The Saturday Read ‘The Prophet of Dystopia’ by Rebecca Mead

What if you had reached the “Gold Watch and Goodbye” phase of your career only to be catapulted back into the spotlight by current events?

That seems to be what’s happening to Canadian author Margaret Atwood as her ‘new’ literary sensation, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, originally published in 1985, leads the literary fiction category on Amazon and is number ten on The New York Times Paperback Trade Fiction list. A film version of the book will begin streaming on Hulu next week. And earlier this week Ms. Atwood was included in the list of  Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

The Saturday Read is Rebecca Mead‘s multi-dimensional profile ‘The Prophet of Dystopia’.

The ‘Gold Watch and Goodbye’ career reference is evident as Ms. Mead brings us along on a March evening when Ms. Atwood received the National Book Critics Circle lifetime-achievement award. In her closing remarks the author asked, “Why do I only get one lifetime? Where did this lifetime go?”

The profile offers a panoramic view of this one lifetime; from one writers beginnings to mentor and evangelist for new writers.

“Atwood was born in Ottawa, but she spent formative stretches of her early years in the wilderness—first in northern Quebec, and then north of Lake Superior. Her father, Carl Atwood, was an entomologist, and, until Atwood was almost out of elementary school, the family passed all but the coldest months in virtually complete isolation at insect-research stations; at one point, they lived in a log cabin that her father had helped construct.”

In college she switched majors from philosophy to literature. She challenged the traditional canons of British and American literature with an argument for Canadian literature and its dominant theme of survival.

“Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back from the awful experience—the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship—that killed everyone else.”

She was an established writer before “the sometimes divisive years of second-wave feminism” and wrote an essay giving voice to colleagues.

“It’s not finally all that comforting to have a phalanx of women . . . come breezing up now to tell them they were right all along,” she wrote. “It’s like being judged innocent after you’ve been hanged: the satisfaction, if any, is grim.”

“Her feminism assumes women’s rights to be human rights, and is born of having been raised with a presumption of absolute equality between the sexes…

Atwood’s early years in the forest endowed her with a sense of self-determination, and with a critical distance on codes of femininity—an ability to see those codes as cultural practices worthy of investigation, not as necessary conditions to be accepted unthinkingly. This capacity for quizzical scrutiny underlies much of her fiction: not accepting the world as it is permits Atwood to imagine the world as it might be.”

It’s the fearless questioning that has resonated over time and reintroduced readers to the classic ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ this spring.

Rebecca Mead’s profile of the thoroughly modern, septuagenarian writer is required reading as a companion to the novel.

“In a photograph taken the day after the Inauguration, at the Women’s March on Washington, a protester held a sign bearing a slogan that spoke to the moment: “make margaret atwood fiction again.”

 

7xlhqgc4_200x200.jpg

@latimesfob this weekend:

The Handmaid’s Tale from Page to Screen: Margaret Atwood & Bruce Miller in Conversation with Mary McNamara, Conversation 2063 Sunday, April 23 @2:30PM in Bovard Auditorium on the University of Southern California campus

“Dignify the outsider” & other lessons from Carolyn See

When we talk about mentors, we often confine ourselves within the walls of our chosen profession. Carolyn See, professor and writer, was also a ‘world class’ mentor to those who were ‘outsiders’ to the world of New York publishing, the purveyors of taste in American storytelling.

I met Carolyn after a panel at the 2003 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, when she was signing copies of ‘Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers’. We had a brief conversation and I followed up with an email a few days later to thank her for taking the time to chat. Her response was immediate, gracious and filled with humor.

At the time I was not a writer, but a ‘dreamer’, considering a literary life, while pursuing a passion working with college students. Carolyn encouraged me to explore the writing life, and taught me what it truly means to be a mentor.

Carolyn died last week in Santa Monica, California. Many of her students and friends have shared their memories in published obituaries and tweets. In all there is the common thread of the ‘insider’ welcoming the ‘outsider’.

“…I believe, with a patriotic sincerity that would make a Legionnaire blush, that American literature is owned by everybody in America and that world lit is owned by everyone in the world and that we all get to have a say in it, not just a comparatively few men and women in the Northeast, no matter how decent and talented they may be.”

