Cheez-Its, Springtime, and Book Publishing

Or, Stray Memories.

I think my predilection for orange food (see Cheez-Its; Cheetos [the caveman-club-shaped kind, not the poufy kind]; Annie’s Extra-Cheddary Bunnies; Goldfish; Clementines; carrots with their skin on) may have been encouraged by one Pat Crow, the first editor really to take me under his wing. He, too, had a weakness for nuclear-colored foodstuffs, and I met him at a most impressionable age.

This is Pat, with my friend Julia.

This is Pat, ca. 1998? 99? with my friend Julia.

I didn’t meet Pat until he was done with his New Yorker tenure. He used to take me to lunch, and our cubes at Audubon magazine were right across from each other. He used to buy me copies of books if he went to book signings, and notebooks from Kinokuniya when he went. He was, it’s safe to say, my very first mentor. He edited a short story I’d written, showed me where I went wrong; gave me advice on totally unrelated things: “Stop twirling your hair. You look like a twit.” (Which, by the way, is something my mother was trying to get me to stop doing for, like, ever, but I only stopped doing it when Pat told me to knock it off.)

I think, all in all, our lives only intersected for less than a year. We lost touch after that, and Pat passed away in 2011. (Read: I didn’t work hard enough to keep in touch, and he had enough young writers, I’m sure, vying for his attention beyond me.)

But in a copy of the only novel he ever wrote, Pat wrote this:

For Yi Shun —

My mentor at Audubon, my friend and colleague, who has more promise than springtime itself. 

With affection, 

Patrick Crow

And when I read it, I knew I would carry that phrase around with me–“more promise than springtime itself”–in my mouth, saying it to myself sometimes; in my heart; in my deepest of hopes and sometimes, through the query rejections that followed. If I could have it tattooed on me, massage the copy into a phrase that made sense to everyone who saw it, I might just do it, maybe in Pat’s distinct handwriting, because even if the man who edited John McPhee; who probably shepherded more young writers than I ever will; who probably passed on the name of his favorite tailor to everyone he could; who probably even told many a young office worker to stop twirling her hair, lest she look like a twit, penned that sentiment in a temporary fit of, well, sentimentality, it meant the world to me and my young career.

I wish Pat were here to see May, 2016, which is when my novel, NOT A SELF-HELP BOOK: THE MISADVENTURES OF MARTY WU, comes out from Shade Mountain Press.

It’s a big promise to fulfill, that of springtime itself, and it sure is nice to know that someone thought I could.

But that’s not the point of this post. The point, I guess, is that we might all go around saying nice things to people we feel deserve it. Something you say might provide them a little talisman of sorts, to carry around, a star to orient oneself by.



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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Yi Shun Went to Antarctica and All I Got Was This Stupid Postcard*

*Actually, you didn’t even get a postcard.

You didn’t get a postcard because I was too busy staring at the water, ice, penguins, leopard seals, crazy-ass predator birds that sounded like miniature Blue Angels as they went by, looking to find out what we were and whether or not we were worthy adversaries. This happened twice, once while I was standing on a beach with my Dad, once while I was hiking up a long hill to get to a vista I won’t even try to describe to you.

You probably didn’t get a postcard because I was in the 6th-floor lounge, watching the waves crash over the railing and thinking about Ernest Shackleton in his 22-foot dinghy in those same waters, with no fancy GPS. And then you didn’t get a postcard because I was on the bridge with some first mates and stuff or whatever they call the guys who manage the ship while the captain’s doing other things, seeing what they see and trying to decipher the five billion screens and knobs and buttons they have going on, and looking at the maps and watching them plot points and stuff and asking stupid questions like “Do you guys still use the sextant every once in a while?”**

**Answer: “No. I mean, only if we have to. Ugh.”

And also learning things like the different names for sea-ice and other floaty bits, like “bourgignon”–“parce que c’est comme la cuisine, vous voyez?”–and my favorite, “bergi-bits.”


***This is the perfect name for a chihuahua.

You most definitely did not get a postcard because I was busy making friends with the types of people who go on “expedition cruises.” Also, every once in awhile, begrudgingly sampling the “cocktail of day,” which was almost always some sugary oddly colored concoction, made with loooove by ze French bartenders, quoi.

