Hy Bender's Writing Samples
On this page you'll find the following writing samples:
Start of biography of comics author Neil Gaiman, from
The Sandman Companion
Neil Gaiman was a dreamer from an early age, spending most of his time with his nose in books and his mind in other worlds.
Gaiman was born above his father’s small grocery store in Portchester, England on November 10, 1960. Gaiman’s mother loved stories and enthusiastically exposed her son to the written word; one of Gaiman’s clearest memories are of wooden alphabet letters his mom bought him when he was two. “We painted the vowels red with nail varnish,” he recalls, “and so vowels have always smelled to me of varnish.”
Gaiman’s mother also made a point of reading books to him. By age three, however, he became impatient with having a go-between and made the effort to read to himself. It was the start of a life-long addiction.
“I’d always carry books around with me,” says Gaiman. “My parents would frisk me before we went to a family gathering, like a wedding or bar mitzvah, because they assumed I had a book on me somewhere. And they were right; I’d usually spend the day under a table reading.”
Gaiman tackled books indiscriminately. When he was old enough to visit his local children’s library, he quickly devoured the entire collection. He then turned his attention to the adult stacks, starting at “A” and working his way through the volumes alphabetically.
Although he cheerfully read everything, Gaiman especially loved stories involving magic and fantasy by such authors as James Branch Cabell, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. “My great daydream when I was 10,” says Gaiman, “was to travel to a parallel universe exactly like ours—except in that other universe, no one had ever written Lord of the Rings. I would bring along my copy, get someone to type it out for me in manuscript, send the pages off to a publisher, and then be celebrated as the author of Lord of the Rings without doing any of the work.”
Actually, Gaiman wouldn't have minded the work. He began composing poems at age three, and he started writing stories with continuing characters at age eight. But it would take him a long time to develop confidence as a fiction writer...
Another form of fantasy attracted Gaiman’s attention in the summer of 1967, when a friend of his father’s lent him a cardboard box filled with comic books. The box included Marvel’s The Mighty Thor, which fascinated Gaiman and led him to actively seek out books on mythology. The box of comics also contained such treasures as Justice League of America 47, which provided a first glimpse of DC’s original Sandman. Gaiman was hooked. The issues were returned to their owner a few weeks later, “but I continued to hunt down and read American comics. The damage had been done. It wasn't just a box of comics, it was a Box of Dreams.”
By age 11, Gaiman had become so enchanted with comics that he decided he wanted to write them for a living. He kept this plan to himself, however, until he was 15 and a special counselor came to his school to provide career guidance. “When the advisor asked me what I wanted to do, I didn't hesitate, because I’d been waiting to tell the appropriate person for years,” says Gaiman. So I answered, ‘I want to write American comic books.’ And what I wanted him to say was, ‘Okay, that is a commendable ambition. You should go to the School of Visual Arts in New York, and you should work on your craft, and these are the people with whom you should talk to get you on your way.’
“Instead, he just replied, ‘Oh, you can’t do that. Have you ever considered accountancy?’”
Gaiman laughs about it now, but he says that at the time, “it really, weirdly hurt. This counselor was the first person to flatly ask me what I wanted to do; and after I finally answered the question out loud, he told me my goal was unreachable. And it made me give up; I quit reading comics for nine years.”
Of course, such discouraging moments are a routine part of virtually any artist’s development. John Updike once observed, “the artistic impulse is a mix, in varying proportions, of childhood habits of fantasizing brought on by not necessarily unhappy periods of solitude; a certain hard wish to perpetuate and propagate the self; a craftsmanly affection for the materials and process; a perhaps superstitious receptivity to moods of wonder; and a not-often-enough-mentioned ability, within the microcosm of the art, to organize, predict and persevere.” Gaiman had already demonstrated most of the impulses mentioned by Updike in spades. The young writer’s challenge was to organize, predict and persevere.
After the ill-fated interview, says Gaiman, “I still read lots of books, of course. And I’d begun trying to write professionally in 1980. I completed a number of short stories, and a draft of a children’s book, but no one would buy my fiction.
“After about 18 months of rejection slips—nice rejection slips, but rejections nonetheless—I abruptly decided one day, ‘Either I have no talent—which I do not choose to believe—or I'm simply not going about this the right way. I'm going to switch to journalism, and in the process I'm going to figure out how the world works—how magazine articles get assigned, how books get published, how television scripts get sold.’
