Secrets: A Writer’s Dear Friends

secrets writers dear friends
I’m a long time fan of the PostSecret Project.The photo above is one published secret that inspired me to write “Self-Portrait,” a short story published in The Griffin in 2012. In this story, a much-tattooed as well as pierced woman says something like, “People think I do this to get attention. I do it so I won’t be seen.”

secrets writers dear friends
If you don’t know about this project, check it out online. Basically, it started with Frank Warren working on an installation art project for which he dropped self-addressed, stamped postcards in public places, inviting people to anonymously share a secret. For example,

Over time, thousands of people responded, long after the original call went out. The result is five books of postcards with virtually no other text, plus the most recent one, which includes postcards (some from earlier publications) plus commentary on the meaning of the project for the author/editor, Frank Warren, and others.

secrets writers dear friends
I have all the books in hardcover and they are incredibly valuable. For one thing, virtually every secret could start a story. (See above.)

And several themes emerge. Many of the secrets deal with mental health and/or suicide.

secrets writers dear friends

This cover/title made me smile. Who else would have secrets? In any event, like the earlier books, the secrets varied widely by theme. A major theme is love, attraction and sex. People post about everything—not being interested in sex, adultery, masturbation, having been raped, fantasizing about rape, and sexual insecurity.

secrets writers dear friends

Secrets often have to do with faith (or lack thereof) and religion. Often these concerns overlap with others, such as being gay or lesbian—e.g., “I’m a lesbian and I wonder whether I can still go to heaven.”

secrets writers dear friends
Parent/child relationships are a major theme.  Of course, these often overlap with other themes.

The most recent book was copyrighted in 2014. Perhaps the project has run its course. As mentioned earlier, this one contains much more text and is about the project, beyond the publication of secrets themselves. (After writing this bit, I discovered that there is a PostSecret book published in 2008 that I don’t have. I just ordered it!)

secrets writers dear friends
Not surprisingly, yet another theme that emerges is the profound effect of childhood events.
 
Bottom line: These books of secrets are windows into human souls. Some secrets might seem trivial to the reader, some are humorous, some heart-wrenching, many surprising. A writer could only benefit from exposure to these  very human confessions.
 
secrets writers dear friends

Guest Review: Any Man by Amber Tamblyn

[Warning: This blog talks about the incidence and aftermath of sexual assault and rape.]

Like most readers, I have my habits. In the service of exposing my readers to a wider perspective, I have interviewed Christina Cox, fellow book lover, about a recent read she enjoyed: Any Man by Amber Tamblyn.

any man amber tamblyn
[Source: Goodreads]

VL: How did you come to read Any Man?

CC: I’ve been a fan of Amber Tamblyn for a long time, but not for her writing — for her talents as an actor. When I found out this book was coming out, it piqued my interest immediately. Then I found out she was going to do a reading at Fountain Bookstore (down the road from me), and I knew I had to get it!

amber tamblyn fountain bookstore
Amber Tamblyn reading at Fountain Bookstore

VL: Is it typical of the books you read?

CC: Not at all; it’s much more intense than the books I typically read. From its jacket description, you can see why:

A violent serial rapist is on the loose, who goes by the name Maude. She hunts for men at bars, online, at home— the place doesn’t matter, neither does the man. Her victims then must live the aftermath of their assault in the form of doubt from the police, feelings of shame alienation from their friends and family and the haunting of a horrible woman who becomes the phantom on which society projects its greatest fears, fascinations and even misogyny. All the while the police are without leads and the media hound the victims, publicly dissecting the details of their attack.


What is extraordinary is how as years pass these men learn to heal, by banding together and finding a space to raise their voices. Told in alternating viewpoints signature to each voice and experience of the victim, these pages crackle with emotion, ranging from horror to breathtaking empathy.

As bold as it is timely, Any Man paints a searing portrait of survival and is a tribute to those who have lived through the nightmare of sexual assault.

As you can see, it’s a dark premise. It’s shocking to read at some points, but Tamblyn does a really wonderful job of introducing lighter parts when you need them.

VL: What did you like best?

CC: Tamblyn began as a poet, so the book is written as a mix of poetry and prose. The writing is breathtaking, and she does a great job of conveying a lot of information and emotion in fewer words. So many pages gave me chills.

VL: What did you like least?

CC: It was hard to read such an intense book; at times I needed to put it down for something else. But at her Fountain reading, she talked about our society’s history of ignoring survivors of sexual assault/rape or sweeping their stories under the rug. I think this is an important story, and an interesting take considering a woman is the perpetrator.

VL: Would you recommend Any Man to family or friends?

CC: I would (and have), but I would do it with the caveat that it’s very difficult to read in parts. I’m careful with whom I recommend it, because you never know if this story will hit too close to home.

VL: Have you read other books by this author?

