Digressive Discursions

It riles me up to no end to hear some bright-eyed know-it-all declare “what we really need is some engaging story telling to ignite our flaccid content marketing strategy.” There are an abundance of douche marketing “storytellers” ready to sell us a breathless how-to book, or charge us a hefty consulting fee before they tuck us all in, sit on the end of our beds, and crack open the white-paper edition of Go Dog Go! and put us to sleep with some nighttime fable of how to create lovable marketing content that will engage and connect us to the thought leaders that will flip our funnels and turn us from faceless users to loyal brand advocates.

But I digress.

Digression is what I’m here to write about today. Digression is a maddening art and a truly guilty pleasure that squanders time. Taken too far it can be worse than oral surgery. Done right it can delight and leave us begging for more. Who among us hasn’t sat stupefied in the presence of some absolutely horribly pedantic story teller who just. can’t. seem. to. get. to. the. goddamn. point? Yet, who can argue with Lord Byron’s brilliant epigram, about his lover, Caroline:

“Caro Lamb, Goddamn”

Or the shortest, sad story ever told, attributed to Hemingway:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

While brevity is the soul of wit, and short words always win out over longer synonyms, our Ritalin society can be tagged with the depressing acronym: TL;DR“Too Long; Didn’t Read.” The art of spinning a yarn, telling a tall-tale, being a true raconteur (a person who can tell an anecdote in a skillful and amusing way) just doesn’t seem to fit when declaiming on a four-part framework for calculating the ROI of website personalization.

After all: story telling is the original entertainment medium. Think of Homer sitting around the fire and telling the story of brave Ulysses to a crowd of illiterate Greek kids.  The heart of the story-tellers is the spoken word — not the written  — and it would do us all well to remember that stories were invented around the campfire, delivered from memory by a story teller, and is the origin of the theater, the novel, film and ultimately the place from which the music of language was tested and perfected. Digression in a story is a way to build suspense, foreshadow events, explain and provide background, and show off one’s erudition. How to weave a footnote into a narrative is a delicate balancing act that few can pull off.

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In this era of TED talks and the Moth Radio Hour, Podcasts, personal reminiscences, and self-indulgent blogs such as this one, this is no surfeit of stories to consume.  Headlines beg for our limited attention, we get seduced by clickbait and listicles, A/B tested by algorithms to see what reptilian part of our hippocampus will cause our right index finger to flex and click.  So in our quick-twitch, Adderal-amped lives, let’s consider the luxury of digression; of stretching out and letting a story teller take their time, hook our attention like an angler sets the barb in a fish’s lip, and hold us for 1,000 pages from one sentence to the next, always wanting more.  Let’s follow the footnotes, spend sometime looking up a word, chasing more information, and realize we live in an age of amazing possibilities when it comes to digressing and falling down the rabbit hole of digression where incredible discoveries might be found.

My late friend Jimmy Guterman was fascinated with the impact of hypertext —  links embedded in text — which could be followed by the reader down different paths. He would have laughed at the concept of corporate storytelling and punctured the conceit with some droll bon mot. He quoted, in the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company founder Alan Webber, opening a conference about content and context by saying “…Webber began the two-day event by arguing that storytelling is overrated….

Before HTML came on the scene in 1994, Jimmy and I experimented with a hypertext project using the engine behind Microsoft’s help engine — the name escapes me — to digitize the rules governing yacht racing. Jimmy took it further into fiction, but I can’t find any examples on his blog. Experimental fiction has played with alternative plot tracks — Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch has two different possible chapter sequences.  Video games — the most lucrative entertainment medium extant today — represent one of the best manifestations of interactive story-telling, the hype that was touted around “interactive television” in the 1990s, when viewers could pick different plot lines or camera angles.

Two writers embody the beauty of digression for me me. Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow and David Foster Wallace in nearly all of his books, but especially his masterpiece Infinite Jest. In 2005, Wallace wrote a profile of a right-wing talk radio host for the Atlantic Monthly.  The print edition, which I read on an Acela to NYC, was a masterpiece in taking the principles of digital hypertext and linking onto the printed page. The editors at the Atlantic reformatted the digital edition, using color cues on words to designate footnoted material.

“Navigating the baroque structure of footnotes within footnotes on either the original manuscript or galleys would have been nearly impossible, so we worked on a printout of pages in the ingenious design of our art director, Mary Parsons.”

Here’s a link to their explanation of how they edited and formatted the piece. It presages some amazing examples of interactive journalism and storytelling such as the iconic New York Times piece on an avalanche tragedy, Snowfall.

