Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Thank you, Baby Cheeses

Yesterday, I sent an email to a client. This is the second book I’ve done with her, so I know by now how she responds to things. She was brave the first time around, with her first book, but some of it really stung, I could tell. She was never a tantrum pitcher or anything like that, but she tended to withdraw a bit, lick her wounds, then resist a little.

I know writers think editors like being mean, like ripping something apart. So not true. It sucks for us too. I really hate it when I have hard news to deliver to a writer. I mean, I love the challenge of improving a piece, or I wouldn't be doing this work. But there is a real downside, as well.

And in this case, she's already rewriting, based on an initial critique of the ms. So I am now editing the rewrite. I had to essentially say, sorry, but you missed. Again. I was a little worried.

And, appropriately enough for an editor, I worry about my language. It's never easy to say, "uh, we have a problem here." It's a tricky thing. As an editor, you can’t be so soft that the writer thinks it’s not that important. But you also can’t come on so strongly that it seems like you’re bossing them around, or just plain being mean. And in this case, I thought it was a critical problem, a crucial moment in the novel. If we didn’t get it right here, the rest of it wasn’t going to hang together, really.

So I drafted the email, as I usually do: First, going through and getting down my points, making the argument in the intellectual/technical sense, then going back through and softening the language, paying attention to the emotional side of it. Trying to be sensitive. For help, I turned on Barry Manilow’s Feelings. Ha, just kidding, but maybe I should. This is an area in which I sometimes feel unskilled.

(In an almost-completely unrelated note, I should say that I am learning that my tendency toward hoof-in-mouth disease—and to stampede over people’s feelings—may be innate. It is apparently the fault of my natal astrology. I am a Sagittarius. And I’ve been doing research, for an astrologer character I have in my own work, and so I’ve been studying my own chart. I found a description of Sagittarius the other day that explained its mythological symbol, half-Centaur (the back half, natch), half-Archer, with this lovely editorial gloss: “Any sign can make half-an-ass of itself, Saggie, but you’re the only one that’s born that way.” Ha! I’ve been giggling about that for days.)

Anyway, I finished the email—and with a glance at the heavens, asking for a little protection, perhaps a small Christmas miracle of my very own—I hit the send button.

Two hours later, the writer responded. I took a deep breath, and clicked open the email. And she said, essentially: "I knew you were going to pick on that chapter! You’re right. And I can’t believe how well I’m taking this, btw, but I am. I’m going to start rewriting next week. Don’t do anymore editing, I’ll rework it and send it back to you. Thank you! Merry Christmas!”

I feel like a proud parent, amazed at how quickly they grow up! She's a pro now. It's about the work, about getting it right, and getting it done. I love when this happens! It's also like being a teacher, and seeing the lightbulb go off over your student's head. Yes, thank you! And Happy Birthday, Baby Cheeses!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

I See Said the Blind Man As He Picked Up the Hammer and Saw...

So, I didn’t think I would be doing any blog posting, well, maybe ever again. I keep forgetting about this thing. And I certainly didn’t think I’d be doing it during NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated (perhaps the one out of my three regular blog readers who isn’t a writer), it is National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. (See for more information.)

This is my first year doing it. I’ve been meaning to do it for a couple of years, but I kept not remembering it existed until the middle of November. This year, I remembered in mid-October.

Anyway, the NaNoWriMo guidelines suggest that you do not pick up on a work in progress for this exercise. They are guidelines, not rules, because NaNoWriMo leads to nothing more than one's own satisfaction. It's not a contest, there are no prizes. It's more like a playgroup. A toddler playgroup: You sign on to play with your fellow writers, but you all play next to one another, independently, not cooperatively.

They explain their reasoning for not doing a work in progress, and I read that last month, and I ignored it. I decided to pick up on my Sophie and Marty thing (which, from this day forward shall be designated “MO” for magnum opus). I have about 120 pages of that story, and I love that story—though I keep getting bogged down in it—so I thought NaNoWriMo might be a good way to blow through the rest of the draft.

