Compendium on “Go Set a Watchman”

I have finished reading Harper Lee’s newly released novel Go Set a Watchman and am collecting my thoughts. I read it slowly, taking copious notes. Probably like most people, I tried to read it in two mutually exclusive ways simultaneously: both with and without To Kill a Mockingbird as a touchstone. Figuring out how to evaluate it most fairly is indeed a conundrum.

Cover: Go Set a Watchman
Cover: Go Set a Watchman

While still working on my own discussion of the book, I offer you a compendium of articles that I began assembling a day or two before the publication date of Watchman, July 14. I have not read most of these pieces because I want to come to my own conclusions first.

I’m sure that there are spoilers galore in many of these articles, so I leave it up to you to decide whether to tackle these pieces before you read the novel for yourself or to wait until later.

I don’t claim that this list is exhaustive. I’m sure there are many other articles out there, but these are the ones that I’ve come across.

Early Reviews Hype ‘Watchman’ Interest

Publishers Weekly comments on early reviews of Go Set a Watchman, including those in the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. Includes links.

‘Watchman’ Anticipation, in Photos

From Publishers Weekly:

From midnight release parties, to film screenings, to daylong read-a-thons, check out our photos of how bookstores around the country rang in the on-sale date of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the biggest publishing event of the year.

While Some Are Shocked by ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ Others Find Nuance in a Bigoted Atticus Finch

The revelation will probably alter readers’ views of “Mockingbird,” a beloved book that has sold more than 40 million copies globally and has become a staple of high school curriculums. It could also reshape Ms. Lee’s legacy, which until now has hinged entirely on the outsize success of her only novel, published 55 years ago.

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee: EW Review

Entertainment Weekly gives the novel a grade of D+. And most of the commenters seem to agree.

A New Account of ‘Watchman’s’ Origin and Hints of a Third Book

Tonja B. Carter, Harper Lee’s attorney, is changing her story.

Harper Lee may have written a third novel, lawyer suggests

More as the plot continues to thicken:

Harper Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter, the woman at the centre of the mysteries surrounding Go Set a Watchman’s publication this week, has broken her silence. In a lengthy piece in the Wall Street Journal, she intimates that there may be a third novel by Lee residing in a safe-deposit box in her home town of Monroeville, Alabama.

The lawyer, the lock box and the lost novel: Harper Lee book mystery widens

Harper Lee’s lawyer, who negotiated the deal over this week’s controversial launch of Go Set a Watchman, was allegedly far more intricately involved in searching for the manuscript years ago than previously disclosed, the Guardian has been told.

The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

The story of how Therese von Hohoff Torrey — known professionally as Tay Hohoff — guided Harper Lee through a two-year revision process that eventually turned Lee’s original manuscript into To Kill a Mockingbird.

As ‘Watchman’ Hits Stands, Authors Reflect on ’To Kill a Mockingbird’

Several writers reflect for Publishers Weekly on how To Kill a Mockingbird “affected everything from their ideas about race and humanity to their choice of profession.”

The Suspicious Story Behind Harper Lee’s ’Go Set a Watchman’

From the New Republic:

This piece is the first in a three-part series we’ll be publishing this week on Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman.

Why I’ll Wait to Read GO SET A WATCHMAN

This post is part of our Harper Lee Reading Day: a celebration of one of the most surprising literary events of our lifetime, the publication of her new book, Go Set a Watchman.

On this page you’ll find a link to other entries in this series on Bookriot.

In this piece Jessica Tripler describes her hesitancy to jump into the new book because “I personally question whether Lee is capable of consenting to or understanding what is going on.”

What Critics Are Saying About Go Set a Watchman

This article itself is a compendium, with excerpts from major reactions to the novel from sources including the New York Times, The Guardian, and NPR.

6 Fascinating Facts About the Life & Literature of Harper Lee

From biography.com

Teachers’ New Homework: a ‘Watchman’ Plan

From the Wall Street Journal, a consideration of how teachers must revamp their lesson plans about To Kill a Mockingbird in light of Go Set a Watchman.

How Should Schools Deal With the New ‘Atticus Finch’?

From the New York Times, a good companion piece to the Wall Street Journal article:

Fans of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” — a book widely read by students in the United States — are reeling from the revelations that a beloved character, Atticus Finch, is portrayed as a racist in Lee’s recently released second novel, “Go Set a Watchman.”

For many teachers, this presents a conundrum in how the fictional character is taught in classrooms. How will the new book affect or change the way “To Kill a Mockingbird” is taught in middle and high school English classes?

