Thanks, writers.

thanksYes I love my friends and family (and my canine assistant Fenway, too). But when I look through my daily lists of gratitudes, one word pops up more than any other: Writing.

I’m grateful that I get to do it—and for a living, even. So thanks to my clients, and to those of you who read what I write under my own name, here and elsewhere.

I’m grateful that I get to read it—so many writers doing beautiful, important, moving work.

  • If you haven’t discovered Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, you have two seasons’ worth of glorious binge-listening ahead of you. Today would be a fine time to start.
  • And while I’ve always found Masha Gessen’s work fascinating, it’s become even more urgent (if depressing) as the country I love slides toward authoritarianism.
  • David Litt, a fellow speechwriter, made me laugh out loud with his White House memoir.
  • And Elizabeth Gilbert gives me hope. I don’t have a satisfying link for that; guess I’ll have to write about her soon.

And I’m grateful that I get to teach it. It’s a cliché that you learn from your students. But clichés become clichés because they’re true. My writers inspire me with their questions, their insights, their excellent work in a jaw-dropping number of genres. And their courage.

I’m grateful to everyone who writes and pushes their work out of the nest. Thank you for letting the rest of us share your ideas and wonder at your creativity.

So here’s a Thanksgiving blessing for you, my fellow writers:

May your desk chairs be comfy and your WiFi be strong.

I look forward to seeing what we all come up with next.


Need a jumpstart to get yourself writing? Mark your calendars for my next quarterly 5×15 Writing Challenge—December 26th-30th.

I love podcasts — and you might too

I love podcasts — I love listening to them and I love being interviewed on them.

Regular readers have already heard me sing the praises of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. Gladwell doesn’t just deliver a fascinating story each week, he also offers a subtle lesson in how to write well. Well? Brilliantly.

I talk a lot about the importance of reading good writing. Gladwell reminds me that it’s equally important—actually, maybe more so—to listen to good writing.

i love podcastsI should have mentioned Revisionist History when Pete Mockaitis, the host of the podcast How to Be Awesome at Your Job, asked me about good material to read. Guess I was in a literal mood that day. And while pretty much every episode of Revisionist History would make a damn fine book, it’s still a podcast.

I love Gladwell’s podcast so much that I included it in the “great writing” I analyze for the writers who subscribe to my Weekly What program. You’ll hear more about that tomorrow. But—seriously—when was the last time you heard a podcast put together with enough thought that it deserved a deep analysis? Yeah, I thought so. If you haven’t heard Revisionist History yet, start here at episode one. You’re welcome.

I love podcasts (lots of podcasts)

I also love more anarchic podcasts, like the ones from the Crooked Media stable. Actually,  Pod Save the World, Pod Save the People, and Friends Like These have too much structure to call them “anarchic.” Lovett or Leave It, Jon Lovett’s podcast, has been gradually acquiring more structure, although the lineup of guest comedians remains hit-or-miss. (This episode, however, shines.) But their flagship show, Pod Save America, feels like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation between some really smart friends.

Whatever the format, I listen because—well, because Lovett and Jon Favreau are speechwriters. Ya gotta support the tribe, right? And because I appreciate the insights of all of the “Crooked” podcast hosts in these baffling, frustrating, and scary times.

But there’s a qualitative difference between podcasts that capture free-flowing conversation and tightly scripted podcasts like Gladwell’s. It’s the difference between watching a baseball game and a baseball documentary. Both tell stories, but the stories may be a little harder to tease out from the live event. Unless a junior league outfielder falls over the fence in pursuit of a sure home run and catches the baseball. Now, that’s a story.

Anyway, you can catch up on all my podcasts here. Can you tell the difference between the ones I prepped for and the ones where I winged it? Whatever the format, I’m just happy to be contributing to this fabulous new medium. Because—I’m not sure if I mentioned this: I love podcasts.


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Details pack emotional punch — a song for a Sunday

Today’s songs—yes, two!—come to us via Malcolm Gladwell, whose glorious podcast Revisionist History has returned for a second season. His examination of “The King of Tears,” country music songwriter Bobby Braddock, demonstrates that details pack emotional punch like nothing else.

details pack emotional punch
Braddock knows details pack emotional punch

Few of my readers may be aspiring country songwriters. But whatever genre we write in, we all want our pieces to pack emotional punch. Because that’s what gets them remembered. And—say it with me, folks—”if you don’t want to be remembered, why are you writing in the first place?”

To get at what’s different about country music, Gladwell compares a classic country hit to Mick Jagger’s song “Wild Horses.” Jagger wrote the song while keeping watch over his girlfriend, Maryanne Faithful, who had overdosed on heroin. He’s determined not to leave her side: “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.”

Details pack emotional punch

It’s a powerful statement, and visual too. Jagger overcomes the cliché by turning it into a literal promise, vowing that he and his love will ride those wild horses, “someday,” when she’s recovered.