“I bought a copy of the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook, which lists contact information for magazines, and I started phoning editors cold. When asked who I’d previously written for, I lied. I knew that no editor was likely to check on me, because all that really mattered was the quality of the idea I was pitching and, after I got the assignment, the quality of my writing.
“The magazines I claimed to have worked for included Time Out, City Limits, The Observer, The Sunday Times of London—in other words, UK publications I respected. And over the next five years, I actually did write for every magazine I’d mentioned during that first week of cold calls. So I wasn't really lying; I was merely being anachronistic.”
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Excerpt from Dummies 101: The Internet for Windows 98
World Wide Web may sound like the title of a 1950s conspiracy movie involving radioactive Communist spiders. However, the WWW, or Web (as savvy Net users refer to it) is much cooler than that. Though it didn't even exist until 1990, the Web has become the second most popular feature of the Internet, trailing only email.
The Web consists of electronic pages that display text and pictures, similar to the pages of a paper book or magazine (though some jazzier Web pages also can play sound and video clips). Well-designed Web pages are a visual treat, and they cover virtually every topic that you can think of—from the stock market to stock racing, from bass to baseball, and from Picasso to Prozac. The neatest thing about the Web, however, is that each page typically contains links to other pages, allowing you to jump from one page to another with a single mouse click.
For example, you might be reading a Web page about the life of William Shakespeare and notice that various phrases and pictures in the biography are underlined, are a different color, or are marked in some other special way. This usually means that clicking the phrase or picture (link) with your mouse takes you to another page covering that topic in more depth.
At the William Shakespeare page, clicking the phrase Romeo and Juliet might take you to a page with the full text of that play, while clicking an image of the Globe Theatre could take you to a page with a series of detailed drawings of that famous Elizabethan playhouse.
Your voyage wouldn't have to end there, either. For example, the Globe Theatre page might contain a link to modern theatre. Clicking the phrase could offer you additional links to such disparate topics as Arthur Miller, movie adaptations, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. Clicking the latter might furnish—in addition to information about other Lloyd Webber hits, such as Evita and The Phantom of the Opera—links to Web pages about real cats. And any feline Web page worth its fur inevitably offers a link to pictures of Socks, the First Cat of the Clinton White House.
This hypothetical journey from Shakespeare to Socks shows you what jumping around the Web, also known as cruising or surfing, is all about. Because these electronic pages—which are created independently by thousands of individuals and organizations around the planet—are all linked together in various intricate ways, they truly form a World Wide Web of information.
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Excerpt from user guide for Morgan Stanley project managers
Defining Requirements: Dig Beneath the Surface
You must always look past surface appearances to create requirements that are genuinely effective. This concept is best represented by a case study related by Michael Hammer and James Champy in their classic 1993 book Reengineering the Corporation.
The project was at IBM's Credit Corporation, which was taking an average of six days (and sometimes as long as two weeks) to process client applications. Such an extended waiting period gave clients time to change their minds, or to find some other creditor that would grant approval much faster.
The project's objective was clear: speed up the approval process. Less obvious was how to go about achieving that goal.
Evaluating an application involved moving a paper form through four sets of evaluation specialists and seven different departments. One problem was that nobody knew at any given time where a client's application was located, because no tracking system existed. IBM therefore added a control desk through which each application would be returned before going to the next evaluator—but that just created an extra layer of bureaucracy to the process, making it take even longer.
Senior administrators then suggested that the efficiency of the workers needed to be enhanced. To test this theory, the project's managers walked an application through personally, handing it over to each evaluator and clocking the amount of time it took to process. They found that the actual approval work took only 90 minutes! The rest of the six-day period was apparently spent in moving each form from desk to desk. This meant that even if worker efficiency was improved 50%, the time savings would amount to only 45 minutes.
The real culprit was the process itself, which was based on an unspoken assumption: that every application required several different specialists to evaluate it. Upon close inspection, however, it was found that only a tiny percentage of applications required such special care; over 98% could be handled by a single generalist supported by an information-rich computer database.
Once this realization was made, IBM Credit replaced its multiple evaluation desks with one department, in which each person took responsibility for processing an application from start to finish. As a result, the average approval time immediately went from six days to four hours—and this radical improvement occurred with fewer staffers doing the work. Further, Credit was soon processing one hundred times more applications than previously—i.e., the project ended up increasing productivity by nearly ten thousand percent.
This is just one of example of what happens when savvy managers refuse to accept the "obvious" solution and insist on probing for the core problem. Therefore, when you create your project's requirements, always make sure they address the real issues and are aimed at achieving the maximum results possible.
