A Most Inestimable Piece of Balderdash

In 1834, not long after submitting to the Southern Literary Messenger the disturbing story “Berenice,” in which a man yanks the teeth from his wife’s corpse only to discover that she wasn’t quite dead after all, Edgar Allan Poe sent something equally disturbing to the magazine. What he offered was a harsh critical review of the book Confessions of a Poet by Laughton Osborn, who may have been somewhat less cheerful than his name suggests.

In the beginning of his book, Osborn (publishing anonymously) claimed he would commit suicide upon completion of the work and that as he began the book, he placed a loaded pistol on the table beside him for that purpose. Poe astutely pointed out that even were he to work quickly, the poet would not likely complete a book in less than thirty days. By then the powder in the load would no longer be usable and the world might be unfortunately subjected to a sequel of Confessions.

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I have pretty thick skin, but this is not a man I’d want to have leaving a review for my book. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Even for a man known for writing dark words, that’s pretty heartless. A few months later, Poe was charged with writing a review for a novel by well connected New York journalist Theodore S. Fay titled Norman Leslie. Poe called the book a “most inestimable ­piece of balderdash with which the common sense of the good people of America was ever so openly or villainously insulted.”

It wasn’t long before Poe earned something of a reputation as a literary critic, that reputation being mostly that he was an insufferable jerk. Of course, today Poe is far more well-known than either Osborn or Fay, and there were a few authors whose work he actually appreciated.

One of those was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who Poe wrote about in a review of Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an old Manse for Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1847. There Poe claimed Hawthorne was unoriginal, peculiar, and “infinitely too fond of allegory,” but possessed “the purest style, the finest taste…the most delicate humor…the most consummate ingenuity.” That’s about as high praise as anyone might be able to expect, I think, from the author of a story about getting a man drunk and burying him alive behind a brick wall.

But in the same review, Poe also states that it’s not for him to say whether Hawthorne, or any other author, has impressed his readers. And he’s right. Because ultimately the people who read a work, the majority of whom probably don’t write harsh critical reviews for a living, get to decide whether or not they enjoyed it.

I have to assume that Poe would find the state of book reviews today pretty irritating, full of flattery and lacking (hopefully) in the suggestion that the author’s suicide would be preferable to a sequel. But I think it’s kind of great that in this era of Amazon and social media, the book reviews that matter most are the simple ones in which readers tell other readers the gist of what they thought.

And reviews really do matter, not only because word of mouth and recommendations are the way most people figure out what to add to their pile of books to read, but also because the fairies that live inside our computers give the numbers of reviews a great deal of weight when determining what to present to the next reader to come along in search of a book.

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Sample review: “Five Stars…This book has absolutely given new life to my furniture!”

I’ve been very fortunate so far. My book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense has been out for about three weeks and in that time it has received ten reviews on Amazon and several on Goodreads. As a bonus, not one has called it a “most inestimable ­piece of balderdash.” Yet.

I am so grateful for all those who have added Launching Sheep to their pile of books to be read (both real and virtual), for those who have already flipped through it, and to the folks who have actually even read it and are already using it to prop up the wobbly ends of their sofas. And I am overwhelmingly grateful to the people who have taken the time to offer their thoughts, especially on Amazon where the computer fairies are particularly nosy.

If you have read the book, and think it might be worth someone else’s time, would you please consider leaving a review? It really doesn’t have to be long and pretentious, or cleverly harsh. Just a simple sentence or two about what you liked or didn’t like is all it takes. If you genuinely don’t have the time or inclination, though it might briefly occur to me that you’re unoriginal, peculiar, and infinitely too fond of allegory, I promise I will still think you’re a lovely person, and I really am delighted you were interested enough to read it at all.

One Brick at a Time: The Greatest Book on Earth

I don’t usually post on Tuesdays. But today is a special day, because five years ago, on May 9, 2012, I posted for the first time in this space as the Practical Historian. I didn’t really know what the blog would be about back then. I mean, I had a vague notion that since I write historical fiction, I should probably blog about history, but that was all I knew.

