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Central Standard Time

Monday, June 13th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski /”zen“]

I wanted to announce the debut of a Chicago-oriented culture e-zine, Central Standard Time, to which I will be one of the regular contributors. What is CST? In the words of the publisher, the Grammy nominated producer and professor of music, Joe Tortorici:

The intent of this site is to suggest more than a solitary blogger’s view of the world. Central Standard Time exists to be a catalyst for timely discussions and a showcase for contemporary arts. Impetus for this effort echoes the pivotal era of the Chicago Literary Renaissance.

Rising from the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago embraced the industrial revolution and the fundamental shift of American life from a rural to urban environment. In step with this cultural evolution came a wellspring of creativity spanning the intellectual and artistic spectrum that continued through the mid-twentieth century. It fostered the Literary Realism period in both fiction and non-fiction, and the ascendency of topical columnists writing for the myriad newspapers of the day. The Jazz Age was about to transform Chicago and the world. Art Nouveau gave way to Picasso and Duchamp; the Modern Age was born.

I stand in awe of the diversity during this period and how Chicago helped shape American literature. Henry Fuller and Theodore Dreiser wrote novels defining Midland Realism; prolific commentators and humorists George Ade and Eugene Field gave new stimulus to the daily read; Finley Dunne and his “Mr. Dooley” narrative spoke to social and political issues from a seat in his South Side Irish pub (of course); Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, and the immortal Ben Hecht influenced generations of writers; poets Carl Sandberg, Harriet Monroe, and Gwendolyn Brooks bridged the racial divide; Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” remains required reading in every American Literature course; in our time, Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, and Jack Mabley sustained the gritty narrative of urban life while Erma Bombeck made us smile.

Within this multiplicity were common threads. Each of these intellectual giants created his own world by authoring plays, poetry, political commentary, neighborhood novels, and an enduring slang narrative. The age of compartmentalized sterility was more than a century in the future. Newspapers and periodicals served as incubators for numerous literary careers; The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Daily News, Chicago Post, Monroe’s Poetry, Chicago Journal, Chicago Sun, the South Side Writer’s Group, Chicago Sun Times, and Floyd Dell’s Friday Literary Review. The new millennium offers a unique method for sharing information. We would be remiss to not use this broad avenue for illumination and entertainment.

In this spirit, Central Standard Time hopes to carry on the task of publishing compelling stories, thoughtful opinions, visual and aural beauty, laughter, and everything else that makes us human.

Read the rest here.

Literary graces not being my strongest suit, I will continue to focus on natsec and strategy related pieces geared to a more general and less policy wonky, .mil, .gov oriented readership that visits here. My first post at CST dealt with the terror attacks in Orlando that unfolded Saturday:

It’s not Your Father’s War on Terror Any More

….While Americans quickly became politically divided on partisan lines over how to characterize Mateen’s terrorism as a problem of gun control, homophobia or Islamic radicalization, the security threat Americans now face with terrorism is different and potentially more socially disruptive that the kinds of state-sponsored terrorism of the 20th century or even that of non-state actors like al Qaida, whose September 11 attack launched the United States into fifteen years of war. The strategic targeting, the terrorist tactics, the ideological motivations and the kinds of people who become terrorists have shifted away from the model of Abu Nidal or Osama bin Laden to that of Omar Mateen or Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. It’s not your father’s war on terror any more.

Previous iterations of terrorists have significant differences with the acts of Islamist terrorism seen in Orlando, San Bernardino or at Fort Hood in that some constraints on violence were imposed by the secretive nature and disciplined organizational structure of modern terrorist organizations and their often grandiose political aspirations. The 1970’s era terror groups such as the PLO, IRA or the Red Brigades enjoyed covert intelligence, training and funding from the Soviet bloc and radical states like Gaddafi’s Libya; while this gave these groups greater security and resources, it also gave their patrons a “veto” over any and all terror operations. Or more than a veto. Reputedly master Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal met his end at the hands of Iraqi state security when he defied his chief supporter Saddam Hussein’s “requests” once too often. In short, it was not in the interest of terrorism sponsoring states to let terrorist groups off their short leash during the Cold War, lest they spark WWIII.

Read the rest here.

Book Review: The Authentic Swing by Steven Pressfield

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a “zen”]















The Authentic Swing by Steven Pressfield 

Callie was kind enough to send me a review copy of Steven Pressfield’s new non-fiction book, The Authentic Swing. Much like the title implies, it is a book with an arc.

The Authentic Swing continues a theme Pressfield began with his excellent The War of Art, continued with Do the Work and Turning Pro of helping struggling writers, artists and others conquer their resistance and acquire the mature habits of mind to become creative, productive professionals. While the previous books were advice, The Authentic Swing is a demonstration. Pressfield breaks down for the reader the gestation and evolution of his first successful novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance and applies a granular eye to the creative process but does so without tipping his hand or writing a “cookbook”. Steve is employing all his gifts as a storyteller to lead and nudge the reader into understanding.

