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What Makes a Bestseller?

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Some books are great and almost no one reads them. Some books are horrid and almost everyone reads them. And between these extremes--every possible combination. As a writer, I read books both for pleasure and to find out how they work. But remember that I'm also an anthropologist, and sometimes I've also read books to figure out what they say about the people who read them.

And so I've decided to take on a new project. We'll be straightforward and call it the New York Times Bestseller Project.

Over the course of what will be at least half a decade (optimism font), I will undertake to read all of the number-one bestselling fiction from the first fifty years of the New York Times Bestseller List. According to my math, which may be shoddy and which was definitely not double checked, this adds up to 241 novels. (I found a list here.) Essentially, I’m snooping the bookshelves of our ancestors and ourselves, trying to figure out if what we read says anything about who we are, while trying to figure out at the same time what made each book so popular.

Why stop after fifty years? Honestly, because the lists for each year seem to get longer over time. 1942, the first year of the national list, only four selections made the top spot. In 1943, there were only two. In 2012, there were 35. Also, today there are multiple lists. I count 11 that fall under the banner of fiction. I’m not going to live forever, I hope to read other things from time to time, and I have plans to one day write a book or several myself. So I cut things off before they got too crazy. Also, I was born in the early ‘80s so reading past 1991 would be more like snooping my own shelves. I was reading Michael Crichton novels by middle school. It seemed like a good place to stop.

Why this list? Why bestsellers? Look, I know there are problems inherent in any list. The Wikipedia entry on the New York Times Bestseller List goes into great detail concerning the many criticisms levied against it. But I’ve grown up seeing “New York Times Bestseller!” splashed across mass market paperbacks until it practically becomes one long German-inspired word, newyorktimesbestseller. Sure, there are lots of lists of the best books of the twentieth century, but focusing on those would be more of a literary exercise. This project is the opposite: I’m more interested in trying to learn about the readers’ minds than the writers’.

First stop: 1942. (Fingers crossed that the list of bestselling books of the mid-twentieth century and the much longer list of books published in the twentieth century and unavailable because they're out of print won't overlap too much!) As I read I'll be posting thoughts about each book and perhaps bits of historical information about the year in question.

And Now Tomorrow by Rachel Field (MacMillan) - August 9, 1942

The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel (Viking) - August 16, 1942

Drivin' Woman by Elizabeth Chevalier (MacMillan) - September 6, 1942

The Robe by Lloyd Douglas (Houghton Mifflin) - November 22, 1942

Note: book links are affiliate links and I may receive a small commission from linked merchant sites were you to buy something after clicking through.

Lunch Challenge #6: In the form of a list

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Today's lunch challenge: write a poem or short prose piece built around a list. Selection from another list: things with which you might be unfamiliar after 322 days at sea.

For example, I'm working on a prose poem about all the everyday things I now view as dangerous because I have a small child. Things that I never thought of as dangerous before, like dirt, or grapes, now must be dealt with, their risks mitigated.

Share your list topic on Twitter with the hashtag #lunchwrite or in the comment section below. Happy writing!

Dubious Distinctions

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I've reached a new peak. A new point in my writing life. An unexpected and unlooked-for distinction. I was included on an inspiration chain email.

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No idea how common these are. It practically chirped at me: "This is for fun." "No pressure." "Just email it to twenty of your writer friends who will have twenty more friends to forward it along to." I felt obligated. Good lard,* I felt obligated.

I sent the person whose name was in position 1 a favorite poem, "Sharks" by Ada Limon. That was the easy part. In my sailor days, "Sharks are people too" became a mantra I repeated almost daily. When I stumbled into Ms. Limon on Twitter this morning, quite by accident, it was a wonderful reminder of her wonderful poem (and she graciously thanked me for my tweet, which was a very fun thing to have happen).

Phew. Sent that email off. But then came the email to another twenty writers.

I may know twenty writers. Let's count, shall we? I've had at least two or three teachers through Gotham Writers' Workshop. I took two writers' classes at Politics & Prose. Two of my college English professors are also working writers. I know a couple of freelancers in the city; one of my neighbors has an MFA; I've taken courses from two more writers through the Eckleburg Workshops; one of my grad school friends is a poet in Boston. (That's thirteen.) I can count four more--no, five--that I know through readings I've participated in at Kafe Bohem. Ok, and then the students from one of those Politics & Prose classes, that might be six more. And I suppose there are the other students from the online classes I've taken, only none of us have really kept in touch. There are a few people I know only through Twitter. And my college roommate who used to write poetry sometimes. And, of course, the writer who sent it to me.