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Introduction to chapter on electronic grammar checker, from
Essential Software for Writers
Like many things forced upon us at a tender age, the word “grammar” carries some negative connotations with it.
For me, they go back to grade school (a.k.a. “grammar school”), where I spent laborious hours poring over an obtuse red book filled with rules about gerunds and participles and dangling modifiers. I had trouble connecting the hard-sounding words and rigid statements about English to the organic ways in which language weaves and bobs; and so I quickly developed a “bad attitude” about grammar. As a result, to this day I can’t deconstruct a sentence, or even say with any certainty which word is the subject, which is the object, and which is the reject (or whatever).
At the same time, I know that correct syntax and punctuation are extremely important. Like fine clothing or a sharp letterhead, they convey to an audience a certain level of competence and care. Similarly, when we allow grammatical errors to creep in, they call into question both overall accuracy and sincerity of effort. (For example, if I’d begun this chapter by stating “Grammar checkers is good things. Very unique. Hopefully, you like them.” it would've demolished my credibility with any reader outside of The Incredible Hulk.)
Even worse, such errors threaten clarity. There’s a world of difference between “I love you.” and “I, love you?!” Indeed, fortunes have turned on the placement of a single comma in a contract. (The problem has even become a plot device in fiction. For example, if you’re a fan of the TV series The Prisoner, recall that the show would have ended immediately if Patrick McGoohan’s character realized the answer to his question “Who is Number One?” was not the non sequitur “You are Number Six.”—in response to which he roared “I am not a number, I am a free man!”—but rather “You are, Number Six.”) It’s difficult enough to be understood without placing such impediments in our way.
How do we reconcile a resistance to language rules with our need for them? A course is suggested by Arthur Zeiger in his book Encyclopedia of English:
There is only one “law” of grammar: If any construction is used often enough and widely enough, it is right and proper.
There are no invariable “rules of grammar.” However, there are descriptive generalizations concerning grammar. They are valuable, when they conform to reality, in the same way that a periodic chart of chemical elements is valuable; both abridge the total learning process.
But remember: if a generalization and a usage do not agree, the generalization is not necessarily wrong, and the usage certainly is not. It is merely that the generalization is not comprehensive enough to cover the usage.
In other words, if you have a good ear for language, trust it; but when in doubt, don’t hesitate to seek guidance from existing rules. (Or, as Ken Kesey once wisely advised, “Take what you can use and let the rest go by.”)
This same attitude should be held toward grammar checkers. It’s likely that you won’t agree with much of what these programs tell you about your documents (especially if you write well). However, if you patiently work with them, and fine-tune them to accommodate your particular writing style, they'll help you catch errors that no other type of program can.
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Theatre reviews for The New York Times and my arts site HyReviews.com
Review of Jesus in Montana
For The New York Times, 8/15/05
"In the old days, it was easy. Someone strolls by and cures you of leprosy, he's Jesus. Times were simpler then."
So laments syndicated humorist Barry Smith in his one-man show, Jesus in Montana, a comedic account of Mr. Smith's joining a doomsday cult in the early 1990s.
You might wonder how an intelligent person could be convinced Jesus had come back to live a relatively obscure life—particularly as a guy named "Doc," an 80-year-old chiropractor who was once convicted of child molestation.
But, according to Mr. Smith, the signs were there, via the 1991 Gulf war, numerology, and biblical passages—all of which he demonstrates via a series of graphs, photos, and home movies.
With the wisdom of hindsight, Mr. Smith then uses the same techniques to make an equally credible, and hilarious, case for Paul McCartney being dead in 1969.
Of course, Mr. Smith had doubts even when he was in the cult. But these were always brushed off as tests of faith, similar to when God ordered Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Mr. Smith now wonders whether such tests "make God seem like a single, insecure parent with a bit of an alcohol problem."
Mr. Smith's cult experience—which finally ended during his recovery from a serious head injury—soured him on organized religion. However, he says he still has a deep belief in and connection to God.
Mr. Smith is an affable storyteller; and his show is both funny and gently thought-provoking.
Review of The Del Close Improv Marathon
For HyReviews.com, 7/19/05
There are two types of people in the world: Those who find Jiffy Pop as much fun to make as it is to eat; and those who prefer to skip the interim steps and buy their snacks pre-popped.
If you're in the former group, you'll probably enjoy improvisational comedy—which not only supplies laughs, but shows you the process performers take to get to them.
