Alternative Facts About my W-I-P

Dear Publishing Professional:

This book about aliens wearing fuzzy orange hats compares well with your favorite book, which turns out to be Little Women, and I’m going to get back to you on exactly how this is the right fit.

My protagonist is indeed grappling with a life or death decision that will keep you up at night and cause you to wonder if anything is real anymore. You will need intense therapy after you read this book. No, no, I mean it, there is no way that this book is just an entertaining story with a few subtle and not-so-subtle themes. No one wants to read that any more, do they? They want to be scarred for life by the act of reading, or so your mswishlist led me to believe and I am here for it.

My novel is exactly 75,000 words long, the perfect length, I know, and that was made possible once I added the word “very” 10,000 times. I never realized how very helpful that word could be. Because I am a creative (which turns out to be a noun now, and I am fine with that), I also added the word “so” a few thousand times too.

I would tell you my favorite books except that talking about favorite books is a bit like telling someone my favorite music, and there is nothing that sparks disdain more than finding out someone likes the wrong kind of music. Let’s leave it at this—I love to read and write, and some of what I read are books.

This book will be so easy to sell because the truth is that I don’t even need any help selling it. I am just writing this query for the fun of it. No, wait, how about this—I am doing it to give back to the publishing community out of gratitude for the many books I have loved over the years, and now that I’ve written that sentence I admit there is some truth to that.

Of course, everything I’ve written so far is completely true or at least is similar to things that have sometimes been true.

With warm regards and possibly a plate of chocolate chip cookies,

Me

20 years later

20 years ago today I was having a wonderful morning. I was working in a new job that I loved. I think it must have been my second year there, and I was getting on a roll with writing in the morning before heading in for a late shift at work. The sky was a crisp deep blue, and it was a perfect fall day in the mountains. I was in a wonderful mood. I can’t remember everything from that day, but I remember that feeling so clearly because it was such a contrast to what came next.

I can’t fully remember how I heard the news. Something about a plane hitting a building. Maybe my husband told me? I got to work, and found people gathered in rooms that had access to cable news.

I remember my first impression was a small plane had accidentally hit a building.

The news grew worse as the day progressed.

I remember crying when I heard a report that taxi drivers were pulling the seats out of their cars to make room for bodies.

I kept picturing fire fighters climbing up the stairs of the building, not knowing that it was about to fall. Thinking this was something else, something manageable. Something they would survive.

I heard stories of people jumping off to escape the certain death of the building to reach the certain death of the ground. These are choices, moments, too painful to contemplate.

And I remember regretting, again, that the Supreme Court decided Bush would be president because I knew he would not respond appropriately. He would not engage in the international detective work and financial networking that could lead us to find and bring the perpetrators to justice. He would instead pound his chest and condemn countless lives to death to merely appear to take action (and not coincidentally, make a lot of money for military-affiliated businesses).

On the other hand, I was a bit grateful not to have to hear the faux outrage of the right wing if Gore was president, knowing their tendency to be supremely confident that there was a better way that only they knew. Little did I know all the horrors they would bring us by the year 2016, and that you can’t just wait for bad faith actors to settle down. They will grind our democracy to bits if we don’t push back.

And as I reflect on the sorrow and shock we felt at so much human loss and destruction (and that we now learn never ended), I am also aware that we lost 1,642 Americans yesterday (and 8,949 people worldwide), bringing the total to 658,865 in the US and 4,616,807 reported deaths worldwide, and that with Covid19 we also don’t know how many will experience lasting harm because of it.

In the weeks after 9/11, Americans wondered how they could help, and the only thing the petty leaders of the right wing could suggest was to go shopping.

In these pandemic years, we actually can help. We can get vaccinated. We can wear masks in crowded and indoor public places. We can do our part to reduce the pain and loss that keeps passing back and forth within our very mobile society.

And perhaps we can learn the lesson from the aftermath of 9/11 that small, steady, unglamorous steps are more helpful than bold performances of power. I can hope we might avoid the pain and loss that marked our time in Iraq and Afghanistan by seeking solutions that do not resemble video games or blockbuster action movies.

And if we are lucky, we may find a way to inoculate ourselves from the snake oil medicine salesmen and internet trolls who now control the Republican Party who could never conceive why anyone would enter a burning building to try to save another’s life.

To be good at something

Over the years, my children have at times sought to identify what they were “good at,” or some “special talent,” or perhaps complained that others seemed to be at ease with tasks that were for them more challenging.