This is the introductory page that links to discussions written by several people.

‘My Atticus’

Megan Garber for The Atlantic:

Go Set a Watchman is a threat not just to readers’ heroic idea of Atticus Finch, but also to the many, many children who have been named in his honor.

Could Harper Lee have written four books?

In an op-ed this week in The Wall Street Journal, Lee’s attorney, Tonja Carter, hinted at a third, as-yet-unpublished novel. And a friend of the author, who is also a professor of history at Auburn University in Alabama, spoke to CNN about a possible fourth book.

This possible fourth book is supposedly a nonfiction study of Rev. Willie Maxwell, who was suspected in the deaths of various relatives.

Mockingbirds, watchmen, and novelists: on Harper Lee and novel-writing

Amy Weldon, a native of Alabama, a fiction writer, and a professor of English at Luther College in Iowa, discusses the writing process by looking at Watchman as an early draft of Mockingbird.

Now We Can Finally Say Goodbye to the White Savior Myth of Atticus

An opinion piece by Osamudia R. James, professor of law at the University of Miami, where she writes and teaches about education, race and the law, and identity.

The literary crimes of Go Set a Watchman

This [Atticus Finch] is a perfectly acceptable hero, living and breathing in the kind of fictional world that many people, including myself, prefer. The problem is that Lee can’t have it both ways. Mockingbird is on a different literary plane than Watchman, and the two can only meet awkwardly, which is precisely what HarperCollins has demonstrated by grafting Watchman onto Mockingbird. They cannot work together in any meaningful sense; one cannot cast a new light on the other, except in the way an apple sheds light on an orange by being, well, different.

Blog a Day Challenge: June Report

I anticipated that June would be a challenge for me because for the first two weeks of the month we were on vacation in Europe. I knew that both internet connectivity and time to write and post would be limited.

The reality turned out to be even worse than I had expected. Internet connectivity was very limited (see last month’s featured post, linked below). In addition, both my husband and I caught the cold that we shipmates so generously shared amongst ourselves. I spent a lot of my free time sleeping in an attempt to recover. These two factors combined meant that I didn’t publish any posts and wrote only outlines and bare-bones notes for each day’s entry.

I have therefore spent the last two weeks of June frantically trying to catch up on travel posts at the same time I was writing new daily posts. I just made it.

I knew that there would be nowhere near an equitable distribution of posts across my three blogs because all the travel posts belonged on my personal blog, Retreading for Retirement.

For all these reasons I’m not at all concerned with this month’s statistics, although I include them here for uniformity in reporting and for contributing to my end-of-year summary.

Here are my statistics for last month:

Number of posts written: 30

Shortest post: 110 words

Longest post: 800 words

Total words written: 13,840

Average post length: 461 words

Distribution of posts across my three blogs:

The total of posts here may not equal the number of posts written last month because I occasionally publish the same post on more than one blog. However, I have included each post only once in my total word count.

Last month’s featured post:

4 Out of 5 Stars to Viking River Cruises

Blog a Day Challenge: May Report

What I Learned in May

In March and April I concentrated on trying to keep my total word count up by writing a number of long posts (1,000 words or more). However, I changed my focus in May: I tried to go short by focusing on topics that I could develop adequately in the 500–750 word range. I still consider that to be the sweet spot for me in blogging. As a result, my total word count was down almost 5,000 words from April, but my average post length was 573 words, which is in the range (albeit at the lower end) that I was aiming for.

Sometimes life interferes with writing a blog post every day. Last month I learned to keep a couple of short post ideas in the hopper to be completed on days when time is short. This means having research done and photos planned and uploaded ahead of time..

I’ve been getting better at incorporating some personal element into posts, usually how I came upon this topic or why it interests me. But I’m still short on storytelling, or building a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s something I’ll have to continue to work on.

May’s Research on Blogging

Want to Make Blog Posts More Engaging? Apply These 15 Tricks

Working from the premise that online readers scan content rather than carefully reading it, Pam Neely offers:

two primary approaches to improving reader engagement. The first is to make your content scannable. Ie, to work with readers’ existing online reading habits. Second, create content so good that at least some users will actually slow down and take the time to read it word for word.

Approach #1: Make your content scannable

  1. Use the inverted pyramid structure.
  2. Use short paragraphs.
  3. Use subheaders.
  4. Highlight keywords.
  5. Use scannable lists.
  6. Add images or video.
  7. Use short copy elements like photo captions, call outs, and tweetables.
  8. Write simply and clearly.

