Reading Outside Your Usual Cultural Space

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A book can take you anywhere—a different place, time, planet, or reality. A book can transform you into someone else, dropping you into other people’s lives so that you see the world through their eyes, understand what makes them tick, and feel their hurts and their triumphs.

In fact, studies have shown that the neurological activity of readers mirrors the neurological activity of the characters about which they are reading. In addition, reading novels is widely believed to increase empathy, primarily by letting us share someone else’s experience.

We need to encourage this kind of armchair adventure more than ever these days.

1807 caged birdThis is one reason I was glad to see Maya Angelou’s debut novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, on my daughter’s freshman year summer reading list. I have quoted Angelou many times, but I knew next to nothing about her life until I happened to catch the episode “And Still I Rise” on the PBS series, American Masters. I had no idea what this woman went through or the strength and grace she embodied throughout her unspeakably tragic life until then.

I will be reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings this summer along with my daughter, and I have also been making intentional choices about other books on my never-ending and always growing TBR (to be read) list.

1807 hate u giveFor instance, I recently read the debut novel of another woman of color, Angie Thomas. Her breakaway young adult hit, The Hate U Give, was inspired by a real-life shooting in which an unarmed, 22-year-old African American man was shot and killed by a white transit police officer. I listened to this story as an audio book, and it was the first time in a while that I found myself making all kinds of excuses to put down whatever else I was doing and get back to the story.

I was fortunate to be able to later participate in a book group discussion with Action Together North Shore, a local activist group of which I am a member. We had so many more people show up to discuss the book than we expected. The conversation was generously led by a black woman who is a professor of African American studies at Salem State University, but the rest of our group was white. A lot of learning took place.

1807 blood and boneSince then, I have read a very different story by another woman of color, Nigerian-American writer, Tomi Adeyemi. Children of Blood and Bone is a fantasy novel that tells the story of two races—one with magic, one without—who are pitted in a generations-long battle for power. The racial metaphor is clear, but the vehicle for the message could not be more different from Thomas’ super realistic storytelling in The Hate U Give.

1807 freshwaterAnother book I picked up at our local library is a wildly dark novel by another writer who hails from Nigeria. Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil writer whose narrative in Freshwater often feels more like poetry than a linear story. Her themes are difficult and frightening, and her tale is interwoven with the mythology of gods that are so different from the Judeo-Christian one most of us are familiar with; but it’s these challenging aspects of the work that make it so fascinating and so valuable.

1807 born a crimeOn the other end of the spectrum is Trevor Noah’s autobiography, Born a Crime. This insightful, touching, and funny look into his life growing up in South Africa during apartheid as the child of a mixed-race couple was eye opening for me. I recommend this one as an audio book, read by the author.

1807 homegoingMy most recent read was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. It’s an epic story that covers three hundred years in the lives of two Ghana-born half sisters and several generations of their kin. I won’t lie—it was a challenging read in terms of the material, but it was so worth it. I learned a lot. Gyasi succeeds in drawing her reader in so that they not only begin to understand the stories of her characters, they feel them. That’s the power of story. 

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Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Photo Credit: o_teuerle Flickr via Compfight cc

How To Write An Obit

How to Write An Obit

My Dad. 7/23/1925 – 7/19/2018

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer and never plan to write for publication, chances are you will someday have to write an obituary for someone you’ve loved and lost.

How to Write An Obit

Mom, circa 1940.

I know this, because last week I wrote an obit for my dad. Six years earlier, I wrote one for my mom.

While I included the usual details of where they each were born, what they did for their livings, and where and when they died, their lives were a great deal richer than a collection of biographical facts.

Collect the Facts

Since it’s entirely possibly that you’ll be a blubbery mess when the time comes, you’ll want to collect all the facts about your subject before you start writing. Professional obit writers keep files on famous people for when the time comes. You might want to start a file now on those for whom you expect to write an obituary. You also might want to create a document with such details about yourself and file it along with your Advance Care Plan, your Last Will and Testament, the key to your Safe Deposit Box, and a list of your passwords, to make it easier for your survivors to tie up lose ends.