But: No. It appears that those folks know more than I do, which I really hate. They said that it’s too hard to get that word count when it’s a work in progress. (To get to 50,000 words in a month, you must average 1667 words per day. That is just over 6 pages of text PER DAY, which is no problem if you have no need to eat, sleep, earn a living, or goof off on Facebook.) The NaNoWriMo folks said you know your characters already, you are attached to them, you have something of an endpoint in mind, and you cannot really free yourself creatively, to just put one keystroke down after another, and get those numbers.

They are correct.

But, I’d been thinking a lot about the MO, and I'd just worked my way through a plot problem, and so I started the first day with a killer scene. Not literally, not the killer. A really great scene, I mean. But I realized, second and third days, that I just wasn’t going to be able to put up the numbers I needed on this project. It’s literary. It's too big, and yet too narrow, to just pound away on. I need more creative elbow room.

So, last night I started something brand new, with a minor character that I borrowed from yet another work in progress. I picked her up and I plunked her down three decades earlier and about 3000 miles east of where she was before. Now, obviously she is going to be different in this new time and place. But she was a minor character anyway, it’s not like I knew her that well to begin with.

I don’t want to say much more than that about it. I’m one of those people who can talk myself right out of a story. And I have an idea where this might end up, publication-ally. It is essentially a new challenge, one I thought of and accepted (in my own head) about two days ago.

One interesting thing about this is that the NaNo file is now schizoid. I’ve already done some bopping back and forth between the two stories. One MO scene, one new thing scene. (I really have to learn how to come up with provisional titles!) There are two stories going on in that Word file, and their only connection is that they are coming out of the same head.

We’ll see. I have no idea where I will be with this on November 30. But I am enjoying the freedom of the new story tremendously. And I believe what Jasper Fforde said in the pep-email he sent to NaNoers yesterday: You may end up throwing out these 50,000 words, but you will have learned something critical in the process, and you will be a better writer for it, and you will never regret the exercise.

And I’m happy to have finally joined in the true spirit of NaNo, the way it’s supposed to be done. AND I got a blog post out of it. Amazing!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Unconventional Marketing Tip #1: Make An Ass of Yourself

Last night: My friend came over to pick me up. We were going to another friend’s house for dinner, but we had a little time to kill. So we had a glass of wine. ONE glass. (But it was kind of a big glass, and it was almost 7pm. And I hadn’t eaten since breakfast at 11am.)

On the way to our destination, I spied a PetSmart. This reminded me that the little monsters were almost out of food, so I asked my friend to stop. And I ran in and grabbed some cat food and then I ran up to the register and plopped it down on the conveyor belt. Nobody in line. Fantastic: 30 seconds, and I’d be out of there.

Then I saw the sign, next to the cash register. It said: PLEASE LEAVE HAIRY ITEMS IN CART.

So, I asked the cashier: “What’s a hairy item?”

And he said: “What?”

I nodded at the sign, and I read it aloud, for his benefit: PLEASE LEAVE HAIRY ITEMS IN CART.

And he looked at the sign for a long moment, and then HE read aloud, kind of loud and slow—the way you might read to a small child, or an escaped mental patient: PLEASE LEAVE HEAVY ITEMS IN CART.

And before he was even finished, of course, I could see that the word was HEAVY, so I started laughing, and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t have my glasses on. And my eyes are fried.” I rubbed one, for effect. “I’m an editor and I’ve been working all day.” I shook my head at my own stupidity.

And he said, “An editor? Really?”


“I’m a writer.”

“Oh, really?”

“What kind of stuff do you edit? Fiction or non?”

“Both,” I said.

“I have a draft of a novel. Would you take a look at it?”

And then, because I am nothing if not a salesperson, I said, “For free?”

“Yeah.” He gave me a winning smile.

So I smiled, and I glanced down at the cat food, and I said: “Can I have that for free?”

“Point taken,” he said, and laughed. “How much do you charge?”

“Well,” I said, “it depends.” And I started digging around in my purse, looking for a business card—except that I don’t HAVE business cards, I run an Internet business—so I pulled out a notebook and flipped to a clean page and I wrote down my email address, and I was about to write down my web site, except . . . I drew a blank.

Then I looked up at him, and I blinked a couple of times, and I said: “I cannot remember what my web site is.”