And oh yeah, you didn’t get a postcard because I would have scribbled it in some half-assed pidgin French, which is what I used on the ship, since they all said my French was excellent. That was kind of awesome. But now I’m trying to figure out how to maintain it. (Frenchies out there, come talk to me.)

You didn’t get a postcard because I was busy chasing my dad around a 446-foot ship, trying desperately to get him to see what I seeing, before I realized that maybe he had seen what he wanted to see, and wanted to spend some time by himself processing it. Also that, if he was going to give me free rein to hang out on the bridge late at night and socialize whenever I wanted and sit on the beach and draw some things instead of accompanying him everywhere, then maybe he deserved the same consideration.

Any time I would have spent writing postcards was instead spent on two excursions off the main ship a day, in sturdy little Zodiac ™ boats, driven around by bad-ass naturalists to look at bad-ass leopard seals and village-idiot penguins.****

****Was grossly disappointed to find out they’re not the brightest birds on any continent. If something is so outrageously cute, it’d be nice if it were also brilliant, n’est-ce pas?

I mean, I wanted to send you a postcard. But I was in a food coma a lot of the time, from some really innovative cuisine and wine at lunch and dinner. You know what that does to a person’s cognitive functions.

I wanted to tell you all about the stuff I saw, but I told my Dad instead. That’s okay.

But I did make you this:

IMG_1200 (1)

and here:


And okay, I took some photos, too.

Sorry about the postcards. :)

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

If Literary Readings Were Major Sporting Events

Howie Long: Hi, sports fans, I’m Howie Long.

Phil Liggett: And I’m Phil Liggett.


HL: And we’re back from break to bring you live coverage of a very special event: The annual Golden Pencil literary readings.

PL: That’s right, Howie. Now, you may not know this, but this is actually the 20th anniversary of the readings. At stake? The coveted Golden Pencil, a prize absolutely salivated over by every budding writer since 2005.

HL: Well, Phil, the energy in here is certainly up high for a reading.

PL: Who knows what the readers are feeling tonight? We’ve seen some remarkable talent tonight, through the genres, but we have a ringer coming up right now, the penultimate reader of the night. Susie Weekins has just come out from behind the curtain, looking like she’s deep-breathing. Now, Howie, this is a common exercise for seasoned readers. You often can tell the newbies because they’re in the bar, quaffing one too many Cherry Cordials before they take their places at the podium, instead of working on their lungs.

HL: Cherry Cordials!

PL: Yes, Howie, it’s a thing.

HL: Well, anyway. So Susie is up next. She’s a veteran reader, isn’t that right, Phil? And, our sources tell us she actually is a veteran of the Air Force–did I just make a pun?

PL: You did, Howie. Well done.

HL: Next to Susie, you see her coach, Bob Kirkland, one of the nonfiction faculty here at the workshop. Looks like he’s whispering some peptalk into Susie’s ear. What kind of pep talk might writers need, Phil?

PL: Well, Howie, it could be anything from “Remember the windmills”–a nod to Don Quixote, you know–to a more modern quotation from essayist Elissa Washuta, designed to evoke feelings of great calm.

HL: Great calm! Well, who knew? This sure is unlike any sport I’ve ever covered.

PL: Indeed, Howie. And after Susie reads, the lineup will end with the rarest of rare in this arena, Chuck Panterson.

HL: But Phil, why is Chuck such a rarity?

PL: He’s male.

HL: Ohhh.

PL: Indeed, Howie. Oh, Howie! Look at Susie as she moves towards the podium. She’s got her game face on, for sure. And she’s wearing that great maroon top, the same one she wore last year when she rocked the house with her reading about a canoe–

HL: A canoe! Writers can operate canoes?

PL: Shut up, Howie.

HL: Sorry.

PL: Anyway, the fact that she’s wearing that same top tells me that she’s feeling good and strong. You know, Howie, writers often have funny little quirks. Some of them don’t bathe for days before a reading. Just look at the way Susie cranks that microphone towards her. She is feeling good. Last year, the MFA invested in a new mike. It’s going to improve the readers’ performance for sure.

HL: Do you go to a lot of these, Phil?

PL: Do shut up, Howie.

HL: Sorry. Ooh! What’s Susie doing now?

