Reading Notes: Dipo Faloyin’s Africa is not a country

I am so grateful for Dipo Faloyin’s book Africa is not a country: Notes on a bright continent, written in a way that felt as if I could hear the author’s voice telling me stories, charming me and helping me feel connected to people and places far from my home, even as he had to walk me through bitter pieces of history. I hope to reread it every year or so because U.S. culture seems to inculcate a kind of amnesia when it comes to these histories, especially when they make plain so many past and ongoing injustices.

There are far too many stories and insights in Faloyin’s book for me to process in one blog post. I did find myself thinking, as I read the section on the harms done by Christian charities profiting from stereotypes of Africa, that I live near one such charity, Samaritan’s Purse. I always worry about such organizations that assume that just because they think they are helping they must be helping, when it’s almost always more complex than that.

Meanwhile, this specific charity in my back yard makes enough money on the negative stereotypes of other countries, similar to what Faloyin deconstructs in his book, to build one of the largest businesses in our area and to give its president not only great wealth but also great power, able to influence politics on multiple levels, including handpicking puppets as state representatives in Raleigh who only answer to him rather than the actual constituents.

It is chilling to see the actual crises that exist here and around the world turned into money-making and king-making tools. It was also unsettling if not surprising to see how many parallels there are between the histories of abusive leaders in some African countries to the rise of the MAGA propaganda movement in the U.S.

I like the idea of not trying to be a “savior” but an ally, the role of listening and watching for ways we can be allies to one another, those of us who long for democracy and justice, for the insight that comes from working with information, insights, and complexities, rather than being blinded by simplistic propaganda designed to support what has been a never-ending (and immoral) quest for power by those who believe they can do no wrong.

Kitchen table issues

A few weeks ago, I saw a meme on social media about inflation, something about it being better to pay more for gas than give up basic rights and freedoms. Then I saw another one about why complain about the price of eggs when you pay so much for coffee. Putin would love these images designed to divide people even more than they already are.

I’m going to go out on a limb to suggest that maybe it’s not possible to reduce complex challenges into memes.

Let’s consider the price of gasoline. It was reduced to an eagerly repeated attack on Biden. The President may have some impact on gas prices, but not enough to merit the attacks. While I think there is a good case to defend President Biden, my interest here is more to point out that this is a baseless attack that appeals to those who would rather not have to think too much about the problems we face, just assign blame.

I want to talk about what the price of gas can mean, absent the faux outrage by manipulators.

When you don’t have much money, life is a lot like those puzzles where you are trying to find a way to get a fox and chickens across the river (see footnote). If you make a mistake, you lose everything.

If you don’t have much money, you have to be able to travel to your job to earn money. Too often that means you need gasoline (hats off to anywhere with affordable or subsidized public transport or walkable/livable options for all, not just the wealthiest). If the cost of getting to work rises too high, you start to pay to go to work instead of getting paid to work. Or in some cases, pay more, since working is costly in terms of time and resources anyway.

Add to that the housing crisis, which is why the solution isn’t just “move where you can walk to work.”

I’ve lived my life frugally, and I’ve never been especially well-paid for my work, so I am aware of how alarming it can be to watch costs rise and not know how to earn any more money. I’ve been lucky because I could walk to work, and I avoided/eliminated almost all debt. Both reflect more luck than savvy on my part, and they gave me more breathing room than others who made more money than I did.

So let’s add debt to this chicken and fox puzzle: debt means you owe more each month that you can’t pay it down, and with interest rates rising (supposedly to help out with these kitchen table issues?), that amount is even higher than it used to be.

Meanwhile the privileged people pasting anti-Biden stickers on the gas pumps are often the same ones fighting the idea of student loan forgiveness — not because the loaning agencies won’t be repaid but because they can’t continue to demand interest payments throughout the borrowers’ lifetimes.

I worry about everyone struggling to make ends meet, struggling to find housing, struggling to live where the air is clean and weather events don’t kill them, some of which is a price the poorest people pay because of everyone’s dependence on gasoline. Depending on gasoline is another kind of debt—though gas is presented as a cheap source of energy, it creates a heavy load of long term debt in the form of extreme weather events, pollution-related health risks, not to mention the moral price of ignoring or even condoning genocidal autocrats in oil-rich countries.

