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.

On Reading

I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened

A constant topic of literary criticism (in both senses of criticism) is that the Western canon is populated by an over-abundance of dead White guys and that we don’t read or even hear about enough authors from the margins of society (e.g., women, people—especially women—of color, LGBT people, non-Western people). Here Dallas Taylor talks about his year (from November 2013 to the end of 2014) of reading books only by women (with a couple of exceptions for which you can check his footnote): “for a solid year I read almost exclusively women, from a wide range of backgrounds.”

Taylor says he undertook this project as a writer, because he was working on a novel with three female characters and he wanted to make them as realistic as possible. Yet his year of reading women authors affected him most as a reader and as, well, a human being:

So, how did it change me as a reader? It’s subtle, but it’s there. I find myself more attuned to characters now, whether they feel like real people or just vessels caught in a narrative tide. I’m more interested in narratives whose conflicts don’t revolve around violence. I’m less willing to suspend disbelief for the rule of cool. To some extent this is just a natural extension of my evolution as a reader and writer, but I can definitely feel the influence of my year of reading women.

And while Taylor is quick to say that you don’t have to change your reading habits if you don’t want to, he advises you to examine your motivations if the thought of reading only women authors for a while makes you angry. He hits the nail on the head when he says that what makes us the angriest is probably the very thing we fear most.

But if you do decide to devote some time to reading books by women, he’s got you covered with quite a substantial list of recommendations.

Male Science-Fiction Authors Discuss The Women Writers Who Influenced Them

“The most important political problem in the modern world is the position of women. I think all of the other oppressions, whether it be homophobia, whether it be racism, or what have you, are all modeled on the oppression of women.”

That’s acclaimed author Samuel R. Delany, speaking about the role women have played in the genres of science-fiction and fantasy

Rafi Schwartz introduces a video created by HeForShe, a project of the United Nations’ UN Women division, which focuses on engaging men and boys around issues of gender inequality. Schwartz writes:

With its frequent bent toward the aspirational— by describing worlds that should be rather than the one that is (in this case, the one that is inherently biased against women)–the genres of science-fiction and fantasy make a natural home for authors whose voices might otherwise be marginalized.

He concludes that highlighting the foundational roles of women in science fiction and fantasy can provide a beginning toward addressing issues of gender equality that continue to affect society.

What Not to Worry About in Teaching Young Children to Read

We’ve all heard about the importance of reading to young children, but are there other approaches we should be taking to raise eager readers? Here Jessica Lahey talks with Daniel T. Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, about his new book Raising Kids Who Read.

Here are some of Willingham’s key points:

  • For young children, learning speech sounds is more important than learning to recognize letters. Books that use a lot of alliteration and rhyme, such as Dr. Suess and Mother Goose, are good for this.
  • Starting to read at early doesn’t give a child a later advantage in reading comprehension.
  • As children grow, make sure they know that leisure reading is different from reading for school.
  • Most important, parents should model good reading habits for their children.

At the end of the article is a link to a free excerpt of Dr. Willingham’s book.

War of words sidelines Seattle’s ‘City of Literature’ bid

What a sad story this is. The city of Seattle, WA, had applied for designation as a City of Literature. “The UNESCO City of Literature program is an international designation awarded to cities that show a fervent interest in literature, publishing and other forms of written expression.”

Seattle writer Ryan Boudinot has lead the effort as executive director of the nonprofit organization Seattle City of Literature. But Boudinot recently published an opinion piece titled Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One. In that piece he made several controversial remarks:

  • “Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t.”
  • “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.”
  • “If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.”

But the remark that got Boudinot into the most trouble was this one:

“For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable.”

Attacking graduate writing programs is one of those topics among writers and critics that just won’t go away. Boudinot should have expected the ****storm that has descended upon him because of his remarks.

But the saddest result is that the rest of the Seattle City of Literature board has resigned, leaving the city’s application for City of Literature designation hanging. If you’re dying to know how this whole situation worked itself out, follow the links in this article.

The Perils of Re-Reading

Whenever I get to feeling a bit down on humanity, I reread Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and get my faith in my fellow man restored.

In this article on BookRiot, Susie Rodarme explains that she used to reread her favorite books a lot, until a few years ago when she started to notice flaws on rereading her favorite series, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Then the same thing happened with Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.

