President Obama Delivers Beautiful Speech In Selma

President Obama’s speech in Selma, Alabama on Saturday—commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”—was a major moment in his presidency, and a reminder to all how far we have come as a nation in 50 years.

The context and setting of the speech helped to amplify the power of the President’s words, which ring poetic throughout.

We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction, because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it.

The speech contains passage after passage of language artfully rendered. President Obama has a strong vision for America—and his own place in it—which is both remarkable, and proof that we have indeed “broke the old aristocracies,” at least to some degree.

Yet, racism is not gone from the American scene. It is still a daily reality for many Americans. Pick any headline (or personal incident) you want. For instance, David Boren, the President of University of Oklahoma, banned a fraternity from campus on Monday and declared the students “a disgrace” and “not real Sooners”, for singing a racist chant at a frat function.

Hats off to David Boren in Norman, OK. “We know America is what we make of it.” The struggle to make ourselves and our nation better is not easy, nor will it be easy going forward, but it is a struggle worthy of our energy and full attention.

As President Obama said on Saturday, “We are the people Emerson wrote of, ‘who for truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long; who are ‘never tired,’ so long as we can see far enough.”

An Unsavory Look Inside The Media’s Sausage Factory

“Information without context strikes the mind but peters out before the heart.” -Sarah Smarsh

Creative nonfiction is a form I find myself increasingly drawn to. In the hands of a great essayist, we see a real writer struggle with real life.

Sarah Smarsh, for instance. She is a Kansas-born journalist, public speaker and educator, and her recent piece of media criticism in Aeon struck a nerve.

In a media landscape of zip-fast reports as stripped of context as a potato might be stripped of fibre, most news stories fail to satiate. We don’t consume news all day because we’re hungry for information – we consume it because we’re hungry for connection. That’s the confusing conundrum for the 21st century heart and mind: to be at once over-informed and grasping for understanding.

In her essay, Smarsh exposes the mechanics of reporting and the news business as one culprit in the dehumanization on news. She also explores the need for real story, versus packaged up text masquerading as coherent content. Regarding what is sometimes called “hard news” she writes:

…in J-school my peers and I learned never to call 10 inches of lede, nutgraph and body an ‘article’ – true journos, we were told, call them ‘stories’

I hear and admire Smarsh’s call for a higher standard in today’s metric-fed mediascape. Media enterprises need page views, subscribers, events, merchandise and ad dollars to survive. I get that, and most writers get that. We also get that there’s a need to make a product or service out of our writing, and for the most part, we are happy to abide by these terms. Perhaps publishers, editors and writers can begin to work towards more equitable outcomes all around.

Smarsh writes about how we’re “hungry for connection” today. I agree. Imagine hiring a great chef, sous chef, line cooks and prep cooks and outfitting them with all the best kitchen equipment. But then you tie their hands when it comes to ingredients—all this talented crew can make is pork and beans, onion soup and tater tots. Publishers are in a hurry to be mass feeders of media. Conventional wisdom says that’s where the money is.

Brands want a return on content. B. Bonin Bough of Mondelēz International argues that “without the metric of monetization, there really is no way for you to determine whether content is good or bad.”

Media companies also want a positive return on their investment in content. Meanwhile, people find it hard to pay attention, can’t sit still, can’t take it all in. A lot of smart people are working on answers to the media conundrum. I am glad, because it’s easy enough to see the connection between junk media and an unhealthy citizenry.

As a writer, I want to answer Smarsh’s call for more substance and more heart in the pieces we put into the world. As a reader and consumer of media, I want to scroll less and read and think more.

Next Time Someone Asks, “What Do You Do?” Employ This 4-Point Response

Next Time Someone Asks, “What Do You Do?” Employ This 4-Point Response

“What do you do?” It’s the age-old question that is always lurking, waiting to be asked at the next industry conference, cocktail party, and/or random encounter on an airplane.

In one way, the question is innocent and a genuine attempt to understand more about you. On the other hand, it’s a moment of truth where judgements will be levied, no matter how conscious the parties involved. Personally, I prefer the question, “What are you working on?” It’s not nearly as loaded. Yet, I can only control what I can control, which is to say I will continue face the question, “What do you do?”

Author and mentalist Tim David, writing in Harvard Business Review, outlines a four-point approach that is both disarming and effective.

