to keep from writing, especially if we're on deadline. It's the grouting and pouting and scouting for bargains when we should be at the keyboard getting 'er done.

This weekend I had double deadlines for columns. So here's what I did: steam-cleaned the carpets where the dog sleeps, combed the knots out of said dog's tail, dug out an old box of beading supplies and made three necklaces, hung out at the pool finishing Nice Girls Finish First and staring across the water at the cute (but slightly hairy) neighbor guy who suns himself like a lizard on a rock every day from noon to 2 p.m., went vitamin shopping, substitute-taught a water aerobics class at the health club, tried on skirts from the back of the closet, looked up bead stores online and went to two new ones in my neighborhood, went gay-watching with a gay actor friend at a new gelato place on Cedar Springs, paid bills, ran across Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star on cable and watched it start to finish (not as bad as I anticipated...actually, David Spade's pretty funny in it), cleaned the cobwebs off the lampshades and listened to three hours of Britcoms on BBC radio via the internet while playing endless games of computer solitaire.

The writing happened very late Sunday night and under the extreme stress of deadline pressure and so many Diet Cokes my kidneys thought it was a stick-up.

So it goes, right? We don't and don't, until we absolutely have to.

This week I hope you will begin to notice the pattern of your "resistance to work." Mr. Baker used to make us journal all the things we did to keep from working. It's eye-opening to realize when and why we take the off-ramp from creativity onto the truck stop of busywork. Sometimes it's part of the creative ritual -- mostly it's just postponing the inevitable. (And obviously, though I'm aware of my patterns, I still fall into them. OK, I'm working on it.)

If you have any epiphanies about this -- advice, tips, odd things you found yourself doing (keep it clean!) to keep from writing -- post them in comments here. ("Procrastinator," I'm counting on you!) The exercise is simply to make you aware of your resistant motions. Once aware, maybe you can skip past them to get to the writing.

As for that, this is the week to start to work on something you've been wanting to write for a while. Poem, story, song, play, article, novel -- whatever is lurking in your creative "to do" pile. Don't try to finish it this week. Heaven forfend! There's so much knitting to do! And the barbecue grill needs a good scrubbing! How about training the cats to walk a tightrope!

Seriously, just get something down. Work on a good first sentence. Liven up the similes and metaphors. Craft and polish the dialogue. If you spend just one hour this week reading, editing and rewriting a little of that thing, you're ahead of where you were with it last week.

And if you have some time for reading (Who doesn't? We're on deadline!), check out one of the first major pieces of the "New Journalism." This is the famous Gay Talese profile of Ol' Blue Eyes (Esquire, April 1966) titled "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." It's one of the first -- maybe the first -- magazine piece that was about getting the interview. It put the author into the story in a way other journalists hadn't been before. And it was one of the first bits of mega-celeb journalism that wasn't all puffery. You really get to know both Talese and Sinatra as you read the piece. The details of Sinatra's world and his many hangers-on (dig the toupee valet) are fascinating. It is a long story. Four huge sections. Chapters almost. The link gets you to the first section and you can click through via that site to the rest. Some of Talese's writing seems a bit old-fashioned now -- he was awfully addicted to alliteration. But it's still a good read.

See you Thursday, if not before!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Word Snobs Unite for Quiz 2 & Exercise 2

Okey dokey, pig-in-a-pokey! (Any League of Gentlemen fans out there?) Time for a little spelling review. Can you find the correctly spelled word in this list? (Please do NOT post your answer. That blows it for everyone! This is strictly a "self-study" quiz.)


Now for a little writing warmer-upper. Many of you younger whippersnappers aren't familiar with the work of the master, Raymond Chandler (1888-1959). He wrote mysteries. crime novels and what they used to call "pulp fiction." His were dark, moody, witty stories set in Southern California. He wrote in a style that was pure word-jazz. He used the rhythm of words in thrilling riffs as cool as a Gene Krupa solo. His sentences were redolent with whiskey and reefer and women with a past and no future. It was a style he invented and that many since have tried to emulate. His specialty = the simile.

Here are some classic bites of Chandler:

"A white night for me is as rare as a fat postman." -- The Long Goodbye (Chapter 12)

"The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last good pair of stockings." -- The Big Sleep (Chapter 2)

"His smile was as stiff as a frozen fish." -- "The Man Who Liked Dogs"

"I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split."--The Long Good-bye (Chapter 13)

"Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food."--Farewell, My Lovely (Chapter 1)

"`She's dark and lovely and passionate. And very, very kind.' `And exclusive as a mailbox,' I said." ---The Little Sister (Chapter 19)

"The walls here are as thin as a hoofer's wallet."--Playback (Chapter 5)

"The voice got as cool as a cafeteria dinner."--Farewell, My Lovely (Chapter 15)

Yummy, huh? So here's your little task this week. Come up with a couple of tasty, Chandleresque similes. Post them in comments on this section. I'll even give you some fill-in-the-blanks to help get you started. But you're free to invent your own.

1. In August 2005, Dallas was as hot as _________.

2. She was as nervous as ___________.

3. Slow-talker? Conversation with him is like __________.

4. Watching them exchange vows, she couldn't help but think they were as compatible as ______and _______.

5. Her eyes were as ________ as _________.

OK, pick one or two and write a Chandleresque turn of phrase. Can't wait to read them!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Circling the Fat (Spring semester)

It’s a good day. Both classes turn in all their rewrites on time. Toward the end of the second class, we spend an inordinate amount of time arguing the merits of joining Scientology as a surefire tool for star-fucking if you go into any kind of media-related PR business. This sets off a flurry of brushes-with-fame stories.

“My sister’s roommate at Pepperdine used to know Tom and Nicole’s nanny,” says Jordie, a Laguna Beach surfer chick whose mother writes New Age sex manuals.

The class perks up at this savory little bomblet, knowing my propensity for celebrity gossip. I will happily detour out of a discussion of when and where to use the subjunctive “if I were” or how properly to employ semicolons -- I say don’t, just rewrite the sentence -- if anyone wants to talk about the latest "Lindsay Lohan anorexia shocker" cover story in Star magazine or ponder which starlet on The O.C. somebody went to high school with and, “like, ohmagawd, she was SUCH a cokewhore already by 10th grade.”

“Yes, Jordie? Do go on,” I say.

Nineteen notebooks slam shut. Class is officially over, but everyone sits forward with rapt attention to catch Jordie’s droplets of gossip. She loves being the center of attention. She talks like every Laguna Beach kid I’ve ever met, ending every sentence with a question mark.

“So, OK, my sister’s roommate used to hang out with Tom and Nicole’s nanny back when they were, like, you know, married and stuff? Did you know one of their adopted kids is black? Isn’t that, like, weird? Anyway, this girl went over there one time? When Tom and Nicole were off making different movies? The nanny was keeping the kids – she was practically raising them single-handed – and she had my sister’s roommate over. So when the nanny was putting the kids to bed and reading them stories and stuff? This girl goes snooping all through the house. This enormous house, like in the Palisades or Brentwood or somewhere, I dunno. I forget. But get this – ’’

All ears quiver with anticipation.

