The dench Dame Judi Dench — Song for a Sunday

Listen to Judi Dench rap. (I bet you never expected to read that sentence.)

“Hey, I’m Jude-to-the-D—Pow!”

I came across a Huffpost article about Dame Judi Dench “learning to spit lyrics” with a British rapper.

While she does look fetching in the flat-brimmed DENCH cap he gives her, the talent she displays is not so much rapping as it is mimicry—and rhythm. The Dame’s got rhythm.

Have a listen to the video if you like, but the thing that made me want to bring this to your attention is this line in the accompanying article:

“In the United Kingdom, Dench’s surname is sometimes used as slang to describe something amazing.”

Judi Dench
Dame Judi Dench, photo by Caroline Bonarde Ucci, CC BY 3.0

A quick check in the Urban Dictionary confirms Dench as a synonym for sick (in a good way) or nice, and offers the examples:

That was dench bruvaaaaa
look at her saaaaaaaan she is well judi dench

What an extraordinary thing to have one’s name enter the lexicon—and as high praise, no less.

Of course we all know Judi Dench as a marvelous actor. But do you know she’s also quite a, well, a dench musical theatre interpreter as well?

In a production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music in London, she sang the over-sung, often cloyingly sentimental “Send in the Clowns.” Frankly, the song had always put me right to sleep. Until I saw her interpretation. It’s dench, all right. Totally dench. Enjoy.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Writing advice from Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel
Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel in 1928, Public Domain,

No doubt you’ve heard of Coco Chanel, the French fashion designer who liberated women from stiff, formal clothing and popularized the still-ubiquitous “Little Black Dress.” Her fashion advice remains legendary—just Google “remove one accessory” and your screen will fill with blogs and articles quoting or misquoting her famous dictum

“Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”

But while Chanel intended that as fashion advice, I think it works just as well for writers.

How many adverbs have you used? Surely you don’t need them all. And those adjectives—wouldn’t a few descriptive phrases enliven your work more?

Of course, before you can revise—your outfit or your writing—you have to create it first. Write until you’ve finished the draft. But before it “leaves the house,” give it a good once-over. Is every word, every sentence, necessary? If it isn’t—copy, cut, and paste. Slap it into the writer’s equivalent of a jewelry box, the Outtakes file.

More advice from Coco Chanel

“Take one thing off” may be Chanel’s most-quoted piece of advice. But I found another one I like quite a lot in this slideshow from Australian Vogue:

“In order to be irreplaceable one must be different.”

While we’re on the subject of revising, I’d lop off “In order” at the top of that sentence. But let’s not blame Chanel; perhaps it got added in translation.

“To be irreplaceable, one must be different.” I tell my writers a variation of this all the time. And my clients, too. They talk about subjects that thousands—millions—of people have already talked about: diversity, ethics, management. How can they differentiate themselves from the crowd? By weaving their own stories into the mix. No one else has had your experiences, has your perspective.

Make your communications irreplaceable—and your ideas memorable—by being your own, unique self. (Little Black Dress optional.)


Writing is just the first part of the process. Revising—that’s the secret sauce that gives your writing zing. Join my free webinar on revising.

Nora Bayes, the Beyoncé of the early 20th Century

Nora Bayes
Nora Bayes in 1912, Public Domain

What do Nora Bayes and Beyoncé have in common?  Vanity Fair included them both in this video celebrating the fashions of “top pop stars” of the past 100+ years.

No doubt you’ve heard of this Beyoncé. But what do you know about Nora Bayes, star of Broadway and vaudeville?

She made a cameo appearance in one of my recent blogs. Nora Bayes, née Eleanora Sarah Goldberg, introduced the world to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” She followed that with several other hit records. George M. Cohan personally chose her to record his morale-boosting song “Over There” during World War I. It became an international hit. Shortly after the war ended in 1918, she became the first woman to have a Broadway theatre named after her, the Nora Bayes Theatre, of course.

Bayes’s second husband, Jack Norworth, wrote some hit songs for her, like “Shine On, Harvest Moon”—probably their biggest hit. But Bayes also wrote songs in her own right—music and lyrics. In fact, most sources neglect to mention that she co-wrote “Shine On, Harvest Moon” with Norworth.

