Tuesday, July 17, 2018


The first time I ever heard of "VICE", the online magazine, was when they did a story about Browning, Montana, the capital of the Blackfeet Nation.  That was a while ago.  It was an honest story, though they like the underside of life a little too much and kinda neglected the women.

Now today I've intersected with them in two ways.  One was a short video.  Online magazines are beginning to present short videos that same way that print magazine present articles.  This was a little vignette of people moving through their lives, but instead of edited bits that jumped from one scene to the other, the people were all there on a stage-space and the camera simply moved among the people.  It was beautifully done.  See for yourself:   https://video.vice.com/en_us/video/waad-short-film/5b4634fbbe407757714c6671

"Wa'ad" is a composite of what was written in letters from detention centers.  It is short and simple.  This URL will take you to both the film and a discussion and interview about it.  https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/7xmnyx/this-new-short-film-shows-life-in-isolation-for-imprisoned-refugees  

VICE is not limited to Self-Obsessed America, but covers stories about the globe.  Today this week's disastrous and obscene conference between Trump and Putin,  sent Trump out looking as though he'd been beaten with a stick.  (We used to call dogs like that "fear-biters" and they were dangerous.)  Putin came out smiling, a show of SM almost unbearable to watch.  

VICE has saved me again by reminding me through Twitter of Obama speaking in honor of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa.  #Mandelalecture  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlrWhx8Spp8  It's not that I agree with everything Obama said.  For one thing he never seems aware of the indigenous peoples around the world.  For another he values institutions and nations far more than I do -- he's more of a politician and I'm more of an anthropologist.  But Obama's graceful, mature, humorous presence was a welcome restorative.  He calls us back to the values of his youth and my young adulthood.  We forget.

"Wa'ad" is also a reminder of grace under pressure -- not the flamboyant heroism of the movies, but the daily work that is before us.  These people are not from Harvard and Yale and so on.  They are the people that the Ivy League students envy and go to visit, pretending that they are bringing technology but ending up with friendship and laughter, freely given, they never forget for the rest of their lives.  Obama didn't forget all that -- he was born into it and calls us to join.

Twitter has fallen on hard times and one has to wade through a lot of debris to get to the good stuff.  One "genre" it repeats is that of the single drunk old white man, near-homeless, who expresses his deficiencies by finding someone to berate and shout at -- sometimes even strike.  Women get into this mode as well, looking for vulnerable victims and finding little kids -- the only people weaker than themselves.  It's a form of street theatre but clearly these people have also acted this out at home, made themselves hated by their own families.

I used to say that the strategy of being the "last man standing" is far too common and always overlooks the problem that when the last man stands there all by himself, who's going to admire him, obey him, love him?  In contrast is the Biblical, "What you do to the least of us is also done to me."  Do you see the small arms of the children reunited with their parents go around the necks of their beloveds, their source of life?

"In filmmaker Bassam Tariq's new short film, Wa'ad (The Promise), little is what it seems. Its centerpiece, a conversation between a father and son, isn't actually taking place. When the son speaks of his siblings "doing well" after their mother's death, they aren't really. And when he says he'll continue to write, right before the film's heartbreaking denouement, it's TBD.

"Deft in its execution, the four-minute short seeks to evoke the feeling of what isn't said—"what you can write when you have a limited amount of space," according to the filmmaker. Shot in two days last summer in Beirut, it's a stark look at life for one detained refugee and a tragic ode to family that demands multiple viewings."


Obama's speech is longer than an hour and there's nothing in it you haven't heard him say before.  Wa'ad is less than five minutes but it is not "small-hearted" to use Obama's memorable phrase.  Doesn't seem like watching it is too much to ask.

Monday, July 16, 2018


What really happened in Finland?  Of course, my version is all fantasy and never happened.  It is frankly fake news  It's just my way of dealing with the appalling photos of Trump kissing Putin's rump.  The body language is VERY eloquent.  Even Trump's habitual leaning forward on the edge of his chair and putting his fingertips together in the "pussy" sign between his knees, collapsed a bit as he looked wildly and belligerently around.  But Putin's attitude was triumphant: relaxed, open, and straightforward.  He won.  He thinks.

So what happened in the earlier two-person secret meeting?  This is what I imagine.

T. was begging for asylum in Russia and trying to set the terms for where he would stay, the strategy for getting him out of the US, and what the cover story would be.  He wants a golf course, of course, and wants his name on it.  But he can't figure out how to escape the US except by ordering his pilot to fly somewhere -- where?

