Inside the Mind of Philippe Petit: A Highwire Walker’s Word Cloud

Photo: Kent Barrett

Frequency is the currency of a word cloud. The more a word is repeated, the larger it appears in the cloud. And so, from this word cloud, based on our interview with iconoclastic highwire artist Philippe Petit, we have a window into his thinking and what matters most to him. His words describe physicality, adventure and Petit’s poetic balancing act between life and death.

Scroll over the cloud for full effect.

How a Bestselling Author Makes His Sentences Sing

In the process of working on “The Art of Doing,” we assimilated dozens of life lessons, tactics and tips—some that even helped us write this book. Stephen Dubner coauthor of the freakishly phenomenal “Freakonomics,” a book that has sold over 4 million copies, spawned a blog, a radio show, and of course, more books, told us,

“Writing was originally a way to preserve oral speech and I’ve never forgotten that….I prefer to write in a way that draws on the oral tradition.”

This was a lesson he learned as a child. Dubner’s family wrote its own DIY newspaper, the Quaker Street Quacker. And being the youngest of eight children, Dubner found competition to be published fierce. His mother would sit with him at the kitchen table and say, “Well, let’s read this out loud and see how it sounds.”

Dubner, who once fronted a rock band, considers writing and music twins.  He uses repetition, call-and-response and varies the lengths of his words and sentences the way a composer varies musical notes and phrases. And Dubner, who has written five book and hundreds of articles (most of which will be read silently by his readers), never forgot his mother advice, telling us,

“After writing every sentence, I read the words aloud.”

Even though we sometimes felt pretty silly, we tried this, too—reading aloud what we wrote. Surprisingly we found the ear to be an unrelenting critic. Hearing your own written words can be cringe-worthy. You can’t miss the clunky construction, uncommon word usage and convoluted logic. You’ll also hear when a sentence sings.

So whether it’s a memo or a memoir, a Tweet or a term paper, according to Dubner, listening to your writing by speaking the words aloud can help you write with greater clarity, simplicity and directness.

Fact: 1906, Mark Twain begins to speak his autobiography aloud to a stenographer, accumulating half a million words. According to The New York Times, Twain argued that “speaking his recollections and his opinions, rather than writing them down, allowed him to adopt a more natural colloquial and frank tone….” Or as Twain himself put it, “One would expect dictated stuff to read like an impromptu speech, brokenly, catchily, repetitiously, & marred by absence of coherence, fluent movement, & the happy things that didn’t come till the speech was done—but it isn’t so.” 2010, Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. 1 is published and becomes a bestseller.

Who’s Who in the Art of Doing

English author, Lady Constance Howard, writes in her 1885 book on etiquette about what makes a successful dinner party:

“Your guests should be remarkable for something—either beauty, wit, talent, money. You should be certain of such a flow of bright conversation that no one can be bored or feel in any way neglected.”

Although a bit dated, Lady Constance’s advice summed up our own philosophy about who we’d invite to participate in our book—a fantasy dinner party. We wanted brilliant, accomplished people at the top of their field, and of course a mix that would include people in business and art, media and sports, the young and old, the highbrow and low and the revered as well as some rogues.

Click to enlarge

Take a look at our table of contents—the world’s most famous dog whisperer, Cesar Millan is sandwiched between an opera diva and the winningest game show champ in history. A vintner is next to a civil rights lawyer who is next to an extraterrestrial hunter. Alec Baldwin has tennis champion Martina Navratilova on one side and cultural gadfly Simon Doonan on the other. And after all what’s a dinner party without a big game hunter, a rock band, a hostage negotiator, a bestselling author and Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times?

The Making of an Author’s Photo, Part 1

St. Matthew, 9th Cent.

One of the earliest examples of the author’s image is the Evangelist portrait. These portraits were glorious full page illuminations of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that appeared in the frontispiece of Medieval Bibles.

Since then, the author’s image has been reduced from a full-page color illustration in the front of the book to a small black and white photo exiled to the back. But the purpose remains the same—to allow the reader to picture the person who wrote the words on the page.

In the Evangelists’ case, it was to confer saintly grandeur. For modern-day authors, as novelist Richard Ford (pictured to the right in a photo by Marion Ettlinger) once described it, the function of the author’s photo is as:

 “A porthole window on the back of a paperback, which the author peers through and says, ‘Hi.’”

But what about when your editor tells you that she needs an author’s photo of you? How will you say, “Hi”?

First of all, you want to appear intelligent. With some gravitas. You want to seem attractive and interesting. But not pretentious or as if you are trying too hard. You want to be taken seriously, but you don’t want to come across as dull.

There are many pitfalls, such as some of these hilarious examples of awful authors’ photos. Of course, the fantasy is to have the photo on the book jacket look more or less like one of the iconic images of authors pictured below.

