This is the final segment of my three-part series on tackling writer's block. Click on the links for Part I: Inspiration, or Part II: Motivation.
Perspiration may be the most difficult of the three phases of writer's block. Something inspired you and sparked a great idea. You were motivated enough to write it down right away. Now, the initial burst of creativity has burned out and your enthusiasm for the project is waning.
A lack of perspiration happens first to people who want to have a book published, but don't actually like the process of writing. If this is you, there are ghostwriters you could work with to help tell your story.
But flagging motivation and a desire to quit happens to nearly every writer. It happens to me every time I commit myself to a writing project (and happened three times when I was writing Always, Jessie). When I start losing motivation and think about giving up, I ask myself several questions:
1. Is This Project Any Good?
First, I ask whether the project is worth my time. Is the story a good one, or, is the plot riddled with clichés and the characters mere archetypes? Has someone else said the same thing in the same way? Do I already know the end point before I begin?
If the story is weak and the characters fall flat to the degree that I cannot save the story, I sometimes give it up. I do the same if the story has been told before, especially if the other book is amazing to the extent I can’t do better.
For example, I planned to write a young adult novel which was a contemporary retelling of Romeo and Juliet from Rosalind’s perspective. Doing research, I realized Lisa Fielder’s novel Romeo’s Ex and Rebecca Serle’s When You Were Mine were better books than I had planned, so I gave the project up, about 8,000 words in.
2. Should This Project Be Shorter?
If the project is worth my time, I next consider whether the story has to be told in book form. Sometimes I think people give up on their novels because their stories are a bit thin, but these stories could be adapted to short story form, condensing the tale without losing any of the twists and turns that make it interesting. And maybe that works for you! Maybe writing a 90,000 word adult novel or even a 30,000 word middle grade book isn’t for you. There are plenty of places looking for short fiction up to 10,000 words, and micro or flash fiction ranging anywhere from 50-1,200 words. Submission Grinder is a great place to start finding online publications and literary magazines looking for your brilliant shorter works!
I did this with an upcoming story for Bete Noire Magazine. I had a great idea for a mystery in which a wealthy family’s maid has been murdered. When I started writing, I got about 2,000 words in before I realized the killer was about to confess. I turned it into a short story of 3,000 words. The story was tightly written and the character much more intense than they would have been in a longer work, and I was able to finish a project in a day or two instead of the weeks and months involved in writing a novel.
On the other hand, you might have a great short story with more potential. Consider whether you can flesh out the characters, add detail to the setting, add backstories, use the story as the first of several adventures, or turn it into a flashback, if that works.
3. Do I Legitimately Need A Break?
If the project is worth my time and it needs to be told in book form, I ask why I’m stalling. Is there a problem that needs to be worked out before I can continue? I have this current issue with my rat’s nest of a historical novel. I know this will be the first, last, and only historical novel I ever write. The research process has been daunting and I am officially stuck, a third of the way in. The first third is probably some of the best work I’ve ever done, and I have no idea how to commence the next section. So, I’ve set it aside for a few months to focus on other projects.
My friends and family keep encouraging me to finish, but I know it’s not time yet. I haven’t worked out all the kinks and I don’t want to pressure myself and drain my creativity when there are other stories to work on. I considered working on this book for NaNoWriMo, but I wrote another book instead, one I was really passionate about. I’m so glad I did because the idea may have been lost if I waited and the subject matter is extremely timely, so I didn’t want to wait!
I have plans to continue the rat’s nest in another month or two. I have two short projects to complete and I think January may be a great time to start. By then, the last of the details will be fleshed out and my imagination will have time to rest and renew itself.
I think the most important question when stalling is this: Is there a reason I’m stalling, or am I just lazy. There’s a difference between being burnt out on a project and being lazy about it. When I feel fatigued by a project, I try to do a minimal word count each day. During NaNoWriMo, my goal was around 4,000-5,000 words a day. That’s a lot, but I was pushing to finish in time. When my brain felt fried, I aimed for 500-1,000 words. I barely made that minimum two days in a row. Then I went on a date with my lovely boyfriend who said, “No, seriously. You need to stop writing and come to a movie tonight,” got some rest, felt refreshed, and started back up the next morning.
Maybe your project is different. Maybe you’re aiming for 500 or even 1,000 words a day or maybe your goal is to write for an hour each morning. If you’re burned out, do a half hour. Cut your word count minimum in half. Go back to something that motivates or inspires you.
4. Am I Just Procrastinating & Being Lazy?
But, if you’re just being lazy, as I often find myself doing, push through it. Turn off the TV. Stephen King once said that TV is “really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.” The same goes for the Internet. When I write, unless I need to do research, I put my computer in airplane mode. It’s too much of a distraction.
