John McPhee on One Word You Couldn’t Publish in The New Yorker


Fuck, fucker, fuckest; fuckest, fucker, fuck. In all my days, I had found that four-letter word—with its silent “c” and its quartzite “k”—more shocking than a thunderclap. My parents thought it was a rhetorical crime. Mr. Shawn actually seemed philosophical about its presence in the language, but not in his periodical. My young daughters, evidently, were in no sense as burdened as he was. Or as I was. Or as their grandparents were. In the car in their middle-school years, they batted that word between the back and front seats as if they were playing Ping-Pong. Driving, and hearing those words reach a critical mass, I once spontaneously bellowed (in an even-tempered, paternal way), “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck—I can say it, too!”

Well, maybe in a car, but not in The New Yorker, not in 1975, and I didn’t need to be told. I had been writing for the magazine for a dozen years. There were no alternatives like “f—” or “f**k” or “[expletive deleted],” which sounds like so much gravel going down a chute. If the magazine had employed such devices, which it didn’t, I would have shunned them. “F-word” was not an expression in use then and the country would be better off if it had not become one.

-John McPhee, in The New Yorker (now free for everyone), on the history of certain words in the magazine.

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Photo: Princeton University

Weird Al, Childhood Hero

After the show, we rode the non-scary rides and took a photo with our arms around a cardboard cut-out of Alf; please note that I am wearing a hand-me-down lilac jumper and my mom’s giant digital watch. As we headed towards the exit, my dad said “hey” to someone. (My dad is not Mister Social; my mother was the schmoozer. Once she said hi to someone on the street and my dad asked who it was. “Oh, just someone I went to camp with,” she said. It was Woody Allen.) “Who was that?” we demanded. “Weird Al,” dad answered. We set off on a chase, until my mom cornered the man in a Hawaiian shirt, nerd glasses, curly hair. “Are you?” she asked. “Am I who?” the man said. It was HIM. We told him how much we loved him and how we knew every single one of his songs and how we watched “The Compleat Al” at least once a week. My mom shoved me gently. “Sing him your songs,” she said.

I had started writing parodies as soon as I learned about the concept. I was regularly tormented by girls in third grade who told me I looked like a boy and was the ugliest girl in the class, so I made parodies of the songs they loved the most—everything by Tiffany and Debbie Gibson and the New Kids on the Block. Sometimes my mom would help; I’d come home and cry and then she’d ask what songs the popular girls liked and we’d sit down and write parodies.

I stared at the ground because I was afraid of locking eyes with Weird Al and sang my parody of “Stand By Me,” called “Stand By Please,” which was about calling customer service. Weird Al said my songs were good and shook my hand and I vowed I would never wash it again, but I think my mom made me take a bath the next day. I tried to keep that hand out of the water but it was really tough.

At the Awl, Bex Schwartz has an essay about her 28-year obsession with parodist Weird Al Yankovic, whom she met at an amusement park concert when she was seven, and again, last week at her office, where she is a creative director for TeenNick.

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‘Orange Is the New Black’ as a Trojan Horse for Prison Reform


When Piper optioned her book to Jenji Kohan, the creator of Weeds, a number of people were asked to sign over something called “life rights.” In short: Some version of our lives could be depicted on the show, and we each agreed not to sue its creators if, for example, the character based on one of us was depicted as snobby, dopey, bitchy, overbearing, short, whatever. There’s a tremendous amount of trust that Piper had to put in Jenji.

If the show was unrealistic, salacious, or just plain bad, it could tarnish Piper’s book, a serious, accessible, and largely sex-free window into the women’s federal prison system. It was also a memoir written by a reluctant memoirist. Piper is a private person who told her story because she believed she could get a lot of people to pick up a book about prison who probably wouldn’t otherwise. Through this “Trojan horse” protagonist who might remind them of themselves, their daughter, or their niece, readers would get a peek into the diverse and complex world of women in prison: who they are, what happens when they get there, and what kind of world they’re dropped back into when they are released. The reaction to the book Orange Is the New Black gave Piper an opportunity to speak out on criminal justice reform—an opportunity very few prisoners have. The decision to give such a personal work over to a stranger—albeit an Emmy-winning one—looks easy now. Back then it wasn’t.

