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Mall Writer

Note to The Gateway: give me a call.

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The Mall of America is recruiting a writer-in-residence!

Yes, the Disneyland of shopping malls, which draws more than 40 million visitors a year, is hiring a writer to "capture how much the mall has evolved over the course of the last 25 years."

Interested? Here are the details: "A special scribe will spend five days deeply immersed in the Mall of America atmosphere while writing on-the-fly impressions in their own words. They will stay in an attached hotel for four nights, receive a $400 gift card to buy food and drinks, and collect a generous honorarium for the sweat and tears they'll put into their prose."

It seems unlikely that the Minnesota megamall would generate tears, but I can think of a few malls in Utah that might—Trolley Square, Cottonwood and The Gateway. One is nine years gone; the other two are struggling in a retail landscape reshaped by Amazon like a strip-mined patch of Appalachia.

What the Mall of America expects to get for its money is hard to say. Publicity, to be sure, but probably unlike Ed Abbey's musings at Arches National Park in the 1950s. Whatever the desired outcome might be, many other organizations have similar interests: Zion National Park, Amtrak, University of Utah, Harvard Divinity School, Capitol Reef National Park, Artcroft, a cattle ranch in Kentucky—all are offering opportunities for writers-in-residence in 2017.

It's easy to imagine myself as a member of a select writing group, my appointment announced in a press release with a photo of me looking as disheveled and authorial as Kurt Vonnegut. I could fit right in the scene in Harvard Square. But Terry Tempest Williams, Utah's respected environmentalist, got the divinity school writing job. I also missed the application deadline of the Mall of America. If I am to parlay my shallow résumé into a live-in writing gig, I'll have to cast my net closer to home. One possibility is the University of Utah's Environmental Humanities Education Center in the Centennial Valley of Montana. Applicants must have a project in mind and samples of what they have written. Otherwise, it seems easier to get a writer-in-residence post than to find a cheap apartment in Salt Lake City. You just have to attend an occasional communal dinner, agree to be photographed and interviewed, donate one "work" and clean your room.

I imagine there is no shortage of applicants. The U of U has plenty of talented people. More than a few of them have essays, poetry and novels in progress. Moreover, the Wasatch Front is crawling with scribes, scribblers, poets, bloggers, polemicists and novelists. I'll bet Utah County has more self-described writers than Democrats. If I am to be competitive for a writing residency, then, I am going to have to find a way to stand out from the crowd. I don't have enough imagination for fiction, and while poetry isn't my strong suit, I could manage a respectable haiku. Or better yet—a limerick. The limerick is a neglected form of poetry whose meter and rhyme scheme are deceptively simple. But like skating backward, writing limericks is not as easy as it looks. I would need practice. Even better: on-the-job training. Taking a page from the Mall of America book, I could declare myself the limericker-in-residence of the Cottonwood Mall. In so doing, I'd gain the immediate advantage of having few, if any, competitors. (Doug Fabrizio isn't reading limericks on RadioWest.) And because the Cottonwood Mall comprises two empty buildings and 57 weedy acres, I could work from home, honing my limerick-writing skills undisturbed. My first attempts would read something like these:

For 30 years the Cottonwood Mall

Held Salt Lake's shoppers in thrall.

But as it lost its allure,

Closing store after store,

It limped to its last curtain call.

The Cottonwood Mall was once great,

The first mall to be built in the state.

But it was brought to an end

By a counter-mall trend

And some bulldozers in 2008.

OK, they are imperfect, more like a slightly out-of-focus photo than an etching. They lack the satisfying lilt of classics like "There once was a man from Nantucket." However, practice makes perfect, and perfect limericks might open the door to the office of writer-in-residence. What's to lose? With my tenure at Cottonwood at the top of my résumé, I could use my newly honed skills to offer limericks to others. There are 1,200 shopping malls in the U.S., and 400 are either shuttered or struggling. Who's to say that a limericker-in-residence would not inspire a turnaround? To the Salt Lake City mall without a creek, my literary services might be welcome. Maybe I'll test the water with a few limericks like these:

Like the phoenix The Gateway is rising

As a venue for hip socializing.

The new owners have money

So the outlook is sunny

Until Amazon dictates downsizing.

Writing verse for the Cottonwood Mall

Has provided me the wherewithal

To celebrate shopping

Without fear of flopping.

Note to The Gateway: give me a call.

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