Get off social media. Turn off the TV or YouTube or whatever is distracting you, and TURN YOUR PHONE OFF. I cannot stress this enough. Don’t mute it. Don’t put it on vibrate. Actually turn it off. The world will be okay without you checking your phone every three minutes for the next hour or two. Then, get yourself a snack, light a candle, play some music, do anything to get yourself sitting in that chair or on your couch to get down to work.
Then, sit down and write. Remember this is a rough draft. You don’t have to be perfect, yet. You don’t have to worry about editing or censoring yourself. Just get something on paper, even if it’s nameless and formless and only part of an unstructured indication of the brilliance you might flesh out later.
You don’t have to eat the elephant, but to persist, you do need to keep eating one bite, one word, one letter at a time.
This is the second in a three piece series on writing. For the first entry on Inspiration, click HERE. Next time, I’ll be talking about perspiration, but for today, I’m focusing on motivation. You have an inspired idea. Now what? What motivates you to write?
I think that’s the key question because, like inspiration, what motivates one person will not necessarily motivate another. For example, some people might be internally motivated. They’re excited by the idea of creating a world, telling a story, or finishing a project. For other writers, that might not be enough. They want to share their work with others, have their work published, win rave reviews, or earn some money. There are places you can go to tap into these incentives!
1. Motivation: Learning a Skill and Honing Your Craft
If you want to write because you enjoy learning the skill of writing and becoming a better writer, I suggest you join or connect with a professional organization. There are writing associations for just about every genre. These associations have amazing resources you can tap into and hold conferences and writing workshops throughout the year.
Personally, I have learned a lot from the conferences I’ve attended and I’ve seen sessions on every stage of the writing process—developing strong main characters, tapping into an authentic narrative voice, searching for plot holes, querying agents, and starting publicity for a finished work. More than that, you get to meet, talk, and network with writers (and some illustrators) in all stages of their careers. You can learn tips from seasoned pros and share your woes with newbies who are just starting out.
Some groups require publication before you are able to join as a member, but most have resources and workshops available to non-members as well. If you’re unsure whether you want to join, you can always visit their websites for helpful links, or attend one day of a weekend conference they provide. Some of the groups are listed below:
2. Motivation: Sharing Your Work with Others
If you’re not yet ready for publication, but you still want to share your work with others, I recommend joining a writer’s group near you. www.meetup.com is one website which acts as a platform for many different types of groups, but that’s where I found my writing group. You can do a Google search for your town. Alternatively, you can check out your town library’s website or speak to your local librarian since many writing groups meet once or twice a month and libraries are a popular meeting place!
A writer’s group is typically a group of 3-10 people who share their work and provide feedback through a peer-review process. This is also a wonderful way to meet new friends while you continue learning how to hone your craft. If there’s not a writing group in your town, talk to a librarian to see if you can start a group there at the library.
Some people feel differently, but I think it’s helpful to be part of both a mixed-genre group and a focused-genre group if you can. A mixed genre group may have poets, memoirists, children’s writers, crime writers, science fiction writers, and bloggers, and more all in one room! A focused group will consist of writers only in one genre. I think it’s helpful to read and consider different types of writing and to learn from the conventions of a genre not your own. I also think it’s helpful to learn from others who are focused perfecting the art of whatever specific genre you’re writing in.
You can always start a blog to share thoughts, short, stories, poems, or articles as I've done here! Weebly and WordPress are both great platforms! I think Weebly is easier to use, but WordPress has a better online community.
Another option is finding a beta reader. A beta reader is someone who can read, consider, and respond to your work. I did this for my second novel. I wasn’t sure about the narrative voice and I wanted specific feedback, so I turned to a trusted friend who I knew could: 1. Read the work before a stated deadline of 2 weeks and 2. Give me more feedback than just “Good job” or “I didn’t like it.” These people might be rare, but if you’re really desperate, you can always do a shout-out on Facebook to see which of your friends might be willing to try.
3. Motivation: Money
If your only motivation is making money, you can always do freelance work. Sites like Upwork and Freelancer provide freelance and contract gigs such as writing blogs, ghostwriting, copyediting, and more. If you have a skill in design or coding, even better. You can earn money using those skills as well. A list of freelance sites can be found HERE
4. Motivation: Finishing a Project
We’re talking about perspiration next time, but if your goal is to finish a novel, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is in November. The NaNoWriMo website has fun tools to help motivate you and keep you on track. They’ve got word count helpers, word sprints, charts to mark your daily progress, forums where writers can discuss their challenges and triumphs, pep talks by published writers, and local regions to join. It’s fun, motivational, and it’s not too late to start! Visit the website HERE
I’m not the type of person who is motivated by simply sitting down and writing a certain word count every day, but that does work for a lot of people. So my last suggestion is this: If you’re motivated to finish a project, consider setting a goal every day. Many writers can write about 1,000 words in an hour, but that might not be you. You could set a goal of writing for at least a half hour, or a goal of writing at least 250, 500, 1,000, 2,000 or even 10,000 words. It all depends on what works for you. Just remember, it’s not fast and speedy or slow and steady that wins the race. It’s whatever pace you feel most comfortable.