Larry Smith, husband of Piper Kerman, writing in Medium about the other true story behind “Orange Is The New Black”—his own life.

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Photo: PEN American Center, Flickr

Here’s One Way to Ace a Public School’s Standardized Test

Student Writing

When a problem exists in Philadelphia schools, it generally exists in other large urban schools across the nation. One of those problems—shared by districts in New York, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities—is that many schools don’t have enough money to buy books. The School District of Philadelphia recently tweeted a photo of Mayor Michael Nutter handing out 200,000 donated books to K–3 students. Unfortunately, introducing children to classic works of literature won’t raise their abysmal test scores.

This is because standardized tests are not based on general knowledge. As I learned in the course of my investigation, they are based on specific knowledge contained in specific sets of books: the textbooks created by the test makers.

All of this has to do with the economics of testing. Across the nation, standardized tests come from one of three companies: CTB McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or Pearson. These corporations write the tests, grade the tests, and publish the books that students use to prepare for the tests. Houghton Mifflin has a 38 percent market share, according to its press materials. In 2013, the company brought in $1.38 billion in revenue.

-Meredith Broussard, in the Atlantic, on a data experiment revealing that public schools that use the “wrong” textbooks may be hurting their performance.

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Photo: cybrarian77, Flickr

‘If You Want to Be Famous, Don’t Be a Writer’


I’m always curious about the relationship between ambition and fame. On one hand, the desire to be a famous writer can be useful—you have to have drive, ambition. You need to be balls-out doing what you’re going to do to have any hope of success. But on the other hand, so many writers conflate ambition with wanting to be famous. Particularly in the era of internet fame, whatever that is. Did you aspire to being a famous writer?

I want be recognized for beautiful work, for good work, for real work. I really want to be recognized for that. Which is different than saying I want to be famous.

If you want to be famous, don’t be a writer. When I was first thinking of myself as a writer back in my teens, the shorthand for that was fame. But then I started to really understand what writing was and who writers were. Who were the writers I valued the most as a young woman learning to write? They were people like Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Mary Gaitskill, Toni Morrison.

Those people I just named are super famous in our world, but most of the world doesn’t know them. So pretty quickly, to me it wasn’t about fame—it was about accomplishment. Once you let go of that fame thing, it’s the first step in really being able to focus on doing good work.

Because you can’t fake it. That’s the deal with writing. You can’t fake it. You read an Alice Munro story—it’s there or it’s not, you know? So I let that go pretty early on.

With fame, you have to get over it. You do. Because you will actually not succeed because of it.

Scratch Magazine interviews best-selling author Cheryl Strayed. (The interview is free to read after logging in.)

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Photo: Sam Beebe

Oh, the Humanities! A Reading List Pertaining to the English Major

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In college, I rearranged my majors and minors, all in the humanities, for years. I loved everything. Finally, I majored in English. It was fate—second-grade me was constantly in trouble for sneaking books under her desk. Majoring in English was both the joy and bane of my life. I struggled with a Faulkner-heavy Southern Lit course, even though Faulkner remains beloved. I groused about Shakespeare. I wrote my senior thesis on Michael Chabon. And I transformed my love for editing into a prestigious position on the college newspaper. My Lit Crit class—a notorious gauntlet at my college—introduced me to Derrida’s jeu and the revelation of feminist theory. I spent my time studying and socializing in the English department suite. I TA’d for the head of the department. When I am nostalgic for college, I am nostalgic for the English suite—for the camaraderie among my fellow students and best friends, my professors and mentors, and the dusty books and teacups and flyers.

A confession: today, I whined to my boyfriend about the great gigs my journalist friends have procured. Daily papers! Grad school! Photography internships! New York City! On my worst days, I feel envy and inferiority. On my best days, I go to the library and check on a huge stack of books, remind myself to be grateful for my temp job and come home to write for Longreads. I remember that I did something right. If I remember that, I will continue to do something right, to do something, write.

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Reminder: The Bee Gees Were Enormous

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The Bee Gees’ dominance of the charts in the disco era was above and beyond Chic, Giorgio Moroder, even Donna Summer. Their sound track to Saturday Night Fever sold thirty million copies. They were responsible for writing and producing eight of 1978’s number ones, something only Lennon and McCartney in 1963/64 could rival—and John and Paul hadn’t been the producers, only the writers. Even given the task of writing a song called “Grease” (“Grease is the word, it’s got groove, it’s got a meaning,” they claimed, hoping no one would ask, “Come again?”), they came up with a classic. At one point in March they were behind five singles in the American Top 10. In 1978 they accounted for 2 percent of the entire record industry’s profits. The Bee Gees were a cultural phenomenon.