There are many parts in the book that I like, but the following is in my view the most important, despite being less colorful and more straightforward than others:

When Robert McKee was a young writer/director in New York, he got the chance to interview Paddy Chayefsky, the only person to have one two Academy Awards for original Screenplay (Marty and Network) Chayefsky shared this priceless nugget:

As soon as I figure out the theme of my play, I type it out in one line and scotch tape it to the front of my typewriter After that, nothing goes into the play that isn’t on-theme.

If  there is a single more powerful piece of wisdom for any writer, artist or entrepreneur, I don’t know what it is.


Theme is everything.

Once we know the theme we know the climax, we know the protagonist, we know the antagonist, we know the supporting characters, we know the opening, we know the throughline.

I said before that I have a file in my computer titled NEW IDEAS. I have another THEME.  for each new project, I open a new file and title it THEME. I go back to this file over and over. I pile paragraph on paragraph, trying to answer the question, “What the hell is this book about?”

It’s hard.

Theme not only drives art, it drives a coherent life. It makes the disparate connected and gives actions unity. We see theme in great innovative companies, in the curriculum of our best university programs, at the core of great religions, in revolutionary political movements and a nation’s grand strategy. Charles Hill, drew on themes of classical literature to teach that very point about foreign policy. This advice is worth the price of the book alone.

The theme here is authenticity and allowing yourself to express it. Pressfield demonstrates this frequently by parable and metaphor, moving the reader toward the process of discovering authenticity without making the fact that it is a process confuse the reader with the expectation that it will be linear or easy, only natural. I don’t want to give away too much because it is fun to see how the vignettes unfold on build upon one another, obviously golf and the cultural context the sport provided for Bagger Vance is a large part of the book but that will not be a surprise. I will say that The Authentic Swing is a very elegant method of teaching.

Steve’s best non-fiction book since The War of Art.

New Book: America 3.0 is Now Launched!

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century – why America’s Best Days are Yet to Come by James C. Bennett and Michael Lotus

I am confident that this deeply researched and thoughtfully argued book  is going to make a big political splash, especially in conservative circles – and has already garnered a strong endorsement from Michael Barone, Jonah Goldberg, John O’Sullivan and this review from  Glenn Reynolds in USA Today :

Future’s so bright we have to wear shades: Column 

….But serious as these problems are, they’re all short-term things. So while at the moment a lot of our political leaders may be wearing sunglasses so as not to be recognized, there’s a pretty good argument that, over the longer time, our future’s so bright that we have to wear shades.

That’s the thesis of a new book, America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity In The 21st Century.The book’s authors, James Bennett and Michael Lotus, argue that things seem rough because we’re in a period of transition, like those after the Civil War and during the New Deal era. Such transitions are necessarily bumpy, but once they’re navigated the country comes back stronger than ever.

America 1.0, in their analysis, was the America of small farmers, Yankee ingenuity, and almost nonexistent national government that prevailed for the first hundred years or so of our nation’s existence. The hallmarks were self-reliance, localism, and free markets.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, people were getting unhappy. The country was in its fastest-ever period of economic growth, but the wealth was unevenly distributed and the economy was volatile. This led to calls for what became America 2.0: an America based on centralization, technocratic/bureaucratic oversight, and economies of scale. This took off in the Depression and hit its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, when people saw Big Government and Big Corporations as promising safety and stability. You didn’t have to be afraid: There were Top Men on the job, and there were Big Institutions like the FHA, General Motors, and Social Security to serve as shock absorbers against the vicissitudes of fate.

It worked for a while. But in time, the Top Men looked more like those bureaucrats at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and the Big Institutions . . . well, they’re mostly bankrupt, or close to it. “Bigger is better” doesn’t seem so true anymore.

To me, the leitmotif for the current decade is supplied by Stein’s Law, coined by economist Herb Stein: “Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.” There are a lot of things that can’t go on forever, and, soon enough, they won’t. Chief among them are too-big-to-fail businesses and too-big-to-succeed government.

But as Bennett and Lotus note, the problems of America 2.0 are all soluble, and, in what they call America 3.0, they will be solved. The solutions will be as different from America 2.0 as America 2.0 was from America 1.0. We’ll see a focus on smaller government, nimbler organization, and living within our means — because, frankly, we’ll have no choice. Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. If America 2.0 was a fit for the world of giant steel mills and monolithic corporations, America 3.0 will be fit for the world of consumer choice and Internet speed.

Every so often, a “political” book comes around that has the potential to be a “game changer” in public debate. Bennett and Lotus have not limited themselves to describing or diagnosing America’s ills – instead, they present solutions in a historical framework that stresses the continuity and adaptive resilience of the American idea. If America”s “City on a Hill” today looks too much like post-industrial Detroit they point to the coming renewal; if the Hand of the State is heavy and it’s Eye lately is dangerously creepy, they point to a reinvigorated private sector and robust civil society; if the future for the young looks bleak,  Bennett and Lotus explain why this generation and the next will conquer the world.