Consider Your Audience

Next, just as in writing anything else, you must consider your audience. The obit you write for the local paper may emphasize someone’s community service, whereas the one you send to a professional organization’s publication will narrate the arc of the person’s career. Make it easy on yourself: write a master obit with a paragraph for each section. This makes it easy to cut and paste shorter versions to the different places where an obit is likely to appear.

Make it Meaningful

Then consider what made this person’s life worth living. For most of us, our obituary will appear in the local paper one day and line the litter box the next, but readers will always remember a story. Tell stories about this  person’s one wild and precious life.

Links to Worksheets

Here’s a link to three examples, each for the same fictional person. I wrote these examples for a workshop I taught on obituary writing. The first is just the bare minimum: Who died, where, when and how (optional). The second is Standard Vanilla, with the usual details and not a whole lot more. The third gives you more detail and more flavor of the person who didn’t just die, but who lived – and how.

And here’s a link to a worksheet to help you gather the facts you’ll want to have on hand.

Having the Last Word

How do you want to be remembered? Try writing your own obituary – one draft if you died today and another if you live to be one hundred. Then figure out how to make the second one come true.

Blessings to you all, ~Deborah.

Write an Obit

Family Photo, circa 1962

Write an Obit

Family Photo, August 2005

Write An Obit

Family Photo, June 2018

 

 

 

Reposting: B.S. (Be Specific)

No_Bullshit            B.S. is one of the abbreviations I pencil in the margin of prose I’m reviewing –my own or a client’s. It stands for Be Specific, though it evokes a different two-word expletive that means much the same thing.

The best way to be specific is to know what you want to say – and sometimes that takes several meandering drafts. Once you’ve figured out what you want to accomplish in a scene or a post, a chapter, a story or a report, you can guide your reader to understand you clearly with specific language – with words.

Words can be general, like the word food – the fuel that sustains life. A general word fails to give your reader much guidance, leaving her to imagine grapes when you imagined roast beef.

Words that are more specific are limited in scope, like the word snack – which is a small amount of food between meals. This narrows what your reader can imagine, though one reader might think carrot sticks and another chocolate chip cookies with milk.

Words that are concrete are even more specific, and tell your reader exactly what to imagine. Make the snack chips, and you’ve given your reader the kind of narrow direction that allows him to see just what you intended.

Of course, words don’t exist by themselves, and the more specific you can make them all, the clearer your reader will see. Here are two different examples.

George held the bag between his knees, pushing a steady stream of chips in his mouth as he sat in traffic.

            Jeremy set out blue corn chips in a yellow bowl to brighten the November afternoon.

Here are some other examples of general, specific and concrete words:

  • Clothes, business casual, khakis
  • Writing, poetry, sonnet
  • Birds, raptors, eagle

You get the idea.

Adjectives are another opportunity to Be Specific. Here’s an example from My Writing Bible, The Harbrace College Handbook:

  • Bad planks: rotten, warped, scorched, knotty, termite-eaten
  • Bad children: rowdy, rude, ungrateful, selfish, perverse
  • Bad meat: tough, tainted, overcooked, contaminated

Every time we use a general adjective, we miss an opportunity to guide our readers closer to what we mean. English is a rich language, so there’s no excuse for using small when you could say so much more with tiny, microscopic, sub-atomic, undeveloped; or big when you could say plump, hulking, towering, Herculean.

A thesaurus is a dictionary of synonyms, and it’s a good place to find words. I find mine in The Original Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, originally published in 1852 and revised many times since. I love poking around in it, and find it much more complete and satisfying to use than the thesaurus in my word-processor.

It is a writer’s job to direct readers to reimagine for themselves what you mean. Since readers bring their own, varying, experiences and prejudices to your work, you must give specific instructions that narrow how your work can be understood. You must be authoritarian. And one of the best methods is to cut the BS and Be Specific with your words.

While I’m away, I’m rerunning some posts with writing advice worth repeating. This post originally appeared here on December 3, 2013.

When I’m not traveling, I live a rural and rooted life in Vermont, which I chronicle in my weekly blog, Living in Place. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

Please visit my website to learn more about my mission: advancing issues through narrative; telling stories to create change. Thanks!