P. doesn't want T. now that he's become so ridiculous.  He offers an old golf course in Siberia where they have no golf carts and in winter one must play in snow, which means a colored golf ball and a dog trained to dig up the ball if the snow is deep.  T. refuses because he dislikes dogs.  Dogs are loyal, which is an attribute he despises.

P. says T. must make sure that Melania comes along because otherwise it would seem like T. was merely escaping, not preferring Russia and its accommodations.  T. despairs.  It cost him millions to get her onto the plane to Finland.  If she figures out he is running for it, she will not get on the plane for any amount of money.  Anyway, his pilot is military and may obey his Air Force commanders in the US and anyway while the plane is in flight, a pilot is the captain of the ship and outranks even the president.  And then there's the fuel to manage.

But then P. changes tactics because he realizes that it would be simpler to shoot Air Force One out of the sky.  It would be easy to get a US rocket to do the job and then blame it on some country no one likes because the US munitions mongers will sell to anyone.  It's a little worrisome that the US, which holds so much of P's laundered money, might nationalize some entity with the money in it.  They seem to find things better than was anticipated.

T. is jet-lagged but took pills to compensate instead of getting drunk like anyone else in his position.  He is determined not to get drunk because that would mean not thinking and making crazy decisions, maybe not even able to comb and glue his hair properly.  The fact that he does the same thing while sober does not register.  He does not realize the pills were a hypnotic, something like date-rape drugs.

P. says if T. doesn't do what he's told, P. will drop an atomic bomb on an American city.  T. considers for a moment, then asks which city?  He can spare something small and liberal -- maybe Carmel, California?

While this is going on, the riders on Air Force One during this trip are having a conference.  They are remembering 9/11 and that third airliner, how the passengers realized what was at stake and even knowing that their own deaths would be inevitable, decided to crash the plane.  Destroying the White House, old and poorly maintained as it is, was too symbolic to be tolerated.  They put their lives on the line.  There were no cameras that recorded the crash.  Their act certainly prevented a treason so deep that America would be wounded for decades.  We could spare a couple of capitalist skyscrapers much more easily.

The humble stewards, the arrogant journalists, the flight attendants, the cleaners and the stenographers agreed that taking down the plane might be worth it, depending on how T. handles the meeting.  Certainly there were no Democrat legislators on the plane and if there were Republicans, they didn't want it known.

The only thing worse than T.'s speech alongside P. was walking in front of the Queen.  The speech was only words and no one believed them anyway.  The Queen, however, is sacred and must not be obscured or preceded.  She gave T. hand-signals as though he were a Corgi, and he obeyed since he was confronting military, which he loves dearly.  The Queen was not amused.

I'm going to end this right here because I can't even imagine what will happen next.  Watch the news.  Air Force One is crossing the Atlantic at the moment I write.

Sunday, July 15, 2018


Chuck Palahniuk became famous for two reasons:  the first is his book about "Fight Club" which became a movie, which certified him as a writer even though a film is not much like a book; the second is his success at workshops promising to be way outside the norm, dangerous and surprising.  This is a classic way for a writer to find an income based on all the wannabes out there, an evidently endless supply, and also the link between movies and books, which is the assumption that the road to success in any media is violence, insults, macho self-destruction.

The following quote is from an article in Oregon Live.  The success of any "book" that is paper pages within a protective cover is based on the froth about it produced on pop media: newspapers, interviews, speaking on panels.  Like this:

“The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.” And the second rule? Come on, everybody, say it with us: “You do not talk about fight club.” Palahniuk’s novel of ennui-driven violence is a cultural touchstone for Generation X, and Palahniuk himself has sort-of become a leading voice for the disaffected Everyman. “Writing in an ironic deadpan and including something to offend everyone,” Publishers Weekly wrote in its 1996 review of “Fight Club,” “Palahniuk is a risky writer who takes chances galore ... [and his] utterly original creation will make even the most jaded reader sit up and take notice.”


In the end it wasn't THAT original, but his influence persists.  In fact, this particular article is surprising because it shows other "Oregon" writers who have persisted, even though we've half-forgotten some of them and most of them are not pure Oregonian.  Joaquin Miller, for instance, the poet of the Sierras, an early model of poetry and edge, long before Burroughs et al.

