Audience Participation Friday: Best Bios

Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson

Flannery O'Connor wrote, "There won't be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy." It's true that the outward movements of Flannery O'Connor's life aren't as exciting as those of, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Davey Crockett or Catherine the Great. But such an inner life! As it turns out, her life has made surprisingly exciting copy for three major biographies and several minor ones. I'm in the process of adding to the minor ones. I'm not being self-deprecating when I say that. I expect this to be an excellent book, but it's a small book; the same size as the Saint Patrick bio, if you've seen that, and part of the same series--Thomas Nelson's "Christian Encounters" series. It's daunting to be writing in the shadow of Brad Gooch's excellent 2009 biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor and Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which is a quadruple biography paralleling the lives of Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy. At the moment, the Elie book isn't just my favorite biography of Flannery O'Connor; it's my favorite biography period.

The problem with biographies, however, is that people's lives rarely conform to Aristotle's rules for plot making. They get off to slow starts. They drag in the middle. They live another two or three decades beyond the climax of the story. The fiction writer has the luxury of making stuff up, but the honest and thorough biographer faces challenges if he or she wants to tell a compelling story. That's what some readers love about biographies. They can't wrap things up as neatly as fiction tends to do.

Let's talk about biographies today. What are your favorites? Why are they your favorites? What are your thoughts on the limitations of biography as a mode of storytelling?

Audience Participation Friday: April Fools!

If you've read The Charlatan's Boy, you'll remember Floyd and Grady's roaring machine. It was inspired by something that happened in my father's boyhood. Some old boy stretched a cowhide across the bottom of a nail keg and punched a hole in the cowhide. When he pulled a rosined string through the hole, the keg served as a resonance chamber to amplify the vibrations into a very loud moaning, roaring, growling sound. By night the fellow carried his device into Gum Swamp and roared away. Apparently he had no reason other than the pleasure of hearing people speculate as to what the mysterious sounds coming out of the swamp might be.

A couple of bloggers discussing The Charlatan's Boy mentioned that they, too, had heard of people in other places who had done the same trick. There was a roaring machine operator in Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp, for instance. Apparently that trickster, like the one in Gum Swamp, had no good reason for his hoax other than the simple fact that he thought it would be funny.

It's April Fools' Day--a day people go to a lot of trouble to perpetrate tricks and hoaxes simply for the fun of it. What are your favorite April Fools' Day tricks and hoaxes?

In Case You Didn't Get Enough: The Clerihew Zone

A couple of weeks ago, a fellow named Bill Naquin wrote in to tell me about a Facebook page with which he is connected: The Clerihew Zone. A recently concluded contest regarding place names included this clerihew which I reproduce here because it's funny, not because I endorse its view on Florida and California:

Florida Is Horrida Than California. Don't say I didn't warnia.

There's more where that came from. So if you didn't get a belly full of clerihews a couple of weeks ago, check out the Clerihew Zone. (Most of the clerihews, by the way, are under the "Discussion" tab.)

Audience Participation Friday: Texting the Classics

Before the telegraph was invented, news couldn't travel any faster than a horse. The slow movement of information had huge historical consequences. The Battle of New Orleans, for instance, was fought three weeks after the Treaty of Ghent--which "ended" the War of 1812. If somebody in Ghent had had a cell phone, there would have been no Battle of New Orleans; Andrew Jackson would have had to figure out some other way to become a national hero and rise to the Presidency.

The slow movement of information had huge impacts on storytelling as well. Think how many of the classic stories would simply evaporate in the age of cell phones. The tragic miscommunication at the end of Romeo and Juliet would have never happened if the star-crossed lovers could have just texted one another. If A Midsummer Night's Dream was happening today, Hermia would just call Lysander and say, "Looks like we got separated. Meet me at the big tree that looks like it has a face." End of problem. End of play.

It's jarring even to watch a movie set in the mid-nineties, which seems pretty modern, except that people are always looking for pay phones and checking their home answering machines.

Your assignment for Audience Participation Friday: Choose a story from the pre-cell phone/texting/Facebook/Twitter/GPS era and give the characters smart phones. Then tell us what happens.

Bonus Apocryphal Story: One of my boys told me about a friend of a friend (urban legend red flag--I know) whose mother thought LOL stood for Lots of Love. This person got a text from his mother that said, "Your grandmother just died. LOL."

