Revisiting Obedience

immigrant camps texas
[Source: OIG]
Last night I heard interviews with lawyers who recently visited the immigrant detention centers along the U.S./Mexico border. The conditions they reported were deplorable—inhumane, even. But what i want to focus on here is their observations that the border agents trying to do their jobs are massively stressed. So why do they stay there, doing what they’re doing?

 

This seems an appropriate time to remind writers that human motivation—and thus characters’ motivations—are complex things. What sort of SOB would do such things?

More than 1,000 people gather at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, to protest President Donald Trump's order that restricts immigration to the U.S., Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, in Seattle. President Trump signed an executive order Friday that bans legal U.S. residents and visa-holders from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. for 90 days and puts an indefinite hold on a program resettling Syrian refugees. (Genna Martin/seattlepi.com via AP)
[Source: Concord Monitor]
You can find stories all over the internet of people increasingly being treated inhumanely while trying to enter the U.S.—preschoolers being handcuffed, weeping mothers and young children separated for hours at a time, people held for twenty hours without food… Sometimes such stories suggest that it’s because of the things Pres. Trump says and does. His supporters are likely to reply, “No way in hell would he order such things! These are the acts of a few sick individuals.”

 

As writers, we don’t need to prove or disprove either of these causes. As writers, we know that almost anyone is capable of almost any act if the motivation is sufficient. What we may not have considered is just how easily ordinary people can be led to do extraordinary things.  
 
[Source: Harvard Psychology]
In 1963 Stanley Milgram first published his research on obedience to authority figures. The beginning of his research (1961) was with the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. He started with the question, “Could it be that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?”
 
The short answer is “Yes.” A very high proportion of people would fully obey the instructions, even if reluctantly, even if the acts ran counter to their own consciences.
 
[Source]
[Source]
The basic paradigm was that the subject thought he was the teacher, assisting the experimenter by delivering electric shocks to a learner whenever the learner gave a wrong answer. With each wrong answer, the apparent shock level was increased, finally to a point where the shocks—if real—would have been fatal. In the initial experiment, 65% of subjects gave the maximum shock level at least three times.

 

sadist sob stanley milgram
[Source: Pacific Standard]
The important thing to remember is that the experimenter had no real authority over the subject delivering the shocks. The experimenter wasn’t a parent, a supervisor, a friend, a lover. The subject was not physically restrained from leaving. You can read all about it, in detail, in his 1974 book.

 

stanley milgram book 1974
[Source: HarperCollins]
Variations on the original experiment revealed that a less official looking setting decreased obedience slightly. When the teacher was physically closer to the learner, the level of compliance decreased—but even when the teacher had to physically hold the supposed learner’s hand on what was supposed to be a shock plate, 30% completed the experiment. When the experimenter was physically farther away, compliance decreased. For example, when the experimenter gave instructions over the phone, compliance dropped to 21%. There was no significant difference in results when all women were used.

 

To write convincingly about obedience, it’s important to note that the people were greatly stressed by what they were doing. They objected verbally, questioned the experimenter, and reported high levels of distress when debriefed.
 
So, can we conclude that someone is telling people to get rough with those trying to enter the United States? NO! 
 
[Source: TED]
Enter Philip Zimbardo. In 1971 he conducted The Stanford Prison Experiment. It was specifically intended to investigate issues of the relationships between prisoners and guards. Did the behaviors of prisoners and guards reflect inherent personality differences between the two groups?

 

Volunteers for a two-week prison experiment were screened and those with criminal backgrounds, psychological impairment, or medical problems were excluded. The research team chose 24 men they deemed most psychologically stable and healthy. Participants were paid $15 per day (the equivalent of $92.91 in 2018).

 

The subjects were randomly divided into prisoners and guards.

 

stanford prison experiment
[Source: HowStuffWorks]
The guards were instructed not to physically harm the prisoners or withhold food or drink, but Zimbardo emphasized that “…in this situation we’ll have all the power and they will have none.” Guards were told to call prisoners by their assigned numbers rather than their names. But otherwise, guards improvised their roles. Prisoners were given no instructions.

 

prison experiment
[Source: SF Gate]
On the second day the three prisoners in one cell rioted, blocked the door with their beds, tore off their caps, and refused to come out or obey the guards. Guards from other shifts agreed to  work overtime to quell the riot and eventually they attacked the prisoners with fire extinguishers (while not being supervised by research staff).

