Who is on Your Writing Rushmore?

by James Scott Bell

A few reflections on the recent Super Bowl.

First of all, what more can be said of Tom Brady? I mean, it’s astounding. It’s not just that he has won seven Super Bowls—more than any other franchise in league history—it’s that he won the latest at the age of 43! And with a full head of hair! And a new team! And he’s going to come back and play at least another year! Exclamation points are required for all this!

More on Mr. Brady in a moment.

I want to say a word about young Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs quarterback. He is an incredible talent, fun to watch, and no doubt will be back in the big game more than once. I’m just as impressed with him off the field. After the game he said, “Obviously, I didn’t play like I wanted to play. What else can you say? All you can do is leave everything you have on the field, and I felt like the guys did that. They were the better team today. They beat us pretty good, the worst I think I’ve been beaten in a long time, but I’m proud of the guys and how they fought to the very end of the game.”

That’s called leadership. Mahomes (whose father was a major league baseball pitcher) also said something that applies to all of us as we face the challenges of the writing life:

“My dad lost in the World Series in his career. He continued to battle and continued to be who he was. Obviously it hurts right now. It hurts a lot. But we’re going to continue to get better. We have a young group of guys that have had a lot of success and have learned from that. We’ve had a few failures, and we have to learn from that. We can’t let this define us. We have to continue to get better, going into next year and being even better and preparing ourselves to hopefully be in this game again.”

That’s how you handle a setback.

Now, back to Brady. He has long been considered to be the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) at the quarterback position. You really can’t argue with that. The question after this Super Bowl has changed to: Is Tom Brady the greatest team athlete of all time? The only other contenders, in my opinion, are Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. (I’m not counting individual athletics, where you have numerous contenders to argue about, e.g., Serena Williams, Usain Bolt, Tiger Woods, etc.)

Brady, in my view, is now at the top of the list. There was always a contention by Brady doubters that he benefitted from being coached in New England all those years by Bill Belichick, a supposed football genius. Well, guess what? Brady leaves the Patriots to go to a team that had finished 7-9 the year before. He takes them to the Super Bowl and wins. Maybe it was Brady who made his former coach a “genius.” (The Patriots went 7-9 and failed to make the playoffs.)

Now, to turn this to writing, I got to thinking about the GOAT of literature. It’s probably an impossible discussion because there are so many variables, including personal taste. So to make it easier, let’s go to another metaphor that’s often used in sports. Who would you put on your Rushmore of writers? That means you get four names. To narrow it down, let’s make it from the nineteenth century on, so we’re not arguing Shakespeare, Homer, Cervantes, Chaucer, etc. My criteria would be an author who wrote at least two novels we still talk about and study today; and who exerted a palpable influence on other writers. With that in mind, here is my Rushmore:

Fyodor Dostoevsky
My choice for the GOAT if I had to pick one. Best novel ever written? The Brothers Karamazov.

Mark Twain
Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

Ernest Hemingway
His style was envied and copied, but never duplicated.

Raymond Chandler
I select him over Dickens because of the influence he had on an entire genre.

Now it’s your turn. Who is on your Rushmore of writers? Do you have a GOAT?


Public Speaking for Writers

by James Scott Bell

Mark Twain

On occasion here at TKZ we’ve posted on the topic of public speaking for writers. Examples are here (Gilstrap) and here (Burke). Today I’ll add a few of my own tips for the scribe who gets a yakking gig. The first comes by way of Mr. Mark Twain.

Before his books and stories began to appear, Twain gained celebrity as a lecturer. Working as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union newspaper, he’d sent in dispatches on what were then called The Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). These proved wildly popular. When he returned stateside in 1866, he pondered how he might use this bit of renown to expand his wallet.

One possibility was delivering a lecture based on his columns. Encouraged by a friend, Twain rented a San Francisco opera house and charged $1 a ticket. He wrote up an advertisement for the newspapers:





In which passing mention will be made of Harris, Bishop Staley, the
American missionaries, etc., and the customs and characteristics
of the natives duly discussed and described. The great volcano of
Kilauea will also receive proper attention.

is in town, but has not been engaged

were in contemplation for this occasion, but the idea has been abandoned

may be expected; in fact, the public are privileged to expect whatever they please

Dress Circle, $1.00 Family Circle, 50c
Doors open at 7 o’clock The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock

Twain was nervous that evening, sure he’d be facing a mostly empty house. In fact, the place was packed. But when he first stepped out into the lights he was sandbagged by stage fright. He was, as one biographer put it, “wobbly-kneed and dry of tongue.” As the introductory applause died down, he told himself, “These are my friends.” His nerves began to calm. He spoke to the audience as if he were seated with pals around a cracker barrel in some old mining town.

The lecture was a hit.

Afterward, and older man found his way to Twain and asked, “Be them your natural tones of eloquence?”

Which is my first bit of advice for a speaker: Be yourself. Use your natural tones of eloquence. Don’t sound like a speechifier. Speak as you would to a group of friends.

Second bit of advice: Your address should have one main point. I wrote some time ago about my ride with Justice Thurgood Marshall, who told me the best oral arguments in the Supreme Court were designed around winning one, primary point.

Knowing the single point you want to make will take care of 50% of your nervousness. Write down that point in a sentence. For example: Anyone can improve as a public speaker if they will follow a few fundamentals.

Then design your speech to “prove” that point and inspire your audience to take action.