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Here’s the text as it is formatted online:

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And here is what the reader sees when they click on the colored words with the [+] prompt:

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For me the revelation has been reading William Manchester’s three-volume epic biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion on a Kindle. While e-books are a bit of a tragedy in terms of substantial additions to one’s physical bookshelf, the developers at Amazon have introduced some amazing things in the decade they’ve been perfecting the Kindle interface. For example, any Kindle user is familiar with the ability to look an unfamiliar word up in a sentence simply by highlighting the word and seeing a pop-up definition appear. That in itself is an amazing service to readers like me who are guilty of skipping past some obscure word and missing the opportunity to add something new and amazing to our vocabularies. But it’s the addition of Wikipedia that takes things to a whole new level. Consider when Maechatfieldnchester talks about Churchill’s relationship to the Royal Navy in the years between the two world wars and introduces “Lord Chatfield, Admiral of the Fleet.” Well, my middle name is Chatfield, I have a personal stake in finding out who the hell Lord Chatfield is, and thanks to the Kindle I get right to his entry on Wikipedia, share it with my brother Henry (who also has the Chatfield middle name), and we both get a good laugh and begin referring to each other as “Admiral of the Fleet” whenever we pull our skiffs out of the harbor.

I read Wallace’s Infinite Jest through the first time without taking the time to follow each and every foot note to the end-notes. When I finished the novel — a serious door stop at 1000 plus pages — I started to read those notes and realized what I had missed.

What we have before us, to go back to Guterman’s piece about Alan Webber, is “context within our content”, the ability to stay in the narrative but take a digressive detour out without losing our places.  I think it’s incumbent on any writer to indulge their reader’s with some detours, to walk them down a side-path to some hidden spot. In all our wheel spinning in search for optimization and algorithmic textual perfection, take off your shoes, kick back, and get lost down the rabbit hole of digression. Who knows what surprise you might stub your mind on.

50 Pieces of Random Advice

Here’s a list of random advice and rules of thumb I’ve picked up over the years and  still cling to.

  1. The Golden Rule still applies
  2. If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything
  3. Trust your intuition
  4. If offered a Tic Tac, accept it. You probably need it.
  5. Bitch up, not down
  6. Never eat anything bigger than your head
  7. Don’t s%^t where you eat
  8. Omit unnecessary words
  9. Shorter words are better than longer ones
  10. Listen more, talk less
  11. The only time to use an exclamation point is in the sentence “You cut my arm off”
  12. Don’t date someone with more than three cats
  13. The sky is high and the Emperor is far away
  14. Don’t quit your job until you have your next one
  15. People think in three’s — three acts, three bullets, three concepts
  16. The 80-20 rule always applies
  17. A car carrying a AAA sticker or a license plate with a sub-five digit number is driven by a bad driver
  18. George O’Day Died Defending His Right of Way — watch out for the other guy
  19. Throw back the first fish of the season with a kiss
  20. Red Sky At Night, Sailor’s Delight
  21. Red Right Returning
  22. When offered something, take the one closest to you
  23. No pleats
  24. Bowties are asshole detectors
  25. The Abe Lincoln rule of pissed off letters (and emails) applies: write, don’t send
  26. Tough guys don’t dance
  27. Tough guys don’t tweet
  28. Tough guys don’t sip cocktails through straws
  29. Powerpoint sucks
  30. Never bullshit your boss. Just say “I don’t know.”
  31. Rub dirt on it and take a lap
  32. Children only need to go to the ER if blood is coming out of their ears
  33. Don’t wear clothing with the name of any school you attended
  34. Don’t be the Closer of any party
  35. If you don’t know who the sucker is, then it is you
  36. 80% of Walmart shoppers turn right when they enter the store
  37. If ignored for 5 minutes in a restaurant, get up and leave
  38. Keep the crew dry and in the sun
  39. There is no bad weather, only bad clothing
  40. Cheese and fish do not mix
  41. High tide in Cotuit is always at noon and midnight when the moon is full
  42. The 20s are the worst decade
  43. No one gets out alive
  44. Don’t arrive empty handed
  45. Handwritten notes work
  46. Nothing important happens after midnight
  47. Take a cab
  48. Do what the officer tells you to
  49. Keep religion and politics out of it
  50. There’s always hope

Reprints of The Reminiscences of Captain Thomas Chatfield for sale

My cousin Tom Field kindly alerted me to this discover on Amazon: a custom publisher called “Forgotten Books” has scraped my transcription of Captain Thomas Chatfield’s Reminscences (I assume, since I invested hours in 2006 to type the manuscript and share it as pages on this blog while living the lonely-man life in Durham, NC) and is offering paper copies for $13.57.

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I’m excited someone offers this service. When I looked into a custom publishing run ten years ago the cost per copy was over $50. This is a great alternative to schlepping disks to a local printer and will allow me to get some copies into the hands of the next generation of nieces and nephews with Chatfield DNA.

