Learn from the past, but don’t focus on it

I saw the headline this morning, something about a theater shooting, but I didn’t click through. Can I be excused for thinking that the current news story was related to another, older theater shooting? It wasn’t until I noticed “Louisiana” that I realized this wasn’t the Colorado shooting and related to James Holmes’ sentencing.

Theater shootings, school shootings, church shootings—each time, the shock, the police briefings, the media frenzy, the questions and desire—no, demand—for answers that we may never learn.

Or if we learn them, we might be ignoring the lessons lurking within the answers. I’ve read,

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” –George Santayana

If that’s true, then we do a damn good job of forgetting the past because we have repeated it countless times. Variations, to be sure. But the stories repeat the same basic movements, like a bodybuilder executing reps of a powerlift at the gym.

But there’s a flip side to all this.

One of my favorite radio stations used to have a DJ who specialized in talking about tragedies. It seemed that every day, she had some new tragedy to recount: a kidnapping, a shooting. “I’m sure we’ve all been glued to our televisions as this story unfolds,” she’d say. In some cases, she was right; the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting was a story like that.

But most of the time, it was something that had happened hundreds of miles from me, and while horrifying, I wasn’t going to glue myself to my non-existent television to learn what happened.

945c5f0284e3403f9d0364e883b73862Tell my kids to be careful, yes. Be careful myself, yes. Become paranoid, no. Stop my life to follow news coverage, no. Let this tragedy determine the trajectory of my life, no.

While I think we should remember the past, we also cannot remain mired in it. We need to remember the past and find the lessons that are to be learned from it; that way, we don’t fall into the same destructive behavior patterns and have the same destructive results. But there’s a danger in focusing too much on these past events.

In Bury Your Dead, Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache ruminates,

“For them, the past was as alive as the present. And while forgetting the past might condemn people to repeat it, remembering it too vividly condemned them to never leave.”

This idea takes dramatic form as the series continues. A horrible, violent attack has left Gamache and his second-in-command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, wounded physically and mentally. Several of their agents have died under Gamache’s command.

While Gamache is haunted by the past (and the professional mistakes that led to the deaths), he seeks to understand the events and grapple with them. He finds solace in his wife, friends, resting, and reading calming books. When a graphic video showing the shootings is leaked online, he does not watch it.

9015c56573e24779a84ce3830424cebaIn contrast, Jean-Guy can’t stop watching the video. He watches it every chance he gets, just like he begins abusing pain medication and becomes addicted to the pills. The formerly loyal sidekick turns on his boss and anyone who might actually help him, including the love of his life, and chooses to side with Gamache’s professional enemy, who also supplies him with more addictive pills. He is remembering the shooting too vividly, thanks to the video. And he can’t leave the past. And he suffers as a result.

I’m sure we’ve all known or been like Jean Guy. If the past were a country, he’s not only revisiting it, he’s bought property, built a megamansion on it, and decided to live there and apply for permanent citizenship. If he’s not careful, soon he’s going to be pledging his allegiance to the State of The Past. (Ever been there?)

Perhaps we’ve had people like Gamache point out the destructiveness of our past-dwelling. What do you need to learn from this experience? they ask.

The answers might come quickly or slowly. They might be detailed or general. They might be different for me than they’d be for others in the same situation. (A distant bystander will have different answers than a police investigator, for example, or a politician.)

Sometimes, like now, as I watch the news at a restaurant, the answers are these:

I can’t control other people.

 I can’t guarantee that when I walk into a movie theater, I’ll walk out. I can’t guarantee that when I drop my kids off at school, they’ll come home. I can’t guarantee that a gunman will never kill me or others at church. I can trust that God is in control, even if the worst happens, and that he will be there with me, even if the worst happens. That’s my only guarantee. 

Life is too short to take for granted, but it’s also too short to live in fear.

Those would be my lessons from this tragedy. Now that I know them, I’m free to live in the present. I’m free to love and pray for those more deeply affected by the tragedy without being consumed by their pain. I’m free from the paralysis of fear.   












Racism and the need for more diversity in fiction

photo by phantomswife, flickr.com
photo by phantomswife, flickr.com

My seven-year-old daughter is a huge Nancy Drew fan. I have fond memories of reading Nancy’s adventures, even though I laugh at some of the writing.

Top rules for Nancy Drew writers of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s:

  1. Every verb must have an adverb attached to it. Nancy can’t just “say” anything; she must say it “excitedly” or “forlornly” or “quickly”.
  2. When in doubt, have the bad guy conk Nancy on the head and knock her out and tie her up. And gag her, lest she scream for help while knocked out.
  3. If there’s a racial minority in the book, this person must meet all the stereotypes of that race.  

