Canary in the Coal Mine

canary-in-coal-mineEarlier this week, I listened to an NPR story about how the recently publicized eavesdropping incidents of the NSA have caused writers to self-censor their work for fear of government retribution. The story mentioned that when it comes to freedom, writers are the canaries in the coal mine, the first ones to notice and react when there is a risk of persecution. And so, instead of being able to exercise their right to self-expression, writers are keeping silent on controversial issues.

It was an excellent story, represented equally by Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, and David Simon, the writer and producer who created the HBO series The Wire. Nafisi told about a writer she knew who has faced harassment over a poem that she wrote jihadis becoming jihadis. Simon argued that “If a quarter of the writers are saying they’re already self-censoring – based on a dynamic in which you’ve seen the government not interpose in any significant way – it disappoints me that writers have not shown the courage of their convictions.”

Anyway, it made me think about the self-censoring that I do in my writing. Though I don’t fear government retribution or harassment over the things I write about on my blog, I do choose not to write about certain topics because I know quite a few of my readers in person.

I’ve come to the conclusion that if the canary in my coal mine isn’t dead, it has surely passed out. Let me justify myself.

The reason I self-censor is out of fear/respect. Fear, because I don’t want people to dislike me because I share something negative about them. Respect, because it isn’t my goal to cast anyone into a negative light.

And so I wonder if my reluctance to write about specific topics is a bad thing or a good thing. How would you feel if you had a message to share but feared the outcome of sharing that message? How would you feel if someone shared something honestly, but it cast you in a negative light?


I am way ahead of the scientists

nsf_logoI was driving to work when I heard a story on Michigan Radio’s “The Environment Report” about how scientists are being encouraged to blog about their scientific studies by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Basically, the NSF is giving more attention to grant proposals that are able to show that their study has a wider social impact, which can be shown through social media.

Marketing manager for the Nature Conservancy’s Great Lakes Office Melissa Molenda says it’s not easy to turn scientists into social media believers.

“The scientists are inherently introverted people, and were somewhat reluctant to do something so public and so extroverted,” she said.

At this point in the story, I really honed in because she just described most novelists that I know. Even though fiction may be considered to be at that other end of the creative spectrum from science, they unite on the issues of blogging.

Some people see social media (blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) as an avenue to new readership, new collaborations,  and potentially new funding. The story mentioned aquatic ecologist, Matt Herbert, who tried his hand at Twitter (@Etheostomatt) and now has 700 followers.

“I’ve gone to different professional meetings where I will interact with scientists that I’ve never met before, but I know them through Twitter,” Herbert said.

“So I’ve actually met people, I’ve built relationships with people, through Twitter.”

But for every success story, whether for science or fiction, there is the fear of blogging.

Bradley Cardinale is an associate professor in the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment. He thinks Twitter is an inefficient way to communicate among scientists, and he says blogs can force unhealthy trade-offs.

“Keeping a blog, for instance, would be a heck of a lot of time on my part,” said Cardinale.

“I could spend two hours a night writing on my blog to communicate my science to a general public, or I could spend two hours a night writing up my science paper so that I summarize my data and tell people what the actual results are in a rigorous way,” he said.

For writers like me, the struggle isn’t between writing for the public vs. writing for our colleagues, it is writing our novel vs. attracting potential readers. The problem is that if we never work on our novel because we spend our time blogging, we won’t have anything to offer to the people who like our writing style and want to hear the stories that we have inside of us.

So there must be a balance. We live a world apart from the days where writers could retreat to nature and write without consideration of things like platforms, online footprints, and marketing plans. Publishers today expect storytellers to be as savvy in self-promotion as they are in sentence structure. Introversion itself must be put aside in order to plan successful book tours and television interviews.

And so, we blog, but we also write in private. We communicate with the masses while writing a book for just one person. And we hope that our efforts will not have been for naught.

If you are a blogger, are you also working on your novel? And if you are a novelist, when is the last time you updated your blog? And if you are neither, what do you expect or want from authors today?

