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.

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]

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. 😉

What Does An Asterisk* Mean To You?

aholeRecently, I was in a meeting at a company that uses a giant asterisk in its logo. The asterisk doesn’t refer to a footnote at the bottom of the logo. It doesn’t replace the dot of the letter “i” or “j” either. It’s just there, and I’m not sure why.

To me, an unaccountable asterisk can only be one thing: an asshole à la Kurt Vonnegut.

Have you read Breakfast of Champions?

I’m not sure how many people have even heard of it these days. No one else at that meeting seemed to think the PowerPoint presentation was covered in assholes.

See also, Kurt Vonnegut’s Literary Reputation: More Evidence That American Culture Must Be In Decline.

Diverse Books Tag: Have You Read Any of These? If Not, You Should!

Diverse Books Tag

Thank you to Naz for creating the Diverse Books Tag and to Silicon for tagging me!

Here’s what I came up with:

(1) A Book Starring a Lesbian Character

That Certain SomethingThat Certain Something by Clare Ashton is a romantic comedy featuring Pia and Cate. One is a disaster-prone idealist, while the other is an elegant pragmatist. They fall for each quickly, perhaps too quickly for those of us who cringe at “insta-love,” but love isn’t the highest priority for the practical half of the pair–at least, not immediately.

To find other books starring lesbian characters, check out Lambda Literary.

 

(2) A Book with a Muslim Character

As I wrote in Courting Samira: An Honest Portrayal of Muslim Women:

Courting Samira“Amal Awad’s debut novel, Courting Samira, centers on a Jane Austen-style love-triangle set in a contemporary Arab-Australian community where business-like arranged marriages are still the norm… It caught my eye immediately, as I share my first name with the author and one of my daughters shares her first name with the protagonist… Overall, I appreciated Courting Samira for its nuanced look at what it means to be a modern Muslim woman in the Western world, a polite rebuke to the stereotypical depiction of Muslims that we often see in the media.”

For other books starring Muslim characters, check out Nuzaifa’s list at Word Contessa.

 

(3) A Book Set in Latin America

How I became a nunCésar Aira’s How I Became a Nun, set in Rosario, Argentina, focuses on a six-year-old child, who generally refers to herself as a girl while the adults refer to her as a boy. Though light on plot, this novella is a compelling foray into the mind of an imaginative, precocious child.

For more books set in Latin America, check out the recommendations at Vamos A Leer (Teaching Latin America Through Literacy).

 

(4) A Book About a Person With a Disability

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork features a seventeen-year-old with an MarceloAsperger’s-like condition whose father forces him into the “real world” by making him work in a law firm’s mailroom.

Though certain aspects of the legal framework in this YA book didn’t quite hold up, as I wrote in Marcelo in the Real World: A Book Law Students Should Read, “the book is worth reading for those interested in entering the legal profession.  It is a reminder about the human side of the law, particularly of the people who have been injured and who need legal representation.  These are real people with real problems…”

 

(5) A Science Fiction or Fantasy Book with a PoC protagonist

This isn’t a genre I’ve read much lately. Thanks to this book tag, I’ve added The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo to my TBR list.

The ghost brideVia Goodreads: “Li Lan, the daughter of a respectable Chinese family in colonial Malaysia, hopes for a favorable marriage, but her father has lost his fortune, and she has few suitors. Instead, the wealthy Lim family urges her to become a “ghost bride” for their son, who has recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at what price?”

 

(6) A Book set in (or about) any country in Africa:

Half of a yellow SunA book I’ve added to my TBR list is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Via Goodreads: “With effortless grace, celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie illuminates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s.”

 

(7) A book written by an Indigenous or Native Author

Chickadee CoverLouise Erdrich’s Chickadee (the Birchbark Series) is a middle grade novel that features Chickadee and Makoons, identical twins who were born prematurely during the 1800s.

At the end of Louise Erdrich’s Chickadee: “Small Things Have Great Power, I wrote: “As I discussed [] in Correcting a Kindergarten Deficit (As Requested By An Almost-First Grader), one of my daughters has already decried her lack of exposure to Native American culture. Erdrich’s novels are one way to fill this void. The Birchbark House Series is destined for their bookshelves.”

(8) A Book Set in South Asia

Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje is the first book Mr. AMB, then my college sweetheart, ever gave me. It was probably his first exposure to Sri Lanka, where my mother is from.

Tea Leaves ThumbnailFor children, I recommend Tea Leaves by Frederick Lipp (author) and Lester Coloma (illustrator). As I said in The Best Stories Are The Ones You Know Yourself: “[This] beautifully illustrated story features Shanti, a nine-year-old child from Sri Lanka’s mountainous tea region. She lives on an island, but has never seen the sea… Tea Leaves offers my daughters a glimpse into a part of their background. Shanti lives in a different region from where our relatives live, but she is a fictional friend my daughters associate with their heritage.”