Some of my children have shown interest in art and music, for example, and this has led some well-meaning relatives to ask if I thought my kids had talent in it.

I bristle at the question (but try to mind my manners). In some analytical, statistically-driven way, it is possibly true that there are qualities that we could call talent or that there are individuals born with an affinity or proclivity for certain tasks. Even in those situations, I sense a bit of a “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” dilemma because individuals who are surrounded with the opportunity and encouragement to engage in a task have a good chance at improving at that task. If one has some kind of “natural tendency” to build on, so much the better, though at some point whatever was natural gets replaced by skills that are acquired through years of practice.

The point of my bristle is that I don’t think we are fated to be artists or writers or musicians or athletes or teachers or doctors or marketers or whatever. A natural affinity combined with opportunity to practice may increase the odds of one of these outcomes, sure. But too often people take the inverse to be true, concluding that they must not be “good at that,” and they will never get better at it because they did not have an immediately detectable affinity and/or plenty of opportunity. To be an artist, to be a writer, to be a musician, to be a (fill-in-the-blank) is reserved for those lucky other people, not them.

I disagree. I believe if you want to pursue any art or skill, if you work at it, you can get better. You should not close the door on something you might enjoy just because you aren’t yet “good at it.” It may take time. It may not turn out the way you imagine. But don’t give up without giving it a fair try (whatever “it” is—the arts, sports, academic subjects, specialized skills).

I should clarify that I am not giving career or financial advice here. Many wonderful artists, writers, musicians, athletes, etcetera make money in ways that have little to do with that pursued art/skill. So it may be that you will need a day job, as it is called. Or maybe not. You don’t know what the future holds. So don’t close doors on yourself just because something is hard at first.

I also don’t know that it is necessary to be the best at something to find the work rewarding or of benefit. If I am honest, I am weary of the clamor and pressure within the culture to be best, perhaps because I find that this sends the signal that if you can’t be best, don’t bother. As if only the best are the ones who matter.

I reject a scarcity mindset in determining who matters. Everyone does. Period.

Instead of the pursuit to be the best, I embrace the goal of getting better. Am I getting better at what is important to me? If so, good.

So perhaps don’t worry about finding what you are good at. Focus on finding what you want to get better at.

Hope helps.

I am saving time on Thursdays to work on blog posts, and I find myself sorting through topics both light and heavy. A lot is going on, and there never seems to be a right time to post anything, no matter what it is. Yet what I’ve landed on today is the concept of hope.

I’ve written before that I know people, am possibly married to one, who consider pessimism realistic and anything other than pessimism either misguided or literally detrimental.

I sometimes counter that in my experience, throughout history there have been reasons for joy and reasons for sorrow, though of course, sometimes more of one than the other. There are always reasons to look to the future with dread and optimism. I don’t think we can know what lies ahead, though of course we can worry about it. And we can certainly worry about what is happening in the present. There is a lot to worry about, frankly, and every time I scan newspaper headlines or the words of activists, there is definitely a sense that the dystopia is upon us.

I had the amazing luck to be raised by parents who taught me we have a responsibility to one another and our community, so I certainly don’t think we can ignore what is going wrong.

But I don’t know how to live up to my responsibilities without cultivating hope. What I hope for may not happen. Sometimes, when I think of things I hoped for in the past—or at least, when I dreamed of exciting adventures, I’m a bit relieved some of them never happened. What you hope for in your fifties is different, I guess, than what looks inviting to a young person. And let me add this— thank heavens for young people and their energy and willingness to reach for goals which would tire me out now.

I try to make sense of how other people think, and I know some people hate to hope for something and then be disappointed. So maybe that’s where we differ. Just the experience of hope is a positive in my life, even if some of my hopes don’t work out. Hope is like taking a deep breath before I start anything. When someone asks me for help, which happens in my line of work, there can sometimes be reasons to worry that I won’t be able to help. But a spark of hope, the thought of how wonderful if I could help even a little, gives me oxygen, and we muddle our way forward.

The news lately is a whirlwind of doom with the occasional flash of farce. I am worried. I know that hoping for a better future for our world—both the people and the natural environment we depend upon—is not especially logical.

But hope helps.

