Friday, February 28, 2014

Critical Understanding of How Language Works Leads to Good Writing

In The Atlantic, October 2012 issue, there is a fascinating article by Peg Tyre titled "The Writing Revolution." [, 2012] She tells of a downtrodden public school on Staten Island. It's students performed poorly on standardized tests and over 70% dropped out before earning a diploma. The principal decided to figure out why. The teachers hostilely defended their teaching methods and almost accusing her of saying they were not smart enough to teach well. Some speculated that the students were lazy or dumb. None of those scenarios turned out to be the truth.

The short answer was that the students could not write. They could make the letters and form a simple sentence but their knowledge ended there. The words on the written page were just that: words. They could look up the meaning of the words but that did not help in the comprehension of the material or how to apply the knowledge they just read.

 For several decades, teachers were told that the best way to teach writing was to let children express themselves however they wanted on the written page. Full sentences, correct spelling and correct grammar were not important. Self-expression and emotions were paramount. As a result, diagramming sentences fell by the wayside and forgotten, parts of speech never saw the light of day and punctuation was a dirty word. What resulted as shown by this Staten Island school was that children could not write anything but a simple sentence with the most important word coming first because nobody had taught them how to do so. They could not build on that single thought they had just written. They were missing the crucial understanding of how language works.

In the beginning teachers were skeptical that teaching students how to write essays was the answer to their students’ inability to learn. "They can do it (write properly) if they wanted to. They just don't want to." One put his class to the test. They were studying The Grapes of Wrath.  He asked each student to write a sentence beginning with "Although." A typical answer was "Although Jim and John were friends."

The teachers in all subjects began showing students how to use coordinating conjunctions like for, not, but or yet. The students were taught explicitly how to turn ideas into simple sentences then construct complex sentences from the simple ones by supplying the answers to three writing prompts: but, because and so. The chemistry teacher supplied the students with a main sentence and they were assigned to write a paragraph using those words. "Sodium and chlorine are volatile but.... Sodium and salt combined make salt because... Sodium and chlorine alone may not be used for..." They taught the students how think analytically. A history assignment went from "Write a post card telling what it was like in the trenches during WWI" to "Describe the reasons for the start of WWI.

The students were taught by all the teachers how to use appositive clauses, recognize sentence fragments, how to find the main idea of a sentence and how to form a main idea of their own. They learned various parts of speech and why it mattered to use them correctly. The teaching did not end with just writing. The students were taught to communicate verbally also. Posters in classrooms showed talking responses like "I disagree with your answer because" "Could you talk more about the idea you mentioned?" "How did you reach that conclusion?" "My opinion is..."

The program began in 2009 after extensive research and help from another private school in New York. Test results have been slow to rise in some areas and have skyrocketed in others. Math and reading comprehension scores benefited from the increased knowledge the children displayed because they were learning to write. Confidence among the staff and students grew. Students who started the program as freshman are now applying for colleges, an incomprehensible thought two years ago.

Our American society is reaping the woes of not teaching our children how to write properly. Business leaders are lamenting the inability of interviewees to write a paragraph about their chosen field. They have learned through bitter trials that their companies have to teach their employees how to compose paragraphs with a main theme, topic sentences, analytical thinking and a valid conclusion.  Teachers took it for granted that their students knew how to write but they did not write correctly because they were lazy. It is we, as a people, who have lowered our standards, have let the language and brevity of text messaging creep into our every day lives. We have weakened our position in the business world because we cannot compete on the same levels as some other countries. It is our job to educate our children. We do not expect them to know math so why do we expect them to know how to write?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Good Books for Those Pesky Grammar Questions

Mignon Fogarty is a popular, no nonsense grammarian who has written numerous books, audio podcasts and a weekly post on various aspects of American grammar and tips for better writing. She is quoted as saying, "Usage not grammar confuse people." I bought her book (at left) with prize money from a writing contest and it was money well spent.

Fogarty is a favorite of mine and especially this book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, St. Martin's Press 2008. It provides marvelous answers to my grammatical questions (and don't we all have them.) She takes a more relaxed approach to "correct" grammar. She advocates knowing your reading audience and if there are two ways of writing a sentence, choose the one that fits the majority of  your readers unless the writing is for a business, academic or for a general audience. If you are writing for localized geographic area of readers, some leniency may be granted to write in a way that it is perceived as correct even if it seems incorrect in other parts of the America.

 "An" versus "a" is one example. I was taught that "an" is proper before words that begin with a vowel and "a" is used before consonants. It usually works well until you get to words like "historic." In actuality, it is easier to remember that we should use "an" before  vowel sound and "a" before  consonant sound. Thus, according to Fogarty, page 6, "an hour" is correct because hour starts with a vowel sound. "A historic expedition" is correct while "an honorable fellow" is correct because honorable starts with a vowel sound. As you can tell, Fogarty's examples are clear and easy to remember.

There are pages of helpful appendices: conjunctive adverbs, subordination conjunctions, linking verbs, and common irregular verbs that are helpful to the student writer and a good refresher for the experienced one. The disjointed approach of the book is overcome by a helpful index in the back. I do not own  kindle but one reviewer said this book was a bit difficult to use because there was no table of contents in the Kindle version. The book does not seem to have much structure to it but the problems she solves are numerous and easily understood. read it enough to become familiar with it and it will be a resource you reach for often. The examples are clear. She gives easy to remember tips so rules become cemented in your mind.

