Writer’s Block: There’s a Pill for That

Author Robert Anthony Siegel set out to resolve his writer’s block by taking a pill, a fast-acting solution to a serious problem.

In this case, though, the pill he wanted was a placebo on its face.

A placebo is a sham, but as Siegel mentions in Why I Take Fake Pills, research suggests that placebos seem to mitigate our ailments even when we know the cure isn’t “real.” These results remind me of my favorite line from Peppa Pig (please indulge me): “It’s better than real; it’s pretend!” It’s lovely to imagine an effective treatment that doesn’t have side effects and on which you can’t overdose.

Hoping to harness the real power of pretend pills, Siegel explained his problems to John Kelley, the deputy director of Harvard’s Program in Placebo Studies and Therapeutic Encounter, who said:

‘I think we can design a pill for that… We’ll fine-tune your writing pill for maximum effectiveness, color, shape, size, dosage, time before writing. What color do you associate with writing well?’

For Siegel, that color was “gold,” which translates to yellow in the pharmaceutical world.

Siegel’s magic pills worked once he’d reached a “therapeutic dose.” The sentences he produced were “awkward and slow,” at least in his opinion, but certainly better than nothing.

His experience has made me think about the methods I’ve used to overcome writer’s block, a challenge I face in multiple parts of my life. As A. M. Blair, I write middle grade and contemporary fiction, and under a similar (but different) name, I practice law, a job that requires me to pound out memos, briefs, and other written documents that don’t always flow easily from my anxiety-ridden brain.

Lately, I’ve been taking specific measures to address writer’s block: I take a walk, brew myself a cup of tea, close the door, and set a timer for 25 minutes. If I can get through those 25 minutes, then I’ll have something on the page. That’s a start, something to build on for as many 25 minute-increments as it takes to finish the project.

Maybe I’ll add a placebo pill to my ritual. Couldn’t hurt, right? My capsules would be purple.*

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*However, I’m not willing to pay what Siegel paid for his! Check out his article, Why I Take Fake Pills (linked above), to find out how much he paid and why.

**Definition of “Placebo” is from Merriam-Webster.

Authors, Does Donald Trump Care About Your Name Change?

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On February 2, 2017, the U.S. Copyright Office issued its final rule in The Federal Register about the removal of personally identifiable information from copyright registration records (PDF). That sounds pretty boring even to me, and I tend to like so-called “boring” legalese. This rule, however, contains something unexpected for our current political climate: for the first time, as of March 6, 2017 (the effective date of the rule), the Copyright Office will permit authors or copyright claimants to change their names in the online public catalog.

Not every author registers for copyright protection with the U.S. Copyright Office. As the Office explains in its FAQ:

In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work.

Those who decide to register have been stuck with the names on their copyright registration applications, even when those names reflect the author’s assigned gender at birth, not their expressed gender now. Those names are available to the public through the Office’s online registration catalog, potentially disclosing a person’s transgender status when an assigned name does not match a person’s expressed gender. This disclosure could increase the risk that a transgender individual will experience harassment or abuse.

As the Office explains in the Federal Register, referencing comments by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and a commenter known as T. Brown:

Two commenters urged the Office to allow authors or claimants to replace their names in the online public catalog… Although it may be possible to use a supplementary registration to change one’s name, both the original registration and the supplementary registration appear in the online registration record. According to these commenters, having a transgender individual’s birth name and changed name appear in the record could jeopardize the ‘well-being and personal and professional life’ of a transgender individual, put them in danger, or subject them to ‘employment discrimination, bodily harm and/or worse.” NCTE argued that not allowing a person who has received a legal name change to replace their original name with the legally changed name may affect victims of domestic violence as well.

The Office adopted the NCTE’s suggested rule as the final rule, which states:

201.2(e)(2)(iii) Names of authors or claimants may not be removed or replaced with a pseudonym. Requests to substitute the prior name of the author or claimant with the current legal name of the author or claimant must be accompanied by official documentation of the legal name change.