My husband drew my attention to that last point. Little Cecelia begs him to read to her, and so he’s been forced to read about the blonde-haired Nancy, pleasingly plump Bess, boyish and athletic George, and perpetual boyfriend Ned. Last night, he mentioned the racism in one Nancy Drew book.

“All the African-American characters talk in stereotypical ways, and they’re all servants to the white people. Racist.”

(Then he had to define “stereotype” and “racist” for Cecelia’s benefit.)

I flipped through the book. Sure enough, the servants are called “Mammy” and “Pappy”, address Nancy as “Miss Nancy”, and practice voodoo. Nancy’s swamp tour guide, an older man named Rufus, refers to his “ka-noo” and refers to himself in third person, like this:

“Want ol’ Rufus to tell ’bout the time–”


Yes, I know this was written in 1957. Yes, I realize that the (presumably) white author thought she was capturing the dialect of African-Americans living in New Orleans.

But this is 2015. I know my daughter knows that African-Americans don’t speak like this. One of her best friends at school is black, and she’s had black teachers and neighbors and classmates. Absolutely none of them speak in this way.

But she didn’t see the racism in the text. Is that too much to expect from a seven-year-old white girl? My husband and I feel the need to point out the prejudiced attitudes we see.

We’ve had similar experiences when reading older books, where the racist attitude is casual and acceptable. For example, in the Little House books, Ma hates the Native Americans and is shocked that young Laura wishes she could have an Indian papoose as her own. At one point, a character says that “the only good Indian is a dead one.”

So we tell the kids, “Is that a Christian attitude for Ma to have? Is that kind?” To which they shake their heads and say no, of course not.

That’s how we handle it. But what if we weren’t white?

What if my seven-year-old were an African-American girl reading Nancy Drew? Would she notice the racist undertones? Would she wonder . . .

  • Why Nancy has no friends that look like her?
  • Why Nancy herself is blonde and drives a convertible and has daring adventures while the novel’s African-Americans are servants?
  • Why Nancy doesn’t look like her?
  • Where are the mystery stories that have a black girl as the main character?

A recent Writer Unboxed post addressed the issue of diversity in fiction. Grace Wynter, a guest blogger, wrote,

As a teenager and later as a new adult, I devoured romance novels. But as much as I enjoyed those stories, something was missing. I read about blondes and brunettes, blue and green-eyed girls who, in the end, always found love, but there were no stories about girls who looked anything like me or my friends. In my school library and at my local book store, there were no stories about nerdy, fat, black, skinny, Latina, Caribbean, or Asian girls getting the guy. There were no stories where girls like me got to be the heroes. Where just for a little while, in the pages of a book, someone’s world revolved around them.

That’s sad to read. It’s also disheartening to read on and acknowledge the truth of what’s she’s written: if a romance novel features a black protagonist, it will be shelved with African-American fiction (a small part of a bookstore) rather than with other romance novels (where it belongs). I don’t even care for romance novels, and this saddens me.

But I think there’s hope. More people appear to be acknowledging the need for diversity, and writers can definitely help with this. I may not be a racial minority, but I can do my part. Grace has three suggestions:

I can read widely. (This one is hard for me, actually. I have a helter-skelter attitude toward what books I pull from the shelves, one based on titles and covers rather than author. So I end up with a grab-bag of novels that have caught my eye that may or may not be diverse in terms of author’s ethnicity/race/gender/orientation.)

I can recommend books, assuming that I’ve read and enjoyed them. (This might be easier for me. When I like a book–and especially if I love it–I will babble on and on and on about it online. But not at church. That’s an entirely different story!)

I can incorporate minorities in my own writing. (This one is tough, as I’ve written before.)

If we try, I think writers can make a huge difference in racial perceptions among readers.

So, do you have any minority authors you’d like to recommend? Share them with us! 


On a tangent, I’d like to note that it took me more time to find a free and labelled-for-reuse photo of an African-American girl reading than it did to write the post. Why? I don’t know. It just took a very long time. PS: I just realized that the photo isn’t displaying properly. Sigh. 

How I learned to enjoy science and math (and why I didn’t in high school)

When I was a college student, I took one semester of chemistry. It was my first semester after transferring from my itty-bitty Christian liberal arts school, and for some reason, despite having no interest in science and no background in chemistry, I had signed up for this class. Somehow I made an A. I was totally uninterested in the subject matter. 

There must be a story behind this tattoo! https://farm1.staticflickr.com/537/18393319548_cd981700e1_b.jpg
There must be a story behind this tattoo! One is dopamine and the other serotonin. Photo by euthman, flicker.com

Uninterested, that is, until the last class. Dr. X mentioned various chemicals in the brain, including serotonin.