Audience Participation Friday: Mean Teachers

Sally Apokedak suggested this topic. Blame her.

The great majority of teachers (including both of my sisters) are angels who care very deeply for their students and don't get paid nearly enough. Today we aren't talking about those teachers. Today we're going to talk about the meanest, most awful teachers we've ever known. (Teacher Appreciation Week is in early May; we'll get this out of our systems now, then circle back that week to talk about teachers who changed our lives for the better).

My third-grade teacher was named Mrs. Crawley, and she almost deserved it. It was her custom to put a mark by your name on the chalkboard anytime you talked or wiggled or otherwise caused a distraction. She did it with neither fanfare nor recrimination, rarely even pausing her lecture or math problem, just tick, another mark by your name, and every mark represented a recess spent inside. One mistimed anecdote could easily cost you three ticks--more than half a week's recess--if you couldn't stop yourself. And not everybody can stop himself in the middle of a good anecdote. There were boys in Mrs. Crawley's class--and I was one of them--who found themselves in October with more ticks by their names than there were days in the term. You could only work off one tick per day (two, once she started making us stay in from PE too), but on any given day there was no limit to how many ticks you could get. Mrs. Crawley quickly ended up with a handful of boys with nothing left to lose, third-grade desperadoes who were liable to do anything.

Mrs. Crawley specialized in public humiliation. Just before the Christmas report card came out, she went around the room and made everybody stand beside his desk to say what grade he thought he deserved in conduct. When it was my turn I stood and said, with wavering confidence, "S-minus." Mrs. Crawley threw back her head and howled like a werewolf. Or laughed. It was hard to tell which sometimes. "Pshaw!" she said. "Jonathan thinks he should get an S-minus in conduct. What do you all think?" And everybody laughed, even Mark the Veterinary Calvinist. They were afraid not to. I laughed my own self.

But my humiliation was nothing to poor Clifford's. We had a pair of restrooms between our room and another third-grade room. Clifford asked permission to go to the restroom, and Mrs. Crawley granted it. Then, out of the corner of her gimlet eye she noticed that Clifford had gone into the girls' restroom. I don't suppose he meant anything by it. It was empty, and I imagine he was curious to know the difference between the two rooms. We all were. But Mrs. Crawley stormed back there like a hurricane and dragged Clifford out by the ear, yelling, "You want to be a girl, Clifford? Is that what you want? Well we can fix that Clifford. We can fix that right up. I'll bring in a dress tomorrow and you can put it on and wear it for the whole class." And would you believe she did? It was the only time I remember her ever going to any extra trouble for one of her students. She brought a dress the next day, and Clifford put it on, and he slouched shame-faced around the room while we looked down at our desks.

One last Mrs. Crawley story...A near neighbor of ours was involved in a deadly shooting (not on our street, thankfully), and when I heard about it the next day I was pretty upset, as you might imagine. I was sitting at my desk crying about it when Mrs. Crawley called out from the front of the room, "Jonathan, what are you crying about?" "Well, Mrs. Crawley, my neighbor got shot and killed last night." Mrs. Crawley thought on that for a second, and I thought maybe she didn't know what to say. But Mrs. Crawley always knew what to say. "I don't see why you're crying," she said. "No bullet hit you, did it?" Strange to say, that made me feel a little better.

I'm sure you had some terrible teachers of your own. Why don't you tell us about them?

Audience Participation Friday: Let’s Talk About Disney

I went to Disneyworld once. I was eight or nine, and if I remember correctly, we just popped over for one afternoon of a vacation spent at Daytona Beach. I vaguely recall riding Space Mountain, but that is literally the only thing I remember about being inside the park. Here's what I do remember about the day. My sisters were both teenagers and far too cool and surly to be going to Disneyworld. There was all kinds of eye-rolling and murmuring in the back seat as we drove from Daytona. They were missing a day at the beach (they were very into their tans at the time), and there was an unmistakeable subtext that this little outing was all about what the baby brother wanted and nobody ever gave a thought to what they wanted. We stopped at a roadside rest area for a picnic. Sandwiches all around. Only I didn't want a sandwich. I wanted sardines and saltine crackers. More eye-rolling from the sisters. Why they cared what I ate for lunch, I don't know. I suppose it looked to them like I was getting some kind of special treatment, though I'm sure if they had asked, Mama would have cracked out another tin of sardines for them too. Or they could have had some of mine. I wasn't greedy about such things.