Here’s what she’s learned from all this:

I’m happy to report that my re-read of All the Pretty Horses went swimmingly, while a re-read of Prodigal Summer left me a bit wanting. What I’ve learned is that re-reading comes with responsibility if you want to continue enjoying your favorite books. You can overdo it. You can see them in a less flattering light.

I guess I probably don’t reread as much as Rodarme does. The only book I’ve read lots and lots of times is the aforementioned Mockingbird. Recently I joined The Classics Club  not only to fill in the gaps in my lifelong reading list, but also to reread some of the books from my earlier years, such as “Anne of Green Gables”. For me, the key to enjoying a reread is to allow enough time between reads that I remember the general outlines of the story but not the details of how it was written. In this way I get to experience the local pleasures of how the book is written while at the same time noticing new clues that contribute to the overall story.

What about you? Do you reread books, or does rereading spoil them for you?

On Novels and Novelists

Face it, book snobs, crime fiction is real literature – and Ian Rankin proves it

On the occasion of Ian Rankin’s becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Allan Massie discusses the author of the John Rebus novels and crime fiction in general. Massie bets that having been “received into Scotland’s intellectual elite or, if you prefer, Establishment,” won’t change Rankin.

Massie discusses the common criticism of mystery and crime novels, that they are mere genre fiction and therefore don’t deserve the same respect and attention as literary fiction. I’ve long disagreed with this view. Mystery and crime novels probe the most sensitive inner secrets of the human psyche, the places we try to hide from other people and, just as often, from ourselves.

Massie dismisses such differentiation between crime novels and literary fiction: “Many of the greatest novelists have crime at the centre of their work.” As examples he offers Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Balzac, and Dostoevsky.

Massie offers another advantage crime novels have over literary novels, one that I had not thought of:

Today, as Rankin recognised early, the crime novelist has one advantage denied to authors of the straight or literary novel. Unlike them, he can range over all levels of society, for crime breaches the barriers of class. These barriers mean that the modern literary novel is too often confined to the horizontal, because, to be realistic, it will tend to deal only with one layer of society, with people all leading much the same sort of life. But crime permeates society. It runs through it from top to bottom, and may make connections between them.

Perhaps I failed to notice this advantage because class distinctions are more a part of society in the United Kingdom (see Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution than in the United States.

But no matter where crime novels are set or where readers live, these novels reveal the dark truth beneath the surface of society and of individuals. For this reason, some of the most important literary work comes from writers of crime and mystery novels.

9 Ways Reading Joyce Carol Oates Will Make You Feel More Powerful

“Joyce Carol Oates doesn’t shy away from darkness.” Laura I. Miller’s opening to this piece from Bustle snuggles her material comfortably up next to the previous piece. “Her portrayals are so lovely, her prose so seemingly effortless, that her work’s murky, disturbing depths often creep in unnoticed.”

In this article Miller focuses on how Joyce Carol Oates’s power of exposing social injustice, particularly that involving women, “using story as a way to empower those overlooked by society.” See why Miller says that reading Oates’s work will make you feel empowered in these ways:

  1. You’ll Realize Just How Much You’re Capable Of.
  2. Any Preconceived Notions of Young, Petite Women Will Be Shattered.
  3. Details About the Characters All Around You Will Suddenly Appear.
  4. You’ll Appreciate the Complexity of Navigating Adolescent Womanhood.
  5. Other People’s Opinions Will Cease to Matter.
  6. You’ll Grow Fond of Your Deeply Introverted Tendencies.
  7. Your Vocabulary Will Increase Drastically.
  8. The Limitless Bounty of Story Will Open Its Doors to You.
  9. You’ll See Right Through Everyone Else’s BS.

I can’t help but mention here that I wish it were possible to see the content without all those annoying animated GIFs, which seem to be de rigeur at Bustle.

What Writers Can Gain From Seeing the World Through Different Eyes

Since one of my other blogs is Change of Perspective, there’s no way I could pass up a piece about literature with a title like this, in which author Tania James explains that “[t]he best prose comes from experimenting with new perspectives.”