Soylent Green is made out of people… and it’s coming to a grocer near you!

Well, it’s happening again. Life is imitating art in absurdly creepy ways.

Soylent_greenIn high school, my pal John and I would get together and watch terrible sci-fi movies whilst gorging ourselves on “Six Foot Under-dogs”. Soylent Green was one of those movies. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it. It’s a classic. But whether you’ve seen it or not, you probably know Charlton Heston’s famous line, “It’s people! Soylent Green is made out of people!”

The film is set in an overpopulated future where women are regarded as furniture and food is less abundant than desirable. Charlton Heston’s character is a detective who has been tipped off to the mysterious origin of the government’s newest food supply, Soylent Green. In the course of his investigation, Heston follows his friend to one of the city’s many voluntary euthanization centers. Of course, he discovers that these centers are little more than glorified slaughterhouses that supply the main ingredient for Soylent Green.

If I just ruined the film for you, I apologize. But, if you know that famous line, you already know the surprise ending, so I don’t think I’ve ruined much.

Anyway, what does this have to do with life imitating art? Because Soylent is soon to be commercially available.

Sure, it may not be the “made out of people” variety that is so famous, but is food and you can buy it soon. Really, it is more of a drink than food, but it still counts. According to the NPR story where I first learned about Soylent, it was created by a busy thirtysomething who hated wasting time on preparing and eating food, so he made a kind of shake that fits the body’s basic needs. After its creation, he got some investors interested in producing the product on a large-scale.

Buy why name it “Soylent” when people will strongly associate that word with cannibalism?

I think the name is genius. It has a built-in marketing strategy. I mean, the only reason I read the original article is because it said that Soylent was food that people would soon be able to buy. I read it right away because it piqued my interest. I needed to know whether it was a joke or not and whether cadavers were actually becoming food. The name was the hook that drew me in. And no one is really going to think that it contains dead bodies in real life, right?

If you think about it, this isn’t that different from the formula that we already give to babies. True, formula isn’t as good for babies as breast milk, but that doesn’t stop millions of people from feeding it exclusively to babies until they are old enough to start eating mushy baby food. Soylent is kind of like formula for adults, although that isn’t a very appetizing thought. Though it is more appetizing than if it were made of people.

What are your thoughts on the name? Do you wish you didn’t have to eat or prepare meals?

I am a Millennial

Jonaya Kemper sews her own sundresses and grows her own vegetables, embodying the do-it-yourself mindset of many in the millennial generation. (Christina House, For The Times / May 15, 2013)

I was listening to NPR recently, and a story about Millennials (people aged 18 to early 30’s) caught my ear. They were talking about student loans, credit cards, and the attitudes of different generations toward debt.

I think they were referencing this story from the LA Times written by Emily Alpert. Here’s a snippet:

Millennials, who range from teenagers to people in their early 30s, are more financially cautious than the stereotype of the spendthrift twentysomething, several studies suggest. Many embrace thrift.

Some experts say their habits echo those of another generation, those who came of age during the Great Depression and forged lifelong habits of scrimping and saving — along with a suspicion of financial risk.

The article goes on to say that Millennials have fewer credit cards and less credit card debt. We avoid large financial purchases like cars and homes. And we spend less annually on entertainment than our 65 to 74 year-old counterparts.

Another article snippet:

“As a kid, if you had a patch on your jeans it wasn’t cool — people made fun of me,” said Jonaya Kemper, a 27-year-old preschool teacher who grows her own vegetables and sews her own sundresses. “Now they ask, ‘Can you teach me?'”

I can attest to this lifestyle and attitude toward debt. After we married, my wife and I made a point of not taking college classes that we couldn’t pay for immediately. We don’t carry a balance on our credit card, and we are well on our way to paying off our 5-year car loan in under one year. The majority of the clothes that my family wears are either from thrift shops or we have owned and worn them for over five years.

Perhaps my wife and I are cheap, but I would rather be thrifty than pay interest on credit cards or loans. And I don’t think it is just a thrift mindset at work either.

