WRITING CLASS VIA ZOOM

I went into this with some trepidation. Heretofore, my only experiences with zoom have been with a critique group and with a social group. The critique group is only four, and the social group, five. How would that work with ten?

This class is called Exploring Fiction, and it’s part of the creative writing program offered at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts studio center. I’ve taken courses through the VMFA before, but this is the first time I’ve tried it online. My classmates all have schedules flexible enough to allow them to join a class in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. Other than that, there’s quite a bit of variety.
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  • Some have taken dozens of writing classes for many years; for others, this is the first writing class they’ve taken.
  • Participant ages vary; so far as I can guess, there is a span of thirty or forty years..
  • A few of my classmates have published several works, both books and shorter works. Some in the class have no interest in publishing at all.
  • I recognize several of my fellow writers from previous classes or peer review groups we’ve been in before. Others are new friends for me to meet!

What I liked:

  • Finally getting back with some of my writing friends of old
  • Finding that the teacher is well-organized, and already experienced
  • The “get acquainted” exercise, and learning things I didn’t know about people I already knew
  • The varied aspects of each class, which include assigned readings, prompted writing, and sharing of our own work
  • The teacher’s focus on the positive feedback
  • Being able to sip water or coffee, something I’d never bothered to take to class before
  • Once again hearing the different takes on the same prompt 
  • Hearing someone else’s very vivid writing
  • Discussing a short story from The New Yorker and examining why it works so well

What I didn’t like:

  • I couldn’t see everyone by simply turning my head
  • Everyone seemed more stilted and formal
  • Fewer spontaneous comments among students
  • Difficulty taking notes while using my laptop to run the meeting
  • Seeing the way I look on screen, face all mottled by shadows
  • Feeling self-conscious every time I touched my hair
    • Or scratched my nose
    • Or wrinkled my brow
    • Or moved at all, actually
  • Being hyper-aware of every noise I made, coughing or turning pages or whatever
  • Having to mute myself whenever my husband made noise in the backgroundAnd remembering to unmute after

Bottom line for this writer: not as good as in-person but soooo much better than no class at all!

The (Virtual) Perennial Student

A year and a bit ago, I wrote about the importance of continuing education and peer review for a writer. Though in-person classes and critique groups are more difficult these days, challenging yourself to write is just as important. As with so many other areas of life, the internet can help with that!

Writing classes are notoriously rowdy. Teachers may even welcome the relative calm of online classes conducted via web cam.

It’s practically a cliché that writing is a lone activity. For the past few months, pretty much everything has been a lone activity. Classes and writing groups add the social dimension to writing, especially during quarantines, lockdowns, and isolations. I never met a boring writer! I meet interesting people with similar interests and (usually) similar world views. Thus there is the potential to develop new friendships as well as keeping in touch with current friends.

Why Classes?

When you happen to live with a writing partner, social distancing and masks are probably not required.

Classes stimulate me to write in new directions.  Yes, I write when I’m not in class, but it tends to get habitual, not to mention sporadic.  An extra bonus of online classes is the ability to connect with teachers and fellow writers in all over the world. The variety of cultural perspectives is almost guaranteed to shine light on some of those new directions.

Drawing up a calendar schedule isn’t necessarily required, but it certainly helps to avoid last-minute writing crunches.

Classes are structured to make me write regularly. The VMFA studio classes meet regularly, with a variety of schedules to suit any writing lifestyle. Tuition is a real bargain, when one looks at dollars per hour of instruction! Just saying.

When I write regularly, I also submit regularly, at least six times per year.  This leads to lots of rejections, but without submissions there are no acceptances. Submissions, thankfully, are almost entirely online.

Typed submissions are much easier to send to online classes, but some people still prefer to write a first draft with pen and paper.

Most of my life has been spent in classrooms, as a student and/or teacher. Classes are my natural environment, the one in which I thrive.  Classmates and/or teachers praising my writing is extremely gratifying. Every time I get something published, it’s like an A on my report card or a star on my forehead. With more than 50 publications in literary journals and anthologies, my writing life is sufficiently star-studded to make me smile.

Why Critique Groups?

For most writers, self-editing is necessary but not sufficient to make the writing its best. That’s where critique groups and reading partners come in. Personally, I prefer a small group, four or five seeming ideal to me. The strength in numbers is that having multiple readers with different strengths can cover more of the territory: some might pick up on word choices and sentence structure, while others look more at the big picture of character and plot development.

There are some things that will help a group to be good.  There are online resources and guidelines you might adopt. In my experience, here are a few basics:

  • Set down the group guidelines in writing.
  • Be clear about what types of writing will be acceptable (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, opinion essays, etc.) and stick to them.
  • Be clear about how feedback will be given.
  • Specify when the work is due, in what form, and what length.
  • Decide what happens when someone misses a meeting:
    • Are they expected to send comments on others’ work?
    • Can they send work anyway?
  • What if someone comes without having written anything?
  • Stick to a regular meeting time and schedule.
  • Get the group’s consensus when changing any of this.
  • Keep the group small enough that everyone can have sufficient and equal time.
  • Meet at least twice a month.

Online critique groups have additional logistics to consider.