 

 

 

Boat pulling day

I’m pulling the big boat today, taking a personal day to get it done, and blogging in between the early morning mast-pulling and the actual haul-out later this afternoon.  I got over to the town dock by 8:30 this morning, shrouds all slack and ready to be detached from the chain-plates; mast wedges, tabernacle boot, boom and all the lines detached and coiled last Saturday. The harbor has really emptied out in the past week, as if a light switch was thrown after Columbus Day when the launch service stops running and the boat yards and mooring servicers swing into action putting things to bed.

The timing couldn’t be better as the cormorants have found the boat and started to turn it into their personal guano depository. The splatter effects are as bad as past years, but the power washer will be working overtime this weekend before I wrap everything up, run some antifreeze through the engine, change the oil and put her to sleep for the winter. I’ll leave the motorboat in until the middle of next month, but thanks to the new dinghy rules that force me to get my tender off the beach by the middle of November, that will get yanked in a month as well.

 

I hate taking days off from work to get this done, but when Peck’s calls, one answers. Now I can stop freaking out watching Matthew and Nicole and the freak storm waiting in the wings and sleep solidly not worrying about my poor boat getting pooped on in the harbor.

 

Marguerite and the Isle of Demons

In 1999 I bought some screenwriting software and messed around with the format and structure of writing a scvript. I actually wrote a full screenplay based on the story of Hugh Glass, the frontiersman who was mauled by a bear and left to die in the wilderness in the 1800s. Yes, I felt a twinge of woulda-coulda-shoulda when The Revenant told that tale 15 years later and won an Oscar, but being a procrastinator, I thought I’d share another amazing story from history which I’ll predict someone will actually make into a flick one day.

On my current literary bender of devouring Samuel Eliot Morison’s works, I have been reading his magnum opus, The European Discoverers of America. In his accounts of the French voyages of discovery of Canada he dropped in the tale — perhaps apocryphally — of Marguerite de la Rocque and her romantic ordeal on the Ile de Demons in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1542.

First a little back story. The French, envious of Spanish wealth from Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and aware the English were exploring the coasts of Newfoundland, financed the voyages of Jacques Cartier who over the course of three voyages, discovered the Gulf of St. Lawrence and explored it deep to the west as far as the modern city of Quebec in the search of the elusive northwest passage to the Indies. Cartier returned to Versailles with captured Iroquois natives and tales of gold to be found in the mythical  “Kingdom of Saguenay.” While his samples of ore were merely Fools Gold, or iron pyrite, and his Iroquois novelties all too willing to bullshit the court on his behalf, Cartier’s tall tales of Canada’s bounty inspired a mad rush among the French aristocracy to fit out their own ships and sail west to stake their claims in the New World.

One of those fortune-seekers was Jean-Francois Roberval, a French nobleman and favorite of the King of France, who set sail for Canada in 1542 with a crew that included a young woman, Marguerite de la Roque, and her lady’s maid, Damienne. It’s unclear what exactly the relationship was between Roberval and Marguerite. Some historians speculate they were uncle and niece. Others speculate they were brother and sister. But it appears they had a shared interest in a great deal of land in Perigord and Languedoc and she was “co-seigeurness” of Pairpont with him. Whatever the relationship, it was personal and perhaps even financial and tied to some big land holdings which were the basis of noble wealth in those days.

Why a young woman would get on a ship with her maid and sail to a savage shore is remarkable to speculate about, but according to Morison, Cartier did a masterful job in whipping up Canada-fever among the aristocracy and for a woman to embark on such a voyage is probably tantamount to being the first female astronaut to walk on the moon.

During the trans-Atlantic voyage Marguerite fell in love with a young man — not a member of the common crew, but some dashing adventurer who doubtlessly was high-borne and also keen on finding adventure and freedom from the tired restrictions of 15th century France. The two lovers were caught in flagrente delicto by the Calvinist Captain Roberval, who was enraged by her promiscuity, doubtlessly ashamed to have it openly known on the very close confines of a small ship in the middle of the Atlantic that his chaste “ward” had sinned under his very nose in some dark sail locker.

Roberval vowed to put Marguerite ashore at the first opportunity along with her maid Damienne, who in the words of Morison, played the classic role  all good lady’s maids are expected to play as she tried to conceal her mistresses’ amorous indiscretions. Eventually land was sighted, a desolate island at the northern tip of Newfoundland at the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This island, the “Ile de Demons” is a bit mythical and appears and disappears on antique charts, but according to modern locations may be Quirpon Island near the site of L’Anse aux Meadows, where archaeologists found evidence of the first Viking settlements dating back to 1,000 CE.

