Getting It Write


60-Second Biographer Tries to Capture Everyone's Essence

To realise the value of one minute, ask a person who missed the train; to realise the value of one second, ask a person who avoided an accident;
to realise the value of one millisecond, ask the person who won a silver medal at the Olympics.

- Anonymous

by Dan Robrish

Philadelphia - Dan Hurley is easy to spot in front of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia's Centre City area.  He wears a bright yellow fedora, yellow sport coat, bow tie and saddle shoes.  His fingers fly over the keys of a 1937 Remington portable typewriter.  For 16 years, Hurley has made a living by asking people a few questions, then quickly writing a short story about them.  His method is simple: he tries to get the attention of anyone walking by and offers to write a life story.  He has found that asking people about their love life makes for a good opening question.

Consider the story of Rose Marie Kerchner.  The National Park Service volunteer has worked at the Liberty Bell since the mid-1970s.  Hurley asked her about her life.  Minutes later, after typing at a furious rate, he starts reading his story, "Where It All Started":

Rose Marie is standing here before the Liberty Bell, where it all started.  She has been volunteering here for nearly 25 years.  She loves the history," he said.

She has been married for 50 years now, to the wonderful Herb.  After he served in the armed forces, he took advantage of the GI Bill to attend college.  He worked for years as a business teacher in high school.  He probably helped thousands of young people go off and become filthy rich in business.

But Herb and Rose Marie were never filthy rich themselves.  They stayed home.  She stayed home to raise their three children.  It was tough, but here in America, they were free to choose to live as they saw fit.  And they chose to do what they like and be with their family, have time together rather than running around chasing a dollar.

I guess that's what the framers of our Constitution meant, right here, where it all started, when they said that line about the pursuit of happiness.

Hurley, 42, has done this more than 20,000 times, and he has kept a carbon copy of each story.  He used to make his living charging a few dollars apiece for these stories, working on the sidewalks of Chicago and New York City, then going on a nationwide tour.  These days, he mostly works at places other than sidewalks.  Department stores hire him to write stories for shoppers, to lure them in for Father's Day shopping, as a gimmick for a store opening or other promotions.  He also works as entertainment for birthday parties and bar mitzvahs.

But he said he enjoys working on the street because that's where no one has any expectations of what he will do.  This day, he was on the sidewalk in front of the Liberty Bell to promote his new book, The 60-Second Novelist: What 22,613 People Taught Me About Life.

"Teacher! Students!" he calls out to a large group of teenagers with a couple of adults.  Eventually, Willie Esser, a teacher from Straelen, Germany, walks over with his students.  Hurley asks Esser whether he's married.  Esser says he likes the stability of his 20-year marriage.  Within a few minutes, Hurley has written a story he calls "The Stability Bell."  Esser videotapes Hurley as he reads the story aloud.

Willie came from West Germany with a bunch of students.  He left his wife behind; he was free to wander the globe.  But he didn't care a hoot about that freedom.  He was not a man seeking liberty, not even at the Liberty Bell.  No, Willie loved stability.  He loved being with his best partner in the world; he loves their life together.  And that's why he's going to put up his own Stability Bell - and there won't be a single crack in it.

Esser likes the story and gives Hurley a few dollars.  Two girls pose for a snapshot with Hurley, and the group moves on.

"I had no great plan when I started this out," says Hurley, who now lives in Upper Montclair, New Jersey with his wife, Alice, and their 4-year-old daughter, Anne.  "I literally thought it would be a one-time goof, and just for fun.  I would not say just for laughs, but really a kind of literary experiment.  People really took it more seriously than I would have imagined."  When he first started writing on the sidewalks of Chicago, he found a crowd would often gather to watch.  He had a sign on his typewriter that read "60-Second Novels, Written While You Wait."  (He got the idea from the book The One-Minute Manager, but the stories aren't really finished in 60 seconds.)

When he would read the story aloud, he said, the crowd would often burst into applause.  He enjoyed it so much that he took a week off from his job as an editor for the American Bar Association and spent it on the sidewalks writing.  He soon was earning enough money to live on.  He moved his act to New York, once getting ticketed by police for running an unlicensed street show.  The officer didn't show up when he went to court to contest the ticket, though, depriving him of a chance to speak about American liberty, a notion dear to his heart.