Gladwell compares that song of undying love to one of the lachrymose ballads that were Bobby Braddock’s stock in trade, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

He said “I’ll love you till I die,” she told him “You’ll forget in time”
As the years went slowly by, she still preyed upon his mind

He kept her picture on his wall, went half-crazy now and then
He still loved her through it all, hoping she’d come back again

Kept some letters by his bed dated nineteen sixty-two
He had underlined in red every single “I love you”

Every couplet here offers us a detail about the man, his feelings, his sentimentality. Because of those specifics, we don’t just learn about the man. We see him, we have empathy for him.

“Wild Horses” gives us a fact. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” paints a picture. You may not know the latter song right now, but I guarantee that after listening to Gladwell’s podcast, you’ll never forget it.

My favorite version of “Wild Horses” is Susan Boyle’s. Go figure. And for the country song, George Jones sang it first. But I give you Randy Jackson, singing at George Jones’s memorial service at the Grand Ole Opry. But really, you should listen to the podcast first.

Golf v. Gladwell — a sly writer at play

golfMalcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast returned yesterday. Shorter than I remembered it (just over half an hour) but still packed with smarts and attitude and surprise. Season 2’s first episode takes its title from Winston Churchill’s remark that golf is a great way to spoil a good walk.

Of course, like most bons mots attributed to Churchill, this one’s not his—at least not originally. One of his predecessors as prime minister, the 19th century British politician William Gladstone, said something very much like it. But my favorite iteration comes from an early 20th century novelist, Harry Leon Wilson, who wrote:

Some of his friends have been trying to induce him to play golf, but he refused. He makes the following unique definition of golf:  “Golf has too much walking to be a good game, and just enough game to spoil a good walk.”

But I digress.

My point is that Gladwell uses this very famous description of golf as the title of the podcast. But unless I missed it, he never mentions Churchill, or Gladstone—or even the famous quote itself. That’s not exactly a “best practice” in writing. If you use a quote like that, you want to reference it.

But when I got to the end of the podcast, I realized where he’d been going with it. It’s sly commentary, so clever it made me grin. I won’t give it away, but my hat’s off to Malcolm Gladwell.

Like Gladstone and Gladwell, I hate golf. But I treasure great writing. And whether he’s writing for the page or for the podcast, Malcolm Gladwell delivers some of the best writing around. If you missed the first season of Revisionist History, catch up with it here. And enjoy.


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“A separate reality” — Malcolm Gladwell on writing for the ear

“There’s always a separate reality to what you’re writing that’s specific to you and your experience.”

separate realityThe second season of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast doesn’t begin until Thursday (June 15th—mark your calendars!). But in searching for it, I found an interview he did last summer with writer Virginia Heffernan. They talk for a bit and then Gladwell recreates the final episode of Revisionist History Season 1, and then there’s more talking and some Q&A.

One of the things that struck me was Gladwell’s comment about writers creating private experiences within their work, jokes or phrases that only they (and perhaps a select group of friends) know about.

This came up after Heffernan asked him about the experience of writing for the “radio” versus for the page. She said she heard a kind of irony in his delivery—something more than the “just the facts” delivery of the news anchor and he said:

“There’s always a separate reality to what you’re writing that’s specific to you and your experience. Your father or mother will use some phrase and you throw it into a story and every time you see it you’re kind of—. So when you’re reading, you’re reliving all of that and it’s coming out in the way you talk in a way that you’re not consciously aware of.”

I’ve done that once. Someone challenged me to use the phrase “pink satin”—or perhaps it was “hot pink satin.” And I worked it into a blog post seamlessly. But, yes, if I had to read it aloud—as Gladwell does—I can imagine I’d smile. And my listeners would hear that smile creep into my voice. Absolutely, that hot pink satin exists in an entirely separate reality from whatever concept I was writing about. It would show.

Is all writing a “separate reality”?

When you get right down to it, though, isn’t everything we write a separate reality? We may not always choose our words based on a dare, but we do choose them. That’s why no two accounts of any event will be identical. The things that resonate with me may not resonate with you.

I think I’ll use the idea of separate reality in the retreat I’m planning for next spring: Maybe I’ll show my writers something, or give them an experience, and have them write about it. Ooh, yes. That’s going into the planner.

Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell and Virginia Heffernan. And, seriously, listen to Revisionist History. It’s like New Yorker articles for your ears.


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Hallelujah: Creators and creativity

You know Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah.” In fact, you may even be sick to death of it. In the wrong hands it can sound treacly and insincere. And that’s too bad because it’s a very powerful song.

But I digress.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast used “Hallelujah” to tell a story about creativity and art and storytelling. Do yourself a favor: Spend some of your Sunday—today—with Gladwell and “Hallelujah.” You’ll learn something about creativity. You can thank me later.