 

sadist stanford prison experiment
[Source: Daily Maverick]
The experiment was terminated after only 6 days. By then, about a third of the guards had exhibited “genuine sadistic tendencies”; prisoners were emotionally traumatized and five of them had to be removed from the experiment early. You can read about this experiment in any social psychology textbook. Online you can also view video clips.

 

Arguably, the most important outcome of the study is that the behavior of two equivalent groups diverged dramatically after one was labeled “guards” and the other was labeled “prisoners.” 
 
To answer the initial question of what sadistic SOB would do such a thing: the perfectly ordinary, likable, friend, colleague, or neighbor.
 
As a writer, keep that in mind as you create characters behaving badly.

Besides the Cake: A Successful Book Launch Party

On Saturday I attended a great launch party for Deadly Southern Charm. Since then, I’ve mulled over what made that event such a success. Yes, there were refreshments, but that was just the icing on the cake, so to speak.

 

Before the main event. This book is an anthology, with stories by eighteen authors, so there was lots of online hype leading up to the event itself: Facebook, Twitter, etc. In this case, the authors did guest blogs as well. One way and another, invite anyone and everyone you know! The book’s contributors were actively engaged in this, and most were present to celebrate their success.

 

This launch was held at Libby Mill Library—just the right venue: not too big and cavernous, not cramped, with plenty of free parking. Libraries seem an obvious place for book launches, but depending on the book and author(s), it could be a school, bookstore, rented space, or private home.

 

Door prizes, while not strictly necessary, added to the party atmosphere. If I am recalling correctly, all of the giveaways were books, mostly by the authors who contributed to the anthology. The prizes were handled by Frances Aylor, president of the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters in Crime. As it happened, my name was the first one drawn, and I came away with a mystery by Lisa Scottoline that I’m greatly looking forward to reading.

 

Actually, for me, the meat of the event was the prepared remarks. In this case, it wasn’t the author(s) saying a bit about the work—although that’s a classic program. It was a panel of three experienced, successful writers examining the length of the work as it relates to publication.
Left to right: Lynn Cahoon focused on novellas and shorter novels; Barb Goffman discussed short stories; and Mary Burton addressed issues of longer novels. They provided lots of insights and shared experiences, everything from creating series characters to whether one needs an agent to how productive one must be to earn a living as a writer. Cahoon and Goffman contributed to the anthology and Burton is a co-editor.

 

The panel was well organized. Kris Kisska, program chair for SinC/CVA, moderated, presenting each panelist with questions appropriate to the area she was presenting. Between the great questions and the thorough answers, there were few questions left for the audience to ask! She also recognized and thanked everyone who worked behind the scenes to make the event such a success.

 

besides cake successful book launch party
There were plenty of books available for purchase. Fountain Bookstore is an indie here in Richmond that’s well-known for supporting local writers. They handled book sales at the launch. The most in-demand book was, of course, Deadly Southern Charm, but they also had other books by SinC members.

 

Last but not least, signing tables were set up around the periphery of the room so that all the contributors present could comfortably participate.

 

Bottom line: there you have it, a model for a successful launch party!
 
And if you want more options, including on-line book launch, just Google it.

Need Help with Summer Reading?

Last week I wrote about some of the classic books that PBS suggested people read (or love) the most. But if you’re looking for a new book or genre to read, Goodreads has a list of suggestions for you.

[Source: Goodreads]
Goodreads has brought in Lori Hettler, the founder and moderator of The Next Best Book Club, to put together a couple of curated lists of summer reading challenges. The two lists are broken up into sub-categories to help you make it through the challenge.

List 1: Beginner Level

  • Summer-related tasks
  • Tasks to stretch your comfort zone

List 2: Expert Level

  • June Reads
  • July Reads
  • August Reads
  • What to read during any month to stretch your reading comfort zones

These two lists include broader challenges (i.e., reading a book of poetry) to more specific tasks (i.e., reading a book that features a yellow, green, or “sandy” cover).

This could be a great challenge for people who feel like their reading list is lagging or that they’re stuck in a rut, reading in the same genre.