More than half a dozen Broadway shows—including Ziegfeld Follies of 1931—featured “songs by Nora Bayes,” according to her listing in the Internet Broadway Database. Several others bear the credit “additional lyrics by Nora Bayes.”

She died in 1928—but her memory apparently lived on, because in 1980 writer Garson Kanin used her as the central character of his novel Smash. If that title seems familiar, yes, the book served as at least part of the basis of the television series Smash. But the producers swapped out Nora Bayes for a more contemporary figure, Marilyn Monroe.

Who was Nora Bayes?

I could end this post right now and you’d have an interesting bunch of trivia about a star of the early 20th century. But Nora Bayes was more than “…one of those rare female triple-threats in vaudeville entertainment” and “easily the most popular female entertainer in vaudeville for much of the first quarter of the 20th century.” She was also a fiercely independent woman, unafraid to forge her own path. Perhaps the comparison with Beyoncé runs deeper than their fashion style.

The Jewish Women’s Archive profile of Bayes tells us:

“In…battles with male businessmen and in her unconventional personal life, Bayes provides some flamboyant, indeed extreme, examples of the broad social changes happening in the United States in the early twentieth century, namely the questioning of traditional roles for women as well as the challenges to male political and economic power that marked the women’s movement of the time.”

Florenz Ziegfeld banned her from show business after she walked out on his 1909 Follies. But she had the last laugh—audiences missed her. She returned to the stage triumphantly, with an even more lucrative contract than she’d had before: $2,500 a week—more than $60,000 in today’s dollars.

Several years later, she broke her contract with a vaudeville producer and set out on her own:

“…she launched her own two-hour, one-woman show in 1917, starred in the musical Ladies First in 1918, and then continued to perform in vaudeville in the England and the United States through 1927.”

Who knows what Bayes would have done if her cancer hadn’t been misdiagnosed early on? But she died in 1928, leaving behind three young children adopted with her fifth husband.

Story Safari

I love finding stories like these. How many other strong women have been all but lost to history? I’ll look for an opportunity to bring Nora Bayes back to life in one of my clients’ speeches.

 


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Women love baseball — Song for a Sunday

Women love baseball. Always have, always will. Just ask Katie Casey.

Who?

I know, I know—most people, even die-hard baseball fans—have never heard of Katie Casey. But the song that introduced her to the world remains ubiquitous, even 109 years after its creation.

Women love baseball
detail from an illustration of “The Average American Woman of 1908

Yes, friends, Katie Casey is the heroine of the song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” We don’t know about her because we never sing the verses of the song, only its chorus. For the record, then, here are the original lyrics (now out of copyright), by songwriter and vaudevillian Jack Norworth:

Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou
Katie blew.
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go
To see a show, but Miss Kate said “No,
I’ll tell you what you can do:”

Chorus

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.

Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names.
Told the umpire he was wrong,
All along,
Good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:

(Repeat Chorus)

Women love baseball, then and now

We tend to think of Edwardian era women as all buns and corsets. But enough of them spoke their minds, even back then. Women participated in the 1908 Democratic Convention that summer, even though only a few states had granted them the right to vote. Earlier in the year, 15,000 women garment workers marched through the streets of New York City, demanding political rights and economic justice. That was March 8th, the day we now commemorate as International Women’s Day.

So the idea of a woman speaking her mind and demanding that her beau take her to the ballgame rather than the theatre—well, it probably amused audiences in 1908 but her outspokenness wouldn’t have come out of left field.

I’m not surprised baseball embraced the chorus of the song. It’s an anthem of consumerism: Buy a ticket. Spend lots of money on the concessions. But I am surprised at how thoroughly Katie Casey has disappeared.

Not just because women love baseball. Although—news flash—we do. And not just because male-dominated society always finds a way to make women invisible.

But why in over 100 years has no one has thought about how odd the lyrics are if the “me” in the song is the guy in the stands singing it:

“Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack”

Just who’s doing the buying here? And why are you, red-blooded American male baseball fan, incapable of buying your own?