But we sat there around the concrete table, and there was huffing and sighing but not a lot of talking until a sharp breeze snuck up on us and caught my napkin and flipped my open tin of sardines (packed in oil) onto the white shorts of my sister. Shrieking and recriminations followed, and my mother and both sisters retired to the bathroom where they stayed rather a long time trying to clean the shorts. They didn't make much headway. My sister went on to Disneyworld wearing oil-blotched shorts that stunk so bad I could hardly stand to sit beside her.

That's about as magical as my memories of Disneyworld get. I could use some better ones, especially since I'm taking the family there in a couple of weeks. You reckon you could help me out? For Audience Participation Friday, let's talk about Disney. Triumphs, disasters, amusing anecdotes, opinions supported and unsupported. We welcome them all.

CLARIFICATION: My mother called and asked that I clarify a couple of things about this story. First, the sardines had been left in the car from a fishing trip my father and I had taken. My mother didn't keep sardines on hand, and certainly did not bring them to picnics. And second, we had fried chicken, not sandwiches. She wanted you to know.

What’s Your Favorite Seuss?

It's Dr. Seuss's 107th birthday. One of my kids went off to school today wearing a tall red and white striped hat.

As you may know already, The Cat in the Hat came about when a publisher challenged Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss's real name) to write a book that six- and seven-year-olds couldn't put down and that used no more than 225 different words. The Cat in the Hat came in at 236 words, 223 of which came from a list provided beforehand by the publisher. Which is to say, Dr. Seuss managed to use rather strict forms and guidelines to tell a story of freedom and adventure and even out-of-control exuberance. A nice little metaphor for much children's writing.

So I'd be interested to know, what is your favorite Seuss story, and why? I'm partial to The Grinch myself.

The Winner Is…

What do GK Chesteron, Lady Gaga, MacGyver, and Aaron Roughton have in common? They were all the subjects of clerihews in the Clerihew Contest. The response was overwhelming. Thirty-seven of you submitted eighty-eight clerihews on fifty different subject. We had a tie for the most popular subject, with eight clerihews each: GK Chesterton and Aaron Roughton. The proliferation of Aaron Roughton clerihews is attributable in part to the confusion regarding the pronunciation of his name (Dan Kulp wrote about five to cover every possible pronunciation) and in part to the fact that Aaron wrote one about himself. My thoughts on the Aaron Roughton matter may be summed up in a clerihew (using my preferred pronunciation of his name, which is not, as it turns out, Aaron's preferred pronunciation):

Aaron Roughton-- Who'd have though him A literary muse? Yet he inspired eight clerihews.

I suggested fourteen of the more colorful characters from this blog as possible subjects for clerihews. You wrote about all but one of them; strangely enough, Martin Amis didn't attract the interest of any clerihew contestants (though, if I'm not mistaken, he was the subject of this blog's first clerihew, by Dan Kulp (of course), in the comments section. I also wrote a clerihew about Mr. Amis, which you may have missed, buried as it was in the comments:

Amis, Martin, Had a part in Edifying millions-- None of them chilluns.

Mark the Spiderman fan/dog baptizer didn't receive nearly the attention I felt he deserved--only one clerihew, but it was quite a strong one by Patrick:

Mark the Presbyterian Baptizer Spider-man hologram hypnotizer Dunking dogs into Heaven is just as fun As swinging from webs catching crooks on the run.

I wrote one about Mark myself:

Third-grade Mark Turned off the dark* And started a one-man schism: Veterinary Calvinism.

*I hate to have to footnote a clerihew, but I would hate worse for anyone to miss the joke; the Spiderman musical running now on Broadway is called Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.

A number of Rabbit Roomers got clerihewn--the Peterson brothers, Randall Goodgame, the Captains Courageous, and Andy and the Andys, as well as figures associated with the original Rabbit Room in Oxford--JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and their forebear George MacDonald.

Not surprisingly, Chuck Norris was the subject of a couple of clerihews. BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck made use of the well-known fact that Chuck Norris rhymes with orange. Aaron Roughton's clerihew, like so many Chuck Norris-related amusements, ended with a roundhouse kick to the face. Which reminds me of my favorite Chuck Norris joke: When an episode of Walker: Texas Ranger aired on a Paris television station, the French surrendered to Chuck Norris just to be on the safe side.