“—they had separate bedrooms. Tom. And. Nicole. Like at totally separate ends of this big mansion. Like with their own separate entrances and their own bathrooms and living rooms and everything? She said they never slept together, that it was, like, a business arrangement and they both had, you know, like other boyfriends and girlfriends.”

“Ah, yes, but which?”


“Who had the boyfriends and who had the girlfriends?”

“Yeah, right, like Tom’s gay. I’m so sure. Get out,” says Jordie, rolling her eyes.

Ah, such innocent lambs about some things, they are.

“Anything else?” I prompt. “Heroin in the cookie jar? Kiddie porn in the powder room?”

“Noooo! Just the separate bedrooms,” says Jordie, sensing a loss of momentum in her story. She pauses briefly as if wracking her brain for something else to reveal. “Hey, my mom knows Chandler’s mom from Friends. He’s back in rehab again.”

“That was in Us magazine last week,” grumbles an Ashley, swiping Lancome Juicy gloss onto her bottom lip.

Jordie shoots daggers at the Ashley. “Well, I heard it from my mom,” she says.

“OK, look at the time,” I say. “Any questions about what’s due next week? Then be gone, ye happy gossip fiends.”

I retreat to my office, stopping on the way to chunk change in the snack machine for nacho-flavored Doritos. The Coke Nazis have raised the price of soda again: a buck per can. My mouth is full of cumin-flavored corn snacks and I’m just about to start inking in the New York Times daily crossword when I hear a light rap on the office door.

“Professor? Do you have a minute?” It’s Emma, a sweet kid from last year’s Intro to Modern Media lecture class. She manages a weak smile, but looks like she’s been crying. Oh, boy.

“What’s wrong, kiddo?”

She plops into a chair, not bothering to take off her Burberry raincoat. Her long brown hair hangs in limp clumps tucked behind her ears.

“I’m sorry,” she says, sniffling a little. “But I was going down the hall and saw your light on and I just thought… I just….”

A big tear rolls down her left cheek.

“Spill it. What’s going on?” I say, pushing a box of tissues across the desk.

“Well, last January I pledged a sorority,” she says. She mentions the house, one of the top two for snottiness, looksism and all-around obnoxious snob-mongering. “At first I really liked it. Everybody was so nice and everything and they have all these parties.”

She stops to dab at her nose.

I don’t say a thing.

“So OK, that was last spring. And over the summer I got this job at a deli back in my hometown.” She’s from a picturesque little burg stuck way back in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

“And I guess I sampled too much of the merchandise – we made these huge peanut butter cookies, you know? They were amazing. And anyway, I guess I put on a some weightage. And…and…and.”

Now she’s on the verge of a full-out crying jag.

“You look fine to me, Emma.”

“Thank you. (Big sniff) I was planning on losing the weight this semester but at the sorority house last night they made us do fat circles.”

“Did you say fat circles? Is that like crop circles?”

She laughs weakly. “No, it’s where they make girls they think are fat take off everything but their bra and panties and then they line us up and the older girls take Sharpie pens and they circle where we should lose weight.”

“Circle where?”

“On our bodies! Like, on your stomach or your hips or your upper thighs. It’s so …so…so.”

“Yes, it is, Emma. It’s ridiculous. You let them do this? Mark you up like a side of beef?”

“Well, they make us! They circled me all over my stomach and my hips and they told me I need to lose 40 pounds by fall break! I can’t lose 40 pounds that fast unless I get my jaws wired shut!”

We both laugh. But Emma shivers at the memory of being the victim of that ugly ritual. Fat-circling. Jesus. What self-hating bitch thought that one up?

“I was so upset last night that I called my mom and I almost went home. Like, home-home. Like, forever. I just feel like the fattest pig on the planet.” Emma grabs another tissue and blows her nose with a gentle “thhhhffff."

“I don’t blame you,” I say, clicking into advice-giving mode. “But look, you and I know it’s stupid. If you want to lose some weight – and honestly, you look fine to me – then do it sensibly and slowly. Don’t you dare let some sorority twit make you feel bad about yourself. It’s not worth it. You want to end up like those sick little things who rush to that ladies’ room down there five minutes after lunch and toss their two teaspoons of tuna salad into stall number 6? No, of course you don’t. Because you’re smarter than that. You’re just a healthy girl. You’re barely out of puberty. You ate too many cookies over the summer. Big effing deal. Tell those girls back at the house to bug off. Take a Sharpie and circle your middle finger with it and shove it right in their faces.”

“I wish!” says Emma. She’s stopped sniffling. For a second, I think she actually believes this horseshit I’m shoveling at her. But she and I both know that the fat-circling harpies have left their indelible mark on her psyche. You don’t forget a thing like having to stand in your scanties with your peers peering at you like you’re a frog under a microscope.

How dare they?

Emma and I sit in silence for a moment, just sort of letting it soak in. Then she lets out a big sigh.

“Well, I’m sorry I interrupted your lunch,” Emma says, looking at my bag of chips. “I just wanted to talk to you and I knew you’d understand. I saw your light on.”

You bet I understand, dearie. And I’d take a hundred chubby Emmas over one of those skinny bitchlings back at the sorority bitch-haven any day.

“Don’t let the creepos get you down, kiddo,” I tell her. Sounds lame even to me, but she giggles anyway. “One day they’ll all have flabby asses and pot bellies and they’ll look in the mirror and mentally fat-circle their own damn bodies and they’ll remember all the girls they did it to and then they’ll feel like crap.”

“Ha! I’ll bet they will! You know, I hope they do!”

Emma’s standing up now, almost jumping up and down. Maybe it’s just dawned on her that college – and sorority houses – aren’t forever. Sometimes it’s the smallest thing that cheers them up when they need a surrogate mom.

“Come back anytime you need to, kiddo. I’m usually here this time of day, usually stuffing my face. If you started circling my fat, you’d run out of ink.”

Big laugh from Emma.

“I guess I should call my mom and tell her I’m not moving home this weekend.”

“I’m sure she’ll be relieved to hear that.”

“But next time I do go home, I’m going by the deli and getting you some of those cookies. They’re the most amazing cookies in the world!”

Lesson 1: Compelling Sentences Follow-up

Greetings, writers! Welcome back for Week 2. If you’re just joining Phantom Professor's Online Writing Workshop, scroll down to Assignment 1 and Quiz 1 and it won’t be hard to catch up. New writers are free to join anytime.

Let’s talk about your first homework -- those compelling sentences. As I write this, more than 250 of you have posted sentences. In a normal academic year I wouldn’t teach more than 80 or 100 students, so I am floored and bumfuzzled and thoroughly chuffed by the response so far. Hope most of you stick with it to the end, although some attrition is to be expected. Just don’t get frustrated if I don’t pick your work for discussion. Trying to one-on-one coach this many writers would give me a bad case of the vapors and send me to bed for a week. I will answer questions via email if you don't pester me with trivia you could look up yourself.

OK, the good stuff first. Here are the sentences I found so utterly original and compelling that I would not hesitate to read the stories or books that follow them (authors’ names in parentheses):

I used to carry a purple crayon. (Chris) This one just opened up so many possibilities. Is it a children’s story? Or could it be a cop who next says, “Now I carry a gun.” Simple, direct and interesting. I’d definitely keep reading.

