Monday, November 17, 2014


David Ritz wrote one of the best celebrity memoirs out there - Ray Charles' book Brother Ray. Read it and you'll feel like you're having a conversation with Ray himself. Brother Ray spawned other works as well: both the Ray Charles biopic that won Jamie Foxx his Oscar and a less well-known show by one of my favorite cabaret singers.

Ritz is justifiably proud of his Ray Charles book; he was less satisfied with one he ghosted for Aretha Franklin in 1999. The critics weren't thrilled with it either, as it glossed over or omitted key events in Franklin's life. As one reviewer noted, "Unlike the soul-baring performances that have drawn listeners to her for four decades, Aretha Franklin is a bit cagey when it comes to discussing her personal life in her autobiography..."

Apparently that wasn't David Ritz's fault. He had all the gory details in his interview notes, but Franklin (or her people) sanitized the manuscript. Now, 15 years later, he has corrected the record, publishing an unauthorized biography. Kirkus Reviews calls it "An honest and genuinely respectful portrait of a true diva by a writer who feels the power of her art." Aretha Franklin calls it "a very trashy, trashy book . . . It’s lies, lies, lies and then more lies."

Ritz titled his new book Respect, playing off the name of one of Franklin's greatest hits. That's ironic because in publishing material Franklin wanted to keep private, he has proven that he respects neither his erstwhile client nor the ethics of his profession.

Now, I'm sure Respect is a juicy read (I haven't read it and probably won't). But it's not Ritz's story to tell; it's Franklin's. He signed on to be a ghostwriter. The notes he took of their interviews should be her property, not his. It's the literary equivalent of a hacker publishing a naked selfie of a starlet. We can debate the starlet's wisdom in snapping those naked photos - and Franklin's in sharing stories she would not want to see in print - but by deleting these stories from Ritz's original manuscript, Franklin drew clear personal boundaries. Ritz's new book apparently bulldozes through all of them.

Unfortunately, David Ritz is not the first person to profit from a lack of ethics, nor will he be the last. But shame on him for doing it.

Thursday, October 9, 2014


When's the last time you washed your hands in a bathroom sink without looking up to check your appearance in the mirror? I'll tell you when: Never. Don't be ashamed. It's just a reflex.

Well, I was in a friend's powder room washing my hands recently and when I looked up to check my appearance I found myself face-to-face with one of her treasured family photos. Seems the previous owners had taken the bathroom mirror when they left and she hadn't yet gotten around to replacing it yet, but until she did, well, the sepia tones of her grandfather's photograph fit right in with the color scheme. Seemed like an obvious solution.

But this was not just any family photograph. It was a photograph of her grandfather in medical school, circa 1890. Grandpa and his classmates in shirtsleeves, vests, and the occasional jaunty hat, gathered around a long table, earnestly examining a corpse.

Yes, I said a corpse. Look up from my friend's powder room sink and you are eye-level with a late 19th century dead person. That's a horrifying thing to see when all you're trying to do is check for spinach in your teeth. (Appropriately enough, Grandpa became a dentist.)

My close encounter with the Anatomy class got me thinking about the element of surprise, and how it can enliven writing.
As in this masterful lede by film critic Anthony Lane in the May 26, 2014 issue of The New Yorker:
"Wrinkled and crinkled, huge in Japan, heroically reluctant to give up, and forever touring the world on a mission to make us scream, Godzilla is the Mick Jagger of giant amphibians."
Whether it's a memento mori instead of a mirror or Mick Jagger bursting into a sentence we expect to be about Godzilla, surprises can startle or amuse - but they always make us think. And an audience that thinks is an audience that will remember.

I'm not likely to forget my visit to my friend's powder room. And I won't forget her upcoming birthday either; I'll be giving her a bathroom mirror.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The power lies in your hands

I almost didn't go to see Bedbugs!!! The Musical this weekend. Yes, it scored a rave review in The New York Times, but the mere sight of the title made my skin crawl. Not because of the bugs. Because of the exclamation points.

I hate exclamation points. To be clear: I don't like bedbugs any better, but I've been fortunate enough never to meet one in person. Exclamation points, on the other hand, seem to pop up after every sentence. And sometimes! in the middle! too!! OMG, you guys!!!

Bedbugs are easy to eradicate. Call in the bug-sniffing dog, fork over unconscionably large sums of money to the dog-handler, the exterminator, and your dry cleaner, and then never visit an urban public space again. (Or see the musical for an even more creative method.)

There are no exclamation point-sniffing dogs. No toxic substance can prevent their spread. We're in this fight alone.

But I bring you good news: The power to eliminate the exclamation point lies in your hands - and mine. If we can prevent our right hands from hitting the shift key while hitting the "1" key with our left, we will never see another exclamation point again.

Okay, sometimes words alone just can't express the level of excitement a writer truly feels. "I'm getting married." tells a far different story than "I'm getting married!" So perhaps we should keep one or two exclamation points around for emergencies. This writer's sainted English teacher suggested seven as an acceptable number. Sounds good to me.