Approach #2: Create content so good that readers will slow down and engage with it

  1. Write a killer headline that draws people in from the start.
  2. Write for a specific audience.
  3. Show a contrary point of view.
  4. Show an unusual point of view: “Try borrowing ideas, frameworks or approaches from other industries.”
  5. Offer new information
  6. Use quizzes, polls, or other interactive tools.
  7. Ask for comments.

Neely’s first set of suggestions is straightforward. In addition to just plain writing well (suggestions 1 and 8), using structural elements such as subheads and lists is easy with WordPress. I even installed a plugin on my two self-hosted blogs that allows me to highlight tweetable content, and I’ll experiment with that next month.

But where I most need to concentrate is on her second area, creating content that readers will slow down and actually read. By the end of each month I usually have a bunch of open browser tabs featuring articles that I meant to engage with myself. Here, for example, are a couple that have been open for at least two weeks:

Both of these articles deal with topics with which I have personal experience and on which I have strong opinions, and I kept meaning to write a blog post about my reactions to each one. In the future I will undertake such posts when I come across the opportunity instead of waiting until some later time (that never seems to arrive).

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but notice that Neely posted this article on the Scoop.it blog on May 18, 2015, and as of May 30 there were no comments. Maybe other people were, like me, too busy thinking about their own content to engage with hers.

My Statistics for May

Number of posts written: 31

Shortest post: 250

Longest post: 1,300

Total words written: 17,775 (down about 5,000 from April)

Average post length: 573 (down about 150 from April)

Distribution of posts across my three blogs:

The total of posts here may not equal the number of posts written last month because I occasionally publish the same post on more than one blog. However, I have included each post only once in my total word count.

Last month’s featured post:

What a Single Sea Gull Taught Me About Life

Blog a Day Challenge: April Report

In April I continued to look for information about blogging. I found this article: 16 Top Tips from Blogging Experts for Beginners. I’m not interested in ways to increase branding, marketing, building an email list, or SEO (search engine optimization). My focus is on writing for personal discovery, so I chose only a few of these tips to work on:

3. Write for yourself first.

8. Be consistent (that is, publish more than once a week).

10. Be true to your voice. “People don’t care to follow sites so much as they care to follow people.”

11. Give it time. “Plan to invest in blogging for a long time before you see a return.”

14. Be yourself. “Emotion and storytelling have been part of how we communicate with each other and inspire action for thousands of years.”

15. Keep it short. “You generally need about 300 words minimum to get indexed by search engines.” But the expert quoted here suggests presenting a single idea in a post and keeping the required reading time to a couple of minutes.

16. Make it worth referencing. “When writing a post, I get into a mindset to answer just this 1 question with a Yes: ‘Would anyone email this article to a friend?’”

I’m certainly hitting #8, since I publish every day. I’m also acing #11, since I’m putting in a whole year of blogging every day.

I also took #15 to heart. At the end of February I decided not to worry about post length in March, and I continued that approach throughout April. I didn’t aim for long posts but wrote as many words as I needed to cover the day’s topic. But I did concentrate on focusing my topics to keep each post to a single idea. I appreciated the permission #15 gave me to choose well-defined topics that didn’t require long development.

However, I also started writing longer posts that I often couldn’t finish for posting in a single day . I know one general way to handle this problem is to break the topic into two posts and publish Part 1 on one day and Part 2 on the next. But when I started using writing as a method of discovery, I needed to finish the entire piece, then edit and polish it before publishing. I couldn’t just write, then stop and publish what I’d written so far that day, and pick up again the next day where I’d left off.

Many days I found myself part way through a longer think piece and realized that I wasn’t going to finish. Then I’d have to scramble to find something short and sweet that I could whip up and publish to fulfill my challenge of writing a blog post a day. The challenge had made me trip over my own writing feet. The result was more lists and link round-ups than I’d like, but they fulfilled the challenge and allowed me to work the next day on finishing a longer, more complex post.

In April I also tried to take #3, #10, and #14 to heart by incorporating more personal storytelling into posts. (In fact, the use of personal stories is what produced those longer posts that I kept tripping over.) I continue to search for the elusive characteristic of voice. Breaking out of academia-speak is hard, and I’m glad I have eight more months to work at it.

Here are my statistics for last month:

Number of posts written: 30

Shortest post: 135

Longest post: 1,600

Total words written: 22,090

Average post length: 736

My total word count was down from March, but only by about 450 words, which I attribute to April having one less day (therefore one less post) than March. The average post length in April was about 20 fewer words than in March. The number of long posts (1,000 words or more) decreased by one. I find it informative that I ended up with such similar statistics in two months (March and April) when I stopped stressing out over word count.