Bennett and Lotus bring to the table something Americans have not heard nearly enough from the Right – a positive vision of an American future that works for everyone and a strategy to make it happen.

But don’t take my word for it.

The authors will be guests Tuesday evening on Lou Dobb’s Tonight and you can hear them firsthand and find out why they believe “America’s best days are yet to come

Enduring peace

Monday, April 1st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — on peace in Northern Ireland, soldiers and Christ ]

The upper image is of the celebrated “Shroud of Turin” — in which it is thought by some that Jesus was wrapped to be buried, leaving a negative image of his features on its linen. Below it, the image of “a British soldier behind a bullet-resistant riot shield in Northern Ireland in 1973, during the Troubles” which heads an article by the novelist Colum McCann in today’s NY Times magazine, Remembering an Easter Miracle in Northern Ireland.

McCann writes:

PEACE, said W. B. Yeats, comes dropping slow.

After 15 years, the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland still occasionally quivers, sometimes abruptly, and yet it holds. It is one of the great stories of the second half of the 20th century, and by the nature of its refusal to topple, it is one of the continuing marvels of the 21st as well. While rockets fizzle across the Israeli border, and funeral chants sound along the streets of Aleppo in Syria, and drones cut coordinates in the blue over Kandahar, Afghanistan, the Irish peace process reaffirms the possibility that — despite the weight of evidence against human nature — we are all still capable of small moments of resurrection, no matter where we happen to be.

This is the Easter narrative: that the stone can be rolled away from the cave.

Hundred of years of arterial bitterness, in Ireland and elsewhere, are never easy to ignore. They cannot be whisked away with a series of signatures. It takes time and struggle to maintain even the remotest sense of calm. Peace is indeed harder than war, and its constant fragility is part of its beauty. A bullet need happen only once, but for peace to work we need to be reminded of its existence again and again and again.

In the twinned images above, we see the crucifixion and burial of Christ, commemorated on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and their analog in the lives we ourselves live, in a world whose body is blooded with strife and buried in the many forms of forgetfulness and denial.

Here we should recall Wilfred Owen’s words — seeing in the soldier before him, Christ:

For 14 hours yesterday, I was at work-teaching Christ to lift his cross by the numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirst until after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb, and stands before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.

In McCann’s piece we may find a modern type and hope of resurrection:

This is the Easter narrative: that the stone can be rolled away from the cave.


Image sources:

Turin Shroud
British soldier

h/t @caidid

Steven Pinker on Analogy

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — importance of analogy as an under-developed cognitive skill ]

There was a interview with five prominent “science writers” in the Guardian a few days back, titled Science writing: how do you make complex issues accessible and readable? and one of the writers, Steven Pinker, makes two highly interesting observations:


There are a couple of things going on here that I’d like to note. One is that without intending to do so specifically, he is in essence formulating a view about a possible, central difference between scientific and religious thinking, since what he says about the humanities in general applies with great specificity to religion and the arts: in both religion and art, the expansive nature of “symbolism” is a key to the experience.

And that in turn prompts me to suggest that perhaps both the arts and religion are geared towards provoking, evoking or invoking an experience — whereas the sciences are geared towards obtaining an understanding.

I’ll have to think about that, and come to some sort of understanding of my own — perhaps expressed via symbolic means.


My second point of interest is that there’s an analogy to be made between Pinker’s two remarks: each of them has a form I could portray thus in terms of cause :: effect

science : humanities :: simplicity : complexity

Nobody present — the interviewer, Pinker himself, and four other very bright science writers — picked up on the close correspondence between those two statements at the time. And I find that very interesting.

I find it very interesting because the six of them were more interested in seeing what they could say (of what they already thought) than in saying what they could see (in light of the ongoing, immediate conversation).

I think we all tend to do that — which is why David Bohm‘s approach to dialogue is so important: if brings us to speak more into the moment as it surrounds us, not quite so much from the past as it has informed us.


Then there’s the interesting fact that Pinker’s sense of the difference between modes of thought in the humanities and the sciences as expressed in the top quote translates so directly to the difference between uses of analogy in the second — and his fairly emphatic statement:

one could argue that we understand everything except for the physical world of falling objects by analogy.

Analogy is the central device in our mental toolkit, and yet we know far more about trains of logic than we do about analogical leaps. We know so little, in fact, that distinguishing between “literary metaphor” and “scientific analogy” (both of which are based in the recognition of resemblance) on the basis of one looking for multiple, rich connectivity and the other for a single tight connection is something noteworthy enough for Pinker to bother to point it out. It is indeed a provocative and perhaps essential insight. But it is also pretty basic — dividing a field up into significant chunks, the way anthropology got divided into “cultural”, “archaeological”, “linguistic” and “physical anthropology”…

It’s time we learned to understand and use analogic with the same rigor we’ve applied to learning and using logic — and Sembl is just the tool for this.


Experience wants to be rich: factual understanding wants to be clear.

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