The Secret Life of Language

Go, go, go to The Nervous Breakdown to read my profile of psychologist and author James Pennebaker, a lovely man bursting with clever ideas who was kind enough to share his time to talk about life, linguistics and his book The Secret Life of Pronouns.

Academics are easy to caricature. Sketch a figure in a rumpled suit jacket with messy hair and a pair of glasses clinging doggedly to the tip of his nose and you’ll win that round of Pictionary. Dr James Pennebaker, though, defies expectations. A renowned researcher, author, and chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, he blends down-to-earth bonhomie with a taste for Lanesborough Hotel martinis, and hones his brilliant mind with long-distance running.

I contacted Dr Pennebaker after reading an excerpt from his latest book, The Secret Life of Pronouns. The product of fifteen years of research, The Secret Life of Pronouns argues that the way people use pronouns – the itty-bitty words like ‘you’, ‘I’ and ‘we’ that account for more than half of daily conversation – can predict things like emotional state (depressed people say “I” a lot), social status (powerful people use “I” less frequently), or truthfulness (liars tend to say “we”). No self-respecting word geek could fail to be intrigued.

Click here to continue reading.

Quote of the Day – Bruce Springsteen

You can find your identity in the damage that’s been done to you. Very, very dangerous. You find your identity in your wounds, in your scars, in the places where you’ve been beat up and you turn them into a medal. We all wear the things we’ve survived with some honour, but the real honour is in also transcending them.
— Bruce Springsteen

The Lost Brothers – So Long, John Fante

The Lost Brothers started as a “joke” according to Oisin Leech but he and musical partner Mark McCausland soon found people taking their dusty, gentle folk harmonies to heart. Their deubt album Trails of the Lonely is one of my favourites: a Simon & Garfunkle drinking whisky-laced coffee in the rain with Burt Jansch affair (which they recorded in my native burg, Portland OR) that is both fresh and ageless — so I tracked down Oisin to find out what makes the Lost world turn. Hats, poetry, Powell’s Books and Bob Dylan are in; OK! magazine is out…

The full interview is forthcoming at Pennyblackmusic. Meantime, mark your calendar for the release of new album So Long, John Fante on 25 November and its launch at at Dublin’s Workmans Club on 30 Nov.

Quote of the Day – Arundhati Roy

Thanks to a dreadful Guardian interview I have discovered the incredible Arundhati Roy. I had vaguely filed her in my mind as a contemporary novelist. How wrong. She is an artist, feminist, social activist and genius for life. This is an excerpt from her essay The End of Imagination.

There are other worlds. Other kinds of dreams. Dreams in which failure is feasible. Honourable. Sometimes even worth striving for. Worlds in which recognition is not the only barometer of brilliance or human worth. There are plenty of warriors I know and love, people far more valuable than myself, who go to war each day, knowing advance that they will fail…. The only dream worth having… is to dream that you will live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead.

EP2 Caitlin Kelly Interview

Caitlin Kelly is a Canadian-born writer who lives and works in Tarrytown, New York. She is the author of two books Blown Away: American Women and Guns (Pocket Books, 2004) and Malled – My Unintentional Career in Retail (Portfolio/Penguin, 2011). Her journalism appears in publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Glamour, and The Smithsonian. As a result of her extensive print portfolio Ms Kelly has written blogs for both social and corporate blogging communities. Her personal blog is Broadside. In our interview she gave her views on the relationship between blogs and print media, the changing face of publishing, and what bloggers should know about writing books.

How has blogging influenced your work as a writer and journalist?

People like me who always made money from print journalism are struggling. I did get paid well for blogging about arthritis for a pharmaceutical company [it paid] more money than I’d made in print in years. But a lot of online writing doesn’t pay well, or at all. [Maintaining a personal blog] is a constant job to keep my name visible and make my work accessible to people around the world.

What is the relationship between blogging and print publishing?

Blogging is terrible money compared to classic journalism. I didn’t want to do it, but I wanted to write another book. Unless you’re John Grisham you have to be visible, you have to be blogging.

Has blogging changed your approach to writing?

Blogging made my writing more conversational, now when I do journalism it’s chattier and more casual. When you’re blogging you can say anything. It taught me to write more quickly and expanded my idea of what makes a story.

Do you know if agents and publishers talent-scout blogs?

They absolutely do. [As a blogger] you’ve proven you can write, you’ve proven you’re consistent, you’ve proven your productive and you’ve proven you’ve got an audience. You can have the sexiest credentials in the world, but if you can’t say ‘I have a huge potential audience’ no agent and especially no publisher is going to touch you. Blogging is an interesting way to prove yourself, it gives you verifiable numbers. There is no question that agents are reading blogs, editors are reading blogs. That’s been going on [in the States] for five or six years.

