Category Archives: what do you think

A (Not So) Grim, Grinning Ghost?

Here’s a fun story, courtesy of Tarrytown-Sleepy Hollow Patch, about a ghost sighting at Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s Tarrytown home.

While visiting Sunnyside in late June, 14-year-old aspiring writer Rachel Lambert took a number of photos of the exterior of the house, and took a quick shot of Irving’s upstairs bedroom window.  Looking at the photo later on her computer, she believes she caught a peek of Irving through the window, hunched over writing.  Here’s a video Rachel posted on YouTube.  See for yourself:

Irving once remarked that if he were to return as a ghost, he would likely haunt his beloved Sunnyside — and he also assured family and friends that they’d have nothing to fear, as he’d be a pleasant ghost. My pal Rob Schweitzer at Historic Hudson Valley noted that there have been no reports of paranormal activity at Sunnyside — or at least not yet. I tend to agree that the photo is a stretch, but it’s still fun to speculate. And if an Irving sighting encourages Miss Lambert to pursue a career as a writer, then I’d say that Washington Irving — that spinner of ghostly yarns, and a master of hoaxes — would approve of all the chatter and speculation.

A Dose of Reality in High School Reading

Over in The Washington Post, crack education writer Jay Mathews laments the absence of non-fiction on high school “required reading” lists.  “I am not dismissing the delights of Twain, Crane, Buck, Saroyan and Wilder,” Mathews writes. “But I think I would also have enjoyed Theodore H. White, John Hersey, Barbara Tuchman and Bruce Catton if they had been assigned.”

He’s right.  I can’t remember ever being assigned any non-fiction in high school, apart from in a journalism class where a wise teacher made us read any number of books of our choice by journalists (I chose Harry Reasoner’s Before The Colors Fade and Barbara Walters’s How To Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything, both of which are long out of print.)

Independently, I read my share of non-fiction — usually books on pop culture, such as the history of films, television, theater, or comics (I remember drawing audible laughter from a biology teacher of mine when he turned over the book I had laid face-down on my desk to reveal The History of Little Orphan Annie) — but as far as required reading went . . . not so much.

Mathews isn’t certain what to make of this. Perhaps, he offers

…high school English departments’ allegiance to novels leads impressionable students to think, incorrectly, that non-fiction is a bore. That in turn makes them prefer fiction writing assignments to anything that could be described by that dreaded word “research.”

Could be.  Non-fiction, on the face of it, seems a bit too much like doing research for a term paper — which is about the only time students are required to pick up anything beyond the fiction shelves. Non-fiction seems intimidating, academic, and boring.  (True, sometimes it is — except most of the time, when it isn’t.)

Mathews closes by asking for suggestions on non-fiction books that high school students might like.  I think I’d try to keep things short — John Adams, for example, is one of the finest books out there, but at 750 pages, its length probably makes it unwieldly for your average class — and point students toward books like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild or Stephen King’s On Writing.

What books would you recommend?

The Trophy Room

Does anyone here really follow the sage advice “Never read your reviews?” It’s advice nearly as old as the printed word itself (“Gutenberg! Put down that copy of Ye Kirkus Reviews, and don’t believe a word they say about ‘making religion too common…’!”) and while many writers over the centuries have both dispensed the advice and claimed to follow it, the truth is, most of them read their reviews with a devoted fervor. Just like we do.

Do you keep them, though? I’ll be the first to admit to being a packrat and collector — while I finally threw out copies of articles I’d written for my college newspaper, I still have copies of an old Batman fanzine I wrote for back in the late 1980s — but when it came to reviews of my own work, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about them. At the very least, I was going to clip them out and save hard copies in a file some place — unless, of course, they were all bad reviews, in which case I would claim I never read them, throw out my laptop, curl up in the fetal position, and suck my thumb.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. But apart from filing it away, what do you do with a good review? Within weeks of its release, Washington Irving was featured in the “Required Reading” section of the New York Post, and I was so thrilled, I printed it out and framed it. Then came a positive review from the Associated Press. Great, that goes on the wall, too. The New York Times? You bet. The Washington Post Book World? And it was on the cover? Absolutely.

I’m torn about it, though. Because while I’m a packrat, I’m not, for example, one of those people who ever hung up my college diploma. The Big Official Certificate I received when I was awarded a Presidential Scholarship sits in a manila folder in a box in the basement. Even letters I received from several Senators thanking me for help on one piece of legislation or another are languishing in a cardboard box. I treasure them all, certainly, and they’re all saved and valued as important mile markers on the road of my life. While I never put them out on display, neither could I bring myself to throw them out.

I hope, and think, my approach to reviews — both good and bad — will be similar to that of our next door neighbor, a feisty New Zealander, who is not only one of my favorite people in the world, but also happens to be a first class rock and roll drummer. Since the early 1970s, he’s recorded and toured with the best, and he was the drummer of preference for Eva Cassidy, a dynamite, up-and-coming jazz singer who died too young in 1996.

One evening, while Barb and I were enjoying a terrific dinner at his home with him and his wife, I excused myself to use their downstairs restroom, a small half-bath only slightly larger than a closet. And there on the wall of this little bathroom was a gold record he had been awarded for playing drums on Eva’s Songbird album.

A gold record.

In the bathroom.

That, more than anything, should help us all keep things in perspective. That gold record was a beautiful reminder of something he had accomplished — but, as our friend always points out, that was all part of his past. He was proud of it, but was still moving forward.

Reviews and awards are nice — and, I would argue, important. But they’re also a tribute to your past. I’ve looked at mine on the walls for the last half year. But when I move to my new office space, I’ll likely put most of them (most of them) in a drawer, close it with a satisfied bang!, and start typing away on the next project.

How about you? What do you do with reviews and clippings?