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New tumblrs

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I finally thought of something to do with tumblr: organize and curate my collection of photos from around the city. I'm now the proud owner of five new blogs, each with its own theme. Head to my main tumblr to find the rest.

Gatsby? What Gatsby?

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I've said it before: like many a displaced North Dakotan, my life is based at least in part on a willful misreading of the character of James Gatz. And this is how I prepare for a rare night out with old friends. (This is a Twitter thread. It works best if you read it from the bottom, in the order each tweet was published.)

Bonus points if you get why I went with "trousers" over "pants."

Five Thoughts Without A Common Thread

Jacquelyn Bengfort

1. I used to feel bad about having a cleaning lady come to my house every two weeks, but then I realized she makes more on average per hour than I do, and now I feel a little better. Also, it's incredibly nice to have a clean house for two days a month. Badum-ching. 2. Someone in my neighborhood has been sticking dead purple bears to various street signs and lights. I like it more than I probably should.

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3. I was briefly known around my neighborhood as "the one who counts yard signs for Twitter." There's a contentious development to the north of Bloomingdale on a disused sand filtration site, and I was attempting to get a sense of the level of support by what people say with their front lawns. The war of the yard signs continues unabated. The latest chess move is putting "I SUPPORT CORRUPTION" stickers on the "CREATE MCMILLAN PARK" (pro-development) signs. Reportedly one neighbor got pictures of the perpetrator and turned the evidence into the cops. But what I really want to know is whether the person placing the stickers is in favor of or opposed to the proposed development. Because if the person is in fact in favor of the development and is using the stickers to get neighbors enraged at the opposition, then, bravo, sir. Check. Mate.

4. Please don't let this be the only comment on my website this month.

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5. Finally, if you're still with me, I had two new pieces of writing go up online last week, one on the EdTech website and one at Tirage Monthly. If you read them both you should get a pretty good idea of my range as a writer. (Ahem, hire me.)

Spritz Away

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Spritz is a Boston-based startup hoping to revolutionize reading one word at a time--literally. Their app breaks text into single-word chunks and displays it for the reader at rates starting at 250 words per minute (much faster than the average reading rate). Like most new reading technologies, my initial instinct is no, no, no. I resisted e-readers right until I received one for Christmas and started reading far more than I had been--and what a help my device proved in my sea-going days, letting me take a small library onto my ship.

And yet. Spritz promises that, given time with the app, you'll be able to read at rates that would let you blast through long books in a matter of hours. It has the potential to be revolutionary. Imagine being able to read classic novels in an afternoon, textbook chapters in a matter of minutes, and most of your day's worth of emails in seconds.

If you want to try it, Spritz has teamed up with Oyster, the book subscription service, to place The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People online. (Click here to give it a shot.) 6% of the way in after 28 minutes, reading at up to 350wpm, my impression is that it takes some getting used to--I get a bit unsettled, almost like an edge of motion sickness, but I think that might fade as I adapted to the technology and stopped trying to move my eyes (Spritz works in part by centering each word at an optimal point, allowing you to read without moving your eyes over a page). I will also have to relax and stop trying to silently read aloud in my head, if that makes sense--I think you almost have to just let the words wash over your eyeballs to achieve higher speeds. And they have to figure out how to deal with text that asks you to refer to diagrams on other pages or that is footnoted (as demonstrated early on in Habits, when the author starts talking about a well-known optical illusion, and the Spritzer is unable to "turn to page X"). Still, as a slow reader, this technology could change the way I operate. I can imagine Spritzing through things before returning to them in book form to reread and savor--or not, if I found the book not to my taste.

So--would you Spritz?

Never Go Down the Writing-Jobs-on-Craigslist Alley Alone

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I use Craigslist. I buy things, occasionally; I sell things. I peruse "Missed Connections" from time to time because, well, I'm an anthropologist and interested in everything human, and find longing especially fascinating. And, like the proverbial moth, I'm drawn time and again to the flame that is "writing/editing jobs."

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 11.28.23 AMWhat a sucker.

There's no place more treacherous, I think, than the "writing/editing jobs" portion of Craiglist. (Caveat: "writing gigs" may in fact be worse.) Let me break it down for you. "writing/editing jobs" [sic] include the following sorts of posts:

  • requests for unpaid interns
  • people with "bestseller" ideas who want to split the "massive profits" after you've completed that pesky writing bit on spec
  • poorly-punctuated, all-caps invectives screaming "LETS MAKE MONEY TOGETHER" from unnamed "successful companies" or "high-powered consulting firms"
  • sundry likely scams I'm too lazy to confirm as verifiable scams (but I'm looking at you, "don't use the Craigslist email relay system" posters)
  • the occasional, apparently-legitimate seeker of a professional writer or editor

In short: a quagmire. A cesspool. A wretched hive of scam and villainy (see what I did there?).