There’s more to say about this song, and the men who wrote it. But I can’t say it now. Gotta run—I’m going to the ballgame.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

In praise of imperfection: “The things that are wrong make it art”

Imperfection?
photo from Taylor Hill’s Instagram account

I don’t know who Taylor Hill is. The April 2017 issue of  InStyle magazine tells me she’s a “megamodel”—so even more super-er than a supermodel, I guess. As I said, no idea. But she displays a mega-impressive understanding of imperfection, courtesy of her high school art teacher who told her:

“Don’t try to perfect things. The things that are wrong are what make it art.”

Now, Hill trots out this piece of wisdom in reference to the art of makeup application—she megamodels for Lancôme’s makeup line—but I think it applies to any creative endeavor.

I preach the virtues of imperfection. But do I practice them?

I need to interrupt this ode to imperfection to note that I spent a couple of hours last night ripping out several very long rows of the afghan I’m knitting because I spotted one stitch out of place. But it would have ruined the pattern! And every time I looked at the finished product, that’s the only thing I’d see.

If I truly embraced imperfection, I’d be able to enjoy the tens of thousands of stitches that are in the right places. Or in Taylor Hill’s milieu, I’d still feel gorgeous even if the ends of my eyeliner don’t wing up at exactly the same angle. But to judge from the photos in InStyle, which I cannot link to, anyone who looks at Taylor Hill and sees only mismatched eyeliner needs some serious therapy.

Now, I do actually care about my eyeliner, when I wear it. But I happily release blog post after blog post into the world, knowing full well that some of them are much w*rse—let’s just say less well-written—than others. See for yourself: scroll down.

What’s the difference? Why do I care about an imperfection in the knitting project hardly anyone will see but I’m perfectly nonchalant about imperfections in my blog that the entire internet may see?

Two things:

  1. I’m committed to ship.
  2. Perfection doesn’t exist.

Imperfection and commitment

No matter how much I want to fuss with my makeup, I know that at some point I’m going to have to walk out the door. Because if I’m putting on makeup in the first place that means I have someplace to go. So I’d better get there.

I’ve committed to publishing a blog post every day. I could wrangle with it until 11:59 p.m., but chances are 12+ hours of fussing wouldn’t measurably improve the draft. And, anyway, I have other things to do, a life to lead—which may or may not involve knitting and makeup (though usually it’s one or the other).

So I recognize that it’s imperfect, and I bless and release it. I ship.

I don’t know if you count my blog as “art.” Maybe some days.

But I do know it’s the best my imperfect self can do on any given day. And that’s good enough for me.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Traveling home—song for a Sunday

traveling...and coming home
Not my home, not that I’d mind…

I had a friend once who traveled extensively for work. I’m talking traveling. So much traveling that on one day she passed through Newark Airport twice—heading to city A in the morning, city B in the afternoon. Midway through the afternoon flight, she turned to the startled lady sitting next to her and said, “Excuse me, can you tell me where this plane is going?”

I once did a one-day round-trip from New York to Florida, but travel has never been a big part of my work. So when I do get away, I usually enjoy it. I experienced many wonderful things on this trip I just wrapped up. But it took me away from home for 10 nights, so there’s only one song on my mind today.

You may know the song “Home” from Bonnie Raitt’s recording. But Karla Bonoff wrote the song—and many other songs people mistake for the work of the artists who made them famous. Linda Ronstadt had several hits with Bonoff songs—including “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” “Lose Again,” and the Grammy award-winning “All My Life.”

Bonoff recorded as a solo artist and with bands, but she has remained under the radar to most of the music-listening public. I’m happy to do my small part to change that today

So enjoy Karla Bonoff singing about her sweet home and I’m going to stop writing for now and enjoy living in mine.

The Young People’s Concerts — Song for a Sunday

Have you heard about Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts”? They were legendary, and I recently came across a discussion of them in a fairly unlikely place: Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate.

Okay, maybe it’s not such an unlikely place. Duarte’s subject in Resonate is creating memorable presentations. And Bernstein was nothing if not memorable. And he did it all before PowerPoint. Can you imagine?

Bernstein taught his tiny audience—well, a large audience, but of mostly tiny humans—about relatively simple matters like the different sounds of the instruments in the orchestra. And about more complex things like just what the heck the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was doing up there on that stage.