  • To avoid pandemonium, there should be a recognized leader for each meeting.
    • The leader could be the meeting host, the original organizer, the most senior author, a regularly rotating position, or any other generally agreed person.
  • Web meeting courtesy should be observed, including muting microphones when not speaking, avoiding distracting background action on video, and not having side conversations.
  • Because all submissions will be digital, participants must share files in a format that can be opened and read by everyone.

Find Your Group

Here are just a few of the many options for classes online:

Peer review groups or partnerships can be formed by anyone. Perhaps some of your friends from past classes or workshops would be up for regular critiquing. Social media is a great way to connect with other writers you may never have met in real life. There are also more formal groups:

What I’ve Been Up To

In the past few years, I’ve been writing a lot more than I realized. Without realizing it, I’ve managed to publish more than a dozen new short stories! Some of these have come out of various writing classes and workshops, but others have just popped out of my head onto the page.

All of these new pieces are listed on my Publications page now. Feel free to stop by and read some of my work for inspiration!

Things in the world are pretty chaotic at the moment. It’s easy to be pulled into a world of grey hopelessness. A reminder that anyone can still create something beautiful can be good for the soul.

The Boring Side of Having the Plague

Coverage of the pandemic is all over the media.  Every day we get the latest tallies. Local and national news feature the tragedies that are all too common. A family of 6 all of whom have tested positive, and only two survive. Sometimes someone being discharged from the hospital after weeks on a ventilator. So why this blog? Because people suffer the virus in ways that never catch the attention of the media. Writers need to be aware of these variations.

Many of you are familiar with the name of Kathleen Corcoran, my friend and colleague and occasional guest blogger. She has graciously agreed to share her experience with us all.

It started with a headache, a pretty bad one, like something was sitting on my head. Or maybe it was the insomnia first. Or maybe the headache was caused by the insomnia. Or maybe I couldn’t sleep because my head was hurting. Or maybe I was just doomed to be caught in this chicken and egg loop of which came first for all eternity or at least until the sun came up.

But I didn’t think anything was wrong. I’ve had trouble sleeping since I was a kid. My posture is terrible, which causes headaches sometimes. I took a couple of painkillers and eventually was lulled to sleep by the dulcet tones of Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter.*

(Neither Vivian Lawry nor I are affiliated with or Stephen Fry or with J. K. Rowling. But if anyone knows how to get in touch with Stephen Fry, let me know, and I’ll do my darndest to become affiliated!)

In the morning, my husband went off to work, I drank about ten cups of tea, and everything was normal. Perfectly normal.

I was pretty tired, but that was to be expected after being up all night.

Joints aching? Must be a storm coming. Stupid arthritis.

Skin hurts like I’m wrapped in sandpaper? Probably just didn’t rinse all the soap out of my clothes last time I washed them.

Too hot and too cold and too hot and too cold again? Eh, it’s July. The air conditioner is weird.

Can’t stop coughing? Gee, I must need to sweep under the bed. It’s obviously really dusty down there.

Sore throat? Well, duh. That’s what happens when you cough a lot.

Difficulty concentra-SQUIRREL!

Eventually, the combined efforts of my husband, my sister, and my mother convinced me that I was probably sick, it might be the COVID-19, and I definitely needed to do something about it. The first thing I did about it was to consult Our Lord and Master, The Great Google. My husband left work early, and we tried to find a testing site.

I think I poked the stick too far. I may have swabbed the back of my eyeball.

And that’s when things got really… boring. Following the instructions laid out by The Great Google, I didn’t bother going to a doctor. I answered a bunch of questions online to determine if I was worthy of receiving testing and then to determine if I was worthy of receiving fast testing. The pharmacy told me I could stop by the drive-thru the following afternoon to poke a stick up my nose, and that was it.

Labs are really backed up, so I could expect my test results in about two weeks. Maybe longer. Probably longer. In the meantime, I should assume I had The ‘Rona (as my brother insists on calling it) and behave accordingly. Oh, and don’t bother going to a doctor or a hospital unless I turn blue or have a seizure. And it better be a pretty big seizure.

Contact tracing was easy. Two phone calls. I warned my parents that I was (allegedly) highly contagious with (allegedly) an infection of (allegedly) COVID-19 and thus I may have (allegedly) contaminated my mother and she may have (allegedly) passed on the deadly (allegedly) infection to my father. Allegedly.

Ready! (Disclaimer: this is a picture I found online. I did not put a mask on my dog. She would eat it.)

Thus, I am now in quarantine. I can’t leave the bedroom except for bathroom breaks. My husband can’t leave the house, just in case I’ve contaminated him. He has to sleep on the sofa, keeping an eye on the turtle. We both have to wear masks anytime I open the bedroom door, but my husband covers his face just about any time time he’s not sleeping. Pippin the Wonder Dog has gone to stay with my parents until we’re all allowed out of the house again. Fourteen days of staring at the bedroom walls, unless I’m still sick or my test results come back negative.

I ate a banana. I hate bananas.

My husband put food and tea next to the bed for the first few days, carefully not touching anything and showering immediately after leaving the room. When I could get out of bed, he left the food and tea on the floor outside the door and picked up empty dishes with gloves. For about a week, I couldn’t keep anything down except tea. It’s a good thing I like tea.

Apparently, stealing a towel from a hospital doesn’t mean I get to go to one. Actually, I think it might make them less likely to treat me.