"Where else but in America could somebody do something like this and actually earn a living?" Hurley said.  "I mean, I worked for three years on the streets.  I got a ticket once, but that was it.  Generally speaking, you really are free in this country to do what you want and express yourself."

Source: Nando Times 17 October 1999 © Nando Media and Associated Press

Does Dan Hurley have an unusual knack for cutting to the core of a person's life in a mere few minutes?  It's impossible to tell from only two illustrations, but more than 22,000 biographies have probably honed what skill he possesses to a fairly sharp point.  I wonder that he wasn't drawn to some sort of counselling profession instead.  I also wonder if successful (so-called) psychics don't possess similar perceptive skills that enable them to "know" their clients in a few minutes of gentle probing.

Odd Jobs Department: Writing Fortunes for Fortune Cookies

by Jeremy Olshan

As a vice-president at Wonton Food, Incorporated in Long Island City, Donald Lau manages the company’s accounts payable and receivable, negotiates with insurers, and, somewhat incidentally, composes the fortunes that go inside the fortune cookies, of which Wonton is the world’s largest manufacturer.  Each day, Wonton’s factory churns out four million Golden-Bowl-brand cookies, which are sold to several hundred venders, who, in turn, sell them to most of the 40,000 Chinese restaurants across the country.  Wonton’s primacy in the industry (and for that matter in the gambler’s imagination) is such that in March when 5 of 6 lucky numbers printed on a fortune happened to coincide with the winning picks for the Powerball lottery, 110 people instead of the usual handful came forward to claim prizes of around a $100,000.  Lottery officials suspected a scam until they traced the sequence to a fortune printed with the digits "22-28-32-33-39-40" and Donald Lau’s prediction: "All the preparation you’ve done will finally be paying off."

"We’ve had winners before, but never this many," Lau said the other day, in his East Williamsburg office, which is furnished with stacks of financial reports and A Dictionary of American Proverbs.  "A computer picks the numbers, not me.  If only a computer could also write the fortunes."  Lau never expected to become a fortune-cookie writer.  After graduating from Columbia with degrees in engineering and business, he joined Bank of America, then ran a company that exported logs from the Pacific Northwest to China.  In the early '80s, he was hired by a Chinatown noodle manufacturer, which eventually expanded into fortune cookies.  The firm bought the Long Island City plant, and it soon became apparent that its antiquated catalogue of fortunes would have to be updated.  ("Find someone as gay as you are," one leftover from the 1940s read.)  "We knew we needed to add new sayings," Lau said.  "I was chosen because my English was the best of the group, not because I’m a poet."

At first, the writing came easily.  Finding inspiration in sources ranging from the I Ching to the Post, Lau cranked out 3 or 4 maxims a day, between scrutinizing spreadsheets and monitoring the company’s inventory of chow mein.  "I’d be on the subway and look up at the signs and think, 'Hey, that would make a great fortune',” he said.  (One such adage: "Beware of odours from unfamiliar sources.")  "I’d keep a small notebook and jot down whatever came to me.  I don’t think I ever sat in front of the computer and said, ‘I am going to write 10 fortunes right now.’  It has to come naturally."

Love, riches, power: there is a limited range of experience that can be expressed in one sentence, and, about 11 years into his tenure, Lau began to run out of ideas.  He leaned increasingly on traditional Chinese sayings, which offer insight (along the lines of "True gold fears no fire") but not foresight ("Your income will increase"), and in 1995 he gave up altogether.  "I’ve written thousands of fortunes, but the inspiration is gone," Lau said.  "Have you heard of writer’s block?  That is what happened to me."

These days, he cycles selections from his vast oeuvre in and out of circulation.  He is worried that readers will notice that the cookies are in reruns, which might result in Wonton’s losing its edge on the competition.  (This is unlikely.  Although there are about 40 fortune-cookie companies in the US, few have Wonton’s manufacturing capabilities.)  So Lau has decided to bring in new blood.  The company will soon advertise for a new fortune writer, and Lau will make the transition to editor.  "Maybe when I retire I’ll write again - perhaps a book about writing fortunes," he said.  Returning to form, he summarised the thrust of the book with two simple axioms.  "Don’t have too complicated a mind," he said.  "Think in 10-word sentences."