God bless him, I'm sure he has loads of writer-peers he knows from his MFA program and his subsequent literary adventures, but once I pared down the list above to the people I felt reasonably (and only reasonably) comfortable including, I think it was seven people. I included a note at the top--basically saying they could participate if they wanted to, but that I wasn't going to be policing it--and sent it off, palms sweating. I'm not checking my email for the rest of the night. My stomach is in knots.

When Eleanor Roosevelt said to do one thing every day that scares you, I'm almost certain she wasn't thinking of pressing the "SEND" button on a chain email. But that's where I'm at.

On an unrelated note, anyone know a good shrink in the DC area to treat a case of self-diagnosed social anxiety disorder?

*I have a child. The A is intentional.

Lunch Challenge #5: Kiss and Tell

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Viral videos. The signature media of our age, no? First someone shares a video of a catchy breastfeeding song on Facebook, then you tell your husband to Google it so he knows what the heck you've been singing all morning, and the next thing you know he's texting you three minutes of twenty strangers kissing each other. So here's a video of twenty strangers kissing each other.

Your challenge? Describe a kiss--any kiss--in twenty words, exactly. Tweet it with the hashtag #lunchwrite or add it to the comments section below.

Lunch Challenge #4: Addicted to Prompts

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I love a good writing prompt. That's a big part of why I started posting #lunchwrite challenges on Twitter a few weeks ago--no matter how tired or distracted or uninspired I feel, a good prompt can get me writing. Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 10.04.55 AM

So today's prompt comes courtesy of Poets & Writers. Their weekly newsletter, "The Time is Now," provides a prompt each for a poem, fictional prose, and creative nonfiction.

I chose the poetry prompt but wrote a few lines of prose. So no need to be too prescriptive about it. And if you like the prompts, you can have them sent directly to your email by signing up on the website.

If you participate in today's challenge, tweet a line from the results with the hashtag #lunchwrite or add in the comments below.

My Dumbphone: A Brief Lifestyle Manifesto

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I hate my smartphone. I do not think I am alone in this.

I became a smartphone user in--I think--2010. My first one was a Droid, with a Verizon plan that didn't limit me on data. I quickly became an addict.

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Wait. This story starts earlier. It goes back to college, at least.

Sophomore year of college, I broke my foot. I was stuck at school on a Sunday in February because it wasn't a normal school and I wasn't a normal student--it was the Naval Academy and I was a midshipman with a duty day (and a bad mood). Stomping over to one of the many gyms, pissed off about I-can't-remember-what, I missed a step and came down hard on the outside edge of my left foot.

It took almost four months for the problem to be diagnosed. The issue didn't really show up on x-rays (which I had every couple of weeks as my foot failed to heal, despite rotating assistance from crutches and a walking boot) because, if I recall all this correctly, it wasn't exactly a break--I had an unfused navicular bone, and I had actually broken the connecting tissues between the two parts of what should, in an adult female, have already been a single bone. When I wasn't using the foot, the swelling would recede and the pain would diminish. As soon as I started to walk on it unassisted, the ligament running from the navicular and up the inside of my calf would start pulling on the bone fragment again and the whole thing would flare up like the National Zoo decked out for Christmas.

Eventually, corrective surgery was completed sometime after finals and I got to spend my summer taking Film and Literature in a cast instead of running around in the mud pretending to be a Marine. But the damage was done: I had become hooked on casual gaming.

Midshipmen don't have a lot of free hours. Classes are mandatory, most meals are mandatory, there are mandatory formations and mandatory inspections and after-class sports and marching drills and lecture series, all mandatory.

Here are the things I couldn't participate in while on crutches: outdoor formations (like the big one at lunch that tourists love), intramural boxing, intramural half marathon, and Highland Dancing. This situation left gaping holes in my schedule, which I filled, not with great literature or even shitty writing, but with COLLAPSE!

I got really, really good at COLLAPSE! I got really, really good grades, too, but my gosh you should have seen me play COLLAPSE!

Five or six years later, my foot was fine but my Droid made it far too easy to waste time--on casual games, on obsessively checking email, on tweeting my thoughts to the few people who cared.

