Archive for the ‘Style Notes’ Category
The Truth About Being A Great Writer
While standing on line at the local butcher, Mildred, my mother-in-law, leaned over the counter and said softly, “So Bernie, how does Mrs. Fisch do her pot roast?”
His answer changed my life.
Bernie bellied up to the counter, his heavy lidded eyes rolling sideways before pushing over a scribbled piece of butcher paper with his grubby finger. ”What do you think of that, Mrs. K?” Mildred adjusted her glasses and peered keenly at the note before her. With a dismissive sniff, she slid the paper into her purse and smiled innocently.
“The best cooks are thieves,” he winked at me. ”Julia Child stole her sauce recipes from the French, Martha Stewart practically copied her Christmas cookie book from Good Housekeeping and Mrs. Krakauer here, let’s just say she borrows from everyone. And so should you.”
I was stunned. From the very first time I sat down to dinner cooked by my mother-in-law, I believed she was making everything from time honored, secretly guarded recipes handed down from generation to generation. Someone else with a better recipe for brisket? Are you meshugah or what?
Yet, here before my eyes was Bernie, the butcher, telling Mildred that the key to great cooking is grand larceny. And from what it sounds like, she has some pretty fancy partners in crime.
Who benefits from all this stealing?
I certainly do, as well as the rest of the Krakauer family. Our dinners are exquisite culinary experiences. I suppose dinners are just as fabulous at Mrs. Fisch’s, at Mrs. Murray’s, at Mrs. Cohen’s as well as every house in Rockaway that participates in this ecosystem of theft. Or borrowing, as Mildred would quickly say. Like a Robin Hood and his Merry Men, there goes Mildred, borrowing from the rich to give to the poor, only in her case, all of Bernie’s loyal customers are swooping down from the trees in Belle Harbor to fatten their recipe files and to share the wealth with their hungry families.
No easy task to keep knocking out great dinners night after night for these ladies. No wonder they flock to Bernie for a tip or two, an unexpected ingredient, a twist to make their husbands turn their heads and say, “Wow, honey! I love your kashe varnishes!”
If you have to turn out momentous meals every day, coming up with your own unique original ideas is gehackte tsuris – who needs it!
And its not because Mildred is lazy, she’s busy.
The only way to survive, look fabulous and stay in control is to steal a secret from Julia Child, Martha Stewart and Mildred P. Krakauer.
Copy from others knowing that true genius stands on the shoulder pads of others
What About Writing?
I couldn’t help but wonder, “Could it be possible I am needlessly killing myself trying to be original all the time?” Of course I am. And so are you. We are stressing, worrying and inwardly freaking out each time we come face to face with the blank page because we want so badly to write something fabulous, something that will transform a reader by the simple experience of reading our words.
OK, here is what I think, after being in the trenches for twelve years as a professional author & illustrator, grantwriter and blogger:
You can mistakenly believe you are the most original, prolific and constantly amazing writer in the world and sputter into a fit of depression when it becomes impossible to maintain these high standards for yourself.
You can steal.
Why am I telling you to do this?
Because I know that if you are serious about your writing, you will see very quickly that there are better ways to write better and more efficiently. Many successful writers like, Shakespeare, Jefferson and Wilde have perfected the art of copying, or as Bernie would say, “borrowing”, from others because they quickly understood that true creativity is seizing the genius in the ideas of others and making it your own.
Let’s Look At Headlines
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”
A great quote from Simone Weil.
How do you attract and earn someone’s attention?
Let me borrow a great word from Mark Ragan, the force at Ragan Communications: Cosmotize.
I just adore that!
When you are standing on line at the supermarket, you know your eyes go right to those riveting covers of Cosmopolitan Magazine, Vogue and GQ.
Did you know those headlines are over half a century old? The ideas behind them are basically the same, the wording or the language changed over time, and yours to steal for your next piece. The raison d’etre for a headline is to get you, the reader, to read the first sentence. And then the next sentence, and so on. If you can’t get someone to read your headline, you can forget about them reading your article.
Everything starts with the headline.
Look at any great headline carefully and you can see its bones, its architecture, its template that will work for any topic. Just like the recipes in Mildred’s trusty collection, I am building a swipe file with hundreds of headline templates on my computer where I can scan them whenever I need to craft a killer headline of my own.
A Shortcut To List Headlines – Snack Size Content that Readers Will Eat Up
Everywhere you look, there’s a headline like this, “43 Ways To Drive Your Man Crazy In Bed. Be Sure to Check Out #7″, or “101 Killer Resources To Make Money As A Mommyblogger”. You see them on magazine covers, on the blogs you follow and on morning and evening news shows.