Source: The New Yorker 6 June 2005


Shortest Books Ever Written:

bulletEverything Men Know About Women
bulletThe Code of Ethics for Lawyers
bulletAmericans' Guide to Etiquette
bulletRoyal Family's Guide to Good Marriages
bulletCareer Opportunities for Liberal Arts Majors
bulletCooking Gourmet Dishes With Tofu

Source: The web

Screenwriters, Take Note!

Formula Used by the Most Popular Movies

Action 30%
Comedy 17%
Good Versus Evil 12%
Love/Sex/Romance 10%
Special Effects 10%
Plot 8%
Music 8%

Source: Unknown

The Programmer's Three Great Virtues

I'm a internaut and I'm OK.  I surf all night and I sleep all day.


This is the quality that makes you go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure.  It makes you write labour-saving programs that other people will find useful, and document what you write so you don't have to answer so many questions about it.  Hence, the first great virtue of a programmer.


This is the anger you feel when the computer is being lazy.  This makes you write programs that don't just react to your needs, but actually anticipate them.  Or at least that pretend to.  Hence, the second great virtue of a programmer.


This means excessive pride, the sort of thing that Zeus zaps you for.  Also, it describes the quality that makes you write (and maintain) programs that other people won't want to say bad things about.  Hence, the third great virtue of a programmer.

Source: Larry Wall, Tom Christainsen & Randal L Schwartz in Programming Perl

Where to Publish Your Paper

  1. If you understand it and can prove it, then send it to a journal of mathematics.
  2. If you understand it, but can't prove it, then send it to a physics journal.
  3. If you can't understand it, but can prove it, then send it to an economics journal.
  4. If you can neither understand it nor prove it, then send it to a psychology journal.
  5. If it attempts to make something important out of something trivial, then send it to a journal of education.
  6. If it attempts to make something trivial out of some-thing important, send it to a journal of metaphysics.

Source: Unknown

Why Blog?

by Steve Holmes CV Writer

bulletTo show off
bulletTo be noticed
bulletTo make a point
bulletTo sell something
bulletBecause you're addicted
bulletBecause you need to be liked or admired
bulletTo find friend and lovers
bulletBecause you believe you are a good networker and must keep up the exercise
bulletTo capture the beauty of your own enlightenment
bulletBecause the cat doesn't laugh at your one-liners
bulletAnother chance to admire your own logo
bulletTo get yourself a butterfly
bulletTo scratch the itch of other people's comments
bulletTo share important knowledge
bulletTo be cool

Is there a truly worthy reason?


Student Essays Undergo Different Type of Scrutiny

by Gail Russell Chaddock

It's been a tough year for one of the most basic of all school assignments: the essay.  Ever since authorities discovered that the teen killers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and elsewhere had signalled their intent in essays, schools have heaped scrutiny on what students write and teachers assign.

Last month, a 7th-grader in Ponder, Texas, wrote a Halloween story about shooting his teacher and three classmates and wound up spending five days in juvenile detention on suspicion of making terrorist threats.  In Franklin Ohio, a high school teacher was reprimanded for proposing the writing topic: "If you had to assassinate one famous person who is alive right now, who would it be and how would you do it?"

After a two-to-three year decline, reports of censorship in K-12 schools are back up since May, according to the Urbana, Illinois-based National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).  "Since Columbine, people are hypersensitive to every hint of violence in student writing," says Charles Suhor, an NCTE field representative who tracks censorship.  While agreeing that recent events justify a close look at student work, teachers worry that an excessive focus on essays to ferret out threats could undermine the free flow of ideas and discourage a love of writing.

"There is always a delicate balance when students are asked to use their imagination," says Leila Christenbury, NCTE vice president.  "Edgar Allan Poe is a staple in the English canon.  It's very mainstream to ask students to experiment with this genre.  If we're going to ask students to exercise their imagination with horror stories, we shouldn't be alarmed if a student's playful imagination pushes to the edge," she adds.