And he raised his eyebrows, and said, “Really?” He smiled tentatively, and I started writing down permutations of what it might be, trying to figure it out. And then I started explaining, while I was scribbling—that “I never visit my own web site, and it’s in my email signatures, so it’s not like I type it very often, plus I have a couple of email addresses that have permutations of the web site in it, which is REALLY what is confusing me at the moment—and no, it’s not http://, that’s the beginning of my blog, not the website,” so I very firmly crossed that out, “and I only had ONE glass of wine, but all I ate today was two eggs, plus I just switched ISPs, so I have to think about the whole Netzero/Comcast thing, and I keep messing that up”—and then I made a big circle around and I said, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s it.”

And I gave him the paper.

“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll email you.”

“Okay. Great.” And then I walked out the door.


About three steps out the door, I realized I didn’t have the cat food I just bought, so I turned around and went back in. He was holding the bag aloft, waiting for me.

Sunday morning. There is an email from him. He has attached a chapter. And it’s not bad. He can write. He wants an estimate for a line edit on a 120,000-word ms. That’s real money.

And the last line of his email reads: “Your web site is actually”

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

An Edna St. Vincent Millay Kind of Day

Wow! Haven't updated this blog since May. Busy, busy--paid work, and my own writing. But I am turning over a new leaf. Though I am not posting original writing. Oh well. Sue me!!

Today, doing some research, I stumbled across Millay's name. It's been awhile since I read her, and I always regret not doing it more often when this happens. Two of my faves:

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply;
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands a lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet know its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone;
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Love Is Not All

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Writer's Block: Part I

Many of my writers-friends have been talking about being blocked lately. I don’t know why, but everybody seems to have come down with it at about the same time. Thankfully, I am NOT currently blocked, but I’ve been there. In fact, I'm slightly superstitious about writing about it. What if thinking about writer's block brings it down on me? Then again, if I were blocked, I wouldn’t be able to write about writer’s block, would I?

I’m not going to do a discussion of whether this condition actually exists or not. I think it does. As far as I’m concerned, the whole idea that “it’s just in your mind” is exactly the point. It is in your mind, the same way hallucinations are in the mind of a schizophrenic. I mean, the person standing next to a schizophrenic may not see the winged monkeys approaching in missing-man formation, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist for the schizophrenic, does it?

Anyway, I tend to find myself with two distinct variations of writer’s block:

1) Plain old writing blahs. I’ve got no ideas about anything, none of my works-in-progress interest me, and I think it might be time to take up knitting or something else, because clearly this writing thing isn’t going to work out.

2) Serious stuckness on a WIP. In other words, I have plenty of ideas for what happens after x, but I cannot figure out what x is, or how to get past it.

I’ll take the second first. The conventional wisdom on writer’s block is that the serious, professional writer gets herself out of it by writing her way out. In other words, you plant your butt in the chair, and you go at it, with fingers on the keyboard. It doesn’t matter how many words you write, or whether you throw every single one of them out, the point is that you work the problem in the most obvious manner for a writer.

This doesn’t work for me.

This approach makes me unbearably bitchy. I start resenting everything—my computer, the keyboard, my characters, my coffee mug. I feel imprisoned, and whatever creativity I might have brought to bear on the problem is instead expended on daydreaming up ways to torture the writers who maintain that if I cannot do this, then I am not a real writer.

I prefer the indirect approach.

I gather up my files of research and my rough drafts, and I get the hell away from my desk. I go somewhere else—even the couch is an improvement—and I page through my files and reread my roughs. I use my pens and highlighters and colored post-its--I have an office-supply fetish--and I find tidbits of research that can be inserted here or there. Or I run across a bit of research I forgot about, and that will prompt an idea, and I’ll write a scene—in pen, on paper.

I edit the rough drafts. I re-read my beta readers’s comments, and consider them again, now that it’s been a few weeks since I received them, and I’m done resenting the person who called my character “annoying.”

In short, I mess around with the ms until I have some ideas about other things that can be done with it--things that have nothing to do with what has me blocked—and then I eventually make my way back to the computer, and I mess with those problems.

The effect isn’t always immediate, but if I stick with it, I generally find that whatever it is that has me blocked begins to resolve itself. And the beauty of this approach, to my mind, is that I don't get emotionally involved in being stuck, because I am still working on the ms.