PL: Oh, she’s engaging in a common crowd-engagement tactic. She’s calling for their support by telling them she’s feeling nervous. Now, I know this is something we see a lot, but I gotta tell you, coming out of Susie, I don’t buy it for one minute. She’s trying to psych out the other readers, and I think it might just work. Once you get the crowd behind you, you can’t lose.

HL: What does Susie have to do bring home the bacon tonight, Phil?

PL: Well, readings are tricky, Howie. Not only do the writers have to read well, they also have to come in under the time limit. Remember last year, when Susie nearly lost The Golden Pencil by a pesky second?

HL: I do! Remind our viewers what happened, though.

PL: She managed to get in under the wire by eliminating a metaphor. It was close, but I’m glad to see she’s recovered from that.

HL: Shh. She’s starting.

PL: Indeed.

HL: Oh! Oh! She’s killing it! She’s bringing it home! She’s…she’s…singing!

PL: Indeed, Howie, she is! Few writers would dare to try out their tremulous vocal chords on an audience so attuned to monotone, but Susie has her eyes closed, she’s pulling out all the stops, she’s dancing over the notes with a confidence that must be borne of a million repetitions and rehearsals. You know, when writers write, they don’t often imagine music. But this one clearly has, and we are PROUD of her.

HL: I can’t believe the crowd. They are going nuts. They are bolt-forward in their chairs. Some are swaying! They are under her spell! She’s in! She’s in! Susie is bound to take home the Golden Pencil for a second year in a row!

PL: Just look at Coach Kirkland, there on the sidelines. He’s crying. We never see this from a writerly coach, never.

HL: Chuck can just sit down, can’t he, Phil?

PL: Well, no. Even though Susie has clearly won the Golden Pencil, Chuck still needs to show up. He’ll win points towards the lifelist series of Most Readings Read At.

HL: Phil, that was a moment to beat all. I’m quaking. I think Susie’s set a new bar for readings.

PL: I think so too. Let’s ink it right now. Susie Weekins has just created the literary reading version of figure skating’s Salchow. Tune in to our web site to vote for what we should call it. And tune in next week as ESPN 2 covers the Wine Tasting 2015 competition, a feat of tongues and nasal passages that will have you riveted to the screen. Thanks for joining us. I’m Phil Liggett.

HL: And I’m Howie Long. And we’re signing off. Good night, all.

Thanks to Ana Maria Spagna, Nancy Rawles, and Kelly Davio for planting the seed for this post. And to Samantha Updegrave, who knows why. 


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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Copywriter Brain: An exposé

Copywriting is a largely internal pursuit. And yes, it’s largely solitary. But there is a certain amount of teamwork that takes place, and just as much “brainstorming” as, if not more than, you’d get in any bullpennish office with folks flinging headlines and ideas back and forth at each other, just to test them.

The teamwork takes place between me and my client, me working off of information and feel that I’m getting from them. The bullpenning takes place in my head. It’s loads of fun, honestly.

Most rewarding about the process is the one crystallizing moment, kind of like the ping you get in your ears when a four-part harmony comes together, when you’ve struck the right tone for a line of copy or for a brand whose voice you’re trying to nail down.

If I’m doing my job right, this happens with all my clients.

Sometimes, I get to use the process on myself.

I ran out of business cards recently.

Here’s what they used to look like, and say:


Continue Reading →


Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

You are Here

This weekend, on one of my runs, I listened to a RadioLab episode called “Lost & Found.”

It was partly about how our brains piece together where we are. In one segment, a scientist named Lera Boroditsky told us about a tribal language in Australia that is really focused on location: Instead of asking “How are you?” tribe members ask, “Which way are you going?” And the answer can be astonishingly accurate: “North-Northwest, in the middle direction,” say.

Dr. Boroditsky noted that something like one-third of the languages worldwide have this kind of dead-reckoning built into them. We don’t use it as much in English, but I’ve noticed something interesting in my short time here in California: the scale here is so big that I have a hard time thinking in terms of north, south, east, and west.