So, the author or claimant must provide documentation of their legal name change, a process that varies from state to state. This step makes changing the name on a registration somewhat more complicated, but the new rule is still a big step forward for individuals who want the name on their copyright to match their identity.

Is it odd that this change from the U.S. Copyright Office happened during the early weeks of the Trump Era?

THR, Esq. at The Hollywood Reporter noted that, with the Trump Administration and Republicans in charge (remember that the Republicans included in their 2016 platform the defense of “traditional marriage between a man and a woman”):

[I]t’s somewhat surprising to see a government entity [] do something in the interest of protecting transgender individuals. [However,] it’s an obscure change to copyright rules, and to be quite clear, there’s no evidence that the Trump Administration was involved in this. To go further, we’d bet that Trump has no idea.

The U.S. Copyright Office, sitting in the Library of Congress, is pretty far removed from the Trump Administration, and it solicited comments on its rule on September 15, 2016, during the Obama Administration. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that Trump hasn’t had a chance to infect the Library of Congress with his particular brand of hateful idiocy. For example, the current Librarian of Congress, who appoints the Register of Copyrights and Director of the Copyright Office, is an Obama appointee.

Hopefully, as Trump continues his infestation of Washington, D.C., this rule will remain as it is. It’s hard to see why anyone but the author of a copyrighted work would care about the name associated with their copyright–except, of course, for that person’s harasser or abuser. In that case, maybe the Trump Administration will care after all.

The Importance of Writing (Is It Different Now?)

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Donald Trump has only been the President of the United States for a little over a week. It feels longer, doesn’t it? It also feels like an alternate reality, one in which our Constitution doesn’t seem to matter to the people in power.

In this repressive climate of government-manufactured “alternative facts,” there is an increased sense of urgency to dissent, to speak up, and to share our perspectives in blogs and books.  As Nevien Shaabneh, the Palestinian-American author of Secrets Under the Olive Tree, said in her interview on Read Diverse Books, “I think all writing is activism. Literature is able to sensitize what has been desensitized in our society.”

Indeed, writing is a form of activism, and we must share our diverse stories with anyone who is willing to read them.

But that’s the problem. Those who are willing to read about our experiences aren’t the people who voted for Mr. Trump on November 8th. They aren’t the ones who support Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim Ban, his multi-billion-dollar wall, or his vow to strip 24 million people of their health insurance. Trump’s supporters, like the man they elected, probably don’t read much. After all, one in four Americans didn’t read a single book last year.

Thankfully, though, those people aren’t the majority in our country. They weren’t even a majority of voters in the election, which Trump lost by nearly 3 million votes (while capturing the electoral college, a legacy of slavery). I hope our words will reach those people, as well as the open-minded members of the next generation, our future leaders. I hope our diverse perspectives will encourage these people to keep up the fight against Trump’s racist, fascist regime.

I’ve been making an effort to write about my experience as a multiracial, Muslim-American. I’ve also been making an effort to read books that raise up the voices of individuals from other backgrounds, especially the ones that Trump and his supporters have targeted first (of course, he’ll come for everyone eventually, if we don’t prevent it from happening).

I am also taking other steps to resist our government’s un-American policies, as I discussed in Becoming a Butterfly, which I wrote in response to Rebecca Solnit’s powerful book, Hope in the Dark:

I’m trying to push beyond my comfort zone where I can–too many of us have been too comfortable with the status quo for too long–but I’m not going to turn into a [direct action] activist anytime soon. I’m shy, and even making a phone call to a person I don’t know makes me anxious. However, I’m willing to do that when the person on the other end of the line works in a lawmaker’s office. I’m willing to do more than that too.

Every day since Trump’s inauguration, I have engaged in as many daily acts of resistance as I can — which I’ve chronicled on Twitter to hold myself accountable — ranging from participating in my local women’s march to calling my Senator’s office.