When asked, “What do you do?” Mr. David suggests that you reply with:

  • A verbal slap
  • Ask a problem question
  • Go for the head nod
  • End with a curiosity statement

Let’s examine his approach more carefully:


From studying his example, I’ve managed to work out my own version of an effective reply.

What do you do?

Verbal Slap: I was an archery coach, but I couldn’t take all the traveling by van.

Ask a problem question: You know how company’s tend to annoy you with all their commercials?

Go for the head nod: You’re annoyed because the company doesn’t understand you, and they “talk down” to you.

Curiosity statement: I help companies annoy you less by getting them to hone in on genuine stories, and by using narrative techniques perfected around the campfire for millennia.

On The Frontier, Justice Was Bought And Paid For

“People love to talk. They love to slander you if you have any substance.” -Mattie Ross

Mike Kline, my friend since freshman year at F&M, was in Portland with his family last August. Over Italian food and later over coffee at Albina Press, we spoke of President Obama’s performance in the White House, Portland’s strange ways and finally books. Mike suggested that I read True Grit by Charles Portis. He said I would enjoy it (he was correct!), and also that he is teaching the novel this fall at Shipley School in suburban Philadelphia.

Charles Portis is from Arkansas. He lives in Little Rock. His most famous heroine, Mattie Ross, is also from Arkansas, from “near Dardanelle in Yell County,” to be exact. The events of True Grit take place in 1873, but the story is recounted by Mattie as an old woman.

The novel, published in 1968, has twice been made into a Hollywood film. The first production earned John Wayne a best acting nod for the Oscar. The remake was a Coen brothers movie. Let’s have a look at young Mattie through the Coen brothers’ lens:

There’s a solid argument to be made that Mattie Ross is a feminist hero. Another way to read the book is to understand how hard it was to live on the American frontier in the 19th century. Teen girls were not taking selfies, they were working on the farm and in the house. Mattie Ross is an exceptional figure, larger than life in many ways, but there’s also an unvarnished realism here. She’s a Bible quoting Presbyterian who doesn’t have time to trifle. How exactly do we think the West was won? By women (or girls, as the case may be) like Mattie.

Portis worked as a journalist in New York City before moving home to Arkansas to write books. He has four other novels to his credit—The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, Gringo, and Norwood—all of which are fan favorites. The New York Times says of his books: “Mr. Portis evokes an eccentric, absurd world with a completely straight face. As a result there are not a lot of laugh-out-loud moments or explosive set pieces here. Instead of shooting off fireworks the books shimmer with a continuous comic glow.”

Clearly, Portis has a unique voice and a great sense of detail to go with his good humor. I’m also intrigued by his knowledge of American history and fascination with place. In an essay for The Atlantic, “Combinations of Jacksons,” Portis describes his family history and culture, both firmly rooted in place.

MY ALABAMA grandmother wasn’t pleased when her youngest son (a seventh son, my father) told her of his plans to marry an Arkansas girl. She kindly explained to him that the unfortunate women living west of the Mississippi River had, among other defects, feet at least one size bigger than those of their dainty little sisters to the east. No Cinderella to be found in the Bear State. Any mention of that old slander, even a teasing one fifty years later, could still make my placid mother bristle and blaze up a little. In any kind of refined-foot contest, she said, she would pit her Waddell-Fielding-Arkansas feet against all comers with Portis-Poole-Alabama feet.

In my quest to understand the man, I read his novel, The Dog of the South directly following my reading of True Grit. The Dog of the South is narrated by a son of Little Rock and failed journalist, Ray Midge. Midge, 26, is a bit of a mess, but he’s also on a quest to right the wrongs in his life, thus he is also heroic. His hero’s journey to Central America and back is clownish, for sure, but there’s also a seriousness of intent and time for informed reflection. Ideals, people and places worth fighting for (including actual battle sites along his route)—this is what occupies his mind as he travels by car to find his runaway wife.

There’s a passage at the end of The Dog of the South, where Midge is back in Little Rock and catching the reader up on his status. He says, “A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.” I love this line. Place, particularly one’s home place, has a magnetic hold on us and Portis both reveals this truth, and revels in it.