What challenges face a blogger who wants to get into print?

As an author I can’t tell you the pressure I feel when I sit down to write the first sentence of a book. We’re in a world of short attention spans. The blog feeds our addiction to a shortened attention span. We can sit down for a few minutes and read it. If a blogger can write a good book, and I enjoy it, then I’ll praise it to the skies. But to write a book you need to do research, you need to do interviews, you need to create the interest. It’s not simple and it’s not easy. It’s a huge amount of work, it’s intellectually ambitious. A book is a big canvas. You have to conceptualise things differently. With a book the barrier to entry, intellectually, is that much higher. You, as the writer, must bring a much higher level of skill – you have to up your game. You can’t just be cute, or moving. There are wonderful [blog] writers I read but I wouldn’t necessarily reach for their book. I wouldn’t have the confidence they could sustain me through a narrative.
So you want to write a book? How are you going to write a chapter of 5000 words if you’ve never written 5000 words? It’s not 500 words times 10. It’s a different animal. When I think about writing a chapter it’s like thinking about soup: you need the right ingredients. In just one chapter I have all kinds of sources, document research, and interviews. If you’ve not done that before, you’re not going to be able to do it. Otherwise, all you have is one person’s perspective. That’s so limited. I am just one voice, and I see things in a particular way. Truly great writers of non-fiction say ‘what am I missing in the way that I’m thinking? And how can fill in those gaps?’

Do you think blogging effects the way people read books?

Quite possibly. The blog feeds our addiction to a shortened attention span. We can sit down for a few minutes and read it. I think maybe younger readers bring a different set of eyes to the material. It may be changing. It probably is. Do people look at footnotes anymore? I don’t know if they do.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogs?

Their strengths are authenticity and immediacy. [Weaknesses are that] bloggers don’t have editors! People who think they’re writers because they THINK they are are in for a shock. Wait till they try to get a book published! Intellectually, if all you’re doing is writing quick, easy stuff that’s all you’re prepared to do. How are you going to do anything more complex? You can’t do things just because you feel like it. To be excellent is really not easy.

EP2 Christian Lander Interview

Christian Lander is the founder of the blog Stuff White People Like and author of two spin-off books: Stuff White People Like (Random House, 2008) and Whiter Shades of Pale (Random House, 2010). Born in Canada, Lander grew up in Toronto, studied in Montreal then moved to Los Angeles where he was working as a copywriter when he started Stuff White People Like. Lander is also a speaker and television writer. Our interview, conducted over Gmail chat, was edited for clarity but otherwise is in its original format.

Let’s start at the beginning: what’s your background, and how, specifically, did Stuff White People Like come into being?
Well, I’m white. I grew up in Toronto, Canada. Went to school in Montreal [where I] studied English and history. Went to grad school for four years then moved to LA and started working in advertising. One day was having a conversation over IM with my friend Myles and he told me he didn’t trust any white person who didn’t watch The Wire and we started guessing what white people were doing instead of watching The Wire and then it was blog time. That was it. I just started writing and it caught fire.
Did you have any idea it was going to catch fire?
No idea at all. I wrote to entertain my friends.
Were you already into blogging?
I was doing some goofy stuff on the web, I was working and wanted a comedy project on the side. Writing funny stuff is my favorite thing in the world.
At what point did you think ‘hey, maybe this is more than just entertaining my mates’?
The day it crossed 60,000 hits. The day before it was 30,000 and I thought: “ok, a one day thing, cool,” but it grew the next day. I thought, “whoa, can’t get any bigger than this,” and it did.
How long did that take?
Four weeks.
Damn! That must have come as a surprise.
Very much. Literally all my dreams came true by accident
What changed when suddenly you had this massive readership?
I got offered a book deal. That was really it.
How did that come about?
A number of agents contacted me. I chose one and prepared a book proposal like any other author, and a publisher bought it.
Were the agents who contacted you “regular book” agents or special “blog hunting” agents?
They were regular literary agents.
In the States scouting blogs is pretty standard now?
Yes, it’s definitely standard. Blogs, Twitter, anywhere with a unique voice and a buzz.
Once you got an agent, did your approach to the blog change?
I wrote the same way, I just saved it for the book and updated the blog when I felt like I had a great idea.
It was important to have distinct content for the book?
Yes. We had new things. Some things I needed a designer and an editor to get done.
Were you still doing the day job?
I quit the day job when I got the book deal. The only challenge was dealing with people who hated me. I wasn’t used to being a public figure.
How did you reconcile yourself to that?
Ultimately you have to realize that no one has 100% popularity. As a writer, nothing is worse than apathy, so to have people hate you is a good thing. It means you’re doing something right.
Do you write differently knowing you’ll be face to face with your readers on book tours?
Not at all. I write what I think is funny and relevant. I thinkwhen you try to write to an audience you end up patronizing them. I write what I find funny, and I’m very lucky my sense of humor is shared by others.
Who or what are your literary inspirations?
David Sedaris. [And] the most underrated writers on the planet – the guys at the Onion. Sam Lipsyte. National Lampoon. The Simpsons. The Kids in the Hall. Monty Python.
You’ve done two books now — do you have any more planned?
No. I think it’s a miracle I’ve been able to write two. I have no idea what I’d do for a third. I don’t have the talent to write fiction.
Would you advise a wannabe author to start with a blog?
It depends what kind of author you want to be. If you’re looking to write fiction, not at all. No one will read it. But if you hope to write a cookbook, or a design book, or something where people will follow your blog, sure. But trying to start a blog to turn it into a book is very hard – most of the popular ones are accidents. [Don’t] write a blog to get a book deal. Write a blog to keep you writing. The expectation that it will become a book will just lead to frustration and heartache.
In your experience is there still a clear divide between the trad-publishing world (e.g. fiction) and blog-world?
Not really. In both cases editors and agents are looking for talent and great ideas. Publishing is a business, they need to sell books to an audience that will buy them. If you’re a writer struggling to get published don’t think it’s because of a lack of talent, to be a successful writer you have to be talented , sure, but more importantly you have to write something that people want to read, and knowing what that is can be almost impossible. I mean, who would have thought so many people want to read about vampires?