But then I started feeling better. I could sit up, the cough subsided, and I managed to stay awake for more than two hours at a time. My fever hung around for a bit, but it eventually went down. At one point, the thermometer informed me that I had a temperature of 107.3F. As I was staring at the read-out, wondering why all my internal organs hadn’t shut down yet, my husband reminded me to wait until after I drank the hot tea before sticking the thermometer in my mouth. Smart man.

Maybe I can entertain myself by licking the sofa…

Now, I wait. There’s not a whole lot to do in here. I can video chat with the guy on the other side of the door. My goddaughter sometimes reads me stories or demonstrates her spectacular spinning skills over the phone. I spend way more time than I will ever admit on sites like BoredPanda and BuzzFeed. Occasionally, I try to get up and walk around, but it’s only a step and a half from the bed to the door and only half a step from the bed to the wall. Not very conducive to calisthenics.

Billy across the street just turned on his sprinkler. Now I get at least twenty minutes of watching the water spin!

The neighbors lead fascinating lives, as I have discovered by not being creepy at all. I spend a lot of time staring out the window, and I’ve gotten to know everyone’s habits. If the dog next door isn’t out for his morning yard time by 7:30, I worry. Where’s Roscoe? Is he stuck inside? Is he still asleep? When the kids down the street start their evening basketball skirmishes, I keep score. Darren cheats, but Michael is taller and older… I haven’t decided if that evens things out, but Keisha always wins anyway. Yesterday, the recycling truck came by. It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen. It’s like Rear Window, but without the murder!

No hugs from my favorite tiny people

In the meantime, my husband has missed two weeks of work and pay. His boss isn’t sure about letting him back in the shop until all his colleagues are comfortable that he isn’t poisonous. My parents have had to isolate in their house, missing my father’s birthday dinner. All the careful planning my sister did to set up a safe birthday celebration for my father is down the drain (along with all the ingredients I’d just bought to make Beef Wellington for them). My other sister has been stuck watching five kids by herself because I can’t help out. And I had to reschedule an appointment with the DMV. Their next opening isn’t until September.

Was I stupid or cautious? Or perhaps both?

Don’t get me wrong: I am thrilled beyond belief not to be in the ICU, hooked to a ventilator in a medically-induced coma. But I don’t even know if I have COVID-19. Barring some catastrophic development, I will be free to leave quarantine and resume my normal activities tomorrow. If I did have it, I’m no longer carrying anything that could infect people. If I didn’t, I just put a bunch of people through a bunch of disruption and financial hassle for a sniffle.

Yay! Positive! I’m super positive!

Oh hey! An email just popped up with my test results….

Opening…

Logging in…

Finding the right message…

If I tested positive, does that mean I passed or failed? Also, is this going to be on the final exam?

Thanks to Kathleen for sharing her experience. Writers take note: She is living, breathing (thank goodness) proof that the worst case scenario isn’t necessary for one’s life to be turned upside-down.

Freedom! (Keep wearing your mask, unless you are a dog.)

LOVING OLD BOOKS

This glass-fronted secretary is full of old books—cookbooks and books on household management and helpful hints. When I open the doors, the smell of old books—so different from the smell of a library—always makes me smile.

Instructions For Cookery, In Its Various Branches, By Miss Leslie is dated 1843. This is the 17th edition (!) “with improvements and supplementary receipts.” As far as I know, it is my oldest book. I say, “As far as I know” because not all old books are dated. For example, this 64-page relic was printed in Edinburgh, sometime before 1890.

Books of this sort are my first collection, and still the most numerous. In the beginning I bought books like High-Class Cookery Made Easy by Mrs. Hart for what was on the printed page: how things used to be done. I found the recipes fascinating: instructions to  “assemble the [cake] ingredients in the usual way”; lists of ingredients with no measurements. (Fanny Farmer [see below]first introduced standard measurements in 1896.)

When I open a book of great (by my amateur standards) age, I like to ponder what sorts of women might have owned and used it over the decades. This copy of Mrs. Crowen’s American Ladies’ System of Cookery cookbook is inscribed Mrs. Dr. S.  S. Fitch, May 18th, 1860. It reminds me of the German practice of addressing someone as Herr Doctor Professor So-and-so. Might she be of German background?

The books printed in the 1880s and more recently are much more likely to be in good condition. Then, as now, once one made a name for oneself, more book deals followed.  Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion and Miss Parloa’s New Cookbook and Marketing Guide are early examples of this.

Perhaps the best example is Fanny Merritt Farmer. She paid Little, Brown, and Company to publish her Boston Cooking School Cookbook in 1896.  My earliest copy is from 1904. By then, it had been copyrighted 1896, 1900, 1901, 1902, and 1903. The flyleaf of my copy says it is revised with an appendix of three hundred recipes, and an addenda of sixty recipes. (Note the modern spelling of recipe.) She is listed as the author of Chaffing-Dish Possibilities and Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent.

I have a copy of the latter, as well as What to Have for Dinner, copyrighted 1904, 1905, 1907,  and 1905, respectively.  The Fanny Farmer Cookbook is still popular today.

Sir Terry Pratchett

But It’s More Than Just Old Cookbooks For Me

Over the years, I’ve replaced numerous paperbacks with older hard-copy editions of favorite books. I like the worn covers and brittle, yellowed pages.