Usually, the problem resolves itself in a light-bulb moment. It tends to happen while I’m doing something entirely unrelated, like squeezing cantaloupes in the grocery store, and then I have to put down the fruit and scramble in my purse for pen and paper to get down this fabulous solution before I forget it.

Yeah, I know. People might think I'm weird. I don’t care. I also pretty regularly walk around talking to myself, trying out dialogue between characters. (See why I thought of schizophrenics?) I gave up worrying about what other people think a long time ago.

The next post will address the first problem, the general writing blahs.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Please Do Not Abuse the Ellipses...

Something has been bugging me.....for've noticed an increase in....emails and postings......that look like this.......I know it must seem kind of natural--when you're typing.......and you pause to think about your next phrase....or sentence....--to rest your ring finger down on that period key.....while you come up with the next little bit. Especially in emails....which are after all, an informal method of communication.....It seems like it might be okay......

But it's not.

Reading an email written like sort of like watching someone.....who has clearly got a good sneeze.........coming on.......but they just can't quite.......get it.......out.

Have you ever been in that situation? Do you feel the tension? Don't you just wish they would sneeze already? And turn their attention back to the conversation? It might be useful to think of a period as being that sneeze. We are relieved when it finally comes. And the tension stops.

And we need the tension to stop.

We have enough tension as it is, what with the 401k statement due anyday now, and the sullen teenager in the next room who hasn't spoken a complete sentence in the last week, and then there's whatever bad news the TV newsfolk have delivered this evening, and we should probably think about eating something for dinner, and the laundry, and oh, crap, that gift needs to be wrapped....

We have our own we know how they work.....We pause when we're writing, too.....And think up the next little bit......But we really don't need you to share.....this part of the process....with us.

It it hurts us.....your readers, that is.....when you do this....because......we perceive a signal to insert our own thoughts.......a kind of drifting off, a fill-in-the-blank-your-way suggestion. But if you're just using get one from one phrase or thought to the next.....then our thoughts don't they?

We need direction from you. Please. In the same way that going back and reading the working papers of our favorite novelists can be a real downer, so can watching the process of concocting an email. We wouldn't be reading your communication if we didn't want to know what you think. And we want your best work. We need to know when you've finished one thought. And are on to the next.

That's one of the blessings of written communication, isn't it? If your brain is a little wonky, you can cover it up! Take advantage. Celebrate the fact. Nobody can see you compose the email. You can jot down as many random, incoherent thoughts as you want. Then you can use cut/paste, or delete, or the punctuation keys to make it appear that your prose falls effortlessly and perfectly formed straight from your our ears.


Friday, March 6, 2009

Time Travel: Then

I’m telling a secret about myself that will probably interest no one, but here goes: I spend a significant portion of my time (in my head) in time periods other than the one in which I find myself. I do not mean that I obsess over my personal past, or worry extravagantly about the future, mine or in general. I mean that I time travel. Actively, deliberately, for sport.

It may look to you like I am walking down the street thinking about my bills, or my work, or what's on TV tonight, or what I'm going to eat for dinner. But I'm probably not. It's much more likely that I'm trying to figure out what would be on the menu if I were eating dinner with Leonardo da Vinci or Catherine the Great or Jack the Ripper.

This avocation began in my preteen years, with Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie books. I fancied us kindred spirits, not only because she was feisty and smart--and tended to get in trouble, like me--but because I shared her fascination with Indians. In sixth grade, we spent a good portion of the year studying Ohio Indians. We learned the meanings of the Indian words attached to many of the place names around me. I became a little obsessed.

At some point, I figured out on my walks back and forth to school that although they didn't live here anymore, this was was still Indian country. These houses and the streets they sat on were fairly recent in origin, and I could pretend they weren’t there. I could try to see this place the way an Indian would have seen it, try to think the thoughts he might have been thinking as he walked in this same space. I could go down by the Maumee River and try to imagine what it looked like to him, long before those houses were sliding down into it.

I imagine this has something to do with why I eventually studied history.

I remember the first time I admitted this propensity to another person. I was in college, and I was taking a hike with my boyfriend through the Wisconsin woods. We’d spent the day before tubing on a river. Both of these were ideal situations to engage in my secret pursuit. But he would not shut up long enough for me to settle into it. I don’t know what he was talking about—sports, probably—or music, but it was just blah, blah, blah. All day long.