Have you started this Goodreads challenge? What list are you using and what reading task are you most looking forward to?

need help summer reading

Cathryn Hankla Returns to Richmond

cathryn hankla returns richmond
That’s an announcement I’d dearly love to see! Last night was her first reading and signing in Richmond and I, for one, want more. She read from her two newest books. She started with a selection from lost places: on losing and finding home which was released in April.

 

cathryn hankla lost places
It is a memoir in essay form. But unlike the many trauma memoirs out there, this is more an exploration of her life in relation to people and places. She uses home in both a physical and metaphorical sense, and much of what she writes speaks to all of us.I bought the book only last night, and so have not read most of it, but it’s jumped to the top of my list!

 

cathryn hankla galaxies
GALAXIES is a poetry collection published last year. She ended the reading with several selections, including “Galaxy of Virginia History”—both humorous and appalling.

 

Cathy’s writing often elicits adjectives such as droll, urgent, inventive, graceful, passionate, compassionate, unpredictable, and imaginative. She’s published more than a dozen books of poetry, short stories, novels, and now essays. Choose one and become a fan! (As you can tell, I’m one already.)
cathryn hankla published works
Among my favorites are Learning the Mother Tongue and FORTUNE TELLER MIRACLE FISHCathy is a fabulous storyteller! Both of these collections evoke her Appalachian Mountain roots—vividly, poignantly, and endearingly.

 

I actually met Susan Hankla first. I won’t go into that now, having recently blogged about Susan twice. It was in one of Susan’s classes that a fellow student suggested I attend a writing workshop at Nimrod Hall. As many of you know, I’ve been returning to Nimrod Hall since 2004, and intend to do so this year as well.

 

Main building Nimrod Hall
The main building of Nimrod Hall
That is when and where I met Cathy. It was immediately apparent that we have much in common. Besides our shared Appalachian roots, we both have been college professors and chaired our respective departments, albeit her department is English and Creative Writing and mine was Psychology.
writing workshop nimrod hall
Cathy Hankla in our workshop
Cathy conducts helpful and enjoyable writing workshops—which is why I go back year after year. No doubt she is an excellent classroom teacher as well, judging by students of hers who attended last night’s reading. She’s great at both big picture critique and detail editing.
 
cathryn hankla land between blue moon poorwater
 
If you are more inclined to novels than short stories, consider these. And  BTW, she’s poetry editor of The Hollins Critic. Bottom line: whatever your preference, give Cathy Hankla a read. Or a listen, if Richmond is so lucky as to get her back!

 

cathryn hankla returns richmond

Tai Chi and Qi Gong for Your Characters

Tai Chi Qi Gong
World Tai Chi and Qi Gong Day was great!

 

The Opening Ceremony was an elaborate Lion Dance from Virginia Commonwealth University. Costumes for the Lion Dance Team and Panda were compliments of The Confucius Institute at William and Mary College. Great fun! It was long and strenuous—and I wonder what sort of college student would join such a team, and agree to perform during finals week.

 

Some of the demonstrations were more reminiscent of the martial arts origins of tai chi, including swords, spear, saber and push hands. A focus on the martial arts application might get your character into interesting situations.

 

But the most frequent application of both tai chi and qi gong is health. For example, one of the groups present was veterans, practicing at the VA Hospital in Richmond. They work with both physical recovery and PTSD sufferers. Do you have such a character?

 

Tai Chi Qi Gong
According to The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, more than 600 academic papers have reported the beneficial effects of tai chi and qi gong practice on physical and mental health. Among these are enhanced balance, flexibility, and agility; increased immunity, muscle strength and aerobic capacity; lower blood pressure, improved heart health, reduced inflammation, and weight loss. Arthritis is a case in point. One of the participants said that she’d been incapacitated by rheumatoid arthritis for years before taking up tai chi—and she moved beautifully.

 

Among the mental health benefits are lower levels of stress, depression, and anxiety; increased mental clarity, focus, and positive thoughts; and a lower risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

 

The practice of tai chi is often called meditation in motion. Maybe it should be called medication in motion. And it is a life-long activity, low impact and slow but as good for you as cross-fit. Do any of your characters have health problems? Why not give them some?
 

Tai Chi

tai chi
Come on down! I’m going to be there, performing tai chi moves and qigong breathing with other members from my class. Participants and watchers are welcome. There’s to be a lion dance in the opening.