So the meme bothers me because it’s not about paying more for gas. It shouldn’t be a trade off—we shouldn’t die due to pregnancies AND we need affordable, sustainable energy sources that don’t inflict so many short-term and long-term challenges.

The problem is gasoline, not the prices.

The problem is people living in desperate situations, not the ups and downs of prices.

And I’m frankly unnerved by rich people claiming that the solution to inflation is to increase unemployment and individual debt. The thought makes it hard for me to catch my breath, imagining people drowning in the consequences of these policies.

Too often, the wrong people claim to care about so-called kitchen table issues because the solutions they offer do more harm than good. Here’s a suggestion: If you dare speak of kitchen table issues, aim for honesty, authenticity, humility, and for heaven’s sake, compassion. Don’t complain, don’t posture, don’t play games; pursue solutions that actually help the people whose kitchens are empty, those standing on one side of the river, unsure how they’ll ever get across.

Here’s a description of this puzzle that involves a friendly fox that protects chickens but can’t be left unsupervised with just one:

Writing as a way of living, not for a living

There is a reason I named my website Reader. Writer. It’s because that’s who I am, what I am. For me, there is no joy greater than moments spent immersed in the words, reading or writing.

I am very aware that this is not the same for others, almost to the point of a culture clash. This is perhaps most difficult when I meet people who ask me what I do.

You see, I never defined myself by how I earn money. I worked as a reporter for awhile, but never embraced that as an identity. I taught middle school— and definitely did not embrace that identity, especially because I kept picking up on a community sentiment that everything wrong in the world should be blamed on public school teachers. Later, I found an almost perfect job for me, teaching reading and study strategies to college students. But part of what made it perfect for me was that it was a perfect “day job,” the job a writer does to pay the bills in order to write on the side. This job even gave me summers and holidays off, and unlike teaching middle school, didn’t stress me out or deny me opportunities to eat or go to the bathroom as needed (I know, I know, I’m so demanding). Eventually, though, even that perfect job started to feel less perfect, so I retired when eligible, and now I work side jobs when necessary.

One reason this was possible was that it’s never been about the money. If I won the lottery (which I never play), I wouldn’t buy tons of stuff or try to travel the world. I would just use the money to free up time and resources, so I can spend more time reading and writing.

But when I meet people who ask me what I do, since I don’t look quite old enough (almost!) to be retired, I generally say that I retired early so I could write more, but then they have the nerve to ask where I’m published, and that is just not a great question because it’s hard to get published, let alone make money from your writing, and trying to get published has never been something I wanted to spend too much time on. Every now and then I make an attempt. Sometimes I get a reply (though sometimes there’s not even a reply). Sometimes the reply is nice, occasionally something gets published, yet other replies make me want to curl up and hide in a cave forever.

I realize that maybe this is something other people can’t understand. They think writing is something you have to do for a living. Some people do, yes. And getting published if it yields positive feelings and money is an appealing thought. But it’s not my goal. Writing, just writing, is what helps me feel alive. It is how my jumbled thoughts start to make sense to me, and sometimes to others. I don’t mind dabbling with the possibility of publication and I enjoy having a blog of my own, but I won’t relinquish the joy of writing to the business of marketing my work.

What I’m interested in is what I’m working on now. Even if it doesn’t make it to the light of day, it’s what’s on my mind now, it’s what fills me with life and hope and spirit now.

So how do I drill that down to a short answer to a stranger or quasi-stranger? Or even to a friend who doesn’t quite understand?

Shrug emoji.

Okay, okay. Let me try. How about this–I am lucky enough to be mostly retired from teaching at the university, so I’ve been able to make writing a way of life. It’s not about getting published: it’s about spending as much time as I can reading and writing so that I get better and better at it.

That will probably be all I say aloud. But it’s also, really, about making the most of the time I have, doing that which brings the most meaning into my life.

Free guides on time management are now available

Happy New Year! It’s been a hectic holiday season, so I’m excited to jump into 2023 and get into some kind of routine (knock on wood).

I have been developing my website the past few months so that the main homepage now emphasizes time management tips, though I continue to discuss random topics on my blog

A few years ago, I self-published an e-book on time management tips, but I wasn’t happy with it, so I worked on a different approach emphasizing small steps and flexible strategies. When I had a revision I liked, the pandemic hit, and I didn’t feel good about trying to sell anything just then, so I pulled the book.