When he would stop talking for a few minutes, I'd finally begin to get into my zone, and then he'd bring me right back to the present with an inane comment like "I really have to pee." Grrr. So, on this second day, I finally lost it. I might have yelled. I'm pretty sure my exact words were: "Would you please STFU? I'm pretending to be an Indian."

There. I was out of the closet, and in a big way.

A few years later, when I was in Russia, I drove my summer-program friends crazy. Standing in front of the Winter Palace, I wondered aloud about precisely where the bodies were falling on November 7, 1917. On a walk through St. Petersburg, we came upon a 60-year-old sign that read: "Citizens! The shelling is worse on this side of the street. Cross over." That prompted a little disquisition from me on the Siege of Leningrad. I helpfully pointed out that if it were 1942, we wouldn’t be complaining about our cafeteria food. We’d be eating our shoes.

Later, we took the overnight train to Moscow, and were awakened by the hissing, heaving stop of the train in the middle of the night. We jolted up out of our bunks and peeked out the window shade. It was pitch black except for one lamp on a post, which provided just enough illumination to show that it was foggy. Creepily foggy. And also that--although we were apparently in the middle of nowhere--there were two guys in some kind of uniforms smoking cigarettes under the lamp post.

Then, we heard the sound of multiple pairs of booted feet running down the passageway. We began whispering to each other about what could possibly be going on. We were in Russia, after all. As safe as we felt most of the time, we were well aware that a little blue passport didn't make us bulletproof, and we harbored a tiny seed of doubt about its power to actually get us back through the looking-glass when we needed it to.

A moment later, while taking another peek out the window shade, it occurred (aloud) to me that if it were 1943, those guys out under the lamp post would be NKVD-types, and we’d be soldiers on our way to the frontline. The train would probably have stopped because the Germans were strafing troop trains ahead of us on the track. And those NKVD-types out there would have weapons trained on us, although they probably wouldn’t be needed, because we’d also be padlocked in this train car so that we couldn’t desert when the train stopped.

My friends said they were going to throw me out of the cabin if I didn’t STFU.

So I went back in the closet.

But I'm out again today, so that I can say what comes in the next post.

Time Travel: Now (Facebook Style)

So, the above post was really just to lay the groundwork for this one, because the following is what has been going on recently. It seemed important to explain that I have always been up for time travel. I like to be taken out of the present, and go as deeply into the past as possible.

Or I thought I did. And then my high school boyfriend—my first love—ambushed me on Facebook last week. And suddenly, I've found myself zapped into time travel, a little bit against my will. And I've found that when it's not an intellectual game, it's also a different story.

I haven’t seen or spoken to him in 25 years. And recently, when I've been chatting with him, or digging out pictures of us and our high school friends to send him, I sometimes lose track of exactly where I am in time. Minutes pass, and I find I've been 15 years old during them. Yesterday, walking down my Arlington, Virginia street, my mind was walking down a street in Maumee, Ohio in 1980.

In the end, I think this will be a useful exercise, for the writing in particular. I’m working on a memoir, and all this digging around in my memory banks is turning up interesting stuff.

I find myself remembering things with a physical clarity I didn’t think possible: Landmarks along the roughly four blocks that separated my house from his, the October chill in the air at Friday-night football games, where I hung along the fence with Kathy and Amy and Kim and tried to catch glimpses of him in his purple-and-gold uniform. (And the way I tried so hard to pay attention to the game, so that I would know what the hell he was talking about later, at McDonald’s.)

And the green army jacket he wore, the sound of his voice on the telephone, the butterflies in my stomach, the Old Spice scent of him, and the spidery crawl of his handwriting in the notes he wrote me.

And, before all of that, perhaps the most glorious making-lemons-into-lemonade day of my life: I was playing football with him and some friends at a park, on a late summer day, just before freshman year began. There was another girl playing, my best friend, Kathy. It had been decided that each team would take one girl, and that only the girls could tackle each other. We wouldn’t get hurt this way, it was thought.

Eventually I got the ball, and I was making for the end zone at a pretty good clip. Kathy was running toward me, but she didn’t have the right angle or speed or something for making the tackle, so she did the only thing she could think of: She reached out with her arm and hooked it around my throat. Uh, foul. I was lying on the ground, suddenly unable to breathe. I remember looking up at the faces gathering around me, and Mikey Fleck began waving everybody back: "Give her room. Give her room. She’s just got the wind knocked out of her. She’ll be okay."