I was much more prone to using dead-reckoning speak when I was living in cities. I think this has to do with the compactness of places. and the relative ease of finding landmarks: In Paris, the first major city I ever lived in, the Seine split the city neatly; the Luxembourg Gardens were due south by a block; the Marais due north and across the river; school was one arrondisement to the south-east. In New York, “the Bronx is up and the Battery down”; the Empire State Building barely north and east of my first-ever job; the Chrysler Building just across the street from my fourth-ever job;  the PepsiCo bottling plant sign across the river in Queens, my second-ever New York home; the World Trade Center way south; Inwood Park at the northern tip; the Hudson to the west. In Chicago, freaking Lake Michigan got in the way of exploring Michigan itself and prevented you from wandering too far, ever, and if you got to O’Hare you pretty much were about as far west as you wanted to go.

“Well,” you might say, “what’s the problem? In California, the ocean is West.” True. But it’s too far away for me to use it as a marker, really. And I’m hemmed in by three different mountain ranges, one to the south, one to the east, one to the north. In between? Strip malls, modeling schools, Green Burritos mashed up with Carl’s Jrs. You could drive for an hour on the I-10 and only be sure of your location by counting the number of auto malls–car dealerships, they call ’em everyplace else–you’d passed.

Anyway, the good doctor had this to add: When, after enough time living among the tribe that spoke in dead-reckoning speak, she finally had a brief flash, like a Magic Eye illustration, of a map in her head, of Where She Was, a little red dot on the map, she told someone, and they said, “Well, of course. How else would you do it?” And I kind of realized, running south on Indian Hill to Baseline, where I’d run straight east until I hit home, how much I missed that way of thinking about things. I don’t tell people anymore go to east until you hit so-and-so street. I don’t tell folks that I live to the north of anything.

In short, I miss knowing Where I Am.

I have started rectifying this. I look at maps of Southern California on a regular basis. I am always trying to get people to tell me where they live, not like this:

“I live at the intersection of the 15 and the 10.”

But like this:

“I’m just southeast of you by ten miles.”

Is this unfair? I don’t care. A sense of place is important.

By the by–I think of this pictorial representation as the reason something like storyboards work so well, or, in my case, my index-card grid for my manuscript. Being able to see where you are in the story arc…that’s something real, something you can lean on and hold up for progress’ sake, and in exchange for a small piece of sanity.



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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Verbagram 2, the Raw Fish edition

Our good friend Tim came to visit. We had a packed weekend that somehow managed to include some downtime on our couch and four episodes of American Horror Story, before it jumped the shark. It was fantastic.

It also gave us an excuse to go visit Cousin Richard at his incredible sushi joint. And that gave me an excuse to think about another food-based Verbagram. Because, you know what? I am sick of people describing sushi-grade fish as “like butter.” People. That’s disgusting. Seriously, would you ever eat a stick of butter? Or a pat, by itself? This description makes no sense to me.


Sometimes, you eat something and it tastes like the place it came from. By this I do not mean that when you eat a piece of steak, it tastes like a barnyard smells. I mean that sometimes you eat something and you get an evocation, an impression. Piece of steak, again: Big, open fields, as far as the eye can see. The occasional tree, and a few lone cows, standing here and there, with a bird of prey streaking across the sky. See? Steak tastes of largesse, of generosity, and even maybe of excess, depending on whether or not you get the crumbled blue cheese on top.

Take sushi: The texture: creamy, practically, even though the fish is arguably solid, sitting there on its rice. It yields to the bite easily; maybe because it’s ribboned with fat, if you’re eating a nice piece of salmon. Or maybe, if it’s yellowtail, just because that’s the way a good fresh fish should be.

You don’t get any flavor at all, really, in that first bite. If anything, the vapors of wasabi and fine rice vinegar are the first to hit your palate; and then, finally, an absurdly clean finish, a little bit like you’ve rinsed with really cold seawater.

Your salmon should evoke the day you spent on the banks of a river in Maine, with the early-summer sunlight dappling the current. And your tuna will take you back to the day you spent on a party boat in Brooklyn. Your uni will remind you, briefly, of the time you got washing-machined by the wave you weren’t expecting, that afternoon in Rhode Island.

For Grier, a photo. Because you requested it.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Watch the Clock!

As a student body, we’ve been thinking a lot about timing.