Next Time Someone Asks, “What Do You Do?” Employ This 4-Point Response

Hunter’s “Silent Bell Beneath A Shower of Pearls” Informed By Welch’s “Ring of Bone”

Jerry Garcia was born 72 years ago this week. Garcia brought millions of people together—people who are now married, or best friends or co-workers, and he introduced even more people to a life of beauty and music. In order to “Keep on Shinin’,” (as Jerry would have us do) let’s take a few moments to explore one important aspect of Grateful Dead culture—the genius of lyricist Robert Hunter.

Steve Silberman is a brilliant writer and a well known Deadhead. In 1992, when Grateful Dead’s legendary lyricist, Robert Hunter, started producing volumes of poetry, Silberman interviewed Hunter for Poetry Flash.

Here is one small piece of their dialogue:

SILBERMAN: The song “Box of Rain” began as a rough vocal outline from Phil [Dead bassist Lesh]. How does that process work?

HUNTER: Scat singing: “Dum-dum dum, da-da-da-da, bump-dum-dum-dum-dum, dee-dee-dee.” I’m able to translate peoples’ scat. I hear English in it, almost as though I write down what I hear underneath that. I hear the intention. It’s a talent like the Rubik’s Cube, or something like that, and it comes easily to me. Which might be why I like Language poetry. I can tell from the rhythms, or lack of rhythms, from the disjunctures and the end stoppages, what they’re avoiding saying– the meaning that they would like to not be stating there, comes rushing through to me. I understand dogs. I can talk to babies.

A cat dictated “China Cat Sunflower” to me. It was just sittin’ on my stomach, purring away, and sayin’ this stuff. I just write it down; I guess it’s plagiarism. I’ve credited the cat, right? [laughing]

Clearly, the cat on Hunter’s tummy had quite the vocabulary. “I rang a silent bell beneath a shower of pearls in the eagle wing palace of the Queen Chinee.”

The interview with Hunter is heady matter. I read and write poetry, yet much of the conversation is beyond me. Which is fine, I like stretching to pull goods from the top shelf. Here’s what I found up there, tucked neatly away in Hunter’s memory.

About 25 years ago I was visiting a girlfriend in the City, and there was this little orange book in her bookcase that I pulled out. It was On Out, by Lew Welch, and I thought, “How long has this been going on?”


Naturally, the slender volume so key to Hunter’s development as a poet is now out of print. Which leads me to wonder why any book of merit would be hard to find today. The notion of being “out of print” is itself an anachronism. We can unearth these volumes and make them available in digital formats.

Thankfully, there are web-ready copies of a few of Welch’s poems. “Chicago Poem” is particularly hard-hitting, whereas “Ring of Bone” is simply lovely in every way.

Poetry Is The Corrective

America needs more poets and more lovers of poetry.

I am prepared to do my part as a citizen, and as a writer and reader of verse.

The clever display of the poem fragment above is from Paulann Petersen, Oregon’s Poet Laureate. Interestingly, in this Art Beat Oregon segment on OPB, Petersen says poetry must be spoken to be fully realized.

She is right! Here I am sounding out a poem about living in the white noise of Chicago.

U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, writing in Virginia Quarterly, says it’s important to see poetry as a cultural force, and to believe in the necessity of it.

Trethewey also makes this deeply poetic point about poetry’s place in our culture:

Each day we are faced with sound bites and catchphrases deadening and trivializing our language, the widening gulf of our ideological differences eroding civil discourse and our ability to truly communicate with each other, to hear each other. For all of that, poetry is the corrective, the sacred language that allows us to connect across time and space, across all the things in everyday life that separate us and would destroy us.

“Poetry is the corrective.”

Damn. What a great thought perfectly expressed.

Spreading the Word

Last year I began to actively seek out new places to publish my writing.

As someone who has invested heavily in the development of my own sites, I felt it was important to break out of any traps of my own making. To this end, here are three new pieces of writing (not published on any of my own sites) that I’d like to share with you:

  • A new poem published on Medium: Jury Duty
  • A new feature for The Content Strategist: Google Dreams of a Bot That Will Take Over Your Brand’s Twitter
  • A new feature for Nimble: 3 Ways to Light a Spark of Brand Love
  • Medium is an interesting development for readers and writers. It’s a platform for text, where writers self-publish as they would on their own sites. The difference is Medium offers what only a platform can: opportunities for discovery, collaboration and recommendation.