It's ironic that the "Montana writers" who often overlap with "Oregon writers" are much "nicer" and direct their violence at the entirely Other, while the Oregon writers are fierce and after their own.  In fact, I've never liked Jean Auel, though I like her subject, because one day at the bookstore in John's Landing shopping center, she ran a handtruck of her books over my foot.  She didn't target me -- she was just in a hurry.  Heedless, reckless, limitless, that's what Oregon writers are after.  No apologies.  But their horizons are obscured by trees, except on the coast.

But it wasn't Palaniuk who founded "Dangerous writing."  It was Tom Spanbauer who come up with the idea and has done teaching workshops about it ever since.  Ironically, he says the first thing for a teacher is to create a safe place for the writers.  http://www.tomspanbauer.com/dangerous-writing/  Palaniuk, who made a lot of money with his work, now claims that he was cleaned out by thieves, some of them purporting to be safe money managing friends.  Now THAT'S dangerous!

There was a writer I knew who wrote a book I didn't know.  (I'll buy it when I have money.)   Walt Curtis was born on the 4th of July when I was two years old.  He really was in Portland, and he was thoroughly Sixties in the Burroughs way.  His was the Portland I never knew about when I was there, but I recognize the places: the Lone Fir Cemetary, Sheridan's fruit stand.  I did know about William Stafford and his son, Kim, who teaches writing at Lewis and Clark College, very high-brow.  I didn't know that William Stafford was onstage with Allen Ginsberg.  It was the time of political protest and a demand for change.

Here's a taste of Walt:  ”Hell hath no fury like the dream spurned / I saw a waterfall of death and purity / Which will cleanse life of its dirt / We will bathe there naked and free in the morning light of a new dawn.” I am a poetic ecologist. I am concerned with climate catastrophe and saving planet Earth. I am dubious that there is a future."  He was talking about Oneonta Gorge, where my family hiked.

Curtis' "key" was a book called "Mala Noche: and Other 'Illegal' Adventures" written about immigrants, which would be even more dangerous today.  It was a chapbook in 1977 and later became a film by Gus van Sant "It is a vividly homoerotic account of Curtis's passionate and mostly unrequited love for several Mexican street youths who come to Oregon seeking jobs and money.  The powerful imagery is reminiscent of Jean Genet and of other Beat Generation writers.  There is great sadness in the lives of these lost young men but also great beauty and dignity."  Howard E. Miller in the Library Journal.

Strangely, this has become a genre of tales with special appeal for young people rather alienated from their peers and looking for a key to meaning.  It includes a deep love of wild nature.

Here is the hour-long "Salmon Poet" by Walt Curtis.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6Wh1B-F-OU  It's a little dorky, but meant to be fun anyway.  If you get as much of a kick as Curtis and others got making it, you win.  The vid is made in the fall which his why there are so many salmon come up to spawn in the streams, a little ragged towards the end of their lives.  In wilder places there are bears to recycle them, carry their digested remains up into the forests to feed the trees.  Curtis says he's not trying to be a white Indian or shaman, but that doesn't mean he leaves the salmon tribes out.

I'm so pleased that Curtis is focused on the immanent, the fleshly, the organic existence of senses.  Mystical woo-woo is evanescent, mental foo-foo for Ph.D. candidates who don't want to have to read all those books.  I remember vividly sitting in that old bomber plane when I was a child.  I can close my eyes and see that instrument panel.  It had a nose then.  War is not just about Vietnam or the sand countries.

I'm glad I left.  I'm glad Walt Curtis is still there.  We're both old now, but, oh, where we've been!

Saturday, July 14, 2018


Religion in the Western world, particularly after the Enlightenment which gave a high value to science and the confirmable world, has been a matter of institutions as well as their symbolism of buildings, locations, and natural formations.  At first religion was part of government, then was touted as a route to success and happiness.

In fact, what we call religion is a complex of forces, confirmations, instructions,  and aesthetics that give it priority over other ideas and entities, even in a modern individualistic world.  It is a way of binding and defining people as groups.

In our time we value most highly prosperity and morality, and until lately we believed they were related.  In a way, now that we have abandoned morality as getting in the way of prosperity, morality is still primary since it has become a guide of how to cheat successfully, how to be a winning individual in a sucker world.  Strangely, many religions promote powerlessness such as "love" which many translate to mean "be nice," a path to non-power as though helplessness were virtuous.  This appears to be a useful way to disarm individuals who persist in opposing the group, which might be either minority or majority.  To some extent individuals can choose their "group" or congregation, even if it's mostly an aggregation, an accumulation, a gathering of people that might be unconscious, simply a matter of their assumed identities being similar.