EP2 Go Fug Yourself Interview

Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks started the blog Go Fug Yourself in 2004, as a side-line to their day jobs as reality TV producers. Inspired by “glaringly ugly” celebrity styling, it grew from an inside joke to word-of-mouth phenomenon thanks to Heather and Jessica’s distinctive, wryly funny writing. Two years later they sold a proposal for the book which became The Fug Awards and quit television to become full time writers. In our interview, Jessica talks about the transition from blogging to books, keeping the audience satisfed, and why they sympathise with celebrities.

Did you start Go Fug Yourself for the hell of it, or did you see a niche in the market and think: “Ah-ha, this is our route to infamy and fortune”?

We started it for the hell of it. Really, it was an inside joke that we brought to life just for kicks, which we never thought anyone outside our immediate circle would read. I don’t even know if we thought we’d do it for very long. But then it turned out to be fun, and readers came, and THEN we realized we’d accidentally filled a niche.

How did you publicise it initially?

We haven’t, and didn’t. We got lucky because we were already part of a blogging community. We and they’d throw links to our site into their recaps, and it blossomed from there.

What were the first steps you took towards commercialising it?

We started selling ads to help fund the rights to photographs, and doing THAT meant we could update more often. And we would try to tweak the layout so that it looked cleaner, and/or offered more fun features.

How long did it take to become the day job?

It was getting that book advance that gave us the psychological cushion to quit our day jobs and do the blog full-time. Once that advance came in, just knowing we had a little nest egg gave us the kick in the pants we needed. So we both ended up quitting our day jobs around July/August 2006.

How has your approach to blogging changed as GFY has grown?

In the beginning we cared a lot less about what we were writing. We wanted it to be funny, but we didn’t stress out about whether we were making racy jokes or whatnot. But then — and this is true — once we did well enough that we were getting invited to do TV appearances, we told our parents about the blog, and I think knowing they were reading made us clean up our acts a bit. We’ve ridden enough highs and lows with enough celebs that we start to root for people to pull it together. We’re a bit more supportive of the celebs than we were at the beginning. It was never a transition we made on purpose; it just came out of us maturing as people and as writers.

Whose idea was the book?

We love to write, obviously, and were always curious about publishing, so it seemed like a great way to get our feet wet and then maybe see what other things we could write. Our agent thought we should strike while the iron was hot with a blog book, and then start pitching fiction, because editors he knew who read GFY were responding to our tone and humor and thought it would mesh well for the YA audience. And indeed, we have our young adult debut coming out in June 2011, and we’re writing the sequel now.

Did you pitch the book or did a publisher approach you?

We came up with the pitch for the book, alongside our agent, and he shopped it to publishers.

What considerations are there in writing a book as opposed to writing a blog?

Blogs don’t have to have the shelf life a book does. In trying to conceive a book proposal, we had to come up with a format that wouldn’t date so much. We came up with a fake-awards format. It felt a little more lasting and we could dip into archival stuff and make it more of an ode to an era.