    The web is too big. Millions of personal websites are too hard to find, bookmark, return to and read. Some are well designed for reading, others not so much. I wouldn’t say stand-alone web sites are in danger of extinction, but there is a shift from owned media to shared media.

    In my own world, I saw the need for consolidation and focus, which led me to step away from after a nine year run. The topic became tiresome, but it was also a matter of economics. David Burn the writer and brand builder makes money. David Burn the ad blogger makes friends in the business, and sometimes those friends lead to work.

    A blog can be good for business, but the line from the blog to your paid product or service has to be direct and I didn’t have that on AdPulp. I do have that on

    Know Thyself Writer-Man

    Digital disrupts all in its wake. Even our language is not safe.

    Consider the word “content.” It’s a word I have adopted to clarify my professional specialty.

    In April 2006, I was promoted from senior copywriter to content director at BFG Communications in Hilton Head. I was head of my own department, the content department, which set about filling vast digital spaces, a.k.a. our client’s websites, with content.

    Given my history with and attachment to the word content, Tim Kreider’s opinion piece, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” got my attention when he turned his argument to what words mean and how they build or destroy real market value.

    The first time I ever heard the word “content” used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, “content providers” — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called “art” — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.

    Most content, especially content made to sell, is in fact filler. Therefore, in the context of an advertising industry discussion, I am not grappling in the same way Kreider is with this problem. But he and I both agree that real writing must be called writing, not content. Same for real writers—they are writers not content producers or managers.

    For me, this presents an important choose-your-words-wisely moment. Because content departments and content directors are not all that common, even today, so it’s not simple for me to easily convey my value to prospective buyers of David Burn-made content.

    I was speaking to an old friend the other day. I thought how can my friend, or any friend help, me land new business when he or she doesn’t clearly understand what I do for a living?

    “Hi, my name is David. I convey brand value.”

    Sadly, especially for a writer, the above explanation and titles like copywriter or brand storyteller don’t do enough to communicate our market value. I am not sure there is much in the way of a workaround here.

    I don’t want to over think this, but when you tell someone you are a writer, there’s an immediate suspicion (in gentler souls, a curiosity) about how you earn your way in the world. That’s likely why we come up with fancy words for what we do, or worse, long-winded explanations. It’s also why we work in fields like advertising and media.

    My Three Words for 2013

    Chris Brogan has unleashed a meme, or narrative construct, that helps sum up what you want to work on, change or improve in the coming year.

    My friend, Dian Crawford, is participating in #mythreewords. Her three words are “Velocity, Simplicity and Laughter.” I had to consider my three words for a bit, but eventually landed on Grateful, Committed and Traditional.

    Grateful. My mom is a glass-half-full person. But this trait did not come down to me via genetics or environment. I am quick to point out what is missing, rather than what is there. Can I change this about myself? I think I can, but it will take a realignment of sorts and a more spiritual approach. Speaking of, we watched this little film last night called Happy. The filmmakers visited people around the world who are happy and the common denominator, in case after case, is close connections to family and friends. When you have these bonds at the center of your life–and to a large degree Darby and I do–you have much to be grateful for. So, I can look at my present work situation, for instance, and a) chastise myself for not earning more money and making a bigger name for myself in the four years since leaving my last job, or b) I can see that I am more successful now than ever, on the right path and that the money and recognition will come. Bottom line, I am grateful to make a living as a writer and thankful for all the people who help make this reality possible.

    Committed. I have lots of ideas and my mind wanders. For most of my life my body wandered with it, from one state to the next, one job to the next and from one group of friends to the next. I am grateful for the depth and diversity of experiences, no question, but I’m also intentionally working to go deep, to connect and plant roots. Oregon may not be the perfect place for this, but no place is. Advertising may not be the perfect profession either. But since when is perfection required? What is required is confidence that being here in Oregon is right and good, that all can be achieved here, as a writer, a businessman and a person. On the writerly front, I will need to be more committed than ever, as my plans for 2013 are on the ambitious side. I intend to write fewer blog posts and more long-form pieces, including new short stories and a book about marketing. The plan is to write a chapter or story a week for 16 weeks starting now.