Distribution of posts across my three blogs:

The total of posts here may not equal the number of posts written last month because I occasionally publish the same post on more than one blog. However, I have included each post only once in my total word count.

When I undertook this challenge, I thought I would publish the bulk of my work on Change of Perspective and Notes in the Margin, with fewer on Retreading for Retirement. However, that focus has changed radically as Retirement became the repository for my more personal writing. And since I’ve tried to include personal storytelling, I’ve ended up with many more personal posts than I had expected. This trend will probably continue.

Last month’s featured posts:

The 2 Lessons I’ve Learned So Far from My Blog Challenge

This post is the result of trying to write deeper.

Writing in Flow

Here I’ve told the story of my experience to explain and illustrate a psychological topic.

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I’d love to see your comments.

On Reading

35 books everyone should read at least once in their lifetime

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdThis article arose from a question posed on Reddit: “What is a book that everyone needs to read at least once in their life?”

Of the top 35 books listed here from the Reddit responses, I have read the following:

  1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
  2. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  3. Bartleby The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street by Herman Melville
  4. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  5. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (hey, it was a requirement of my psych 101 course in college)
  6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  7. The Stranger by Albert Camus
  8. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  9. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
    Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  10. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  11. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  12. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
    Catch–22 by Joseph Heller
  13. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  14. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  15. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  16. 1984 by George Orwell

That’s fewer than half. How depressing.

In my defense, though, I do have several of the others on my personal to-be-read list:

  • Watership Down by Richard Adams
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Dune by Frank Herbert (I have resisted this one for years but have finally decided I should give it a try)
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (can’t believe I haven’t read this yet)

So many books, so little time…

Romanticizing the Reader

Writer Diane Ackerman looks at the relationship between writers and their readers:

Nearly every author I know imagines one or more readers while writing a book. It’s a bloom of creative telepathy. The reader is a part of yourself, held at a distance, and becomes an important sounding board for the tone and language of the pages, an intimate ally.

And how do readers react when meeting authors, for example at a book signing? “Having read your books, readers know you far better than you know them — except that authors aren’t always their books.” She continues, “And just as the author romanticizes the reader, so does the reader romanticize the author.”

In the end, both the writer and the reader—and the interaction between the two—are necessary for a book to be successful:

As an author and reader, I like the idea of reading as an indelible spice that transforms a book while the book transforms you.

Literary Idol: Amelia Gray on Shirley Jackson

In conjunction with the recent Los Angeles Festival of Books, the Los Angeles Times asked five participants to comment on the writers who had influenced them. Here author Amelia Gray pays tribute to Shirley Jackson:

The loners in her books appealed to me, the fragile and friendless women in worlds built to appear ordinary that always revealed a more sinister nature.

This article contains links to lots of related coverage of the Festival of Books.

The eeriness of the English countryside

Writers and artists have long been fascinated by the idea of an English eerie – ‘the skull beneath the skin of the countryside’. But for a new generation this has nothing to do with hokey supernaturalism – it’s a cultural and political response to contemporary crises and fears

Robert Macfarlane has written a fascinating look at how the English landscape continues to be used artistically to represent the eerie:

that form of fear that is felt first as unease, then as dread, and which is incited by glimpses and tremors rather than outright attack. Horror specialises in confrontation and aggression; the eerie in intimation and aggregation. Its physical consequences tend to be gradual and compound: swarming in the stomach’s pit, the tell-tale prickle of the skin. I find the eerie far more alarming than the horrific…

He finds evidence of this eerie use of landscape in many artistic areas:

In music, literature, art, music, film and photography, as well as in new and hybrid forms and media, the English eerie is on the rise. A loose but substantial body of work is emerging that explores the English landscape in terms of its anomalies rather than its continuities, that is sceptical of comfortable notions of “dwelling” and “belonging”, and of the packagings of the past as “heritage”, and that locates itself within a spectred rather than a sceptred isle.

Although some of his references may be lost on those unfamiliar with both the English countryside and English history, his explanations make his meaning clear. He cites examples of such eerie works across literature, film, and art. Many of the current works call up earlier art and artists, from the 19th century forward. Many of these earlier works employed ghosts and corpses as symbolic of the decay underlying the seemingly tranquil pastoral landscape.