I have known three families to lose all of their things to fire. My neighbor told me the other day that there have been some daytime burglaries in our area recently. I think about the things in my house, and aside from my wife and girls, nothing else is worth risking my life over. Sure, it would stink if someone stole my extended edition Lord of the Rings DVDs, and yeah, it would be a pain to replace my book collections from P.G. Wodehouse, Kurt Vonnegut, and others, but things get stolen and things burn.

I didn’t know that this was a prevalent feeling among people in my age category before the NPR reference to the LA Times story. It’s good to know that I’m in good company.

5 Links Worth Following

Fellow lovers of words,

It’s been a while since I’ve posted some links to other cool places on the internet, and for that I apologize. There are many wonderful things out there, and I was selfishly trying to keep you here on my blog and on my blog alone. But I’ve realized the error of my ways and I’m excited to send you out to some of the places that I’ve been. If it isn’t too selfish to ask, I would love your thoughts on the pages linked below. So visit them, then come back here and share. And as always, thanks for reading.

shapes_of_storiesThe Shapes of Stories by Kurt Vonnegut | Writers Write

I just recently added the Writers Write blog to my list of noteworthy places, and I am glad that I found them. If you use Facebook, their pages is constantly updated with fun prompts, thoughts on writing, and author birthdays and facts. For word nerds like me, this site is pure bliss.

silver_blade_clichesGrand List of Fantasy Clichés | Silver Blade Magazine

I stumbled across this page while seeking a publisher for some of my flash fiction, and it is too good not to share. For anyone who reads or writes in the fantasy genre, you will appreciate this list of overused fantasy tropes. Enjoy!

flash_fiction_contestFlash Fiction Writing Contest | Literacy Center of West Michigan

I was referred to this contest by writing friend and Guild member, Cynthia Beach. If you have an interest in flash fiction, please consider this contest. The grand prize is $150 and submissions are being accepted May 15 – June 30. There is an entrance fee of $15.

flying_pigImagine a Flying Pig: How Words Take Shape in the Brain | NPR

This is an interesting article about how words and language affect the way our brain works. Scientists used to think that we had a separate module in our brains that made language possible, given that human language is so much more developed than any other creature. But what scientists actually found was quite shocking.

writingWords | Radiolab

The NPR Article above reminded me of a podcast from Radiolab, so I went back and listened. It was great all over again. If you are fascinated by words, you won’t be disappointed by this podcast!

Why We Love Our Darlings, Even If They Deserve To Die

Building your own stuff boosts your feelings of pride and competence, and also signals to others that you are competent. [photo from]

Harsh title, eh? I am, of course, talking about the saying “Kill your darlings“.

NPR just featured an article called “Why You Love That Ikea Table, Even If Its Crooked” in which it is revealed that people are attached to the things they create with their own hands far more than the same things created by other people. It is called “The Ikea Effect”.

“Imagine that, you know, you built a table,” said Daniel Mochon, a Tulane University marketing professor, who has studied the phenomenon. “Maybe it came out a little bit crooked. Probably your wife or your neighbor would see it for what it is, you know? A shoddy piece of workmanship. But to you that table might seem really great, because you’re the one who created it. It’s the fruit of your labor. And that is really the idea behind the Ikea Effect.”

According to the article, rather than people doing the things they love, people actually love the things they do. And even more so if they need a boost of self-esteem. The result is that people are often blind to the problems in their own work, willing to gloss over any bad spots because they have become attached. Thus is a darling created.

This is just one good reason that writers have editors to edit, to help us kill our darlings. Case in point, in working to promote the Jot Conference (happening tomorrow night), I sent a guest blog post over to one of our speakers, Chad R. Allen. The post that I sent was far too long. Chad kindly cut it down and sent me the revision for approval. “I think more people will read a shorter piece, and especially since the ad is at the end, I cut it down quite a bit,” he wrote. He was right.

Back to the NPR article.