Another couple of years and I was newly home from my last deployment, a humdinger at 322 days at sea. And my husband, sweet man he is, excitedly took me to the Apple store for another even smarter phone: an iPhone. Within a few days, I suggested he write an app that would let me turn it into a dumbphone when I wanted to.

"I want to be able to toggle a switch and only make/receive calls and texts," I told him. "I think people would pay for that."

"It's not possible," he informed me. "Apple would need to make it. It would involve settings developers can't touch."

Alack alack alack.

Another couple of years passing brings us to this week. I read this scary article on Huffington Post and remembered again how gung ho I was before her birth about my kiddo never watching TV or using a dread iThing before she was two, and how lax I've gotten about these rules, and how much of my own life has been taken by Angry Birds and Words With Friends and Draw Something! and Candy Crush and, most recently, Threes.

And, it's Lent. So add in a desire to discipline myself and the existential crisis brought on when you see your child with ashes on her forehead, and realize that yes, we all really are going to die.

"And," I told my husband, "I don't want to be remembered as Jacquelyn Bengfort: Pretty Good at Twitter and a Dab Hand at A Variety of Bubble Shooters."

So here's what I'm doing: a phone diet.

If I were a stronger person and also better at getting places without explicit turn-by-turn directions, I'd give up the smartphone altogether. But I'm not, so I'm self-limiting. For me, this means putting physical space between myself and the phone. We live in a tall skinny row house, and so, for now, my phone stays out of my pocket and remains in one of a few places: on the newel post for the level I am on. On the charger in the kitchen. In the window of my office. On the mantle in the master bedroom.

It's a small change, yes. But guess what: in two days it has already paid dividends. I've spent time outside that I wouldn't have. I've read a third of a way through a (fantastic) book I've been meaning to get to for a few (ahem) years. I started writing a new story.

Maybe I won't be declared the Voice of my Generation just because I started using my mobile device slightly less. But if it comes down to it, I'm ok with being remembered as Jacquelyn Bengfort: A Decent Writer, An Ok Cook, A Fantastic Mom & Wife and Wow She Read a Lot of Books.

LiteriCity, DC

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I was Twitter messaging a delightful writer I met recently (Jada of Casual Tuesdays) to share some info about reading series and other literary happenings of which I am aware. Six chunks of 140 characters later, I thought I might as well compile what I know and throw it up over here for the benefit of all my writerly friends and acquaintances in the city. I must offer a hat-tip to this article, which I found on the Poets & Writers website just a few months before making the move to DC and which started me down a whole lot of right paths. In many ways, what follows here is an extension of that list.

Reading Series and Open Mic Nights

Kafe Bohem (600 Florida Ave NW) recently began hosting a reading series that takes place the last Monday of every month. Local author Eric Rekstein (My Life: What Not to Do, On Moon Square) organizes. I've been participating for the last two months.

Reading at Kafe Bohem (photo by Paul Angelo)

Busboys and Poets (various locations) boasts an intense events calendar.

Barrelhouse Presents is a reading series from the DC-based literary magazine Barrelhouse, held at the Petworth Citizen & Reading Room, a new pub on Upshur Street that I can't wait to visit. The next one is March 12.

the lowercase is a reading series for volunteers at 826DC, a tutoring program for students. It's held in their storefront, the Museum of Unnatural History, in Columbia Heights.

The Writer's Center in Bethesda hosts readings as well. According to their event calendar the next one is the last Sunday in March.

Book Readings and Author Signings

Politics and Prose always boasts an incredible line-up at the Connecticut Avenue location, and often holds off-site events for major literary stars. Their reading series is so legendary that it made an SNL skit not long ago. (I got to read there once. It was incredible.)

Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe in Dupont Circle occasionally hosts signings as well.

Publishers and Contests

There are plenty of journals in the DMV: District Lines, Barrelhouse, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, The Baltimore Review, Gargoyle (closed to submissions until early 2015), Phoebe, So To Speak...I may be missing some, but you get the idea. I have personally had writing rejected by three of these (and, mercifully, accepted by one). As for contests, the Baltimore Playwrights Festival is open to DC- and Maryland-based dramatists.

Writing Instruction

Politics and Prose offers in-person classes, as does the Writing Center. Interested in something more formal? American University, Johns Hopkins, U of Maryland College Park, University of Baltimore, and George Mason all offer creative writing MFAs; Johns Hopkins also offers an MA with classes available right off Dupont Circle, and that last program is about to hold an open house.