But engaging with the eerie emphatically doesn’t mean believing in ghosts. Few of the practitioners named here would endorse earth mysteries or ectoplasm. What is under way, across a broad spectrum of culture, is an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism. The supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression. Contemporary anxieties and dissents are here being reassembled and re-presented as spectres, shadows or monsters…

As a Daughter Becomes a Teenager, a Mother Becomes a Vampire Novelist

Heather K. Gerken, the J. Skelly Wright professor of law at Yale Law School, has written eight novels, and is working on the ninth, that only one person will read:

My daughter is growing up, which means I’m losing her. Anna is 12, all eyes, cheekbones and imagination. Every now and then I catch a glimpse of the glorious 17-year-old just around the corner, and it makes my heart ache with the anticipation of loss.

Gerken started writing the books for her daughter because

I hope to encase Anna in the only form of armor that I trust — stories. I have written Anna as a heroine in the hope that she will feel the tug of her own heroism inside her.

Even though Anna hasn’t yet grown up, she’s now writing her own story, which Gerken takes as a good sign.

Her Stinging Critiques Propel Young Adult Best Sellers

You may have never heard of Julie Strauss-Gabel, but you’ve almost certainly heard of one example of her work, the novel The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Strauss-Gabel is publisher of Dutton Children’s Books.

Amidst all the chest-thumping about the decline of the publishing industry, children’s books have been the bright exception: “In 2014, revenue from young adult and children’s books rose by 21 percent over the previous year, while adult fiction and nonfiction fell by 1.4 percent, according to the Association of American Publishers.”

Strauss-Gable has contributed significantly to the rise of YA (young adult) literature:

Ms. Strauss-Gabel’s unconventional taste and eye for idiosyncratic literary voices have helped her identify and build up some of young adult fiction’s biggest breakout stars.

Many adults now buy and read YA literature:

Adults aged 18 to 44 made up 65 percent of young adult book buyers in 2014, according to a recent Nielsen Books & Consumer survey, and men accounted for 44 percent of young adult book buyers in 2014, up from 31 percent in 2012. And 65 percent of adults buying young adult books reported that they were purchasing the books for themselves rather than for children.

The 2 Lessons I’ve Learned So Far from My Blog Challenge

The first three months are in the books, one-quarter of the year done. I’ve posted reports for each of the first three months with all kinds of numbers. But the most important lessons don’t lie in the statistics.

Beyond the numbers, so far I’ve learned two lessons from writing a blog post every day.

1. Writing daily makes writing easier.

Writing is a skill, just like playing the piano or kicking a soccer ball: The more you practice, the better you get. And the better you get, the easier the task becomes.

When I undertook this challenge, the first question I wanted to answer was whether I could find something to write about EVERY SINGLE DAY. I found that I could if I just paid attention to the whole world around me. Having to write about something forces me to find out more about the subject than I otherwise would. It makes me look at the subject in detail instead of simply glancing over it.

An example of this is the post Tacoma’s Daffodil Princesses. From my first two springs here in Tacoma I knew that the Daffodil Festival occurs every year and is a newsworthy event. But I didn’t know exactly what it is or why it’s so important. This year, when I saw the event in the newspaper once again, I decided to do some research and find out more about it. I learned that the festival celebrates the agricultural heritage of the region and is a display of community history and pride.

With a little research, which I love doing, I not only had my blog post for the day but also learned a bit of local history as well.

2. The easier writing is, the more difficult it becomes.

The truth of this paradox arises from the second question I wanted to answer when I undertook this challenge: Could I break free from my personal guardedness to explore the depths of my own life and discover a sense of purpose? I have therefore started working on vertical writing, personal writing aimed at going more deeply into the self.

The problem with writing that comes easily is that it’s so seductive. That post about the Daffodil Princesses was easy to write. A quick Google search, a little aggregation and organization, and I had it, the day’s required blog post. Press “publish,” add the word count to my Excel file, and I’m done. Easy peasy.

Too easy. Because what that post about the Daffodil Princesses doesn’t contain is how I felt about the topic. When I first arrived in Tacoma two years ago and read about the Daffodil Festival in the newspaper, I chuckled. I thought this festival sounded like some quaint local custom. I admit it: the whole thing sounded a bit silly to me. I felt a little superior, someone who wasn’t caught up in the festival tradition and could therefore see it for what it truly is: an amusing trifle not worthy of all the press coverage it gets.