She knew that one day these children would kill her. (Jeanrhys) Funny. Or maybe the opening of a mystery. Piques my interest.

My pants were stuck to me like Saran wrap on pudding. (superholmie) Come on, that’s about as original a simile as I’ve ever come across. I’ll keep reading any writer who hints at a warped sense of humor.

Contrary to popular belief, Tarzan is not Jewish. (Alex Bensky) Which is why they had to cut his loincloth a little longer, right? This opener reminds me of the humor of a nearly forgotten writer named Alexander King, who used to be on The Jack Paar Show. Strange and funny, this one.

Forget sex; depression sells. (anonymous) Excellent. Four words, one correctly placed semicolon. Usually I’m strictly anti-semicolon, but this one provides the pause that refreshes. Makes me eager to read the whole story.

Brian could clearly hear the thoughts of the passengers in the plane flying overhead. (Mr. Bee) Like the start of a good Twilight Zone episode, this one hints at a terrific ride ahead.

She left in a huff and a sportscar. (Social Bill) OK, it’s perilously close to being glib and cutesy. But it’s also close enough to James Ellroy to keep me reading.

Daddy and I went to see the runners. (Ted K) Again, a writer uses just a few simple words to set a story in motion. Short leads really grab me. And this one has a sort of down-home voice that I like immediately.

The last time I was at my sister's, I vomited in her fish tank. (Maggie) I'll wager this sentence has never been written in any book anywhere. But read it and you can’t help hoping the next sentence will tell you why the poor guppies got urped on.

The first time I saw him, he was looking the other way. (bitchphd) A tight, cinematic opener.

Our mother wasn’t the kind you went looking for if she went missing. (Zuleme) Right away, you know there’s a good story in this. I like the confessional, conversational tone, too.

They say that things happen for a reason, but what they don't tell you is that sometimes it's a pretty piss-poor excuse for a reason. (wmr) Ditto comments from Zuleme’s entry just above.

Last Tuesday I had a devoted husband, a cute house in Alexandria, and I had never killed anybody. (Marion Price) I might rewrite it slightly because that serial comma bothers me and I don't think you need that second "I." But the surprise of those last four words provides a zinger that really sparks my interest in the rest of the tale.

The cats had been acting peculiar for a week when it began. (katee) Makes me eager to know what “it” is.

Fuck modesty. (Oubliette) Two words establish a point of view and a personality. Fuck wordiness.

The trees were walking. (celandine) Drug nightmare? Post-apocalyptic mutation of nature? Can’t wait to find out.

"Even though you'll have to kill me, tell me." (hyperbolic) Interesting twist on the cliché. And because it’s dialogue, I’m intrigued to read whatever conversation follows this opener.

There are hundreds of good places to hide a body on a space station, which was why Tess only had to deal with it when someone panicked or failed an intelligence test. (Kevin) The longest of the entries that I liked, but one that sets up a good mystery. And “Tess” already has a world-weariness that would make her a character worth getting to know. What score warrants the death sentence on the intelligence test?

Good work, everyone!

Now, about those comma splices. Lots of the sentences actually should have been two (or more) sentences. By connecting two separate sentences with the comma, you created a comma splice. Short sentences are fine. Slice and dice. When you find yourself on the twelfth or twenty-fifth word and you haven’t hit the period key yet, do.

As you can see from my choices above, I dig terse, direct, quirky writing. I think readers do, too. Recently I was doing a little research on the chick-lit that is getting published right now. I thumbed through a dozen new titles and was unimpressed by the opening sentences of most of them. (Someone, please parse the first sentence of The Devil Wears Prada. It makes no freakin' sense at ALL.) I ended up spending $13 on a book titled Nice Girls Finish First (by Alesia Holliday) because it begins with this: “It’s hard to meet nice guys when you sell sex toys for a living.” Now that’s a AA-battery grabber if I ever met one.

Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction that you’re working on, you should pay special attention to your lead (or “lede” as we old-time journo-types still refer to it). This week, as you’re reading newspapers, magazines or books, take note of how the author jumps in.

Now jump down to the next post to find this week’s Lesson 2 and your Assignment 2.

Writing Workshop Lesson 2 and Assignment 2: Dialogue

Truman Capote used it to great effect in In Cold Blood (a book every writer must read). Lillian Ross uses it efficiently and wittily in her "Talk of the Town" pieces for The New Yorker. And David Mamet has made a fine career out of using it like nobody else.

We’re talking dialogue. How people talk in stories. What they say and how they say it. Reporters often think of dialogue merely as “quotes,” using it to spike their sources’ commentary into the cold facts presented outside the quotation marks. Writerly journalists skillfully weave dialogue into a piece (as Ross does and as Joseph Mitchell was so expert at) to provide emotion, color, texture, context and authenticity.

Dialogue brings stories to life. It’s the old “show don’t tell” gambit. Don’t just tell what happens to your characters. Show it through what they say to each other. In literary nonfiction we stress the use of anecdotes throughout a piece. Let the speaker talk more than you the writer narrate. Let us hear his or her voice, instead of just yours.

The better you are at dialogue, the better writer you’ll be. It’s important to develop a writer’s ear for how people sound. We don’t speak with perfect grammar all the time. People talk funny. Kids really do say the darnedest things (thank you, Art Linkletter).

Christopher Walken says he developed his weird ... halting... vocal style as an actor by whiting out all the commas and periods in his scripts. He didn't want to be limited by somebody else's punctuation.

One of the best exercises an acting teacher in college had us student actors do was to record an hour of conversation among several people. We then had to transcribe it verbatim in script form, memorize it and act it out in groups onstage. Our performance had to sound as “real” as the tape. To prove it, the professor played the tape first and then we did the scenes. Harder than you think! All that overlapping of dialogue, all the non sequiturs. But it really gave us a valuable lesson in how to speak onstage in a relaxed, natural, conversational manner. It taught me that written dialogue didn’t have to sound literary or overly poetic. Even today, as I review plays for the Dallas Observer, I especially appreciate playwrights and actors who make me feel as if I’m overhearing their conversations instead of witnessing a performance of somebody else’s words. (And isn't this part of the reason reality TV is so popular? We viewers are in the position of eavesdropping... although those kids on Real World and Laguna Beach sure sound scripted these days.)

So often in the news media, dialogue is given the shortest of shrift. TV reporters will tell us what was said in a meeting or at a crime scene, instead of letting us see and hear the real thing. How much more compelling is footage of a witness’ testimony at a murder trial than some reporter’s rephrased version of it from the courthouse steps? (Show, don’t tell.)

Your assignment this week requires a field trip. Go to some public spot where you can eavesdrop on conversations. Starbucks (or some other overpriced java joint) is usually good, although the frappuccino machines and junk-jazz CDs can drown out voices. People waiting in lines often hold good random conversations. Waiting rooms are tops. I was in a hospital ER waiting area recently and heard this exchange between a security guard and an orderly:

Guard: How'd he get here? (indicating a quivering, sweating young man hunched over in a wheelchair)
Orderly: I think he was a dump and run.
Guard: Cold, man. Co-old.