Why? Because every residency, we have something along the order of five readings. That’s five nights during which students spend another hour or so listening to valued fellow students and guest faculty read from their works. We do this at Whidbey for several reasons:

  1. Reading to a group is a professional skill, one which every student should have well under their belts.
  2. Reading your work out loud is yet another way of getting to know it, inside and out.
  3. Reading your work out loud is a gift to the audience: It’s rare that folks get to hear an author’s words from their own lips. It’s a gift that shouldn’t be taken lightly on either end.
  4. Getting to hear the pros gives us something to aspire to.

The flip, less-sexy-but-equally-important side to each of these reasons is time limits. Each reader is given an allotted amount of time, and each reader should stick to that allotted time, regardless of whether or not the readers feels the need to make a tremendously long explanation to his or her work. Here are the reasons why:

  1. It’s only fair to the other readers, that you each get the same allotment of time.
  2. If  you need to explain your work and the explanation takes up the bulk of your allotted time, then the piece needs more work.
  3. Readings are meant to whet the listener’s appetite for more from the writer, that’s all. Complete stories are nice, but hardly necessary.

At NILA, it’s students who run the readings. We’ve come up with several ideas, some of which were submitted by faculty, to encourage folks to stick to their time limits. They are:

  • Water pistols
  • Burp guns (both ping-pong and marshmallow)
  • Gigantic “Gong Show” type gong

  • Big hook, a la the old vaudeville shows

  • Swelling music that eventually drowns out the speaker, a la award shows

Hm. I like all of these. What’s your choice for encouraging folks to keep to time limits?



Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

A writing prompt, after a fashion

I saw someone very special the other day. It was someone I only see once every six or seven years, apparently. She is lovely and it never seems like any time has gone by when we do see each other, and I think this is part of the reason why:

Well. Not this exactly. But stuff like this.

After an awesome backwards dinner (we had dessert first), we strolled back to my car and spotted this, um, tableau in a shop window. We then proceeded to riff off of it for a good ten, fifteen minutes. It’s nice to find people like that with whom you can do such things.

We came up with a number of possibilities. (If you can’t really see it, the scary-looking devil-child is holding a set of antlers behind his–its?–back.) The horse is actually an old rocking horse, and it has a hole through its neck where, presumably, the reins used to go.

The various scenarios we came up with:

“Hello horsie. Would you like something sweet?”

“Well. I have these fine antlers. But I really would like it better if you were a unicorn, so…here.”

“Ah. I see. The hole in your neck. Here’s something to plug it with.”

“My Frankenhorse is almost complete. I have shed the barnacles of my childhood by making a mere plastic rocking horse into a carousel horse. Now it remains only to unicornize it. Oops. I did not mean to de-antler that buck on the way here.”

Now it’s your turn. What do you think is going on here? My totally subjective choice of winner gets a bag of Swedish fish mailed to them. I’ll try to make it the multi-colored ones, but you’ll get standard red if that’s all I can find.

“Submissions” close December 31.

Special thanks to Shey, my once-every-seven-years friend, for making this happen. Hopefully we’ll see more of each other now!



Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

I talk to one of my favorite authors

The LA Review has my essay, “Communiques to Mr. Lee Child,” up on its web site. Go look here, and see what I think of his character, Jack Reacher, and why I love Mr. Child’s work.
And okay, maybe what I think of Tom Cruise, too.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Fugue State

I took half of Friday to recharge my batteries and see The Met’s annual collaboration with The Costume Institute, called “Impossible Conversations: Schiaparelli and Prada.”

A little background: Elsa Schiaparelli was a designer whose heyday was during the 1930s-60s. She had a playful sensitivity about her that belied fashion’s then-more utilitarian purpose; rather than using fashion as a reflection of the times, she used it to drive aesthetic sensitivity. It all makes sense when you consider that she collaborated multiple times with Salvador Dali, a visual artist who put his views to work for clients as varied as Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney.

Elsa Schiaparelli

Here’s Salvador Dali’s “Eye” painting, 1945

And here’s one of Schiaparelli’s hats, called the “Eyelash,” which is meant to evoke the idea of the whole head as an eye.