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Five years of blogging means I deserve a cupcake, right?

I was also a little scared, because I never liked history all that much. That is, until I started to research it as a storyteller. When I did that, I began to discover all of these weird and wonderful moments that make up the story of this world full of weird and wonderful people.

But right away I had a problem. You see, I’m not a historian. And I certainly never wanted to claim to be one, so I decided to take a very lighthearted approach to the subject, and to do my best along the way not to claim any authority I had no right to claim. I started to slowly build up the blog one brick at a time until it took on a distinctive, if somewhat unusual, shape.

What I ended up with was a blog that was a little bit history and a little bit me, one that was kind of funny, and sort of smart, and occasionally silly. And then all you readers started to show up, and you turned out to be funny and smart and occasionally silly, too.

Week after week, I found myself laying down bricks, and more and more of you followed along to see what I was up to, winding through history with me, with really no rhyme or reason at all to the path, and usually ending up somewhere surprising.

It’s like what the fine citizens of New York found themselves doing one sunny afternoon when a few of them noticed a poorly dressed gentleman laying bricks. When I say he was laying bricks, I don’t mean he was a mason busy with a construction project. Instead, this man was laying a brick here and then moving down the walkway to lay another one there, lined up just so. Whatever he was doing, he did it with precision, and in complete silence. The crowd that soon gathered found him fascinating, and as the man walked on, placing his bricks, they followed.

They followed him around the block and straight into Barnum’s American Museum where many of them purchased a ticket and continued their pursuit through the unusual displays they found there. As the crowd became distracted by the wonders and oddities in P.T. Barnum’s museum, the curious man and his bricks slipped out the back to continue on the path, where he picked up and replaced each precisely set brick as he came to it.

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P. T. Barnum, the publicist I would hire, if only I could. By unattributed – Harvard Library, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier in the day, the man had asked Barnum for a handout and what the great showman and even greater salesman offered instead was a job. Directed by Barnum, the man’s nonsensical bricklaying drew a crowd so large that after a few days, the police forced him to stop because traffic couldn’t get through. And many of the people who flocked to observe the brick man, paid to follow him into the museum. That’s some clever marketing by a man who called his own circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and got us all to go along with it.

Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for the last month or so, you may have seen that as I approached this big blogiversary, the way I decided to celebrate was to publish a collection of some of my favorite posts from the past five years. If you’ve enjoyed the blog, I think you’ll enjoy the book (which features much better editing and a lovely cover). And if not, then maybe you know someone who would.

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Available today from Amazon and anyone else who sells books. I think there are still a few others.

So, I want to ask you for a favor. If you have appreciated the blog at any point over the last five years, would you be willing to share this post, or tell someone about the book, or mention it on Facebook, or give it a shout out on your blog, or send out a Tweet, or pin it, or Snapchat it to your grandma, or whatever the cool kids are doing these days?

Because as much as I love to write and as proud as I am of the blog and the book, I’m no P.T. Barnum and promotion scares me silly. I’ll do my best, but I’m pretty sure I will never be bold enough to call this the Greatest Book on Earth (if you feel so compelled, please feel free). And I sure would be grateful if you could lay down a few bricks along your path.

Thank you so much for five years. You are, without doubt, the Greatest Blog Readers on Earth.

 

If you’re into Twitter, here are a couple of ready-to-place bricks you can use:

Tweet: A quirky collection about history and family life and all the funny bits. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/7WXaq+A quirky collection about history and family life and all the funny bits. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/7WXaq+

Tweet: History meets modern day family life in this funny and heartwarming collection. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/UjzVD+History meets modern day family life in this funny and heartwarming collection. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/UjzVD+

A Paper Book Smack Dab in the Middle of Nowhere

The intersection of State Route 206 and Morton Hill Road in Sullivan County, New York, could legitimately be considered the middle of nowhere. It’s a few miles north of Roscoe, New York, which sports a population of around 550 people, excellent fly fishing opportunities, and an allegedly haunted castle. But it’s Roscoe’s northerly neighbor, at that intersection in the middle of nowhere that might be the most interesting thing about the area.