Lynn Truss' book Eats Shoots and Leaves is about the correct use of punctuation. What I love most is how well the authored blends traditional "how to" with historical insights, quotes from famous authors, and humorous anecdotes. She writes with humor and a strong indignation about the amount of incorrect punctuation seen today. She blames emails and text messaging plus laziness for all of it, not ignorance. The book is written by a British author for a British audience and thus there are some phrases that we may ponder but with some thinking, they are understood. The book is well organized and easy to immediately find the "A' to your "Q." 

I keep Mignon Fogarty's book in the car for when I have a few minutes as I wait. You can pick it up, read a few pages or chapters and put it down knowing you spent your time well.
Lynn Truss' book I keep on my book shelf within easy reach. Both are good additions to your library and inexpensive.

Monday, February 24, 2014

What We Have in Common with Aesop, Thurber and Seuss

Aesop (about 550 BC) 

Dr. Seuss
Dr. James Thurber

A fable is a short story usually featuring anthropomorphized animals, i.e., animals that take on human characteristics and mannerisms and talk to each other. They are the main characters and almost always, humans are absent in a fable. A fable is different from a parable in that the latter excludes animals, plants and inanimate objects.

 Each of the men pictured wrote numerous fables. Aesop is the "poster child" for magnificently written fables. We all know the stories of The Tortoise and The Hare and The Lion and The MouseThurber wrote over seventy-five fables collected in Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated and Further Fables for Our Times.  These were short fables which featured anthropomorphic animals as main characters and ended with a moral being true to the profile of a fable. An exception to this format was his most famous fable, The Unicorn in The Garden, which featured an all-human cast except for the unicorn which does not speak. Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, wrote several books of fables including Dr. Seuss' Fabulous Fables. According to most, all of Dr. Seuss' books were fables in that they taught through fantastical animals that talked.

Why should writers step outside our comfort zone of our usual genres and write fables? The main reason is to exercise our brains by stretching our imaginations and writing something different. Reason two is that practice of any kind of writing is good and necessary. Fables are fun to write and short which provide the break we need from our sometimes arduous regular writing.

1. Read lots of fables to understand the main format and structure.

2. Your writing can begin with the moral you wish to teach via your story and then develop your story. "The truth is always best." "You will get caught in a lie eventually." "Work is its own reward." "Helping others brings you both joy." or "Do not count your money before you've earned it."
3. Decide which animals you wish to tell your story beginning with the main character. The main character can (a) be the one who learns the moral or (b) the one who leads the story by telling a tale to another or by giving examples to another.
4. Your characters must have abundant dialogue. You should provide good descriptions of the environments and physical characteristics of your characters.  It is important to find characters to fit the moral. A slithery snake clad in a shimmering, silky, sienna-colored sheath who wears lots of makeup and jewelry could be the antagonist and the mild-mannered, milky-colored moth is drawn to her glitz. (Everything is not what is seems.) A stubborn donkey may make a good character for a moral about persistence and plodding work until the task is done. A firefly may make a convincing persona for someone who flits here and there never settling down to work or to prepare ahead.
5. Some fables are written in poetry so, if that appeals to you, try various kinds of poetical forms.

"The Panchatantra  is an ancient Indian inter-related collection of animal fables in verse and prose, in a frame story format. The original Sanskrit work, which some scholars believe was composed in the 3rd century BC, is attributed to Vishnu Sharma. It is based on older oral traditions, including "animal fables that are as old as we are able to imagine." It is "certainly the most frequently translated literary product of India", and these stories are among the most widely known in the world." []  Click on this web address to read many lovely fables from Panchantantra. They will delight you and give you many ideas for your own fables. Here is large resource for Aesop's fables in oral and written form. 

Tolstoy, da Vinci, Franz Kafka, David Sedaris, and Sholem Aleichem were fabulists. George Orwell's Animal Farm is a longer fable using anthropomorphized animals to tell the evils of Stalinist communism and totalitarianism. Why not write a fable or two especially if you have children or grandchildren or are a teacher with access to children and people of all ages who love a good story? It is great fun.


Friday, February 21, 2014

Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery": A Little Horror Goes a Long Way

This week I had a chance to reread Shirley Jackson's masterful short story, "The Lottery," and to introduce it to a young friend who had never read it before. What a treat that was! I first read it as a teen and carried that chilled, I-can't-believe-what-I-just-read feeling with me for a long time. It was a thrill to read it again. (If you've never read "The Lottery," go here and read it. Then come back. I don't want to spoil any surprises.)

"The Lottery" was first published in The New Yorker in 1948. Although it is considered a classic today, at the time it was widely reviled--to the surprise of both Shirley Jackson and The New Yorker--and was even banned in South Africa. Many readers wrote in to complain about it, and some even canceled their subscriptions. Jackson herself said about it, "Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives."

In spite of the initial bad press, "The Lottery" endures to this day as an example of powerful storytelling. No study of the American short story is complete without it.