They remind me of reading books of fairy tales and the Ruth Fielding series from the early 20th Century at my grandmother’s house.  It turns out that I’m not alone. Scent carries powerful psychological meaning for people—and triggers memories that otherwise are not readily available.

Many people, perhaps most, like the smell of old books. Science tells us that as books decompose over time, they emit a smell from decaying volatile organic compounds, very similar to chocolate and coffee! This is one time I really don’t need to know why I like something, just that I do.

My most recently acquired old book, 1904, came along with my most recent obsession: Bird Neighbors!

Bottom line for writers: smell an old book and feel uplifted!

WRITING ISOLATION

Sleuth of Bears

There is a whole cadre—Heidegger (1889-1976) arguably the most famous—who argue that being-with-others is part of the “structure of human existence.” In other words, we are hard-wired to socialize. Whether you believe that or not, there are a gazillion (by actual count) studies that have found isolation to be harmful to humans, both physically and psychologically. 

Litter of Puppies

(Editor’s note: Including photographs of isolated and lonely people was too depressing, so I invite you to enjoy these photos of animals not social distancing instead.)

For writers, bad is good

Pod of Dolphins

How bad is it?  Some researchers posit that social isolation and loneliness are twice as harmful as obesity. Others compare the effects on mortality to be equal to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Others say the magnitude of risk is right up there with physical inactivity and lack of access to health care.

N.B.  Degrees or levels of isolation are difficult to define and measure.  Perceived isolation is what produces feelings of loneliness. In many ways, it is easier to study social isolation, though they are closely linked.

Pandemonium of Parrots

As a writer, the first question is, “Why is your character isolated?” Your options may be more numerous than you think. Here are a few examples.

  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • Move to a new place
  • Researcher in isolated places, like Antarctica 
  • Mission/mission training, e.g., astronauts
  • Immune compromised
Leap of Leopards
  • A child/infant in understaffed orphanage
  • Being shunned for any reason  
    • Behavior  
    • Appearance 
    • Membership in a marginalized subgroup
  • Medical quarantine
  • As a form of torture
    • Solitary confinement in prison (currently about 80,000 in the U.S. each year)
Tower of Giraffes

The second set of questions for a writer:

  • How complete is the isolation?
  • How long does it last?
  • Is it repeated?
  • In general, the more complete the isolation, the longer it lasts, and repetition all increase the number and seriousness of the effects. 
Mob of Kangaroos

The third question is, which effects will your character display? 

Parliament of Owls
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Sweaty palms
  • Heart palpitations
  • Lowered immunity
  • Increased inflammation 
  • Trembling
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pains
  • Lack of appetite
  • Drastic weight loss
Stand of Flamingos
  • Muscle pains (esp. neck and back)
  • Oversensitivity to sensory stimuli
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Distorted sense of time
  • Severe boredom
  • Impaired memory
  • Inability to think coherently
  • Apathy
Conspiracy of Lemurs
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Feelings of inferiority
  • Irritability
  • Withdrawal
  • Rage/anger/aggression
  • Confusion
  • Paranoia
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Hallucinations

Many of these effects mimic PTSD and, like PTSD, can last for years after the event.

Bale of Turtles

In the last couple of months, researchers are finding that COVID-19 isolation tends to evoke one of two responses.

Smack of Jellyfish
  • Those who hunker down and enjoy it—take it as a time to relax, read, bake, pursue a hobby, accomplish things around the house. In short, they’re getting along fine.
  • But for others—especially extroverts—the isolation can be harmful to both mind and body.

Not surprisingly, the effects of COVID-19 isolation are many of the same effects as other reasons for isolation.

Drift of Pigs
  • Boredom
  • Lethargy
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Distorted sense of time
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Develop or increase unhealthy habits

Dr. Samantha Brooks wrote in The Lancet: “A huge factor in the negative psychological impact [of isolation] seems to be confusion about what’s going on, not having clear guidelines, or getting different messages from different organizations.” In addition, not knowing how long isolation will last exacerbates the negative effects of isolation. Think of the current differences within the U.S. and how similar circumstances could be applied to a fictional setting.

Obstinacy of Buffalo

People who are at increased risk from COVID-19 isolation are those at heightened risk for social isolation in the first place:

Gang of Elk
  • Older adults, especially with physical limitations and/or poor family support
  • Men who didn’t develop social networks outside work
  • Being non-white is a bigger risk factor than sex
  • Lower income people who may not afford the technology for distance socializing
  • Anyone who is marginalized (LGBTQ, survivor of domestic abuse, living in an isolated rural area)
  • People incarcerated for any reason
Cete of Badgers
Shiver of Sharks

Evidence of stress is apparent in the increased number of calls to suicide prevention (1-800-273-8255) and addiction (1-844-289-0879) hotlines.

Bottom line for writers: consider isolating your character and/or increasing his/her loneliness. You can take it almost anywhere.

Murmuration of Starlings

1:56 AM

And it hit me: I hadn’t written a blog! Where did the days go since Friday?

Fauna

Well, I spent a lot of time birdwatching, and was rewarded with titmice, chickadees, bluebirds, goldfinches, purple finches, house finches, grackles, bluejays, cardinals, red bellied woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, mourning doves, white throat sparrows, wrens, brown thrashers, and—of course—robins. 