Some groups argue that the personal essay should be abandoned in favor of nonfiction writing.  The St Louis-based Eagle Forum, for example, urges parents to seek exemptions for their children from all writing assignments that could elicit personal or family information.  And recent testing data suggest that nonfiction writing helps student achievement across the board.  "As students spend more time in nonfiction writing, their success on multiple-choice exams goes up," says Douglas Reeves, director of the Centre for Performance Assessment in Denver.

But NCTE officials insist that personal essays engage student interest and passion in a way that an essay on, say, "How a bill becomes a law" never can.  And good essays often take both teachers and students into controversial areas.  "We need to give kids an opportunity to just write and get into the flow of writing.  When they get into that flow, a lot of things come out that we're not always comfortable with," says Dale Allender, NCTE associate director.  Moreover, students that face violence in their everyday lives are very likely to take up that issue in their personal writing.

"Thirty years ago, students didn't have as much violence in their writing as they do today.  Parents and family members were not on drugs.  Young fellows weren't being killed by each other," says Virginia Byrd, a longtime teacher at Payne Elementary School in southeast Washington.

One way teachers are dealing with the pitfalls of personal essays is to rethink the purpose of writing.  When the District of Columbia and Xerox Corp. set up an essay contest for students this month, for example, they deliberately choose a topic to emphasise what's good in children's lives.  Students were asked to prepare essays on "the dreams and promise within me."  What counted in judging these essays was not correct grammar and syntax, but a "controlling idea that conveys a unique perspective on the topic."  The goal is to keep students interested in expressing themselves and improving their capacity to write.

"Writing is a very safe and creative way to understand yourself and what you think.  Even after Columbine - it's the last thing I would want to restrict, nor would I want anyone to feel badly about what they had written," says Debby Churchman, an editor for Ranger Rick magazine and a contest judge.

"I think the writing process itself forces a child to think about their thoughts," says Wayne Ryan, principal of Bruce Monroe Elementary School in Washington.

Source: Nando Times 25 November 1999 © Nando Media, Christian Science Monitor Service and The Christian Science Publishing Society

From my Journal, 1993:

An example of our home schooling experience: I told my 10-year-old to write about lying because he hastily and unthinkingly told a lie about an incident at camp, a lie he later contradicted.  We talked at great length: What is a lie?  We decided the realistic question to ask yourself was not "Will I ever lie?" (since much of human interaction is based on something other than absolute truth in the interest of facilitating a smooth relationship) but "When should I be sure not to lie?"

He and I discussed situation ethics; we discussed the odds of a lie being discovered and the perpetrator ultimately being branded as "a liar."  We discussed when lies are kind and when they are selfish.  My son became excited by the conversation and contributed several interesting points, but didn't go enter his thoughts right then into the computer.

By the next day, he had lost much of that enthusiasm.  The subject was too complex.  I felt the lesson had essentially been learned about lying.  What I really wanted at that point was for him to write an enthusiastic essay about a topic of interest.  So we compromised.

That morning, he had experimented with various pina colada flavours in trying to duplicate a delicious ice cream drink he'd recently had at a restaurant.  So, instead of writing about lying, he wrote an essay on the subject of non-alcoholic pina colada drinks that pleased me very much.  He explained that he had become interested in the topic of dessert drinks on his recent vacation.  He described the pina colada drinks for children he had been served at two different restaurants in our home town since his return.  From there, he wrote of his efforts to duplicate his favorite drink in his own kitchen experiments.  His enthusiasm about the topic was evident.

What It's Like to Just Scrape By: A Working Stiff Shares His Stories

by Henry Pearson

Review of the book A Working Stiff's Manifesto: A Memoir by lain Levison, Soho, $22, 164 pages

Apart from condemning them to repeat high school over and over, there are two ways to break the spirit of independent-minded Americans in this not-so-brave new world.  Send them to prison.  An extreme measure.  Or hire them at $8 an hour to move furniture up or down narrow staircases to or from third-floor apartments.