Because that’s where, sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s, the town of Agloe, New York was imagined into existence by Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers of the General Drafting Company. On their map of New York State, Lindberg and Alpers chose to set a trap for potential copyright infringers; and so right there in the middle of nowhere, where no one would ever have a reason to go, the mapmakers placed a dot they decided to label Agloe.

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Agloe is an anagram of the initials of Lindberg and Alpers, a good name, I think, for a dot in the middle of nowhere. By OpenStreetMap contributors (OpenStreetMap) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Copyright infringement was a big problem in the mapmaking industry at the time (before GPS and the worldwide fleet of mapmaking Google cameras mounted on cars, boats, snowmobiles, and camels), and “paper towns” (because they exist only on paper) weren’t uncommon. And you can bet Lindberg and Alpers were glad they’d included Agloe when Rand McNally produced a New York State map a few years later that included the name of their made up town.

The problem was that Rand McNally’s lawyers had a pretty tight defense, because at some point along the way, a New York State couple saw the name Agloe on a map and decided to honor the little vanished town by naming their business in that approximate location the Agloe General Store.  Rand McNally claimed that their cartographers had visited the site, discovered the business, and concluded that this was one tiny New York hamlet that most certainly existed.

Still, the “town” and the business were in the middle of nowhere at the intersection of lightly traveled roads and, not surprisingly, the Agloe General Store didn’t last too long. Today, you can still visit Agloe, though you’ll have to plan your route to the intersection rather than the town since Google Maps removed the name in 2014. Once there you’ll find a nice sign welcoming visitors to the former site of the Agloe General Store and the made-up town it legitimized. You won’t find much else.

Paper towns
Author John Green thought the concept of paper towns was pretty cool, too, and Agloe features prominently in his novel.

I find the concept of paper towns fascinating, and as a writer, I particularly love the story of Agloe, which is an example of something invented on paper and imagined into actual existence.

That’s what writers do, or at least that’s what we try to do. We think and imagine and plan (and copyright), and eventually we produce a book, our imagination on paper, and we hope that someone will read it and will find that it has meaning in the real world.

In some ways, I’ve found blogging to be that way, too. Every week (and much more often than that for some), we write our posts and float our dots out there into the blogosphere, a place that can sometimes feel like the middle of nowhere. But then, if we keep at it, along come readers, many of whom are floating their own dots out into the virtual world and we begin to find meaning in one another’s work.

But writing in the middle of nowhere in the blogosphere doesn’t always feel tangible. I’ve been at this for a while now, and have been fortunate to have interacted with many gifted writers and amazing people in this space. On May 9 I will have been blogging as the Practical Historian for five years, and I continue to love doing it. To celebrate this milestone, I am releasing a tangible collection, (on paper, but also in e-formats) of some of my favorite posts and essays on history, life, and nonsense.

bookbox
A whole box full of highly meaningful paper books that really do exist.

If you’re interested, the book is available to preorder pretty much wherever you like to order books (and yes, on Amazon, too) and I promise that even though you can’t actually hold this paper (or electronic) book in your hands quite yet, I just received a shipment of honest to goodness copies. I’m not convinced you’ll find any great meaning in it, but it’s a fun book that really does exist. And it’s waiting for you just up ahead at that intersection in the middle of nowhere, not far from the haunted castle.

Crime Doesn’t Pay. Neither Does Poetry.

July 26, 1875 wasn’t a great day for John Shine. The man who would later become a US Marshal and a California state senator, at the time, worked as a stagecoach driver for Wells Fargo. That day, only a few miles outside of Calaveras County, he encountered a man standing in his path. He wore a flour sack over his head and he held a shotgun leveled at Shine’s chest.

In a commanding voice, the flour sack asked politely for Shine to throw down the locked strong box, and happily reminded his accomplices hiding behind the boulders with nothing but their deadly shotgun barrels showing, to shoot the driver should he refuse to comply. Shine didn’t need to be asked twice. He threw down the box.