Step away from institutional religion, meant for groups, giving individuals a lot to think about and chances for leadership.  Some are protective against a larger society and others oppose it.  In terms of the individual, religion is often not what it is for a group.  "Nones" explicitly reject institutions but may have specific and meaningful moralities.

Writing is a vocation or calling that often might bring up the topic of religion or the individual in relation to the group (whether defined as family, community, identity groups, humankind or living creatures).  Print on paper captures the dynamic process of the individual brain as it pushes against the environment and sorts through it.  Pen on paper is not the only way to preserve a record of something that can't really be recorded.

This is a stiff and sophomoric way to describe what is fluid and ineffable, no matter how much you want to "f" it.  While some are trying to get notice and praise for their writing, believing that it is an invited "spirit" for good boys and girls, others wrestle with the true primordial conceptualizing that is underneath words, only conditionally grammatical, and entirely irrelevant to publishing, prizes, inspiration, or any other way that institutions try to own writing.  It's the dimension that causes some to say that in order to be an effective writer, one must develop one's personhood, the qualities that allow truth.

Every language is a code but may not have code for what can be conceptualized: no words, no grammar, no metaphors that capture some felt experience.  True writers seek to master the code, but are also willing to go outside it for ways to say the unspeakable, even when it's only howling.  This is a boundary that some always seek to find and cross, in hopes of finding the way many have felt but couldn't express.  It is often about the edges that institutions deny and suppress.

Talking this way makes me feel like Kahlil Gibran saying all those gnomic, enigmatic puzzles that can be great insight or just chatter, often quite popular.  Not very far away from sophomoric pontificating but apt enough to seem valid.

Back to the little handful of writers I was "talking" about yesterday:  Doig, Welch, Kipp, Blew, et al.  They're good story tellers with genuine experience and insight.  I appreciate and praise them, but I want to go beyond them.  Guthrie is not quite the example I want.  Maclean comes closer.  Von Tilburg Clark even closer.  These folks have had publishing success, but I don't care anything about publishing.  As it stands, writing is meant to be mediocre because that's where the sales are.  Get too fancy and you'll go broke, so in the name of "editing" -- making proper -- publishers often destroy.  They pull teeth when teeth are the story.

When I came back twenty years ago, I had a vague notion of being a Montana writer.  That meant the prairie as a metaphor, the physical sensations of a wide space taking on meaning.  I explored that while in the ministry and had a little praise for it, but from individuals rather than any institutions.  I pondered and read in the environmental movement, which offered bigger concepts in a space so wide it became global.  I thought and felt myself outside of all institutions, even the ones that employed me.

About ten years ago a new medium, internet messages that operated almost like phone calls, took me outside print-on-paper categories into a far more fluid, international, and cross-morality context.  I was asked to write for a loose affinity-group defined as boys who do sexwork for survival while trying to grow up.  Did I have anything to say about the meaning of their lives?  Soon that question, sort of journalist-media sensation-seeking, was abandoned.  The point was not to question, but to listen -- not to my experience but to theirs; not on the prairie but anywhere, though I stayed here.

They wanted to know why they suffered (when they did, which was not always), why God was punishing them by putting them in grim life-endangering circumstances like diseases that targeted them or social stigma that caged them.  I saw that they loved movement (skateboards) and risk (city parcoursing).  They lived in that below-language underconscious human adventure and they often howled.  Their families had betrayed them -- the families that had ever existed beyond biology.  What accident had allowed them to persist as individuals even if they had no larger group at all?  Many died.  Others grew up.  Their highest value was each other, their most eloquent word the embrace.

It's clear that a writer who is serious must learn to survive -- not just express -- knowing things of great pain and moral degradation, often the realization of one's own limitations and failings, small contemptible things.  There are two effective keys and I learned them from the boys themselves:  story and laughter.  I'll keep at the keyboard.