5. Make It Fun!
Writing should be fun—not a chore. Think about kids who are given chores to do. The minute they have to start cleaning up, they pout, whine, even scream. Good parents are prepared for these protestations and use motivational tools like turning the chore into a game or giving allowance for things like dusting the furniture or cleaning the dishes. No one is motivated to do chores unless they have a serious incentive. It’s the same with writing. Give yourself an incentive. Find what motivates you and tap into it to give yourself encouragement while invigorating your project!
Recently, I was asked to speak to a group of creative writing students about the writing process. I started our discussion by asking what difficulties they'd encountered during the writing process. After much lively discussion, there were clear patterns in the roadblocks these young writers encountered.
1. Lacking Inspiration
2. Lacking Motivation
3. Lacking Perspiration
I decided to do a blog entry on each of these problems.
I'm supposed to write poems and stories for class, but I can't think of anything new or interesting
There are a lot of ways to combat this problem. We can talk about finding ideas in the world, but I think the first issue is stress.
Stress blocks focus by sucking out a writer's creative energy and leaving nothing but a black space so that focusing on anything but the negative seems impossible. I tell my students that in these situations, the best thing to do is take a break.
People often believe that recreation is a waste of time or a sign of laziness. They're wrong. Recreation should be exactly what the word itself implies-- recreating. Recreate your mind and spirit. Get some exercise. Light a candle. Take a long bath. Meditate, read the Bible, pray or do yoga to get spiritually connected. Go for a walk and take some pictures along the way. Take a nap. Do anything that allows your mind to rest so you can tap into your creative energy.
Here are a few other suggestions:
5. Freewrite. Just sit and write whatever comes out. Don’t edit. Don’t try to develop anything. Just go from pen to paper. And I do recommend a pen unless you touch type quickly without looking at the keyboard. Pencils stick to paper and allows you to erase. Similarly, typing lets you look and edit things too easily. Pens flow... but whatever works for you.
6. Outline: Create a plot outline. Think about the beginning, middle, and end. Consider what you will do for major conflict and how those conflicts will resolve. This can help you to stay on point later on, but don’t hold too fast to it if you get into writing and your characters act out and go against what you originally planned.
7. Character Sketch. Create a character instead of a plot. Think about a character's age, gender, appearance, personality, interests, hobbies, education and occupation, talents, relationships, foibles, flaws, emotions, background, internal and external conflicts, etc. This can help you keep track of characters later on. You can do something like this for your world too. Sketch the setting instead of the characters. There's a great guide to generating a character sketch HERE
8. Research. Look at actual books in the library on any topic. Google random things online and then move beyond Wikipedia. Dig into an issue or idea.
Note: Portions of this blog entry were taken from a paper I presented at last year's Pop Culture Association (PCA/ACA) Conference in Albuquerque, NM.
In a recent article published in the Wall Street Journal, author Eli Gottlieb describes his struggles with creating a novel told entirely from the perspective of a first person narrator with ASD. Gottlieb first explains that realistic novels should instruct readers, implying that he hopes his book will instruct his audience about the characteristics, differences, and challenges of living with ASD. However, the author says that he comes to an impasse when trying to write from this distinct point of view.
I find myself continually shoved up against a paradox: How do you make interesting a world which is by definition pathologically self-enclosed? How does the tool kit of the novel, with its venerable elements of dialogue, landscape and plotting, persuasively present the first-person experience of someone who is overstimulated by the input of life and yet lacks the cognitive means to process and communicate it? (par. 2).
In response, Landon Bryce, author of I Love Being My Own Autistic Self and supporter of neurodiversity, writes, “Someone who feels that autistic people are ‘pathologically self-enclosed’ is not, as the Wall Street Journal headline claims, ‘Giving a Voice to Autism.’ He is, with the best intentions in the world, giving a voice to bigotry” (Bryce par. 2-3).
This dialogue demonstrates the dilemma faced by both writers and readers of fiction narrated in first person by characters with ASD. While the writers of these novels often have the expressed intention of enlightening and instructing readers through their depictions of the nuances that exist along the autism spectrum, they may grapple with giving these characters an authentic voice. In some of these novels, autism is depicted as a disorder. In some, a difference. In some, both.
The pattern I have observed in these novels is that the authors attempt to recreate the voice of a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), or Asperger’s Syndrome through a first person narrator. In the beginning of the novels, the effect is that the reader comes to understand these neurological differences and appreciate them. However, the narrative arcs of these books often concludes with the narrator being “transformed” by the love of a partner, family member, or friend. The result? The narrator appears and sounds less autistic than they did at the beginning of the novel.