 

I got involved in tai chi because I wanted to try something new and my sister-in-law had been practicing tai chi for years and telling me I should do the same. Now, this sister-in-law tends to think that everyone should think and do what she does—for she does things for good reasons. This is pretty much the first time I’ve succumbed.

 

So, tai chi is a Chinese martial art. (For alternative spellings of tai chi, go online.) Tai chi is practiced both for its defensive training and its health benefits.

 

tai chi
Tai chi, rooted in Taoist and Confucian Chinese philosophy, has been found to be beneficial for meditative movement and for general health. Focusing solely on the movements of the form bring mental calm and clarity, good for general health and stress management. The three main aspects are health, meditation, and the martial arts.

 

tai chi
My tai chi teacher explains the martial arts application, but the focus is on slow movement, meditation, and health. We also practice qigong breathing. Seated tai chi moves are suitable for older people. Research shows that seated tai chi can make big improvements to a person’s physical and mental well being, including improvements in balance, blood pressure, flexibility, muscle strength, peak oxygen intake, and and body fat percentages.

 

tai chi
Which brings us back to World Tai Chi and Qigong Day. It is the last Saturday in April, annually. At 10:00 a.m. local time, people participate alone or in groups. The idea is that the wave of energy and goodwill will circle the globe, starting in the earliest time zones of Samoa and then traveling around the world until it ends with events in the last time zones of Hawaii, almost an entire day.

 

One of the stated goals of the day is to provide a global vision of cooperation for health and healing purposes across geopolitical boundaries, and also an appeal to people worldwide to embrace wisdom from all the cultures of the world. Who can argue with that?

 

tai chi
One breath… One world.

Shot in the Arm

shot arm
I spent Saturday afternoon at the Bon Air Library at Mysterypalooza 2018.  A great afternoon to reconnect with my Sisters in Crime/CVA. I chatted with people I didn’t know heretofore. But of course, the real meat of the afternoon was the panel—a great group of women with dozens of books in print.
mysterypalooza vivian lawry
Mary Burton moderated the panel deftly. The panel (not surprisingly) were articulate in discussing their varied pathways to publication. Some were traditionally published, some self-published, some both.
mysterypalooza 2018
Energy hummed through the room as the panelists assembled for the presentation. The audience contained many writers and aspiring writers, and topics covered included tips about agents, the pros and cons of each route to publication, and lots of insights into the varied methods of self-motivation and making time to write.

 

One particularly interesting tip: if you get stuck, take on the persona of one of the characters and write from that POV. I might not/probably won’t make it into the final book, but knowing your characters from the inside out makes the writing richer.

 

vivian lawry author mysterypalooza 2018
I wasn’t on the panel this time, but I was there to sign copies of Dark Harbor, Tiger Heart, and Mysteries Most Historical.

 

vivian-lawry-books
My book signing gigs generally yield very little money, and this was no exception. BUT, talking to attendees, whether they buy books or not, is always a treat. As some (many?) of you know, I collect carved wooden Santas, now numbered more than 450. And now I’ve actually met Santa and Mrs. Claus! They are frequently cited during the season in Williamsburg, VA.
shot arm
AND I know what they do in the off-season: they attend Mysterypalooza!

 

shot arm
In fact, Santa is also a writer! And his fiction has nothing to do with Christmas. Check out Bradley Harper’s historical fiction, entangled with Sherlock Holmes.

 

[Source: Bradley Harper]
The event was rife with useful tidbits. Check out the MFA program at Full Sail. Check out Stumble Upon. Check out the Independent Authors Association and what they might do for you.
mysterypalooza 2018
Last but not least, the next Sisters in Crime/CVA anthology is now officially open for submissions. Check the website for requirements if you are interested.

 

Bottom line: there’s lots of local writing talent. Check them out!
 

#PubforPR

Due to the overwhelming need in Puerto Rico following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the publishing community is coming together to raise money for relief efforts.

#PubforPR is an auction put together by hundreds of authors, editors, illustrators, and literary agents, who have donated time and goods for you to bid on in order to raise money for those affected by the hurricane. All funds raised will go directly to Unidos por Puerto Rico and ConPRmetidos, two carefully vetted local charity organizations.

Please consider bidding on some of these items, or simply donating to one of these charities (the link is below). After the tragedies in Texas, Nigeria, Florida, Mexico, and now Las Vegas, it’s time to help in whatever way we can.