Hannah and Loren actually carried on a dialogue in clerihew, whereby Hannah corrected Loren's spelling of Tolkien and Loren retorted back. (She didn't actually retort, but that sounds more exciting).

A couple of you used the clerihewic form as the vehicle for groan-inducing puns. I had to read luaphacim's entry two or three times before I realized he was making reference to Frito chili pie:

Chito, who whispers to crocodiles, Made fancy pies for his reptiles. Those big brutes decided to increase their size By utterly demolishing Chito’s Frilly Pies.

Here's a very skillful pun from EmmaJ:

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien Was enamored with wolkien; He never would stop it, For there’s no better hobbit.

John Slone, another punner, offered up this cheap clerihew:

Dr. Seuss Had his noodle in a noose. To paint his next picture should he dabble in blue, Peradventure a pale-green or cheap clarry hue?

John Slone also wins the dubious honor of "most obscure" clerihewist. No amount of googling revealed to me the identity of his "Cheese-paring Pam" or "Rick Roll." But the most rewarding obscure clerihew, I think, came from Michael Ramsay:

Marcel Bich was incredibly slick; with Edouard Buffard loosed countless poems untoward.

No doubt Bich and Buffard did turn all kinds of poems loose on the world. They were the co-founders of the Bic Corporation.

It was my intention to remark on each entry….but I had no idea there would be so many! So before we move on to the main awards ceremony, let me say that you once again delighted and impressed on Audience Participation Friday. Thanks for this outpouring of creative energy. If postage wasn't so high, I'd send you all a book. I tell you what: if you entered a clerihew, send me your mailing address in the "Contact" form on the right, I'll send you some Charlatan's Boy bookmarks. I know that's kind of a lame prize; you deserve better. But, as the saying goes, 'You get what you get and you don't pitch a fit.'

Anyway, the first award is the Lifetime Achievement Award. It goes to a man who first inspired this contest. Dan Kulp first introduced me to the clerihew in a comment on this blog, and he has been a devotee of the form ever since. He entered a whopping ten clerihews in this contest, not counting the two or three he had done in comments on earlier posts and two or three more on his own blog. I'm sure his wife and family are glad this contest is over so he can get back to earning a living. Dan, we all thank you. I'm sending you a signed copy of The Charlatan's Boy. Just send me your mailing address via the "Contact" form on the right.

For pure poetic merit, the best clerihew, I believe, came from Pete, who spoke of the Turtle Man in the voice of a turtle:

Turtle Man pluck me up by my tail if you can Loose your hoot in toothless bliss Grace me with your chainsaw kiss.

But I happen to know that Pete already has a copy of The Charlatan's Boy, so I had no qualms about bumping him down to honorable mention.

The winner of the Clerihew Contest demonstrated everything that makes a clerihew great: good scansion, clever rhyme, an interesting subject, playful language, and insight. On top of that, she added another layer of cleverness that almost made her too clever for

She wrote:

This entry is dedicated to Dan the Engineer:

01000111 01101111 01110100 01110100 01100110 01110010 01101001 01100101 01100100 00100000 01001100 01100101 01101001 01100010 01101110 01101001 01111010 00101100 00001101 00001010 01000111 01100101 01110010 01101101 01100001 01101110 00100000 01101101 01100001 01110100 01101000 00100000 01110111 01101001 01111010 00101100 00001101 00001010 01110100 01110111 01100101 01100001 01101011 01100101 01100100 00100000 01100001 00100000 01101111 01101110 01100101 00100000 01100001 01101110 01100100 00100000 01100001 00100000 01100100 01101001 01100100 01101100 01111001 00101101 01110011 01110001 01110101 01100001 01110100 00001101 00001010 01110100 01101111 00100000 01101000 01100101 01101100 01110000 00100000 01010011 01110100 01100101 01110110 01100101 00100000 01001010 01101111 01100010 01110011 00100000 01100010 01100101 01100011 01101111 01101101 01100101 00100000 01101001 00101101 01101000 01101111 01110100 00101110

She tried to post this several times, but the blog's spam filter mistook it for nefarious code and kicked it out. Finally she emailed it to me and I posted it for her. I thought it was funny that she would put binary code to honor Dan Kulp the engineer. What I didn't realize was that it was actually a clerihew, and quite a good one, about Gottfried Leibniz, the inventor of binary code. I finally got wise and put it into a binary code translator, and this is what came out:

Gottfried Leibniz, German math wiz, tweaked a one and a didly-squat to help Steve Jobs become i-hot.