Tamblyn has several poetry books under her belt, but I haven’t read them yet. They’re definitely on my list!


Have you read Any Man? What did you think?

Emojis: Yea or Nay?

hieroglyphs emojis
I approached this blog with the opinion that relying on emoticons—i.e., emojis—is dulling out ability to express emotions with rich language and subtlety. How can one retain, let alone develop, verbal and written skill if it isn’t practiced? The above image seemed to confirm my opinion: if hieroglyphics were sufficient for purposes of communication, why did other forms develop?
I searched online and did find some support for my original opinion. One study by YouTube (a survey of 2000, ages 16-65) found that 94% believe there has been a decline in the correct use of English, 80% of those saying youngsters are the worse culprits. Over a third of British adults believe that emojis are responsible for the deterioration of the English language—less command of spelling and grammar, due to use of spell check and predictive text. Although emojis convey a message, they breed laziness, diluting language expression. A common prejudice is that an emoji is the equivalent of a grunt, a step back in literacy, making us poorer communicators and maybe even dumber.

 

But all of this reflects what people think or feelWhere are the data? Academic research warns that peppering an email with emojis could harm your job prospects by making colleagues less likely to share information with you. Using emojis in the workplace doesn’t increase perceptions of warmth, it actually decreases perceptions of competence.

 

On the other hand, research commissioned by the dating site Match.com, released in 2017, a survey of 5600 singles found that the more emojis people used in their texts, the more dates—and sex—they have. The inference from this research was that using emojis made it easier for the potential match to gauge the message. Emoji users were concluded to be more effective communicators.

 

Originating on Japanese mobile phones in 1999, they’ve become increasingly popular worldwide since then. When Apple released a set of emojis in 2011, the uptake of emoji took off. Emojis to replicate non-verbal communication are used six billion times a day. Over time, the options to refine a particular emotional expression have increased.

 

When you look back over time, the power of image has always been there. Even prehistoric images such as cave paintings have been incredibly communicative: we can analyze those drawings and understand them thousands of years later. Pictures have the ability to transcend time and language—to be universal.

 

emojis yae nay
In the course of my reading, I found that Alexandre Loktiov, an expert on hieroglyphics and cuneiform legal texts, had this to say: “For me, they’re essentially hieroglyphs and so a perfectly legitimate extension of language. They’re signs which, without having a phonetic value of their own, can ‘color’ the meaning of the preceding word or phrase. In Egyptology, these are called ‘determinatives’—as they determine how written words should be understood. The concept has been around for 5,000 years, and it’s remarkably versatile because of its efficiency. You can cut down your character count if you supplement words with pictures—and that’s useful both to Twitter users today and to Ancient Egyptians laboriously carving signs into a rock stela.”

 

Emojis break down language barriers because people understand what the symbols mean, regardless of their native tongue. Perhaps its possible to learn a lot about a person from their preferred emojis. On the other hand, problems with emojis include cultural differences in the meaning of a given image. For example, two flagrant cases: apparently an eggplant has been taken up as a representative of a penis, a peach as a stand-in for a buttocks. One might inadvertently offend the recipient, even in more subtle ways. Public demand led to the option of modifying skin tone on the emoji.

 

emojis yae nay
[Source: TechCrunch]
In face-to-face interaction, up to 70% of emotional meaning is communicated via nonverbal cues. These include tone of voice, eye gaze, body language, gestures, and facial expression. Vyvyan Evans, an expert on language and digital communication, maintains that the emoji’s primary function is not to usurp language but to fill in the emotional cues otherwise missing from typed conversations.

 

He also had this to say: To assert that emojis will make us poorer communicators is like saying facial expressions make your emotions harder to read. The idea is nonsensical. It’s a false analogy to compare emojis to the language of Shakespeare—or even to language at all. Emojis don’t replace language: they provide the nonverbal cues, fit for the purpose in our digital textspeak, that helps us nuance and complement what we mean by our words.
One thing is sure: emojis are not only an integral part of e-communication. They are embedded in popular culture, and are making inroads in the general culture.

 

  • Over 90% of the world’s 3.2 billion internet users regularly send “picture characters” (as the word means in Japanese) with over 5 billion being transmitted everyday on Facebook Messenger alone.
  • The 2009 movie Moon features a robot who communicates in a neutral-tone synthesized voice plus a screen showing an emoji representing the corresponding emotional content.
  • In 2014, the Library of Congress acquired an emoji version of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
  • In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries named the Face with Tears of Joy emoji the Word of the Year.
  • May 2016, Emojiland, a musical, premiered in Los Angeles.
  • October 2016, the Museum of Modern Art acquired the original collection of emojis from 1999.
  • November 2016, the first emoji convention, Emojicon, was held in San Francisco.
  •  In 2016, a High Court judge in England included a smiley face emoji in an official ruling, in an attempt to make the judgment in family court clear for the children it affected.
  • March 2017, the first episode of Samurai Jack featured alien characters who communicate in emojis.
  • April 2017, Doctor Who featured nanobots, called Emojibots, who communicate using emojis only.
  • July 2017 Sony Pictures Animation released The Emoji Movie.
 