Three siblings from an isolated, slightly sinister island off the coast of northwest England, already in their late twenties by the time the Fever struck—how the hell did they manage this? Pinups in the late sixties, makers of the occasional keening ballad hit in the early seventies, the Bee Gees had no real contact with the zeitgeist until, inexplicably, they had hits like “Nights on Broadway,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” and the zeitgeist suddenly seemed to emanate from them. This happened because they were blending white soul, R&B, and dance music in a way that suited pretty much every club, every radio station, every American citizen in 1978. They melded black and white influences into a more satisfying whole than anyone since Elvis. Simply, they were defining pop culture in 1978.

-Bob Stanley, in the Paris Review, on the pop-music genius of the Gibb brothers—siblings who were always unappreciated, and also capable of some big creative mistakes.

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Photo: YouTube

When Your Kid Has a Disease No One’s Ever Heard About

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The Mights couldn’t wait for the culture of scientific research to change: they had been told that Bertrand could have as little as a few months left to live. The same day that they learned about NGLY1, they began plotting ways to find more patients on their own. Several years earlier, Matt had written a blog post, called “The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.,” that became a worldwide phenomenon; it was eventually translated into dozens of languages, including Serbian, Urdu, and Vietnamese. The popularity of the post, combined with Matt’s rising profile among computer programmers, meant that almost anything he put online was quickly re-posted to Hacker News, the main social news site for computer scientists and entrepreneurs. He decided to use his online presence to create what he referred to as a “Google dragnet” for new patients.

For the next three weeks, Matt worked on an essay that described Bertrand’s medical history in clinical detail. Matt called the result, which was more than five thousand words long, “Hunting Down My Son’s Killer,” and on May 29, 2012, he posted it to his personal Web site. It began: “I found my son’s killer. It took three years. But we did it. I should clarify one point: my son is very much alive. Yet, my wife Cristina and I have been found responsible for his death.”

Half an hour after Matt hit “publish,” Twitter began to light up. By the end of the day, “Hunting Down My Son’s Killer” was the top story on Reddit. The next morning, an editor from Gizmodo, a tech blog owned by Gawker Media, asked Matt for permission to republish the essay. In less than twenty-four hours, the post had gone viral. The more it was shared and linked to, the higher it rose in search engines’ rankings, and the easier it would be for parents of other children to find.

In The New Yorker, Seth Mnookin reports about what one couple, Matt Might and Cristina Casanova, did when they discovered that their son had a rare condition that no doctor had ever heard about. We featured Might’s account of his family’s search to diagnose his son’s disease in 2012.

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Photo of Matt Might by: David Van Horn

Solitude, and the Contrast Between the Outside World and Our Inner Selves


There can be something enjoyable, even revelatory about that feeling of self-protection, which is why we seek out circumstances in which we can feel more acutely the contrast between the outside world and our inner selves. Woolf was fascinated by city life—by the feeling of solitude-on-display that the sidewalk encourages, and by the way that “street haunting,” as she called it, allows you to lose and then find yourself in the rhythm of urban novelty and familiarity. She was drawn to the figure of the hostess: the woman-to-be-looked-at, standing at the top of the stairs, friendly to everyone, who grows only more mysterious with her visibility. (One of the pleasures of throwing a party, Woolf showed, is that it allows you to surprise yourself: surrounded by your friends, the center of attention, you feel your separateness from the social world you have convened.) She showed how parents, friends, lovers, and spouses can become more unknowable over time, not less—there is a core to their personhood that never gives itself up. Even as they put their lives on display, she thought, artists thrive when they maintain a final redoubt of privacy—a wellspring that remains unpolluted by the world outside. “A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter,” Clarissa thinks, at the end of “Mrs. Dalloway.” Of course, it’s the chatter—the party—that helps her know that she has something to lose in the first place.

Joshua Rothman, writing in the New Yorker about Virginia Woolf’s idea of privacy.

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Photo: Salt Online, Flickr