Why did such a simple story have such an explosive impact? After setting up a cozy, small-town, pastoral scene, it then punches the reader in the stomach with a portrayal of group-think and conformity run amok. Written in a detached, almost journalistic voice, it's a disturbing story, and many readers don't like to be disturbed.

Yes, it's a horrifying story. But what struck me on this reading was how non-graphic it is. Most of the story consists of a description of a small, peaceful New England village and its inhabitants: farmers, small-business owners, housewives, children, all interacting in ordinary ways. As long as anyone remembers, the town has held an annual lottery, as have neighboring towns. Suspense builds as the lottery process unfolds. But when the ending comes, we aren't shown blood or made to witness the result. We are left to our imagination which, as it turns out, does a fine job of scaring us to bits.

Some of today's writers could take a lesson from "The Lottery." It's not always necessary to depict violence in excruciating detail in order to shock or to drive home the point that something terrible has happened. Sometimes just a hint, a suggestion, is enough.

There's a saying in the theater that the more an actor weeps onstage, the less the audience will feel the need to. But an actor who stops on the brink of emotion, who chokes it back, whose voice quavers with unshed tears, will have them crying in the dark in no time. It seems to me that the same goes for books.

The author who lays every grim detail out in the open will not have as powerful effect on the reader's emotions as the author who merely lights the imagination's fuse and then stands back to watch it burn.

What do you think?

Do you remember a short story that affected you deeply? What was it, and how did it make you feel?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Publishing Forecast: The Sun Will Continue to Rise

Cute boy in biology class (OK, not-but same haircut)
I'm old enough to remember when answering machines began to catch on for home use. My parents purchased their first answering machine in the late 1970s, a great behemoth of a box that sat next to the hefty push-button telephone and recorded messages on mini-cassette tapes. I thought it was fantastic--no more wondering whether someone had called when you were out or relying on the fallible memories of household members to give you the message. (This turned out to be a mixed blessing when one realized there would also be no more kidding oneself that the cute boy in biology class may have called while one was at the mall.)

At the time, I knew a man who hated the answering machine with a passion. "I won't use it. I refuse to talk to a machine." I wonder how that's worked out for him.

When e-mail was gaining popularity in the 1990s, I had a friend who declared she had no use for it. "Why would anyone want to type a message when all they have to do is pick up the phone?"

Technological innovation has always sent some people running scared. Who remembers Napster? Remember how that young upstart made waves of tsunami proportions in the music industry? Back in the late 1990s, Napster's innovative use of Internet technology and peer-to-peer sharing revolutionized the way music was bought and distributed. Although it was shut down in 2001, Napster presented a major challenge the way things were done, and the music industry hasn't been the same since.

"Look at what happened to the music industry" is a common lament from those who declare that the rise of e-books is impacting the publishing world as the likes of Napster impacted the music world.
 Not so fast, says literary agent Rachelle Gardner at Books & Such. She's written an insightful post at the Books & Such blog about why NOT to be too quick to equate the book publishing industry with the music industry. For all they have in common, there are some significant differences that need to be taken into account before we declare the sky is falling.

Yes, there are many unknowns in this brave new world of electronic publishing. Yes, it's a hassle. Yes, there are growing pains, and many more to come.

According to Publishers Weekly, there's been a recent slowing of e-book sales compared to hard-copy sales. In the article, literary agent Laura Rennert said, “Whether in paper or digital, it seems to me that healthy competition is good for all aspects of the industry, so I hope traditional publishers, Amazon, and other players will continue to evolve successful strategies for getting content to readers and for increasing the market penetration of books in all the formats readers seem to want.”

As readers and writers, we watch these changes with equal parts wonder and skepticism. What will tomorrow bring? One thing's for sure. As long as people like us cherish the written word, it will always be around, in one form or another. The sun will rise tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.

How do you feel about the rise of electronic publishing? Love your e-reader? Glad you don't have to lug a hardcover copy of War and Peace in your carry-on? Miss your neighborhood brick-and-mortar bookstore?

Monday, February 17, 2014

4 Things I Love About My Writing Critique Group

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at
As I write this, snow is swirling around my humble mountain home. It's pristine and gorgeous, but I hope it clears up by this afternoon, because I'm heading into town for one of the brightest spots in my month--a meeting of my critique group. I'm determined not to let a little snow deter me from one of my favorite activities.

We've written before (like here, here, and here) about the value of critique groups and why any writer, aspiring or veteran, should try to connect with one. Today I want to go a little deeper and figure out exactly why my particular group works as well as it does.

We're consistent. We've landed on a process that works for us. About a week before our monthly meeting, we each e-mail our work to the rest of the group, and we come to the meeting with our critiques prepared. During the meeting, we read each piece aloud and then offer our feedback to the author. We also share ideas for publication, new markets, contest and conference info. Each writer knows what to expect, and what's expected of her.

We're committed. Consistency helps us stay committed. We meet once a month and do our level best to be there. Because our group is not large, we feel the absence of even one member. Life happens, we travel, we get sick, we get busy at work, and no one can make it to every meeting, every single month. We get that. But we do our best to be there, and those who are absent try to get the critiques done anyway, and send their feedback to the writer outside of the meeting. There's an overriding message of "This matters. This is worth doing."

We're like-minded. That's not to say we're all alike--where's the fun, or the benefit, in that? Some of us write fiction, some nonfiction, some both, and we've even had a poet or two. Some write to entertain, some to instruct, some for adults, some for YA, and some are polishing spoken-word pieces. In many ways, we're a diverse bunch. When I say we're like-minded, I mean that we write from a similar worldview. In our case, we're all women and we're all Christians, which affects the kinds of things we write, the feedback we deliver, and the way we deliver it. We hold to certain ground rules concerning mutual respect, use of language, and choice of topic matter that unite us and make our group a safe place to open up. Our goal is to encourage and motivate, while also being honest and authentic. We aim to be gracious both about giving criticism and accepting it.

Your group may look entirely different from mine. You may thrive on more unvarnished feedback, a more diverse group, and wholly different language and subject matter parameters. That's not important. The point is to find your "tribe," other writers with whom you feel comfortable as individuals, even while saying uncomfortable things about each other's work.

We're focused. At our monthly meeting, we understand that we're there to work. Sure, we're friends, and we take some time catch up on what's happening in our lives. But we don't (usually) let the meeting turn into a total gabfest. Time is precious, and we understand that we've gathered together for a reason.

We're fun! (Okay, so that makes five things, not four. Consider this a bonus.) We work hard, but it's not sheer drudgery. We laugh a lot, and I always leave the meeting feeling encouraged and refreshed, eager to get back to my desk and start writing again. After all, isn't that the whole point?

There are plenty of other reasons why our group succeeds as it does (an ample supply of jellybeans,  for example), but IMO these are the core ingredients in the secret sauce.

Do you participate in a critique group? If so, what makes your group tick?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Writing Holiday Articles for Magazines

Ever wanted to see your words on the 
glossy pages of a magazine?  Go for it!

It’s Valentine’s Day … another holiday offering writers a plethora of opportunities.  Granted, it’s too late to get your name in print this year, but it is the perfect time to think about getting to work on a magazine article for an upcoming holiday or for Valentine's Day next year.

Magazines are produced on a constant series of deadlines.  A yearly outline of topics is set and then writers, photographers and advertising personnel get to work.  They assign articles to writers and give them a deadline and a word count.  Typically, articles are due three months prior to publish date so the page layout can be completed.

You must first pick a genre – what type of information do you want to share about Valentine’s Day?  Will it be fiction or non-fiction?  Do you want to write about food or relationships?  Do you want to write about romance, or about your favorite valentine – your dog? 

Next pick a magazine specializing in the type of article you want to write.  Study their rules for submission and the format of their magazine.  Do they accept submissions?  Do they seem to like lists? The 12 Worst Valentine’s Day Stories Ever! – Woman’s Health Magazine; Five Romantic Trips for Valentine’s Day – Madison Magazine.  Figure out their focus and their target audience. 

Not to worry, you will find a magazine geared toward your interests.  There are thousands of magazines out there, including many with a business interest focus that you have never even heard about, both online and traditional. What are you passionate about?  What do you want to write about?  Be daring and check it out.  
How about some Valentine's Day inspiration?  The following articles appeared in recent online and traditional magazines:

A Personal Story
A mother’s love and the Valentine’s Day dress – The Boston Globe Magazine

What Men Think of Valentine’s Day – Women’s Health Magazine
Survey: Men Would Prefer to Have Sex on Valentine’s Day – Time
The Single Person’s Guide to Surviving Valentine’s Day – Caliber Magazine

Heat Things Up This Valentine’s Day! – Curve Magazine
Be my valentine – Harper’s Magazine

Last Minute Valentine’s Gifts – Houstonia Magazine
The Procrastinator’s Guide to Valentine’s Day – RV Magazine
A Valentine to My Future Wife – Set Apart Girl Magazine

Valentine’s Day is for Everyone – Meridian Magazine

Seventeen’s Ultimate Valentine’s Day Guide – Seventeen Magazine

Celebrate Valentine’s Day Like an Animal – Modern Dog Magazine

Gift Guide: Love is in the Kitchen –
10 Sweet Treats for your Valentine – SideDish Magazine
7 New York Patisseries for Valentine’s Day Sweets – Gotham Magazine
How To Cook For A Carnivore on Valentine’s Day – Happen Magazine (My personal favorite.)

How to Nail Valentine’s Day Without Dropping a Ton of Money – Primer Magazine (My husband's personal favorite.)

Research & Information
Valentine’s Day – Christian Custom or Pagan Pageantry? – GetMagazine
What’s the Point of Valentine’s Day? – Relevant Magazine
Valentine’s Day: Why Do We Celebrate it?  (Hint: Naked Romans) – National Geographic

Valentines Poems by the Editors – Poetry Foundation Magazine

Gift Ideas
His and Hers Valentine’s Day Pampering – Michigan Avenue Magazine
7 Amazing Anti-Valentine’s Day Gifts Your Single Friends Will Love
Valentine’s Day Guide 2014 – New York Magazine

Places You Should Be On Valentine’s Day – RV Magazine
Have a Long-Distance Valentine’s Day – Happen Magazine
Valentine’s Day getaways around the state – Phoenix Magazine

14 Romantic Films for Valentine’s Day (that Guys Will Like) – Paste Magazine
The Best of Valentine’s Day: Movies, Books, Songs, Gifts – Time Magazine

Valentines For the Stars – People Magazine

Inspired yet? 

Now you can start writing, but not your article quite yet.  You first must write a “pitch” or Query Letter.  In this letter you must sell yourself to the editor of the magazine.  Tell what your idea is and why it is important to their readers.  List reasons you are the best person to write it.  There are many examples of excellent Query Letters on the Internet.  Spend some time learning the proper format before sending the pitch for your article and your chances for success will improve. 

Once you receive a go-ahead from an editor, you will be given your deadline, word count and a request for photos, if any.  NOW you can start writing your article. If you’ve chosen wisely, this will be the easiest part of the entire process.  Get started early.  Edit, edit, edit.  When you think you are done, let your article sit for a few day, then take a second look.  You might be surprised at the changes you want to make.  Once you are happy with your article, send it in.  

If you met your deadline and produced a well-edited and polished article, chances are  it will be published and you'll finally see your name in glossy print.  Oh, and you might just earn a little income from your writing too. 

Happy Valentine's Day ... now, go for it!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Joy of Prosody: Walt Whitman: his influences

Walt Whitman: his influences

By Liz Mastin

I believe when many people think of free verse, Walt Whitman and his revolutionary book celebrating America, (entitled) Leaves of Grass comes to mind. And just as individual “words” in our language are derived from some influencing sound, idea or thing, so Walt Whitman had his influences when generating his style of free-verse writing.

It was shortly after the Romantic period (a revolutionary time in itself, when poets left-off with requisite strict “iambic” lines and began including “substituted feet”) that the next new revolutionary era of “free verse” came into being. Samuel Taylor Coleridge played a large role in this poetic transformation when he originated the idea of poems having what he called an “organic form.” His new idea argued that the form of a poem grew out of the vitality of its content; the “argument” makes the “meter” instead of the meter being “a predetermined form” acting as a “constraint” on the content.

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress'd head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
                                                                                               - Walt Whitman

And influenced by Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay entitled “The Poet” which he read to the New York Societal Library in Manhattan on March 5, 1842.  Walt Whitman, only 23 years old, was in the audience when he heard Emerson declare: “I look in vain for the poet whom I describe….Our log-rolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negros and Indians, our boasts and reputations, the wrath of rogues and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon and Texas are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination.”   

Upon hearing these words, Whitman said that the lecture was “one of the richest and most beautiful compositions, both for its matter and style, we have heard anywhere, at anytime.”  He added: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering.”
Thus, according to Stephen Dobyns, in his book Best Words, Best OrderWhitman became the first to use the idea of organic form as a reason for abandoning traditional meters altogether!” In developing the style of his poems, he was influenced by the rhythmical prose of essayists Emerson and Carlyle, and by the oratory of preachers he had heard during his childhood, specifically one Quaker preacher named Elias Hicks. According to Dobyns: “The form Whitman modified for his uses was the verset, which derives from the King James Version of the Bible, specifically The Song of Songs, Psalms, and The Prophets.  What replaces the metrical line is “the cadence” which is a symmetrical balancing of phrase units of similar lengths. The cadence often appears as an explanation and rationalization for free verse.
I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of "LEAVES OF GRASS." I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our western wits fat and mean.
I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire. 
I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging … Excerpted from a letter Ralph Waldo Emerson sent to Whitman, thanking him for a copy of Leaves of Grass, July 21, 1855.
“Whitman’s enthusiasm and declamatory energy can be seen as influencing poets as diverse as Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Frank O’Hara and Gertrude Stein.”

Whitman used poetic techniques such as assonance, alliteration, antithesis and parallelism, but he did not use enjambment and all his lines were end-stopped.  Algernon Swinburne, along with poet William Rosetti published the first version of Leaves of Grass in London in February, 1868.  

Monday, February 10, 2014

Storing and Protecting your Writing Files: Should You Trust Your Important Papers to Electronic Files or the Cloud?

A few years ago a writer friend asked if the writing group we belonged to would take ownership of his body of work, mostly poetry, upon his death.  He wanted his work to be protected and appreciated. Following lengthy discussion, it was decided they couldn’t help him.  Without a permanent archive, they felt his documents would face the same jeopardy whether left to his family or entrusted to their group.  I know he was disappointed.

And I understood his concerns.  Like most writers, I worry about theft, natural disasters (especially fire in our area), and computer catastrophes that would destroy my writing.  I also have some old disks that I can no longer retrieve data from because they became outdated before I transferred my files.  So I recently decided to evaluate a few options.

1. Paper Files
As a baby-boomer, I still trust paper.  So what comes first to my mind is to make 100 copies and send them to your dearest, most trusted friends – no more than two in each state. 

PRO: There’s a chance one of your copies would be safe even if a tsunami wiped out the entire West coast, a tornado took out a couple mid-western states, and a hurricane took out the Carolinas all in the same year.

CON: It would take years to make two friends in each state, then the cost!  You would spend a small fortune making thousands of copies on acid-free paper and then mailing them across the U.S. in archival-grade, acid-free boxes.  You would most definitely lose a few files to attrition: some friends will move and not tell you, some will marry and change their names so you can’t find them without the help of Unsolved Mysteries; while a few, sadly will pass on, and their relatives will simply toss your papers out with the other trash.  Then, think about those nasty divorces.  I can well imagine stacks of my work being used for fuel when a disgruntled wife burns her husband’s clothes out in the front yard. 

2.  CDs and/or DVDs
Saving your work electronically on CDs/DVDs is a lot easier.

PRO:  According to Web-Opedia, a Compact Disc-Read Only Memory disk (CD-ROM) has the storage capacity of 700 floppy disks (remember those?) with enough memory to store about 300,000 text pages.  Wow!  They are small, easy to store and catalogue.  Send a few sets to a couple-three people in different areas and you will be protected … well, at least for awhile.

CON: In researching, I found that professionals in the field believe CDs/DVDs read-only files will last from 5–10–50+ years before they begin deteriorating; but nobody knows for sure, and there is no real scientific data to support their claim.  Experts advise using quality CDs and DVDs, following manufacturer’s suggestions for longevity, and storing them in moderate temperatures with low humidity.  They also suggest you check your stored data every two years for signs of deterioration. 

3.  Flash Drives
But when you get right down to it, CDs and DVDs can’t begin to compare to using a flash drive for storage. 

PRO: These little bits of technology (usually about 1 ½ - 2- inches in length, are a snap to store, easy to send to a few others for safekeeping, and they hold a ton of data.  Although it can vary with formatting, a flash drive with one GB of memory can save 900,000 pages of text.  I seriously doubt that even the wordiest of us writers has that many pages to store – even if we include all those half-started novels we have hidden away in files labeled “To Do.” 

But that’s not all.  Today, 32- and 64GB flash drives are becoming common and the Kingston Company recently announced the upcoming release of the world’s largest-capacity 3.0 USB flash drive, the DataTraveler® HyperX® Predator.  The drive currently has a 512GB capacity, but they are planning to release the DataTraveler with a 1TB capacity soon.  (I’ll let you that are better than I am with numbers figure out how many text pages can be stored on that little puppy.)

CON: Their size seems both a liability and a drawback.  They are easy to lose and hard to catalogue.  For me, someone who has to return to a restaurant or store about 25-percent of the time to retrieve my purse, glasses or cell phone, I don’t want to trust all my records to this tiny bit of plastic. 

4. External Hard Drives
I recently purchased a Toshiba 2.0TB external hard drive.  (My only Black Friday purchase in 2013.)  The drive is about one-eighth the size of my older Western Digital external hard drive that holds 298GB – it is about the size of a pack of cards.

PRO:  Both simply plug into a USB port and transferring files is a snap.  They are easy to open and locating files is no problem.  I have had my older external drive for several years and it has never let me down.   The storage capacity of both is phenomenal.

CON: I worry about theft and fire and other disasters with these, just like my computer.  I plan to use one for photos and one for my word documents.  That means I only have each file stored in one place.  Even if I were to put all my files on both, I would have to ship one of them to another place, making updating difficult.  As with other electronic storage, the length of storage before deterioration begins is unknown.

5. Cloud Storage
The most amazing new technology on the storage scene is the ability for us to backup and store our information on the Internet, aka, “the Cloud.”  Since the cost of storing data online began coming down, over 50 major online providers have begun offering cloud storage. 

PRO: Storing your work online eliminates the fear of losing your documents due to theft, fire, or other damage to your home ... a big advantage.  Other advantages I see for online storage: I will never leave the cloud behind in a restaurant.  I will never accidentally drop the cloud over the side of the boat or mix it up with someone else’s.  I’ll never leave it plugged into the home computer when I need it at work.  I’ll never hide it and forgot where I put it.

CON: I have concerns about the safety of information stored on the Internet.  What happens to my data if the Internet or my cloud provider “goes down?”  Are my files lost forever?  Can someone hack into my files and steal them?  How do I know they are safe?

I’ve decided to continue backing up my computer and writing files onto an external hard drive.  But I am also going to begin using some of the free cloud storage to which I have access.  My new Toshiba external hard drive included 10GB of cloud storage at no charge.  I also received 5GB of storage on iCloud with my iPad, and I signed up for the basic DropBox cloud storage plan with 2.5GB of free storage.  I already use DropBox when working with others on projects, so I think I’ll start saving my work on the Toshiba cloud and see what happens. 

As a writer, it is important that you find a way to safely store and protect your work.  You also need to be aware that electronic files deteriorate whether on CDs, DVDs, flash drives, or even hard drives.  You should routinely check your electronic files for deterioration and transfer them before they are lost forever.  Good luck!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Yea! The Winter Olymics in Sochi, Russia start today. Where is Sochi anyway? And what is it's History?

The winter Olympics are starting today in Sochi, Russia. Sochi, Russia? Why Sochi? When I first heard the name of the city I had no idea where it was although I was sure I had heard the name before. Sochi, Sochi. Then I remembered---I'll tell you about how I am connected to Sochi later.

I love the Winter Olympics. All that skiing, figure skating, speed skating, hockey, bob sled racing, and curling. Wow! That feels like "old home week(s)." I grew up in Manitoba, Canada about 30 miles southeast of Winnipeg. Miles and miles of flat prairie. We could hardly wait for snow to fall and the ice to freeze so we could all get out our sleds, the girls could get on their figure skates, and the boys their hockey skates. Then there were endless weekends we watched our home team on the ice and cheered and shouted until we were hoarse. So yes, I am an ardent watcher of the Winter Olympics.

When I first heard the Olympics would be help in Sochi, Russia, I decided to find out more about this Russian city so I looked it up on the internet.

"What?" I said to my husband. "The Winter Olympics in Sochi? It's halfway on the eastern coast of the Black Sea near the border of Georgia. That's humid, subtropical climate out there and the temperature rarely goes under freezing." Apparently it used to be swampy with lots of Malaria. Ugh. It rains 59" a year. I could tell you more stories of how they got rid of the mosquitos with what we now call biological control, but that's for later on in the blog.

"That is strange," he said looking up from reading his Science News magazine. (By the way, Ron grew up in California and doesn't like snow, but was an avid skier when he was young. He loves the Olympics as much as I do.)

I read more, then said, "Okay, that makes sense. It's near the Caucasus Mountains. The ski resort has one of the most powerful snowmaking machines in the world and the Russians feel very confident that they will have plenty of snow for the weeks of the Olympics. But wouldn't Siberia have been easier?" I hesitated and read on. "Okay. This makes even more sense," I said. "Sochi is the major resort in Russia. Putin and all his rich buddies have their second homes there. And Joseph Stalin plus most of the Russian leaders after him had homes there as well. It's the place the powerful and beautiful people come for vacations. I think Putin is trying to make a great impression on the world."

Sochi was a city of 334,282 people in 2002, and it is probably a little larger now. The city has palm trees, parks, and extravagant architecture and the surrounding area grows and sells a special tea the Russians love. It was first populated by the people of Asia Minor many years BC.After the 15th century the government called the city Ubykh. It was occupied by a local mountaineer clan that lived there until 1864 when the Russians, who had conquered the area in 1829, decided that the native people were no longer welcome. Most of the local, mostly Muslim, population left and migrated to Turkey.

In 1896 the city was called Sochi and was developed for sanitoriums and hospitals. There was only one problem with the place. Mosquitos. The Sochi area was mostly swamp land and the mosquitos bred and carried malaria to many of the inhabitants. Not a good place for hospitals. The Russian people drained the swamps. But this didn't solve the problem. So between the years of 1921-1925 they planted Eucalyptus trees. The trees consumed some of the water, but even that was not enough to get rid of the mosquitos. Then in about 1925 they dumped mosquito fish into the swamps. The fish ate most of the larvae and that was basically the end of the malaria problem in Sochi. Wow! What a great experiment in biological control.

During World War II Sochi became a major rehabilitation center with many sanatoriums and hospitals, and it has remained so to this day. 

As I promised early in the blog, I'd like to tell you how I am connected to Sochi. When I looked at the map and found Sochi, I felt shivers run down my arms. I suddenly remembered where I had heard the name. My father. Although German, he grew up in a thriving village on the Caspian Sea fairly near Grozny.

During the Russian Revolution of 1917-1919 anarchy swept through Southern Russia as the Czar's troops battled for survival and lost. In February, 1918, a 1000 man Tatar army rode down from the Caucasus onto the villages and slaughtered people, pillaged homes, and burned crops and houses. My father and his family escaped merely a few hours before the Tatars arrived. They travelled by horse and wagon to Sochi and then up to the Ukraine by rail and horses.

How did they survive? Several villages of kind Muslim people sheltered them and fed them. Neither spoke each other's language but they understood each other. My dad's immediate family hid for six years and escaped intact to Canada through Latvia in 1924. Many others of the extended family were not so lucky. Several of them were sent to Siberia to work in the mines. But something amazing happened in 1995 after the Soviet Union collapsed. My dad received a letter from one of his cousins in Siberia, and they began to communicate again.

So for me, Sochi is an important place. I pray that the people at the Winter Olympics remain safe and have a wonderful time.

And now that I am finished with my self-help book How to Cope with Trauma after Stress: Especially for Veterans, their Families, and Friends, I will continue writing my book about my father's escape from Russia. I call it, Escape to Freedom. The book will include some pictures and history of the area, plus twelve personal stories my father used to tell me about the family's escape from Communist Russia. I hope to finish it this year---the year of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

I did it! I Finished Writing my Self-Help Book: "How to Cope with Stress after Trauma"


I did it! I have just recently completed my self-help book called How To Cope with Stress after Trauma: Especially for Veterans, Families, and Friends. It will be published at the end of February and you will be able to get it on both Amazon books and on Kindle. Although I have addressed  the book specifically to veterans, and the examples are of veterans, the 20 steps I write about are just as valuable for anyone who is suffering from a severe trauma such as a sudden death, an accident, abuse, or a natural disaster. It is also for their families and friends.
Why does someone like me write self-help books? I'm not sure about others. I imagine some people see a relevant problem they can explore and turn into some money. But for me, the topic I would be willing to explore so deeply that I could actually write a book about it and try to help others, has to do with what I have felt passionate about in my life. Of course it also has to do with my knowledge and experience working for many years with clients who had PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
 There were lots of times over the last two years that I wanted to press the delete button on my book file but somehow I kept coming back to it. If you are a writer you will understand what I mean. "It's garbage" I said to myself. "No one would want to use this book, never mind read it. What do I think I know that's so important?"
Now looking back to those days I can see what motivated me to keep writing: my love for my father. He had been severely traumatized during war when he was young, He suffered with symptoms of post trauma stress most of his life. My mother, my sister, and I suffered too. But none of us knew how to "fix" him although we very much wanted to. At the time we didn't even have a name for what was going on. Now that I do have the knowledge of how to help, I want others like him and their families to find ways to recover and live productive and happy lives. That is my goal, and that is why I write self-help books. Are there any other self-help writers out there? Share with the rest of us about what motivates you.
Here is the beginning of Part 1 of the book How to Cope with Stress after Trauma:
Before I get started revealing information and ways to cope with stress after a trauma, I’d like to tell you a story.  I was well known in my community for my work with people who dealt with severe trauma, and agencies often referred clients to me, sometimes as far as two hundred miles away.

Years ago, while working in my private practice, a husky, muscular man, then in his mid- thirties came to me via the Veterans Administration (VA). It was about ten years after Joe’s tour of duty in Vietnam and he had survived without help, although he reluctantly admitted to having problems sleeping and some nightmares about Vietnam.

Joe had been employed at a saw mill for several years and he loved his work. Recently the owner of the adjoining property had opened a gun range and soon after, Joe developed a phobia to what he called “loud noise.” Every time he heard a shot, he jumped, covered his head, and crouched behind a pile of logs. His heart raced and he shook for several minutes.

Understandably, he decided to change jobs.

He expected his phobia to end, but instead, now when a car backfired or he heard a loud bang, he reacted in a similar way that he had to the gunshots. Over the last couple of months he had spent much of his time trying to avoid people and loud noises. He had frequent nightmares and woke up sweating. He couldn’t work. At this point he slept very little, and he had become unpredictably explosive at his wife and children. She was threatening to take the children and leave if the problem didn’t stop. In plain words, his life had become unmanageable.

When he arrived in my office, I noticed his face was drawn and his hands trembled. The first words he said to me after he explained his symptoms were, “This has nothing to do with Vietnam.”

I took a deep breath, nodded, and said, “Then let’s find out what’s really going on.”

I asked him to tell me his family history, starting with his childhood. He told me that his father was an alcoholic and that life at home had been difficult. Within less than five minutes he began to vividly relate stories about his experiences on the front line in Vietnam, as though they had happened yesterday.

In time, Joe dealt with his symptoms and eventually with his memories. During our year together, Joe did not forget his two years in Vietnam, the hand to hand combat, the many men in his platoon who died, the women and children he thought he could trust but who carried weapons, the innocent people he killed in the villages. Most of all he never forgot the guilt and shame he felt when he came home, and instead of a hero’s welcome, he was shunned or ignored.  Yes, the memories were still there but they were much less intense and they no longer triggered flashbacks and nightmares. His anger subsided and after a short separation from his family he returned home.

Why did I start the book with Joe instead of defining words or listing symptoms? Because I think it’s important to understand the lessons taught in Joe’s story. Regardless of which war you fought---World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Just Cause in Panama, the Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, or any other war---the lessons learned will be similar.

The first lesson:

Don’t make excuses or ignore your first symptoms of post trauma stress. The sooner you deal with the symptoms, the more likely they will recede into the past without you becoming dysfunctional, or have what psychologists call a “disorder.”

The second lesson:

Although most post trauma stress occurs immediately or shortly after a trauma, delayed reactions are fairly common. It may be months, sometimes years, before they manifest in the conscious mind. According to recent reports, after 40 years, Vietnam veterans are increasingly having nightmares and flashbacks now that they are getting older, are retired, and have more time to think. Usually there is a trigger. For Joe the trigger became gun shots. For others it may be the death of a loved one.

The third lesson:

You are strong, not weak, when you face life and deal with it as it happens instead of pretending there’s nothing wrong. You are strong, not weak, when you ask for help. Anyone, and I mean anyone, may react to trauma in a way similar to Joe’s response. Use some of the steps in this book to help you learn how to cope, but if they don’t relieve your symptoms, see a psychotherapist and/or a medical doctor.

The fourth lesson:

You are not alone even though you may often feel like you are. Certainly, you are unique as to the circumstances and specifics of your trauma, and it is very important for you to meet with other veterans who can understand you in a way civilians at home can't. But regardless of the severe trauma people have been exposed to, whether it occurred in war, in an accident, or natural disaster, or at home in an abusive situation---sometimes for many years---and regardless of who the survivors are, all are humans. Their bodies, especially their brains, control their emotions and their minds and will respond similarly. Some will react more severely and some less so, and for more or less time, but millions of people around the globe experience trauma symptoms although different cultures may respond and answer questions about trauma symptoms somewhat differently.

The fifth lesson:

Recovery is possible. If you get help, your symptoms will most likely lessen to a point where they are easily managed.