He then knelt down beside me and advised me to breathe. Mikey was a year ahead of me, all ready a year of high school under his belt, and I was relieved that he had a diagnosis, and that he apparently thought I’d survive this. And I’d always thought he was cute, so I was a little flattered that he was looking down into my face with such concern. He was gorgeously tanned, and he had a little gold chain around his neck. I was starting to forget that I couldn't breathe.

After a minute or two, fearing that the boys would never let us play with them again if I was a baby about it, I got up and tried to shake it off. I participated in another play or two, but I wasn't feeling so hot, and I was getting over the idea of football pretty quickly. Kathy must have noticed, because she announced that she didn’t really feel like playing anymore, which meant that I couldn’t either.

So she and I walked over to the shelter in the park to sit down, and as soon as I was out of sight of the boys, the tears began. I was still wiping them away when this boy who had been on my team, a boy I knew only as one of the neighborhood pack—I’m not sure I’d even spoken directly to him before—came over to the shelter. He'd suffered his own injury earlier in the game (groin hit), but was apparently only now feeling the effects of it. So he sat down, and the three of us talked. Eventually, Kathy had somewhere else to be. But he and I didn't, so we kept talking. And by the time I left the park that day, I had forgotten that Mikey Fleck existed.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Antidote to Mondays: A Kitten's Collection

Monday was a bad day, as Mondays tend to be. I lost out on an editing job I put a lot of effort into getting, and I wanted it, and the circumstances pissed me off. But I don't feel like rehashing it--it's been hashed enough elsewhere--so even though the story better fits the theme of this blog, I'll just say that I was in a bad mood.

I didn't have any pressing deadlines, and I didn't feel much like working on my own stuff.

And I'd been letting the housework slide, because I'd been busy. I don't like housework, exactly, but I find it therapeutic sometimes, and I love the result. I can only truly relax in a clean apartment.

And housework, when you have a kitten, can be downright fun. Changing the sheets, for example, is pure adventure.

So I cleaned and straightened, etc. and eventually I got around to running the vaccuum. In the bedroom, I stuck it as far as it would go under the bed, and suddenly it made a funny sound. I pulled it out to find that it was eating a dirty dishrag. What?

I got down on my hands and knees, and had a look under the bed. Then I went and got a broom, and this is what I fished out:

*3 pens
*emery board
*dozen ponytail holders
*three post-it notes, two blank, one with a phone number for which I'd been looking
*one Ricola cough drop
*dozen balls and furry mice
*laminated bookmark, now decorated with teeth marks
*one band-aid, little cotton ball still attached, which I distinctly remember ripping off my arm and throwing in my wastebasket after a blood test a week or so ago
*two more dirty dishrags
*toothpaste cap
*two string babies (masses of yarn that used to be balls of yarn, which Annabel carries from room to room in her mouth)

Now, I work at home. I pick up things when I drop them on the floor. I don't store my dirty dishrags under my bed. (eww) Nor do I throw used band-aids under there. (double eww)

I don't see Annabel taking this stuff under the bed. Oh, sure I know the balls and mice go flying under there when she's playing, but the rest? I don't see her getting into the garbage, or the laundry basket, or in the little box of grooming supplies in the bathroom (which sits on the back of the toilet), or into the office supply baskets on my desk.

It appears that when I leave the apartment, Annabel has quite the romp. Who knew? She must be very graceful and careful, because I don't find things turned upside down. Is there a particular reason she takes office and grooming supplies? What does she intend to do with this load of crap? I asked her, but she's not saying. Perfect antidote to a Monday.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Only 10,000 Hours?

I stayed up a little later than usual last night and caught Malcolm Gladwell on the Jimmy Kimmel show. (Perhaps a repeat, but as NBC used to put it, if you haven't seen it, it's new to you.)

He was on tour for his latest book, The Outliers. I haven't read it, but it sounds very interesting, like all his work, I daresay. I'm a huge fan. I obviously can't review a book without reading it, so this is only my reaction to the interview.

