Author: evanleatherwood

What actors and orators in the classical world knew about the quirks of the brain

Quite a bit, apparently. Recent research suggests that the same part of the brain which helps us see space and navigate through it also guides us through the thinking process. As we remember and reason, we’re taking a spatial tour of memories and possibilities.

This is precisely how classical and medieval scholars, actors, and orators carried knowledge with them. They would meticulously construct memory palaces by memorizing spatial locations, like cathedrals, areas, palaces, and parts of cities, which they would then mentally place powerful images in to help them remember facts and ideas.

It’s easy to think about the power of such locations when we think about our earliest memories. You may not remember what was on TV in a given year of your childhood, but I’ll bet you remember what the TV looked like and where in the room it was placed. Your whole childhood home, or series of homes, is probably indelibly imprinted on your mind. This same fantastic staying power of visual memory can be knowingly harnessed. In the era before paper and Google, it was probably how troubadours memorized long songs on a single hearing, or how orators could speak for hours on end using a predetermined sequence of ideas.

We can’t enter the mansions of memory any more, thanks to information tech in all its forms, but it seems like we’re hardwired to want to be there.

Anybody out there use a memory palace or anything like it?

Commonplace book: Shirley Jackson on writing as a weirdness outlet

“The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, as long as you keep writing”

The quote is from her delightful essay about writing and the pressures of everyday life. Reading about her days, you can feel a jollity to the weirdness which the claustrophobic atmosphere of her fiction lacks. At least The Haunting of Hill House lacks it. I finished the book the other night in a feverish rush and after closing the final page felt as if the objects around me and the walls and the bricks holding them up were all objects of menace. Thinking that the mischievous waffle iron in her essay might be an ancestor of Hill House makes me feel a bit better.

A bit.

Neil Postman on the built-in irrelevance of news

Yesterday, I wrote about wisdom only mattering if you can remember it in time. Today, I’d like to finish the thought in the context of my own work: journalism, advertising, and public relations.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman asks why we should care about news if it goes so quickly out of date. If the newspapers and magazines we read are meant to be discarded, what’s to stop us from discarding them the moment they arrive or from ignoring them all together?

The answer is that the meaning of a message changes over time. Responding yes to a friend’s request for a same-day lunch date at 11 p.m. might represent your true feelings but it would be a useless expression.

Eternal truths should be carved in stone, but you can’t simply point to them every time something in the world needs to be understood and acted upon. You’ve got to explain their relevance to the moment. Even the Christian scriptures, which have been styled as the original good news, get a weekly sermon to help them stay relevant. We write and we speak without end because it is a form of understanding simply to do so. To make sense of the world we have to make sense with our words first, in our own minds. We have to keep talking to each other and to the future and looking to the past for context.

That said, most of what passes for language and sense online or in print is neither good language nor good sense. But we can’t stop the attempt to produce it because some people mangle or abuse the language.

If we’re going to be wise in time, we’ve got to understand the times we’re in and that takes a lot of talking. And that’s one thing that keeps me coming back to the keyboard every day, for myself and for my firm. The attempt keeps me thinking and keeps me sane.

Teddy Roosevelt on timing

 

Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 5.02.37 PMThis is true and not something a literary education teaches you well. When you spend most of your time rightly reading books written long before you were born, you don’t see the point of a thought having value simply because it is recent. Compared to the great books, most things written recently aren’t very good, or won’t have relevance much past their date of publication. In the classroom, it doesn’t matter when something was said, just that it was said well.

In the battle of life outside the classroom, with wealth and reputation always on the line, the timing of a thought, phrase, or action is everything. We read the great books to remember them when we need to. And unless we speak up when we have to or act before its too late, having a wise thought becomes rather a curse than a blessing, because it becomes an occasion for regret. This is something Teddy Roosevelt likely knew from experience, both in regret and in victory.