Today for the first time ever, I saw a pair of Eastern towhees! They’re usually very shy, but the males sing and show off their tails in flashy displays to attract mates in the spring. Remind you of any characters or real people you may have encountered?

I had a chance to enjoy the acrobatics of Stanley and Ollie at the bird feeder.  They’re better than a professional circus troupe, but without the spandex and sequins! (For more about their antics, check out an earlier blog I wrote about the behaviors and habits of squirrels in my yard and elsewhere.)

And a couple of days ago I spotted a five-foot long black racer coiled in a pussywillow tree behind my house. (Black racers are very common in the southern US, but they are not venomous or dangerous. Random fact — these snakes can vibrate their tails, making a sound very similar to a rattlesnake.)

Flora

Visiting yard plants is always interesting this time of year (sometimes a bit confusing). I found that a purple baptisia planted by the front door has migrated to a side garden near the back—clearly the work of fairies.

I have a single rose bud opening (although my neighbors’ roses are hanging heavy).

The rhododendron has its first bloom, and azaleas are going wild. Irises are so heavy-headed that they are resting on nearby azaleas. My peonies aren’t as far along as they were three years ago, but they’re showing lots of buds for the future.

The patio pots have flourishing mint, chives, oregano, thyme, sage, and—surprisingly—dill and parsley that wintered over.

I’ve walked in the park and along nature trails, finding wild rhododendron, a.k.a. early azaleas. Also spotted were Virginia bluebells, wood ferns, phlox, pink lady slippers, cinquefoil, dandelions, and creeping buttercup. 

Fiction

Then, too, there were writing tasks. COG Literary Magazine is preparing to print “Pawpaw” and I had to approve the page proof. “Running on About My Mother’s Body” received a second acceptance, so I needed to respond to that and offer a replacement piece. I even wrote the first draft of “Pandemic.”

And I’m involved with two critique groups on zoom and Google hang-out, both new to me.

Fraternizing

All of that doesn’t even touch on communications with family and friends.

I’ll try to get out of myself for Friday!

Bottom line for writers: Life happens.

BOOOOORED!

Sir Terry Pratchett always knows the best words.

I’ll skip defining boredom. It’s so common that it doesn’t need definition, any more than hunger or sunlight. Nearly everyone feels bored at one time or another, more or less often, sometimes daily. Men, in general, are more often bored than women. And people with little education are more likely to report being bored. As with nearly everything, there are two sides to boredom.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they’re bored or if they’re just being dogs.

The Downside of Boredom

Boredom is generally seen as an unpleasant emotional state. Why do people feel bored? Shahram Heshmat, Ph.D. identified eight common reasons for boredom.

1. Monotony in the Mind — When people are not interested in the details of the task at hand, or when a task is highly repetitive, they are likely to feel bored. We lose interest in things that are too predictable, too much of the same thing, too little stimulation. This can often lead to feeling trapped.    

Piracy is just so dull sometimes.

2. Lack of Flow — Flow is total immersion in a task that is challenging but within one’s abilities, a task with clear goals and immediate feedback. Tasks that are too easy are boring. Tasks that seem to be too difficult may lead to anxiety.

3. Need for Novelty — People with a strong need for novelty, excitement, and variety—i.e., sensation seekers—are at risk of boredom. For these people, the world moves too slowly. The need for external stimulation may be why extroverts are particularly prone to boredom, which they try to cure by novelty seeking and risk-taking

4. Paying Attention —What bores us never fully engages our attention. After all, it is hard to be interested in something when you cannot concentrate on it. People with chronic attention problems, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, are more likely to suffer boredom.

5. Emotional Awareness — People who lack self-awareness are more prone to boredom, unable to articulate what it is that they desire or want to do. They have trouble describing their feelings. Not knowing what we are searching for means that we lack the capacity to choose appropriate goals.

6. Inner Amusement Skills — People who don’t have the inner resources to deal with boredom constructively rely on external stimulation. In the absence of inner amusement skills, the external world will always fail to provide enough excitement and novelty. 

7. Lack of Autonomy — People often feel boredom when they feel trapped. And feeling trapped—stuck or constrained so that one’s will cannot be executed—is a big part of boredom. Adolescents are often bored, largely because children and teenagers don’t have a lot of control over their schedules and activities.

8. The Role of Culture — Boredom is a modern luxury. As the Enlightenment was giving way to the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th Century, boredom came into being. When people have to spend most hours of the days securing food and shelter, boredom isn’t an option.

The Upside of Boredom

Boredom does have its benefits. It is a “call to action.” Nietzsche suggested that men (sic) of rare sensibility value boredom as an impetus to achievement.  So…

1.  Boredom can be a catalyst for action.

2.  It can provide an opportunity for thought and reflection, a search for life’s meaning. 

3.  It can also be a sign that a task is a waste of time—and thus not worth continuing.

4.  Boredom can spur creativity.

Challenges for writers:

  • Writing boredom in an engaging way
  • Choosing ways for characters to handle boredom that forward the plot
  • Milking boredom for tension and/or emotional acting out

UNSTRUCTURED TIME

One of the side effects of COVID-19 is that many people have more unstructured time than usual—much more. By unstructured time, I mean periods of time with no plan in place for what one must/wants to get done

Poking everything with a stick does not count as a plan.

