Category Archives: Writing

Remembering our Roots

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Today I was talking to a friend about how all the TV shows these days are reruns. Are they waiting for the Olympics? Sweeps month? Out of ideas? Or scripts? Or just cheap? What?

rootsTV legends are born

Then I came home and googled around for fun, and learned that on this date 37 years ago, a TV legend began: The first installment of the TV miniseries Roots, starring LeVar Burton and based on Alex Haley’s novel, aired.

The TV miniseries was, of course, based on a book that Haley wrote after he retired from his Coast Guard service. Dropping out of college at age 17 after two years (he’d graduated high school at age 15), Haley signed up in 1939 and made the Coast Guard a career. He was a highly decorated veteran: he received the American Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal and an honorary degree from the Coast Guard Academy. A Coast Guard Cutter was also named in his honor: the USCGC Alex Haley.

The genesis of story

Haley wrote short stories while still in the service, and he became a freelance writer after his retirement. He wrote a hugely successful set of interviews with prominent African Americans before he decided to write Roots. He wanted to tell the story of his ancestors’ journey from Africa to America as slaves, and then their rise from slavery to freedom. He researched for 10 years on three continents. He visited his ancestral village, Juffure, Gambia, and listened to a tribal historian recount how Kunta Kinte, Haley’s ancestor and the protagonist of his book, was captured and sold into slavery.

Even so, Haley despaired that he could ever capture the essence of his story. He once said, “What right had I to be sitting in a carpeted, high-rise apartment writing about what it was like in the hold of a slave ship?” In an attempt to answer this question, he sailed from Liberia to America and spent his nights lying on a board in the hold of the ship in nothing but his underwear.

Book and TV miniseries made history

Doubleday published Roots—part novel, part historical account—in 1976. The book caused a national sensation and was published in more than two dozen foreign countries. More than 1.5 million copies were published in hard cover, and more than 4 million copies of the Dell paperback edition were sold. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

The television miniseries, first broadcast on January 23, 1977, still ranks among the 100 highest-rated programs. According to Nielsen Media Research, its eight episodes reached average audiences that ranged from 28.8 million households to 36.3 million households. Thirty-seven American cities declared January 23-30, the week the program aired, “Roots Week.” Television historian Les Brown wrote that the mini-series “emptied theaters, filled bars, caused social events to be canceled, and was the talk of the nation during the eight consecutive nights it played on ABC.”

Impact today

Haley died of a heart attack on February 10, 1992, at the age of 70. Today, he’s credited with inspiring a nationwide interest in genealogy and contributing to the easing of racial tensions in America. Time magazine called The Autobiography of Malcolm X, another of Haley’s well-known works, one of the 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Speaking of his writing’s impact, Haley once said, “To this day, people, particularly African-American people but white people as well, will just totally, unexpectedly walk up and not say a word, just walk up and hug you and then say ‘Thank you.’”

Thank you from me, too, Mr. Haley.

To sleep, perchance to dream

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ScaredMany avid readers remember forever the novels that deeply affected them. Stephen King has said that Lord of the Flies changed his life, because it had a point to make and was at the same time a great adventure story. I couldn’t name just one book that changed my life, but several still haunt me decades after I read them.

So I was interested to learn that researchers at Emory University devised a study to see if reading a novel could trigger measurable changes in a student’s brain. And they found out that it does—and those changes can linger for up to five days after the student stopped reading.

The study worked like this: The 21 participating students all read the same book: Pompeii, a thriller by Robert Harris that was published in 2003. For the first five days of the 19-day study, participants did no reading, but had their brains scanned for baseline measures. Then at a fixed time of day for the next nine days, the students read a portion of the novel. The next morning the researchers scanned their brains. After nine days when the students finished the novel, researchers scanned their brains for another five days.

The results: researchers measured heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persisted in a way similar to muscle memory, and these changes continued during the five-day post-reading phase of the study. The changes registered in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, lead author of the study, in an interview with The Independent, a newspaper based in the UK.

“We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense,” he said. “Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Writers have always tried to create protagonists and antagonists that readers identify with, and to write books that people get caught up in. Now we know that if we succeed, we can literally change the minds of our readers. Cool. But spooky.

Stephen King would love that.