Friday, July 13, 2018


Louisa May Alcott, Lucy Maude Montgomery, Ivan Doig, and a host of others were all cursed by writing books that everyone dearly loved.  Though popularity in great numbers and over generations are supposed to be the goal of many who want to be writers, when the reality arrives it turns out to be a cage.  The people who loved the first book demand more of them -- just like that first one.  The human -- indeed, mammalian -- love for what is familiar and therefore safe, is so strong that publishers pitch the next book as a variation on the first and then a third and so on.  Until Montgomery, for one, committed suicide because of depression possibly from being locked into the original formula.  J.K Rowling, has used a pseudonym to escape Harry Potter.  Daniel Radcliffe has escaped through growing up, though performing nude in the theatre could have helped break-up the stereotype.  

An example in Montana might be Richard S. Wheeler, who writes rather tongue-in-cheek Westerns.  An example of a son in a proud family who is encumbered with the obligation of being a great success in life, it took him a while to hit upon this niche, but by inventing colorful characters and listening carefully to other writers tell about their plot points, he was able to build a career on a specific sort of story.  At one recent point many of the Western writers who belonged to the same "club" discovered that the take-down of the Cowboy West meant that their stories were hard to sell to publishers.  

As the culture of the West moved farther along the timeline from gunslingers and settlers to a West understood as a treasured environment and "Indian wars" gave way to indigenous peoples, the number of people who wanted to read stories written by other people their age began to diminish.  Now stories featuring gays, Muslims, and persons seeking enlightenment became what sold.  Wheeler and other Western writers tried murder mysteries for a while, and changed their names to fit the genre, but it was not wholly successful.

Even porn writers had to move from stories about sophisticated, naughty and secret events to earnest young dancers struggling for a place in a ballet company and first loves.  Following a burst of change-of-life men leaving their marriages because they finally decided to leave the closet, there has been some about old men with rich lives helped by young partners.  But our Age of Individualism has meant separating into new categories not based on the sameness of the stories but on the sameness of the readers.  Unless there are enough self-identified people like the particular writer, sales are limited.  Seduced housewives want to read about other seduced housewives.

Let's return to Ivan Doig.  In the beginning (in 1957 we were in the same English class, the size of an auditorium).  Ivan was a serious journalist and historian, but that wasn't the route he took, though he moved to Seattle where such a career was possible and he had the right education.  His first book, "House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind" 1978, is cited as one of the ten best memoirs of the West.  It is heart-felt memoir, bitter-sweet, intense as a prairie wind.  It could be argued that it was the best of his writing ever.

The next two books, "Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America (1980) - an essayistic dialog with James G. Swan", and "The Sea Runners" (1982) were serious research-based books, much respected but not best-sellers.  These were the sort of thing he had expected to do.  They were written while I was attending seminary in Chicago.  We were coming to forty years old, getting serious about the meaning of life.

Beginning in 1987, the trilogy about the fictional McGaskill family was published with the success that defined the rest of his writing.   English Creek (1984), Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987), and Ride with Me, Mariah Montana (1990) remain much loved, reassuring, almost-but-not-quite remembered as reality.  The rest are much like these with the exception of "Prairie Nocturne" (2003) which offered a black character who disconcerted some readers.  He died in 2015.

Now and then my path would cross with his, but he was cool, distant.  His style, almost lapidary in its care and semi-poetry, was always aspiring to be the best, the classic, the irreproachable -- even as he got shoved back into regionalism and the "Western" period.  Keeping history, he wrote about the big industrial projects of dams and what the boom/bust cycles did to people.  Often he was in danger of writing what I call "pinafore sagas" about cute kids and mildly alcoholic eccentric uncles.  It's a genre we cherish as our nostalgia for the past becomes less realistic.

So Ivan Doig had a career as a writer: distinguished, occasionally powerful, popular in the genre, not quite escaping those who like to patronize, likely to persist for many years.  His life summaries list many awards and much praise, in addition to genuine affection.  He was constantly published though at some points it was his wife, Carol, who as a literature professor paid the bills.

Ivan and I come from the same stock: red-headed Scots, but I have a strong streak of Irish.  I have only "published" two books, one at an academic Canadian university ("Bronze Inside and Out" about Bob Scriver) that is baggy and indiscriminate but all-there, and "Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke," an anthology of sermons about the theology of the prairies.  

For the past decades I've written daily 1,000 word essays as posts on a blog, prairiemary.blogspot.com -- this one.  I began posting about Blackfeet; Ivan never wrote about Blackfeet. though he grew up next to them.  Another writer, Jimmy Welch (d. 2003), WAS Blackfeet, enrolled, the same age as Ivan and I and educated as a boy in Minneapolis, then in Missoula.   His dad, also named James Welch, was Bob Scriver's playmate.  Young Jim was always warm and friendly to me.  I write as well as they do, probably as much as they have.  I have a "better" education that either of them  (U of Chicago religious studies. MA, 1960).