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By Johann Ruysch († 1533), scanned by Kimon Berlin, user:Gribeco – scanned from Thomas Suárez, Shedding the Veil, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1301911

Now for the good stuff, paraphrasing Morison’s account, here goes:

Roberval the Calvinist prude, total tyrant of the ship (as all good captain’s are expected to be tyrants), anchors off the rocky shore of the Ile de Demons and puts Marguerite and Damienne ashore with a musket, some provisions, and his utter and complete scorn. Picture the scene of somber shame and terror as the two women are put into the boat and rowed ashore in the ship’s pinnace to a forbidding shore dense with pines and dark shadows.jean-franc3a7ois_de_la_roque_de_roberval Roberval doubtlessly pronounces some stern sentence on them from the poop deck as the women are banished to their fate, invoking his Huguenot God and making pious imprecations against fornicators and peccant girls of loose morals.

Some historians speculate Roberval was motivated by more than prudishness and a wounded ego when he sent Marguerite ashore, loyal lady’s maid by her side. Indeed he may have benefited from marooning the young noblewoman because he could have returned to France as the sole Lord of the lands he once shared title with the doomed girl. Whatever the motivation, Roberval was wiping his hands of her and with a curt command to weigh anchor and sail away, the two women were left alone on the wet shore looking out for the last time at their only connection to civilization and life.

Aha, but the young swain, hitherto concealed, his identity protected by his lover Marguerite, leaps on deck, muskets, ammunition, and food in a sack, and with a flourishing bow, gracefully swan dives off the taffrail into the cold, testicle-shrinking waters of the sea and swims ashore to share his fate in the arms of his abandoned lover.

Roberval flicks his teeth with some gallic display of disgusted indifference and with a fey motion with the back of his hand, commands the ship’s bosun to weigh anchor and leave the scandalous trio to their fate.

And then the ship is gone.

Let’s let Morison tell the rest of the story:

“Marguerite fared well enough for a time. Until winter set in, the lovers lived an idyllic life. The gentleman built a cabin for his mistress and her maid, chopped wood, caught fish, and shot wild fowl; but before winter ended, he died. Marguerite, unable to dig a grave in the frozen ground, guarded his body in the cabin until spring, to protect it from wild animals.

“In the ninth month of exile a child was born to her and promptly died. Another winter passed, and Damienne died, leaving Marguerite alone. The intrepid demoiselle gathered enough food to keep alive and defended herself not only against bears (she killed three, one “white as an egg”). but against spirits of another world. Demoniac voices shrieked about her cabin, howled the louder when she fired a gun, but were still when she read passages from a New Testament which she brought ashore.”

In  the early spring of 1544 the smoke from Marguerite’s fire was spotted by some passing French fisherman. They landed, found her emaciated and “in rags” according to Morison, and brought her back home to France where she became a celebrity sensation and the personal pet of the Queen of Navarre who made Marguerite a cause celebre and post child for piety. Roberval? Not a %&$* was given and met his maker during some Huguenot purge.

Maybe it’s me, but I’d see that movie.

Dylan’s Nobel Prize

My writing mentor, the late John Hersey, told me in 1979 that writers who chase prizes are completely missing the point. This wisdom after a short story I submitted to a college fiction contest was returned with a handwritten suggestion that I seek psychiatric help. I told Hersey I needed beer & weed money, but injured pride aside, can  we discuss the very cool decision by the judges in Stockholm to give Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature?

Yes, he’s a poet who happens to strum a guitar and blow a harp, but I’m delighted the august judges of literature’s greatest award have broadened their horizons from their recent decades of filling in the map of the world by giving the prize to obscure scriveners from former Soviet republics (no first world patriarchal privilege implied but I don’t read Uzbek).  Yes, I root for the home team  in these things and haven’t been really pumped up by the news in a long time. I would have given it to Don DeLillo, and not since Orman Pahluk  received it have I really felt it was as well deserved as Dylan’s

 

 

Simian marketing

What is the deal with companies named after apes? I mean monkeys are cute in theory (and can rip your face off in practice) but what idiot actually decides that it would be good idea to inject some prehensile levity into their products by adding “Orangutan” to it? I can see them holding in the bong hit, exhaling and proclaiming in stoner-speak: “Duuuude, let’s call it BononoBaby!”

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Here’s a couple offenders. Something inside of me groans whenever any of these pop up on NPR advertising or my inbox:

SurveyMonkey: the classic, from the early days of ape-branding and now de rigeur when you need to create a poorly designed survey on your own.

MailChimp: great, spam AND chimps.

I’m too lazy to hunt down other examples. I know Wired.com had a webmaster publication in the 90s called “Webmonkey” but other than that I’ll bet I can find some marketing automation spam tool with Gorilla in it.