Writing obituaries

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In my younger days, I wrote a few obituaries. Every time I did, I thought about that person’s life. What they must have experienced. How it felt. Who they left behind. How they’d be remembered.

The other night on the news, somebody interviewed two guys in the San Francisco airport who were bound for Green Bay, Wisconsin, to attend the Packer/49er playoff game. They were dressed in tee-shirts and their 49er (lightweight) jackets.

I don’t have to tell you how cold it’s been in the Midwest. The predicted wind chill factor for tomorrow’s game is -40. That’s right, minus 40. The actual air temperature by the end of the game will be below 0. People watching from the stands, if they stick it out to the end, will be sitting outside in those conditions for up to three hours.

The interviewer said, “How are you preparing for the cold?”

One guy said, “We have our Jerry Rice tee-shirts and our team spirit!”

The interviewer said, “Packer management is issuing hand warmers to all 70,000 fans—Packer and 49er. What about that?”

One guy said, “We won’t need hand warmers! We have our team spirit!” He might also have mentioned he’d be clapping too much. I might have over-interpreted his remarks.

I’m worried about those guys. To sit outside and watch that game, they need long underwear, lined pants, snowmobile suits, insulated boots, thermal socks, heavy mittens, fur hats, heat packs, foot warmers, hand warmers, blankets, and something warm to sit on. And probably other things I’m not thinking of. Living in the Bay Area, those guys probably don’t own that stuff. And they looked like they were traveling light.

As much as I admire—if “admire” it is—their courage and team spirit, those guys won’t survive the weather conditions in Green Bay wearing Jerry Rice tee-shirts and their team spirit. They just don’t have a clue about how cold -40 is. I’m worried about them, and I’m worried about their families.

I’m even worried about the obit writers. Just thinking about what it must feel like to freeze to death in -40 conditions is enough to send a chill down my spine.

So stay warm, my friends. Sometimes team spirit just isn’t enough.

Malingering…

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All right, I had major surgery, then I had a setback. Then I got bit by a tick. Then I got busy at work. Still, I wrote most days during NaNoWriMo, the first time I ever joined. I surpassed my personal goal. (Okay, goal was 15K words, and I hit 16K. Not earthshaking, since NaNo’s goal for writers is 50K for the month. But it’s been surgery, setback, tick, work.) I can’t say I’m a huge fan of NaNo, but I thought it would put me on the Right Track. Get me Moving again. Help me Set Up A Schedule.

Yeah, that didn’t work.

I haven’t written for a week, since the close of NaNo. I’m really busy, I’ve still had the surgery, the setback, and the tick. In a week I’ll leave for a long and complicated family holiday visit. But no more fooling around. I’m going to get up and get going and write. Most days. If I can surpass my personal goals in November, I can surpass them in December, too. They aren’t huge.

But if they’re steady, I’ll finish the book.

And that’s the Pep Talk to Me. Just like from NaNo!

Don’t worry, be happy

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I used to be a news junkie, and now I’m not. There’s just too much “news,” and most of it’s bad. Some days I feel like I’m hovering at the edge of a precipice, and if I read one more story about a genocide, homicide, suicide, kidnapping, molestation, torture, or war, I’ll just sink into a depression from which I will not be able to pull myself. And as I get older, the news of bad events reads strikingly the same. Politicians are corrupt? Murderers aren’t caught? These stories aren’t news, they’re business as usual. The only things that change are the names. Although I sometimes feel guilty about it, now I read headlines and sometimes a full story. I don’t read everything. I look for good news and kindness.

So I was pleased to run across this lifehacker post the other day: “How Positive Thoughts Build Skills, Boost Health, and Improve Work.” Even the headline cheered me up. James Clear, the author, describes how fear, anger, and other negative emotions limit your range of choices: If you see the tiger leap at you, your only thought is to run away. One choice.

But he describes a new study in which subjects examined images that evoked a range of emotions. Afterwards, each participant was asked to fill in the sentence, “I would like to….” The participants who’d seen positive images had a significantly greater number of goals than those who’d seen negative images or even neutral images.

Even better, the study demonstrates how doing things that make you happy builds skillsets that–even when the happy stimulus goes away–stay with you. So being happy helps you down the road even in times when you are not conspicuously happy, because you have more resources. Negative emotions build only one skillset–the ability to run away from the tiger.