It took some time to figure out what, if anything, I would do with the revised content. In the interim, I used some sections as part of an online time management class I taught at Appalachian State University. Finally, I realized I’d rather just share the ideas as free content on my website, so I then created two short PDF booklets that is now available for anyone to download or print.

The first is called Just Start: A quick guide to setting up a time management system, which covers the basics of what might help in starting or re-starting your own approach to managing time. The second is called Follow Through: A quick guide to following through on your goals. This one unpacks a few strategies that may help with actually doing what you meant to do, at least more often if not all the time (because we aren’t robots).

Most of my favorite time management tips are in these two guides, so if you’re interested, you might look at them. Feel free to share them with anyone who might benefit. Here’s the link one more time:

I wish you all the best for a productive and rewarding 2023!

Takeaways from Nanowrimo 2022

Nanowrimo 2022 Winner Badge
Nano 2022 Winner Badge

November ends today, and I have banked another 50k words towards a novel, so I “won”—the kind of winning I like best because it’s based on my own goals and standards and is set up so my win doesn’t take away anyone else’s chance to win, and yes, that is the kind of person I am.

I thought I’d celebrate this milestone, my tenth official win according to NANOWRIMO, with a few takeaways from my process this month.

Daily effort = results

I had good writing days and not-so-good ones. I had times filled with inspiration, and times that definitely were not. But making myself write something every day pays off.

Okay, yes, there will be a lot to cut. A LOT. There are entire scenes that are now irrelevant. But finding out why they are irrelevant is important—it means I’m figuring out what the story actually is, like carving a sculpture out of a stone. I have to remove the parts that aren’t right so I can see what is.

Adding comments along the way helps.

I’ve gotten in the habit during nanowrimo to add comments to my draft as I go along, as needed. Sometimes, it’s because I know I need to come up with a name for a character or place or a concept, or I did make one up but I have forgotten it and don’t want to go searching right now for it. So I type something else, such as CHARACTERNAME in caps, or the wrong name, such as Jill?, and then attach a comment there to fix it later.

Other comments are questions or reminders or concerns about what I just did, a kind of red flag to say to future Cama that this needs fixing but I need to keep writing right now.

Outlining can be an organic process.

Although all of what I’ve written here is true for me and doesn’t have to be true for you, this takeaway point especially deserves the caution “Your mileage may vary” because writers tend to have strong feelings pro and con towards outlining. So this is what works for me: I create an outline before I start but also after I start. When I start fleshing out a scene suggested by my outline, I often go off track and discover new things, which leads me to go back to the outline afterwards and alter it further.

Talking my way into the story

Sometimes, I have trouble getting my footing with a scene, aware of what I want to see happen, but I’m just not feeling it yet. In those cases, I start writing it almost like a movie director, explaining to the cast and crew what to expect. “Okay, in this scene, my protagonist is freaking out a little because of the news, and then she’ll get a call from her cousin…” and as I write those instructions down, I almost always slip back into narrative, with dialogue and some descriptions and reactions weaving in. If I run out of steam with the narrative, I switch back to talking through what else has to happen.

As you can guess, this means my current draft of 51,769 words is really a mess.

This year, I’ve been working my way through revising several novels drafted during past nanowrimos, and I was often surprised by how much is not there. But I shouldn’t be surprised. As I worked through this fast first draft, I often skipped scenes or put in placeholders, so it is obvious why the past drafts are so incomplete. But the gist is there, plus many discoveries and insights that would not have emerged if I hadn’t made the vow to put “the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair” for 30 days straight.

It’s also nice to be done.

Um, so I’m not done because I have this ugly draft of a novel to work on, plus the other ones to develop, all part of a series so it’s been helpful to see how each book in the series gives me more insight to improve other books in the series, including a lot of world-building and character development. So I’m not really done, but I am free to choose when and how I work on my writing moving forward, including taking Saturdays completely off, which is my preference when I’m not trying to earn a badge on the Nanowrimo website for updating my word count every day. Which, let’s be clear, I definitely did, even if some days I only wrote a couple hundred words.

You unlocked a badge: Update Progress Every Day.

I hope November has been good to you, and if you are writing, that your writing is going well, too.