LA Times columnist, former book critic and writer, David Ulin described his relationship with Carolyn in 2014.

“Carolyn taught me how to be a writer in California. For her, that meant a three-dimensional literary life: writing, teaching and reviewing, all of them inextricable from the whole. As a critic, I have tried to follow her model that reviews should be part of an ongoing conversation with one’s readers, and should explicate something essential — not only whether or not we like a book, but also how it connects to, or reflects, our aesthetics, our world view. Carolyn has always regarded reading as an act of engagement . . . and reviewing, too.”

What is a mentor? What can we learn from the life of a writer if we have followed a completely different career path?

A mentor teaches you to be the three-dimensional human in your workplace vision of success.

In ‘Making a Literary Life, Carolyn offers two menu items: ‘Carolyn’s 18 Minute Chili’ and ‘Carolyn’s 18 Hour Chili’.  For the writer, the two step (18 minute) is “a thousand words a day or two hours of revision” and “a charming note to a writer, editor or agent you admire – five days a week for the rest of your life”.

This is what a mentor does, unselfishly shares their recipe for success with measurable, accountable advice. And the part about ‘charming notes’? It’s universal in its application. This is not about ‘sucking up’, but genuinely expressing gratitude or professional admiration, tied to a specific circumstance.

The ’18 hour chili alternative’ includes suggestions to “take an outside excursion once a week”, “pretend- in your mind – to be…”, and “make a list of what a … like you might want”.

We need to get outside our ‘comfort zone’ to stay creative. It’s essential to visualize what you would be like in your dream job, and equally important, to hold an image of what success looks like to you.

“You can go a surprisingly long time without figuring out the kind of person you are and in what direction your life is taking you.”

It’s why I will always be grateful for my encounter with Carolyn See, and why we all, outsiders included, need a mentor who keeps us honest and on track toward success.

 

 

 

 

 

The week@work April 13 – 19 Apollo 13, Brian Grazer & Adderall in the workplace

The week@work celebrated authors and their books at the LA Times Festival of Books in Los Angeles, commemorated the courage of the astronauts on Apollo 13 and explored the growing abuse of attention deficit disorder drugs in the workplace.

It’s interesting how the dots connect. Yesterday I was sitting in a large auditorium at the University of Southern California listening to an interview with Brian Grazer, producer and now writer, describe a self-improvement process he has utilized since graduating from college. Each week he identifies at least one person, a stranger, he would like to meet and have a ‘curiosity conversation’. It’s a practice he continues to energize and expand his capabilities. Speaking earlier this year at SXSW he emphasized “Curiosity is the source of all my success.”

In 1995 he produced the film Apollo 13, recounting the story of the astronaut’s survival. The key word is survival. His process in selecting this project connected back to a woman, Veronica Denegra, who had been tortured for 18 months in Chile for her opposition to the government. It wasn’t his interest in space, but his memory of Ms. Denegra’s story of survival that connected him to Apollo 13.

“You can never know how the dots will connect; how opportunities will come alive when you never knew they existed.”

The talented professionals at NASA who brainstormed their way through to a successful conclusion of the Apollo 13 mission were honored this week at the San Diego Air and Space Museum on the 45th anniversary of the mission. The story of the ‘real life’ events led by mission commander Jim Lovell and flight director Gene Kranz remains a model case study of problem solving, teamwork and creativity in an extremely high risk work environment.

In the December, 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review three authors described their findings on how CEO’s innovate. In ‘The Innovator’s DNA’ Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen identified “five “discovery skills” that distinguish the most creative executives: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking. We found that innovative entrepreneurs (who are also CEOs) spend 50% more time on these discovery activities than do CEOs with no track record for innovation. Together, these skills make up what we call the innovator’s DNA. And the good news is, if you’re not born with it, you can cultivate it.”

Here we have Brian Grazer, producer, who appears to be the poster boy for the innovator’s DNA, telling the story of another illustration of innovation, in the story of the Apollo13 crew and the folks on the ground at NASA who brought them home, 45 years ago this week.