Why are they so popular?
After attending the Boot Camp for Nonprofits! Power of Giving Forum – an exclusive event for Con Edison partners presented by Ragan Communications, as well as the Corporate Writers and Editors Conference (hashtag #raganCWE) the following day, I have a new respect for the power of headlines.
To help you write something that has the power to be a transformative experience, like Mildred’s pot roast, let me square my shoulders and become one with Bernie, the butcher. I will share what I learned in a roomful of PR and marketing professionals from experts in their industry that earns its right to exist by how well their communications can create profit from attention.
Mark opened the session by inviting us to ask ourselves, “would I pick this up at the newsstand?”, or “will people want to read this and do I love producing this?”. At the top of his list of tips was this: List story.
List story: organized thought with a teaser title. This is hands down the most popular and most powerful headline and story one two punch combo in the history of writing.
Here’s What I Have For You:
I did a little research project in the magazine section of my local bookstore and analyzed the most frequently used list headlines into a short list of templates. These templates are shortcuts that you can use to fill in the blanks and jumpstart your writing with a great headline.
1. 5 Ways to (do something)
Give people a little selection, not too much, and some meat on the bones for each way so that they feel they can make an informed choice.
Example: 7 Ways to Write a Better Grant
2. 52 Killer Resources for (audience)
This is a great way to dominate a narrow subject with a long list of bullet points. Readers will shake their heads in amazement, “Wow! There’s so much I didn’t know!”
Example: 101 Dumpling Ideas For Your Next Party
3. The Top 10 (techniques, resources, tips, you name it)
People love this. They want their options reduced, reviewed, rated and presented to them in a tidy list.
Example: The Top 10 Holiday Offers Your Customers Will Love
4. 11 (topic) Secrets Every (audience) Should Know
Curious about what secrets you are missing? Your readers will be too. This is one of the most effective and irresistible Cosmo headlines.
6 Sexy Secrets Every Cosmo Girl Should Know About Her Man
5. 7 Surprising Reasons (topic)
Instead of creating curiosity, tap into the curiosity that is already in your reader with this provoking headline.
Example: 15 Surprising Reasons Why You You Need Memory Boosters
6. The 9 Laws for (topic)
Some people love being told the rules of the game. Others want to study the law, figure out how to get around it and rebel against it. For both, they will still want to read what those rules are.
Example: The 5 No Nonsense Laws of Nonprofit Fundraising
7. 5 Things your (audience) Needs to Hear You Say
If you are like me, you wonder a lot about if you said the right thing or if you just put your foot in your mouth. Pick someone important to your audience to make the headline even more compelling.
Example: Want a Raise? 7 Things Your Boss Needs to Hear You Say
Why kill yourself?
Mildred pulled a stubby pencil out of her purse, scribbled something on the butcher paper and pushed it back over the counter to Bernie. She smiled. He winked. Then he looked up at me and said, “And what can I help you with today?”
I thought for a moment.
“I’ll have what Mrs. Krakauer is having,” I held his gaze and said, “Theft and pot roast.”
So how am I doing five months to the day after Superstorm Sandy came crashing into our lives?
The seasons have rolled by, this year with a more acute appreciation of normalcy. Cheering the first coffee shop and nail salon to return. Watching more houselights flickering in the rows of darkened houses huddled against nightfall.
Halloween hobbled by, unrescheduled like its New Jersey counterpart. But we partied with the little goblins on our street with whatever candy we saved from the storm.
There was a run on water heaters and boilers in November, before the temperature dropped below 32 degrees and the pipes froze. We heard stories of guys driving way out to Pennsylvania with what precious gas they could hoard – there was also a gas shortage, remember? – to pull boilers off the delivery trucks.
Somehow, we were able to get the trifecta in place. New electrical panel, boiler and water heater. That, and Boston Market, was Thanksgiving.
Christmas and New Years Eve we spent in our FEMA/Actors Fund supported apartment in the Avalon building in New Rochelle which was a break for me. Sky’s school was temporarily housed in another high school in East New York until mid January so my day did not start until I had driven through Westchester, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn to drop him off.
Back in Rockaway finally, we began rebuilding and repairing. Seven broken windows were replaced, the man cave in the basement was power washed and painted, all leaks repaired.
Signs of Spring
Everyone has new cars. Close to 2500 cars were ruined and taken away after the storm so no one even considered getting a used car. I refuse to tell you how many times I have tried my key in the door of a black Jeep that wasn’t mine.
We wandered into Bob’s Furniture last weekend and ran into other Rockawayites looking for basement furniture, just like us.