My piano teacher led an expedition to the Young People’s Concerts three times a year. My father helped her out by chaperoning the trip. I can’t help thinking I would have taken in more information if I’d been wearing less formal dress, more comfortable shoes, but that was how one went to the Philharmonic back in the day. And my father brought along special butterscotch candies for me, which went a long way toward canceling out discomfort.

I may remember more about the Callard & Bowser’s butterscotch than I do about the concerts, but Maestro Bernstein was a compelling presence, a Star. Duarte quotes Variety’s description of him as having

“…the knack of a teacher and the feel of a poet. The marvel of Bernstein is that he knows how to grab attention and carry it along, measuring just the right amount of new information to precede every climax.”

Duarte points out how Bernstein explained the complex concepts of symphonic music by comparing them to everyday concepts we children would be familiar with. 

“How does development actually work? It happens in three main stages, like a three-stage rocket going into space. The first stage is the simple birth of an idea. Like a flower growing out of a seed. You all know the seed, for example, that Beethoven planted at the beginning of his [fifth] symphony, “dunt dunt dunt duuuunt.” Out of it rises a flower that grows like this [plays piano].”

I cannot embed a video for you, but find some butterscotch candies, click on this link, and revel in the power of metaphor—and the power of music.

“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”—song for a Sunday

Ah, jazz. The chromatic melody lines. The cool-cat diction. The unexpected sentiments. All of them abundantly present in the classic, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.”

Wikipedia will tell you that Fran Landesman‘s lyrics begin with a riff on the opening line of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland:

April is the cruelest month

Wikipedia is—to use a writer’s technical term here—full of shit.

Yes, April does make an appearance, mid-song:

Now it’s April. Love is just a ghost.

And, yes, love’s disappearance can be cruel indeed. But as I believe Shakespeare said, “One shared noun doth not a ‘riff’ make.”

Still, the two poems share a contrarian attitude toward spring. Most people celebrate the promise of warmer weather and the (literally) greener pastures it brings. Landesman’s richly detailed lyrics evoke something deeper than melancholy. Perhaps even despair. Or maybe that’s just my personal relation to the subject at the moment.

I had decided to bring you a spring song today, it being spring and all. But I woke up in my rented “urban cabin” in the back of a parking lot to the dulcet tones of a snowplow clearing my front yard. Spring? Ah, but Fran Landesman knows the feeling exactly. The final stanza of her masterpiece:

All alone, the party’s over
Old man winter was a gracious host.
But when you keep praying
for snow to hide the clover,
Spring can really hang you up the most.

Here’s the divine Ella Fitzgerald doing justice to every syllable of the lyric. Sadly, I can’t embed the video. But it’s worth a click—I promise.

Sondheim’s “Assassins” in the current age

Several musical theatre composers have attempted musicals about presidential politics. Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein both had legendary flops with their attempts: Mr. President and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, respectively. But only one musical theatre legend thought it would be a grand idea to create a musical around people who attempted to assassinate presidents. Who else but Stephen Sondheim, master of the complex rhyme scheme and even more complex chord structure. His musical Assassins turns a motley assortment of nutjobs and hapless souls into antiheroes. We come to like them, with their absolute conviction and their charming songs. And we find ourselves rooting—fleetingly, guiltily—for their success. Even though we know the havoc that an assassination can wreak: on the family left behind, and on society.

Art for Yale Rep's AssassinsAssassins has an interesting history. Its premiere coincided with the start of the first Gulf War, in 1990. With actual Americans being killed in the desert, it wasn’t a great time to wax philosophical about killing presidents. About a dozen years later, the Roundabout Theatre Company planned a revival…but postponed it after the September 11th attacks. Again, not a good time for an entertainment about violence. So when Yale Rep announced Assassins as part of its season this year, I worried. Was another calamity waiting in the wings? I crossed my fingers and bought a subscription.

The Roundabout finally mounted its revival in 2004. I remember being struck by how beautiful some of the songs were—one love song in particular. Incongrous, of course, a beautiful love song in a show about murder. But that’s Sondheim for you.