In some of these novels, autism is depicted as a disorder. In some, a difference. In some, both.
I find this incredibly problematic. While people with ASD can learn how to better communicate through increased social interaction, the idea that people can or need to be changed through a parent’s love or the love of a boyfriend or girlfriend is ridiculous. More distressing is that the transformation is treated almost as a transition from a childlike state to a state of maturity. Again, having ASD does not make a person less mature or more childlike. Yet, this coming-of-age character arc of maturity and transformation occurs in book after book.
Now, having said this, I love the books discussed here. I think they are well written and, in the case of several, bittersweet and poignant. However, I feel the same way about these novels as I feel about retellings of Cinderella—they’re fun to read, possibly even touching, but not always realistic.
Marcelo and the Real World by Francisco Stork is perhaps the most realistic of these novels. Marcelo begins his story as a socially awkward teenager. Through a job at his father’s company, Marcelo meets and falls for a young woman working in the mailroom. In Marcelo’s narrative arc, he starts out completely naïve and slowly comes to fully comprehend what is going on around him. Marcelo feels the pain and struggles that others go through, and begins to develop neurotypical emotional awareness he did not previously possess. By the end of the book, Marcelo is able to overcome deficits previously caused by ASD. The story is tenderly depicted and Marcelo still retains his “special interests” and non-neurotypical narrative style even though he has become more mature.
British author Mark Haddon published one of the first novels featuring a narrator with Asperger’s Syndrome. At the opening of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, fifteen-year-old Christopher is a socially isolated child who has great mathematical abilities. Christopher also has violent repetitive reactions when overwhelmed by sensory input, which can include anything from too many people in a room, to seeing too many yellow cars in one day. His negative behavior includes screaming, groaning, refusing to speak or eat, and smashing things (Haddon 46). At the beginning of the book, he shows an extreme lack of empathy, even while misreporting his mistaken belief that his mother is dead (Haddon 26). By the end of the novel, Christopher retains his academic prowess, but is also able to have an in-depth conversation with his parents about trust (Haddon 218). His violent behaviors diminish, and like Marcelo, he becomes more mature.
Literary critic Tom Cutterham explains that in Haddon’s book, as well as in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, “the alienation of the autistic perspective is continually being countered by structures of loving protection, radiating out from family, society, and the state” (par. 15). In the same way, both Jodi Picoult’s House Rules and Jael McHenry’s The Kitchen Daughter feature narrators who undergo a coming-of-age experience through the power of familial love.
This coming-of-age pattern can also be seen in Australian author Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project and its sequel The Rosie Effect. Don, a professor of genetics with ASD begins the first book as a socially isolated man driven by his obsessive routines. After he falls in love with Rosie, many of his ASD characteristics disappear. In order to repeat this cycle in the sequel, Don’s ASD qualities reappear when the newly married he discovers that his new wife is pregnant. Then, the narrative arc is reestablished, so that by the end of the novel, Don is able to again fully communicate and narrate his thoughts and feelings while empathizing with his wife.
These novels all demonstrate an authorial attempt at solving the “dilemma” of autism by using the very lens of ableism they have tried so painstakingly to eliminate. In truth, the answer to solving this dilemma is simple: instead of attempting to “cure” these narrators, authors need to allow readers to connect with these characters in spite of and because of their neurological, social, and communicative differences. In doing so, readers can gain a better awareness of autism and can come to appreciate these differences rather than feel distanced from them.
Perhaps novels of this type will come from writers who themselves have ASD, or perhaps, they will come with time as more people learn about and come to accept the principles of neurodiversity. Whatever the case, there is a need for accurate representation of this population, which can only be accomplished through realistic plots in which characters are allowed to grow and develop without losing their unique neurologically diverse perspectives.
For today’s blog, I’m tying my thoughts in with the #FolkloreThursday group on Twitter, something that I have come to love and look forward to every week!
I started on Wednesday night considering modern folklore and the stories and “urban” legends we began to see online—first with email forwards, then Facebook posts, then tweets, and then (for the most part) ads made to look like stories.
There is one I received my first year of college. Now, over 10 years later, it still crops up here and there, though I think most people now realize the threat is no longer as dangerous or deadly as it once was.
The story goes something like this:
A young college coed named Mary went on Spring Break with her friends. While partying on the beach the first night, she met a handsome stranger. They hooked up immediately and fell into bed together that night. For Mary, it didn’t seem like a one night stand. He called the next day, and came over every night that week. Mary thought she had fallen in love. The last day of her trip, the young man took Mary and her friends to the airport. He gave her a small box and told her not to open it until she got on the plane. Mary’s heart leapt for joy, believing that this Spring Break fling was now something real. Perhaps her gift would be an engagement ring! Before takeoff, Mary’s friends leaned over as she ripped off the paper and opened the box. Inside was a tiny gold casket. Inside the casket was a small slip of paper which read, “Welcome to the world of AIDS.”