But I’ve wondered how much of it I should share publicly, especially after my 5-year-old daughter cautioned me against public displays of dissent against Trump. She said, “Oh mommy, be careful. If he finds out you don’t like him, he’s going to make you leave the country.”

I thought about her heartbreaking words when Trump and his Death Eaters occupied my town last Thursday. My friend, a white woman, gave Trump the finger, but I kept my hands firmly by my sides, keenly aware of the cop beside me with his hand on his gun as Trump’s motorcade rolled by.

But I can’t be quiet. I need to speak up. The other voices of dissent I hear on a daily basis give me strength and comfort (thank you). Maybe eventually, together, our voices will be so loud that the powers that be will have no choice but to listen.

What Can Best-Selling & Award-Winning Authors Tell Us About the Writing Process?

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Have you ever wondered about your favorite author’s writing process? Do they jot down ideas in a journal? Do they rely on an outline? Conduct research?

Recently, a group of academics explored these types of questions in Rethinking the Writing Process: What Best-Selling and Award-Winning Authors Have to Say, which was published this month in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. The researchers hoped that professional authors could shed light on the writing process and provide insight into the way educators should teach writing to our children.

To meet these goals, the researchers sent eleven questions about the writing process to fifty professional writers, and received thirty-nine responses, including from authors Lois Lowry, Jerry Spinelli, and Jane Yolen.

What did the researchers learn from the responses? Unsurprisingly, they found that “writing is a craft that is practiced differently by authors. Some writers carefully plan and script stories, as does Lois Lowry. Others, such as Jerry Spinelli, simply start writing and let the story unveil itself.”

The authors of the study go on to develop advice for writing instructors based on these predictable results, including advising educators to (1) “allow students to experiment with different ways to incubate their ideas: keeping a writing journal, jotting ideas on loose paper, talking with others, and so forth;” and (2) “remind students that writing often starts with an outline but maintains flexibility…” It’s all good advice, though I doubt a survey of professional authors was necessary to develop it.

The study is fun to read, largely because of the extraneous “sound bites” from authors that let us peek inside their creative minds, but I question whether thirty-nine “best-selling” and “award-winning” authors can provide much insight into how educators should structure writing programs in schools.

First of all, what type of writing are we talking about here? The professional authors write a range of materials — from fiction to journalism pieces — and they probably don’t write all types of material equally well. A fabulous writer of dystopian middle grade fiction might have little advice for students on how to write a persuasive article, and a journalist may have little wisdom to provide to students on creative writing.

Second, just because these authors have been successful doesn’t mean they produce “high quality” work from which students should learn. I’m a fan of the survey respondents I recognize in this study — like Lowry, Spinelli, and Yolen — but one-third of the respondents were anonymous and all were chosen because of their “accessibility” to one of the authors of the study.

The fact that these authors have produced best-selling and award-winning books is nice, but not necessarily meaningful. Jerry B. Jenkins, a survey respondent and the author of 16 New York Times Best Sellers, touches on the arbitrariness of success in his “sound bite” on sensing which of his works will be successful:

After 175 published books, I have learned I have no clue. What I believe is my absolute best work is often ignored, while something I have mixed feelings about may win an award or become a bestseller. The market decides.

The market decides the success of a book based on a variety of factors, and the quality of the writing might not be among them. For example, Fifty Shades of Grey topped the best-seller list and sold more than 100 million copies worldwide, but I doubt many educators would want to ask its author for advice on teaching children how to write–and not just because it’s erotica.

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Citation: Michael R. Sampson, et al. Rethinking the Writing Process: What Best-Selling and Award-Winning Authors Have to Say, 60 Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 265 (Nov/Dec 2016). [published online, May 2016]

The Challenge of Collaborative Writing (When Your Co-Authors Are Your Kids)

For a long time, writing was a solitary experience for me. I wouldn’t allow anyone to read even a portion of my stories until I thought it was perfect, which, thanks to my perfectionism, was usually never.

