Saturday, September 5, 2009


Don't tell me you don't want to write a book: everybody wants to write a book. Even people who wouldn't READ a book if their daily chocolate ration depended on it are searching for a hot topic. A few years after I retired, a former student wormed my telephone number from a colleague--(you know who you are, Douglas!)--and called to invite me to "help" her write a book. "I got a great idea!" she assured me. "I just need you to put it into words." (I am NOT making this up. She later admitted the whole thing was her therapist's idea.)

But the problem is, you don't know what KIND of book to write. You can't write a detective novel--you're still sleuthing for your favorite pair of glasses, the ones with heavy black frames and lenses the size of teacups. You can't churn out romance novels; the doctor said you're flirting with diabetes and you must lay off the sweets. As for the ever-popular cookbook genre--well, how do we think you developed a risk of diabetes, right?

I have the answer. There is a new genre of book now, and it's selling like. . . cookbooks.

I refer to the "My Marathon" genre. Not your 26-mile-385 yard foot-race marathon. That's old stuff now, and besides, the Ethiopians have the copyright on that story for at least another fifty years. But any other kind of marathon will do. If you can combine the marathon with a blog ABOUT the marathon, you can sign the publisher's contract the moment you stagger over the tape (whatever form that tape takes).

Of course that's what Julie Powell did when her life went as stale as the Twinkie in your July 4th picnic basket. She decided she would do a cooking marathon: cook all 524 recipes in Julia Childs's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In a year. She cooked, she blogged, her readers gobbled it up, they made the movie ("Julia and Julie"). Now they're all skipping hand in hand to the bank --Powell, Meryl Streep, the movie producers, Powell's publishers, CHILDS'S publishers ("Mastering," published in 1961, is flying off the shelves like Julia's flapjacks off the range), and any restaurant that advertises "a Julia Child special, only $59.99 plus wine."

Ammon Shea's marathon took exactly a year also, though he hadn't set himself a finish line in time, just in pages. Shea is a man in love with dictionaries. His apartment has stacks of dictionaries where other people have chairs, tables, beds.
The Mount Everest of dictionaries is the Oxford English Dictionary, called the OED by its pals. So Ammon set out to read every word of the OED. Every, single, beloved word. And he finished in a year, and then, of course, wrote a book about it. READING THE OED: ONE MAN, ONE YEAR, 21,730 WORDS. I've read it--Shea's book, of course, not the OED. And it makes very good reading, actually; what else would you expect from a man who loves what he's writing about AND loves words? Here's what he said after finishing this marathon: "All of the human emotions and experiences are right there in this dictionary, just as they would be in any fine work of literature. They just happen to be alphabetized."

On the other hand, as in running, there is a race that has style, and those that don't. A.J. Jacobs ground out a book titled ONE MAN'S HUMBLE QUEST TO BECOME THE SMARTEST PERSON IN THE WORLD. That tells you everything, right? Jacobs read the Encyclopedia Brittanica. So we don't have to. End of book report. Lately, Jacobs decided to spend a year "living Biblically." Grew his beard outlandishly long, wore a De Mille style robe and sandals (Cecil B, Agnes, who cares?), walked around calling attention to himself, hailing people as "thee" and "thou." Twelve psychiatrists offered him cards in one block alone.

Now let's talk REAL style. Suzan-Lori Parks. Parks starts yawning one day, decides she needs something to do, guesses she'll write a play. Every day. Yep--for a year. And publishes the results, of course. To great acclaim. What's the catch? The catch is that Parks is a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant winner ($500K), a Pulitzer Prize winner (for the 2002 drama "Topdog/Underdog")and in short, someone who has been around the winners' course a few times and has the literary Ethiopians breathing hard. And more than 700 theater groups around the country are performing this particular work. No, of course not all 365 plays. Samplers. And I plan to see one version onstage for myself, right here in America's Heartland, come November.

So set yourself a marathon, blog about it, and decide who'll play YOU in the movie.
Hmm. Movies. That just gave ME an idea!