What have I missed? Google searches conducted after I compiled my list revealed much more complete lists, like this one and this one. Which happenings are your favorites?

Lunch Challenge #2: Missed Connections

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Today's challenge is another random word generator challenge. This time, the challenge is to incorporate three random words into a missed connection.

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What is a missed connection? For the uninitiated, a missed connection is a type of classified ad in which someone reaches out blindly into the void to seek a stranger with whom they felt a connection but for whatever reason failed to speak to and/or exchange contact information with.

In preparation for this challenge, I subjected myself to reading lots and lots of these ads. Here's the general format:

1. A description of the situation in which you met.

2. A brief recounting of the extent of your interaction.

3. (optional) A statement of regret, longing, and/or hope. A "what-might-have-been."

4. What I'll call a password--something to put in the response to prove you are the sought connection.

Further, these ads are nearly always addressed to "you": You did this, we said that, I feel so lonesome now that you're gone.

Here's an example using the randomly-generated words WEATHER, LICENSE, and REWARD.

We were caught in wild weather outside the DMV. You laughed over how terrible your hair would look in your license picture. Meeting you again would be its own reward. Tell me what hat I was wearing.

Here's an example using the randomly-generated words CRAB, SCISSORS, and CHURCH.

You got on the bus at a stop just past the Orthodox church. Our eyes were drawn to each other time and again as though they were two halves of the same scissors, cutting through the bullshit of the mundane. I got off the bus four stops later, bound for a new seafood joint I'd heard good things about. I wish I'd invited you to crack crabs with me. Please reply with the bus route.

Here's a link to an example of an epic missed connection ad that probably has only the slightest relationship to reality.

It's the ultimate in unrequited love in the modern era. It's a little bit creepy. It's a little bit sad. It's a little bit romantic. And it's almost always somehow funny, usually without meaning to be. Post links to your own random word generator missed connection on Twitter with the hashtag #lunchwrite, or paste into the comments section.

Lunch Challenge #1

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I just issued my first-ever Twitter writing challenge:

My words were TICKET, TAR, and CHOCOLATE. I think we can all see where this is going.

You step into a river running brown / Too blinded by a ticket painted gold / To realize the chocolate you see / Is tar that sucks and sticks and plays for keeps.

If you participated in #lunchwrite, please comment below with a link to your creation!

 

Protection for Witnesses

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I read a great profile of the wonderful Lorrie Moore at The Millions today. (If you're bookish and you haven't been there, I recommend you stop reading this post now and head on over to that website, linked above. Then come back and thank me.) A sizeable portion of the article discusses one of the perennial concerns of writers and those who love them: borrowing. Borrowing. Because writers are often observers--even witnesses, standing one degree removed from life--it's almost inevitable that they're borrowing things from the people around them, whether strangers or friends.

Others closer to Moore have also questioned whether or not they’ve made it into her work. “People get confused. People get paranoid,” she says, telling the story of a man she once dated who became suspicious of a specific character. “First of all, the character is a woman,” she remembers saying to him, “Second of all, darling, the character has a job.” (from Arianne Wack's The Millions profile of Lorrie Moore)

I recently wrote a story about a woman who worries that her boyfriend may accidentally kill her in his sleep. I stole some of the details surrounding this couple from people I know. I translated most of the details I stole into other details. Ultimately, the story is a fiction, the problems and dynamics of the couple a complete fabrication that may, but probably doesn't, reflect the reality of their real-life relationship. My husband, who is a great first reader for me, had only one comment about the story: "Don't let them see it."

This is a problem when you're working hard to publish your work.

And when you're actively promoting any work that does get published.

It's not the first time I've struggled with how to go about borrowing, or not, in my fiction. Last year I worked on one of my few realist stories, which was built from a pastiche of real-life source materials: things I saw in the Navy, details of a cousin's accident, snippets of stories from another relative's farm, bits of biography from someone I knew back in high school. Even the names were borrowed.

The story proved a failure (though I'd like to return to it one day), and had become a complete fiction in the process of being written and rewritten. Jack, the main character, was Jack: he lived only in my imagination, and his life was his own. But I worried, nonetheless, that if the people who helped inspire me read it, they would be more furious than flattered to have played a part in sparking my imagination.