With the proliferation of the goldurn cell phone, it is getting harder to find people talking to other people in person. If they're not hooked up to the iPod, they're talking to somebody electronically (even in public bathrooms, in the stalls, in full squat). You need to eavesdrop where you can get both sides of the convo.

Discreetly take notes of the overheard dialogue. It can be a few sentences or whole paragraphs. If you’re lucky, maybe you can piggyback on a knock-down-drag-out verbal harangue of some interest. But banal back-and-forths are fine, too.

Pay attention to the details. Not only how people use language but what they’re doing while they’re speaking. Is the lady reapplying her lip gloss while she’s berating her kids? Is the man at the bar giving an over-her-shoulder come-on to someone else while he’s hitting on the pretty young thing right in front of him?

Keep a dialogue journal this week. Get at least two or three pages of overheard conversations down on paper. They won’t be continuous conversations, just bits and bursts. Listen to kids talking to each other on the playground. Listen to the clerks on their smoke breaks behind the office.

Try to write down dialogue as accurately as you can, making additional notes about gestures, facial expressions, time and place, etc.

When you’ve got a couple of good ones, post them in comments here and we’ll all get to overhear what you overheard.

Here are a couple of sites -- Larry Swanson's and the Man Who Fell Asleep and Overheardinnewyork --- that document odd bits of overheard dialogue.

Read the work of Washington Post feature scribe Hank Stuever, who's a quirky and funny writer of real-life stories about real-life weirdness.

And just because I like it and because it's composed of nothing but the dialogue between a mother and her daughter, here is Jamaica Kincaid's Girl. Enjoy!

Monday, August 22, 2005

40 year-old virgins... Whaaaaaa?

From today's Editor & Publisher:

Press Wrestles with Grammatically Incorrect "Virgin"
By Lesley Messer

Published: August 22, 2005 12:59 PM ET

NEW YORK -- What happens when the title of a hit movie doesn't conform to AP style?

That question was answered in recent days when newspapers started reviewing and writing about the new box office hit whose official name is "The 40 Year-Old Virgin." Of course, as any reporter or editor worth his or her salt knows, there should be a hyphen between 40 and Year. As it reads now, it's almost as if the movie is about 40 virgins who are still toddlers (not exactly unusual).

The movie's title, as it appears on the screen, in ads, and on its official Web site, presents a problem for journalists: follow the studio lead or adhere to traditional newspaper style?

The Associated Press took the liberty of changing the title to “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” in its widely published critique and box office reports. So did Reuters.

When publishing reviews by their own staffers, the majority of newspapers inserted the hyphen (without explanation to readers).

Those adding the hyphen included: The San Francisco Chronicle, New York Post, Seattle Times, Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Daily News, USA Today, The Boston Globe, San Diego Union-Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and Newsday.

But many others went along with the movie-makers and left it out, including the the influential Los Angeles Times, both in its review by Carina Chocano, and a story today on its box office triumph. Others going along with the error include The Houston Chronicle, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Sacramento Bee, Syracuse (N.Y.) Post-Standard, and Toronto Star, not to mention the magazines Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone.

Christy Lemire, AP movie critic, told E&P that she had spotted a promotional poster on imdb.com and rottentomatoes.com that did include the hyphen, suggesting that, perhaps, even the studio was confused. With two style options from which to choose, she just picked the version that looked right to her (and adhered to the AP style). There was no big debate within the AP about how to report the title.

Lemire added that the grammar discrepancy is especially ironic, in this case. "For a movie about a guy who's so anal-retentive, it's kind of funny that the title itself is out there two different ways," she said.


And speaking of badly punctuated show titles...

Back in the mid-1990s, TV producers Bonnie and Terri Turner introduced a group of TV critics to the cast of a new sitcom premiering on Fox. The pilot episode was titled That 70's Show.

At the interview session for the network's debut of the show, a certain TV critic who might have been moi asked the Turners if they wouldn't mind changing the punctuation in the title to That '70s Show, thus saving us professional typists from having to correct it nine zillion times in the future as we wrote about it.

Thank you, Turners, for making the correction.

And for discovering Ashton Kutcher.

Answers to Quiz 1 -- Word Pairs

Don't read the answers unless you've completed the quiz, please!

And the answer for each sentence ... the second word of each pair.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

R.I.P., good spelling

There it is, right on the AOL welcome screen tonight. On a promo for the finale of HBO's Six Feet Under: "In Memorium." Dumbth strikes again!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Strolling up the isle aisle, I'll be

Excellent word-pairs coming in from fellow Word Snobs.

"I hate hate hate hate hate to hear preventative," writes SuperHolmie. "Preventive! Preventive! Preventive! Thank you." No, thank you.

ACM hears people say "momento," instead of "memento" (no mo' momento unless it's "un momento"). And adds, "Quixotic indeed sounds nothing like Don Quixote. ... Another word that I just recently heard mispronounced in a speech by an otherwise smart person was segue (he said "seh gyoo" rather than seg way). For word pairs, be sure to add principle/principal." Duly added. Just remember, the high school principal is your pal.

My friend T. mentions "hang/hung" as sources of misuse. Someone executed at the end of a rope has been "hanged," not "hung." That is the only usage of "hanged." You wouldn't say a guy hanged around the saloon until closing (unless you want to sound like a character in Dukes of Hazzard). Then there's the sexual connotation of "hung." Adds T., "Being hanged isn't desirable. Being hung might be."

Tapper remembers that "grandma used to adore correcting everyone in sight about their pronunciation of forte [rhymes with sport], so I've known that one for ages. Disperse/disburse is a commonly confused pair. For the truly confused, alot vs. a lot." The latter - a lot -- is correct. But the other is used a lot more often.

Kira brings "allude/elude" to our attention. The first means making reference to. The other means to escape or slip away from. Thanks for not letting allude elude our list. She also is driven nuts by confusion between "bare/bear" and "loose/lose." Good examples of why Spellchecker is no good when you're trying to improve your spelling. It only catches typos, not misuses or homonyms. If you use "bare" when it should be "bear," Spellchecker will see the correct spelling and move on without flagging it.

"I should of done my homework last night instead of drinking so much," posts Ionna, using an example of a frequent mistake on her students' papers. Should be "should have," of course. Or its contraction, "should've." Also, "This class has (to, too, two) much homework for me. I have actually had students confuse two and too. Sigh." I have, too, Ionna. Sigh.

Aunt Nancy posts three of my favorites: Realtor (should be pronounced REE-uhl-tor or REE-uhl-tur, but never REE-lit-TER... and it's capitalized for licensed Realtors); foliage (never foilage); and restaurateur, which you'll notice does NOT contain an "N," as in restaurant. You hear broadcast professionals says "restauranteur" all the time. That one eats me up, too, Auntie.

"Recently I saw an entire memo neatly typed out with `weather' instead of `whether,'" reports VerySlimBroom. Yes, the thunderclouds gather on that one.

Celeste, like other Word Snobs, hates hearing "impact" used as a verb. I'm with her on that. You may make an impact on the world, but if you impact it, you're a meteor (or a wisdom tooth).