Reading Notes: Vicious is my middle name

I’ve chosen to spend most of my life in a small college town in the mountains of North Carolina, and despite the understandable yen to explore the world in my youth (which I did), I have always loved it here, loved the sight of the mountains and nature all around. But one of the things I grew up knowing how to do was to look around and edit large parts of it in my mind, especially the power lines cutting through almost every view in our neighborhoods, or the random billboards and abandoned car lots that line some of our country highways.

So I could especially relate to a specific moment in the new middle school novel Vicious is my middle name by my friend Kevin Dunn. The main character Sydney is already dealing with a lot—forced to move away from her best friend and home town in New York state after her father died, not to mention dealing with literally vicious bullies in her new school. Despite it all, she finds friends of all ages, and she starts to fall in love with the land itself, when the threat of an asphalt plant rises like a shark’s fin on the horizon. Unlike the people around her, Syd hasn’t learned to ignore such sights, and her questions and complaints lead her and her growing network of allies to do something about it.

And what they do about it is the best part, the moments when I get lost in the story and want life to be more like this, more often.

At a critical turning point in the book, a punk rock singer pen pal writes to Syd, “Fortunately, we’ve got punk rock to show us the way, right? It was such a revelation when my punk friends here in Chicago taught me that instead of sitting around waiting for someone else to make a change, you have to do it yourself…. or even better, do it with friends!”

I admit to knowing little about punk rock, but I loved learning about DIY culture. I also like, as I think back over this book, that it really isn’t a story of how one girl saved her town from building an asphalt plant right beside a school, but how so many people helped along the way. Kevin paints a picture of a world where power turns people into bullies but also one with solutions that are available to all of us: pay attention, never stop asking questions, find allies, research your rights and exercise them, allow yourself to care about the world around you, and create your own ways to spread ideas, art, and music. And maybe, just maybe, have fun while you do it.

You can buy a paper copy of this book to gift a young person (or young at heart person or DIY punk culture curious person) at

Or a kindle version at Amazon (consider posting a review if you do).

And since this song and artist are mentioned often in this book, here’s a link to a performance by our Doc Watson playing (and discussing) the song “Shady Grove.”

25,477 words

Happy (almost) halfway through November–I just wanted to peek in again today to say hoorah because I have passed the 25,000 word count for Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month). I know the word counts don’t really matter, but I have found that I need to celebrate any win I can get as a writer, and this one, unlike so many others, is very much in my control.

As usual, the secret to my success is to aim for par in terms of how many words I write each day. It tends to reinforce the habit of writing daily because I can’t afford too much wiggle room to tempt me to take the day off, because one day off sometimes leads to many days off. So knowing that I have to write but not much more than 1667 words a day keeps me on track.

I also take odd comfort in the fact that I keep discovering holes and issues that need addressing as I write. It is all to my advantage–I don’t know what I don’t know until I try to write a scene and discover that some motivations are unclear, or that there is a need for tension based on something believable. Still, it would be nice to be writing along filled with confidence that each scene leads logically to the next one rather than being very very very aware of the need to rewrite and change scenes I’ve already written not to mention realizing that I need to make some major changes to the general outline I created in October.

At any rate, perhaps this all makes clear why I need to celebrate any win, so crossing the 25,000 word goal is worth celebrating. Even if many of those words have to be revised later, this draft now represents the path from here (no novel yet) to there (novel complete). And that is something joyful.

If you are nano-ing this month, write on!

Here’s why

This week, I’ve been volunteering to help get out the vote for Democrats. Here’s why…

Because we need sensible people to face challenges such as inflation, those who know employment, education, and accessible healthcare are good for families and good for the economy; 

Because Democrats have already passed major legislation designed to boost our infrastructure and economy and to begin to address ongoing climate change;

Because there’s still more to do, especially when the playing field is constantly shifting, such as global disruptions due to new Covid variants and the horrors of Putin’s genocidal war in Europe;

Because when there is rarely a single fix and problems evolve, we need the Democrats who stay open to finding solutions and pursuing measured responses;

Because the Republican Party is now dominated by people who don’t try to fix anything but prefer to complain and produce mindless clickbait;

Because it is under the Republicans that the economy crashed (twice);

Because the Republicans demonize their opponents to the point of inciting violence;

Because the Republicans seek to deny access to healthcare and cut Social Security and Medicare;

Because we have to reject their lies, violence, and reckless incompetence.