Those days are behind me, though. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’ve been collaborating on a writing project with my twins, a pair of third graders with active imaginations only children (and a handful of lucky adults) seem to have.

anusha-front-cover-smallerOur first middle grade manuscript is Anusha of Prospect Corner, which is loosely based on Anne of Green Gables. It features a 12-year-old child who struggles with her identity as the only redheaded member of her Sri Lankan-American family. I love how it turned out. Importantly, my redheaded, Sri Lankan-American daughters love it too.

This is what we did: I had a faint idea of how I wanted the story to go, thanks to Anne of Green Gables. I wrote an original chapter or two every week and shared it with my twins, who critiqued it and suggested what should happen next. Then, I re-wrote the chapter(s) based on their feedback. The result is a 47,000 word manuscript (which we hope to make available soon).

It’s a standalone novel, but we’ve decided to continue Anusha’s story in Anusha of Melrose Square. This time, my twins have assumed a larger role in the writing. They add dialogue and develop characters, and my job is to integrate their ideas with mine. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s always interesting to see what they come up with.

So far, our biggest challenge came in the beginning. We had different visions for how to continue the story. I wanted to focus on Anusha’s personal growth and relationship with her nosy neighbor. Samira wanted to focus on Anusha’s relationship with her father, and Maram wanted to focus on Anusha’s relationship with her bosom friend. It’s hard to collaborate on a story if you’re writing three different books. Ugh.

A decade ago, when Neil Gaiman shared some of the lessons he’s learned from his collaborative writing experiences, he said, “Only collaborate if you both are working on the same thing.”

Indeed, but in our case, we can’t simply dissolve the collaboration. We’re family! Plus, the goals of our collaboration are different from most authors’ goals. We are writing together as an educational and bonding experience, not necessarily to publish something at the end of the process. We’ll see how Anusha of Melrose Square turns out. In the meantime, all that matters is that we’re having fun and spending time together.

Here’s a picture of my co-authors working on Anusha of Melrose Square last weekend (while drinking tea–I love that they enjoy tea as much as I do!):

my-coauthors

For more posts about our multicultural update to Anne of Green Gables, see:

My Husband Sees Himself In My Villains

Both of us Ten years agoTomorrow is my tenth wedding anniversary, the year of tin or diamonds, neither of which excites me much. The only gift that matters is knowing I’ve been lucky enough to have a partner who supports everything in my life from raising our kids together to giving me the space to develop my legal career and hobbies.

Our marriage, like most relationships, has had its ups and downs. My rocky pregnancies, the extreme prematurity of our twins, and a couple of tumultuous career changes challenged us over the years, but we got through it together. Now, I look back on the past ten years without regrets–except for one.* I really wish I hadn’t made the villains in my books the same height as my husband.

The fact that they are exactly his height is merely a coincidence, a byproduct of my unoriginality.  It hadn’t occurred to me that it was a problem until, one day, Mr. AMB noted the similarity (and the fact that well under 1% of the population is exactly that height) and asked me why I’d based my villains on him. In my opinion, the villains bear no other resemblance to the man I married, and the fact that he thinks they *might* probably suggests more about the way he sees himself than about how I see him. The fictional characters in other people’s books that remind me of my husband — such as Rainbow Rowell’s Lincoln, who is “built like a tank, dressed like he just won the science fair,” and Kate Bracy’s Buddy, who has the same taste in music as my husband have been good guys.

My husband’s question also says something about how he sees the relationship between books and their authors, a view many of us may share. I often read books looking for a connection to the author, thinking there is a piece, perhaps a large piece, of the author (and others in their lives) in the characters. When I was a kid, I remember thinking I knew L. M. Montgomery, who died four decades before I was born, because I counted Anne Shirley among my best friends. I thought Montgomery and Shirley were one and the same.  Fiction is supposed to be fictional, but it comes from somewhere or something real — or at least for the sake of authenticity, it should.