By the time I drag myself away, I'm definitely a bit down, a bit blue, a bit defeated. And feel a bit dirty, not in a good way.

So...anybody looking for a writer?

The Bad Bourbon Challenge

Jacquelyn Bengfort

My husband likes to throw parties. People inevitably, on purpose and not, leave things behind: vegetable peelers, assorted Tupperware, cheap sunglasses, etc. (Sometimes things also disappear...things like the toilet paper spindle from the guest bathroom.) After the last one, someone whose identity is known but whom I shall not name left a bottle of execrably cheap bourbon behind. Note: if you're trying to offload offbrand liquor at a party, I recommend putting it in a decanter. I expect that doing so would be a powerful demonstration of human psychology. However, in its original bottle, no one touched the stuff.

Since said husband declared that bourbon undrinkable (a position seconded by my own father), and since the same man recently had A Significant Birthday Ending In A Zero, I thought it would be fun to use the bourbon in a recipe and create something to eat in celebration. So I adapted this cookie recipe and came up with Chocolate Bourbon Peanut Cookies. Recipe below.

A chocolatey cookie laced with bourbon and studded with peanuts.

P.S. "Hey Jacquelyn, I thought this website was about your freelance writing business." Go ahead, complain about me sharing a recipe for cookies. I've already explained how vital they are to my creative process.

P.P.S. If you still have cheap bourbon left over, Smitten Kitchen has a delightful recipe for milk punch. Which obviously goes perfectly with cookies of all sorts.

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The Quick Guide to Punctuation in Email: "Thanks" Edition

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I got an email yesterday. It looked like this:

Thanks...

 

[First Name redacted]

To which I responded (open-letter style, expecting, of course, that the sender will never see it)

on Twitter. (Three retweets AND one favorite? In my world, THIS IS BLOWING UP, PEOPLE, THIS IS VIRAL.)

But maybe you're asking yourself, "How do I send an email of acknowledgement and avoid giving the recipient heartburn and a lingering sense of self-doubt?"

Here's a handy guide. It all comes down to punctuation (and a little bit to capitalization, too).

Thanks...

See above.

Thanks

You're in a hurry. You're a bit terse. You got my email. I get it.

Thanks!

In this instance, the best option, I think. I'm not usually a proponent of exclamation points, but here, it takes the edge off your message. You're in a hurry, but you're still happy to have heard from me.

Thanks?!

"How unexpected! I think you've sent me something I need/want! But I'm not sure! But thanks!"  I suspect you've responded without reading. Hey man, it's cool. No bigs.

thanks

Here I just think you send a lot of emails from your phone, you sent this one from your computer, and autocorrect has made you a little lazy. You probably tried to double space for a period, too. Oh Apple, what you have done to us?

Thanks.

Have I done something to offend you?

~*{thanks}*~

You're eight. Or a unicorn.

Lunch Challenge #7: 3x3x3

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Here's what I'll be working on over lunch:

Take three randomly-generated words (click here)

Incorporate all three into a short piece of writing in three minutes

Repeat, repeat

In under ten minutes, I'll have started three new things. My random words are HOSPITAL, SUGAR, and ZIP.

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Care to play? Tweet your random words with the hashtag #lunchwrite or share them in the comments section.

And: don't forget to eat.

Quarterly Reading

Jacquelyn Bengfort

This post contains affiliate links, and I may receive a small commission for purchases made by clicking through to merchant sites. I'm a marginally-employed writer so I won't apologize for this half-hearted attempt to monetize my website. I'm clinically technophobic,* but I'm glad that my husband convinced me to join Goodreads. I really like scrolling through and seeing what I've read in the couple of years I've maintained an account. I've been dedicated to scanning in books, even the picture books I read to my daughter. So I thought it could be fun to do a quarterly summation of what I've been reading, with some very short reviews.

And here we go.

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

  • A beautiful novel, and one that I may not have picked up but for joining a bookclub that first convened this past January and meets monthly. In many ways it's like a Forrest Gump for North Korea, and perhaps the strongest endorsement I can give it is that it got me reading a bunch of nonfiction books about North Korea--and I don't usually read nonfiction.