And then I did the research. I discovered that, rather than being a silly trifle, this festival is an agricultural celebration deeply rooted in the local land. The annual festival celebrates not only one of the major crops of this area, but also the community that the crop sustains. This festival is no different from the nearly universal celebrations that communities put on in the fall to celebrate harvest; this one just happens to occur in the spring, at the beginning of the growing season, because that’s when daffodils bloom. Because they are among the earliest spring flowers, they suggest rebirth, the new growth after the bleakness of winter.

This local Daffodil Festival is no amusing little shindig. It’s an archetypal celebration of human community and appreciation of the land.

Who did I think I was?

I hope I’ve learned not to make that mistake again.

Working on Vertical Writing

Gestation of Ideas: On Vertical Writing and Living

Nick Ripatrazone discusses vertical writing, a concept he learned from writer Andre Dubus’s essay “The Habit of Writing,” which appeared in the anthology On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey. Dubus writes that, instead of trying to force stories into being, he gives ideas time to gestate until the story emerges. As the anthology title says, Dubus is referring to his writing of fiction. However, giving the creative process time to work by allowing ideas to gestate also benefits nonfiction writers. Therefore, I’ve been trying to apply what Ripatrazone describes here to my own writing.

Dubus defines vertical writing by contrasting it to horizontal writing. In this passage, Ripatrazone describes the difference:

Horizontal writing is focused on amassing pages and words. When Dubus wrote horizontally, he wrote convinced that fiction was created through aggregation. Vertical writing, in contrast, values depth over breadth. Stories are written when they are ready to be written; they are not forced into existence by planning or excessive drafting. Horizontal writing seeks to move across the page; vertical writing seeks to dig into the page … . Curiously enough, by seeking to undermine the stereotype that writing is the result of inspiration, writers have fallen for the other, no less romantic opposite: that writing is factory work, and daily devotion is rewarded with final drafts. Both approaches are magical thinking. Vertical writing is no less work, but it is better work, work at the right time. It requires patience in the willingness to wait for a story to feel ready to be written, as well as the attention and focus necessary to inhabit the story once gestated.

Replace fiction and story with something like essay, piece, or work, and you have something that applies to nonfiction as well.

In my years of studying English, I learned to write literary criticism that removed any trace of personal interaction with the texts I read. Such academic writing is horizontal writing, and I became quite good at it. I can organize, analyze, and argue logically until the cows come home. But eventually that kind of writing wasn’t enough for me. I decided in my late 50s to go back to school to study psychology, and I ended up focusing on life stories. Life writing, by definition, demands personal involvement. Switching from my ingrained habit of impersonal writing to more personal, intimate writing has been a major challenge for me.

This concept of vertical writing gives me a new way to look at what I’m now working on, writing that values depth over breadth. After so many years of keeping myself at (my own) arm’s length, I’m trying to learn to drill down rather than expand sideways, to go deeper and see what I can learn about my world and myself. I never know what I truly think or believe about something until I’ve written my way through it.

I’m in a different place in my life than Ripatrazone is in his. Because he teaches high school English and has twin daughters just under two years old, he does not have a lot of time to write. He says that focusing on vertical writing has allowed him to use his writing time with more satisfaction than before:

A vertical writing life is no easy life, but it is deeper, more worthwhile. I feel like I have more ownership over what I create. I am no longer concerned with numbers; no more spreadsheets of magazines that I hope to conquer as if publishing was a territorial battle. Writing is the slowest of games, the most methodical of the arts. Its parts are nearly infinite; its wholes cannot be tricked into existence.

His references to numbers and spreadsheets pulled me up short, because I’ve been carefully using Excel to track my output since I began my challenge of writing a blog post every day in 2015. After three months, I had just about convinced myself not to worry so much about the numbers. I will continue to record my numbers (because, after all, we live in the era of Big Data), but I’m not going to fixate on them so much.

I’m going to concentrate more on the writing than on the recording of numbers, because:

Vertical writing is not easy… . It is very possible, very easy, to be owned by our goals. To be owned by our next book. To be owned by the feeling that we are competing with a world that outmatches us. Vertical writing — vertical living — has convinced me otherwise. It has reminded me why I began to write as a child: the joy of discovery, the surprise of creation, the power of imagination. When I used to write horizontally, I filled boxes with chicken-scratched, multiple drafts. I was concerned with speed and number, acceptances and rejections. Now I am concerned with depth and discovery, and the result is that I live with stories in a deeper way.

I need to focus on living with my own writing in a deeper way.