Top Row: James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson. Bottom Row: Alan Ginsburg, Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde

Go here to read Part 2 about our process

The Making of an Author’s Photo, Part 2, Our Process

Since our photo would portray the two of us not only as co-authors but also as a married couple, the dynamic between us would be as important as the way we looked individually. As a photographer (and okay, an image control freak) before taking portraits of others, Josh often gathers examples of images from his gargantuan and not-always-well organized files of inspiration. Since the history of photography is so rich with iconic imagery sometimes it’s better to steal a great idea than come up with a half baked one on your own.

We chose a few images of couples and possible poses and printed them out as a cheat sheet.

We asked our good friend Svend Lindbaek brilliant photographer and technical wizard to photograph us in his studio.

As in most photo shoots no matter how well directed, the majority of the shots are fails.

To see the final image go here


The Making of an Author’s Photo, Part 3: The Final

Our favorite image from our photo shoot was self-plagarized. The pose was based on an image (left) Josh had shot for a fine art project that he himself had plagarized from a Sixties’ era French fashion magazine. We felt and hoped the image of us leaning against each other would communicate some of the complexity of our working relationship, but with a sense of humor. If one of us moved the other would fall.

We couldn’t decide how far to crop into the photo. After much discussion and polling some of our design-minded friends, we chose the full body shot. That is until our editor told us that the picture on the book’s back cover would be so small that it wouldn’t “read.” We’d have to crop it into a head shot (right). Richard Ford’s porthole window from Part 1.

At the shoot our six-year-old daughter Roxie was flabbergasted that she was not included in the photo. She insisted on one more shot that she art directed. It was shot on Camille’s iPhone. In the end it might be the best image of all.

More great author photos and images here and here and here.

Also see Part 1 and Part 2

Judging a Book by Its Cover

In the beginning, an aspiring author’s book is just a bunch of files in a bunch of folders on his or her hard drive. But at some point, if you are lucky enough, like us, to find a publisher, your book will become printed matter, a physical object—and it will need to have a cover.

Chip Kidd, brilliant book cover designer, author and editor, says of the book cover designer’s role:

“We bring stories to the public. And stories can be anything. But they all have one thing in common.  They all need a face to give you a first impression of what you are about to get into.”

A cover for your book like any of these (above) would be a dream come true—a  “face” so memorable and appealing it will be seared into the public consciousness for decades.  But really, what are the chances of that?

So naturally, Josh, (a former designer by trade) created not one, but ten possible book covers (below) to get a feel for what people may or may not like. We sent the covers out to our brain trust of family, friends and allies. The more literate liked the design-y covers. Those who wanted us to go more mass market liked the simpler, bolder (and okay, cheesier) covers. Creating the great cover would be harder than we thought. No one cover pleased everybody, including ourselves.

Then we sent all of these possible covers to the publisher, which they graciously accepted and apparently ignored. You may be the author of your book but that book will be assigned a designer and that designer will come up with cover concepts that will be shown around the publishing house to the editors and marketing people until a design is agreed on, at which point it will be shown to you. It’s as if you’ve been set up in an arranged marriage. What you will see when you lift the veil? Your biggest nightmare: What if the cover is ugly?!

An author’s nightmare: the ugly book cover.

One day the email arrived from our editor:

“Attached you’ll find the proposed cover for THE ART OF DOING. I’m pretty excited about it. I think it does an excellent job of bringing together a complex set of elements and conveying what the book is while being visually arresting.”

Designed by Janet Hansen

Opening the email attachment was like lifting the veil. IT WASN’T UGLY! We liked a lot of the design elements. The arrows conveyed the sense that the book was about process and gave the book an appropriate how-to-ish sort of feel. The dialog balloons communicated the sense that a reader would hear from these high achieving individuals in their own words. But was the cover too busy? Would people get it? Did it skew too young? Too hip? Too yellow? Most importantly, would it sell?

Bill Gross, the brilliant founder of the Technology Incubator  Idealab which has started 100 companies (we interviewed him for our book on How to Start a Startup) was adamant about testing a product or service before going to market. Not in a focus group but in an environment as close as possible to the real thing. Testing his theory of testing, we searched for a same-sized book with a yellow cover and found Philip Roth’s Nemesis was a perfect fit. So we printed out our cover, taped it to Roth’s Nemesis, and set out for Barnes & Noble.


We wandered the store, mock-up book in hand, trying not to draw the attention of B&N employees and guards. We had whispered discussions about which customers to approach, only to have our potential targets leave the floor before we’d worked up our courage. Finally Camille approached a young woman and asked: Would you buy this book? The target was a French tourist who barely spoke English. But we’d broken the ice and approached others. Younger shoppers seemed to get the book. Older ones complained about the small type size and couldn’t fathom what the book was about. One guy with Fifty Shades of Grey tucked under his arm, peered closely at the cover, and nodded, “I’m in.”  He’d try anything he said.

Knowing that our power with the publisher was limited, and basically liking the design, we requested only a few discrete changes, larger type size, text revisions for clarity and an added “many more” line to let people know they’d get their money’s worth.

And here’s what we got. A face we can actually love.

Chip Kidd says,

“Book designers responsibility is three fold. To the reader, to the publisher and most of all to the author. I want you [the reader] to look at the author’s book and say, ‘Wow, I need to read that.’”