    Traditional. I got a record player for Christmas this year and a collection of used records, including Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell, Katy Lied by Steely Dan and Happy To Be Just Like I Am, by Taj Mahal, among others. I grew up in an analog world, but I lost touch with it. I do not see losing tough with it as a positive. There’s no doubt that I was (and still am) genuinely excited by certain digital developments like push-button publishing and streaming radio. But it’s not all good. For me, it’s about using common sense and determining what is, and is not, an actual advance. Take cell phones. They suck as phones, but we accept the dropped calls, the spotty reception and lack of audio quality (to say nothing of the high prices) as the new norm. It’s stupid. You know what else is stupid? I was driving on I-5 today and this guy in the middle lane was going way too slow. I passed him on the right, as I approached my exit and I looked over to see him texting. On I-5 with cars and trucks everywhere going 60+ miles per hour. We’ve made some advances connected to digital culture, but we’ve also regressed. Of course, I can’t concern myself with which video games are rotting the minds of millions, or what other corrupt forces are at work. All I can do is pause, examine and evaluate for myself what I find valuable and what I do not. Increasingly, I see that Facebook and Twitter can be enriching, but there’s a cost attached–even if the cost is only time spent. I want to write and read books, not completely out of context microbursts from friends and strangers. Ergo, I will be grateful for and committed to our traditional works of American literature (like Moby Dick, which I have started to read on my Kindle).

    It occurs to me now, I could change my three words to “Read Moby Dick” and call it good.

    Lilac Rain, Unbroken Chain

    Lilac Rain, Unbroken Chain

    It took me eight years, but I finally did purchase and read every word of Phil Lesh’s autobiography, Searching for the Sound. I am glad I did, as Phil offers us his humanity and his immense mind with this telling. It’s also the only first person account of the formation of Grateful Dead by a band member.

    As a fan of the band and its legendary bass player, I wanted to like this book. As a student of the 1960s, I wanted to like this book. And Lesh is an eloquent spokesman for his generation. The man is smart as a whip, which comes across in his music, naturally, but it also sails through in his prose.

    I wanted to play in a way that heightened the beats by omission, as it were, by playing around them, in a way that added harmonic motion to the somewhat static chord progressions of the songs we were playing then. I wanted to play in a way that moved melodically but much more slowly than the lead melodies sung by the vocalists or played on guitar or keyboard. Contrast and complement: Each of us approached the music from a different direction, at angles to one another, like the spokes of a wheel.

    I have long been astonished by Phil’s musical mind and his ability to play what’s in it. He invented a new way to play bass, and his new, inventive style fit perfectly with what Jerry Garcia was playing. Bring in the other spokes and you’ve got an extremely potent form of heavily amplified improvisational music.

    Phil also writes candidly about his, and the band’s, use of LSD.

    At one point, I looked over at Jerry and saw a bridge of light like a rainbow of a thousand colors streaming between us; and flowing back and forth across that bridge: three-dimensional musical notes—some swirling like the planet Jupiter rotating at 100 times normal speed, some like fuzzy little tennis balls with dozens of legs and feet (each foot wearing a different sock!), some striped like zebras, some like pool balls, some even rectangular or hexagonal, all brilliantly colored and evolving as they flowed, not only the notes that were being played, but all the possible notes that could have been played.

    Throughout the text Phil’s ability to recall in detail the people, places, events and yes, even the psychedelic adventures of his youth, some 40 years after it all happened, is pretty amazing.

    Later in the the book when my own direct experience of the band is a factor, I realize that while Phil’s finely honed details are plentiful, they are also highly selective, as well as totally personal. As it should be, the point is how plentiful and rich this narrative pool is. For instance, when Phil discusses the band’s Europe tour in October 1990, it’s a story about his family vacation. Nothing wrong with that, but my own (undocumented) stories from that particular trip are slightly more adventurous.

    Today, we have books about Jerry from skilled biographers, we have Phil’s own take and there’s a smattering of efforts from fans, and from the academic community to describe and catalog the Grateful Dead experience. I feel like what’s missing is a platform for Deadheads to tell their own tales. I am envisioning a data-based structure where hundred of stories from each show can be curated, and possibly edited into a group writing experiment.

    What really happened between the notes on a given night? Ask the hive mind. With so many real life stories, photos, video and drawings to pull from, the hive delivers fractal-like reflections of a place in time and space, 2000-plus times over. Also, these narrative accounts of Grateful Dead shows would be fun to match up against the audio recordings. We know what it sounded like on a particular night thanks to soundboard and audience tapes, but what did it feel like? The liner notes from fans can help answer that.