Two things always strike me about this story when reading it now:
Live deep and suck out all the marrow out of life.
The story is a modern day retelling of Daisy Miller, the novella by Henry James of a beautiful American girl traveling throughout Europe. First in Switzerland and then in Rome, she risks her reputation by going about unchaperoned with various suitors at night. After one of these excursions, she becomes ill from “Roman Fever” and dies.
While reading Ellen Hopkins Crank with my Children’s Literature class this semester, I noticed a similar pattern. A girl on vacation meets a boy, has her first encounters with love, lust, and drugs, which lead to her almost ruin. She gives into temptation while vacationing. Away from her real life, her real home, her real problems, she becomes someone else entirely—Bree instead of plain Kristina.
The idea which is reinforced in all of these tales is that, for a woman, leaving your daily responsibilities and stepping outside the boundaries of your prescribed role will lead to ruin.
In truth, these narratives can be viewed as retellings or adaptations of Little Red Riding Hood. In the tale told today, Little Red Riding Hood wanders off the path prescribed by her mother. She ventures into the woods and speaks with a wolf. The wolf finds her destination first, eats her grandmother, and attempts to eat Little Red. Then, a hunter or woodcutter comes and saves the day. Sometimes this man is Red’s age (if she is a teenager). Sometimes, he is a father figure (if she is a child).
The earliest versions of this tale include two major differences:
That’s it. There is no father or love interest to save her. She veers off the path and dies.
Her punishment for having the fever is a casket. (Well, not really, since there are no remains, except perhaps a few small bones the wolf spits out, but you get the idea)
One of the only inversions of this pattern is “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton. I hesitate to even discuss it here for those who have not read it. The tale is a brilliant feminist response to Henry James, and the entire Little Red Riding Hood paradigm. In it, the woman struck by “Spring Fever” while in Rome triumphs over her puritanical adversary by revealing just what joys that fever brought her. It is a story of shifting values and the differences between Victorian and Modern sensibilities.
I think that these folktales do demonstrate something about the way in which we view sex and women who have even the appearance of impropriety. For the most part, what I find interesting about this is that sex should not exist in this dichotomy of good vs. bad. And neither should those who have it or choose not to have it. For all the stories of girls getting AIDS on vacation, there are more girls mocked for not having sex on vacation—for being prudish and not letting go. They are judged and ruined socially just as much as Daisy was over 100 years ago for being bold and exploring Rome (and perhaps more) with a young man and no chaperon.
I think too that women can own their sexuality and become empowered without having sex outside marriage, or with multiple partners or with random hookups. People do not always talk about this. I sometimes think that women have been given a choice by society today: Be prudish and stick to the path of staying “pure,” getting married, and having children just like the good little girl and little woman society expects you to be… or be wanton, bold, and daring and hike “off trail” and do whatever you want.
People who hike off trail can be caught in quick sand or fall down cliffs. They can also have adventures that allow them to learn and grow. But going off the path does not require having multiple partners or experimenting. Women can be bold and claim their sexual power while exploring their lives, their careers, and their world in other ways.
So, my last thought would be this: If you feel as if you are fenced in like Little Red Riding Hood before her story begins—stuck at home baking bread for your grandma all day like a good little girl when all you want to do is go out and explore that big world…
You don’t have to rebel experimenting with alcohol or drugs or sex to stop being that perfect little Victorian doll on the shelf or that stereotypical 50s housewife. Female empowerment can mean sex, but it doesn’t have to. It can mean saying “No” when your employer asks you to take on one more project so that you can stop juggling and just breathe for a minute. Maybe for you, empowerment means that you stop be polite or a doormat and start being more assertive. Maybe it means dumping that boyfriend who cheats on you and never calls you, or asking out that special someone you've had your eye on. It could mena being honest with your parents about how they mistreated you as a child, or making time for that art/ music /dance /gym /whatever class you’ve always wanted to take, writing that book you’ve always wanted to write.
Follow your passion. Because I don’t think Red or Mary or Daisy wanted to go off with the wolf. I think they just wanted to have adventures. In the words of Thoreau, they, “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
In a year when our news is dominated by political figures vying for leadership by making horrible accusations against each other while screaming and yelling, I found this book about an American secretary thrust into a leadership position quite refreshing.
Peggy is an American secretary originally from Ghana. After the death of her uncle, the chief of her village, Peggy is called upon to become the first female king of her village. She travels to Ghana for her coronation and begins to see the decay that has taken place because of neglect and political corruption that began during her uncle’s reign.
