The great, geeky tour guides of Gettysburg

civil_war_monitor

How hard would you be willing to study and prepare for a test that may lead to a modestly-paying job leading groups of tourists around a 150-year-old battlefield? If you want to be a licensed battlefield tour guide at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, you’ll have to study and prepare like never before. And it may take years, if ever, to finally succeed.

The Battle

During the past two decades, America’s Civil War has enjoyed a rush of increased public interest, fueled by the award-winning PBS Civil War documentary mini-series by Ken Burns that first aired in 1990. And no battle attracts such fascination as Gettysburg, which has achieved a somewhat mythical presence in national history.

This week marks the 150th anniversary of that pivotal battle. In July 1863, Union and Confederate forces met at this tiny Pennsylvania town and fought a three-day ordeal that resulted in a critical defeat for the invading Rebel forces. Later that year, President Lincoln would travel to Gettysburg to deliver his brief historic address.

The summer issue of Civil War Monitor magazine is devoted to the battle, and it includes a wonderful feature story by Jenny Johnston on the long, arduous path to becoming a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg. (The magazine’s articles are paywalled, but if you’re a Civil War buff, it’s worth hiking over to a well-stocked periodical stand or paying for a $9.95 for one-year digital subscription to get access to this issue.)

The Test

Those who have taken multiple National Park Service tours will likely agree with me that these guides know their stuff and share it well with the public. This isn’t about passing a quick quiz, inventing a few tall tales, and demonstrating that you can talk and chew gum at the same time. Park Service guides are steeped in, and devoted to, the history of their locations.

Becoming a guide at Gettysburg is one of the most coveted achievements of all. Furthermore, as Johnston tells us, very few succeed in passing the two parts of an extraordinarily difficult test.

Part 1 is a 250-question written test, running some 30 pages long. Amateurs are “eaten alive” by the depth of this examination. The “diehards,” however, bring a “knowledge of the battle [that] is beyond encyclopedic.” The problem is, there are a lot of diehards. To score among the top 20 of who will be eligible to move on to Part 2 (out of 150 or so test takers) there is very little room for error: When the test was given in 2010, scorer no. 1 answered 97.96 percent of the questions correctly, while scorer no. 19 answered 96.73 percent correctly.

The finalists move on to Part 2, an oral examination. As Johnston explains, “candidates get two chances to create and deliver a two-hour battlefield tour geared toward the average visitor.” Here, a candidate’s mastery of detail may be his (almost all are men) undoing, because he will be evaluated in part on his ability to educate someone who knows very little about the battle, and too much detail may overwhelm. This is among the reasons why roughly half of the finalists fail both attempts at Part 2.

The Passion 

Johnston writes that many candidates spend years, even decades, in their attempt to become a licensed tour guide at Gettysburg. I love her profiles of those who are devoting such time and effort to succeed, starting with a 54-year-old man who quits his job and moves to Gettysburg so he can immerse himself in everything to do with the battle! Others take prep classes, form study groups, and spend most of their free hours absorbing the voluminous literature about this single battle.

So you may be thinking, gawd, what a bunch of geeks. As I see it, though, we should all be so lucky to have a passion for a subject that fascinates in a way that we can lose ourselves in it. Whether it’s a job, an avocation, or a hobby, isn’t life itself made more meaningful when we can immerse ourselves in something so engaging?

I confess, I’m biased. Six summers ago I joined a group of friends for a Civil War battlefield vacation. We visited Gettysburg, of course, but also Manassas (Virginia), Antietam (Maryland), and several other famous battlefields. Even with the summer heat beating down upon us, it was a memorable trip. Indeed, I understand why this era of history has such a pull. (Yup, it’s very much a guy thing. We’d chuckle at the middle-aged women with very bored looks, traipsing behind their husbands who were eagerly devouring stories told by the tour guides!)

More importantly, however, I wish for everyone something that provides such fascination and pleasure. If the details of an 1863 Civil War battle aren’t your cuppa tea, then I hope you’ll find something else that enriches your life in this way.

A plea for art as vocation and artists as leaders

Kayhan Irani

What if our society made more room for artistic expression as a form of vocation and recognized more artists as leaders? Those are among the questions raised by Kayhan Irani, a self-styled “artivist” based in New York who uses her artistic and creative gifts to advance social change.