“If I am sticking to a project and I have been working on it for a year or two, I might think this project really is a good idea,” Mochon said. “So while someone external might look at my project and say, ‘You know, that’s a failed project, I’m not sure you should be spending time on it,’ because it is the fruit of my own labor, because of the Ikea Effect, I might think that it is much better than it really is.”

It’s a good reason — and this is true whether you are running a big complicated project involving millions of dollars or finishing a third-grade craft project — to have someone from the outside, who isn’t invested in you or your work, give you some objective feedback before you show your project to the world.

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If you are interested in writing, editing, or creativity in general, please join us at Jot: The GR Writers Mini-Conference tomorrow night at Baker Book House, 2768 E Paris Ave. SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49546.

The Value of Struggle

Chinese schoolchildren during lessons at a classroom in Hefei, east China's Anhui province, in 2010.STR/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese schoolchildren during lessons at a classroom in Hefei, east China’s Anhui province, in 2010.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

About a month ago, I heard a story on NPR about some of the parenting differences between East and West. The basic idea was that the West places great value on being smart, while the East places great value on the struggle to succeed. There were two bits that really stuck with me.

The following is from Jim Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA who studies teaching and learning around the world.

“The teacher was trying to teach the class how to draw three-dimensional cubes on paper,” Stigler explains, “and one kid was just totally having trouble with it. His cube looked all cockeyed, so the teacher said to him, ‘Why don’t you go put yours on the board?’ So right there I thought, ‘That’s interesting! He took the one who can’t do it and told him to go and put it on the board.’ ”

Stigler knew that in American classrooms, it was usually the best kid in the class who was invited to the board. And so he watched with interest as the Japanese student dutifully came to the board and started drawing, but still couldn’t complete the cube. Every few minutes, the teacher would ask the rest of the class whether the kid had gotten it right, and the class would look up from their work, and shake their heads no. And as the period progressed, Stigler noticed that he — Stigler — was getting more and more anxious.

“I realized that I was sitting there starting to perspire,” he says, “because I was really empathizing with this kid. I thought, ‘This kid is going to break into tears!’ ”

But the kid didn’t break into tears. Stigler says the child continued to draw his cube with equanimity. “And at the end of the class, he did make his cube look right! And the teacher said to the class, ‘How does that look, class?’ And they all looked up and said, ‘He did it!’ And they broke into applause.” The kid smiled a huge smile and sat down, clearly proud of himself.

And another part of the story.

“We did a study many years ago with first-grade students,” he tells me. “We decided to go out and give the students an impossible math problem to work on, and then we would measure how long they worked on it before they gave up.”

The American students “worked on it less than 30 seconds on average and then they basically looked at us and said, ‘We haven’t had this,’ ” he says.

But the Japanese students worked for the entire hour on the impossible problem. “And finally we had to stop the session because the hour was up. And then we had to debrief them and say, ‘Oh, that was not a possible problem; that was an impossible problem!’ and they looked at us like, ‘What kind of animals are we?’ ” Stigler recalls.

“Think about that [kind of behavior] spread over a lifetime,” he says. “That’s a big difference.”

How many times have I been proud of myself because of my innate abilities rather than how hard I work to improve the things that aren’t as good? How many times have I thrown in the towel when things got hard?

There is value in the struggle. There is honor in the accomplishment. And even though some things come easy to me, I need to learn to struggle with the things that don’t.

You can listen to the original story here.


Engendering Cooperation Through Mannequins

I read this interesting article the other day on NPR’s website and it reminded me of a story from my college days.

For those who believe that clicking links is something that other people do, the article says:

In a series of new experiments, researcher Dariusz Dolinski of the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland found that when the initial request was highly unusual, people were more likely to comply with the demand that followed it.