The subject is extraordinary individual accomplishment--genius, greatness, whatever you want to call it. Gladwell talked about interviewing people like Bill Gates, and looking at the biographies of certain accomplished musicians, athletes, and inventors. I generally liked his approach, as he outlined it: The point appears to be to contextualize individual accomplishment, to locate it in broader social, cultural, and political structures. (As well as certain idiosyncratic structures, i.e. the hockey player/birthday connection. Nothing to do with astrology.)

I'm sympathetic to Gladwell's approach. Tracing the roots of genius was a minor obsession of mine in graduate school: I spent a research seminar tracing the biographies of a particular intellectual circle at Moscow University in the 1830s. And my sense is that Gladwell, in that low-key manner that seems to be a Canadian trademark, finds it (politically) instructive to analyze that something. I tend to agree with this notion. Michelle Obama recently touched on this theme: She noted during her visit to the Department of Education that she was a product of its work. Me, too. I am a Head Start kid.

Anyway, Gladwell discussed the example of Bill Gates, who had access to a computer at a time when 99.9 percent of kids his age didn't. It just so happened that some parent had donated a computer to the school that Gates attended, and he noodled around with it. (Maybe that parent qualifies as a genius? This was in the early 1970s.) Gates was so smitten with the computer that he located a nearby mainframe that was also available for noodling--between the hours of 2 and 6 am. So he set his alarm and snuck out his bedroom window every night to go play with it. (His parents didn't know about this until he was an adult.)

And this was Gladwell's theme: Bill Gates is a bright guy, but he had to have a computer on which to learn. Genius isn't sui generis, a thing all on its own, it is a process: It is talent plus opportunity plus dedication, aka damned hard work.

And here is the part where my ears really perked up: Gladwell emphasized that talent only gets you so far, and that appears to be not very far at all. He said that when you look at extraordinarily accomplished people, what you will find is that they work very, very hard. He referred to something he called the "10,000-hour rule." (I don't know whether he coined the term.) Even the smartest, most talented people only get really good at something, Gladwell said, after they've done it an average of 4 hours a day for 10 years.

10,000 hours = 4 hours a day for 10 years.

I've been pondering this all day, as it pertains to my own work. One thing in particular I've been wondering is: What "counts" towards those 4 hours? If I want to be a writer, does editing someone else's work count? Critiquing someone else's work? Doing research for a project? Or does this mean 4 hours a day, fingertips on the keyboard, composing my own text? Do you think I could call Malcolm up and ask him this?

I would also like to ask him how narrowly the categories must be drawn. In other words, does all that writing of history papers I did in college and grad school count toward my mastering the art of fiction? If it counts a little, how much? Percentage-wise? Or should I have two separate accounts set up: Fiction and Non-fiction?

Just how close to 10,000 hours might I be?

In the end, my reaction to Gladwell's take on this is contradictory: On the one hand, he makes me groan and want to throw in the towel. Really, I think to myself, I have to work that hard? It'll never happen, I don't have that kind of time. There are too many things to do--earning a living, going to the grocery store, vacuuming the carpet. And there are sooo many inviting distractions.

On the other hand, I've all ready put in at least some of those hours. I might as well keep going, right? It would be a shame to waste what I've learned so far. The take-home message, if I choose to frame it this way, is that if I keep going, I've got as much chance as anyone else of getting there. Right?

And, if I die as actuarially scheduled, I have approximately 30 years left to live. That's plenty of time. Actually, according to Gladwell, that's enough time to become extraordinarily accomplished at THREE things. Hmmm....

Monday, January 19, 2009

It's Historical? (C'mon Oprah!)

In the promotional spots for the shows Oprah will be hosting from Washington DC in honor of the Inauguration of Barack Obama, she has been shouting "It's historical!" Now, she is not the only person who has made this mistake. I heard DC mayor Adrian Fenty say it, as well as too many local newscasters to count.

It's historic. That's what you mean, people.

I suppose I might understand the confusion, if you were reading the words, or even writing them, perhaps. Historic and historical are both adjectives and they both have to do with history. But I don't quite understand how, once you've said it out loud, you don't hear the error. Doesn't it sound wrong to your ear? Would you go visit an historical home? Or an historic home?