Kayhan has been a dear friend since 2004, when I invited her to Boston to present “We’ve Come Undone,” her compelling one-woman play about the challenges confronting immigrant women in the post-9/11 era. Since then, I’ve watched her define her vocational role and win plaudits for her artistic work, including a 2010 New York Emmy for a 9-episode educational television drama for immigrant New Yorkers and co-editorship of a book about the use of storytelling to advance social change. (Go here for her interesting and impressive bio.)

Yesterday on her blog, Kayhan asked readers to consider how art (of all types) can be sustaining work and how artists can serve as societal leaders. I wanted to share some of that with you and to offer a few responses.

Art as vocation

Kayhan first takes issue with stereotypes about artists and with assumptions that artistic work should not be a sustaining form of vocation:

The messages that are broadcast in our society about artists are that we are irresponsible, stupid, drug addicts, mentally ill, have questionable morals; and that art is frivolous, a diversion, not serious work, it’s only for some people, it’s stupid, and can’t pay the bills.  In order to maintain the status quo, we need artists to remain on the fringes of society, barely visible, always teetering on the brink of poverty and irrelevance.

These messages get enforced from a very early age.  Imagine an adult asking you, with pleasure, if you are going to be a lawyer or a dancer when you grow up; what about a firefighter or a painter?  From a very young age, we are steered away from art-making as a life choice.

Artists as leaders

Kayhan concludes by urging us to consider how artistic leadership can be a force for positive social change:

And that brings me to my main point: art and creativity are the most powerful forces we have for liberation.

Art can bring people together.  We don’t even need to speak the same language.

Art can make a way out of no way.  When people are living in oppressive situations, artists can help imagine a way out.  The fight for another world has to imagine that the impossible is possible.

Artists never stop questioning.  Creativity means to use your senses to engage in a process of inquiry.

So let the artists lead us.  Let us recognize that they already do!

Spot on

Kayhan’s call for a world where artistic expression helps us to envision better communities and lives sounds pretty good to me. And it sure would be nice if it was provided by artists who are able to earn a decent living from their work.

I’m not suggesting that we live without formal structures or ditch anything that smacks of “businesslike.” After all, as a lawyer and law professor, I believe that a world without the rule of law would be a pretty scary one. (I’m not exactly enamored with the legal system we have, but that’s for other posts.) And I fully acknowledge that enterprise and technology can bring us some neat stuff, such as the computer I’m using to produce this article.

However, we have got things way, way out of balance. In particular, the financial insanity that led us to the economic meltdown should have prompted a deeper questioning of basic values and major institutions, but I fear we are squandering that opportunity as we yearn for a “recovery” that puts us in a position to do it all over again.

In the meantime, many artists who have been dependent upon outside funding and non-profit sponsorship for their work are struggling even more.

New ways

So…to Kayhan’s eloquent plea I’ll add the need for societal structures that enable artistic work and are not as subject to the boom-and-bust cycles of our casino economy. I confess that I haven’t made all the “third way” connections between this and other forms of sustainable, community-oriented initiatives and enterprises, but I’m sure others have done so. Surely we cannot repeat the mess we’re in, right? Right?

Boston Book Festival 2011: Celebrating the work of great writers

Boston is a pretty bookish town, what with all the universities, libraries, and bookstores around. But until the creation of the Boston Book Festival in 2009, it had been years since the city hosted an annual event celebrating books and the work of great writers.

In three short years, the Festival has become quite an event. To me it is a reminder of the best of city life and culture, a gathering of authors, readers, booksellers, publishers, and those who support them. This year’s Festival was held on Saturday, October 15, with a preview event the night before.

No grand editorial point here, just a celebration with some pictures and words:

The Art of the Wire

This year’s Festival kicked off on Friday night with a panel discussion featuring actors, writers, and consultants for The Wire, HBO’s deservedly acclaimed urban crime drama set in Baltimore. After the panel, cast members Tray Chaney (“Poot”), Robert Chew (“Prop Joe”), and Jamie Hector (“Marlo Stanfield”) were among those who stayed around for a book and poster signing. They couldn’t have been more friendly or gracious toward their fans.

(For a link to a podcast of the event, go to the Boston Phoenix newspaper site here.)

(For a related post, see Work on TV: HBO’s “The Wire.”)

Civil War panel authors

My favorite writers panel was on the Civil War. This was an all-star lineup of Civil War authors, and each one gave an excellent talk. They captured the heart of their work and brought it to life for the audience. I went home with copies of their books.

Inside the information tent, Copley Square

The events were inside various buildings surrounding Copley Square, with vendors’ booths lining the Square itself. At the center was this information booth, which also served as a signing place for some of the featured authors.