What is different in terms of getting permissions, photo rights and legal clearance for a book versus a blog?

You have to worry about things like print run and whether it’s international or just domestic. They also charge per photo, whereas our deal for the site itself is a monthly fee for a flat number of downloads. The agency worked to get us a good deal, though, since we were buying so many photos and we’re good customers.

Was the public response to the book what you expected?

We were so proud of the book — it came out beautifully, design-wise and otherwise. We worked hard to make it fresh and fun, so our readers wouldn’t resent supporting us by buying it. We had a feeling that we’d done a good job and every single e-mail we got was positive. Seriously, our haters are not shy about writing us to tell us when they’re mad, and we did not get a single note of disappointment from anyone. Our audience loved it so we felt like we did our job.

Does your publisher or agent work specifically with bloggers?


Are you planning another book?

Not based on the blog. We’re delving into young adult fiction.

Do you feel as if you’re taken more seriously now you’re “proper” authors?

No, because people’s perceptions of writing have changed thanks to blogs. People already saw us as proper writers. I don’t think having a published book changed that. We publish a book’s worth of prose every MONTH on the site.

Secrets of Success


Absolutely love this quote from righteous babe Ani DiFranco. I saw her in concert once, many years ago, and she had a fantastic joy and energy. She’s one if the visionaries for whom life and art are inextricably linked.

People who are just starting out are always sort of coming to me for advice as the example of “independent girl,” and lots of people ask, well, how did you get the booking agent or the national distribution or the tours? And I look at them like, “Good lord! Relax!” I mean, how I did it was to not care about it and to not even think about it for years and years. All I thought about was getting the next little gig in the little bar, and I get this sense that people want me to give them the secret formula or the magic trick to make it all happen. I think low expectations are really useful, and a lot of patience. — Ani DiFranco

(from Mother Jones)

Imagining Jonathan Franzen

Posted by Cila Warncke

I find literary interviews marginally encouraging. Selfishly, I’m pleased to hear Jonathan Franzen took nine years to complete his novel ‘Freedom’. A paragraph lifts my heart like a balloon, then pricks it:

It isn’t just that the latest novel took nine years to finish. It is also that, within that period, only a little over a year was spent actually writing it. He looks back on that year with something approaching joy. “Most of those months were heaven. I was miserable much of the time, but miserable in the happiest way.”

Imagine, interjects the journalist. “If being miserable in a happy way is his idea of heaven, imagine what the first wordless eight years were like.” Before there is time for imagining, though, it’s off again on anecdotes about Oprah’s Book Club and defunct comic novels. There are two reasons for the athletic leap from “agonisingly blocked” writer, wearing earplugs to drown the world out, sitting in a bare room waiting for inspiration, to the feted, Time-magazine cover star, and putative “Great American Novelist”. For one, a newspaper interview does not permit lengthy discursions on the emotional cost of the writer’s life. For the other, it’s simply too monstrous. To truly imagine those empty years – and not just the recent nine but, especially, the glossed eighteen years spent writing his first three novels – is to go someplace most of us hope to never have to go.

It is tacitly agreed in our culture that we only talk about valleys from the safe height of the mountaintop. No-one, I suppose, much wanted to interview Franzen during the “Days spent asking questions about certain characters in certain situations, trying to work out chronologies, logic trees burnishing off into infinity. [Days writing] Horrible, unreadable, intensely boring stuff.” Triumph we want a piece of, vicariously; of despair we have enough ourselves. Yet that is the bulk of life. We may wish to live like mountain goats, skipping from one high stony perch to another, but reality is a long trudge through boggy lowlands and hands-and-knees clambering through briar-patches. Most of the time we don’t even have the satisfaction of recognisable trauma; of the literal cliff-hanger which provides, at least, the adrenaline-kick of danger, the satisfaction of instant feedback, of adversity overcome. Catastrophe is almost as disconcertingly elusive as victory. In between lies existence.

Imagining that burns like looking into the sun. We don’t imagine the humanity-defying impassivity of time and space because it is unbearable. Car crashes, divorce, a death in the family, the loss of a limb; these are sufficiently big and bad enough to reduce to neat packages of cause-and-effect; stories with morals. There is no way to rationalise getting out of bed every day and not knowing if what you are going to do that day will make a difference to anyone, not even yourself. Where are the words for how it feels to go to a room and sit there, putting one word after another like the footfalls of some poor fool lost in the Gobi? Against trackless time humility, arrogance, hope, and fear are just postures. No-one can feel any one thing, in any one way, over those years. Time erodes everything, especially the possibility of capturing a fragmentary truth or beautifully expressing an idea.