Miuccia Prada is one of our contemporary designers, of course. You’ve all seen her logo:

photo via

And some of her work:

image via

Here’s where it gets tricky. The exhibit is called “Impossible Conversations” because clearly it’s impossible for the living, breathing Prada to have a conversation with the long-gone Schiaparelli. But it’s also modeled after a Vanity Fair column that used to run in the 1930s called “Impossible Interviews,” which featured caricatures of unlikely conversationalists (John D. Rockfeller and Joseph Stalin, for instance). The caricatures, painted by Miguel Covarrubias, were accompanied by text by Corey Ford, a regular contributor to the magazine. (For more on the “Impossible Interviews” and a snippet of text, go to the Norman Rockwell Center’s great page on it.)

Okay, that was a lot of background.

It’s an interesting premise, even if the title of the thing–and its invited comparison to the Vanity Fair feature–encourages the underlying belief that Schiaparelli and Prada have deeply conflicting ideas on fashion. (They do, but they’re not as wide in scope as, say, communism and capitalism.) Also, the Vanity Fair column seemed to be entirely tongue-in-cheek, and totally absurdist, whereas this exhibit is entirely earnest.

But it was a disappointment. It starts off with a video of Prada and Schiaparelli sitting at a huge Italianate table having drinks. I thought we’d have recordings of Schiaparelli’s voice with maybe some still photographs at her end of the table (why else is that table so damned long?), but no, it’s Australian actress Judy Davis, giving it her all in an updo and a severe black dress.

Actress Judy Davis (photo via

Prada, for her part, is just Prada. And it was interesting to hear her talk about what it was like to labeled “minimalist,” and how, as a child, she hid behind things and eventually used fashion as a way to “out” herself. (She doesn’t mean outing as from the closet; she means she found a way to express herself.)

But here’s the thing: it IS possible for even a fine art exhibit to think too much of itself, and I think that’s what happened here. The whole thing is way too meta: Here’s an art exhibit riffing off a magazine column that riffed off of real life. And  snippets of the film play all the way through the exhibit, creating a fugue-like atmosphere that distracted entirely from the beauty of the work. All I could hear was Davis’ Italian-ate accent grinding its way through my brain.

So there you are, trying to see why it is these two designers have been paired together, but the clips play throughout, making it really hard to concentrate on some of the statements that Schiaparelli actually made about her work, which are printed at the foot of some of the items. (The script of the film varies just slightly from the actual text of Schiaparelli’s own commentary, whereas Prada’s commentary seems to be taken verbatim from the script, or vice-versa. The whole thing is just too much.)

So what was missing for me? Schiaparelli did some amazing work. She has her relatively tame lobster dress, which was a gorgeous piece of white organza that had a huge lobster printed on it; and her work was incredibly playful–check out these acrobat buttons:

But the exhibit didn’t have what I think is one of her most interesting works, the skeleton dress:

Skeleton Dress image via

And I’m pretty sure it didn’t even include the lobster dress, but instead included an image of it.

I think the most glaring omission of the exhibit was the express exclusion of any mention of the gorgeous masks, all created in the spirit of surrealism by British hairstylist Guido Palau. Here are a few snaps from

I would have loved to have seen an artist’s statement from Palau, at least, on these masks. (I think it’s a testimony to their awesomeness that, by the time I got to the Met mini-shop at the end of the exhibit, they’d sold out of the postcards that featured the masks. And it’s worth mentioning, too, that Palau did the masks for the Met’s exhibit on Alexander McQueen last year.)

In the end, I’m glad I went. But I was left with the impression that, rather than wanting to highlight the importance of these two designers to fashion, The Met went the route of highlighting its own importance to the world of fashion exhibits.

The whole exhibit ends with a snippet of film in which Schiaparelli/Davis questions whether she and Prada would have been friends or foes if they had lived during the same era. Prada laughs and says, “No, Schiap, no!”

In the end, I think it’s perhaps this false familiarity, the use of the diminutive where permission to use it most certainly hasn’t been granted,  that signifies everything that grates about this exhibit. Schiaparelli’s work perhaps deserves an exhibit of its own. She doesn’t need a backdrop for us to appreciate her designs and artistry. She certainly doesn’t need Baz Luhrman (I KNOW!!), Judy Davis, scriptwriters, and trick photos* to enthrall us.

It’s questionable that she even needs Miuccia Prada.

*If you go, take a close look at the black-and-white photos of Schiaparelli’s work. Just stand there awhile. Trust me.


Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.