Vendors' booths

Most of the vendors were booksellers, literary journals, publishing companies, and colleges offering writing programs. Here’s the Brattle Book Shop booth, one of Boston’s legendary used bookstores, and a favorite of mine.

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter your way to it?)

What is your legacy work? In other words, how do you want to make your mark on the world?

This potentially life-changing inquiry is a core idea of a book I’ve recommended in recent posts (here and here), Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (2010).

Two key questions

Guillebeau poses two simple questions:

  • “What do you really want to get out of life?”
  • “What can you offer the world that no one else can?”

The answers may take a while to articulate — especially if you’ve never asked yourself these questions. And don’t apologize if this is the case. Guillebeau’s overarching theme of non-conformity recognizes that many folks have jumped through hoops defined by others.

It’s up to you

Ultimately, only you can define your legacy work. When we start thinking for ourselves, the possibilities are endless, and surely not limited to paid employment:

  • Building a business
  • Raising a family
  • Organizing for a cause
  • Writing a book
  • Leading a community group
  • Teaching kids
  • Starting a band
  • Caring for animals
  • Creating a charity
  • Inventing a new product
  • Helping the sick
  • and many, MANY more

Too much junk? Then de-clutter

Once you get to a certain age, life may have served up enough baggage — material and emotional — to eat up precious time and energy. This can impede your quest to identify and do legacy work. If that’s your situation, then you may need to de-clutter.

The Art of Non-Conformity has a very good chapter on how to clear away the junk for stuff that matters. It’s especially helpful in getting us to do triage on the tasks and commitments that may suck up a lot of time but provide very little payoff in terms of real accomplishment and satisfaction.

In addition, I highly recommend Brooks Palmer’s Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back (2009), which I also mentioned in a recent post. Palmer nails the psychology of how our material clutter frustrates our ability to live in the present and for the future. He employs a humane version of tough love to get us to ask important questions about why we hold onto belongings that have little or no positive value to us.

Individual power in tough times

Especially during these tough times, I believe that individual initiative and creativity will be the key to lifting some people into a better place in their lives. Identifying one’s legacy work and clearing away the clutter are two vital steps toward moving in that direction.

***

Additional resources

Go here to access Chris Guillebeau’s website.

Go here to access Brooks Palmer’s blog.

Website of the Week: TED

If you’re into talks by people at the top of their game, check out TED, “a small nonprofit devoted to ideas worth spreading.” On the TED website (link here), you’ll find hundreds of freely accessible videos featuring leaders and innovators in their respective fields:

On TED.com, we make the best talks and performances from TED and partners available to the world, for free. More than 700 TEDTalks are now available, with more added each week.

General topics include:

Technology

Entertainment

Design

Business

Science

Culture

Arts

Global issues

What more can I say to whet your appetite? It’s a treasure trove of learning, enlightenment, and inspiration — and absolutely free!

So you want to be a writer?

High on the list of dream jobs for literary and intellectual types is that of being a successful writer. But in a Digital Age when buying and reading books seems to be giving way to watching videos online and expectations that everything can be downloaded for free, what is the future of book authorship as a vocation or an avocation?

Folks, the ground is shifting in some major ways. Here are some of my observations and impressions. Beware — long post ahead!

Writing a book is just the beginning

Writing a book is hard work, but building a readership can be just as challenging. I have seen the future of the latter through the work of two dear friends, Jenna Blum and Hilda Demuth-Lutze.

Jenna Blum works her way onto the NYT bestseller list

Jenna (website here) is the author of two novels published by major commercial houses, Those Who Save Us (Mariner, 2005) and The Stormchasers (Dutton, 2010). She has managed to turn her passion into her job.

Those Who Save Us, a gripping human interest story set in WWII Germany, spent dozens of weeks on the New York Times bestseller list for trade paperback fiction. But it was not an instant success. Jenna harnessed the novel’s natural appeal and did countless book club and store appearances, corresponded religiously with her readers, and maintained a strong presence on the Internet.

She is doing the same outreach and marketing for her new book, The Stormchasers, a terrific story of a sister and long-lost twin brother with bipolar disorder, set in America’s Tornado Alley. In fact, she has spent much of the late spring and summer on the road. While traveling to and fro, she spends hours replying to e-mails from her readers.

Some might think that Jenna had it made once she signed her book contracts. Not so. Her success shows us that most authors must become marketers if they want to sell books.