Worse than having nothing to say is the possibility of discovering that, as T.S. Eliot put: “one has only learnt to get the better of words/For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which/One is no longer disposed to say it.” Imagine waking up each day with the bated-breath dread that everything you did the day before, everything the last month, year, decade has lead to might be undone by an unsolicited burst of inspiration. Even the shadow of that thought petrifies me. I would be afraid to speak, afraid to love, afraid to read, afraid even to dream; afraid that the weight of the world, balanced on a pin-point of inspiration, would shift an atom left or right and obliterate forever the idea I was fighting to express. I wouldn’t be afraid of running out of ideas, but of never finding my feet amidst the torrent.

Everything we think we know we learn by a slow process of mistakes and misdirection. We learn heat burns by putting our hand against the stove. I can’t think of anything more terrifying than waking up every day knowing that it might be the day where a newspaper headline, a chance conversation, or a memory, might trigger a realisation that will turn a lifetime of hard-won truths to stony lies. No wonder we use platitudes like shields. It takes years of education and inculturation to build the flimsy shelter of conventional morality. To admit that there is no singular truth, no Platonic ideal, is to gaze into the pitiless inadequacy of our emotions and coping devices. It is to realise that the creative act is not a thrilling distillation of one sensation, or attitude, but a ceaseless struggle through head-high jungle armed with a dull machete and no clear sense of direction. It is to fight the temptation to differentiate between success and failure. It is to accept there are no answers but go out looking anyway.

DJs 4 DRC – DJs for the Democratic Republic of Congo

Posted by Cila Warncke

An excerpt from my interview with DJ/producer and philanthropist Jay Haze about his
DJs for DRC charity project.

djs for drc

Read the original at Ibiza Voice

Jay believes music can help save the world and he’s leading by example with his charity project DJs4DRC (DJs for the Democratic Republic of Congo).

Jay has changed since he gave Ibiza Voice an unforgettable interview chronicling his chaotic journey from teenage jailbird to musical powerhouse. Then, he simmered with ideas and outrage, drawing a self-portrait of the artist as a bareknuckle brawler. Today he is equally sharp, still occasionally self-aggrandising, but he has the confidence and urgency of someone who is pushing towards the future, rather than meditating on the past. Here’s what he has to say…

What’s new with you, Jay?
I’ve been travelling a lot – Thailand, Brazil, all over. I’m working on DJs4DRC, trying to raise awareness within the club culture and motivate people to do something.

What is DJs4DRC?
It is a charity project I started by donating 100% of the proceeds of my Fabric mix to charities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is [the site of] the world’s biggest peacekeeping operation right now. There are children being used as soldiers, women being sexually abused. It’s bad. What I’m trying to do is kick people in the butt, remind that even small efforts can have big results.

What are asking people to do?
I’m donating 50% of all my DJ gig fees from September through December to the charity, and asking other DJs to donate 50% of their fee from one gig. Tiefschwarz, Tiga, Loco Dice, Luciano and DJ Sneak are some of the DJs who are contributing.

Where do those donations go?
In January I’m taking the money to the DRC. We’re going with a film crew and we’re going to shoot a documentary. We want to raise clubbers’ awareness, as well as DJs and promoters. We want to create a picture of what is going on [to educate] club culture as a whole. Right now the face of club is one of ignorance.I want to represent dance culture in a positive way, through my charity work…

Does this mean you’ll retire from music?
No! Music is my passion. I’ll never stop making music. But I make music to express myself. I never made music to get a gig, never made music to be cool. I make music to feel. This is why I have so many musical styles. It’s a form of expression to me.

What about paying the bills?
Art and money should be completely separate. One is an expression of thoughts and feelings; the other is an expression of ego.

What’s next for you?
Just keep doing what I’m doing! I want to represent dance culture in a positive way, through my charity work. Through releasing what I believe in and doing projects I believe in. After we shoot the documentary [in DRC] I want to set up DJs4DRC as a foundation.

What kind of work will the foundation do?
I want to build schools to teach music in Africa, to promote peace through creativity. Tapping into my creativity changed my life, and I want to share that. I see my future doing music with children, with people from all different kinds of backgrounds. If people in conflict zones can go and put their mind into something creative it can have a huge impact.

Dance music has a reputation for being self-centred – can you change that?

This industry is not filled with people who only care about themselves. It is full of people who don’t yet know how they can help. DJs4DRC is showing a way they can.

DJs for DRC

Fuckpony ‘Let The Love Flow’ is out 26 October on BPitch Control.