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The fictional Black Bart was an “unruly and wild villain” with a thick black beard and messy black curls. The real Black Bart was your kindly old gentleman neighbor.[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The gentlemanly outlaw allowed the stagecoach to move on down the trail. Only later, when Shine returned to the scene, did he realize that the flour sack’s accomplices were nothing more than well positioned sticks.

This was most likely the first stagecoach robbery committed by the outlaw who would come to be known as Black Bart. Named (by himself) after a dime novel villain, Black Bart would go on to pull close to twenty-five robberies of Wells Fargo stagecoaches, netting himself a total of around $18,000. The sum was a small drop in the big bucket of about $415,000 Wells Fargo lost to stagecoach robberies over a fifteen year period.

But Black Bart set himself apart. He always worked by himself, never rode a horse, and refused to behave in an ungentlemanly manner. Not once did he fire a shot or steal so much as a dime from a passenger.

And on at least two occasions, he even wrote poetry:

To wait the coming morrow,

Perhaps success, perhaps defeat

And everlasting sorrow

Yet come what will, I’ll try it once,

My conditions can’t be worse

But if there’s money in that box,

It’s munny in my purse.

And there was this one:

I’ve labored long and hard for bread,

For honor and for riches

But on my corns too long you’ve tread,

You fine-haired sons-of…

Well, you get the idea.

The robber signed both poems as “Black Bart, the P o 8.” Get it? Because he’s a po-eight! I assume that’s the idea anyway. He was also pretty great with a license plate. And that, it turns out is a good thing because in November of 1883, Black Bart’s reign of crime came to an end.

During what became his final robbery, Black Bart took fire and a bullet grazed his hand. He managed to escape, stemming the bleeding with a handkerchief that bore a laundry mark. Then, somewhere along the way, he dropped the handkerchief.

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The 19th century version of the armored car. By PRA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Because Wells Fargo detectives are evidently well versed in every crime drama ever, they conducted an extensive search and traced the handkerchief to a laundry in San Francisco where they learned that it belonged to Charles Bowles, a mild-mannered, gray-haired gentleman who lived a quiet, but elegant life in a boarding house nearby. Mr. Bowles was sentenced to six years in prison for his string of robberies.

The moral of the story, obviously, is that the only way to make money writing poetry is to also rob a stagecoach, and even then, only if you don’t get caught. And that, my friends, is why you should stick to writing novels. It just so happens it’s National Novel Writing Month. So you better get started. These days, a good stagecoach robbery is a hard thing to pull off.

Lessons from a Typewriter

On the wall above the desk where my computer sits is a beautiful painting of an old typewriter. It hangs there I suppose because it makes a sort of sense in this space where fingers fly across the more modern QWERTY keyboard composing e-mails and blog posts and the next great American novel. But when I reflect on the story of how the typewriter came to be, I think there’s more to it than that.

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Sholes received a patent for his typewriter 148 years ago today (June 23, 1868). Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In July of 1867 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, mechanic Carlos Glidden passed on a Scientific American article to his friend, printer Christopher Latham Sholes. The article detailed a recently invented writing machine called the pterotype. Sholes and a partner had recently been somewhat successful designing a number printing machine and when he looked at the device his friend showed him, Sholes thought he might just be able to do better.

He quickly set to work and soon used a converted telegraph key to type the letter “W.” Excited about their initial success Sholes and Glidden had a model with a full alphabet and some punctuation by September of 1867. The only thing left to do was to get the machine to market, which was a long and frustrating experience during which Sholes remarked on several occasions that he wouldn’t recommend the no-good invention to anyone anyway.

Finally in 1873, after receiving an intriguing typewritten query letter, sewing machine and firearms manufacturer E. Remington and Sons asked for a demonstration at their New York headquarters. Seeing what the machine could do, they wasted no time in manufacturing a thousand of them, and optioned 24 thousand more.