Peggy’s shows great courage and fortitude when faced with the fact that she has been chosen for leadership based on underhanded reasons, and I admired her tactful strength as a leader. I also greatly enjoyed learning more about Ghana and the culture of that region.
The prose is lovely and the descriptions reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. For example, upon arriving in Africa, the power goes out. The author writes, "The electricity had gone off about an hour earlier, and Peggy wondered how long Cousin Comfort's starched robes and head wrap edged with gold lace would stay crisp, how long her black wig would remain perfectly coiffed, how long her rouge would stay perched on her wide mahogany cheekbones before it slowly glided downward and landed somewhere between her jaw and her chin."
This image of starched robes slowly melting into a literal hot mess is a vivid one, but more than that the voice and style of writing is different from terse prose typically used in autobiographies. Culturally, the people of Ghana are not direct in their communication style. I found the writing here to be an authentic representation of the way in which the Ghanaians speak and relate to one another.
I loved this book. There are some themes of American preeminence, and the belief that American styles of leadership and communication are better than those in other countries. However, the biography primarily focuses on female empowerment and the challenges of negotiating power when family is involved.
This novel is filled with colorful characters, and I fully recommend reading it.
Buy it on Amazon Here!
Today is Easter Sunday, so for this week’s book blog, I wanted to discuss Christianity in fiction. This is not to say Christian fiction, which is quite different and something I may talk about later.
I just finished the beautifully written book A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb. In the novel, Helen is a spirit who is able to enter into the body of a girl named Jenny, a depressed teenager whose soul voluntarily left her body behind. Helen has entered Jenny’s body because she was able to speak to a teenaged boy at Jenny’s school. Therefore, at first, the book seems as if it is a love story. However, the focus shifts to Jenny’s life at home, living with two religious parents who oppress her at every turn.
Jenny is forced into a prayer corner each morning. She must copy Bible verses about changing behavior and punishments in hell for rebelling. Her parents enlist the help of a police officer from their church to investigate her behavior outside their home. In one of the most shocking scenes of the book, Jenny questions their methods and has food taken away from her. She is told, “You’re on fasting and Bible.” We see scenes of Jenny required to stand before her father and have her clothing choices inspected and approved, Jenny’s belongings searched and destroyed, and even books such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights censored and denied to her. Jenny’s fanatical (and hypocritical) parents control every aspect of her life, and even Helen, grateful to be a part of life again, finds her spirit dying in their tyrannical household.
I found online reactions to these scenes to be fascinating.
One woman writes, “Negatives: makes religion look really bad.”
Another states: "Lastly, there were complaints about the religious themes in the book. I’m not sure if the reviewers thought the book was preachy or too negative toward religion, but again, I thought the religious theme fit the story. How do you have a book about ghosts without addressing the question of what happens to you when you die? Somehow the God question has to be addresses. As for the strictly religious family that Helen ended up in, I’ve actually met parents like this in my past. I don’t think they were unrealistic."
While she believed it was realistic, another reviewer disagrees:
"My biggest complaint is that Christianity is yet again stereotyped as a hypocritical, ignorant, male-dominating religion. The father "leads" his family in prayer and then commits adultery on the side. He is adamant about his daughter being modest, and then he looks upon her with some sort of desire after realizing that she's had sex. It's sick. I am REALLY tired of the media and popular culture depicting Christians in this light. True Christians are nothing like the people who are often represented as such on television, and in this case, literature."
The difficulty in the books like this one and in other media is that Christianity is portrayed as “Good Friday” Christianity—the weight, guilt, and shame of your sins upon you, making you feel as if you can never be good enough. It seems oppressive, repressive, and cruel. Characters in books of this type never move into “Easter Territory,” experiencing the joy that comes from forgiveness or an accepting heart
Oppression and repression are common themes in young adult literature, and it is no surprise to me that a book would address this issue, which is a reality for women in certain religious communities across the country. A Certain Slant of Light reminded me of Sunlight Gardener from Stephen King and Peter Straub’s Talisman. The books have almost nothing in common in terms of style or plot, but the theme of religious oppression is the same. Gardener is a charismatic “Christian” owner of the Sunlight Home for Wayward Boys. There are long passages describing how Gardener administers the abuse and torture of teenage boys. Like Jenny, the boys are forced to confess their sins to one another and are oppressed by Gardener’s hypocrisy. Rebellion only leads to more extreme torture. Eventually Gardener murders several boys.
As a Christian, I have mixed reactions to this theme. On the one hand, I have known people who grew up in families like this. I should state here that I have known people who grew up in families like this that were not Christian as well—Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, and Agnostic parents can oppress their children just as much as Christian families. Again, that is not our discussion for today.