How do you prove a point? With evidence. In a speech, anecdotal evidence is best, because it’s a story, and stories make lectures come alive. In a speech about the above point, I might bring Mark Twain in again as “evidence” for the fundamental “Always leave them wanting more.”

In a 1901 lecture Twain reported:

“Some years ago in Hartford we all went to the church on a hot, sweltering night, to hear the annual report of Mr. Hawley, a city missionary, who went around finding the people who needed help and didn’t want to ask for it. He told of the life in the cellars where poverty resided, he gave instances of the heroism and devotion of the poor … Well, Hawley worked me up to a great state. I couldn’t wait for him to get through. I had four hundred dollars in my pocket. I wanted to give that and borrow more to give. You could see greenbacks in every eye. But he didn’t pass the plate, and it grew hotter and we grew sleepier. My enthusiasm went down, down, down – $100 at a time, till finally when the plate came round I stole ten cents out of it.”

Third tip: If you can get a laugh, it always helps. The easiest way to get a laugh is with a good anecdote, like the above. That way it doesn’t seem like you are trying to tell a joke, which can sometimes fail. Pepper your speech with a few choice quotes, too.

Fourth tip: Take off your name badge when you speak. It’s distracting.

Fifth tip: Don’t mangle the opening. The audience sizes you up within the first seven seconds. So don’t waste time with impromptu thanks (“Thanks, Fiona, for that lovely introduction”) or currying favor (“It’s so nice to be here tonight”) or, egad, confession (“I’m a little nervous, so I hope you’ll forgive me.”)

Instead, when you get to the podium, pause for three seconds. Then launch with one of the following:


“It was Mark Twain who said, ‘It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.’ ”


“Eighty-three percent of Americans fear public speaking more than they do death. According to Jerry Seinfeld, that means if they go to a funeral they’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.”


Arriving at a small town to give a lecture, Mark Twain went to a local barber for a shave. When Twain mentioned it was his first visit to the town, the barber said it was a good time to be there, because Mark Twain was going to give a lecture that night.

“You’ll want to go, I suppose,” the barber said.

“I guess so,” said Twain.

“Well, it’s sold out,” the barber said. “You’ll have to stand.”

“Just my luck,” Twain said. “I always have to stand when that fellow lectures.”

Where do you find such material? Research, of course, which is rather easy these days via the internet. But I’ll mention one favorite resource I’ve used for years—The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes.

And now, lest you be tempted to remove a dime from the collection plate, I’ll stop.

You’ve all heard some great speeches. What have you noticed about them, and the speaker?


Huckleberry Finn’s Transformation

by James Scott Bell

Hemingway famously declared that all of modern American literature comes from one book, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The novel, however, was controversial from the jump. In 1885 the Concord Public Library banned it from their shelves for being “the veriest trash, suitable only for the slums.”

In recent years Finn has been removed from reading lists for its copious use of the N word, though Twain was portraying a slice of 1840s America in order to expose and shame its prejudices. But this is not a post about that controversy. The interested reader can find a good overview of the dispute in this article.

What I want to focus on is Twain’s use of the mirror moment, and the transformation of Huck. In my book on the subject I assert that knowing the mirror moment tells you what your book is really all about. And that’s certainly true of Huckleberry Finn. (How Twain managed to read my book long before I was born is still a mystery.)

In the middle of the novel Huck has the opportunity to turn Jim over to some slave trackers, for a reward. In the culture Huck is part of this is the “right” thing to do. A slave is someone else’s “property.” Thus, helping Jim escape is stealing. And since stealing is agin’ the Good Book, Huck is in danger of hellfire. So he’s been taught.

But something makes Huck hesitate. He tells the trackers that he and the fellow on the raft (Jim in hiding) have small pox. The trackers make a quick exit.

All this causes Huck to reflect:

They went off and I got aboard the raft, feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong, and I see it warn’t no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don’t get started right when he’s little ain’t got no show—when the pinch comes there ain’t nothing to back him up and keep him to his work, and so he gets beat. Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s’pose you’d a done right and give Jim up, would you felt better than what you do now? No, says I, I’d feel bad—I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.

So here is Huck asking himself who he is, who he is supposed to be, and deciding for the moment that the best thing is to just not think about it. But he’s teetering toward a transformation of some kind. He doesn’t have the capacity (yet) to completely understand what’s happening inside him. But we know whatever it is it’s at the heart level.

Here is Huck’s transformation late in Act 3. His inner struggle is too much to bear. He wants to feel cleansed, once and for all, so he won’t go to hell. He writes a note to Miss Watson—Jim’s “owner”—and says he’s got her slave and to send the reward money. He feels good for a moment because he’s not going to go to hell now. But then he starts thinking about all that he and Jim had been through:

I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

Huck takes up the letter and suddenly freezes,

because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up.

One of the most powerful transformations in all of literature. Indeed, the esteemed Prof. Arnold Weinstein of Brown University calls it “[a]rguably the greatest moment in American fiction.” By ripping up the letter Huck proves his transformation, his breaking free from a false moral prison into nascent humanity. It finds completion in the famous last lines:

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

That’s how you make a classic. A moral dilemma, a mirror moment, a crisis of conscience, a final decision, proof of transformation, and a resonant last line.

Easy, right? Ha!

But, truly, these things can be done in any genre, and will elevate any book. There is plenty of competent fiction out there. But why settle for mere competence?

I’m sure each of you can recall a powerful, transformative ending in a book or movie, one that you’ve never forgotten. Tell us about it.