Writing Craft: Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

The collection of short stories of Jesus’ Son is something of a paradox. The graceful and poetic language portrays dark and depressing situations occupied by people at their lowest points performing despicable acts. Fluid and sensuous prose carry the narrative forward effortlessly; the time it takes to read the book becomes irrelevant. This was my first time reading Denis Johnson’s work, and not knowing anything about him, I wondered if these vivid stories were pulled from real-life experiences. Either way, I was captivated.

Johnson makes a hospital orderly moving through his day in the story “Emergency” on a drug high sound warm and simple. He seemed to have reached a heightened state of bliss among a bleak and stressful world, while the dire risks of his actions were always prevalent.

Everybody had a different idea about exactly how to approach the problem of removing the knife from Terrence Weber’s brain. But when Georgie came in from prepping the patient—from shaving the patient’s eyebrow and disinfecting the area around the wound, and so on—he seemed to be holding the hunting knife in his left hand. (Loc. 694-696)

Duality is consistently portrayed in an illustrative storytelling motif throughout the stories through an inebriated perception of people and self, and their relationships to the environment. This is a polar extreme to the clichéd my head felt like a balloon and floated from my body and over the green pastures type of hack:

Under Midwestern clouds like great grey brains we left the superhighway with a drifting sensation and entered Kansas City’s rush hour with a sensation of running aground. (Loc. 39-40)

It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller. (Loc. 451-453)

All senses are engaged. Johnson places the reader in the environment through deliberate figurative prose. Landscape description appear frequently, along with the integration of nature, setting the tone of the immediate physical world and then on a higher existential level consistent with the protagonist’s thought process. Consider these examples:

The road we were lost on cut straight through the middle of the world. It was still daytime, but the sun had no more power than an ornament or a sponge. In this light the truck’s hood, which had been bright orange, had turned a deep blue. (Loc. 753-754) 

What word can be uttered about those fields? She stood in the middle of them as on a high mountain, with her red hair pulled out sideways by the wind, around her the green and grey plains pressed down flat, and all the grasses of Iowa whistling one note. (Loc. 567-568)

Descriptions of settings often take on a stream of consciousness quality through the protagonist’s altered perceptions while incorporating actions and people as part of the holistic environment. In this way, Johnson effectively animates common activities like riding on a ferryboat or a subway train:

The day was sunny, unusual for the Northwest Coast. I’m sure we were all feeling blessed on this ferryboat among the humps of very green—in the sunlight almost coolly burning, like phosphorus—islands, and the water of inlets winking in the sincere light of day, under a sky as blue and brainless as the love of God, despite the smell, the slight, dreamy suffocation, of some kind of petroleum-based compound used to seal the deck’s seams. (Loc. 1000-1003)

I sat up front. Right beside me was the little cubicle filled with the driver. You could feel him materializing and dematerializing in there. In the darkness under the universe it didn’t matter that the driver was a blind man. He felt the future with his face. And suddenly the train hushed as if the wind had been kicked out of it, and we came into the evening again.(Loc. 948-951)

People are treated in a similar descriptive manner giving them identifiable realistic traits leaving no room to question their authenticity:

He stood hugging himself and talking down at the earth. The wind lifted and dropped her long red hair. She was about forty, with a bloodless, waterlogged beauty. I guessed Wayne was the storm that had stranded her here. (Loc. 560-561) 

He walked with a bounce, his shoulders looped and his chin scooping forward rhythmically. He didn’t look right or left. I supposed he’d walked this route twelve thousand times. He didn’t sense or feel me following half a block behind him. (Loc. 920-921)

I found the following quote in “Happy Hour” fitting to wrap up my take on Jesus’ Son. By intention or not it seems Johnson was poking fun at the style of his writing and its juxtaposition to the subject matter:

I stayed in the library, crushed breathless by the smoldering power of all those words—many of them unfathomable—until Happy Hour. And then I left. (Loc. 1147-1148) 

Book Review: Real-Time Marketing and PR by David Meerman Scott

I enjoyed every page of this book – well almost every page – the subject of analytics tends to lose me in any book. I enjoyed it to the point that I tweeted David Meerman Scott late Saturday night telling him that I was “loving it”; that the book addressed many of the frustrations I face professionally. He responded to me on Sunday afternoon via Twitter to thank me, and reminded me “real time is a mind-set.” A mind-set I will gladly take on in the communication profession.

Real-Time Marketing and PR tackles real world issues I know others like me have faced in the PR and corporate communication field: road blocks of bureaucracy, lethargy, and fear. The hesitancy to respond to matters in real-time can be painful to any company, particularly to its employees. And the lack of empowerment for employees to publicly defend and promote their company in the discourse of public opinion can be detrimental to corporate culture.