Last year I went on an Anne Lamott streak, reading her memoirs Operating Instructions and Some Assembly Required, her book on writing, Bird by Bird, and one of her novels, Imperfect Birds. In her writing she sometimes discusses borrowing--taking friends, say, bowling, with the stated understanding that she's going to be using them as inspiration.

Is that the most honest way to borrow? Do we owe that to the people around us?

And speaking of memoir, that space where borrowing turns into something closer to strict transcription of events as you recall them to have transpired--well, that's even trickier, isn't it? I've been trying my hand at a memoir built of flash-length essays (under 1000 words) about my time in the Navy. I'm quickly realizing that I may not want even to try to publish it, given that I may lose friends out of the deal (and that doesn't even begin to touch upon the difficulty in making sure I avoid revealing anything classified, which could lead to loss of my personal liberty in the form of a prison sentence, I suppose).

Incidentally, my husband suggests the solution to this particular problem is to set it in outer space. He lobbies me almost daily for a space opera.

Does the answer to my problems lie in a galaxy far, far away?

Add a degree in anthropology to the mix, which makes me passionate about accuracy in observation and getting things "right," and I'll admit I'm stymied. My favorite professor in grad school once said something to the effect that the main difference between writing anthropology and writing literature is that anthropologists have to stick to the truth, especially since truth is elusive. If the native wear green hats, then they must be written down as green hat wearers. A fiction writer can make the hats blue if that somehow better serves the story. But is making the hats blue enough to make the story your own? And it almost goes without saying that keeping the hats green won't save you if you get everything else wrong.

So. How do you deal with the question of borrowing in your work?

Wordhoarder

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Ironically, I recently learned that there’s a word for a wordhoard from one of my favorite ways to build a wordhoard: word of the day emails. Currently, I get the OED word of the day, although I used to get the (somewhat less fanciful) Dictionary.com email. (Note to self: try, again, to sign up for Dictionary.com emails...and check junk folder because you’ve definitely signed up with your current email address.)

from the fine folks of the Oxford English Dictionary

My largest wordhoard is a series of index cards that I can sometimes wrangle with a one-inch binder clip. (You know, when I’m feeling strong. This is not one of those days and there’s now a loose pile of index cards in my idea bin.) I built it during a 322-day deployment with the U.S. Navy, from March 2011-February 2012. When I enjoyed a word, it got a card. While I have (and will) always love language, I became especially geeky on that trip because 1) it was a long one and being a sort of uniformed Manic Pixie Dream Girl sprinkling the fairy dust of English lit nerdery helped me cope and 2) I was voluntarily teaching a vocabulary class to a rotating roster of Sailors and Marines hoping to raise their ASVAB scores.

That class deserves its own post. Suffice it to say I sometimes became breathless with excitement as I expounded on the glory of my mother tongue, and I would conclude class by recommending everyone replace their smoke breaks with short story breaks. (I recommended starting with Tony Earley's "Charlotte," and if you're lucky enough to have access to Harper's Magazine online or a copy of the Best American Short Stories 1993, I suggest you stop reading this post and go read it immediately.)

Here are some highlights from my 2011-2012 deployment wordhoard.

BLEB: a bubble; a blister or vesicle. This one becomes meaningful when you become a mother, it turns out. At the time I just liked how it felt in my mouth. Bleb. Bleb. Bleb. (The pleasant associations with this word are now long gone.)

REMORA: an obstacle, hindrance, or obstruction; any of several fishes of the family Echeneididae, having on the top of the head a sucking disk by which they can attach themselves to sharks, turtles, ships, and other moving objects. Obvious appeal to the seafarer. Looked this up in a dictionary so old the spine had actually fallen off and it was one of the few entries sporting a line drawing. Score.

OUROBOROS (alt. UROBOROS): a circular symbol of a snake or dragon devouring its tail, standing for infinity or wholeness. I used this one as an example of the serendipity of the English language when I was in teacher mode, trying to convince my students never to let an unknown word pass them by. First I drew one of these in a meeting (not knowing the word for it). Then a meeting-mate saw the word in a book he was reading and wrote it down for me. Then I looked up the definition. Then it came up in a book I was reading. Magical.

DARKLE: to grow dark, gloomy, etc.; to appear dark or show indistinctly. It’s also fun to say. A nice word to bandy about around sunset while standing watch on the bridge.

CHAPTALIZE: to increase the alcohol in a wine by adding sugar. Possibly it appeals to me because of my limited experience with beer brewing. I believe this practice is illegal.