It doesn't even have to be moving furniture.  Anyone of the soul-breaking jobs in the help-wanted sections of the newspaper will do - especially the ones with the seductive headlines: Be Your Own BossName Your Own HoursMake Big! Big! Money.  Or this one: No Experience Needed!!  Chances are you've stared wistfully at such ads during a lonely lunch in the company cafeteria, daydreaming of chucking the corporate life to heed the call of the wild that beats in the hearts of all salary slaves.

But before anyone quits the 9-to-5 rat race and lights out in search of vague adventure, read lain Levison's A Working Stiff's Manifesto.  There's nothing waiting for you out there but aching muscles, conniving co-workers - some of whom are armed - and a life stripped of point and purpose.

Levison, 39, has held down more than 40 dead-end jobs in 10 years since graduating from Villanova.  "I have become, without realising it, an itinerant worker, a modern-day Tom Joad.  There are differences, though...  Tom Joad didn't blow $40.000 getting an English degree," he writes.  Levison's trek through the help-wanted ads began in 1991 when he fell for the go-to-Alaska / make-a-pile-of-money legend that has ensnared so many dreamers over the years.  The belief is that if they trade a year or two of their youth in backbreaking work they'll come home with a big enough stake to see them through until their real lives began.

In Levison's case, it was a job aboard a crab boat plying the Alaskan waters off Dutch Harbour.  His plan was simple, he confided to a shipmate.  If all went well he would return home after a year with $5,000, enough to rent a nice apartment, buy some furniture and "take beautiful women out on dates and walk along the river with them.  I'm going to find a job, a nice job that I can stand where I work with people I like, doing something satisfying.  ...If you've got $5,000, you have the time to actually look for something decent."

He never got the $5,000.  A combination of company fibs and government deductions ate into his grubstake.  He returned home to begin a life built around the want ads: one crummy job after another - year after year - making just enough to keep a roof over his head and his car running.  "It wasn't supposed to be like this.  There was a plan once, but over the years I've forgotten what it was.  It involved a house and a beautiful wife and a serviceable car and a fenced-in yard, and later a kid or two.  ...There was an unspoken agreement between me and the Fates that, as I lived in the richest country in the history of the world, and was a fairly hard worker, all these things would just come together eventually," Levison writes.

Itinerant workers (some like to call themselves contract workers) make up a sizable part of the workforce.  And it's getting larger all the time as companies downsize, rightsize, trim and prune.

"The more I travel and look around for work, the more I realise that I am not alone.  There are thousands of itinerant workers out there, many of them wearing business suits, many doing construction, many waiting tables or cooking in your favorite restaurants."  This kind of work is sheer survival, Levison says, "but survival sounds dramatic, and this life lacks drama.  It's scraping by," he writes.

Levison lives in Charleston, South Carolina now.  He has no money put away.  No 4O1(k) plan.  But he has another plan.  He intends to write himself out of the financial mess that has befouled his life for more than a decade.  He is off to a great start with A Working Stiff's Manifesto.  There is naked, pitiless power in his work that makes Levison's book more valuable than the usual journal of the down-and-out in America.  We've had our fill of those ain't-it-a-shame books that overlook the fact there is murder in the air when mm and women working just north of the poverty line chase a hard dollar 12 hours a day.

While working in Alaska aboard the crowded crab boat, a jealous husband pricked tiny holes in Levison's rain gear, a mean and dangerous dirty trick that would leave Levison drenched in icy water throughout his long shift.  "While people are pulling on their rain gear all around me, I rear back and thump him on his head.  He falls forward, then springs up, enraged.  He is about to charge me when Mike grabs him from behind.  ...Mike is holding him and I rip into him, pummeling away at his ribs and face for about five seconds, then I stop, Mike lets go, he falls to the floor, and we both step over him," Levison writes.

The late author Charles Bukowski understood there are no jolly, harmless people to be found in the underbelly of the workplace.  Only crafty people looking for an edge.  Levison, a Bukowski disciple, has read everything Bukowski has written.  His book is all the richer for it.

There are laughs in Manifesto.  Lots of laughs.  Some have a sob embedded in them.

Source: USA Today Monday 29 April 2002

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