Review: The magic spell of Hamilton on stage

I had the good fortune last night of sitting in the third row to see Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda’s crowning hip-hop opera detailing the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton.

I’d listened to the show a few times and enjoyed the virtuosity of the lyrics and the cleverness of casting complex issues of revolutionary history, like the foundation of the American banking system, into amusing, trash-talking, over-the-top rap battles.

But seeing the show captured what listening to it could not, the moving emotional arc of Hamilton’s story, from obscurity to an early grave, with all the prizes and penalties of life in between.

His life had that quality of drama and scope which seems so often to apply to figures from the long 19th Century. He knew poverty, wealth, fame, peace, war, love, sex, illness, health, ugliness, and beauty. He was an orphan, a soldier, a lawyer, banker, high government official, husband, father, rake, grandee, and, above all, a writer. At every moment in his life, he wrote his way forward, out, and up. His words, like the lyrics that Lin Manuel drew forth from the story of his life, were armor and incantation, a means of analysis and redemption. He made a career and a new nation from them.

The three hours of the show are like a Greek mass I once heard sung continuously from the light of dawn until well into the morning. At the end of the performance, the language and the power of language entranced me.

Love and thanks to Bevan Thomas and my parents for the tickets, and for finally getting me out of my office and into the room where it happens.

On writing: Lyric copywriting v. long-form

To be a bore, one merely has to say everything.

-Voltaire

I’m not the kind of copywriter who tends to write short. I write business-to-business pieces, mostly, which are meant to draw you in, explain the world, and then explain why my clients make something or deliver a service that will make the world better, starting with you, the reader. I want you to read what I’ve written and sound smarter in the next meeting with your boss or client, and that takes time to do. 

When you’re about to spend $8 on a burger, shorter copy is better (“I’m lovin’ it”).

When you’re about to spend $2 million on a piece of industrial machinery, a three-word slogan just doesn’t cut it. The longer and more informative the copy, the better it tends to boost sales or reputation.

But even then, an economy of words is necessary. Every sentence has to balance on a knife’s edge of being informative or soporific. After all, the next sentence might be the one where you stop reading. 

It takes talent to write a short slogan, akin to singing a song or shooting a perfect basket from across the court. But it takes endurance and discipline to write long and not falter.

In the copywriting world, writers of short copy are the rockstars, poets, and abstract expressionist painters. But us long-form copywriters are the novelists, symphony writers, teachers, and genre painters. We are (and I say this affectionately) what Samuel Johnson called the lexicographer: “A harmless drudge.” Our superpower is endurance. Our spells take longer to cast, but are, in my opinion, more powerful for it. 

That said, I have this cartoon pinned where I can see it from my keyboard, to remind me never to overstay my welcome. 

Copy critique: Believe

Snapped this tonight on 34th Street.

For those of you not familiar with New York, the area around Macy’s, whose door is shown in the photo, is bleak. The streets can never handle the number of tourists, the hordes of travellers flowing in and out of the mouths of Pennsylvania Station, and the homeless and just plain lost. Walking on 34th Street at night in winter is to stroll down an avenue on the way to one of Bosch’s hells.

Perhaps it was this way in the 1930s when Miracle on 34th Street was first filmed, which makes the idea of a miracle there all the more improbably.

Yet seeing these letters, with their period script and obvious reference to the film, made me stop like a tourist and snap this photo. In that moment, I believed.

It was Macy’s consumer advertising which made me want to go into advertising, and it’s clear they’ve still got the magic.

For your long weekend read: The secrets of the great magician

While the secrets of his tricks are not revealed in this article, a profile of master magician Ricky Jay, the piece will still make you feel like you’ve just seen something impossible happen in front of your eyes.

Among the tricks described: Cards merely thought of but not named aloud by bystanders appear rolled up inside the necks of wine bottles, pristine blocks of ice seem to materialize inside cars on hot days, cards flicked into the air toward the audience return like boomerangs into the hands of the magician, who is calm through it all, mesmerizing the audience with the power of his words and his patter.