For a short time, I lived in an area of the country where churches were predominantly fundamentalist. It shocked me how much teens were oppressed, particularly the girls. I knew girls in their twenties who had never been allowed to date, who were waiting for a suitable boy to ask their father’s permission. One young woman explained to me that as a teenager, she was not allowed to watch television or see movies because of the evils of Hollywood. She was not allowed to cut her hair, wear pants, or learn to drive. Another young woman explained that in her family, the boys were allowed to leave home, but the girls were “encouraged” to stay until they were married. When she decided to get a job, move into an apartment, and go to college, her parents nearly disowned her. She was 25 at the time. In this instance, I believe her father was using Christianity as an excuse to control his children.
Similarly, Christianity (like many other religions and philosophies) has been used as an excuse by world leaders who began wars truly driven by greed and the desire for power. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, for example, were behind the Spanish Inquisition, which required people of Muslim and Jewish faiths to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. While ostensibly for Christian reasons, this was actually done to further consolidate their power in Spain and gain complete control over their subjects.
So I can understand that for some people, religion may have been used to control their behavior and dominate them when they were children. However, there is another more predominant side of growing up in a Christian family that is not portrayed in the media, (with the exception of a few Christian films and books), and that is freedom. I have only felt freedom within my faith. Any oppression I felt was legitimate guilt over something I had done wrong. As Christians, my parents did teach me right from wrong (the law). More importantly, they taught me about grace—that wonderful gift that allows God to free us of that guilt and shame through forgiveness. A great book on this is Grace Based Parenting by Tim Kimmel and Max Lucado, which, “offers a refreshing new look at parenting. Rejecting rigid rules and checklists that don't work, Dr. Kimmel recommends a parenting style that mirrors God's love, reflects His forgiveness, and displaces fear as a motivator for behavior.” The book can be found here:
The Easter message is that anyone can embrace this freedom. The weight and oppression of all that we have done wrong is remembered during Lent and on Good Friday, a season before Easter. Christians believe that God came down to earth and was made man. In order to free humanity from the weight of the sins we committed such as adultery, stealing, lying, cheating, and murder, God sacrificed himself so that we would not have to bear the punishment. A better explanation of what I’m trying to say can be found here: http://www.gotquestions.org/blood-sacrifice.html
There is a great joy and freedom in forgiveness. Even if you’re not a Christian, when you forgive someone, you’re able to let go of whatever wrong they committed against you. It feels as if a weight has been lifted from your chest. Similarly, if you ask for someone’s forgiveness and they grant it freely without any hesitation, your spirit feels joy and release. This is what my faith does for me on a daily basis. I am forgiven, I forgive, and as a result, I am able to grow closer in relationship to God.
I’m glad that A Certain Slant of Light tackled the difficult issue of religion, and I do think that there is a bit of redemption for Helen, Jenny, and a few of the other characters. But this is brief and such a small feel-good moment, it almost seems lost in the condemnation of Jenny’s hypocritically fanatical Christian household. I loved the book, I just wish we had seen more of Jenny and Helen after they find redemption and forgiveness.
I think the difficulty in the books like this one and in other media is that Christianity is portrayed as “Good Friday” Christianity—the weight, guilt, and shame of your sins upon you, making you feel as if you can never be good enough. It seems oppressive, repressive, and cruel. Characters in books of this type never move into “Easter Territory,” experiencing the joy that comes from forgiveness or an accepting heart that embraces the good in others and tries to do more good in the world.
I think this is an area in literature and life that can still be explored. One author who does this is Richard Paul Evans in his series beginning with the book The Walk.
Beyond just straight Christian fiction, the interesting lives of people once they find redemption (release, liberation, deliverance, rescue, salvation, conversion, etc.). I’d love to see more mainstream books incorporate this at the beginning of a book instead of at the end!
I’m working on writing a Gothic novel for young adults, and as part of my process, I’ve been immersing myself in classic and contemporary Gothic literature. One of the classics I finally picked up was Frankenstein. I expected the dark gloomy atmosphere of the movies, the lightning clashes and dark mansions
There was some of this atmosphere and Shelley included beautiful descriptions including things like:
A grin was on the face of the monster; he seemed to jeer, as with his fiendish finger he pointed towards the corpse of my wife. I rushed towards the window, and drawing a pistol from my bosom, fired; but he eluded me, leaped from his station, and running with the swiftness of lightning, plunged into the lake.
I loved this description, and don’t even get me started on the tragedy of Justine, who is often left out (or severely distorted and mangled) in most adaptations.
But there are also long passages of dialogue. If you ever fell in love with the old radio or film adaptations with an almost insensible green-faced monster stumbling around mumbling…
Your perceptions are not based on the original because Frankenstein’s monster is learned and eloquent:
Be calm! I entreat you to hear me before you give vent to your hatred on my devoted head. Have I not suffered enough, that you seek to increase my misery? Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it. Remember, thou hast made me more powerful than thyself; my height is superior to thine, my joints more supple. But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.