Serotonin! My brain perked up. I knew what serotonin was. My doctor had me on a SSRI for depression, and my nutritionist had explained how SSRIs worked and what serotonin did in the brain. But most importantly, whatever chemical actions it was doing, it was doing in MY brain. Suddenly chemistry wasn’t some abstract concept with confusing little diagrams of letters and symbols; it was real, it was exciting, and it was happening in me, somewhere below the brown hair and scalp and skull. Why hadn’t he mentioned this before?

I’ve never been interested in science or math. I made good grades because I studied. But science was my hardest class, and math was the class I privately voted Most Likely to Bore Me.

Which is why, when I dreamed up my current WIP’s teenage protagonist, Cady, it surprised me that she enjoyed science and math. It also filled me with dread: how was I ever going to think like Cady? And if she was supposed to be brilliant in those fields, was I going to come across as faking all my knowledge of science and math?

I had research to do. So I started reading. To my surprise, I enjoyed some of my reading. I’m currently working through Here’s Looking at Euclid, by Alex Bellos, and discovering all the math I wasn’t taught.

And I discovered why I hadn’t enjoyed these topics before. My well-meaning teachers had ruined some of the most fascinating subjects possible. How? By forgetting to tell us the stories and the people behind the concepts. 

(In their defense, they had to stuff a lot of information in our heads and were up against hormones, high school melodrama, and our long history of being told the lie that “math is boring” and the equally fallacious lie that “girls excel at language, boys excel at math.” These poor teachers had the prospect of standardized testing looming over them, as well as our desire to do well on the ACT and SAT. So naturally, they skipped the fluffy stories in favor of equations.)

There are people who are intrigued by concepts. E=MC² makes them jump up and down with joy (or at least perks their interest).

Then there are people like me who adore stories. I’m only interested in Einstein’s theory of relativity when I get to hear more about Einstein and less about his theory. The person interests me more. I’m far more interested in geometry after reading about the Sierpinski carpet and the Menger sponge and the woman who constructed a level 3 Menger sponge with 66,000+ business cards.

By Niabot (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
This is a level 4 Menger sponge, which is a sponge after four iterations of cube removal. Be sure to click the link and read the Wikipedia article. By Niabot (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Why wasn’t I interested in math? Because, in trying to explain the conception, the teachers weren’t talking in a language I understood. They weren’t connecting my interests–language, history, people–with the topic. It’s not really their fault, considering the outside-imposed limitations of the classroom. But it’s still a shame that I’m only now, at age 37, understanding the joys of topics like neuroscience and geometry.

It seems to me that there’s a lesson here for me as a writer. Often, when I communicate with people in real life, I use the language that comes naturally to me; my illustrations come from books and stories, art and history. But I’m surrounded by people who aren’t very interested in those things and who don’t have the same educational background in the liberal arts. My illustrations don’t connect with them.

It makes communication difficult. Sometimes, after a church service, I tell my husband, “It’s like we’re speaking two different languages!” I’m using words in one way (a way that makes sense to me) and other people are misunderstanding because those words mean something different to them. My husband nods. “It took me a while to understand how you think and talk about issues,” he’s told me.

It’s not just inside church, either. It happens in politics, in law, in literary criticism. (Literary critic Harold Bloom has complained that no one understands what he meant when he claimed Shakespeare “invented” the human.) It happens when people of different religions talk to each other and when religious people talk to non-religious people. For example, when well-meaning Christians start throwing churchy terms at people who aren’t into church, it’s unnecessarily confusing. (Not to mention a turnoff. If I ever do that, please point it out to me. Jesus didn’t use clichés, and I don’t want to, either.)

I’m not certain that the other people understand that there is miscommunication going on. So the impetus is on me, I guess. I’ll have to become bilingual and learn to use their language, even if I’m never fully comfortable with it. 

How about you? Have you had to become “bilingual” to communicate with other people in your life? How did you do it?

Framing questions & imitation art

photo by kblount, morguefile.com
photo by Grafixar, morguefile.com
photo by Grafixar, morguefile.com

My 12-year-old daughter has been reading the “Hornblower” books this summer. Though I haven’t read C.S. Forester’s series, I’ve gathered that it’s about a naval officer in the Napoleonic Wars. There’s a love interest named Lady Barbara, lots of seafaring adventure, and that sort of thing. Hornblower moves up the ranks quite steadily (a little too steadily, my husband complains): midshipman, lieutenant, commodore, lord, admiral. And all the titles seem to have “Hornblower” in them.

That last part seems to have driven my husband a little wacko, because this morning, he stuck a note inside the front cover of Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies.

Rejected titles by Forester:

Hornblower and the Unblowable Horn

Hornblower and the Leaky Canoe

Hornblower  Up a Creek Without a Paddle

If he hadn’t been off to work, I’m sure he would’ve come up with plots to go along with the titles. