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?]

WRITING FICTION FROM LIFE

 
Writing from life isn’t a novel idea.  Indeed, there are whole books on the topic.  For many (if not most) people, writing from life conjures thoughts of memoir, autobiography, or biography.  But opportunities to mine your life to enrich your fiction are virtually limitless.  This blog explores ways to tap into your life experiences.   It’s a long but not exhaustive overview.  Here’s hoping you’re inspired!

 

PEOPLE

1) Maybe the most obvious: you lift a character whole cloth from an acquaintance, friend, family member, or neighbor.  Virtually the only thing you change is the name.  (You may want to get permission or change just enough so that you can still show your face at parties.)

 

Totally unrecognizable

2) Choose a habit, quirk, characteristic gesture, favorite word, etc. from someone you know (maybe yourself) and make it a character note.  This could be a private, unmentionable behavior (see my recent blog on the topic) or it could be quite public (think Rafael Nadal touching forehead nose, and both ears before every serve).  My story “Solid Line” (in “Chrysalis Reader”) drew on my husband’s habits of food shopping and breakfast cooking (alternating eggs and cereal six days a week, pancakes on Sunday).

 

A consistent lack of pants could be a very inspiring character trait

3) Choose one or more factually true things about a real person and graft them onto a fictional character/story.  For example, my story “Family Man”(published in Distillery) started with three true facts about my father: he had great eye-hand coordination, was stationed in Texas with the Army Air Corps in WWII, and he was a winning pitcher for the Old Timers Softball League in his later years.  In “Belle” (Compass Rose), I used my maternal grandmother’s true story of having thirteen children to craft a fictional piece in which the character leaves after naming the thirteenth and heads west.

 

 

PLACES

 
1) Draw on a familiar neighborhood for the setting of a story or scene.

 

2) Take details from a place you have worked, lived, or visited often.  I wrote “The Old Home Place” based on the hardscrabble farm where I visited my paternal grandmother for two weeks every summer.

 

Pictured above: not a farm

If your setting is as important as a character, you will need to return to it often and provide lots of detail.  Otherwise, don’t dwell on it, but use it to describe color, furnishings, feel, etc.

 

 

THINGS 

A sculpture by Anne Truitt and the house of a hoarder

  1) Give your character a familiar object to love or abhor.  Think skull, Tiffany vase, worn baseball glove, cast iron skillet, whatever.  Consider whether the character inherited it, received it as a gift, or chose it for him- or herself.  “Pictures Not Displayed” (Storgy Magazine) is fiction based on a box of photographs I found under my mother’s bed after she died.

 

Great Aunt Tillie is now a family heirloom

2) Give your character a collection of objects.  Here again, it could be anything—teacups, cloisonné napkin rings, antique farm implements, fake Christmas trees.  If you choose a collection you are familiar with, you might also want to incorporate some of the characteristics of the collector.

 

3) Consider objects around your home that could contribute to your plot: be damaging or even lethal (think beyond  knives and pokers), be used in defense or attack, or used in unconventional ways (think cast iron griddle used to hammer a nail).

 

 

EVENTS

1) Use repeated events to establish the rhythms of a character’s life.  For example, attending every home game, square dancing, hang gliding.  In addition, sometimes very different repeated events can be combined to form a new whole. Think holiday traditions, anniversaries, birthdays.

 

German Christmas customs

For example, I’m a devotee of massage.  In “Beautiful Bones” (Connecticut Review), I combined the behaviors of many massage therapists with a formerly abused widow getting a massage during a hurricane and becoming paranoid about the massage therapist killing her.

 

From the cover of “Paranoia” by Liza Anne

2) Sometimes an event sticks with you just because it’s quirky.  Once I was visiting family over Christmas and my granddaughter, who was enamored of special effects makeup at the time, had received a kit as a gift.  Simultaneously, she was looking up imaginary diseases for a writing project with friends.  The upshot was that she made up herself, her mother, and me to look like three generations suffering from hanahaki disease and I wrote “Lethal Love” (Good Works Review), in which suffering unrequited love resulted in growing flowers in your lungs and throat.

 

3) Perhaps more often, it will be one time only events that have made a huge impact on you.  For me, driving from upstate New York in winter in a whiteout led to “White Out” (Happy) involving a case of road rage that never happened.

 

When my husband had eye surgery, I used descriptions of his treatment, treatment, restrictions, and the aftereffects to write a magical realism story, “Her Husband’s Eyes” (Midway).  After the surgery, a superstitious wife thinks her husband’s eyes are haunting her.  My exposure to Chinese culture via a trip to Singapore and Taiwan resulted in “Good Works” (descant).

 

From Wish Girl by Nikki Lofton

4) Use a single event that isn’t quickly over to display coping skills.  For example, having breast cancer.  “Beast and the Beauty” (Clare) was a magical realism story spawned by radiation therapy following surgery, in which a woman suffering radiation poisoning turned to alternative healing methods.

 

 

ATTITUDES

1) Draw on how you were taught values, your moral compass.  For example, in “The Pig Sticker” (Chelsea) when Uncle Earl calls a dirty rag doll “Nig” Mommy tells him not to talk trash in front of her babies.  Of course, sometimes the lessons are much more explicit, as in being told throughout childhood that your word is your bond, or being exposed to church doctrine.  Consider how you came by your values and whether those lessons relate to how your character came to his/her values and morality.

 

Most people inherit a blend of attitudes

2) Sometimes attitudes transfer in elliptical ways.  In my family, “waste not, want not” was a maxim.  Several friends and I agreed to share our Lady Finger mold, fish poacher, turkey frier, and other seldom used cooking equipment.  That led me to write “The Darwinian Co-op Lending Library” (Clackamus Literary Review).  I created a post-modern library in which people could borrow everything from Valentine’s decorations to turkey basters to a husband and children for the holidays.

 

 

EMOTIONS

This is perhaps the richest minefield of all.  Remember emotional reactions in as vivid detail as possible, both your physical feelings and behaviors.  Remember when you felt joy, guilt, loss, bereavement, excitement, embarrassment, regret, inadequacy, love, sexual arousal, awe, helplessness, fear, being tipsy—any emotion at all.

 

A “street emotion” captured by Holly Clark

If your POV character is experiencing this emotion, describe how it felt.  If otherwise, staying in the POV character’s head, describe what the POV character can see, hear, etc. of emotional character”s behavior.

 

Photo from factretriever.com

The thing to keep in mind here is that you can transfer an emotion to a very different situation/even.  For example, if you’ve experienced the death of a loved one, those feelings can be written into your fiction as a character’s reaction to the death of a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a friend, even a beloved pet.

 

 

Bottom line for writers: your life is gold. Mine it!
 

Prometheus Caves in Kutaisi, Imereti, Georgia

NOTEBOOKS, DIARIES, AND JOURNALS

 
For me—and I venture to say, for most of you reading this blog—the initial exposure to notebooks—books meant to be written in—came with entering school. During the 14th and 15th centuries, notebooks were made by hand, often at home, by folding pieces of paper in half into bundles that were then bound. Binding involved sewing along the fold or punching holes and lacing with twine or other cord. The pages were blank, and any note keeper who wanted lined pages had to make ruled lines across each page. Making and keeping notebooks was so important to effective household, farm, and business management that children learned how to do it in school.

 

Currently, besides a stitched binding, a buyer can purchase notebooks that are glue-bound, spiral bound, or loose pages in ring binders. People keep notes on everything—food, physical activity, birds cited, blood pressure. . .

 

Today, notebooks are almost universally commercially produced. You can find them lined or blank or with printed grids, depending on your intentions. Specialized ones are available for virtually any and all needs. One can shop notebooks for elementary, middle, high school, or college. Additionally, one can find notebooks designed for particular interests.

 

Specialized notebooks often include related information, advice, etc. The Writer’s Notebook is a good example of this, providing tips and exercises to improve writing and creativity. Of the 207 pages of The Naturalist’s Notebook, the first 95 are pages of how-to. The body of the book is called a 5-year calendar-journal, though it’s set up like a diary.

 

So, segueing from notebooks to diaries: a diary is a record (originally handwritten) set up for discrete entries arranged by date, reporting on what has happened. Generally, a diary has daily entries. Although it might include anything, a diary is essentially a collection of notes, often brief, focused on “just the facts, ma’am.” A war diary would be a good example: a regularly updated official record of a military unit’s administration and activities, maintained by an officer in the unit.

 

Pre-printed diaries typically allot the same amount of space or number of lines for each day. This forces the diarist to record only the most important events of each day. The diary shown above is set up for one year, with one week on each double-page spread. N.B.: These are a woman’s diaries, and you will see weather notes in the margin of each entry, which is typical of women’s diaries.

 

One-year diaries can come in any shape or size, though the entry space is often larger than that of multi-year diaries. Typical of diaries are the inserts and write-overs caused by the relatively small amount of space allowed for each day.

 

MeditationsMarcusAurelius1811.jpg
To Myself, known today as Meditations, written in Greek by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the second half of the 2nd century CE might be the earliest recorded writing displaying many aspects of a diary. The earliest surviving diary that most resembles a modern diary was that of the Moroccan mathematician and scholar Ibn al-Banna’ al-Marrakushi in the 11th century. Needless to say, these were not pre-printed!

 

At one point, five-year diaries were very popular. They range in size from 2” x 3” up to 8.5’ x 11” and are still for sale today, priced from $5.59 to $72.00, though the price is not necessarily related to size. The major advantage of a five-year diary, in my opinion, is that it allows easy tracking of events (visits from relatives, weather, flower blooms) across years and seasons. The major disadvantage is the (usually) severely circumscribed space for each entry.

 

Today one can have a paper diary and/or a digital diary. Digital diaries are often tailored towards shorter-form, in-the-moment writing, similar to what might be posted on social media, but they avoid character limits that have the same effect as the space restrictions noted above.

 

In its original (French) meaning, the word journal (from the Latin diurnis or diurnalis)refers to a daily record of activities, but the term has evolved to mean any record, regardless of time elapsed between entries. More importantly, it is a record of significant experiences, as well as documenting thoughts, feelings, reflections, emotions, problems, and self-evaluations. In short, a journal is much more personal than a diary. Per Robert Gottlieb, journals have no deliberate shape, they simply accrete.

 

In writers’ terms, a diary is a fly-on-the-wall POV; a journal is a first person POV, showing everything through the eyes and heart of the writer.

 

If you want to buy a journal, you are not likely to find books labeled “Journal.” Instead, you buy a blank book. Your first decision is totally blank or lined. It’s a very personal decision. For an artist, this would be totally blank, a sketchbook. But some journal writers also want a totally blank page,feeling freer—unconfined, not squished between lines. Others—somehow more restricted?—prefer lines, perhaps to keep them focused, perhaps to keep their words legible.

 

Journals can be broad ranging or focused—for example, dream journals, travel journals, gardening journals. In my experience, the more broad ranging, the more likely the writer will choose an aesthetically pleasing blank book.

 

For the most part, both diaries and journals are presumed to be personal, shared with no one or only a select few. But many of both have been published. Online, international lists of published journals and diaries are readily available.

 

An exception to the presumption of privacy, The Diary of Anais Nin was her own publication.

 

But many others are published posthumously.

 

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks—numerous, informal, and not terribly organized—have been perused and edited by John Curran. He quotes lavishly from the originals but also comments and relates the notebook entries to Christie’s published works.

 

Among published diaries, notebooks, and journals, one of my favorites is Hawthorne’s Lost Notebook 1835-1841. I love this book because it has reproductions of the original hand-written notes side-by-side with readable printed versions of his words.

 

Another favorite is The Journals of John Cheever. Cheever wrote his inner life, day after day, year after year. His writings span a period from the early 1940s to a few days before his death on June 18, 1982, encompassing some three to four million words. The original journals are small, loose-leaf note books, approximately one per year, usually typed but sometimes written out in longhand, undated. The published version of his journals is, necessarily, a selection. Entries are identified by year, and each is reprinted in its entirety.

 

This printed version of his journals doesn’t draw punches, even when he made negative comments about his children or himself.

 

And now I would draw your attention to the similarities between the Hawthorne notebook entry and the Cheever journal entries. They are both open-ended and extremely personal.

 

Bottom line for writers: a rose by any other name! Call it a notebook, a diary, or a journal, record your days.

 


Road Trip Roundup

My recent travels to Bethany Beach rekindled my interest in road trips.

I wrote about road trips back in 2010, advising writers to note the names of roads, businesses, schools–whatever–as they traveled. Venture off the congested interstate to the byways and small towns where the names really get good. Sometimes a compelling name is enough to spark a story. Consider Bone Yard Road or Fresh Fire Church of God as possible settings.

barn on a scenic byway on my road trip home
A barn glimpsed from a scenic byway during my recent travels

Leave space in your itinerary and in your mindset to come upon the unexpected, e.g. an African/Mediterranean vegan cafe in Santa Fe or a salt mine in Warsaw, Poland, that’s been carved into a salt cathedral. Those locations might stimulate a scene or add a quirk to your story.

Wieliczka salt mine
Wieliczka salt mine (Photo: Cezary p [CC BY-SA 3.0])

While I’m on the road, I keep a daily journal to record the vivid details not found in a tourist pamphlet. Think Jack Kerouac. John McPhee. Paul Theroux.

How do you record your road trips? Let me know in the comments.

 

HAPPY WORKAHOLICS DAY!

 

WORKAHOLICS DAY frustrated worker
Workaholics Day is an unofficial holiday that rolls around every July 5, meant to raise awareness that all work and no play can be harmful to workers’ mental and physical health.
“Workaholic” is a portmanteau word, created by combining “work” and “alcoholic”—in case that isn’t obvious! It’s been part of the lingo since the late 1960s as a label for people who work excessively and compulsively—i.e., addictively. And as with other addictions, a work addiction is a bad thing. And as with many bad things, it’s a boon to writers. Workaholism creates problems for the character and for others around him or her.
Malissa Clark, Ph.D., studies workaholism for a living. She’s identified four leading components of overwork: motivational, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral.
 
Motivation is essentially why one does what one does. Workaholics work because of internal pressures—feeling that they should or ought to be working.
Cognitively, workaholics think obsessively about work, even when they aren’t working. They can’t mentally disengage.
When not working, workaholics experience negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, disappointment and guilt.
And their work behavior goes beyond what is reasonable or even expected by their employers in terms of long hours and not taking time off.
WORKAHOLICS DAY frustration

But how do workaholics get that way?

Here’s a list of possible roots for your workaholic character.
—a need to feel competent, especially if incompetent in other areas of their lives
—reliving patterns from their past, or family of origin
—a means to relieve, ignore, or deny emotional issues or trauma
—your character’s basic personality: having a Type A personality, high in need for achievement, perfectionism, and/or narcissism
WORKAHOLICS DAY frustration

How bad is it? 

What is your workaholic character likely to experience? Workaholism is related to:
—lower job, family, and life satisfaction
—worse physical health, including higher systolic blood pressure
—higher levels of mental distress over time
—increased job stress and burnout
And here’s the kicker: workaholics do NOT enjoy greater job success or productivity than others.
WORKAHOLICS DAY frustrated worker

Working long hours doesn’t make one a workaholic. 

Someone who loves his/her job—finds it fulfilling and satisfying—probably isn’t a workaholic. Highly engaged workers feel more jovial, attentive, and self-assured both at work and at home.
WORKAHOLICS DAY happy worker
Workaholics Day encourages workers to make lifestyle changes to give other aspects of their lives as much importance as their work. Bottom Line for writers: if you want to redeem your workaholic character, rebalancing is absolutely necessary.

Mandalas

mandala
A mandala (emphasis on the first syllable) represents the universe, and has symbolic and ritual importance in Hinduism and Buddhism. Hinduism is an Indian and Southeast Asian religion and dharma (way of life). Buddhism is a practice, like yoga, and can be practiced by people of any religion.
Mandalas may be used to focus attention, as a spiritual guidance tool, for establishing a sacred space, and as an aid to meditation and to induce a trance. The basic form is a square with four gates containing a circle with a center point.

Vajrayana Buddhism has developed sand painting mandalas. And that brings us to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which has a special exhibit “Awaken: A Tibetan Journey Toward Enlightenment” open now. According to the VMFA, “From May 2 through May 5, a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery will create a sand mandala near the exhibition’s entrance, which—in accordance with their beliefs and practice—they will dismantle in a return visit on Aug. 3. Their visit is part of the Mystical Arts of Tibet World Tour that has traveled for more than 25 years and is endorsed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” 
 
This week, I saw the Tibetan Buddhist Monks beginning that sand painting mandala. I could stay only little while, long enough to watch as they used a protractor to mark reference points on the circle.
 
 
They chalked thread or thin rope which two monks positioned across the circle.  A third monk then picked up the center of the thread and dropped it, leaving a faint white chalk line.
 
 
No doubt by today, May 5, the mandala will be an elaborate and beautiful work of art. I intend to see it completed. I heard that when it is done, they will cover it on glass to preserve it during its time on view. And I will appreciate it all the more because, in accordance with their beliefs and practice, they will dismantle it on Aug. 3. I also heard that it will end in the James River—but that may be just gossip.
 
This sand painting is only a small part of the exhibit, which occupies ten spaces. The exhibit is on view April 27 through August 16.
 
 
BOTTOM LINE: Come on down!