“Listen, for your basement you want to look at this selection,” Gary, our salesman and one of Seth’s Friday night poker buddies, settled into the display sofa with an appreciative glance. “Two words. Bonded leather.”
It seems that this was the weekend you couldn’t get your hands on any kind of bonded leather furniture. I really didn’t want to go schlepping out to Pennsylvania.
A Bright Spot
Seth found a story about CARE, the Cherished Album Restoration Effort, an amazing group of people who will restore up to 50 photos for people in the flood zone. Next weekend, someone will be coming over to scan our photos so they can be restored. This is the kind of disaster relief work that uplifts the spirit as well as repair the damage. The one thing everyone says they miss the most are the photos that were in the basement and ruined by the storm. I am so grateful to them for offering to save what precious images we have left.
That puts a big smile on my face.
What to do when you are at a loss for words
Today was the first day I realized that my obsession with paper is over.
Now think about that.
How can you claim to be an artist or have an arts career if you don’t use paper?
I was raised in a papered world where writing meant one thing: putting a pencil or a pen to paper. Reading was an activity that involved books, newspapers, magazine that were printed on paper. Writing and illustrating my picture book, “Rabbit Mooncakes” was a daily dance with paper, ink and gouache. My ancestors invented paper way back across the ocean in China – what is going on?
Loss sharpens priorities
Huuricane Sandy wiped out twelve cartons of my books which we had to unearth from a waterlogged basement in Rockaway, Queens. The only thing heavier than those endless ruined stacks of books was my heart. The superstorm also swept away many of my photos and sketchbooks. Once we were able to focus on saving what photos we could, I promised myself they would be scanned, restored as best as possible and sent upwards into the cloud.
Perhaps it is that fear of losing perishable things that has inspired my determination to master the art of creating text and image digitally.
Easier said than done.
How many of you love freshly sharpened pencils and brand new notebooks in September? And what about that box of Crayola crayons that greeted you on the first day of school? Oh, and the pictures we would carry home for the refrigerator gallery…
But where are you going to put all of that at the end of the year? What are you going to keep? I know. You do the same thing I do – you just keep stashing the paper away in a box, why? Just because. Because you don’t want to throw your past away or admit that you really don’t want to keep the stuff in the first place.
New baby photos
When we realized all of our photo albums were gone, my wise third child said, “Don’t feel bad, mom. We needed new baby photos anyway. I looked terrible in the old ones.”
Well, that inspired me to start looking good for my new baby photos. I am watching what I eat, running everyday and making new memories that we snap with our phone cameras, write on our computers and me, I am loving my simple sketch program on my iPad. People cannot help but smile and peek over my shoulder to watch me doodle and draw. Sometimes we get into friendly conversations and I actually email them the sketch.
I suppose I could have had a similar experience with an actual sketchpad and pencil but to be quite honest about it, I don’t miss it. I really like working on my iPad.
A Twelve Step Guide
Maybe you need a little help?
Here’s what worked for me in kicking the paper habit.
1. Give yourself a gift. I got myself a drawing program for my iPad and phone called SketchBook Pro which I used to create the image for this post. It has a text function that I like. I also have Art Set – they have cool paper choices and their paint really looks like paint.
2. Treat yourself to a nice stylus. Most come with a spongy tip that, to me, feel a little weird when you drag it across the screen. I admit, I haven’t found my dream stylus but I am doing OK with one that actually has a brush tip that you can adjust. It makes me feel a little better when I am using paint.
3. Keep your iPad and stylus handy. You will be surprised how quickly you will begin to grab them to write or sketch something.
4. Save your best sketch of the day as your desktop image. It is a great visual reminder of what you drew or wrote yesterday and that you should be doing more of it today.
5. Send emails to your friends with a sketch.
6. Post a sketch to Facebook.
7. Tweet a sketch.
8. If you have a blog, create a post with one of your sketches.
9. If you don’t have a blog, offer to guest post for a blog you like with one of your sketches.
10. Do a self portrait and assign it to your contact so it pops up when someone calls you.
11. Add the self portrait to your email signature.
12. If your mother wants a copy, you can always print one for her.
So, yes. I confess. I am putting away paper and pen and I am fine without them.
Fine, and you?
Few things are for sure in this world.
Chocolate chip cookies are a sure thing. And let’s be sure we are talking about the same cookie.
I make a cookie that is the love child of butter lace cookies and Toll House chocolate chip cookies.