“The conversations are the artistic fertilizer of what comes up on the screen. It enriches everything that lives in your mind in terms of exploring possibilities.”

The third story this week appears on the front page of the Sunday New York Times, ‘Abuse of Attention Deficit Pills Graduates Into the Workplace’. A generation that employed attention disorder drugs to stay up late to study for a final or complete a paper has now continued the practice, ordering ‘pills on demand’ to complete work assignments.

“Doctors and medical ethicists expressed concern for misusers’ health, as stimulants can cause anxiety, addiction and hallucinations when taken in high doses. But they also worried about added pressure in the workplace — where the use by some pressures more to join the trend.”

Young professionals believe they need these drugs to get hired. And once hired, believe they need chemical support to sustain their productivity, to be competitive.

We are only at the beginning of this story, but leaders should be paying attention and consider the effects of an organizational culture that facilitates this behavior. A dose of management emotional intelligence and creativity might go a long way to building an alternative workplace, a place where productivity is fueled by ‘curiosity conversations’, not drugs.

Mr. Grazer believes “Curiosity is the solution to every problem that you’ve got.” And he may be right.

The LA Times Festival of Books 2003 & David Halberstam

There’s a book festival this weekend in LA and one of my favorite writers will be missing. Eight years ago next week, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author David Halberstam died in a car crash in Menlo Park, California on his way to conduct an interview for his next book.

I thought it would be a good day to share my ‘memories at a distance’ of a journalist whose work continues to educate and inspire.

I first heard Mr. Halberstam speak at the University of Southern California commencement. His remarks were measured as he sought to reassure the Class of 2002; the first graduating class after 9/11. Words that are as relevant today as they were on that  May morning in South Central LA.

“We should, after all, all be aware of the blessings of our lives. The truth today, which I suspect you already know, is that you are among the fortunate of your generation. You have been given a priceless education in an age where work is increasingly defined not by muscularity but by intelligence, and therefore you are already advantaged. More, you have not only been given an exceptional education, but perhaps more importantly, you have been part of a rare community where the intellectual process is valued not just for what it can do for you economically but as an end in itself. Learning is not just a tool to bring you a better income; learning is an ongoing, never-ending process designed to bring you a fuller and richer life.

In addition, you are fortunate enough to live in an affluent, blessed society, not merely the strongest, but the freest society in the world. Our courts continue to uphold the inherent rights of ordinary citizens to seek the highest levels of personal freedom imaginable. In this country as in no other that I know of, ordinary people have the right to reinvent themselves to become the person of their dreams and not to live as prisoners of a more stratified, more hierarchical past. In America we have the right to choose who and what we want to be: to choose if we so want, any profession, any venue, any name.”

The next time I heard David Halberstam speak was on the UCLA campus in 2003.

I have this small yellow spiral notebook with blotched ink notes from the LA Times Festival of Books in 2003. I attended as many panels as I could fit, purchased cassette recordings of those I missed (it was the dark ages), and stood in line to garner author signatures in newly release titles. I took copious notes at every panel including one moderated by Marie Arana, (then book editor of The Washington Post), with authors Carolyn See, Terry Brooks and George Pelecanos. At the end of the day, in my notebook, there is only the title and the names of the panelists for ‘The Politics of Sport’. I couldn’t multitask. I could only listen as three literary lions shared their thoughts with a packed auditorium audience.

Author Gay Talese moderated the panel with Mr. Halberstam and George Plimpton. There were 322 other authors at the festival that weekend, but this discussion brought together three authors whose careers included journalism, war, media, sports, politics, civil rights and the founding of a major literary review. If you are looking for a book to read this weekend here are three of my picks, one from each author:

David Halberstam   ‘The Best and the Brightest’

George Plimpton   ‘Paper Lion’

Gay Talese   ‘The Kingdom and the Power’

The 20th annual LA Times Festival of Books takes place this weekend in Los Angeles on the campus of The University of Southern California. It’s the largest event centered on books in the country, showcasing fiction, non-fiction, travel, cooking, politics and biography.

It’s an opportunity to create an intellectual memory, stock your library for the coming months, and continue the never-ending process of learning to bring you a fuller and richer life.