I’ve been thinking about the sources of fiction since reading Amie Barrodale’s Why Life and Writing Are Inseparable, in which she explains:

My work comes from my life. But after my first collection of stories, I made a vow to myself: no more of that. I began to think about writing a novel about a pedophile who undergoes some kind of elective treatment, some kind of brain surgery, some kind of stimulation of his illness that forces him to basically go through the hell of his own mind, his own sickness, to come out cured. I began to read about pedophiles. But on the side, as I worked, another story emerged, about a miscarriage, a miscarriage I had last year.

What I mean is that for me, for better or for worse, my life presents itself as a story sometimes.

My stories come from my reality too. I use writing to process what I experience in my profession and in my personal life, making it no coincidence that my characters often have a legal background and confront issues related to ones I’ve had to face. Aspects of my husband’s experiences and personality have also seeped into my stories. Without him, my heroes probably would’ve been professors, rather than the type of lawyer he is, and the stories would’ve centered around a different type of litigation. Without him, my villains probably would’ve also been shorter, but I wouldn’t read too much into their heights. After all, the stories are fiction. Mostly.

Amal Wedding-06
(I don’t know why everyone looks so grim!)

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*Okay, maybe a couple of regrets, but I’ll save those for another time. 😉

Do You Want Your Diaries Published?

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I would burn my diaries if I knew where they were. At some point, while moving between Philadelphia and Boston, I lost the multi-volume compilation of my private childhood thoughts. Maybe they’re disintegrating in a landfill somewhere along I-95. Preferably, someone recycled them without ever peeking between the covers. More likely, though, they’re stuffed into boxes in my basement or our storage facility, waiting for my children to find them someday and learn how silly their mother once was.*

I don’t know why I’m self-conscious about who I was when I wrote those diaries, which was between grades two and twelve.

I also don’t know why I started keeping a diary in the first place. It may have been a reaction to the impotence of childhood, a time when I wanted adults to take my opinions more seriously than they often did. Somehow, writing my thoughts down made them seem more important.

Recently, author and diarist Elisa Segrave wrote about “the pleasure of keeping — and rereading — diaries.” She touches on the reasons compulsive diarists record their daily experiences. Some want their privacy while also wanting their “thoughts to be appreciated.”

To the extent I wanted others to appreciate the thoughts in my diaries, I wouldn’t have wanted that to happen in my lifetime (or even shortly thereafter, contrary to my typical aversion to “dead hand control”). Diaries are a vital source of historical information, though I doubt my childish musings on pop culture, boys, and other insignificant topics will provide future historians with much insight. My children are probably the only people who will ever find any reason to read them.

Segrave found and read her mother’s diaries as her mother was dying from Alzheimer’s. The journals her mother wrote between 1930 and 1950 gave Segrave a window into a woman who was otherwise uncommunicative with her children after a family tragedy.

Similarly, in Amelia Elkins Elkins, the recently deceased matriarch of the Elkins family comes alive through the diaries her daughter finds in Woodlynne Hall’s dusty, ten-thousand volume library. The diaries shed light on Gladys’s demise and on her relationship with her conceited, silly husband, a re-imagined version of the patriarch in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. The revelations could tear the family apart.

Much to her daughter Amelia’s dismay, the diaries become a potential piece of evidence in the lawsuit stemming from Gladys’s death. Grappling with the possibility of her mother’s diaries becoming part of the public record of a trial, Amelia begs their lawyers to find a way to prevent the opposition from having them:

“…These are her private thoughts. Even I wasn’t supposed to read them.” That a diary could be read was always a risk; perhaps that was part of the appeal to some who dared to share their thoughts on paper.

So maybe Gladys wouldn’t have minded. I would. How about you?

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*These days, I have the maturity to keep that silliness to myself. 😉