Reposting: A Brief Guide to Narrative Navigation

            In British English, punctuation at the end of a sentence is called a “full stop,” – just like the red, octagonal, road sign at an intersection. Indeed, basic punctuation is a great deal like road signs, instructing the reader when to slow down, yield, and stop. In this way, punctuation is a great tool – a way for a writer to lead her reader through a labyrinth of ideas without either of them getting lost. Here’s an abbreviated driver’s manual summarizing the punctuation/signage that will help you and your readers through a safe narrative journey.

The Comma. This little subscript mark is possibly the second most misused punctuation mark – after the apostrophe. It indicates a brief pause, like the letting up on the accelerator as you approach a cross walk where there might be pedestrians crossing, or a yield sign, indicating an important clause is about to enter the sentence.

The comma is also used before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet) linking two independent clauses – just the way a driver hesitates when crossing a four-way intersection on a country road, where stop signs aren’t posted.

A comma follows an introductory clause or phrase, just as a driver can let up on the accelerator after zooming up the entrance ramp of a limited-access highway and achieving highway speed. And commas set off little elements, like non-restrictive clauses, parenthetical remarks, dates, and the like. These commas help a reader negotiate stop-and-go traffic, and can be as trying as a traffic jam when overused.

Overusing commas is similar to when a driver pumps the gas, creating a staccato motion that causes car-sickness and is not reader-friendly. Similarly, when commas are too infrequently used a reader could become anxious with breathlessness the way a driver who never pauses to read street signs can end up hopelessly lost.

The Semi-colon. If it’s possible to have a favorite punctuation mark, this would be mine. The semi-colon is all about linking equal parts. When a semi-colon joins two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction, it’s a sign to the reader that the ideas are equal; she must supply the mental connection of ideas just as drivers at a four-way stop sign must agree on an order for taking turns across the intersection. The semi-colon indicates the need for cooperation, and I like that.

The semi-colon is also used to separate coordinate elements that contain commas, like a long, complicated, list of items. This use of semi-colons resembles those giant, overhead, signs on the interstate that separate drivers into different lanes according to their destinations.

The Colon: This mark instructs a reader to pay attention, something important is coming up, just like the orange signs on the highway alerting a driver of upcoming hazards, like construction, a change of pavement or a bump. It says, “Heads up!”

The Period. Full stop. Ignore this mark at your peril! It is the stoplight that must be obeyed at all costs. Without it, intersections of ideas would be chaotic pile-ups. Even a single idea without a period at the end is as dangerous as a road that goes off a cliff. A period provides closure, and every reader wants to be told when to stop.

Learning to stop can be difficult, but with the price of gas going up in direct opposition to readers’ time, it’s a critical skill. So even though there are more signs worth knowing how to use, like the apostrophe, the dash, parentheses, quotation marks, exclamation point, question mark and the interrobang, these marks are beyond the purview of this post.

Happy Motoring!

This piece originally posted August 21, 2012. I’ve scheduled reruns while I’m on summer vacation, and hope this ones reminds everyone to drive safely during the summer holidays. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

When I’m not traveling, I live a rooted and rural life in Vermont which I chronicle on my blog, Living in Place.

Please my website to learn more about my mission to tell stories to create change. Thanks for reading!

Reposting: The Singular They

The Elements of StyleLanguage changes with the times, even grammar.

I attended college during the second wave of feminism, when incorporating non-sexist terms into every day usage was an important demonstration of inclusiveness. In addition to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, we consulted Miller and Swift’s The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, and we learned to replace the word man with the word human when we meant all people.

This was the era when the honorific Ms. entered the language. The thinking was that women should be able to be in the world without reference to their marital status. I didn’t see what business my marital status was back then, when I wasn’t married, and I still don’t now that I am. I use the name I was born with, and smoke comes out my ears when people who know better call me by my husband’s last name.

English is quite liberal in accepting neologisms, and new words enter the language all the time: localvore, texting and twerking are three examples. Grammar is harder to change.

Back in 1980, when The Handbook of Non-Sexist Language was first published, Miller and Swift confronted the pronoun problem in English, which offers only gendered singular pronouns: she/her/hers and he/him/his.