Hilda Demuth-Lutze’s Kingdom

I recently wrote about Hilda, an Indiana-based high school English teacher and novelist,  in a post about pursuing one’s passions at midlife (link here). Hilda’s second novel for young readers, Kingdom of the Birds (Kirk House Publishers, 2010), features a village boy in 14th century Germany who is summoned away for a year of service at Wartburg Castle and interweaves encounters with Martin Luther and the history of Reformation Germany.

Hilda has created a neat little blog for her book. She posts about the historical background that informed her story, her planning of the book launch, and how her connection with Lutheran-affiliated Valparaiso University (our undergraduate alma mater) contributed to her book.  Perhaps because I’ve known her for years, I see how the blog has a personal, organic connectivity to it, that of an author who is very comfortable with the story she’s told and how the path of her own life led her to write it.

Hilda, too, recognizes the importance of promoting her work. Recently, she wrote about selling copies of her book along with other goods at the local farmers’ market:

Some people seem awed by the fact that an ordinary woman selling soap is also an author.   Others, I suspect, wonder whether I am a “real” author, whatever that means.  But I’m as real as they come.  Like many other writers published by small presses, I am the one most responsible for publicizing my books.  My publishers can only do so much—I need to be actively involved in marketing my wares in a variety of venues.

Communities of writers in search of support and savvy

The image of a solitary Hemingway at a Left Bank cafe with pen in hand is a powerfully seductive one for budding writers. The writing life still allows for such coffee house moments, though today it includes vying with a half dozen others for electrical outlets to power laptops!

That said, in conversations I’ve had over the years with book authors, I’ve learned that many were inspired and prodded through their connection with a writing community, be it an MFA program, a continuing education workshop, or a self-organized writers’ group — face-to-face or online.

An excellent example here in Boston is Grub Street, Inc., a non-profit school for writers. Grub offers workshops, seminars, and support services for novice and experienced authors alike.

It is instructive that Grub’s offerings include numerous courses on publishing and promotion. For the fall session, the Grub website listed 11 workshops and seminars on topics such as guerrilla book promotion, developing an online presence, and publishing options.

Meeting Paige at the Harvard Book Store

When I recently visited the Harvard Book Store of Cambridge, Mass., one of the great independent bookstores, it looked like they had replaced a section of books with a small steam engine. The heavy machinery turned out to be one “Paige M. Gutenborg,” the nickname of the store’s new books-on-demand printing press. “Paige” gives readers access to books from Google and public domain databases, as well as self-published works offered through the bookstore’s printing services.  The store even provides online manuscript preparation advice and submission directions for writers (link here).

The significance hit me quickly: Here’s an independent bookstore, for decades intertwined with the literary culture of brainy Cambridge, now enabling authors to self-publish their work. Whoa…

Amazon, Kindle, and e-publishing

In a July NPR news segment by Wendy Kaufman about Amazon’s reported sales of its Kindle e-reader and e-books, listeners heard that during the spring and early summer, Amazon “sold 143 e-books for every 100 hardcover books, a gap that is widening quickly.”  In addition, sales of the Kindle tripled after Amazon cut its price sharply in order to compete with other e-readers.

Amazon is now offering a variety of platforms for self-publishing, including Kindle downloads. It is premature to say whether these are viable paths for writers to publish and showcase their work to the public, but the raw opportunities are opening up.

Seth Godin goes the self-publishing route

Seth Godin, author of a series of bestselling books on organizations, careers, and work, recently sent shockwaves through the publishing world when he announced that from now on, he will be self-publishing his work. In a blog post (link here) he explained:

All a long way of saying that as the methods for spreading ideas and engaging with people keep changing, I can’t think of a good reason to be on the defensive. It’s been years since I woke up in the morning saying, “I need to write a book, I wonder what it should be about.” Instead, my mission is to figure out who the audience is, and take them where they want and need to go, in whatever format works, even if it’s not a traditionally published book.

Agents as gatekeepers

Of course, the Old World has not disappeared. Agents continue to serve as gatekeepers to the world of commercial book publication. I hear from aspiring novelists that many an agent constantly scouts for the next breakout bestseller, has something of a fetish for precocious young talent, and avoids stories too quirky or complex. The offbeat book that doesn’t fit into a “hot” category, especially if written by a new (and slightly more mature) face in the crowd, faces a big challenge in securing a book contract.