GLACE: ice placed in a drink to cool it. It reminds me of one of the two words that kept me out of the state spelling bee: GLISSADE (to glide). The other? SHRIEK. Icouldabinahcontendah...if I could have spelled either of these words correctly under pressure. Quick, please, someone get me a drink. With glace.

PROCRUSTEAN: tending to produce conformity by violent or arbitrary means. I want to have a whole chapter in a book some day that consists of only this word. Chapter 3. Procrustean.

SALVO: a round of cheers or applause; something to save a person’s reputation or sooth a person’s feelings; an excuse or quibbling evasion; a simultaneous or successive discharge of artillery, bombs, etc.; a round of fire given as a salute. One must love the English language for words like this one, with its many distinct meanings dependent entirely on the context of its use.

PICA: an abnormal appetite or craving for substances that are not fit to eat. Did you know that some pregnant women crave dirt? I was lucky. I just craved cookies.

MILQUETOAST: a very timid, unassertive, spineless person, especially one who is easily dominated or intimidated. Challenge--call someone a milquetoast in such a way that they don’t realize they’re being insulted, and report back.

Just think, next time you hold a dictionary: all the words are there for you to write something amazing. You just need to pick the best ones and arrange them in the right order. Spill some ink. Organize some pixels via word processor. Build your wordhoard, and then deploy it to the best of your ability.

How do you build your own wordhoard? Any favorite words? Comment below!

 

God Bless Ben Schott, or, Preserving Napoleon

Jacquelyn Bengfort

writing drawing

I bought a copy of Schott’s Quintessential Miscellany two years ago. It’s hardback, with a pale lilac dust cover and tiny typeface.

It’s not a book one reads cover to cover--at least I don’t. Rather, it’s a dip-in book. For example: open to page 130 and you’ll find an explanation of how the “Proust questionnaire” as popularized by Vanity Fair got its name, along with Proust’s own answers to two such surveys, translated into English from the original French. Crack the spine at page twenty-five, meanwhile, and among other things you’ll find listed the characters that constitute Mystery Inc., which, lest you’ve forgotten, is the corporate name of the “darn kids” from Scooby-Doo.

When I find I have nothing percolating in my brain, when I have nothing to write about, there’s a game I play with this book. I dip in, flipping pages at random, until I find a fact or list or saying or diagram that makes me wonder. Then I wonder about it, on paper, for twenty minutes. I give myself plenty of space to make things up. When I was young I used to do this all the time, for myself, for my friends. If I didn’t have an explanation for how something worked or why it was the way it was, I came up with a semi-logical explanation and stated it has fact. (Example: I thought refried beans came by their texture because a “big boss man” in an office pre-chewed them all as a quality control measure. Both disgusting and inaccurate but it explained the texture.)

During the twenty minutes, I strictly forbid myself to use a search engine. It’s my personal belief that our wondering facilities are under threat of extinction, and I find this exercise useful for kickstarting a bout of wonderment. One of my favorite things to do used to be to try to place familiar actors in films I’ve seen before. Now I can pull up my IMDB app and find the complete filmography of any actor, down to commercials and late-night television show appearance, in nearly no time at all. So, you know, I need an impetus to wonder.

What follows here is a lightly edited sample of the sort of material that comes out of these writing sessions. This one was inspired by...well, you’ll see. Especially if you get a copy of the Quintessential and turn to page 57 and read the last line.

***

I’ve a book that claims the preserved penis of Napoleon was auctioned in 1977 for $3000. These are my immediate questions:

1. Does the purchaser display it?

2. How was it preserved?

3. Is it in good condition?

4. Do they mention it at parties?

and finally

5. Do you suppose the owner has any of the penises of other famous men of history?

My questions don’t stop there--man or woman? Who owns Napoleon’s penis today? Has the original buyer passed on? Was it willed to an unsuspecting inheritor? How does one react when one finds that instead of, say, 3000 bucks, one is to receive one (1) preserved penis, said to be that of Napoleon Bonaparte?

Furthermore, doesn’t Napoleon have any descendents? How do they feel about the whole affair? Wouldn’t they have some sort of legal claim over it? They do owe their lives, in part, to its exploits.