The post suggests three ways to get happy: meditate, play, and write three times a week about something that makes you happy. Seems simple enough. I’m going to try it. Because the news sure doesn’t look like it’s going to improve.

A new chapter

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This week I started an MFA program–that’s Master of Fine Arts–at McDaniel University. And the best part–it’s about romance, analyzing and writing. And the next best part–it’s an online class, so I don’t have to relocate temporarily to Maryland, where McDaniel is. The program will last for a year. It’s taught by Pam Regis, who’s a professor there, and Jennifer Crusie, who’s a world-class writer. The program was funded by Nora Roberts, who as everybody probably knows, is surely the most prolific and and astonishing romance writer ever.

So far this week we’ve been reading two novels, Montana Sky by Roberts and Heaven, Texas, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. The post office or the book company I ordered from has screwed up the delivery of Heaven, but I’ve read it a million times so I remember the plot decently enough. But if I don’t get my copy soon, my first paper will be on Montana Sky.

I’m so excited to be part of this smart bunch of people who sit around their computers all day, talking about books! It’s hog heaven over here.

Happy Independence Day, and the publishing phenomenon that helped bring it about

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I’ve always liked American history, especially colonial history. The American war of colonial independence, otherwise known as the Revolutionary War, is a true David and Goliath story. On one side, the colonists: outnumbered, outgunned. On the other side, the British: world rulers. Start the smackdown!

The colonists’ desire to divest themselves from British rule did not develop swiftly. Ultimately it was fueled by the publication of political pamphlets, the most influential of which was Common Sense, written by Thomas Paine and published in January of 1776. In the first three months Common Sense sold 120,000 copies, an astonishing number. To compare: In 1776, the colonial population was 2.5 million. In today’s numbers, Common Sense would have sold 15 million copies in three months. By year’s end (1776, that is), 500,000 copies of Common Sense were sold–that means that 20 percent of the entire colonial population, including children and the many adults who couldn’t read, had bought a copy. That’s 60 million copies in today’s numbers. Compare those stats to the sales of 50 Shades of Grey, today’s blockbuster. The most recent numbers I could find report that 16 million copies of the Grey series have sold in the United States. And that’s the fastest-selling book in publishing history. And its sales records don’t hold a candle to Common Sense.

The rhetoric of Common Sense helped to sway the general population (by the middle of May 1776, eight colonies had decided that they would support independence), although many representatives to the Continental Congress were already persuaded. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia had put out a resolution for independence, a committee was formed, Thomas Jefferson was asked to write the draft, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin edited it, and the Continental Congress voted to adopt the Lee resolution of independence on July 2, 1776 with 12 of the 13 colonies supporting it (New York abstained). At the time, John Adams wrote in a letter that for many years in the future, Americans would be celebrating July 2 as their independence day. But in fact, July 4–the day the Declaration’s wording was approved–became Independence Day. New York approved the action on July 9, and the document itself was signed on August 2, 1776.

And that declaration set off a whole lot of fireworks in Great Britain. Following is the text of the document that summarized the political philosophy of John Locke and the Continental philosophers and listed the colonial grievances against the King: [drum role, please]

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation: For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us: For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States: For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world: For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury: For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies: For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments: For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

While I was away…

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I spent a few weeks in Wisconsin, in the lovely Door County, which is a vacation spot for locals. You know what I mean: lots of water frontage, kayak rentals, fudge shops. Very low key. Green. Restful.

While we were there, we went to the outdoor theater to see a double feature of Dark Shadows and The Avengers.  The theater was a blast–kids played soccer in the open field in front of the screen before the shows, and watching the obsessive SUV drive into spot after spot looking for the perfect parking place was almost entertaining enough on its own.

Both movies were extremely fun, and much popcorn was consumed. But is it just me? Watching Dark Shadows, I recalled what many writers have said about prologues: Kill them. I just thought that opening sequence went on forever and I waited… and waited… and waited for the movie to start. I love Tim Burton and I’d watch a movie of Johnny Depp doing his laundry. But he wasn’t in the prologue except as a voiceover. Maybe that was the problem.