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Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi became the first manuscript ever typed on a typewriter. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Initially the Remington typewriter wasn’t a commercial success. Despite the claim that a skilled person could produce 57 words per minute, and a stamp of semi-approval from Mark Twain who had a love/hate relationship with one of the earliest models, the machine cost a whopping $125. The trouble was that at that price, the typewriter cost significantly more than a pen, which came with significantly fewer glitches.

It would take a number of revisions to the initial design, a more reasonable price tag, and the help of a good marketing plan to lead to the typewriter’s eventual success. Sholes, who gained little fortune from his invention, plugged away at improvements for the rest of his life, never really satisfied that he’d gotten it exactly right.

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And this sure is prettier than my computer. By User:Kosmopolitat [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Near the end of his life, however, he had this to say: “Whatever I may have felt in the early days of the value of the typewriter…I am glad I had something to do with it. I built it wiser than I knew, and the world has the benefit of it.”

So a beautiful painting of an old typewriter hangs above my computer because when I sit down at the keyboard, I want to reflect that when my project is at long last complete, and has come out perhaps even wiser than I knew, I will be glad to have been a part of it. And I want to be reminded that in addition to inspiration, great ideas take time and hard work, and often a lot of revision. An intriguing query letter and killer marketing plan won’t hurt either.

 

Note: I originally wrote this article over a year ago for Saturday Writers of St. Charles County, Missouri, but thought on this 148th anniversary of the original patent for the Sholes typewriter, I would share it in this space. As a writer, I am grateful for the invention of the typewriter. I am even more grateful that I don’t have to use one.

A Fine Specimen of a Novel Except for not Having a Head

On September 10, 1945, a farmer by the name of Lloyd Olsen was expecting his mother-in-law for a visit and so he set about doing the unsavory work of killing a chicken for dinner. He scooped up a young rooster scratching and pecking its way through the barnyard and dealt the fatal blow.

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Mike the Miracle Chicken posing with his head. Photo via http://www.miketheheadlesschicken.org

Except that it wasn’t. The rooster staggered like any freshly killed chicken might, but unlike most, this one never stopped. Astonished, Lloyd decided not to serve the determined bird for dinner that night and the next morning found it sleeping soundly with its phantom head tucked under its wing.

The farmer knew at that point he had a genuine oddity on his hands. With an eyedropper he managed to feed his headless wonder chicken, whom he named Mike, a mix of grain and water. Soon, the Olsens and Mike were headed out on tour across the country, delighting sideshow crowds with what Lloyd referred to as “a fine specimen of a chicken except for not having a head.”

A group of skeptical headless chicken experts at the University of Utah agreed with him. It seems when Lloyd lopped off Mike’s head, the farmer somehow managed to miss the jugular vein and a very lucky clot kept Mike from bleeding out. With most of his brain stem still attached (though the larger part of his head would soon reside in a jar), Mike was still a remarkably healthy rooster. It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to the average chicken farmer,  but it turns out chickens (which have bird brains to begin with) don’t actually need great deal of brain power to get by.

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You might be surprised at how little is going on in there. Or then maybe you wouldn’t be. photo credit: Cock a Doodle #%& via photopin (license)

Mike lived quite happily, raking in a tidy little sum for the Olsens (his would-be murderers), until he finally managed to choke to death eighteen months later in a motel in the middle of Arizona. But don’t be sad, because Mike’s determined spirit remains alive and well in his hometown of Fruita, California where every year on the first weekend in June, they celebrate the Mike the Headless Chicken Festival.

That’s right. This very weekend (since I’m sure you don’t have better things to do), you can hop over to Fruita and run a 5K or participate in a disc golf tournament. If you have a prize chicken of your own (headless or not), you can enter it into a poultry show, or you can try your hand at rooster calling, chicken dancing, or peep eating.

Because people will celebrate pretty much anything.

For example, just a few of the quirky celebrations you could attend in the United States this summer include: the Mosquito Festival in Clute, Texas, the Humongous Fungus Festival in Crystal Falls, Michigan, and the Road-Kill Cook off Festival in Marlinton, West Virginia.