An historical event, when you get right down to it, is anything that has happened in the past. The typing of this sentence now qualifies as a historical event, because it was an event, and it happened in the past. The typing of that sentence, however, is not destined to be remembered by history. It was not an historic event. An historic event is when the tide of history changes, when something dramatic, lasting, and important happens. The signing of the Declaration of Independence was an historic event. The bombing of Pearl Harbor. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Or September 11, 2001.

An historic event is one we look back on, as the marker, the turning point, the beginning of a new era, a new way of looking at the world, of being in the world. So, the Inauguration of Barack Obama will be a historical event, in the sense that it will take place in a certain moment in time, and that moment will pass into history. It will be an historic event because it will be the first time an African-American man has taken the Presidential Oath of Office, and it will be remembered in history for that. But maybe, just maybe, it will become an historic moment because it will mark a turning point in our country's history, as we turn away from the course we have been on the last eight years and embark on a new way of looking at, and being in, the world.

Monday, January 12, 2009

No Honor Among Thieves?

What about among writers?

Writers don't just misbehave when it comes to Holocaust memoirs (Misha Defonseca, Herman Rosenblat), or Christmas tales (Neale Donald Walsch), or memoirs of addiction (James Frey), or accounts of growing up white in a poor black foster family (Margaret B. Jones). Don't kid yourself that these famous examples are just a few rotten apples. The truth is, the basket is filled with stinky, fermenting, rotten apples. A good portion of what you're reading on the Internet, and--if you teach--the papers that you are receiving from your students are also fakes, rip-offs, hoaxes, straight-out plagiarism.

Recent ads on freelance sites:

*I have a book, about 100 pages. I want you to go through the book and edit it down to about 75 pages, to make an e-book. You have to change the wording. You will do the first ten pages. If it passes Copyscape, you will do the rest.

*I need a paper edited and re-written. There are comments from the professor on the paper, and you will have to do what those comments say. (BTW, this person had posted 30-plus jobs of this sort. Sounds to me like she's buying her way through a degree program.)

*I have a novel. I want you to edit it. And some parts of it are taken directly from Dorian Gray. I want you to re-word those parts so they're not in Oscar Wilds (sic) words."

*I need a dissertation, media studies. I need you to formulate the topic, then I will approve it, and if it is okay, then you will write the paper.

No, I am not kidding. And this doesn't even begin to describe all the people who have 10, 50, 100 "Internet" articles that they want the "wording" changed on. It would be hilarious if it weren't so sad. If I am seeing these ads every day on the three or four sites I visit, how many does that total up to over a week, a year? I actually feel a little bit dirty when I run across these things, like I've been looking at porn sites.

People have always gotten other people to do their work for them, I know. People have always paid other people to write their papers, people have always tried to pass off stolen fiction as their own . But it's so blatant, so shameless. I could actually make a living doing this. Doing nothing but helping others get past Copyscape. Over the weekend, I was offered $200 to write a graduate-level paper on Marx. That would have covered my kitten's next vet visit, something I've been struggling to figure out how I'm going to cover, and I was tempted. I considered it. I took a semester-long course in Marx as an undergrad. I know his biography, I know his work. I have a Master's degree in Russian history. I could pretty much do Marx in my sleep, even the whole philosophical/intellectual antecedents thing. (Feuerbach, anyone?)

But I said no. Does that make me stupid? Naive? Old-fashioned? I just couldn't do it. I had planned on being a history professor before life intervened with other plans, and I have this honor-code thing in my DNA. I know how hard school can be, how overwhelming. I remember being so stressed out and exhausted that I thought my eyeballs were going to fall out. But I did my own work. Always. (Or took my lumps when I didn't.) And I think other people should do the same.

And, I can't bring myself to bid on or even consider taking these article- and book- "re-wording" jobs. I know what I'm really being asked to do. I'm being asked to behave unethically. I'm being invited to take the easy road, to make some money by simply "reworking" someone else's work.

And the truth is, I worry what this means for our culture, what it bodes for our country. What does it mean when you haven't done the work that got you that college degree? What does it mean when the same (wrong or bad) information just gets recycled and reworded and moved here and there, appearing a in variety of places, and thus seems to be coming from independent sources? Oh wait, I think we have at least one example of this to ponder, don't we? Iraq.

Saturday, January 10, 2009