Back when I attended Western Michigan University, my roommate Adam and I decided to make a video for the heck of it. If I remember, the video was to be an ad for toilet paper. In it, a man is chased across campus horror-movie style by a mannequin who keeps saying things like “Softer than ever” in different people’s voices. We used stop motion animation to make the mannequin move. The video featured a car chase and O Fortuna. In the end, the man makes it to his house and hides in the closet only to discover the mannequin there waiting for him. Then a disjointed scene cut to the man and mannequin smiling and saying the happiest “Softer than ever! Quilted Northern Toilet Paper!” that you’ve ever heard.

I believe we were tired when we thought up the idea for the video. Cut us some slack. It was fun at the time. If Adam still has it somewhere, I’ll post it here so we can all be scared together.

The reason the NPR article reminded me of this was because as we were shooting the video, we asked random passersby to stand close to the camera and say “Softer than ever”, and you know what? Everyone complied. Not one person refused us.

Mannequins are super creepy.

Why? I’m pretty sure it was because of the mannequin. For some reason, the craziness of two guys with a video camera lugging a mannequin around just made people want to be a part of what was going on.

It wasn’t until I saw that article today that I realized our mistake. Adam and I asked the crazy question, but we never followed it up with a more reasonable request. I wonder now if we could have gotten money somehow.

Maybe it is time for another video. Anyone have a mannequin I can borrow?

Back to School | Fantasy & Science Fiction

My phone died on the way home from work yesterday. I’m really glad that it did.

My wife and I both get out at 5:00 PM. She picks up our daughter from her parent’s house on the way home from her work, and I get dinner started since I get home first. We always call each other and talk on the way home (driving safely, of course). But yesterday, my phone died just as I was pulling onto our street.

I got home a few seconds later and went about my routine (let the dog out, get the mail, take care of my lunch bag, start dinner). By the time I got my phone plugged in to call my wife back, she was almost home.

“Monkers,” she said to me, “Did you happen to turn on NPR after your phone died?”

I told her that I did not.

“Because I heard something on the radio that made me think of you.”

She proceeded to tell me about a free class being offered by the University of Michigan that had to do with Fantasy something-or-other. My wife knows that I would like to go back to school at some point and get some formal training in writing. I graduated a few years back from Western Michigan University with a degree in Recreation and a minor in Communication. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I took up a serious interest in writing.

“I’d really like to look into that,” I said.

So I did.

The class is called Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. It doesn’t look like a specifically “writing” course, but it looks great all the same.

Here’s a description from the sign-up page:

Fantasy is a key term both in psychology and in the art and artifice of humanity. The things we make, including our stories, reflect, serve, and often shape our needs and desires. We see this everywhere from fairy tale to kiddie lit to myth; from “Cinderella” to Alice in Wonderland to Superman; from building a fort as a child to building ideal, planned cities as whole societies. Fantasy in ways both entertaining and practical serves our persistent needs and desires and illuminates the human mind. Fantasy expresses itself in many ways, from the comfort we feel in the godlike powers of a fairy godmother to the seductive unease we feel confronting Dracula. From a practical viewpoint, of all the fictional forms that fantasy takes, science fiction, from Frankenstein to Avatar, is the most important in our modern world because it is the only kind that explicitly recognizes the profound ways in which science and technology, those key products of the human mind, shape not only our world but our very hopes and fears. This course will explore Fantasy in general and Science Fiction in specific both as art and as insights into ourselves and our world.

This course comprises ten units. Each will include a significant reading, typically a novel or a selection of shorter works. I will offer video discussions of each of the readings and also of more general topics in art and psychology that those readings help illuminate. Each unit will include online quizzes and ask you to write a brief essay offering your own insights into the reading. All the readings except Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness will be available online at no charge.

The professor is Eric S. Rabkin. Again, from the sign-up page:

Eric S. Rabkin is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Professor of English Language and Literature, and Professor of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. He has won numerous teaching awards, including the Golden Apple awarded annually by the students to the outstanding teacher at the University of Michigan. His research publications include the first English-language theoretical discussion of fantasy and the second of science fiction. He has won the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pilgrim Award for lifetime contributions to science fiction criticism.

And the class really is free.

I signed up last night.  You can sign up here. Who’s going to join me?