Two points made by openlinecounseling.com resonate for me.

(Note:getting into mischief is not a healthy goal.)
  1. Stretches of unstructured time often bring pressure and anxiety, sometimes existential panic.
    • Worrisome thoughts are more easily set aside when busy. But with unstructured time, it’s easy for self-doubts to come to the fore. 
      • Am I too fat?
      • Have I done a good job as a parent?
      • Will anyone remember me when I’m dead? 
    • When we have lots of time available, it’s easy to procrastinate. One can fritter away the time, flitting from one indulgence to another, from reading a novel to online shopping. Come the end of the day, one then feels guilty for not having been productive—or not productive enough. The feeling that one has “wasted time” is uncomfortable.
Lithuanian Military photographed by adasvasiliauskas
  • Being constantly on the go is often linked to self-worth—in which case not being productive leads to low self-esteem, as in “I’m a failure” or “I’m lazy.”
    • Making the most of every minute of every day isn’t recognized as an impossible, not to say unhealthy, goal.
Don’t let fear drive you to hide away in a box.

When deprived of the activities that usually fill our days, we often drift into unhealthy activities.

  • Being physically inactive
  • Drinking and/or smoking more
  • Snacking and/or eating too much
  • Online gambling
  • Binge shopping
Structure can keep you from climbing the walls… or windows.

Being suddenly confronted with unstructured time can be disorienting. This is often true of the newly retired. Regularly scheduled activities—which could be anything from work to volunteering, golf or poker to orchestra rehearsals—make people aware of the time of day as well as days of the week or month.

For me, COVID-19 cancellations make every day feel like Monday, my formerly “free” day. I have to pause and think what day of the week it is. 

Make sure to change out of your pajamas every day. I recommend formal gowns for coloring time.

Also, the “natural” day for humans isn’t exactly 24 hours: it’s somewhere between 24 and 26 hours. We reset to 24 hours based on outside constraints. My personal day is longer than most, and it’s easy to stay up and wake progressively later and later—say 3:00 to noon. For those on lock-down due to COVID-19, with no scheduled activities, the time of day might feel “off.”

The short solution to all these negatives is simple: make plans.  Keep the list of plans brief — say three — and doable. The plans could be relaxing activities such cutting flowers, taking a walk, etc. The idea is that making plans decreases the likelihood that you’ll pass days in haphazard activities or listlessness.

Enjoy an elegant tea party with inanimate friends!

Astronauts, being experts in the field of isolation, have offered some advice to those of us down here on the planet.

  • Keep a consistent sleeping schedule
  • Go outside and get some sun, so long as you do it by yourself
  • Separate work and leisure time, if you still work from home, so that one does not overtake the other
  • Stay in touch with people online or over the phone
These astronauts seem to have missed the rule about staying 6 feet apart.
(Don’t worry; the baby isn’t sitting on the dog while reading to him… not that he’d notice if she was.)

As more people are staying at home, many organizations are creating virtual activities to keep your mind active. You can take a virtual tour of a museum or national park, audit classes in a variety of subjects, join exercise or meditation groups, watch ballets or operas or Broadway shows, even have a cocktail or movie party with your friends! If all else fails, there are ways to help your community from the comfort of your living room.

  • OpenCulture has gathered many of these links to allow people to browse their options.
  • To fix the growing shortage of protective gear among healthcare workers, many people have started making face masks for local hospitals and fire stations.
  • Coursera is currently working with many universities to allow students to earn college credit
  • Many independent, foreign, classic, and documentary films are available to watch online for free
  • All kinds of educational materials for k-12 students are free online
  • The Guggenheim has made 300 ebooks about art available for free

Takeaway for writers: consider the role of structure in the lives of your characters.

READ THE REVIEWS FIRST

When I was a kid, we had to read our books barefoot in the snow!

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, and collector of really bad jokes.

Every night, I cry myself to sleep over the thought that I will never be able to read all the books I want to read. My time is precious and must be saved for important activities like confusing my turtle with shadow puppets and giving my nieces caffeine and loud toys. That’s where reader reviews and reader recommendations come in handy.

Reviews are also helpful for a completely different purpose: they can provide a writer with (pretend) feedback before the writing is actually finished! As an added bonus, the best reviews can provide a solid abdominal muscle workout by causing insane fits of laughter, generally in the most inopportune public places.

Provided here for your entertainment and education are some of my favorite reviews and the writing lessons they illustrate. Reviews are gathered from Audible.com, Barnes and Noble, Amazon books, Goodreads, and a few book review blogs. The names of reviewers and the books being reviewed are provided where applicable.