(9) A Book With a Biracial Protagonist

Mexican White Boy Thumbnail CoverHere are two books with biracial protagonists: Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Peña and Re Jane by Patricia Park.

In What it Means to be Biracial, I wrote: “Mexican WhiteBoy explores [] structural barriers for ethnic minorities with an emphasis on the experiences of Danny and Uno, two boys caught between two identities.” Danny is half Mexican and half white, and Uno is Mexican and African American.

Patricia Park’s Re Jane is a contemporary Korean American Re Janeretelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. While I struggled with the unsettling parallels to Bronte’s Victorian novel, I appreciated Park’s portrayal of biracial identity. As I wrote in The Challenges of Modernizing a Classic Novel, “What is wonderful about the book is its portrayal of bi-racial identity, of being “Asian-ish,” of not quite belonging anywhere. These are feelings I can identify with as a multi-racial person of predominantly South Asian and Irish American ancestry.”

 

(10) A Book Starring a Transgender Protagonist or About Transgender Issues

A middle grade novel I plan to read soon (thanks to a recommendation from my sister) is George by Alex Gino.

Via Goodreads:

George“When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part . . . because she’s a boy.

With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte — but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.”

I would also put Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music into this category because it involves transgender-related issues.

Frog MusicJeanne “Jenny” Bonnet, a 27-year-old frog catcher, dressed like a man at a time when women were not supposed to do that. It was actually against the law.

In Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music: Portraying 19th Century Gender Norms That Still Exist Today, I discuss the evolution of anti-cross dressing laws in the United States and the ways in which the underlying gender expectations that fueled those pernicious laws remain part of our society.

 

Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think of them?

Why Do You Write?

Have you ever wondered what compels writers to bring their pens to paper (or, in our modern world, their fingers to the keyboard)? This is how some of my favorite authors have explained their motivations to write:

(1) Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World (among other works), said: “Well, one has the urge, first of all, to order the facts one observes and to give meaning to life; and along with that goes the love of words for their own sake and a desire to manipulate them.” (via Paris Review)

(2) Lois Lowry, author of The Giver (among other novels), said: “I write books because I have always been fascinated by stories and language, and because I love thinking about what makes people tick. Writing a story… The Giver or any other… is simply an exploration of the nature of behavior: why people do what they do, how it affects others, how we change and grow, and what decisions we make along the way. Added to that, I love the process of finding the right rhythm of words, and then putting it all together, finally, to make a book.” (via Scholastic)

(3) Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse Five (among other books), said:

  • “I write books which express my disgust for people who find it easy and reasonable to kill.”  (Letter to Draft Board #I, Selective Service, Nov. 28, 1967). (via Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield)
  • “Writing well is more than a way to make money. My father Kurt senior wrote like an angel, simply in order to be civilized, to make the lives of those around him more amusing and interesting.” (Letter to Alexander and Jackson Adams, Jan. 18, 1997). (via Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield)

(4)  E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web (and other books), said: “I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze.” (via Letters of Note)

These authors write for a range of reasons, including the need to process the world around them, express themselves, satisfy an urge, or entertain others. I particularly like White’s analogy of writing to a sneeze. In other words, he wrote because he had to.

Two Lovely Berries by AM BlairI write stories for many reasons too.

In the beginning, when I wasn’t sure whether I would ever share my writing with anyone, I wrote fiction to process the real-life horror stories I see through my work as a public interest lawyer (resulting in Two Lovely Berries, a New Adult novel that addresses family violence).

Amelia Elkins ElkinsI also write to escape from life’s drudgery and stress. With Amelia Elkins Elkins, a Persuasion-inspired “courtroom romance,” I combined my interest in the law with my love of Jane Austen, whose novels have always comforted me during stressful times.

Now, with Anusha of Prospect Corner (a work-in-progress), a multicultural take on Anne of Green Gables, my reasons for writing have grown to include my desire to engage with my children. We’re writing this story together. There’s nothing more rewarding than hearing them laugh at the lines we’ve created as a team.

Our version of Anne is named Anusha. She’s a redheaded Sri Lankan American, like my twins, and she lives in a diverse community that is quite different from Anne’s racially homogeneous Avonlea. Each week, I write a chapter or two of the story, which they critique (they are quite opinionated little writers/editors). Then, I rewrite the chapters and write the next one based on their suggestions.

We’re just over 40,000 words into the story, about 5,000-10,000 words away from the end. I’m going to be sorry when it’s over, but, as I’ve explained to my kids, Anusha has a whole lifetime of adventures ahead of her. I feel a sneeze coming on… 😉

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