E. mentions farther/further. This one really separates the wheat from the chaff, the wordly wise from the mere dilettante. Because "farther" refers to a measurable distance, while "further" can be a verb (an effort to urge something forward, as in "to further that cause") or an adverb ("don't speak further on the topic"). But you shouldn't say "How much further is it to the Taj Mahal?" because you could measure that distance in actual miles. Same goes for "more than/over" and "fewer/less." If you can actually count it or measure it, it's "more" and "fewer." I love Central Market (our local health food supermarket) for putting "Fewer than 15 items" on the sign above the express lane.

WMR is bugged by those who pronounce "cache" the same as "cachet." The former is pronounced like "stash," which is also a synonym for cache. Cachet is that ephemeral sense of elegant style possessed by Grace Kelly and completely lacking in Paris Hilton. Cachet also refers to some sort of commemorative postal markings, but how often does one need to refer to that if one is not a philatelist?

Several readers wish to remind that there are no such words as "flustrate," "irregardless" and "misunderestimate."

Thanks for your entries.

And for those who keep asking how to "sign up" for the writing class, there's no need to. Just show up Tuesday and Thursdays right here in the bat cave. Or catch up on previous lessons and quizzes at whatever pace you want.

This isn't real school. You do it at your own pace, keeping up with postings as you make progress.

Oh, one more thing: Don't send me your quiz answers and don't post them in comments. Just keep them to yourself and check back for the right answers later. That way everyone gets to play along.

Back later after dark. Right now, the pool beckons. Being on a freelance schedule has some advantages.

Word Snobs, Unite for Quiz 1

This first one is easy. Look up the pronunciations for: coif, err, ersatz, forte, memento, mischievous, nuclear, quixotic, short-lived.

These are words we all often hear mispronounced, even by smart people who ought to know better. And yes, I know that some pronunciations that used to be wrong are now listed in dictionaries as acceptable (see: Err). Look them up anyway, just for fun.

And here’s Part 2 of today’s writing exercise:

Choose the correct word in these commonly confused pairs.

1. Marrying Tom Cruise will have a negative (affect, effect) on Katie Holmes’ career and credibility.

2. The catatonic patient displayed a flat (effect, affect) that brought to mind the acting style of Christopher Walken.

3. She waited with (baited, bated) breath to find out if she would star in the Lavoris commercial.

4. The pollster’s job was to (canvas, canvass) Plano, Texas, looking for liberals.

5. The young actor chose to (flaunt, flout) the rules of common decency as he punched Dakota Fanning for stealing another scene.

6. Rob Schneider’s next career move will be (pedaling, peddling) Deuce Bigalow movies door to door.

7. Teri Hatcher (poured, pored) over the menu for 15 minutes before ordering one edamame bean and a glass of water.

8. Britney Spears should give up any (allusions, illusions) of making a comeback after giving birth to Baby Federline.

9. The new Werner Herzog film spares the audience any visuals of the (grizzly, grisly) evidence found in the aftermath of the fatal attack by the Alaskan bear.

10. That blue shirt (complimented, complemented) Peter Falk’s glass eye beautifully.

(Do you have favorite confused-word-pair bloopers or examples of commonly mispronounced words you’d like to share for our edification? Answers to this list will be posted by Tuesday, Aug. 23. ... Later: Had to close "comments" for this entry as too many were posting quiz answers! You do the quizzes -- and grade them -- on your own.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Tommy Lee: Cracking at College

Love Tommy Lee Goes to College, airing this week on NBC. The rock drummer audits classes at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, lives in a dorm room (redecorated with flatscreen TV, full bar and cappuccino machine) and tries out for the drumline in the marching band. "Tell us a little something about yourself," says the stern band director. Answers Lee, "Uh, I sold 40 million records."

Lee also observes his real college classmates cheating on tests and getting fall-down drunk at 1 in the afternoon.

For more, read my pal Bruce Miller's interview with Lee in the Sioux City Journal.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Assignment 1: Compelling Sentence

Post your sentence in "Comments" here, please. Deadline: Aug. 23.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Writing Workshop Lesson 1: Getting It Done

Greetings, writers:

There’s only one really hard thing about writing: Doing it. A lot of people want to be writers. A lot of them talk about what they want to write. They talk about it for years. They may even start typing that novel or screenplay or memoir. Only a small number of would-be writers actually type all the way to "The End." It’s like dieting. You always mean to get a fresh start on Monday. Then Monday comes and there are so many reasons not to.

The goal of this online writing workshop will be to get you writing on a regular schedule. That’s a start. Your ultimate goal should be to finish the thing you’re writing. That means not becoming discouraged by the time it takes to get something right and not getting your feelings bruised by critiques. It means not giving up.

Just keep telling yourself: I’m getting closer to finishing what I started. And when you finish it -- partaaaaay.

A few years ago, my friend, screenwriter Ed Stone, saw his first film go to Sundance and get picked up for big bucks by Miramax. He’d spent four or five years writing the script for Happy, Texas, and getting it produced independently. He hired his dream cast: William H. Macy, Jeremy Northam and Mo Gaffney.

I was impressed and inspired by Ed’s doggedness through that first project. He never gave up. Even on days when he didn't feel like writing or rewriting, he'd set a kitchen timer for 30 minutes. He'd write for that half hour and when he heard the buzzer, he'd stop and watch another episode of The Andy Griffith Show as a reward. Day by day, half hour by half hour, he got it done.

Ed has written more films since (his latest shoots in Manhattan this fall). There must be thousands of talented screenwriters in Hollywood trying to do exactly what he's done. “Why do you think it finally happened for you? Is there a secret to your success?" I asked him. His answer has stuck with me: “Finish writing the script. Do that and you're ahead of 99 percent of the competition.”

Yep, that’s the secret. Gettin’ ’er done.

So this is the challenge, writers. Through the prompts, exercises and other tools offered here over the next few months, I hope you will work toward getting it done.

If you don’t have a project started already, maybe this workshop will provide the steps you need to figure out what you really want to write. It might be an essay, a poem or an article. But there could be short stories or a novel in there that only you could write.

We’ll start with baby steps. Don’t worry, the assignments get a little tougher and a wee bit longer each week.

First, you will need to review some basics. Like the difference between "its" and "it's" and when to use "that," "who" and "which." Because accuracy and attention to detail count. Some famous writers once were asked to write essays on how to write, spell and punctuate. Their advice is simple and valuable. So check out Kurt Vonnegut’s How to Write with Style, John Irving’s How to Spell and Russell Baker’s How to Punctuate.

That’s your reading for the week.

Here’s your first writing assignment:

Write one compelling sentence.

Deadline: Tuesday, August 23, 2005. Please follow these rules:

  • It should be the first sentence of a story you’d like to write.
  • It should make the reader eager to read more.
  • It can be fiction or nonfiction.
  • Do not try to tell the whole story in one sentence.
  • It doesn’t have to be long or wordy to be compelling. “Call me Ishmael.”
  • Post the sentence in the “Comments” section on the blog entry titled “Assignment 1” so that we may all read all the sentences. Do not add any intro stuff like “Here’s my sentence….” Just type the sentence in. You may remain anonymous if you wish. Or sign it with a name or nickname you will use for the entire workshop (so that we can begin to recognize your writer’s voice).
  • Don't overthink.
  • Again, your deadline for this first writing assignment is Tuesday, August 23, but you may post it anytime before that if you think you’ve got a good one. But don’t rush. Make sure you’re happy with the result before you let us see it.