Start where you are

One thing the pandemic has taught us is that teens sure know how to complain. Or is that just mine? But one of the complaints that has struck me is this feeling that oh, if X or Y had happened, I’d be fine now, but because it didn’t, I’m not and how can I ever do (fill in the blank)? Such as, if I had gone to school in-person last year, I’d be fine this year in school, but I didn’t, so how can I possibly do well? Or if I had reviewed more for that standardized test that no one but admissions teams and college publicists care about, I wouldn’t be nervous about taking it next year? Or, if I had joined that sports team at age 4, I would be a professional now at age 16 (note: I am pretty sure I’ve read a study that says the opposite is true, but I try not to mention this because facts should not interfere with one’s need to complain). Some of these complaints include the subtext, or sometimes the direct statement, that if I the parent had forced my child to do something my child didn’t want to do (or, as in the case of in-person schooling before vaccines were available, something that seemed super risky for our family), my child would be on easy street right now. But that didn’t happen and, thus, there’s no hope. It will never happen, whatever “it” is.

To which I say, maybe so, but start where you are. No matter what you want to do, you can never control what happened before, whatever opportunities did or did not flow your way, whether you or your parents made wise choices or not, all of that is in the past, and none of it has to be an obstacle, or at least, it doesn’t have to be an insurmountable obstacle if you choose not to treat it as such. Just start. So everyone around you seems to be perfect or already crossing the finish line? It doesn’t matter. Let them run their own races. You run yours. Start where you are. So you have no idea when you will get where you mean to go (wherever that is)? Okay, but you won’t get anywhere unless you start. Why do you have to know exactly where it is all going? Does anyone know, even the ones who act like they do? (Narrator whispers: No.) Just start. Nothing happens until you start. Nothing gets better until you start. You can’t even make choices — maybe there are some goals you don’t need to pursue, some actions that should not continue, but you can’t make any meaningful decision —until you start.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for goal-setting, for figuring out what you care about and why. But a lot of that doesn’t mean much if you never start. If I am going for a swim, I may have to decide where and how far to swim, but I won’t get anywhere until I jump in the water.

Start where you are. Build from there. Learn from the past, sure. Dream about the future. Make the best decisions you can based on what you know in the moment. But most of all, focus on the small steps that lie before you now. Take one step. Take another. You may be surprised by what comes next.

Ask again another time.

You asked me to tell you what I believe, and I thought I knew exactly what I would say. I believe in kindness, or some might call it empathy/compassion. Not necessarily the so-called random acts of kindness, which feel like a fad diet or a New Year’s resolution, too brief to hold meaning, too spurious to value, but rather the deepest type of kindness based on the expectation that everyone on this planet has intrinsic value and deserves to be treated with kindness. Don’t get me wrong—some individuals may deserve to be limited/constrained, or at the very least, experience a few consequences for their actions, but it should still be grounded in kindness.

But then I got tired or cranky or short-tempered, and I didn’t feel like a person who should be writing about kindness. Besides, is that what I believe or what I want to believe? Is belief something solid or something aspirational? Can belief be defended, given weight and texture, or must it always be ephemeral, something that shouldn’t be scrutinized too closely?

I’ve noticed when someone else believes something fiercely, in particular those who with strong religious beliefs and, on the other hand, absolute atheists, I move in the opposite direction. Yet, if you asked, I would have said that I’m the type to try to make sense of what someone is telling me rather than immediately opposing it. I am, perhaps, an unreliable narrator of my own life.

I realize that I don’t believe in absolute truths, but I appear to believe in heuristics, ideas that are mostly true except when they are not. Be kind to others is a heuristic because most of us can think of a time when our attempts at kindness backfired or led us to feel taken advantage of. Yet kindness is still generally a good idea. So here are a few others: Be honest with others and yourself. Celebrate the ways in which the world, life, and the people you meet are sources of wonder and joy. Reading/writing is a way of life. Democracy is a kind of life blood, as essential as air or water. Find ways to make meaning out of your life. No matter your age, keep learning, keep working, keep playing.

Now that I can call these heuristics rather than beliefs, I know I could compose an endless list. But what I believe? I feel like a magic 8 ball because you will get a different answer every time you ask, some the opposite of the last.

This post is part of a group blogging activity hosted by Bill, the blogger of A Silly Place. Here’s the link to the full collection of posts on the topic of What do you believe? https://billswritingplace.wordpress.com/2021/08/04/things-we-believe-in/#more-12108

Font of wisdom

Today I want to kvetch a bit about fonts. You see, I am super partial to serif fonts. To be honest, I love all fonts, even the ones that make me shudder at the thought of actually using them in anything someone else would have to read (I’m looking at you, Western font). But my favorites have serifs.