“Big business is designed to move forward according to plan, at a measured and deliberate pace.” (35) Organizations traditionally rely on the slow mechanics of consensus building, conducting studies, legal reviews, practicing caution, and meeting compliance within hierarchal structures. Meanwhile, in the outside world where the fruits of their labor matter most, consumers set the pace, and that pace is lightning fast in the social media realm.

An important concept this book conveys is that social media are only the tools, whereas real-time is a mind-set. Companies cannot presume they are active in the real-time market place just because they have a Twitter account or a Facebook page. The real time mind-set means actively responding to customers or proactively dealing with breaking news about the company before a crisis develops. In order to do this, however, social media must be monitored rigorously – in real time – using social and web analytics tools. Those tools should be integrated into the standard processes of a PR or marketing department, contributing data – such as ratios of positive versus negative commentary about a product – to all decision-making, not just checked in on occasionally. The data these tools collect and filter direct the appropriate message to the best recipient to handle the matter as immediately as possible. On a larger scale, the data provides trend tracking of both the positive and negative commentary, providing immediate insight into current public opinion.

On the customer service front, the real time mind-set requires flexibility and humanity, responding to issues immediately with a guiding principle that keeps the employees’ efforts on message. Consumers do not want to hear from an automaton reciting a script; they want to hear from humans making split-second decisions that the company endorses to satisfy their needs. This means companies need to listen to their public. They need to participate in the public conversations about them. If they don’t speak for themselves, others will, despite their best or worst intentions.

“In a real-time corporate culture everyone is recognized as a responsible adult.” (40) In other words, senior managers need to trust the people they hire to do right by the company, to not let fear of the unknown impede potential sales from a satisfied customer. In top-down traditional management structures, unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case. I have witnessed leaders who were slow to respond to the simplest requests, wanting to pass the smallest detail through legal review before a communication could be shared publicly. It’s quite discouraging to the employees when these same leaders claim they want to see everyone as happy collaborators and transparent communicators. The only transparency is evident in their fear of the new ways of doing business. Scott is a fighter on this front, stating, “In the new always-on world of communications, success requires empowering your frontline people to use their own judgment as they engage your customers – in real time.” (63)

“Lawyers are not communicators,” Scott says, “the opinion of your legal staff should be considered, but final decisions should be made by competent real-time communicators.” (136) He recommends the creation of a new C-suite position: the Chief Real-Time Communications Officer. I would welcome this role in my organization. This person would “provide leadership and coordination for a range of real-time activities, starting with the creation of company guidelines. It would include a mandate to ensure compliance and consistency with those guidelines, once established.” (190) This person would interface with legal, marketing, PR, and plethora of other departments to best represent the company at any possible minute of the day. Real time communication is a cross-functional role based in communication, but requires the involvement and buy-in of all other aspects of a business. It fits the mold that every public facet of a business, from a customer service center’s hold music to the paper stock an employee’s business card is printed on, represents the company’s brand. The concept of real-time is no different.

I found Scott’s historical perspective on real time interesting. He explains that only in modern times during the age of mass media, starting in the 1950s, the history of communication was an aberration. “We spent six decades in a bizarre, one-sided, television-centered regime that gave no voice to consumers. But with the rise of the real-time web that era is over.” (215) He explained that, “word of mouth has regained its historic power.” (215)

Real-Time Marketing and PR is a great book tying together the tried and true public relations methodologies of the past century and applying them to the latest communication technologies. I strongly recommend that anyone in the fields of marketing or PR should read this book, seasoned veterans and newcomers alike. Even more so, I recommend this book to any manager feeling trepidation about taking their company into the new way of doing real-time business.

Book Review: Little Bets by Peter Sims

My review of Little Bets by Peter Sims appears on the Anne W Associates Blog. As far as business books go, this was probably the most fun I have read so far, covering the creative business approaches of Chris Rock, Steve Jobs, and President Obama. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit no matter what your business endeavor might be.

Check out the full review: http://www.annewassociates.com/book-review-little-bets/

Book Review: Media Control by Noam Chomsky

I really did not know what I was stepping into when I decided to read Noam Chomsky’s Media Control. The history of propaganda leading to its modern day usage fascinates me, especially in how it ties in with the early days of the Public Relations discipline. This book covered several interesting theories on the use of propaganda in democratic societies to control the “bewildered herd” – Chomsky’s term for describing the uneducated and uninformed public. Beyond the theoretical aspect of propaganda early in the book, which is where my interests are, it morphed into criticisms of the United States government making hypocritical cases for war and holding ownership over all of the media outlets. It went further into how journalists should have covered the events leading to the Gulf War if they were not bought and owned by the government. In this respect, the book left me with more questions and doubts about his claims than answers to my historical interests.

