Saturday, September 27, 2008

R.I.P., Paul Newman

A year or so ago, I posted here about writing fan letters, and I made a list of people whose work or lives have inspired me enough that I feel an obligation to express my admiration and gratitude to them. I don't remember how close to the top of my list he was, but I actually wrote Paul Newman a fan letter last month, and finally put it in the mail a couple of weeks ago. Somebody had shown me a recent picture of him looking frail and I thought, better get this done before it's too late.

Paul Newman died yesterday. I have no idea whether or not he got my letter. In my narcissistic writer mind, I imagine he did, and the letter killed him. With kindness. If he did read it, I hope he felt, wow, I really have touched people's lives in some way he'd never quite felt it before. The letter mostly emphasized how his life has enriched mine, from movie moments I'll never forget, to witnessing his political activism, to the inspiration of the Hole In The Wall Gang camps for kids, to the good food, good works, and good packaging copy generated by Newman's Own. And I told him that he made me feel better about getting older, which is no mean feat.

I sent the letter to the Newman's Own address, and included a piece I'd written for an "encouragement project" at Hallmark. As fan letters go, it was pretty damn good, I must say. I really hope somebody got it to him.

And I hope anyone who reads this will take the time to tell someone who has inspired you what that inspiration means. These people aren't always going to be around.

I never told David Foster Wallace how his work blew my mind, and then it was suddenly too late. You can't anticipate an early exit like that, and I'm not saying a fan letter can prevent it. But it's worth doing. It feels satisfying to have gotten this one out before Paul Newman died, even if he never saw it. At least I didn't leave it on the table.

I hereby hoist a Fig Newman in honor of a great actor, humanitarian, and all-around cool cat. Man, them's good eatin'.

So this week, I'm picking a writer. What do I really want to say to...Philip Roth? Robert Bly? Billy Collins? Or Annie Proulx? It had better be good.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mann About Internet

I've mentioned Merlin Mann here before. I first bumped into him on Twitter, where everyone seems to follow his feed. He's written some of the funniest stuff imaginable in 140 characters or fewer, ever. He also maintains a creative productivity blog (43 Folders) that claims a vast readership, a much-laughed-at weekly podcast (You Look Nice Today: A Journal of Emotional Hygiene) with two other humorists, a video interview series (The Merlin Show) also on iTunes--AND a hilarious site called 5ives, which is simply lists of five things--some literary, some techie, and some just pop-topical, viz.:

Five ways Angelina Jolie can quickly acquire more children
1. gestate auxiliary sets of twins in climate-controlled Fendi bags
2. make Brad build a big-ass gingerbread house
3. explore viability of controversial “dorsal carriage” (a/k/a “butt fetus”)
4. surreptitiously cruise Gymboree with mallet and a sack
5. lay excess eggs in what’s left of Sean Young

A goofball. But a serious one. His basic premise about doing business on the web is, if people would just try harder to express a passionate point of view about what they're interested in, other people would get interested in it, too. 25,000+ Twitter followers and millions of hits annually on 43 Folders pretty well confirm that idea.

Merlin's personal blog is called Kung Fu Grippe. He posts a lot of video, promotes other sites and stuff he finds, reveals a little of his family life (married, doting on an infant daughter), and ruminates. He recently took a Twitter break, saying people could find him blogging instead. The last time I did, I found an amazing post, entitled "Better" -- a call to a higher quality of content creation. It's partly a renunciation of Twitter, suggesting that he'd become addicted to it and too distracted by it to create work he could be proud of. I miss the laughs, but I really respect the POV, which he's amplified over at 43 Folders as well. A big following of amused daily readers isn't enough. You have to feel that your creative life is truly creative and truly alive.

Update: Merlin's back on Twitter, but only tweeting one or two times a day. Still funny, still inimitable, and still getting archived in more people's Favorites than just about anybody.

There's a cluster of Merlin Mann links in my sidebar. It's hard to keep up with him, but trying has its rewards.