There's another writer, Darrell Robes Kipp, about our same age but died in 2013.  He was a careful writer but a better speaker, a more expansive and visionary person than any of the other three of us.  And certainly 100% "Indian."  Probably there are others our age who write without being known.

So what is it worth?  What does it mean?  Was Doig, a white conformist, too tame?  Since Darrell published nothing, does that mean he wasn't worthy?  Did I live longer because I'm not done yet or because I'm female or because I haven't stretched to achieve?  Did Darrell, 100% "Indian" write any differently than the other three of us?  Should we be assigned to our own kind or a specific genre?  All Westerners, are any of us more than that?  We were all connected to Academia -- does that matter?

Thursday, July 12, 2018




From artists to scientists, anyone can have a successful streak at any time
Science offers renewed hope for those still waiting for their moment in the spotlight.

From sports to science, success seems to come in hot streaks.Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty
“There are no second acts in American lives,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he should know. He never quite equalled the form he found with his novel The Great Gatsby in 1925 — although some might say neither has anyone else.

The phenomenon of form — and how it can cluster into claimed hot streaks — is much discussed by movie buffs. Does anyone doubt that the Oscars for Martin Scorsese’s 2006 film The Departed were belated recognition for the director’s peerless streak between 1973 (Mean Streets) and 1980 (Raging Bull)? For that matter, has Robert de Niro ever topped his performances in the latter film and in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976)? It’s the same story in music: the stars of Madonna, Björk and Beyoncé have all shone their brightest at particular times.

Such examples could suggest that if you haven’t produced any big hits by the middle of your career, you’ve missed your chance. But a study published this week in Nature offers hope for those still waiting (L. Liu et al. Nature https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0315-8; 2018). It examines the occurrence of hot streaks — runs of high-impact works — in the oeuvres of tens of thousands of film-makers, artists and scientists. It finds that most careers contain at least one relatively hot streak, and that this occurs at an apparently random stage in an individual’s sequence of works.

From ‘hot hands’ in basketball to ‘momentum’ in football, folk wisdom tends to dominate discussions of form, just as it does beliefs about gamblers’ winning streaks. Some will claim that ‘everyone knows’ artists and scientists produce their best work when they are young: Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at 19, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell was in her 20s when she discovered the first pulsar. But then, how to explain the late second blooming of novelist Philip Roth? Others place the peak of performance at mid-career, when the benefits of experience aren’t yet counteracted by declining faculties — look, for example, at the musicians Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone.

“The hot streak seems universal in the domains we studied — we don’t yet know why it happens.”

The new analysis, which looks at crowdsourced film ratings and art auction prices, says that there is no typical career point for a hot streak. The authors argue that creative impact shows the features of ‘bursty dynamics’ — just like other human traits, including movement and e-mail and telephone communications (K.-I. Goh & A.-L. Barabási EPL 81, 48002; 2008). This is not quite the same as saying that large or significant events happen at random; rather, their occurrence is correlated, such that the average time between successive events is smaller than random. If one occurs, another is likely to follow soon — but that sequence can’t last long. That’s precisely what a hot streak is.

For the 20,000 scientists included in the study, the proxy for impact was the citations of an individual’s papers over the ten-year period following each paper’s publication. One could quibble that some scientific papers draw most attention only decades after publication — but that’s rather rare. Hot streaks here correspond to a run of papers cited significantly more than an individual’s average.

The good news is that around 90% of artists and scientists have at least one such hot streak in their career. The bad news is that it’s typically not repeated: 64% of artists and 68% of scientists have only one, and more than two is very rare. F. Scott Fitzgerald was mostly right, then. And there might be little one can do to influence the matter: hot streaks do not, for example, correlate with productivity. The authors of the study make no claim that ‘impact,’ as they measure it, is a good proxy for creativity. After all, there’s still no consensus about how creativity should be defined and measured, let alone whether or how it can be cultivated and nurtured. And scientific impact goes beyond citations.