Changes

In sum, it may be the best of times and the worst of times to be a budding author. (And that sentence alone explains why I leave the writing of fiction to others.) Here’s the upshot:

As we deliberate over the future of the book, traditional publishing avenues are likely to remain as guarded as ever, especially for authors whose work does not promise wide commercial appeal. I wouldn’t bank on that changing dramatically.

On the other hand, we may be at the beginning of a huge transformation, one in which the negative attitudes toward self-publishing and other alternative routes to publication are dissolving, perhaps rapidly — even if the traditional book deal remains a sought-after prize. And perhaps some entrepreneurial types will establish more small presses that take advantage of new technologies to publish non-mainstream writings in affordable and accessible venues.

Especially within this emerging realm, self-marketing and the marketplace of public opinion — such as reader reviews posted to online sites — will exert greater influence on what is bought and read. Authors of niche books will see opportunities open up, but they’ll have to identify their readership base and appeal to it directly.

There is a lot of good work out there that hasn’t hit the printed (or digital) page because traditional publishers aren’t biting. For the sake of readers everywhere, and in the interests of a literate society, I hope the nontraditional publishing options will create more opportunities for deserving writers to share their work profitably with the world. As a reader whose tastes run from the conventional to the offbeat, I’m excited about these possibilities.

Book Review: “The 4-Hour Workweek”

Talk about smart product placement: Prominently displayed on many an airport bookstall are copies of Timothy Ferriss’s bestselling The 4-Hour Workweek (revised and expanded edition, 2009).  What better place to hawk a book of that title than an airport, where weary travelers are wondering how many more business trips they can endure before they go bonkers?

Yes, I bought a copy, at an airport bookstall no less.  I know what you’re thinking: What does a professor need with a book about a 4-hour workweek?  He’s got that already! Hah hah! Okay, I’m not about to whine about a career I enjoy very much, though I will say after the 7th or 8th work-related trip of the semester, I was feeling a bit pooped out.

Golden Product + Offload Work = Miller Time

But I digress.  What you really want to know is whether The 4-Hour Workweek is for real.  Well, yes and no.  The key here is the concept of “Income Autopilot.”  If you’re an entrepreneurial type who develops or identifies a super duper product, then offloads the production, marketing, and distribution work to others while still reaping in the profits, the remaining 164 hours of the week await you.

It helps if you have reliable minions, avail the latest Internet technologies, and resist the temptation to read your e-mail too many times a day.  It also helps if you’re ruthless about cost cutting and not hung up on notions such as socially responsible business practices.  As Ferriss notes, this isn’t about trying to change the world.  So go ahead and contract with that call center in the latest developing nation.

Once you have these pieces in place, you can leave the rat race and join the blessed world of the New Rich.  Take that global cruise, learn how to sky dive, or even tackle world hunger (maybe by serving meals at that call center you hired).

That, in a very boiled down nutshell, is what The 4-Hour Workweek is about.

(Conditionally) Recommended for Non-Profit Workers

Yup, I’m rough on overall tone of The 4-Hour Workweek.  However, in what may sound like a humongous flip-flop, I’m going to say it’s worth a quick read by those who work in the non-profit sector.  You see, we do-gooders, educators, and change-the-world types might actually learn some valuable things from it.  Here’s why:

First, many who spend a big share of their working lives in non-profits tend to undervalue their knowledge, insights, and skills. To put it bluntly, we sometimes give away even what others can reasonably afford.  No, I’m not suggesting that we start charging the homeless for their meals.  However, there are some who can afford our services and expertise.  The 4-Hour Workweek may inspire a few ideas in that regard.

Second, the book isn’t all about teaching aspirants to the Leisure Class how to exploit the Worker Bees. It makes you think about all the crummy, time-intensive tasks you do at work that add up to a pile of nothin’.  Take e-mail, for example.  Even if you don’t have a personal assistant to read and sort your e-mail (Ferriss’s easy-baked solution!), you can get some good ideas about how to better manage it.

Finally, Ferriss scores legit points by questioning standard brand ideas about retirement and career path.  By choice or circumstance, some may want or need options to traditional retirement. Folks in the non-profit sector are especially susceptible to burnout and overwork and sometimes see it as an obligatory condition that proves one’s devotion to the cause. Ferriss imaginatively envisions careers that weave more and less intense periods of work with genuine breaks and sabbaticals.

In sum while parts of The 4-Hour Workweek bug the daylights out of me, there’s stuff here that fuels the imagination about rethinking work and careers, including possibly your own.

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