Welcome to the workshop, everyone! Now go write!

(And if you have questions, post them in comments and I'll try to answer as quickly as possible.)

We start tomorrow

No need to sign up to participate in the online writing workshop here. Just read the blog to find new assignments on Tuesdays and short quizzes and exercises on Thursdays.

I'm off to buy school supplies, a great excuse to inhale the pungent aroma of new art gum erasers.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Weekend off

For once, I'm not on a deadline of any kind this weekend. So I am retreating to the valley of dilly-dally for a few days. Won't post again until class starts Tuesday.

If you need movie recs, I saw two good 'uns after a months-long drought. Wedding Crashers, which presents convincing evidence that Vince and Owen are the Bob and Bing of their generation. Vince's mile-a-second riffs just slay me and Owen, in the right light, looks like a young Redford. Men with big noses can be really sessy, oh, yessss.

Broken Flowers is a Jim Jarmusch film, which means it has a sloooow pace and no ending. But Bill Murray's careworn face and sad eyes are heartbreakingly beautiful. He's better in this than in Lost in Translation, which I also loved (mainly for the dreamy soundtrack). The four women in the film (ex-g-friends of Bill's character) are played by a much de-glammed Sharon Stone, a much more-glammed Frances Conroy (the hippie mom of Six Feet Under), Jessica Lange (who has become Gena Rowlands somehow) and a nearly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton (although isn't she always?). Like About Schmidt, this movie finds an older man trying to escape his loneliness and ennui by looking at mistakes of his past and trying to rectify them.

OK, back to a few days of sloth. See you on the flip side.

Pre-meds: Comments from a reader

From a large university in Ohio, a student writes about "the lost souls" of pre-meds:

We students tend to be quiet, since we have to live with the pre-meds, but professors who can make better commentary have often given some advice to large lecture halls filled with pre-meds in hopes that some of it will sink in. My personal favorite provider of these talking-tos was my intro-chemistry professor, who once told the pre-meds mid-lecture that he'd overheard them saying how much they hate their majors and "if you hate what you're doing, it's a sign you shouldn't be doing it!" Well the pre-meds were dumbfounded! How dare the mere professor say what they should be doing!

When for our Organic Chemistry unit some of the students resorted to cheating, my professor turned all the students in right away, despite the protests. He then told my class that he would not let a cheat be in charge of saving lives down the line, and the pre-meds supported him enthusiastically. After all, they hadn't been the ones caught.

The greatest thing I feel for the pre-meds is pity. Too soon it becomes all too apparent that these kids, for all their thoroughness and regaled smarts, have never thought of what they wanted to do with their lives for a second. They just "want money" and heard they were "good at science," so why not be a doctor? These are the kids who end up drinking in excessive amounts because they hate who they have become but lack the clarity to see a way out.

My personal worst experience with this happened at orientation, where a pre-med heard how I have plans to become an astronomer someday. "Oh, that was my thing a few years ago!" she said, and talked my ear off for a good while about how much she loved the subject. "Then why did you quit?" I asked, wondering what particular catastrophe had stopped this girl from pursuing her dream and passion. "I grew up," she replied, in the most dull and matter-of-fact voice I have ever heard, complete with eyes that lost the spark they'd had mere moments before.

That girl haunts me to this day. Sometimes I still want to go up to a pre-med and shake her a bit to snap her out of it. "Don't you see what's become of you?" I want to scream. "Don't you see that a life without a purpose or passion behind it is meaningless?" But she would most likely just blink a few times, then melt back into the crowd, leaving me to brood over lost souls.

What's on the mind of America's youth?

If you have an idea about what "America's youth" are thinking about -- other than the bitter debate over which Olsen is more "ano" or whether it's worth letting steroids shrink your willie a little just to play 10th grade linebacker -- write a 1,500-word essay about it and win $15,000 from Vanity Fair magazine. You have to be 18 or over to enter. You must be a legal resident of the USA. Essays must have a title (something snappy and Vanity Fair-ish, presumably) and have to be submitted in 12-point, double-spaced type (Times New Roman is always a good choice of font) and in standard essay format.

From VF's pressroom website: "Quality of writing will count for 50 percent, clarity for 20 percent, effectiveness for 20 percent and originality for 10 percent. Essays will be judged by Vanity Fair staff and/or other qualified writing professionals. Contest winners will be announced on or about June 20, 2006."

Deadline for submissions (only one entry per writer, but you are allowed to have a co-author) is midnight Sept. 30. You may submit essays by email, but their rules are very precise about how to do that. Plagiarism is strongly discouraged.

Here's the link to all the rules.

And this week, by the way, I think the skinniest Olsen is Lindsay Lohan.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Wow! Re: Writers, woodwork, coming out of

Pass the smelling salts. By midnight Tuesday I had 50 emails about The Phantom Prof's Online Writing Workshop (see below for details). By noon today, there were more than 50 more.

Amazing, y'all. This will be quite a class. As I envision it, you can take it at your own pace, with only a few hard deadlines to meet between the start of the workshop August 16 and the end of the semester in mid-December.

To take part, all you have to do is come back to the blog regularly. I'll post assignments, quizzes and other lessons. You read them and do the work on your own. I'm still working out details of how your output will be evaluated -- so if you have suggestions or ideas about it, let me know. If you crave anonymity, that's fine. But I may ask you to post your work in "comments" using the same nickname every time. That way we'll get to know your "writer's voice" and we will become familiar with everyone who's in the process.

Mostly, you'll be writing there in your garret or dorm room or lavishly chandeliered wood-paneled rumpus room. And judging from the timestamps on your emails, you'll be writing in the middle of the night. Quiet then, isn't it? Even the dog is asleep.

To answer another question, yes, I'll keep writing stories about college. Can't stop doing that! Too many good new stories keep coming in. Just recently I heard about the quaint sorority ritual known as "fat circling." And then there's the swimteam's annual LAGNAF get-together, as in let's-all-get-naked-and-f***. Good stuff to come about that.

So you can come here for entertainment or education. Sharpen your pencils and clear off the dining table. Class starts Tuesday, August 16.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Writing Class

Here's the deal: I teach writing. Writing is what I do for a living. It's what I would do even if nobody paid me for it. Teaching the art and craft of writing is something I love because so much writing out there is so bad. Even the published stuff. By famous writers who make the bestseller lists. Stinko. Lousy.

My standards for what qualifies as good writing are high. Too high for some of the editors I've known. Never high enough for my own ambitions. I'm a good, dependable writer lucky to remain steadily employed for two decades. But I can read a paragraph by Frederick Exley (A Fan's Notes, Last Notes from Home) or a short story by David Sedaris (Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day) and think, never, not as long as I live, will I be able to type something that great. Read the lede of a front page crime story by Miami legend Edna Buchanan ("Gary Robinson died hungry" -- about a man killed in a fried chicken store) or the way Raymond Chandler could paint a word picture ("He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food"). Genius.