I think that’s great. It’s all in good fun, and I do love a good quirky celebration (except for maybe that last one). And in fact, I’m doing a little celebrating of my own. If you visit this blog often, you may have noticed, it looks a little different since the last post. More changes are coming in the near future, but for now, I am using a moderately fancier theme, and if you look to the top, there is a new page as well: “Coming Soon! A Book!”

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A book galley. Without a head.

I am delighted to announce that this fall (maybe as early as October), I will finally become a traditionally published novelist, a goal I’ve been working toward for a very long time.

I hope you’ll take a moment to click on the new page, celebrate with me, and maybe even sign up to receive an occasional e-mail about the progress of the project and some other fun stuff. I won’t be holding a mosquito calling contest (which just sounds like a bad idea) or crowning anyone “Miss Roadkill” (or “Miss Practical Historian” because that tiara is all mine). But I will be letting readers in on some exclusive content that I’m sure you’d hate missing out on even more than you’d hate missing the opportunity to don your mask and snorkel to attend the Underwater Music Festival in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The book, a historical novel, has no official title yet, because my publisher and I haven’t yet agreed on the perfect fit, and it has no cover yet because the brilliant graphic designer I’m working with is patiently awaiting a title so he can finish his lovely design. But I assure you that what I do have is a fine specimen of a novel except for not having a head.

While the truth of the existence of Mike the Headless Chicken has occasionally been called into question, despite the testimony of several of Utah’s finest headless chicken experts, I assure you, the book really is coming soon. And headless or not, I think  it’s worth celebrating.

That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Chances are if you’ve been to a circus at some point, you’ve seen people risk their lives. It’s part of the thrill of the show. There are fire-breathers, lion-tamers, high-wire walkers, and sword swallowers to name just a few.

And while the circus used to be primarily about tortured exotic animals, unfortunate human oddities, and psychotic-looking clowns that haunt our nightmares, at some point the attention shifted to more and more dangerous performances of highly skilled human oddities as they defied the kind of grisly deaths that haunt our nightmares.

One of the turning points for the circus came in the middle of the 19th century when a young Frenchman named Jules Léotard went swimming in his father’s pool in Toulouse. A skilled gymnast, Léotard swam a few laps and then thought he might have more fun at the pool if he swung above it. He rigged up a series of apparatuses resembling dangling pull-up bars and began swinging, launching himself from one to the other. Soon he was performing elaborate acrobatic maneuvers above the pool.

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Jules Léotard and his bulging muscles. Fetch the smelling salts!

And a terrifyingly dangerous circus act was born.  Léotard performed on the trapeze above straw mattresses in his home town and soon he found himself flying above large crowds in Paris and London. The practical, tight-fitting costume he designed both for flexibility and for making the ladies swoon at the sight of his bulging muscles, came to be known as the leotard. And that song about flying through the air with the greatest of ease? That was about Jules Léotard, too.

Today the flying trapeze is an iconic act in the world of the circus performances. And it’s one of the reasons I won’t attend a circus. Now I don’t care much for the animal training or the clowns, either, but I really really don’t like to watch people risk their lives for the sake of my entertainment. It’s just not my thing.

But I am fascinated by the performers who do it. So a few months ago, I wrote a little flash fiction piece about a circus acrobat performing on the trapeze. I entered the story into a contest sponsored by the group Wow! Women on Writing. And the story won third place, which was very exciting. If you’d like, you can follow the link and read “The Greatest of Ease” and some other lovely flash pieces on the Wow! website.

Then, if you’re a really super amazing person, you can also check out an interview with me that was posted on the Wow! blog earlier this week. In it I talk about the story, about my forthcoming novel, and a few other writerly kinds of things.

I hope you will find it entertaining, because though it would be pretty cool if someone wrote a song about me one of these days, this is pretty much as close as I ever plan to get to risking my life for the sake of entertaining an audience. And I think it’s also unlikely I’ll ever wear a leotard in public. Because that’s the kind of thing that haunts my nightmares.