Sondheim’s Assassins in the age of Trump

The music remains beautiful in the Yale Rep production, which I saw on Tuesday night. But in the current age, with violence seeming to lurk below every surface (and far above the surface for Russians around the world), the show seemed particularly creepy. It seemed less about the assassinations than about the feelings of disempowerment that led to them. The assassins are crazy people, certainly. But people trying however they can to make themselves heard. I found myself getting lost in that dynamic—and then being pulled back to reality with a literal bang. Every time a gun went off, I jumped. Damn, I thought, Sondheim got me again.

“Everybody’s got a right to be happy,” the cast sings. Yes, well, maybe. But no one has a right to be violent. I do not wish assassination on anyone. Ever. But the show made it a little too easy to see how ordinary—okay, crazy—people can turn into assassins without much provocation.

There’s certainly a lot of provocation floating around these days. And disempowerment. And crazy people—some of them holding the reins of power. What are we to make of this world? How will it all end? I pray we all make it out of the theatre safely.


Write better when you write more often. The Bennett Ink 90-Day Writing Challenge—it’s time to get serious.

How folksy is too folksy? Frequent Questions

Q: How can I tell if I’ve gotten too folksy?
A: Folks will stop laughin’—and stop listening, too.

Here’s the full Q from our correspondent this week:

I’m a straight-shooter, tell-it-like-it-is kind of person. Sometimes I think that comes on too strong, so I use folksy language to soften the edges. But how can I tell if I’ve gone too far? How folksy is “too folksy”?

First, let me just acknowledge what we’re all thinking. Okay, maybe you’re not thinking it because you didn’t just have to type it, like, five times in a row. But “folksy” is one strange word. Say it out loud. Now say it again. Don’t you want to shout, “Buy another vowel, dude!”

Is that what you mean by “folksy”?

  • the gratuitous Valley Girl “like”
  • the pop culture reference (the TV game show Wheel of Fortune runs the world’s only known vowel marketplace)
  • the hipster pronoun “dude”

Any one of these might cause my starchier friends in academia to toss their mortarboards at me. (By the way, that’s not folksy; it’s a lively, descriptive sentence.) And while I think the paragraph is perfectly fine—no surprise, since I wrote it—I wouldn’t subject readers to such a high concentration of slang unless I were writing satire.

be folksy, but not too folksyBe folksy but focused

So where’s the line between compelling prose and folksiness?

Imagine you’re telling a story about something that happened to you. Would you tell it to your parents any differently than you’d tell it to your long-time best friend? How about a business colleague? Our internal filters automatically adapt the language and tone for each of these audiences.

You want to invite the reader or listener in, but you also want to keep the focus on your message. Too much slang or informal language can become a distraction. Warren Buffett, who’s earned a reputation as a kind of populist storyteller—the Will Rogers of billionaires—miscalculated his folksiness in a recent interview.

At the beginning of her Huffington Post article about the incident, Emily Peck acknowledged,

“…the Berkshire Hathaway CEO has cultivated a folksy manner and it’s kind of refreshing when a CEO isn’t a jargon-spewing automaton.”

It is refreshing. Part of Warren’s appeal as a communicator is that he uses analogies and stories to convey sophisticated ideas. But one challenge with relying on folksy stories—especially old folksy stories—is you’ve got to keep them fresh. And you’ve got to be aware of cultural shifts.

The story that provoked laughter 20 years ago may provoke anger today. And that’s what happened when Warren trotted out an old story that used women as the object of the joke. In another era, most people probably heard it as a humorous observation about the challenges of romance. Today’s audiences hear it as making light of date rape.

Big difference there.

What changed? Well, in “another era,” women’s voices were not so amplified in the media. The top three Google hits on this story—from HuffPo, Mashable, and Business Insider, all carry women’s by-lines. And society has evolved in its understanding of date rape, even if the justice system hasn’t always kept pace.

Raise your hands, though, if you remember what Warren had been talking about, what action he was trying to explain with his ill-fated folksy story? You can’t. Exactly. The folksiness distracted from his message.


Write better when you write more often. The Bennett Ink 90-Day Writing Challenge—it’s time to get serious.