We hope potential readers feel the same.

If you’re a fan of book covers, here are enough links to waste an afternoon or two: making of a cover in two minutes, vintage covers, more vintage covers,  Penguin and Pelican covers, sleazy covers, pulp covers, more pulp covers, old paperbacks, French covers, Latvian covers, all kinds of covers, NYPL archive, blog, and another blog.

On Jonah Lehrer and Lies

In the wake of the Jonah Lehrer scandal in which he was caught fabricating quotes for his best-selling book Imagine, How Creativity Works, we thought back to the words of Michael Sitrick a Hollywood crisis manager to the stars and prominent CEO’s, known as the Spin Doctor, (Chapter 30 in our book on How to Rehabilitate a Bad Reputation).

“Public Relations is about persuasion and persuasion depends on credibility, so you can’t lie.”

You could just as easily substitute “journalism” for “public relations.” Although we understand that writers like Lehrer shape a narrative by massaging quotes and emphasizing some parts of the story over others, our belief in a writer’s carefully constructed arguments is dependent on our belief that he or she has more or less accurately reported the “facts.”

Lehrer risked his credibility by fabricating quotes of Bob Dylan in the service of creating a more persuasive argument. It was a form of writer’s Russian Roulette. The story might have been more effective with the fabricated quotes but when he got caught lying by Michael Moynihan of Tablet Magazine he lost his credibility and his ability to persuade us of anything.  This is in turns made him a pariah to those who have given him a vehicle for his work. They had to protect their own credibility. Lehrer resigned as staff writer from the New Yorker and his publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has withdrawn his book.

The one thing Lehrer did right was to get out ahead of the story by admitting he lied and then apologizing:

“The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said. The lies are over now.”

Sitrick, again:

“A lie may get a client out of a bad situation but they’ll always be found out, especially now with the scrutiny of the digital media. When high-profile clients get into situations, such as drugs, sex addiction or domestic violence we advise them to admit the truth quickly, let the public know they’re seeking treatment for their behavior and move on.”

At least admission of wrongdoing may allow Lehrer a second act.

A Rogue’s Gallery of Journalistic Fabulists. Clifford Irving, Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, and Judith Miller.

Sometimes It Pays to Waste Time Or How We Got Into the New Yorker

People’s relationship to time and its effect on their work has become a buzz-topic for everyone from Malcolm Gladwell advocating for the 10,000 hours to Frank Partnoy exploring the art and science of delay to Tim Kreider in his hugely popular story in the New York Times about people’s obsession with how “busy” they are.

Click on this to read an excerpt of the Talk of the Town story

After the time-sucking marathon of writing and completing our book, we didn’t take a vacation. Instead we’ve been working on what we’ve been told most authors ought to be working on— a social media version of all that we’ve absorbed.

Like most 21st century worker bees it’s unlike us to take time out in the middle of the day for cultural activities. But because Josh’s mother was coming up from Philadelphia to see The Clock—Christian Marclay’s genius 24-hour video art installation about time, cinema history and life in general playing at Lincoln Center—we accompanied her and Josh’s sister Annie even though we knew the wait alone could take up to TWO HOURS!

Josh and his sister Annie Gosfield being interviewed by Nick Paumgarten.

Waiting on line for The Clock we were approached by a roving reporter for the New Yorker who was writing a piece about people waiting on line for The Clock.

What great timing?! Although we had committed the cardinal sin of taking time off in the middle of the day, we ended up being written about in a Talk of the Town story Tick-Tock by Nick Paumgarten in this week’s issue of the New Yorker—a milestone that arguably many New Yorkers may have fantasized about from time to time.

Philippe Petit on Why Doing the Dirty Work Matters

Detail of Peasant-Girls with Brushwood by Jean-Francois Millet

In prehistoric times almost everyone did what we now consider the “dirty work.” But ever since the Sumerians developed an agricultural system (circa 5000 BC)—that created a stable supply of food allowing the population to grow, settle down and develop a division of labor that included skilled and unskilled work—most people have been angling to get out of doing the most menial, repetitive, mindless grunt work.

But is there any advantage to doing the thankless and lowly tasks?

In our book, Philippe Petit, the greatest living high wire master (whose spectacular feats include his walk between the World Trade Center Towers 110 stories in the air) proselytizes for dirty work:

“How can you achieve greatness if you haven’t experienced the hard lessons of life? To become a great theatrical director, a great actor or a Renaissance man, you have to do all the jobs most people don’t want to do, like washing dishes and shoveling horseshit. When I was young, I did everything by myself and would have sometimes 12 seconds to change from my dirty, rigging clothes to my performance outfit. ….You will never learn that googling ‘how to’ from a comfortable armchair.”

Petit Links: His latest book by TED, the award-winning documentary about him.

Dirty Work Debate: There is currently a debate over dirty work (aka unpaid internships). More here and a great infographic here. Is being one of the unpaid interns fetching coffee at Disney or lugging apparel for a fashion magazine a career-builder or exploitation as former intern Ross Perlin argues in his book Intern Nation?