A Postcard Memoir by Lawrence Sutin

  • I read this after taking a flash nonfiction course through the Eckleburg Workshops. It pairs the writer's postcard collection with short reflections on his life. I enjoyed dipping into this one over the course of a few weeks, and was excited to see postcards from places I've been on a few of the pages.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

  • This was February's bookclub selection. I enjoyed it--it breaks rules while still succeeding. Still, it was not the most popular choice with many of the other readers. I left our meeting, though, wanting to read it all over again.

BANG! The Great Somali Goat Bubble by Julian Gough

  • More a long short story, this book was provided to me by DailyLit as part of a promotion of their latest round of DailyLit Originals. It's a terribly clever attempt to try to explain certain excesses of the market in terms of livestock being chopped up by plane propellers. I very much enjoyed it and felt smarter at the end.

Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson

  • I was introduced to Moomintroll and the rest in a review in an old issue of the literary journal Post Road. This series of Finnish books is a cult classic, and I will probably return to them when my daughter is old enough for chapter books--they would be fun to read aloud.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

  • Thus began my foray into nonfiction about North Korea. Demick based her book on interviews with defectors she met while covering the Korean peninsula from Seoul for the LA Times. I cried at times, I laughed at times, I got angry and I pestered my husband by sharing information gleaned from these pages. Highly recommended.

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden

  • Another incredible nonfiction account of life in North Korea, this time focussed on the prison camps. A great companion to Demick's book.

Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis

  • I write mostly short things. Sometimes, very short. I thought this might be a problem. Lydia Davis's work is a revelation. She writes short stuff too, and it's unforgettable. Are they essays? Are they observations? Is it fiction? I don't know, but reading her made me value my own work more, and also challenged me to do short better.

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

  • Gorgeous. This was the March bookclub selection and it was gorgeous. I had previously only read a short story by Danticat, and I'm so glad that the bookclub has already pushed me in new directions and toward authors I may have overlooked. In some ways this novel is really a series of tightly-linked short stories, all centered around the title character, and it works so well.

The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea by Charles Robert Jenkins with Jim Frederick

  • The last in my trifecta of nonfiction books about North Korea, this one is the memoir of an American soldier who defected in the '60s thinking he would be sent home to the United States (and avoid serving in Vietnam). Instead he ended up spending most of his adult life in North Korea--teaching English, occasionally acting in films, and eventually marrying a Japanese abductee and having children. I couldn't miss such a unique perspective on that country.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

  • I had read the first chapter of this book at least twice before, but this time I kept going and I'm so glad I did. Rachman weaves the history of an American newspaper based in Rome with stories from the lives of those working at it during its last gasps for relevance and profitability. My favorite character was the reader, Ornella de Monterecchi, a sort of Miss Havisham character with a happier ending.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

  • A completely engaging novel set in Adichie's native Nigeria. I will be starting her latest novel, Americanah, for next month's bookclub but having only read one of her longer short stories previously, I wanted to get a fuller feel for her work. My library shelves it in YA Fiction, but even if you don't generally read young adult lit, this book is worth the time.

Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon

  • This is the follow up to Kleon's bestselling Steal Like an Artist. He's just at the start of his book tour and I picked this one up at his reading at Politics & Prose here in DC. It's a quick guide to the opposite of self-promotion, and full of awesome quotes and Kleon's own doodles. As a writer/doodler myself, I enjoyed it. Probably my favorite piece of advice is to read obituaries.

Sanctuary by William Faulkner

  • English major shame alert. Sanctuary is the first book by Faulkner I've ever managed end to end. (I tried Absalom Absalom in high school and As I Lay Dying in undergrad. I failed.) And it was a struggle for me, which adds to my shame since Faulkner essentially said of it that it was smut he wrote for money. I didn't enjoy it exactly, but it did pick up pace in the second half, and there were passages, like the one where three old madams sit around commiserating, that stood out for me in their brilliance.

And Now Tomorrow by Rachel Field

  • The first book in my New York Times Bestseller Project! And Now Tomorrow follows the fortunes of narrator Emily Blair, the daughter of a family grown wealthy through the family business: running a textile mill. Initially I thought the story was going to be about the loss of her mother, or the family's experience of World War I, but finally I discovered, around a third of the way through, what it was really about--hearing loss, love, and labor rights during the Great Depression. I won't say more since I'll be giving a more detailed review in a post coming soon.

Additionally, you can check out my Goodreads profile (link above) for a full accounting of this quarter's picture books. (There were more than 50. I usually let her pillage the board books section at the library and we bring home sacks and sacks of stuff, pretty much anything that she pulls off the shelf.)

*"clinically" may be too strong if not inaccurate entirely