These speeches slow the narrative and preach the author’s themes in that “telling” instead of “showing” technique authors today are always warned to avoid.
Would there be a better way to show the creature to be the “fallen angel” he claims here? And how did he learn to speak with such eloquence?
After reading the original, I moved on to read several contemporary adaptations, and I must admit I enjoyed them more in terms of pure entertainment. This isn’t to say there’s no value in Shelley’s work. It is a classic for a reason, and there are elements of her story that but I wonder if one of the reasons it’s been adapted so often is that it simply does not stand the test of time. As modern readers used to horrors like those found in Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, and so many others, Shelley’s slow-moving novel may seem tame and didactic by comparison. So we add an inscrutable monster who cannot speak, or even, in the most faithful adaptation by Kenneth Braunaugh, there is a second monster added for dramatic effect.
I finished the book the same way I did The Blithedale Romance in graduate school—because I felt like I had to. Perhaps my life, like many others, is too fast-paced to enjoy some of the slower moving classics. Or perhaps my taste in literature has become horribly lowbrow. In any case, I shall continue to enjoy some of the adaptations and leave the original alone.
In the summer of 1950 in a small village in England, Flavia de Luce, a brilliant 11 year old chemist, is whiling away the day trying to find new poisons with which to torture her two older sisters. Her quirky but rather (in her mind) dull life takes a bizarre, frightening, and somewhat thrilling turn when she finds a man passing his last breath in the gardens of her family’s estate. After her father is charged with the murder, Flavia jumps into the role of amateur detective to solve the mystery.
The novel is filled with humor, some of it slightly dark, which I enjoyed. Flavia’s family members and the villagers she encounters are just as eccentric as she is, and add to the atmosphere of delight the author has crafted. I thought that the plot was a bit odd and improbable. There are long explanations of things from both Flavia’s father and villagers about past events that may or may not link to the murder. I felt that some of these speeches were slightly confusing, and the plot is extremely far-fetched. But, this book is not meant to be a serious mystery. It’s meant to be a fun entertaining ride that the reader hops onto and relishes through the end.
I have had this series on my “too read” list for quite some time. I greatly enjoyed Flavia, who is a precocious little genius, but still shows some of the childlike vulnerabilities of a girl her age. In a small town such as the one in this novel, many of the village secrets disclosed would most likely be out in the open… but perhaps not to an 11 year old girl, which is why Flavia’s age is important to the structure of the story; it allows the reader to discover things along with the young detective.
Beyond using the character’s age as a mere narrative device, 11 and 12 year olds are perched precariously on the bridge between being children and young adults, and the author did a marvelous job capturing this. The end effect is that the mystery also serves as Flavia’s coming-of-age story.
In an interview printed at the back of this book, the author Alan Bradley stated that he would not want to see Flavia as an older teen, and therefore he keeps her at the age of 11 or 12 throughout the series. I look forward to reading the next book and seeing where Bradley takes the characters. I particularly hope that Flavia’s older sisters are fleshed out a bit more because I think they could be more than just vapid teenage foils for their genius younger sibling.
I did read this one in print, but the audiobook is narrated by Jayne Entwistle, one of my favorite narrators. I listened to the sample and she does a marvelous job. She has narrated the other books in the series as well.
Find it on Amazon HERE
And on Audible HERE
I recently bought a FitBit and when doing some research, I found an article which said, “The FitBit is just another device in the trend where we use fancy devices to quantify everything, but for most people, the numbers are useless.” This is true. A FitBit is useless if you don’t apply the data. You can track calories, steps, sleep, and even your heartrate. But if you don’t use the data to eat better, exercise more intensely, or find some quality sleep, it doesn’t mean anything.
Last week, I attended the Achieving the Dream (ATD) Conference in Atlanta. One of the primary goals of ATD is to gather data at community colleges to build and improve programs for a better student experience. After speaking with many other educators at the conference, I realized that most colleges fall into one of three categories:
3. The golden goose: Colleges that gather data and use it to improve the student experience. They realize that numbers fall outside of school politics and personal interests. Data can be manipulated at times, but numbers don’t lie. Schools utilizing data create more effective programs. Different departments work together to reach students. They increase student, faculty, and staff satisfaction, and are innovators in their field.
Are students reporting that they’re disconnected? Change orientation to be more personal, develop learning communities, hold workshops and professional development sessions for faculty to improve student-centered teaching strategies. Are older women with children dropping out? Develop solutions to provide childcare or connect with local services such as Head Start and free after school programs.
Author Wes Moore spoke at the closing session of the ATD conference, and while I love his book, hearing him speak in person was even more inspirational. He said, “It's not just about data. It's about using data to better connect with our students, and using numbers to build relationships.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.