 
Alexandre Loktionov (mentioned above) said “. . .we have to think of the purpose of the means of communication, and in the case of emoji, we as a culture need to decide what they are: do we want them to be a bona fide script with full capability, or are they just a tool reserved for very specific purposes (alongside conventional means of writing)?”

 

In conversation with other writers, it seems we/they use emojis for specific purposes, limited entirely to electronic communications. For literary writing, they are irrelevant.
 
Some have asserted that the emoji is the fastest-growing language in history—for good or ill.  How do you feel about emojis? If you use them, how?
 

Historical Fiction

colonial heights high school
 
Yesterday, November 5, I met with Spotlight, the Colonial Heights High School club which focuses on literary and fine arts. I talked with these young, creative teens about fiction in general and historical fiction in particular.

 

Stating the obvious: in historical fiction, the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. What may not be so readily obvious is that beyond that, anything goes! Although this umbrella covers theater, opera, cinema, TV, etc., and my comments likely apply there as well, my focus has always been on the traditional: historical novels and short stories.
high school classroom
Historical fiction can be any genre and format. Romance, action/adventure, mystery, children’s literature, young adult novels, sci-fi, literary fiction, fairy tales, fables, satire, comedy, horror, even epic poetry—anything you can come up with is fair game. And it can be any length, from flash fiction to multiple-volume series.

 

steering craft ursula k le guin
The foundation of historical fiction is good writing. Therefore, start by mastering the craft. Ursula Le Guin’s book Steering the Craft is short, readable, and excellent instruction (although my personal opinion is that the sailing metaphor gets a bit trying by the end). But beyond that, consider what will give your writing authority and make it believable. So, here, in no particular order, are sample questions you would do well to answer.
cookbooks
What did people eat? People must eat. Beyond that, nothing is static. Food fashions change. The availability of various foods changes. Cooking methods and utensils change, how tables are set and what constitutes good table manners change. Even the timing of meals change—such as when the main meal of the day was eaten. And what was eaten: one example, a full breakfast is a staple of British cuisine, and typically consists of bacon, sausages and eggs, often served with a variety of side dishes and a drink such as coffee or tea. Prior to 1600, breakfast in Great Britain typically included bread, cold meat or fish, and ale. On an American farm table, pie for breakfast was common. You can search history of breakfast online and retrieve lots of valuable information by period of history and country.
historical fiction
How did people talk? The basic here is vocabulary, the words for ordinary objects and actions. Then, too, a word may not mean the same thing it once did. “Compromise” had a very different meaning for a couple in Jane Austen’s time compared to opponents in a political intrigue set in 1990. But phrasing comes into it, too: at some point, people became less likely to say “pardon me” and more likely to say “excuse me.” Besides the historical period, consider language specific to action; for example, carnival workers or mobsters.
value dollar
What did things cost? Everyone knows prices change. The basic point here is how much things cost during your time period. And perhaps even more interesting, what was bought? For example, in 1905 a household was likely to buy stove polish (at twenty-five cents a can). Or during the Great Depression in the United States, a man might berate his wife for “driving all over the county, like gas doesn’t cost ten cents a gallon.”  Inserting a few such details gives a story authority as well as richness—assuming you get it right. The latest edition of this book (the 5th) is available from Amazon, $155 new and $25 used. For your purposes, new probably isn’t necessary, and library discards come available for a dollar or two.
historical fiction
What did people wear? For example, did women wear underpants? Had bras been invented? Were corsets still in use? And related questions having to do with where the clothing came from, how much of it a person was likely to have, and how it varied by socioeconomic status.
mortal remains death early america
What was involved in birth, death, and marriage? Most historical fiction will touch on one or more of these nearly universal events. Where did births take place and who attended? What about funerary practices? Would bodies be embalmed, burned, put on a scaffold for birds of prey to clean the bones? For marriage, consider age, who consents, what the ceremony likely entailed. For women, what rights did she lose and/or acquire with marriage?
lindbergh baby newspaper
[Source: Timothy Hughes]
What was happening in the world at the time? Some awareness or mention of major events is unavoidable. For example, if your story is set in 1863, the American Civil War was a relevant event whether or not it was the focus of your plot, and even if your story is set in London or Paris. The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and finding the body in 1932 was similarly followed worldwide. For an excellent one-volume history of the United States, try Jill Lepore’s These Truths.