Indeed, it would be a sad day when the intrinsic value of a work was judged by how much it can be sold for. But the disconnect between popularity and worth perhaps goes to the heart of what to make of these findings. To use economics terminology, are the dynamics of success endogenous — driven by the fluctuating inspiration of the creator, say — or exogenous, produced by the vicissitudes of the marketplace? It’s tempting to imagine a bit of both: that the creator suddenly finds he or she has tapped into the zeitgeist — only to discover, a little further down the line, that the world has moved on.

Maybe the most appealing message, however, is that the dynamics of science are no different from those of the arts: success in both depends on a resonance between the individual’s imagination and the shifting moods and desires of the audience.


Hot streaks in artistic, cultural, and scientific careers
  • Lu Liu, Yang Wang, Roberta Sinatra, C. Lee Giles, Chaoming Song & Dashun Wang 


The hot streak—loosely defined as ‘winning begets more winnings’—highlights a specific period during which an individual’s performance is substantially better than his or her typical performance. Although hot streaks have been widely debated in sports, gambling, and financial markets, over the past several decades, little is known about whether they apply to individual careers. Here, building on rich literature on the lifecycle of creativity we collected large-scale career histories of individual artists, film directors and scientists, tracing the artworks, films and scientific publications they produced. We find that, across all three domains, hit works within a career show a high degree of temporal regularity, with each career being characterized by bursts of high-impact works occurring in sequence. We demonstrate that these observations can be explained by a simple hot-streak model, allowing us to probe quantitatively the hot streak phenomenon governing individual careers. We find this phenomenon to be remarkably universal across diverse domains: hot streaks are ubiquitous yet usually unique across different careers. The hot streak emerges randomly within an individual’s sequence of works, is temporally localized, and is not associated with any detectable change in productivity. We show that, because works produced during hot streaks garner substantially more impact, the uncovered hot streaks fundamentally drive the collective impact of an individual, and ignoring this leads us to systematically overestimate or underestimate the future impact of a career. These results not only deepen our quantitative understanding of patterns that govern individual ingenuity and success, but also may have implications for identifying and nurturing individuals whose work will have lasting impact.

(There's more but you'll have to pay money to read it, which underscores the point about )


Though I'm approaching eighty years old, I still have the grandiose fantasy that I might do something great, like writing the Great American Novel.  I'm not alone.  It never dawns on me and the others that a novel is mostly a frivolous entity, for entertainment before being discarded though it may be cherished by individuals; that it is linked to European narrative forms; that is always local and often melodramatic; that it is dependent on the machinery of publication which is basically an exaggeration of friendship networks in high school; and judgement of its value is dependent on professional critics from a certain class and education; or on highly emotional attachment to the central issue, perhaps that the plot recommends a certain morality be changed.  My example is "Moby Dick," among others, highly praised for including a lot of minutia about hunting whales that is politically incorrect and out of date.  Most of it is not on land, American or otherwise.

Granted that if we accept Lakoff's assertion that human thought is a matter of metaphor acquired in the process of interfacing with the environment, then we have a lot to learn about obsession through the metaphor of a frail little ship pursuing leviathan.  Each side of my family has a ship captain in its history and a strain of Ahab's obsessiveness in its family story.  It's hoped that one of us will become famous and respected, which will result in the confirmation of our family.

I was the oldest of three children and the only female.  The kink in my version of the story is that there was a worship of heirs (Xian echo) who would be the flag-bearers allotted extra resources in the interest of all of us, BUT this individual was supposed to be male.  Achieving women were supposed to be feeding their power through men, possibly by marriage.  But that new man should be particularly powerful and capable of confirming the importance and therefore security of the family.  So the position of an oldest daughter is to be exceptional but to show it only by being secondary to a remarkable man.

I thought I had that licked when I threw in with Bob Scriver, though it took me a while to make the relationship one of marriage.  Being a Western sculptor who cast his own bronze works was not quite as elegant and gentrified as writing a famous and prestigious novel, but it still celebrated a complex of definitively American prairie events, both indigenous and imported, demonstrated dramatic and mythological conflict, and was a part of the humanities, which are the context of gentry who have aspirations based on education before tech science took over.  

Contradictorily, self-education was more respected than a degree from a high institution because the latter went to an idea essential to America -- the spontaneous worth of an original person (a son) who honors but exceeds his father, just as the "new" country related to the King of England, and Jesus related to God.  (Xian ghost)  At the time Western sculpture was relatively undeveloped but benefited from the idea of it being outside the oppression of the elite.