Handbook of Nonsexist WritingIn attempts to be inclusive, many writers used the awkward pronoun construction he/her – sometimes shortened to s/he – which is cumbersome, but works. Miller and Swift’s suggestion to use the non-gendered plural they/them/theirs instead of she/he, him/her, hers/his, has gradually been adopted. In both speech and writing, many people combine a singular noun with the plural pronoun, as in Everyone cheered when they saw the balloons.

I confess that the English teacher in me resisted this apparently ungrammatical usage at first. But as a woman who bristles at the male bias in our culture and language, I’m sensitive to inclusion. I’m dismayed when a white, straight, male professional, such as a physician, politician, professor or writer, for example, is referred to by their profession only, but all others are modified according to their otherness, be it gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or something else.

Resistance to change is human, especially when change threatens tradition, be it traditional power structures, religious beliefs, knowledge or accepted standards of behavior. But change still happens, just as knowledge expands.

During the second wave of feminism, we understood gender to be binary, and the feminist impulse was to create equality between men and women. A generation later, our understanding of gender has grown, making the change in pronoun usage even more pressing. With our new understanding of gender fluidity that includes men, women, transgender, transsexual and genderqueer, we need new pronouns in order to be inclusive and fair.

Trans*Ally WorkbookSeveral new pronouns have been introduced to achieve inclusiveness: ne/nir, ze/zir, per/pers are a few examples. You can learn about these and others in Davey Shlasko’s Trans* Ally Workbook: Getting Pronouns Right & What It Teaches Us about Gender. While one or more of the new constructions may eventually take hold, I think the adoption of the singular they is most likely to succeed now. After all, it’s already in use, and as the ancient Roman poet Horace observed millennia ago, Use is the judge, and rule, and law, of speech.

 

I believe that language matters, and have been doing my small part to advance issues through narrative by telling stories to create change. I blog weekly at  Living in Place.

This essay originally posted in May 25, 2015. I’ve scheduled more reruns while I’m on summer vacation. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

Reposting: Six Writing Lessons From The Garden

veg garden I love to garden. It’s a meditative activity – something I can do while my mind freewheels. Last Sunday, I found myself thinking how preparing a small vegetable patch is like writing a book.
Lesson 1: Writing is Solitary.Scarecrow

For the first time in thirty years, I’m planting the garden solo. My husband helped me install the fence posts (just as he built the studio where I write), but he prefers to nurture the orchard. I’m on my own, just as I write by myself during the week while he’s off tending to his patients’ health.

Lesson 2: Selectivity is Good.

There was a time when we grew and preserved all our food – but no longer. We’re now supplied with locally grown produce from a neighbor’s organic farm, so I’m only planting high-value items that are harder to find in local markets – shallots and leeks, fennel, veg garden2escarole and Brussels sprouts – as well as items we consume in quantity – cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, hot peppers and a wide assortment of culinary herbs.

I’m leaving the prosaic vegetables – the zucchini and green beans, the carrots and potatoes – to the production professionals. In a similar way, I’ve retired from the teaching, managerial and editorial jobs that others can do as well as or even better than I can. No one else can tell the stories I imagine, so I’m concentrating on them.

Lesson 3: Limits are Helpful.

GardenPrep050513I started by limiting the scope of my garden. I’ve fenced off an eight- by sixteen-foot rectangle to keep the free-range chickens out, and to keep my intentions focused – and manageable. Our previous gardens were huge, time-sucking affairs, and sometimes we raised an equal quantity of weeds as tomatoes. Similarly, over the past year, I’ve drafted thousands of words about my character’s life. But recently, I’ve come to realize that the story I’m telling takes place over the course of nineteen months. So that’s what I’ll develop; everything else must come out, just like the weeds.

Lesson 4: Writing Takes Time.

At the outset, a hundred and twenty-eight square feet looks just as big as a 100,000-word novel, and turning it over with a hand fork appears as daunting as filling a ream of paper by pen. My husband offered to do this heavy task for me; he sundialwould have had the garden-plot ready in less than an hour. I thanked him and said I would do it myself. It took me three hours, during which time I meditated on how preparing the garden is like writing a novel. I stopped only for water and to take pictures for this post, which I was composing as I dug.