Avoid Repetition by Editing or Having a Good Editor to Cut Out Repetition

  • She repeats herself to accentuate her point like she’s me writing like I talk when I’m wasted, which I’m fairly sure she’s not. She says things like (and I’m paraphrasing here) “I couldn’t have testified in Ted’s defense. That was just something I could not do.” Really? Could you do it, Ann? Could you?!? Wait, I’m confused…so you’re saying you could do it or you couldn’t do it? You see what I mean.
  • “I can hardly contain the riotous feelings or is it hormones that rampage through my body.” – Yes, this supposedly went through an editor. I don’t think it’s ever been specified whether or not said editor was literate and/or an alcoholic and/or addicted to painkillers.
  • WORDS WORDS WORDS IS THE HOUSE HAUNTED WORDS WORDS WORDS WORDS WORDS IS SHE CRAZY WORDS WORDS WORDS WORDS ARE THEY ALL CRAZY WORDS WORDS WORDS NO IT MUST BE HAUNTED WORDS WORDS WORDS NO SHE MUST BE CRAZY WORDS WORDS WORDS WORDS WORDS WORDS CRAZY WORDS SICKNESS WORDS WORDS WORDS DEATH THE END.
  • Katrina Passick Lumsden counted the most common phrases in 50 Shades of Grey:
    • “Oh My” – 79
    • “Crap” – 101
    • “Jeez” – 82
    • “Holy (shit/fuck/crap/hell/cow/moses)” – 172
    • “Whoa” – 13
    • “Gasp” – 34
    • “Gasps” – 11
    • “Sharp Intake of Breath” – 4
    • “Murmur” – 68
    • “Murmurs” – 139
    • “Whisper” – 96
    • “Whispers” – 103
    • “Mutter” – 28
    • “Mutters” – 23
    • “Fifty” – 16
    • “Lip” – 71
    • “Inner goddess” – 58
    • “Subconscious” – 82
  • “Mr Unconvincingname, it’s renowned author Dan Brown,” told the voice at the other end of the line. Instantly the voice at the other end of the line was replaced by a different voice at the other end of the line. “Hello, it’s literary agent John Unconvincingname,” informed the new voice at the other end of the line. “Hello agent John, it’s client Dan,” commented the pecunious scribbler.
  • I was beaten over the head over and over and over again with Ana’s self-doubt and insecurities. I can honestly say that I had no idea this kind of feeling was even possible. I’ve never had a book so thoroughly turn off my desire to read before. Ever.
  • Very early in Inferno, I realized that Dan Brown’s career-long fetish for ellipses had reached a whole new level. Basically, ellipses are the hero of the book. … … …

Characters are Actually Important

  • Parts of the book were discussing political views nothing to do with Anna. It appeared their (sic) were many main characters not only Anna. [a review of Anna Karenina]
Um, I don’t remember the flying scene in Anna Karenina…
  • Any time an author tries to sell me on a character’s “charm” by waxing hormonal about how “ridiculously good-looking” he is, I snicker inwardly. I can’t think why….
  • If you can relate to anyone in this novel, then I dismiss you as inherently bad. In fact, I f***ing hate you. Yes, you.
Harpo Marx is proof that all musicians (at least harpists) are inherently good people.
  • Seriously, all she thinks about (and she is the primary narrator) is Zeb. Zeb, Zeb, Zebby Debby Doo. Zibbity Dibbity Dib Doodle Doo, I wuv you. 
  • [W]e know Christian’s super deep and sophisticated because he plays the piano and listens to obscure classical music. This is how we know Edward Christian is really just a lost soul in need of love; his love of music. Everyone knows that no one threatening listens to music. Music lovers just aren’t capable of doing anything bad.
  • Oh, the narrator, you ask? Yeah, he’s an a**hole, too. Don’t seek comfort there, because he’s basically nothing more than a lie factory wallpapered in tweed. 

Know Your Audience, and Know That Not Everyone will be Your Audience

The reviewer on the right is clearly not a fan.
  • I had made reservation and on the date I was to go I had a very bad cold and fever and I called them to change my reservation and they refused. [a very confused review of “Haunted: Ten Tales of Ghosts“]
  • Not so hot; phony intellectuals are told this is a great work so they make up all sorts of lies about layering and craftsmanship, when it’s really just a so-so story and the ending with the guy Marlon Brandon played in the movie (Apocalypse Now) going crazy and Conrad never explaining why there should be such a fascination with him. It might be a nice book if there was a story here. But these modern phonies do not understand that writing is supposed to be enjoyable. [a review of Heart of Darkness]
  • Sure, I could certainly compose a lengthy list of love-or-hate writers I’ve witnessed throughout my stint on this website, but Murakami is one of the dudes who seems to catch oddly equal amount of rapturous praise and sneering vitriol. When one considers reading his work and attempts to decide whether or not to invest the time based solely on the thoughts others have shared here on this website, it must make the head do some Exorcist-spins. [on author Haruki Murakami]
  • I think there was way to much sexual content, and the story line was incredibly sad. Certainly not something i would recommend for anyone under the age of fifteen, If you want to get an idea of what the book is about, just search the title in the Wikipedia. no Students don’t need to read this filth. [a review of Tess of the d’Urbervilles]
  • So I went into reading this with a huge wall up (I know, I know, a terrible way to read), but then I realized that I wasn’t JUST going to be proselytized to… I was going to be threatened with nasty, rotting, coldsore-herpee-mange-pits all over my body that George W. Bush and Paris Hilton are going to take turns pouring their boiling-hot-diarrhea-snot into. Dante, you sick bastard! AWESOME!!! [a review of Dante’s Inferno]
  • This story needs editing. [Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier]
  • A special note to those who say my review stopped them from reading this book: No no no! Read it! I actually reread the whole series last summer and enjoyed it immensely. Just read it for what it is: ludicrous, well-written, humorous, delicious TRASH. Just don’t expect it to be the most brilliant novel ever written and you’ll be fine.