So a few years ago when someone I respected told me that we should only use sans serif fonts because they are easier for people with dyslexia to read, I bristled, and of course, felt a bit guilty about the bristle. I mean, I am on board with accessibility. But also I was trained years ago as a reading specialist, and there was no talk of fonts back then (plus there were questions about dyslexia as a specific diagnosis versus the more appropriate and all-encompassing phrase ‘reading disability,’ for which direct support in word knowledge, fluency, and comprehension matter more than worrying about fonts, especially once the reader has advanced past primary reading levels, which was true for the college-age audience we were discussing). I made a few doubtful sounds, and the person told me I was out of touch with the latest research, which was likely true, but I wasn’t 100% clear that my colleague’s sources were grounded in reading research, so I continue to prefer serif fonts but am open to using sans serif sometimes just in case he was right.

Fonts came to mind again recently after listening to a podcast where one of the speakers was an agent complaining about writers pitching using Courier font. She suggested that the default Arial was much better.

I had to take a few breaths because I really resent the way my Pages app tries to force me to use Arial on anything because it feels like such a lazy font to me, skipping serifs and breakfast as far as I can tell. I even created a special template called 14 point Times New Roman for when I refuse to even look at Arial. And don’t get me started on WTF is going on when I copy and paste text into a Google email?? Or make edits to the email before sending? These emails sometimes show up with strange variations in font type and size, and I feel as if I was walking around with my underwear showing if my email gets sent in that mixed font state.

While I would never send Courier to anyone (except maybe back in the day when I submitted a story to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s magazine and she wanted it in Courier— she of course rejected the story, but I loved having the rejection letter signed by her), I have an affection for it because it heralds for me old school typewriter writing (though not as well as the American typewriter font, which is the one I use in my online journal :)). For me, Courier evokes writers like Stephen King sending out zillions of stories to publications that no longer exist today.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I decided to take a peek at recent research on fonts. I found some imprecise information online, including the fact that the British Dyslexia Society recommends sans serif font, but sources tell me it is unclear why they took this stance.

I then came upon an article in the International Journal of Psychology (citation below) that looked specifically at the impact of serif versus sans serif fonts when college students were asked to evaluate research articles. Now granted, this study is limited in scope, but it included some findings that resonated for me. First, their review of the literature was helpful. It showed what I (who just recently upped my eyeglasses prescription) would agree—font size affects readability and even reactions to what you read. Also, letter recognition is a base skill, acquired well before word recognition and likely less of a concern for intermediate and advanced readers.

The review of the research and this study found that sans serif fonts support faster reading speeds. On the other hand, for smaller font sizes, serifs were helpful because they cause the letters to be spaced out more, making it easier to read.

The study also yielded this result: serif fonts may have slowed the readers down a bit, but the readers found serif font texts easier to understand, and the serifs font increased the readers’ interest and appreciation for the texts.

Do I feel vindicated? A little. Should I? Probably not. It’s just one study. But it did strike me that when I pick up a book to read, it’s almost always in a serif font. When I read a book or article with a sans serif font, it often feels less professional to me. So there seems to be some kind of cultural vibe at work here, and one that may say more about my age or for the academic audience, than a strictly cognitive response.

Still, go team Times New Roman, American Typewriter, and Didot. And I still love you Helvetica Neue, Marker Felt, and Noteworthy.

Article discussed:

Kaspar, K., Wehlitz, T., von Knobelsdorff, S., Wulf, T., & von Saldern, M. A. O. (2015). A matter of font type: The effect of serifs on the evaluation of scientific abstracts. International Journal of Psychology, 50(5), 372–378.

Postscript: It may be time for me to change my blog so I use serifs again :).

What’s so funny about peace, love, and academic theories?

While I should know better than to be surprised by anything anymore, I admit to being befuddled by the attacks on critical race theory. Wait, before you explain to me about white supremacy or people who stand for nothing making things up to fight over, yes, I get that.

It’s just that from a social science perspective, critical race theory is a complex theoretical viewpoint, a lens with which to analyze a problem. The metaphor of a lens is often used for this kind of research, and it’s an apt one. If I take a photo with a wide view lens and another with a close-up lens, I will get different results even though I am aiming my camera in the same direction at what appears to be the same subject. So if I study a topic using critical race theory, I’m applying this lens because it will bring to light specific issues worthy of investigation. And, um, it doesn’t exactly seem radical to suggest that discrimination and injustice based on race are worthy of investigation.