I'll even throw in an extra three for free if you go see Bedbugs!!! - which you should.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The seven words I never want my clients to hear

I was sitting in a conference room with a dozen strangers a couple of nights ago, waiting for a presentation to begin. One of the women in the audience told the speaker she'd seen another of his presentations and decided to come see him again.

Before he could react to what we all assumed was a compliment, she added:

"I don't remember what you talked about then. Is this going to be the same presentation?"

I'm sure the questioner was just looking for information. But of course she wrapped her question in one of the most insulting things anyone can say to a speaker:

"I don't remember what you talked about."

To his credit, the presenter kept the smile frozen on his face. (Do not play poker with this man.)

I found his presentation both memorable and useful. But that woman's statement has stayed with me, too.

It's a reminder of what my clients pay me for: To make their ideas memorable.

And it's a reminder of the challenge we face in this world multitasking: How do we break through the clutter of other claims on the audience's attention (whether it's email or Facebook under the table or, in this woman's case, a take-out dinner on top of the table) to deliver a message that resonates?

The answer may be that sometimes we can't. Someone who is determined not to hear you will always find a way to succeed. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

When an office is more than an office

Back before the whole world worked in cubicles, I had an office on the 45th floor, with a nice big window and partial view of the mighty Hudson River. The rest of the view was the office tower across the street, which rose some 70 floors higher than my building: one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. (I could never remember which.)

I wasn't there in 2001, thank God, but I was in 1993 when the bastards tried to bomb it the first time. I felt our building shake, saw the black smoke coming out from where the parking lot vented, walked down 45 flights of stairs with my nervous colleagues.

Today, social media is full of photos of the towers. I even got an email from a clothing store assuring me: "We remember." I deleted it, and unsubscribed for good measure (it seemed opportunistic). I don't need photos or emails to remember that place or the thousands of people who went to the office that day - just as I had for many years - fully expecting that they'd go home.

How many forgettable workspaces are there in the world? On days like today, I wish I could forget that one.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Attention to detials

My friends sometimes make fun of me, but when I'm in a restaurant I refuse to order misspelled menu items. I figure if they can't spell it, how can I trust they can cook it?

Seth Godin makes the same point today about buying paper and pens at "stationary" stores. (Although, to be fair, those stores probably do stay in the same place day after day.)

Spellcheck only helps if you've created a word so garbled it can't suggest a tr[;svr,rmy (that's "replacement" if you shift your fingers one key to the right). If it's close to being an actual word, beware: You might find yourself with a strategy to "purse" rather than "pursue."

I admit I am sometimes guilty of relying on technology instead of my brain. A few weeks after I moved to my new town I realized that I didn't know the way to the supermarket because I always let my GPS guide me. I got lost a couple of times after I turned it off, but at least I was thinking for myself.

For the love of grammar, spelling, and sanity it's time to turn off the technology and take back our personal responsibility for paying attention to (did you catch it in the headline?) details.

Thnak you.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Happiness Visited & Revisited

One small (very small) benefit of having neglected my web presence for a year is the blast from the past when I signed on to Twitter this morning. Apparently last July someone introduced me to a new client as "the Obi-Wan of speechwriting." Seeing that made my day. Just as, no doubt, it had a year ago.

Earlier this week, a communications veteran told me: "That is the best query note I've gotten in a long time." Comments like that may just help convince me that I don't hate writing query notes.

I'm not going to let that one get lost. Or Obi-Wan, for that matter. Time to create a bulletin board of encouraging words so I can revisit them whenever my eye wanders from the computer screen.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The "Vietnamese Waltz"

I recently found myself listening to a discussion about music. One young woman mentioned a song about a "Vietnamese coachman" and I thought, I listened to the same CD she did. How did I miss that one? Later she spoke of the lilting phrases of the "Vietnamese waltz" and I realized she meant "Viennese."

I looked around the room - there were about a dozen other people there, all whip-smart college students, and they noticed her verbal misstep as well. But no one corrected her. 

(No, I didn't either; I'm more of an observer in the group than a participant.)

What is that about? Does accuracy not matter anymore? Or is this the logical consequence of the "everyone participates" ethos of kids' sports these days: The fact that she said something (she stepped up to the plate) is more important than the words she actually used?

I'm not talking about shaming her publicly. But would a simple "I believe the word you mean is..." do irreparable damage to her ego?

How do we deal with these young people in the business world once they transition from college students to colleagues? Will we all have to become simultaneous translators, correcting ideas and words silently as we go along? Or maybe we crowdsource and decide on a group "truth": In this room, things from Vienna will be called "Vietnamese." That's how Castilian accents were born, right? The leader had a lisp, so everyone started lisping right along with him.

Call me old-fashioned, but  I think it's more compassionate to correct someone than to let her perpetuate her error. I still believe in accuracy. And I love a good Viennese waltz.