Could there be any doubt? I hope you will join me in congratulating BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck for winning the clerihew contest. BuckBuck, send me a mailing address and I'll send you a signed copy of The Charlatan's Boy.

POETRY CONTEST: Prepare Your Clerihews

EDITOR'S NOTE: The original version of this post stated that I would not be accepting submissions until Friday. I have changed my mind. I am accepting submissions as of right now. You may enter your clerihew(s) in the comments section of this post. I'll accept entries through midnight Sunday.

Over the last few days we have seen an interesting development in the comments section of this blog. Dan Kulp has introduced the lesser-known poetry subgenre known as the 'clerihew.' Here's the description of a clerihew from Wikipedia:

A clerihew is a whimsical, four-line biographical poem invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley... A clerihew has the following properties:

  • It is biographical and usually whimsical, showing the subject from an unusual point of view; it pokes fun at mostly famous people
  • It has four lines of irregular length (for comic effect); the third and fourth lines are usually longer than the first two
  • The rhyme structure is AABB; the subject matter and wording are often humorously contrived in order to achieve a rhyme
  • The first line consists solely (or almost solely) of the subject's name.

An excellent example (also from Wikipedia):

Sir Christopher Wren
Went to dine with some men
He said, "If anyone calls,
Say I'm designing Saint Paul's."

Here are some more excellent examples.

This week's Audience Participation Friday will be concerned with clerihews. I'm telling you now so that you can start working on yours. Since President's Day was earlier this week, I considered making US Presidents the topic of our clerihews. But I didn't want to have to adjudicate any political disputes (so stop making your list of things that rhyme with Obama).

The topic, therefore, shall be colorful characters who have appeared in this blog over the last few months. In case you need to brush up, here are some possibilities:

This being a free country, you may also write a clerihew about anybody else, whether he or she has appeared on this blog or not. I have a feeling this is going to be good. You may, of course, enter more than one clerihew.

I'll send a signed copy of The Charlatan's Boy to the person who contributes the best clerihew.

Audience Participation Friday: Valentine’s Day Disasters


When I was in college, I worked one Valentine's Day at a florist's shop. The florist, a favorite among students at my school, hired several students to deliver flowers on that very busy day. On my first delivery, the recipient met me on the stoop before I had even rung the doorbell. She blinked in wonder, and it appeared that she might hyperventilate. I thought to myself, This is going to be a good day. I looked at the tag tied around the vase. "You must be Melissa," I said.

The woman stopped mid-gasp and slumped against the doorjamb. The joy drained out of her face; she suddenly looked very plain. "I knew those weren't for me," she said. "It's all right."

"It's all right," she said, before I could even say I was sorry. And I was sorry indeed for getting the street number wrong and winding up on this stoop, raising hopes that Valentine's Day could never fulfill.

That's the problem, really, with Valentine's Day. People load the day with hopes and expectations that it is insufficient to bear. The poor day collapses under their weight, and we are left with Valentine's Day disasters, the stuff of anecdote.

After my blunder, I went back to the florist and and, like a football player who asks to be taken out of the game after getting his bell rung, I asked for a job inside the shop. I was assigned the task of sorting the orders and tying the cards to the vases. It seemed safer back there where I wouldn't be face-to-face with the human drama of the day.

But as I paged through the orders and saw who was sending flowers to whom--many of them students I knew--the heartache from a breakup months earlier began to stir itself like a dragon awakened by the celebrations of nearby villagers.

And then, in the "Deliver To" line of an order form, I saw the name of my old girlfriend.

The smart thing, I suppose, would have been to give the order to somebody else to fill. But it's not like I was trying to snoop. I was being paid to read the order forms and tie the cards to the vases. So read the order form. The person sending flowers to my old girlfriend was one of my current roommates.

So, there's my Valentine's Day disaster. I bet you have one of your own--either one you experienced first hand or one you know about. If you can bear to commit it to writing, today's Audience Participation Friday topic is Valentine's Day disasters. Here's hoping your anecdotes are more amusing than mine.