Somebody once told me that you're born a writer or you aren't. Like being born with perfect pitch for music, you come into the world with an ear for language. Think about rough-at-the-edges Abe Lincoln, who obviously had an ear for how to turn a beautiful phrase ("...that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth"). And then there's Ivy League-educated, upper-crust-born George W. Bush, deaf to the music of words, who can take any phrase and turn it on its ear ("I'm looking forward to a good night's sleep on the soil of a friend").

If you never become a professional writer, or even a published one, you can tune your ear to what good writing sounds like. That's what I have always emphasized to students. By becoming familiar with the "music" of writers who do it well, you gradually become a better writer. That means reading and trying on different styles. It means doing a lot of writing. It can be a killer, that solitary, brain-pretzeling act of creating interesting clumps of words, separating them with the right punctuation and allowing them to land in the right order on the page (or computer screen, as it were). But reaching "word-gasm" is immensely satisfying. You'll see.

Here's the offer: The Phantom Professor's Online Writing Workshop. Open admission. Free tuition.

Using all the exercises, reading lists, quizzes and other tricks I have developed during 15 years of teaching, I will offer you, the blogistas, the benefit of my experience and expertise. I will also incorporate new things I learned at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Workshop, the most creative and inspiring haven for writers in America. You can find most of what we'll read on the Internet or in a library, so you don't even have to buy books. (Though some of them you will want to own.)

If you need help getting that novel or screenplay started, this four-month workshop will kickstart you into a creative mode that will get that sucker under way. If you're interested in journalism, here's where you can start. If you have just never felt confident putting words on paper, step right up. You don't have to be college age. My techniques work whether you're 12 or 92.

I will post short exercises to help you improve grammar, punctuation, spelling and style. You will do them at your own pace and grade them yourself.

Every couple of weeks, you'll have a short assignment (no more than 300 to 500 words) due. You can email them to me or post them in the comments section for everyone to read. We can "workshop" your output together. With positive but honest critiques to work from, you will rewrite these assignments until they are polished. You can even drop in and out as your schedule permits or your interest waxes and wanes.

Why am I doing this? Why not? As I watched my professor friends head back to classes, I just thought, "Why waste all the good stuff I've accumulated? Why not make it available for anyone who wants to do it?"

Even my agent likes the idea. Even though I'm doing it gratis.

So let me know what you think. Would you join this "class"? If enough of you do, we'll start a week from today. I always did like the Tuesday-Thursday schedule best.

Thanks for playing along

Great tips in the comments section. Really great. Thank you for playing the home game. Good stuff from the librarian about the texts. Those "new editions" sometimes are new only because they have juggled chapters around or added some new photos. The publisher makes money off new edition sales -- and nothing from used book sales -- thus the constant "updating." Ask the prof if a previous edition will work and you'll save some money that way.

Love the tips about emailing instructors if you're going to be late to class. Saves you a lot of ill will on the part of profs who hate latecomers. If you give a heads up beforehand, they'll just give you a wave and a nod when you come in late.

And the comment-writer is right. Facebook.com is the dernier cri of saying "here I am" as a new kid on campus. But think just a second longer before posting that profile photo of yourself in the nude, standing on a boulder, holding your own package (and a certain swimteam jock knows what I mean). Ditto the inclusion of a bong or other parent-frightening paraphernalia in said photo (and the offspring of a certain prof knows what I mean).

All good. More to come from me, too.

I've got an idea for something that I'll need your feedback on. Will write about that later today or tomorrow. This conversation we have going here is really inspiring me to create in new ways.


Monday, August 08, 2005

Golden rule days

Short summer, wasn't it? Time to get back to classrooms, back to the drone of lecturers and the whirr of overhead projectors.

If you're a student in the class of 2009, welcome to the big show. And here are a few tips to make that first day of class a smidge easier (if I've left some good ones out, please post them in comments):
  • Show up on time. Better yet, be a few minutes early.
  • Use those few minutes before class -- or take a minute after class -- to introduce yourself by name to the instructor. It helps more than you know. I still remember Alex and Jenny and Meghan and Michael, who shook my hand and told me their names on the first day of class. Somehow the name sticks better when the student makes the effort to be known.
  • Look nice. Don't overdo the wardrobe, but at least make the effort to wash up. Clean hair, clean nails, clean feet. Sure, it's still flipflop season, but nobody likes looking at your dirty hooves, so wash, trim and polish. Also, keep visible skin to a minimum. We're not sidewalk inspectors. Don't show us your cracks. And like Jonathan the hairdresser said to that heavily tattooed stylist he ended up firing on Blow Out: "More sleeve, less ink."
  • Don't buy the books till you check out the class. Some profs may tell you they've changed books or aren't using the ones on the bookstore shelves anymore. Or maybe you can tell by the syllabus that you'll only need to read a chapter or two in that $60 text that's on the list. In that case (if you're trying to save money), you can check it out of the library or just sit in the bookstore and read the relevant sections without having to buy it. (I think the price of textbooks is a scandal and a racket. But then, I haven't written one.) You could also co-op books with another student in class. Just make sure it's someone who's a fast reader.
  • Make friends in your classes. Introduce yourself to someone who looks reliable. You can find yourself a study-partner or note-sharer that way. And when the day comes that you really do have the avian flu and can't wing to class, you'll have a buddy who'll feed you the info you missed.
  • Do NOT tell profs on the first day of classes that you have to leave early for fall break or that you have to miss the midterm because you're in a wedding, you have non-refundable tickets to Hawaii or your parents expect you to spend the full week with them in Nantucket. Profs don't care. And those are not excused absences. They're just annoying reminders that students get better vacations than the people who teach them.
  • If you have a learning disability, don't use it as an excuse to miss assignment deadlines, exams or other class responsibilities. Nobody in the real world will cut you slack because you're dyslexic or have ADHD. Work with profs if you really get in a bind, but otherwise, try to overcome it. You'll have to eventually anyway.
  • Resolve right now: You will not grub for grades. You will not grub for grades.
  • If the prof is boring on Day 1, drop the class. He or she will never be more energetic than that.
  • Don't be afraid of the professors you've heard are really tough. The harder they are, the better they are and the more you'll learn. Seek them out and take their classes. You won't be sorry.
  • Take time to read every word of every syllabus (those are the class outlines handed out by the teachers). Syllabi are ridiculously long these days because teachers have to spell out every requirement of the course to keep students from using loopholes. I used to offer a "monkey bonus" on writing assignments -- 10 extra points if you worked the word "monkey" into any story. But you wouldn't know that unless you read page 8 of the syllabus. And I didn't mention it in class. I could always tell which students read the syllabus. Cheeky monkeys!
  • You're in college now. Nobody knows that in high school your cross-eyed cousin was your prom date or you were the treasurer of the Hillary Duff fan club. You're a blank slate, able to re-invent yourself to be whomever or whatever you want to be. Right now. Today. Shed the old baggage. Erase the old tapes. You're cool.
  • Get some sleep the night before classes start. Do not try to start school with the worst (or first) hangover of your life. First impressions count.
  • Take a deep breath, walk in and own it. You're in college!