 

historical fiction
Doing your research. The above questions are just examples of things you need to know to make your historical work of fiction live for the reader. The list is endless: recreation and entertainment, mode of transportation and the time it took to get from place to place, weapons, toys, houses or whatever dwellings, how tall people were, hair styles. . . If you know the question you want to ask, online searching is convenient and inexpensive. Personally, any information I’m likely to want to refer to repeatedly, I like to have in physical books. Reading about the time of your plot is extremely valuable. And I find it fascinating. I have many books like the ones pictured above to get an overview of life during the period of interest, presenting answers to most of your factual questions in one convenient package.

 

Last but not least, read books written during and set in the time you’re writing about. Read extensively—meaning both a lot and broadly. It will give you a feel for tone, pacing, and (probably) things to avoid in your own writing!

 

BOTTOM LINE: Besides the foundation of good writing, historical fiction is built on research. Enjoy!
 

Why Writers and Readers Should Vote

why writers readers vote
Today I’ll start with the bottom line: every eligible voter should exercise that right, duty, and privilege! In a democracy, voting is the strongest way for political representatives to know the will of the citizens.

 

This chart is difficult to read, but it essentially says that even now, the president is elected by less than 45% of the U.S. population. Granted, some people are too young to vote, or ineligible for other reasons. But even in the best years, only about 60% of eligible voters did so.
vote 2018
When I say voting is a privilege, I say so in light of the history of voting rights in the United States. Here is a list of the major milestones.

 

1789: The Constitution granted states the power to set voting requirements. Generally, states limited the right to vote to property-owning or tax-paying white males, approximately 6% of the population.

 

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1790: The Naturalization Act of 1790 allowed white men born outside the U. S. to become citizens with the right to vote.

 

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1792-1838: Free black males lost the right to vote in several Northern states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
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1792-1856: Abolition of property qualifications for white men, from Kentucky in 1792 to North Carolina in 1856, the periods of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy. However, tax-paying qualifications remained in five states as late as 1860 (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and North Carolina). They remained in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island until the 20th century.
why writers readers vote
1868: Citizenship was guaranteed to all persons born or naturalized in the United States by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, setting the stage for future expansions of voting rights.
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1870: Non-white men and freed male slaves were guaranteed the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Disenfranchisement after the Reconstruction Era began soon after. Southern states suppressed the voting of black and poor white voters through Jim Crow Laws. During this period, the Supreme Court generally upheld state efforts to discriminate against racial minorities; only in the 20th century were such laws ruled unconstitutional. Black males in the Northern states could vote, but the majority of African Americans lived in the South.

 

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1887: By the Dawes Act, citizenship was granted to Native Americans who were willing to disassociate themselves from their tribe, making them technically eligible to vote.
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1913: The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution gave voters the right to elect Senators, rather than state legislatures doing so.

 

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1920: The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote. The same restrictions that hindered voting for poor or non-white men also applied to poor or non-white women.
vote women
Women have had the right to vote for less than one hundred years. Many polls reveal gender gaps on issues and candidates. Don’t waste this opportunity to express your values!
election 2018
1924: All Native Americans were granted citizenship and the right to vote, regardless of tribal affiliation. By that time, approximately two thirds of Native Americans were already citizens.
why writers readers vote
1943: Chinese immigrants were given the right to citizenship and to voting by the Magnuson Act.
why writers readers vote
1961: Residents of Washington, D.C. were granted the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections by the Twenty-Third Amendment to the Constitution.
 
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1964: The Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prohibited poll taxes from being used as a condition for voting in federal elections.

 

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1965: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected voter registration and voting for racial minorities. This was later applied to language minorities. This has been applied to correcting discriminatory election systems and districting. (Updated in 1975.)

 

why writers readers vote
1966: The Supreme Court prohibited tax payment and wealth requirements for voting in state elections.
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1971: The Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution granted the right to vote to those aged 18 through 21. This was in response to Vietnam War protests, which argued that soldiers who were old enough to fight for their country (and maybe die) should have the right to vote.
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I’ve read that this age group is the least likely to vote. Some put the figure at 20%.

 

1986: U.S. Military and Uniformed Services, Merchant Marines, and other citizens overseas, living on bases in the U.S., abroad, or aboard ships were granted the right to vote in the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.

 

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2013: The Supreme Court (in a 5/4 vote) struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. The core of the winning argument was that racial minorities no longer continued to face barriers to voting because “Our country has changed” (Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.). The majority determined that specifying states that must receive clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before they changed voting procedures, moving polling places, or redrawing electoral districts was unconstitutional.

 

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This year, major outcries have arisen about everything from ID requirements to relocation of polling places that have a disproportionate effect on minorities. For example, suppression of African American votes in Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, and Texas; Hispanics in Kansas; and Native Americans in North Dakota. Make the effort to vote in spite of obstacles!
vote 2018