Lesson 5: Small Tasks Yield Success.

gardenprep10A week earlier, I’d covered my plot with a tarp to warm the earth and kill weeds. The weeds continued to flourish, however, and the prospect of turning the soil by hand and pulling the weeds out by the root was too much. So I put the tarp back in place and

Working a small section at a time.

Working a small section at a time.

uncovered only a quarter of the space. After I turned those thirty-two square feet, I peeled the tarp back again, turning and weeding the next section. Now, the job was half done. I folded the tarp back again and again, always giving myself a small, measurable task that I could reasonably accomplish. Writing a book is just the same: I break each chapter into sections, and each section into paragraphs, each paragraph into sentences, each sentence into words. Each time I stuck the fork into the soil, it was a reminder that books are written one word at a time.

Lesson 6: The End is the Beginning

By the time I had raked the soil into beds and outlined the footpath with string, my neck was sunburned, my back was sore, and I was ready for a bath. I was done – for the day. I now had a well-defined garden plot with clearly outlined beds as weed-free as a clean piece of paper. Even though I was done-in, I’m anything but done. In fact, I’m just ready to start.

GardenPrep8Ellen, the novel I’m crafting, is further along than my garden. But the garden is a good reminder about how to maintain forward progress on this first draft. My afternoon preparing my garden yielded these six truths: 1) Even though I work alone, I’m deeply engaged with my characters; 2) every time I cut out a scene or a character or an unnecessary word, I gain a clearer sense of what aspect of the story to nurture; 3) knowing the limit of the narrative has helped me focus on the story I have to tell; 4) drafting the novel is taking a long time – and I make progress daily; 5) I experience the elation of success when I set myself small, measurable tasks; and 6) every time I finish a section, a chapter, an entire draft, I’m ready to begin another section, another chapter, another draft.  And even when that’s done – even when the writing and revision are finished – there’s another whole set of steps to see a book to completion, but those are chores of another season.

This growing season has just started. I tell myself, if I write word by word, weed by weed, my effort will blossom, and in time, I’ll see my book in my readers’ hands.

Meanwhile, I have a lovely garden bed ready for seeds.

I garden and write about my rural, rooted life in Vermont at Living in Place.

This essay originally posted in May 5, 2013. I’ve scheduled more reruns while I’m on summer vacation. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

How Peaceful the Disconnected Life Can Be

My studio was originally Internet-free; now it is intentionally so.

Earlier this week, the Internet connection to my studio went down and I was reminded how peaceful the disconnected life can be.

I had no Internet when I first moved into my Chapel of the Imagination, as I call my one-room studio tucked into a wooded corner of our land. At first, I was stunned by the intense quiet; I wrote with concentration and focus.

It was only when I returned to the house to use the printer or send email that I fell into those black holes of distraction: Facebook, news, solitaire.

As my blogging output increased, I had to return to the house and connect more frequently for fact checking, uploading photos and formatting posts. Reluctantly, I wired the studio to the Internet, which saved me the walk to the house, but where I often succumbed to the time suck of cyber distraction. Even when I was on-line to research a subject, I found myself spinning into information that was as off-topic as it was interesting – and hardly better than going deep into Facebook.

So when my connection went down, I was amazed how quickly my focus returned, and how sharp my mind without all the cyber static that has crept into my workspace.

About the same time, I started reflecting on my day with Evening Pages, rediscovering the joys of writing by hand.

The combination of turning off the static and physically shaping my words on the page has been profound. I’m recapturing the sustained quiet where my imagination is most audible and my ability to capture my ideas into words most profound.

In order to protect this renewed quiet, I’m turning off my email and silencing my phone in the studio. By disconnecting to the interruptions and distractions of the Internet, I’m concentrating on the words and stories at hand.

What are your distractions and how do you tame them?

walking & writing

At the end of the Long Trail, 9/8/2016.

Note to my Readers: I wrote Lessons from the Long Trail after hiking from Massachusetts to Canada along the spine of Vermont’s Green Mountains in 2016. This summer I’ll be hiking from Alaska into the Yukon along the Chilkoot Trail. While I’m gone, I’ll be republishing some favorite posts both here and at Living in Place. I hope you’ll check them both out. I’ll look forward to reading and responding to your comments when I return. All best.