Vote for Democrats up and down the ballot. 

4142 words

Just wanted to peek in here for a minute to give a shout out to anyone else participating in Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month). It’s day two, and I’ve drafted the first 4000 words of a new novel. November is my favorite month because working on the novel gets to be my top priority, which removes a lot of second-guessing from my life–though it also makes for a busy month. Best wishes to my fellow Nanowrimos! Write on.

Vote D for Democracy

This November 8 (or sooner if you can take advantage of early voting or absentee voting in your state), it’s time once again to save our democracy. It would have been nice if the last election had been enough. But apparently not. The stakes are as high if not higher this time around, even without the spotlight of a Presidential race.

In a democracy, of course, every election matters. Just some are a bit boring, and it turns out that was a luxury. Those days are gone. This time, the choice is between preserving democracy or collapsing into a tyranny ruled by a few wealthy narcissists, including, apparently, a power-blinded individual named Leo (link). It’s the choice between whether or not someone you love dies due to a pregnancy. It’s a choice between whether or not everyone has rights and everyone is subject to the same laws—or not.

It would be nice if we could vote based on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses rather than party affiliation, and normally, that seems like a wise approach. No one is perfect, and belonging to one political party does not necessarily make you a better candidate for office (see LA).

For this fall’s election, though, it is the Democrats who have committed themselves to protecting democracy, respecting individual freedoms, and preserving the rule of law. The other side, still known as but unrecognizable as Republicans, is siding with tyranny, here and abroad. They take complex challenges, such as inflation in the wake of a global pandemic, the Russian war, and supply deficits, and pretend that complaining about a problem and blaming others is the same as offering a solution to that problem (spoiler alert: it’s not). These Republicans do not offer solutions, just complaints. They don’t want this country to prosper, that is, not everyone in this country. They don’t even seem to want their supporters to prosper.

Meanwhile, the Democrats continue to push as hard as they can, playing what few cards they can play with the slimmest of majorities in the federal government. They passed historic legislation to build infrastructure and mitigate climate change, seeking to boost both our economy and environment for the long term. They seek to address inequities by forgiving a portion of debt for college education—an investment in our people that has been long overdue. They are working to manage healthcare costs. They continue to seek ways to reduce inflation. They also build strong, rational alliances with democracies around the world, a way to protect us all from sources of unchecked power.

Have they solved everything? No. Will there be quick fixes? No. But it is clear that they are trying, and the other side is not. The other side prefers to inspire hate and division, the stuff of tyranny and empty clickbait, frightening authoritarianism combined with cynical sensationalism. The only response in a democracy is to reject it, absolutely.

I sometimes try to squint a bit to understand how anyone still supports the other side (the party formerly known as Republican, but it is an insult to Republicans, frankly, to call it the Republican Party). How can they support anyone who lies to his supporters and incites them to the violent attack and attempted coup of January 6? How can they support candidates who want to fix elections so that only “Republicans” can win?

I came up with this: Maybe they tell themselves this is simply a way to commit fully to their side, that the ends justify the means.

Short answer: No, the ends do not justify the means.

Long answer: Imagine a family has a field where we plant crops. There is a lively debate of what to plant in the field, how to plant it, what to do with the crops, etcetera. There are two sides in this debate (really, there are many different options but two dominant sides). Those two sides can debate and strongly disagree on what to do with the crop.

But then, one side fears that the other side will get its way, so to “win” they decide to raze the entire field so there are no more crops at all, no potential for crops.

That’s not winning the debate. That’s burning it all down. That’s what the current “Republican” party stands for.

So this year, it is simple. Vote D for democracy. Vote for every Democratic candidate you can find on your ballot. Local and state races are as important as federal ones, so make your vote count—especially anything to do with elections and, apparently, school boards. If you aren’t sure how to vote or who is running, start by contacting the board of elections for your state (this office may have different names in different states). Call or google your local Democratic Party to ask for voter information, especially for nonpartisan races.

Make your plan now. In North Carolina, we have a wonderful set of resources on our state board of elections website

Also, Democracy NC is ready to help ensure your vote gets counted. You could also look for ways to volunteer to protect other voters.

Vote D for democracy. That’s all you have to remember.