Chomsky writes about manufactured consent, a method for creating scenarios that the masses could all agree to support – propaganda – in order for the democratically-elected governing body of intellectuals to achieve its goals. The concept is something I have paid attention to for quite some time in mass media – newspapers, cable news, news websites, social media, word of mouth – it’s an amazing phenomenon when one subject is discussed in all corners of mass public communication. I see it in the 2012 presidential race as the slanderous tactics used between the Republican contenders for the nomination; I recognized it in the case made to invade Iraq almost a decade ago. Though I feel propaganda has shifted wildly in the past few years, the desire to use it to win over the audience is alive and well.

Slogans seeming to contain little or no value are a primary manipulation tool to support the concept of manufacturing consent. According to Chomsky, “the point of public relations slogans like ‘Support our troops’ is that they don’t mean anything.” (Location 109) As much as I have always supported our troops, I never comprehended how that justified our country’s involvement in Iraq, yet I have heard and read the slogan more often than anything else since Operation Iraqi Freedom started in 2003. Similarly, in the social media sense, how will copying and pasting a cause-based Facebook status for an hour alleviate world hunger or eradicate cancer?
Initiatives are branded with vacuous slogans that no one can argue with, essentially putting the entire public on the same page despite their many diversities and multitude of opinions. Who in their right mind will argue the idealism of supporting our troops? Other than a few possible isolated events, it would be virtually unheard of.

Fear is a strong ingredient in manufacturing consent, according to Media Control. The masses must be whipped into shape to support a war as well as other government initiatives. They need to fear the evil despot of a foreign land who is hell-bent on taking over the world. Fear unites the public like no other, and the jingoistic slogans feed the mass hysteria making the bewildered herd that much easier to manipulate. However, “the picture of the world that’s presented to the public has only the remotest relation to reality.” (Location 182) Reality does not matter in the court of public opinion as long as it pushes the agenda forward. The agenda, of course, only serves the narrow democratic governing body that decides what is right for the public, because they cannot think for themselves. An interesting concept, though I question its validity.

Starting with the early days of propaganda, another key factor that allowed mass manipulation to occur was individual isolation. Individuals who would not agree with their government felt they were alone in their thinking; that no other like-minded people were around. Without the ability of like-minded people to congregate and build strength in shared knowledge and numbers, they were powerless to combat the governing body’s propagandized agenda. Chomsky wrote of early dissidence surrounding the Vietnam War – a first step toward where we find our society now, I believe – though I sense he did not have much faith in it lasting.

Since this book was published in 2002, social media did not yet exist and much has changed in these ten years. With the advent of the social web has come strength in large like-minded numbers and amazing quantities of immediately shared knowledge, leading to the masses telling a cancer research non-profit to reverse a controversial funding decision. It led to residents unifying to recall controversial elected leaders in a few states; to the American people and businesses forcing the US Congress to drop special interest-fueled anti-piracy bills that would have hampered our First Amendment freedoms on the Internet in the name of protecting intellectual properties; and to full-blown political revolutions in the Arab world.

The social web has opened the floodgates, so to speak, giving people everywhere not only a voice, but also the ability to quickly share information and to congregate like never before in history. Perhaps what we are experiencing is a global revolution, a path to true democracy that is not run by the select intellectual few, as Chomsky claims. It is exciting to witness technology altering the course of human history on both local and global scales. And this is probably the first time since the invention of propaganda that it can no longer work, at least not in its original form.

Healthy skepticism and honest discussions held between thousands of people at any given minute of the day have broken down the old propaganda tactics, but that doesn’t mean some governing factions won’t continue to find new methods to use it. If the US government was truly practicing rule by propaganda, as Chomsky suggested, it must be looking at new methods and tactics to confront the masses’ new voice. Perhaps, there was an ulterior motive to the Internet anti-piracy bills, an attempt to take control of a free speech platform, thereby censoring it to serve the interests of the government, and to potentially create a revenue stream. Maybe I’m being too cynical.

From my perspective as a professional writer, these theories on propaganda used to persuade the masses can teach a lot about human nature and influence my approach to the craft, but I feel a responsibility to never deviate from the truth. The truth as Chomsky presents in Media Control leaves me skeptical, in fact, it makes me think this book is a piece of propaganda itself to promote his personal, albeit far-fetched, beliefs. Right or wrong, it has instilled in my creative brain some new ways to observe society and to persuade – or win over – the audience in my professional writing. That alone made Media Control a worthwhile venture.

This review was first published at: http://riseofthecenter.com/2012/03/30/chomskys-book-on-propaganda-is-a-bit-of-propaganda-itself-but-still-thought-provoking/10183