In her recent novel The Tusk that Did the Damage, “James channels three starkly contrasting voices to explore the bleak sphere of South Indian elephant poaching.” She learned how to write disparate voices, including that of a traumatized bull elephant, by reading:

Peter Carey’s Booker-winning  The True History of the Kelly Gang—written as a single long letter composed by a 19th-century Australian outlaw—taught her about how to speak convincingly in an adopted tongue.

James says that Carey invents a language for notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly: “There’s something thrilling about watching a writer invent a new lexicon before your eyes.” I haven’t read Carey’s novel, but it sounds as if James is describing the same technique David Mitchell uses for the long pivotal section, set centuries in the future, of Cloud Atlas. Like James, I found that after a short initial period of adjustment, reading the newly invented language was invigorating. Perhaps the thrill comes just from knowing that you’re smart enough to have figured things out, but I suspect that some part of the thrill also comes from knowing that you are working along with the author to share the fictional experience.

I speak from a reader’s perspective. Read what James has to say about this kind of language use from a writer’s perspective. But whether you’re a reader or a writer (or perhaps both):

Adopting an unfamiliar perspective helps you observe the world in fresh, revealing ways—helps you see things you might never have glimpsed through your own eyes.

In His Words: Rafael Yglesias on What Fiction Does Best

Rafael Yglesias writes that it took 16 years and four revised drafts to produce his recently published novel The Wisdom of Perversity:

The revisions were made to clarify and refine my understanding of The Wisdom of Perversity’s delicate subject matter: the long-term effects of being sexually misused as a child — as I was when I was eight years old.

But, he continues, roughly forty percent of the manuscript remained unchanged through all those revisions. The unchanged portions are written from the point of view of three children==two eight-year-old boys and an eleven-year-old girl—who are seduced and bullied by a forty=year=old pedophile:

Those passages, written as if you are in the skin of the children, vividly depict that the predator’s technique is seductive and that the children-victims are initially turned on by their rapist’s insinuating touch. The point of the passage is that what makes the effects of molestation so long-lasting is the confusion it creates for the victims, that their first experience of sexual pleasure from another person happens without either their desire or understanding. The novel gives voice to a childhood trauma that is usually summarized in medical and legal jargon, well-intended language that unfortunately obscures what is most persistently destructive about the crime.

What Yglesias says about the purpose of those passages sounds much like Tania James’s notion of taking different perspectives in the piece above. The purpose of looking at something from another perspective is to try to understand someone else’s experience. His novel, Yglesias writes:

seeks to do what fiction does best: place the reader inside the consciousness of another, to live with three characters who have experienced what most people consider to be an unmentionable and unthinkable crime and who have struggled for decades to forget and regain control of their ability to feel pleasure.

He wrote the book to help both victims and the people who love them “better understand how to speak of the unmentionable, how to think about the unthinkable, and how to live in a present no longer haunted by the past.”

Stephen King to share writing tips in new short story collection

One of the best books about writing that I’ve ever read is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, published in 2000. Now, the U.K.’s Guardian reports, King will publish a new work in the fall, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, that will feature 20 short stories plus introductions for each that will provide “‘autobiographical comments on when, why and how he came to write it’, as well as “‘the origins and motivation of each story.’”

Gore Vidal’s bitter feuds

As a Gore Vidal novel written under the pseudonym Cameron Kay is republished, here are some of the writer’s memorably bitter feuds, including with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and William F Buckley

To call Gore Vidal, who died in 2012, a curmudgeon would be overly kind. Here you can read about the author’s colorful feuds, including that with the cult of Abraham Lincoln, about whom he once wrote, “Nothing that Shakespeare ever invented was to equal Lincoln’s invention of himself.”

On Reading

Being a Better Online Reader

Maria Konnikova collects evidence and hypotheses about how the shift from print to online texts has changed the experience of reading. She begins with reference to Maryanne Wolf, whose book Proust and the Squid examines the history of the science and development of the reading brain from antiquity to the twenty-first century. Konnikova writes that after her book was published, she received hundreds of letters from readers: “a theme began to emerge: the more reading moved online, the less students seemed to understand.” Wolf decided that another book was necessary to investigate why use of online texts resulted in superficial reading.