Many of the best improv comics in the country will be converging July 22-24, 2005 at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (307 West 26th Street) for a continuous 3-day festival. (And I mean continuous—some of the most popular acts come on around 3:00 am.) Admission for the entire 50+ hour extravaganza is only $20—though, like a trendy nightclub, when the house is packed you must wait on line for people to leave until there's room to let you in.
The marathon is an annual UCB ritual to honor the memory of Del Close, who pioneered and championed improvisational comedy for over 30 years, tutoring such comedic icons as John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, John Candy, and Mike Myers.
Close led a colorful life. For example, according to his writing partner Kim Johnson, in the late 1950s the U.S. government conducted experiments with the sleeping mind for which Close was a paid participant. When he prematurely left the program, Close received a letter from the government stating "You owe us two more dreams." During the 1960s, Close roller-skated through the sewers of Chicago with a flashlight strapped to his head, shooting rats. And in 1999, Closes dying words were "I'm tired of being the funniest one in the room."
Hundreds of improv troupes apply each year to participate in the Del Close marathon—and the cream of the crop will be unleashed this weekend. (For a complete schedule, visit www.delclosemarathon.com.)
By definition, there's no telling what to expect from these impromptu performers. But to give you a taste, last year's festival offered such pithy observations as "Michelle Kwan's a really good skater, too bad she's Asian...;" gangs of celebrities, including multiple versions of Burt Reynolds, partying and periodically beating each other up; and some maniac pretending to be Tony Hawk slamming his body repeatedly between the back wall and a column at the foot of the stage, until it was impossible to not see the graceful arc of the nonexistent skateboard beneath him.
If one performer epitomized last year's marathon, however, it was the guy who abruptly stood on his head and then declared "I'm wearing the world as my hat." With that simple move and seven words, he transformed our entire planet—with all its governments, cultures, and conflicts—into his personal apparel. It was a demonstration that no matter how bad things get, we can always use imagination to empower us. And that's the true magic of improv.
The down side, of course, is that in between those transcendent moments on stage, there can be long lags when nothing genuinely interesting happens. In this way, improv comedy is much like life itself.
For that matter, it can be argued the purest form of improv is created not by professionals, but by everyday people under structured conditions. This is unquestionably the most popular and commercial form of improv—it's called reality television.
Small wonder that safe and predictable scripted TV fell victim to Richard Hatch dropping his shorts, Omarosa railing against falling plaster, and William Hung providing a rendition of "She Bangs" no one ever dreamed possible.
By the same token, if you've tired of retread sitcoms and Adam Sandler vehicles, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre awaits to give you the world—as long as you're willing to stand on your head.
Review of Decoding the Tablecloth
For HyReviews.com, 8/25/04
Gabriela Kohen, the writer-performer of the one-woman show Decoding the Tablecloth, conjures more than a variety of characters; in layered strokes, she paints a portrait of her Brooklyn childhood and the key figures who inhabited it.
According to the program pamphlet, "Gabriela's grandmother, Leike, left Poland for Argentina in 1938 (at) 24 years old. All of her remaining family in the Polish village of Kobryn were murdered by the Nazis...Gabriela's family lived with Leike in Brooklyn for several years."
Kohen performs her grandmother Leike with heartrending perfection, offering nuances full of meaning to those whose lives have been touched by Holocaust survivors—the enormous nonjudgmental love of children, the fear of outsiders, the importance placed on holding the family together above all else. In one vignette, Leike looks out her apartment's window and says, "Gabyleh, you can play from this line to this line, so I can watch you...in case something happens." In another, we're told "The tears would drip down her face, and she would iron them right into the sheets."
Kohen's world also included many others—her mother, her father, her aunts, the neighborhood tough kids...even herself as a child, clutching at a "Josie and the Pussycats" lunchbox. Kohen flows into each character with ease and grace. She indicates every persona with a small prop—a cap for one, a green jacket for another—but they're actually unnecessary, due to how completely she transforms via her skilled use of accents, facial expressions, hand movements, and body language.
We don't get the Disney versions, either—for example, we learn Kohen used to be beaten by her father, and then her schoolmates. And that she learned to take it and take it, vowing that no matter how much she was hurt, she'd never cry.
But then her grandmother dies—and when Kohen tries to play a recording of Leike talking to her, the tape suddenly breaks. Kohen finally bursts into tears, wailing "How will I remember my grandmother now?"
She's clearly found a wonderful way to do so; and for all of us to remember Leike as well.
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