Too Many Open Browser Tabs

Whenever I find an interesting article, I leave it open on my browser because I just know it will form the basis of a spectacular blog post. I’ve always done this, but in the past I would finally just close everything and start over again because the web is, after all, an infinite source of riches. But since I challenged myself to write a blog post a day in 2015, I’ve been less eager to close all those tabs down. What if I face a day when I can’t think of anything to write about?

My browser has now become so bloated that I have to do something to make my system work faster. Instead of just closing all those tabs, I’m resorting to a collection of the very best ones here. Because I have lots of wide-ranging interests, this is quite an eclectic collection. But every one of these articles is worth attention. I guarantee it.

The Moral Bucket List

New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks writes here about some special people:

ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

Brooks distinguishes between two types of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues:

The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

He goes on to say that a while back he set out “to discover how those deeply good people got that way.” In the rest of the article he describes what he found out.

It’s a good article, and I encourage you to read it. But I’ve left this browser tab open for a while now because this article reminded me of a former friend of mine. She could, at times, act caring and loving, but I always detected the tiniest disconnection between her inner workings and her outer behavior. For example, one day after she had spent a long time describing how each of her three children had recently hurt her feelings, she paused for a second while looking at me, then asked, “How’s your daughter?” During that second I could see the gears working inside her head: “I’ve talked about my kids, so I should now ask about hers.” I knew she wasn’t truly interested, so I said, “She’s fine” and left it at that. She visible exhaled with relief.

This women always blamed other people for any problem in her own life. Everything was always the other person’s fault. She even developed a convoluted philosophy of life—it involved a person’s True Center of Pure Being (her caps)—that allowed her to avoid having to take responsibility for her own actions. When one of her children made her feel down on herself, she would explode and scream at me, trying to make me feel just as bad about myself as she felt about herself. When I told her, several times, how hurtful her behavior was to me, she said that I should understand that she was under a lot of pressure. “I’m not what I do,” she said.

This woman is the opposite of the people David Brooks describes. One can’t simply invoke one’s True Center of Pure Being. She is what she does. We all define ourselves by what we do and say. And this is why she’s a former friend, not a current one.

Sex, Dementia and a Husband on Trial at Age 78

This article brings up one of those issues that’s so complex and deeply personal that I have trouble figuring out what I think about it. In Iowa, Henry Rayhons, age 78, has been arrested for having sex with his 78-year-old wife, who had severe dementia, in a nursing home. The couple was married in 2007 after each had been widowed.

The top-level issue is whether Mrs. Rayhons was capable of giving consent for sex. But the lower-level issue is the question of who gets to decide whether Mrs. Rayhons was capable of giving consent: her husband, nursing home administrators, her doctor, her children?

This case suggests that someone must take the initiative in setting guidelines:

Sex is one of the most ambiguous areas in the scientific understanding of Alzheimer’s. While there are established methods of measuring memory, reasoning and the ability to dress, bathe and balance checkbooks, no widely used method exists for assessing the ability to consent to intimate relations.

Furthermore, dementia symptoms fluctuate. What may be appropriate on one day may not be appropriate on another day. Even more confusing, what may be appropriate in the morning may not be appropriate in the afternoon of the same day.

I’m glad I’m not sitting on the jury for this case.

Parsing Ronald Reagan’s Words for Early Signs of Alzheimer’s

Lawrence K. Altman, M.D., reports:

Now a clever new analysis has found that during his two terms in office, subtle changes in Mr. Reagan’s speaking patterns linked to the onset of dementia were apparent years before doctors diagnosed his Alzheimer’s disease in 1994.

The findings of the study by Arizona State University researchers were published in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Altman points out that these findings “do not prove that Mr. Reagan exhibited signs of dementia that would have adversely affected his judgment and ability to make decisions in office.”

But the findings do suggest that alteration in speech may one day be used to predict the development of Alzheimer’s and other neurological conditions long before clinical symptoms appear. Earlier detection could lead to earlier treatment, which in turn could help reduce or at least slow damage to the brain.

This research used the same computer algorithm that other researchers have used to analyze changes in writing by novelists, which I have written about here:

Canadian researchers have reported that analyses of syntax in novels by Iris Murdoch and Agatha Christie indicated early signs of dementia (Ms. Murdoch died of Alzheimer’s; Ms. Christie is suspected to have had it.) The same analysis applied to the healthy P. D. James, who died at 94 last year, did not find signs of dementia.

Scientists not involved in this study caution that much more research is necessary before analyses such as this can confidently be used in examining for Alzheimer’s disease.