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Deadline doldrums

No new posts till early in the week. Heavy deadlines for my journo-jobs. Watch for back-to-school stuff here Monday and Tuesday.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

From the Village Voice

The Undercover Mother story! Wow! Thanks to the reader who suggested it. A 55-year-old anthropoogy prof goes back to college -- dorm life and everything -- because she says she no longer understands the younger generation. Great reading here. Check it out.

And here is this week's adventure in theatergoing -- my column in the Dallas Observer.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Meat and meeting

Your comments are great. Keep it up. As for Mr. Meat, well, I know his type to a T. He majored in hostility and intimidation.

Funny what some readers read into my stories. Despite what Meathead wrote, I haven't ever really complained here about not having or making money. At the university, I even accepted a cut in pay last year and didn't even complain about that loss of $1000 a semester (I was told my previous paychecks had been too high as a result of some bookkeeping error -- ha!).

Look, I think the pay they offer adjuncts at just about every university is pathetic. Worked out by the hour, busboys make more. But typically we adjuncts aren't doing it for money. We simply like teaching. We like passing along the lessons we learned the hard way. I enjoy teaching writing because I love writing and want to share my passion for it as a craft and a career.

Writing is how I earn my living. And since all the media hooha started, I've received many more assignments from bigger publications and for substantially fatter fees. Moneywise, I live modestly but comfortably and don't want for anything (except health coverage). I buy cute outfits at Target and drive my cars till they fall off the wheels with age.

I have tasted the high life, no doubt about that. In my career as a writer on the entertainment beat, I've been to more than my share of lavish Hollywood parties (hundreds, no joke) and met every famous person I ever dreamed of meeting (including Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Lyle Lovett, the guys who do South Park, Larry Gelbart and the late Mister Rogers). Stories have taken me to glamorous locales overseas, as well as the poorest areas of every city I've ever worked in. Believe me, there are more unhappy movie stars than you might imagine, and more happy busboys than you might have thought either.

What so many of the kids I've written about have yet to realize is: Life is not about a paycheck. It's not about a car, a debutante ball or a McMansion in Frisco (a booming suburb of Dallas). Oh, boy, is it ever not about those things. Maybe you have to have miles on you to know that for sure. Maybe you have to have known some loss -- of people you loved or of opportunities you didn't realize. You learn that you can live on much less than you thought you had to. And in time, you find that there's a certain freedom in it. Time you can call your own can be worth a lot more than hours-days-weeks-years spent serving a master who doesn't appreciate you. (My friends, the Eds, have taught me that lesson.)

Enough whinging about such serious things. Someone also asked if I ever meet my readers. I hope to meet many of you when the book is published. Or maybe before that we could have a back-to-school get-together sometime this fall. I'm working on a lot of things, including T-shirts and other fun items from the Phantom Prof brand.

It's all about to go off the hook, baby. And I'm enjoying every comment, email and good vibe that you send.

Keep writing, y'all. And I will, too.

Comments are welcomed

I've activated the comments icon. Your emails are so good these days, I thought all that wit and wisdom should be shared. So email me as usual, or post a comment by clicking below. Thanks! And for all my friends returning for the fall semester, welcome back and I'll see you at Starbucks.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

More email from "Strait A"

This time "Strait-A Student" missed an exam:

It was not about whether I could or could not take the exam physically, it was about mentally, I didn't get to study at all. My mom slept in my room since Sun night till Thurs morning, she took days off work to stay with me and to drive me to school so I could give notes to my teachers who in contrast showed a lot more understanding to my situation, and those classes are much higher level than this one. You know, if anything really? what could it possibly change from taking an exam on Fri or Mon??????? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, IT'S SIMPLY YOUR INSENSITIVE PRINCIPLE. I'm a hard working student, always was, everyone that knows me will tell you that for me school comes FIRST. The straight A's don't fall from the sky, they were earned with my health, tears, sleepless nights, and deep dedication to school, and the last time I left my home on Sat or Sun was a weekend bfore school started, I spend those days from morning to night studying. I dont deserve such disrespect!!!I will be ready to take this exam on Monday, I will ask you one more time to please make an arrangement for Mon or whenever available. I will not take a zero for this nor that I will drop this coarse, I know that any doctor or any school authority will be on my side, all my reasons are valid, and exam timing i asked for is reasonable. Please!! I just want to take the exam, let's not make this a problem.

A make-up exam time was set. She didn't make it. So this:

I told you I would be ready to take it any time next week. This whole week, starting sunday I was sick, only yesterday (thursday) my temperature finally stabilized to normal. My parents didn't take me to emergency room as a joke, for 4 days my temperature was around 101F-103.2F - at that temp.: shivering, cold sweat, hallucinations, nausea, headache and where you just lay on a bed with closed eyes and any noise or touch makes you feel like your head will explode. At this high temp. people die from brain hemorrhage. My whole body was in pain, I coudn't move sunday at all, Mon. and Tues. my mom gave me a ton of pain killers just so I could get up, because I NEEDED to go to school, so she drove me. My doctor specifically told me to stay in bed, relax, and sleep as much as possible. Some classses like Mon and Tues I just had to be there to at least sign in, then teachers and profs said I could go, some even e-mailed me their lectures just so I didnt have to stay understanding the seriousness of the symptoms. My plan to study for exam 3 was Sat, Sun and throughout the week. Sat it took me all day to learn ch4, the rest was put off for later time, but I got sick, tried studying Sun but with my condition I couldnt even hold the book in front of me. I remember reading, but pain and discomfort of fever was so overwhelming that I didn't remember or understand what I read. Anyways, I don't know if it's difficult for you to picture my condition, I don't know what you want me to do to prove this to you, but this is the fact. I feel like you treat me like I am some slack off student, that doean't want to take the exam. I didn't earn straight A's and got all academic awards to be treated this way, all I asked for was the weekend to catch up on my studies for this exam.

Makes you feel like your head will explode.

Monday, August 01, 2005


Former star student Lauren sends this:

For every Brad, I think there are 15 Toms. These are the turbo-East Coast or Southern assholes devoid of Brad's manners and charm. They live in the frat house and swap racist jokes with Brad, but there are a few differences.

They don't believe in personal hygiene--their hair forms a greasy, ungroomed mop above their acne-infested faces. They come to class reeking of Kentucky Deluxe whiskey (even though they're loaded, they won't shell out for the good stuff) and rarely venture outside the business school.

You'll never catch a Tom in a Porsche, because small cars are too girly. They prefer huge SUV's or lifted pickups to display their hunting association stickers. They also wear those heinous mirrored sunglasses that were popular in the early '90s, and they hang below their unshaved chins and fat necks on an elastic string called a "croakie." Yeah, they date the Ashleys, but anyone who sees them in public inevitably thinks they are an odd fit. They hang out at the bars neighboring SMU and spend all night raising keys to their noses in the bathroom.

Not being from the South originally, I always found the Toms repulsive, but maybe that's why I think they're so prevalent. Anyway, that's my input.

Great stuff, Lauren!