Konnikova cites experts and research into how online reading changes the reading process:

  • Anne Mangen, a professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at Norway’s University of Stavanger, believes that the reading device, whether a printed book or electronic screen, affects reading. With electronic devices, the intangibility, the layout of words, the scrolling screen (as opposed to the turning of printed pages), and the ability to click on hyperlinks makes the physiology of the reading experience different from that of a printed book. She also studies “how the format of reading material may affect not just eye movement or reading strategy but broader processing abilities.” She hypothesizes that people prefer printed books “because the nature of the object itself has deeper repercussions for reading and comprehension.”
  • KindleZiming Liu, professor at San Jose State University, researches digital reading and the use of e-books. A review of earlier studies that compared print and digital reading combined with his own research revealed several changes in the reading process. When reading on screen, people tend to browse and scan for keywords, whereas on printed pages they concentrate more on following the text more linearly: “Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading.” When skimming, readers do not stop to think about what they’re reading. Further, we tire more easily when reading on a computer screen because of the constant effort to filter out distractions like hyperlinks, and our eyes may fatigue easily because of the need to readjust to frequently changing layouts, colors, and contrasts.
  • Mary Dyson, a psychologist at the University of Reading who studies how we perceive and interact with typography and design, has found that the layout of a text can significantly affect the reading process. When lines of text on a screen are too long, moving the eyes from one line to the next becomes more difficult. We read more efficiently when text is arranged in a single column rather than in multiple columns or section. Even the font, color, and size of text all affect the reading experience. All of these parameters can change more quickly on a screen than in print, and the mental and physical effort of adjusting to these changes can make electronic reading harder than print reading.

One of Wolf’s concerns is that digital formats negatively affect the “sophisticated comprehension processes” of what she calls deep reading:

“Reading is a bridge to thought,” she says. “And it’s that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading. In the young, what happens to the formation of the complete reading circuitry? Will it be short-circuited and have less time to develop the deep-reading processes? And in already developed readers like you and me, will those processes atrophy?”

However, it’s possible that the ability to focus attention rather than reading ability is what suffers in digital reading. Some research has found that people who read on devices not connected to the Internet achieve the same comprehension and retention of material as people who read printed books.

Why reading and writing on paper can be better for your brain

This article complements the previous one nicely. Here Tom Chatfield reports in The Guardian on research into how writing by hand—with pen or pencil on paper—differs from typing on a computer.

Since writing and reading are necessarily intimately related, Chatfield begins with some recent research into digital reading:

  • writingIn her new book Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, linguistics professor Naomi Baron presents results of a survey of reading preferences conducted among 300 university students in the U.S., Japan, Slovakia, and Germany: “92% of respondents replied that it was hard copy that best allowed them to concentrate.”
  • Researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer compared the effectiveness among students of writing longhand notes vs. typing on a laptop: “Their conclusion: the relative slowness of writing by hand demands heavier ‘mental lifting,’ forcing students to summarise rather than to quote verbatim – in turn tending to increase conceptual understanding, application and retention.”
  • At Indiana University, psychologist Karin James conducted a study with five-year-old children who did not yet know how to read or write. She asked the children to reproduce a letter or shape by typing into a computer, drawing onto a blank sheet of paper, and tracing over a dotted outline. “ When the children were drawing freehand, an MRI scan during the test showed activation across areas of the brain associated in adults with reading and writing. The other two methods showed no such activation.”

Yet, as Chatfield points out, while writing on paper may have benefits over typing, computers offer us the ability to conduct research and to gather and collate information. He concludes:

Above all, it seems to me, we must abandon the notion that there is only one way of reading, or that technology and paper are engaged in some implacable war.

Reading Addict: The Scientific Effects Of A Damn Good Book On Your Brain

In this recent article Lauren Martin refers to a 2012 article, Your Brain on Fiction, in The New York Times by Annie Murphy Paul that reports on neuroscience research into how reading fiction affects the brain.

What I like about Martin’s article is that she offers a great description of what getting lost in a good book feels like. As Martin explains:

Reading about the struggles and triumphs of fictional characters has the power to make us understand our own struggles and the struggles of those around us better.

Through reading, we develop a strong “theory of mind,” which enables us to understand and comprehend the emotional cues of others as if we were experiencing the emotions ourselves.

If you’ve ever gotten lost in a good book, you know what Martin means:

Only reading can change your brain so much you literally feel like you’re in another world. Only fiction has the power to physically change your state of mind.

Only a good book can change your life and make you believe you’re experiencing life in another dimension.