Psychological Text Analysis

Shakespeare’s Plays Reveal His Psychological Signature

A hot trend in literary criticism is the use of computers to analyze text, a field known as digital humanities. Recently Ryan Boyd, a graduate researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, and James Pennebaker, the Liberal Arts Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the university, conducted one such analysis to determine whether Shakespeare wrote a play whose authorship has been disputed for centuries. Their results have been published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The play in question is Double Falsehood, published in 1728 by Lewis Theobald. Theobold claimed that he based this play on three original manuscripts by Shakespeare that were later destroyed in a library fire. The true authorship of the play has been disputed since its publication. Some scholars believe that Shakespeare was the true author, while others think the play was an original work by Theobold that he tried to pass off as an adaptation. Although today no author would want to pass off an original work as an adaptation from another author’s work, Theobold would have benefited at the time from an association with Shakespeare.

Boyd and Pennebaker used text-analyzing software to establish psychological profiles of the Shakespeare, Theobold, and John Fletcher, who sometimes collaborated with Shakespeare:

“Research in psychology has shown that some of the core features of who a person is at their deepest level can be revealed based on how they use language. With our new study, we show that you can actually take a lot of this information and put it all together at once to understand an author like Shakespeare rather deeply,” says researcher Ryan Boyd.

They examined 33 plays by Shakespeare, 12 by Theobald, and 9 by Fletcher. The software examined the use of function words (such as pronouns, articles, and prepositions) and words that represent various content categories (such as emotions, family, sensory perception, and religion). The software analyzed the themes present in each of the works to create a thematic signature for each author.

The researchers also had the software examine how “categorical” the writing in each work is:

Categorical writing tends to be heavy on nouns, articles, and prepositions, and it indicates an analytic or formal way of thinking. Research has shown that people who rate high on categorical thinking tend to be emotionally distant, applying problem-solving approaches to everyday situations. People who rate low on categorical thinking, on the other hand, tend to live in the moment and are more focused on social matters.

By combining the thematic signature with the categoricalness of the writing, the researchers created a psychological signature for each author. They then analyzed the text of Double Falsehood who determine which of the three writers was the most likely author of the play. When they analyzed the disputed play by acts, the results suggested Shakespeare as the most likely author of the first three acts, and either Shakespeare of Fletcher as the likely author of the fourth and fifth acts. They concluded that Theobold’s influence on the text appeared to be minor.

By using measures that tapped into the author’s psychological profile, Boyd and Pennebaker were able to see that the author of Double Falsehood was likely sociable and fairly well educated — findings that don’t jibe with accounts of Theobald as well educated but also rigid and abrasive.

Together, these findings clearly show that exploring the psychological dimensions of a literary work can offer even deeper insight in the process of textual analysis.

Also see the University of Texas at Austin news release Shakespeare Wrote Contested Play, Suggests Psychological Text Analysis.

Blog a Day Challenge: March Report

Here are my statistics for March:

Number of posts written: 31

Shortest post: 220

Longest post: 2,150

Total words written: 23,345

Average post length: 753

Distribution of posts across my three blogs:

The total of posts here may not equal the number of posts written last month because I occasionally publish the same post on more than one blog. However, I have included each post only once in my total word count.

Last month’s featured post:

On Rereading “Anne of Green Gables”

This post generated a lot (well, a lot for me) of “favorites” and retweets on Twitter. At first I thought that might have happened because the use of the Classics Club hashtag targeted the post to a specific audience. But I published another review with the same hashtag within just a few days of this one, and the second one did not receive the same reaction.

So I’m guessing that the personal orientation of this post caused the increased reaction. The other Classics Club post was a straight book review, but this one emphasized my personal reaction to how reading the book now, as an older adult, affected me differently than had reading it as a child.

What I Learned in March

In February I focused on post length. In March I decided not to worry about length. Instead, I concentrated on writing however many words were necessary to cover each post’s topic. Here are the results of that change of focus:

  • My total words written increased by 2,890.
  • My average post length increased by 93.
  • My number of posts of 1,000 or more words increased from 6 to 9.

The lesson I take from these statistics is that I should worry about each individual post and let the word count fall wherever it may.

The second lesson, which I take from the relative popularity of the post about rereading Anne of Green Gables, is that I should strive to incorporate more personal storytelling into my writing. I knew that, of course, at least in theory. That is why I chose story as my word for this year. But the interest in this post reinforced the lesson for me.

I continue to read more blog posts than I did before starting this blog post a day challenge. From now on I’ll make a more conscious effort to look at which ones most engage me and to learn how and why they do.