Causing Genuine Emotional Response Can Make Up For Almost Everything

  • There is no fluffy stuffing here, just good, straight storytelling with the added bonus of cautiously crafted prose. Also, it’s really f***ing creepy, and me being creeped out by anything at this point in my life is a pretty tall order. I mean, aside from spiders and needles and being buried alive and over-sexualized pre-teen Lolita-types who collect and dress like that Bratz line of toy dolls. Now that sh*t is creepy.
  • Lookie here, folks, this is me giving a 4-star rating to a massively sexist, pro-Christian, anti-sex, anti-birth-control novella about a guy who murders his wife for maybe cheating on him, feels justified in doing so, and gets away with it! 
  • Scenes from this book will return when you are stuck in traffic, and you will cry some more. Do not operate a motor vehicle under the influence of this book.
  • This book is a ball-crusher, and not for the faint of heart. I mean, no matter how you spin it, it is BLEAK. Don’t read it while experimenting with different anti-depression medications or anything. You’ve been warned.
  • There’s a rare and surprisingly invigorating clarity that comes along with that drowning feeling, one that is more worthwhile than protection from what frightens you… and Flannery’s world is a frightening place. Do with that what you will, and make your choice whether or not you are willing to get emotionally smacked around a bit with words.

Even Fiction Needs Some Reality

Totally unrealistic: her nails are way too clean!
  • I admit that I’ve never personally been stalked by two psychopathic, cannibal rapists with crazy futuristic guns in a lawless post-apocalyptic warzone, but I don’t think I would be cracking dick jokes and worrying about petty jealousies if I were. Well, maybe the dick jokes, but not all the time!
Actually, that is a two year old reading Japanese.
  • After spending basically half a lifetime dipped in chocolately booze pools with naked bodies slithering all around him while he passed the glass n’ rolled up dollar bill around, our protagonist sits by a river for, I dunno, a couple of minutes reciting “Om” before it just miraculously all comes back to him and he’s all enlightened and at peace again and sh*t.
  • “Oh Satan’s navel!” she said. “Now I remember!” Yeeeeeaeh, this is how real people talk.
  • The closest thing to un-evil that a lady can do for herself that is sex-related is have children within the bounds of marriage (this is their sole reason for existing anyways, right? AMIRIGHTFELLAS?!), then move on to raise them. Anything else is double, double toil and trouble.

Are You Sure Those Are the Words You Want? All of Them?

  • My eyes were so glazed over from reading page after page detailing every color and stitch and ornament on the heroine’s ball gown that I totally missed the one sentence when Evil Dude snuck in and stabbed her.
  • Renowned author Dan Brown gazed admiringly at the pulchritudinous brunette’s blonde tresses, flowing from her head like a stream but made from hair instead of water and without any fish in.
  • Don’t get me wrong, if well-written, this storyline could be very interesting. But even after just ten pages, the only thought going through my mind was “When will this guy shut up and tell the story???” The plot comes in a distant second to the narrator’s monotone, seemingly unending monologue. If I could withstand this, I believe I would have enjoyed it. But forgive me for not having that kind of patience for hundreds of pages. [a review of 1984]
“If you will not read books, you will forget the grammar.”
  • “Atop a control tower in the distance, the Turkish flag fluttered proudly – a field of red emblazoned with the ancient symbol of the crescent and star – vestiges of the Ottoman Empire, still flying proudly in the modern world.” C’mon, Dan Brown! Make an effort, bro!
  • Cutters, Lolitas, Munchausen by Proxy, obsessions, family hatreds, drug abuse, scandalous sex, graphic violence, serial murder, wealth, poverty, popularity, bullying, hypochondria, crippling jealousy, police procedural bullshit, alcoholism, taboo masturbation fantasies, eating disorders, small town smothering, big city anonymity, career/life/love failures, falls from grace, the hell of being romantically idealized by someone and then seen in vivid, horrible detail for what you really are: all addressed in this slim little novel. It’s pretty f***ing good, to be honest. Just…don’t loan it to your mother. And hope that no one in this novel reminds you of your mother. 

Writing Ridiculous Reviews Online Could Even Be a Way to Hone Your Craft

A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates
  • I had a hard time getting into this book. The profanity was jarring and stilted, not at all how people really talk. Frankly, the book came off as strictly workshop material. But after about 50 pages, I found myself immersed in the style. What had been stilted became lyrical and engaging. Authors go entire lifetimes without matching the poetry of couplets such as those of Mr. Rand Corporation. I can only wish I had thought of 41145 42820. [a review of A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates]
  • If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is the story of the perversity of desire, and more particularly the stunted pleasures of the bourgeoisie. Written by the exquisite Laura Numeroff, in what can only be assumed was a violent passion for sterile aloofness from the society which she condemned, and a lust for concision which would socialize her treatise against the deadening wants, making it accessible to the masses. I can imagine her, unbathed, ignorant of her own hunger and thirst, cutting every insignificant word in a Flaubertian frenzy for le mot juste. ……”
  • There were no significant plot twists, and none of the characters developed enough for me to really “care” what happened next. If you’re looking for a challenging yet entertaining way to spend 4 hours reading, this is for you, but if you are seeking more thrills and suspense, consider a Steven (sic) King novel. [a review of Where is Baby’s Belly Button?]