Published twenty-five years ago in The New Yorker and reposted on their website on the occasion of Jay’s death last month, the article itself is a magic trick. You think you’re learning about magic, but actually you’re learning about a lost world of mountebanks, eccentrics, mad men, old world charm, lost treasure, and books so rare they’ve been almost entirely forgotten, even by the profession that lives by their secrets. You think you’re reading about a magician, but actually you’re reading about a great artist, atop his profession but also secluded from it.

Ricky Jay, you will be missed.

Copy critique: When you ride ALONE you ride with Hitler!

Here’s another gem from the FDR presidential library and museum in Hyde Park. It’s an effective pair of headline and call-to-action, the kind we’d still discuss creating today. And the rhetoric itself is something you might recognize from ads to raise awareness of climate change, or advocate car pooling.

Eleven words of copy. One ghost Hitler. All you need to change hearts and minds.

Book review: Zero Hour for Generation X

Initially, Michael Hennessy’s book Zero Hour for Generation X says it’s about a coming showdown between generations. It’s time for Generation X, he says, to show lazy, shallow, tech-obsessed millennials what it means to make sacrifices and fight for what matters. As Generation X occupies the prime middle age years, it’s time for us to claim our moment setting the national agenda or else we’ll get usurped by those younger and less capable than we are.

The book does follow through on this premise. There is a section contrasting the economic woes of Generation X and millennials, in which Generation X is seen to have it worse off, and there is a short chapter laying out the now predictable argument that millennials have been so coddled by a culture of self esteem and safety that they now inhabit an alternate reality of safe spaces and social justice where free speech and self reliance are impossible. Only some of this is convincing. 

The book has plenty of bile for Baby Boomers, too. Though they presided over the end of the Cold War and the unprecedented economic boom of the 1990s, a formative time for Generation X, Hennessy argues that they suffer from the same self-importance as millennials. This has led them to keep too many of their economic gains for themselves and to fail to lay a real foundation for long-term prosperity. But worst of all, says Hennessy,

… has been their flaccid acquiesce to the still-incoming wowy-zowy technological utopia dominated by Internet connectivity and artificial intelligence, in the process of putting untold numbers of artists, businesses, trades, and traditions on the road to extinction. This betrayal is at the heart of the economic and social riddle that Gen Xers will have to help unwind.

ZAnd it’s here that Hennessy gets to the strongest arguments in the book, and the only ones that ever lend any real support to the somewhat spurious concepts of generations. In the postwar era, the most powerful shared experience people born around the same time can have is the effect of new technology, and Generation X will be the last American generation to know from experience what life was like before the Internet co-opted every part of it. And when I say every part I’m not exaggerating. 

Boredom, privacy, silence, uninterrupted concentration and direct experience, and the exhilaration of discovering something or someone not because an AI shoved it into your feed, but because chance and sensibility led you to it–all these are being given up in exchange for whatever else the Internet may have to offer. 

Hennessy is the Op-Ed editor of The Wall Street Journal and Zero Hour for Generation X is a conservative book. I don’t agree with his criticism of a universal basic income or of the supposed vapidness of social justice culture, but I do agree with his assessment that it is a shift in the main medium by which we experience life that is changing its essential character and that too little attention is being paid to this fact.

Americans have not become dumber or less virtuous since the late 1990s. But we have changed the way we experience life. Where once we saw one another face to face, now we spend most of our time peering at screens.

Hennessy is a conservative, but he is no lover of Donald Trump and the thoughtless social media culture which helped bring him to power. Like Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard, Hennessy is an educated, cosmopolitan conservative who feels alienated by the Republican party and the America it represents, and Zero Hour‘s call for a more mindful future is one that thoughtful people on the left and the right can share. 

In the end, as with other technological critics, Hennessy has little to say other than to turn away from the new devices and spend more time in the world. Put down your phones, he says, and set a better example for the millennials.