It also makes me wonder of more delicate things, being as I am so unfamiliar with death and the dead, up close. For example, I think I read once that men die erect. But then, what would the effect of embalming be on an erect penis? And maybe that only applied to men executed by certain specific means. The entry is vague; it reads “penis, preserved after autopsy.” So was it preserved flaccid? Or, like the taxidermied lion I visit each summer during family vacation, was it restored to its most glorious, one might say victorious, state?

And...it makes me wonder historical facts. Napoleon died ages ago, so who has had the penis in the interim? What circumstances necessitated the sale? Which auction house agreed to  handle the sale? This was pre-eBay, after all.

Meta-wondering--I wonder how much research it would take to answer all these questions. I wonder if, but for the mention of it in some dusty auction program almost fifty years old, the penis has been lost to history.

I wonder: could I write a series of stories about the penis?

I wonder: could I write a story about someone writing a story about the penis?

***

Fairly useless writing, about a dead man’s genitalia, no less. But it’s writing, and if you’re seeing this, you read it.

The only thing I know about Ben Schott is his name. He, like the preserved penis of Napoleon Bonaparte, remains for me shrouded in mystery. But I’ll say it again: god bless Ben Schott and his delightful books of oddities.

Strategizing

Jacquelyn Bengfort

2013: not my best, most productive year, writing-wise. Can I pull the new motherhood card? (Pulled.) But looking back was sobering. At the start of 2013 I had three forthcoming works--a story, a play, and an essay. At the end of 2013 I had only a couple of submissions out for consideration and had managed to have only one additional story accepted for publication. Worse? I had hardly produced any new material. Hard to submit when you don't have anything you love to send out.

But 2014 is a new year, and I'm employing a few new strategies.

Submissions. My goal is to submit to one place per week. Even if I don't do simultaneous submissions, and at the moment I haven't, I'll still have more writing out in the world, crossing desks, than I did last year. In fact, in January I sent out more work than I did in all of the previous year. I've got eight little soldiers made of paper and ink, or, less poetically, made of 1s and 0s rendered on a screen out there fighting on my behalf. Some of these soldiers came out of a bevy of writing courses I took--very helpful when you're feeling blocked. (I've also received two rejections, already.)

Rejections. While we're on the topic, I've decided not to wallow. Since I'm not doing simultaneous subs at the moment, my new method is as follows. 1. Receive rejection notice. 2. Re-read rejected writing. Patch up any shoddy bits newly obvious. That day. 3. Re-send rejected, remodeled writing out to another possible publisher. That day. It's likely healthier than my old response, which was to spend several hours watching television and eating ice cream.

Hokey butt-in-chair trick. I don't like the phrase "life hacks." I put it right up there next to "selfie" in the "IRONIC USE ONLY" section. But...somehow the internet gods directed me in early January to this old Lifehacker post. And, yeah. It took me until the last week of the month to actually set up my calendars, but now, I've got momentum. I write five days a week (I also work on my house five days a week, exercise five days a week, and spend time working on obedience training my dog every day). It's been a week. But I feel good about where this is heading. Life: hacked. (Ugh.)

And, yes, today this post counts for my writing.

How is your new year shaping up? Any hacks (ugh, again) you're employing or strategies you hope will make 2014 a better one than 2013 was?

January Round-Up

Jacquelyn Bengfort

January was a quiet month, but I'm happy to report that it was also a fruitful one: I'm finishing up an online flash fiction course, taught by Rae Bryant, through the Eckleburg workshops. This class is my fourth since fall, and I highly recommend them if you need a kick to get going. There is still space in the February essay class, taught by Chelsey Clammer, so, you know...sign up now.

My latest article for EdTech went live today. "Efficiency in Motion" is a look at how university-developed apps are streamlining all sorts of campus processes.

Finally, I took part in Kafe Bohem's relatively new monthly reading series, which takes place on the last Monday of every month. It was an absolute blast sharing the room with poets, essayists, and story writers of all sorts. My friends Paul and Adam were a fantastic support crew as I read some short essays about my time in the Navy. I leave you with a photo Paul snapped during the reading.

On to February!

Grant Writer? Grant Getter!

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I'm happy to announce that I was able to secure sponsorship of the 2013 Bloomingdale House Tour from DC Water! As Tour Grants Committee Chair, I gained experience with writing grant letters-of-inquiry and filling out the often really really long and repetitive webforms preferred by some grantmaking bodies. For more on the biennial event, which took place in October of this year and will be back in 2015, check out the website.