It was deceptive because I did not take a position of "wife" in a traditional sense, but more of an employed daughter.  That is, my time was devoted to the studio work (actual materials) as well as clerical support and a role that became increasingly important, a blend of pr, description, research, analysis, and exploration.  There are people around here who will claim that my contribution made Scriver famous.  They were not intimates.  They interpret life in terms of sex and money, strong elements of every culture.

What I contributed from the beginning came from my education in a intra-department of a prestigious institution, Northwestern University.  I did not pursue writing beyond one course because it was focused on young men meaning to write the Great American Novel.  I put my energy into the Theatre Department where I learned a time-art meant to be performed, the management of the human body both conscious and unconscious, and the tradition of Broadway in Manhattan, which enjoyed the same mixture of the vulgar (in the technical sense) and the sophisticated.  It was not just the location of the theatre, but also the center of gallery and museum art.  I was taught to monitor the Arts Section of the New York Times, so I had a directory to the institutional and business entities of the place and knew how to connect Scriver to it.

I had expected that I would find a way to work on my writing while still supporting my husband's sculpture.  In the beginning that was true, but as time went on and Scriver became better known and rewarded, the time and space for writing diminished.  He became the white whale so what was I?  

Yet in my family he was my "claim to fame," much valued.  I didn't give it up until both family and husband began to find my frustration was narcissistic selfishness and my defiance in insisting my own ideas were signs of moral failing.  I decided the hell with all that.  When my emotional distress exceeded my usefulness and a host of other women sought my place, I gave it up.  

Back in Portland at my mother's house, I looked for a job, any job.  My mother's idea was that I had failed and that since my father had died, I would now put my energy into her well-being in a social context and look for a new marriage.  She did not value my writing.  When I took a civil service job as an officer of the Multnomah County Animal Control, the first woman ever hired for this, she was embarrassed.  

But I was beginning to be political and enjoyed being a trail breaker.  Ten years on the rez had been good preparation.  Scriver's sub-occupation as city magistrate and Justice of the Peace, which I attended, was also helpful.  Writing became less important as I started courses towards a degree in clinical psych, a frequent reaction to being labeled a nutcase.  Then I began to replay the same role as for Scriver, but for Animal Control.  PR, research, outreach on the national level, creation of a textbook and other materials.

When I found the Unitarian Universalist congregation downtown in Portland, the scope and relevance of that body of understanding exceeded anything offered through clinical psychology.  Now the White Whale was God.  This was a meaning thread that led directly into an unexpected huge cultural explosion that was often deadly, mostly reacting to Vietnam, but also to the limits of American institutions and the common assumptions of the American culture left from an agricultural context.  Now the schism was not between the rural and the industrial complex based on cities and its cover for internal, competing, auto-governed and bloody crime.  Assassinations, riots, and the alternatives to the mainstream that are always present went out of control.    

It was energizing, worldwide, entirely Other to Americans (so they thought), and it is not finished.  The idea of gentry based on British customs and standards was knocked aside in favor of raw mercantilism and continues now until it threatens to also swipe away Democracy.  It knocked me out of the UUA, out of Xianity, out of conventional kinds of writing, out of the whale-hunting ship, and back onto the prairie where indigenous people, some seeking to be gentry in the Brit/Germanic way and others searching for the same "new way" that I am.

We are no longer dependent on the "codex" form (pages bound between a protective cover) or even print in the English tradition.  The new forms (images, short takes, transgressive writing, oral dialogue, sound with music and effects) relate to the new technological devices that demand change of technique.

We are no longer dependent on the proprieties of grammatical English as produced by Great Men from the past.  Women, minorities (particularly those with dark skin), persons from other cultures and educational frames are writing, which might be graffiti, scraps from the deep past, databases kept personally or institutionally, long non-academic theses, and powerful anti-conventional ideas.  This scares a lot of people and causes blowback.  So far, the controlling value is again mercantilism.  If it sells, it's okay.

Where does it leave me?  As for "selling," I've abandoned the idea.  I have enjoyed twenty years of independent but not isolated writing, choosing my own cohort, which is not at all related to my demographic definition.  I'll come back to this later, but I've already written about it quite a bit.  The point here is that in my attempt to satisfy the family demand that I be a famous and honorable achiever I took many detours but persisted and came to a two-decade-space to simply glory in the act of rubbing words together to be read on glass-screened scrolls on cyber-gizmos.  If something of some value (whatever "value" is), comes of it, that's fine.  But it has nothing to do with my right to exist.