The Yarn Car in Reader's Digest and Good Morning America

When I was about 13 years old, I used to read every issue of Reader's Digest. I was particularly fond of the "amusing anecdotes" sections: Life in These United States, All in a Day's Work, and Humor in Uniform. The small print at the bottom always offered $300 for any reader-submitted stories, of 100 words or less, that actually got printed in the magazine. Ever the entrepreneur, I would start rubbing my palms together anew each month at the thought of earning such a vast sum for such a tiny amount of work. How hard could it be? They even required that the stories be short! Surely it would be a lot easier than mowing 15 suburban lawns in the sweltering sun for 20 bucks each.

And so began my short-lived career as a professional writer. At first, I adopted the strategy of keeping my eyes and ears open for any amusing anecdotes that might arise out of events in everyday life. Nope. Nothing magazine-worthy ever happened. No ironic twists of fate, no comical misunderstandings, nothing. My sisters, my parents, my friends, my teachers, the owners of the yards I was mowing, the people talking in the pew in front of me in church -- to my young mind, all of them were endlessly, stupefyingly boring. Apparently, life in my particular United State was a lot more humdrum than in the other 49.

So I did what anyone would do -- I started making stuff up. Ah, now the words were flowing! I'd put the lawnmower in neutral long enough to jot a few notes onto a sweat-soaked sheet of paper and shove it back into my pocket. There was the story of the embarrassingly racy thing our minister accidentally said in church. And the one about how a gruff admiral and his dog fell overboard during a shipboard inspection, and my non-existent, dog-loving brother in the Navy rescued the dog first and the admiral second, and the admiral gave him a promotion because he was a big dog lover himself and that's what he'd have done in that situation too. Great material, that. Totally true-to-life, or at least I thought so.

I felt a bit guilty, since the Reader's Digest rules said the stories were supposed to be true. But heck, a believable story was just as good as a true one for this purpose, right? This was entertainment, not journalism. And besides, I bet all those other people made up their "true" stories too. Just think about the money, man! Even if they printed only three of my anecdotes, that'd be almost a thousand bucks! Then I could afford to pay some other, less anecdotally talented schmuck $15 to mow each lawn, and I'd still come out $5 ahead.

I learned a couple of valuable lessons from this: (a) Unless you do something about it, life can be really bland day after day, and fabricating amusing anecdotes doesn't change that. And (b) it's nearly impossible to tell an amusing anecdote in 100 words or less. I spent hours paring down each story so as to squeeze it into that aggravatingly tight 100-word corset. I learned to pack a paragraph's worth of content into a few well-chosen words -- and although I've never yet gotten paid for writing, that skill still serves me.

All told, over the course of a few summers, I mailed about a dozen carefully crafted stories to Reader's Digest, each exactly 100 words long, and printed neatly in pencil on 3-holed, blue-lined notebook paper. But for some reason, those miserly editors never accepted a single one of them. Philistines!

With the onset of adolescence, I pretty much forgot about Reader's Digest, and thus ended my career as a writer. Then a couple decades later, I received word from Harrod Blank that Reader's Digest had chosen his photo of the Yarn Car and me to be the lead picture in an upcoming spread about art cars! Yowza! And it was with a certain satisfaction that I learned how much my cut of the licensing fee would come to. You guessed it -- I had finally found a way to get $300 from Reader's Digest.

The pictorial was in the May 2006 issue, as a part of their annual "America's 100 Best" section. They always round up 100 good things in various categories such as "best street names" and "best skyscrapers". Having somehow gotten the idea of including "best mobile art" as one of the categories this time around, they called Harrod Blank's Art Car Agency, and from the collection of photos that he sent them, they chose the ones you see here. The Yarn Car picture is the same one that appears on my home page, but they extracted the car and me from the brick background, and flipped the image left-to-right (look closely and you'll see that the steering wheel is on the wrong side).

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I was proud to share a page with my friend Emily Duffy and her MondrianMobile. And two pages later, there were my other friends Matt Slimmer and Kate Pearson.

Click image for full-size view

The Reader's Digest web site says it's the world's largest-selling magazine, with foreign language editions distributed all over the planet. So at first I had grand visions of readers in distant places like Romania looking with fresh eyes at their oxcarts and gypsy wagons (or whatever they drive in Romania these days), rubbing their chins, and wondering what they'd look like with yarn on them. (The oxcarts, not the chins.) But I later learned that the contents differ in the various editions, and the "America's 100 Best" section appeared only in the American edition. Too bad! But copies do get sent to overseas military personnel (in fact, my parents sponsor several such subscriptions), so at least maybe some bored American soldiers in Afghanistan looked at their tanks, rubbed their chins, and wondered what they'd look like with yarn on them. Well, OK, maybe not. But Harrod says it's the biggest magazine ever to publish art cars. And my mother, who still subscribes, got to open up her copy and see her wack job of a son grinning out at her.

And as if that weren't enough public exposure for me, Reader's Digest arranged to have the cast of ABC's Good Morning America do a promo for the issue. Reader's Digest sent them some video showing various items from the list, including some movie film footage that Harrod had contributed. The producers decided to use two of the art cars as part of the promo, so the Yarn Car and I were onscreen twice (for a total of about two seconds), along with Kate's Love 23 car. I managed to get a tape of that segment of the show, recorded in Chicago (hence the Chicago weather forecast scrolling along the bottom). Listen carefully to hear Diane Sawyer giggle and Charles Gibson say, "That's pretty nice!" High praise from people who've seen everything. (2.9MB)
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It was weird, being temporarily slightly famous. For about a month, whenever I drove the Yarn Car anywhere, strangers would tell me they saw me in Reader's Digest or on TV. And although my web address didn't appear in the magazine, I got lots of email messages from people who took the time to do a web search for "yarn car". But the weirdest thing was a strange compulsion that I discovered in myself. The whole month, every time I was waiting in line at a grocery store or drug store, I'd look over at the "impulse buys" rack, and there next to the fingernail clippers and chewing gum would be a stack of Reader's Digests. And every time, I was compelled to open one up to page 76, and try to look at the picture and read the caption from the perspective of some random person in some random town in, say, Idaho. What impression would my outlandish creation and silly grin have on this ordinary Idahoan? I wonder if every newly famous person goes through a phase like that when they start seeing their face in print in grocery stores? Anyway, although it was a bit of a letdown when the next month's issue hit the stands, it was kind of a relief too.

I also learned something about human nature: The people in magazines live Somewhere Else. Shortly after the issue came out, I was invited to display the Yarn Car at a big festival in Fort Worth, Texas. I spent the day tearing up and replacing a section of the artwork that had worn out, and sometimes people would stop and watch me work for a while. I had proudly laid out a copy of the Reader's Digest pictorial on a table nearby. On more than one occasion during the day, someone would watch me work, then wander over to the table, notice the picture, and say to their friend, "Oh, I see! He's copying this one." It reminded me of the story of Charlie Chaplin winning third place in a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest. Sigh... forever doomed to be a pale imitation of myself...

Go back to "The Story So Far"

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