In my book, the perfect chocolate chip cookie to have after an early morning bicycle ride on Saint Patrick’s Day,
to look forward to as I am running the last quarter mile of my half marathon run along the beach,
to delight Seth who is allergic to nuts, is a thin, crispy, round cookie an even golden brown, slightly darker around the edges, erupting with semi sweet chocolate chips.
I frowned at the handbrake on Sky’s Rockaway Cruiser. It was dangling uselessly from the left handle refusing to stay put in its clip. This would clearly be a difficult thing to manage especially while drinking coffee which was the plan.
Fortunately, our friend Paul, who we call The Bike Guy, was nice enough to swing by, toss the Cruiser on his bike rack to take back to his shop to fix. “I’ll just tighten the cable for you and it’ll be fine.”
In the meantime, I was in the kitchen wondering how to make my chocolate chip cookies thinner and crunchier. This has been a work in progress and two weeks ago I came fairly close by making a few adjustments. Today, purely by accident and process of elimination which are my two favorite ways of figuring out most things in life, I made a cookie that I was happy with. So happy that I sent over a plateful of them to Paul who wouldn’t let us give him any money for fixing our bicycle.
About twelve miles later in the afternoon, Seth told me Paul wanted to know if I could give him the recipe for the cookies. “I want a copy too,” said my mom who was helping me with the baking. “I really like the crispiness.”
Here it is.
Crispy Chocolate Chip Cookies
Notes: If you have a temperamental hot oven like mine, I suggest you use aluminum baking sheets lined with parchment paper. The bottoms of the cookies will not burn as quickly.
Regarding flour, my friend Katherine, who writes cookbooks so she should really know about this, has always sung the praises of cake flour. I have yet to try this in my cookies but should you have the chance to do so, please let me know how they taste.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 4 aluminum baking sheets with parchment paper. If you don’t have a sifter, go and get yourself one. It is God’s gift to lumpless cookie dough!
2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sifted sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/4 cup sifted flour
2 cups semi sweet chocolate chips
In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter adding the sugar, eggs and vanilla. Mix well.
Add the flour, salt and baking soda.
Mix in chocolate chips.
Place no more than half a teaspoon of dough for each cookie on the cookie sheet spacing them apart to allow them to spread. You should get a dozen on each sheet. Place two cookie sheets in the oven for 8 – 9 minutes.
Remove and let cool on racks.
About 6 – 8 dozen small delightfully crispy thin chocolate chip cookies!
Perfect for riding around on your beach bicycle and munching on.
me, at the beach in Rockaway
Some people will do anything to stay young.
I am not satisfied with staying young at heart. I want to be young.
Let me be clear. It is not my youth that I am chasing. It is the childlike wonder and simple fearlessness that I want. That is why I surf.
And of course, in order to be good at it, I run every morning and I take hot yoga classes for strength, balance and focus. Somehow, the stars and the surf are in alignment here in the Rockaways and it is now reinventing itself as the coolest beach with the skyline of Manhattan just over the bay. There are yoga classes on the beach during the week, beach tennis, a skateboard park and the big deal of the day is the food vendors along the boardwalk now have a liquor license!
How to Rock the Rockaways
You want to know how to do this?
- Listen, get up early, get out here around 7:30 am on a Saturday. At this time you can probably find a parking spot off 96th street in the big lot across from the library. The A train stop is 96th Street.
- Walk over to 108 street and set up your yoga mat by the water. The class is free, usually taught by my friend Helen who is fabulous, and begins at 8:00 am for one hour. There is no better way to start off your weekend.
- Afterwards, you can rent a bicycle for the day and cruise up and down the boardwalk. Check out the surfers at 91 street, I’ll be there. You can grab a bite at Rippers – great veggie burgers and juice bar. My fave is the Dreamcatcher.
- Find yourself a piece of sandy heaven and relax.
- Rinse and repeat.
Hey, this is a lot of work but it is so worth it.
Sky and his new surfboard
I am lucky to have a friend to go running with every morning.
I am blessed to have a son I can go surfing with every summer. He is the reason I paddle out to catch waves and try to hang ten.
Today, I saw him surfing with his friends up around 143 street in Neponsit. It was a whole scene – lean, tan boys laughing in the tumbling waves out past the first set of breakers, giggling girls in bikinis waving at them. Getting called in by reluctant lifeguards under the stern gaze of their supervisor and whispering conspiratorially,
“Hey guys, I know you guys can swim out there. My boss is here so I have to call you guys in. You know I won’t bother you when he’s not around. We’re surfers too.”
Sky grabbed his board and his eyes barely flickered a hello as he dashed by me with his crew. Does that bother me? I suppose it could but, I surf too.
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