I am not well-read in the theoretical underpinnings of critical race theory, though I suspect I would benefit greatly from it (my dissertation research question fit best with activity theory, in case you’re wondering, and I feel confident you weren’t). I could say the same about postmodern theory, and there are threads of that theory which I also find inviting, from zombies (neither dead nor alive) to unraveling tapestries (of meaning). What I most recall about these theoretical lenses is that they are complex. Which is why, though I am definitely mad about the white supremacy and power grabs that fuel these attacks, I find myself trying not to laugh when I hear legislatures want to outlaw critical race theory. It makes me think, will they outlaw postmodern theory next? I remember being a middle school teacher and what we would have thought if someone told us we were forbidden to teach postmodern theory. It would just be like, “Um, will I know if I was teaching that?” And there would be eye rolls.

In my experience, theoretical perspectives are full of subtlety and nuance. You rarely claim anything to be absolutely true, so even if you had some enterprising public school teacher determined to inculcate our youth in postmodern theory, well, actually, postmodern theory suggests that sentence could never occur, so let me try again. Theory is subtle, flexible, evolving, with ample room for dissent. To outlaw a theory is to outlaw, well, something as insubstantial as a summer breeze. There’s something there, but what is it? And it will be gone before we can even try to take hold.

I know, I know. It never makes sense. These tinpot dictators in our state legislatures don’t want to make sense, just trouble. And waste time, energy, and resources just when we need them the most.

Here’s a thought—maybe I will call my Senators to urge they pass the For the People Act (S.1) every time I see any misguided references to critical race theory.

The process log

I thought today I might write about a strategy that has been very beneficial for me in terms of writing, or really, almost any endeavor: the process log. It’s not that far afield from journaling, which I already find so helpful. But a process log is a bit more focused than journaling. I suppose it’s a akin to a daily log that some people keep, which is a record of what they actually accomplished during the day. If I am working on a novel, a process log is where I jot down what I’ve done that day to develop the novel.

Sometimes, I note what is working and/or what isn’t. It’s very metacognitive, I suppose, if you like that kind of word. The process log sometimes works as a self-coaching process, where I unpack what I’m doing, kvetch if needed, and consider possible changes. But my log doesn’t always have to be that elaborate, just a record of what I did, such as “revised chapter 4, brainstormed chapter 5.”

This approach gives me comfort because when I don’t keep some kind of notes (and I don’t always do so), a week later I struggle to recall what, if anything, I actually did because there is not always a direct path between time spent writing and producing a final product. I was writing, I was thinking, I was creating, but more than that I can’t say. The trees get lost in the forest, I suppose.

As I said, I don’t always remember to use a process log, but I’ve always valued it when I do. As I have a bit more time to work this summer, I have several process logs underway, one per project or goal, which, by the way, is another perk of the process log because it helps me get back up to speed when I shift between projects.

As I peek at some fellow writers’ blog posts, I definitely see elements of process logs in those posts, which is probably one of the reasons I so enjoy the blog community. It’s nice to have some company as we coach ourselves along.

Image of mountains

Life Inside/Outside

I set goals, almost daily. Since I teach time management tips to college students, you might say I set goals professionally. One of my goals was to read a poem or two every day, and right now I’m finding them on the poets.org website. Another goal was to blog on whatever stands out in my readings now and then, so I thought I’d comment on today’s poem by Hanae Jonas called “Pastoral.” I immediately connected with it. It reminded me of how I feel about growing up in the mountains of NC and spending time first in cities then back home again. I never quite feel as if I can call either city or country my own, nor do I feel as if anyone outside of this place quite gets it: “Cool/Said the flatlanders/Whose ranks I’d effectively joined.” After I read the poem, I read her remarks that she was trying to figure out how to write about Vermont—the inside and the outside, which feels right to me.

The next line hit home too: “While those I left drifted closer to one another/Or God, to the sources/Of life itself: children and dirt.” I note the irony in the final words: this poem explores what is imagined or constructed as much as what is real. Still, this glimpse of a community left to itself spoke to me. And perhaps the irony for me is that I am one of the ones who stayed, who prefers less in terms of the pace of life, and more in terms of family and nature, in ways that I’m pretty sure my friends who have left can’t fully understand.

And still people rarely see me as “from here,” and perhaps I never will be.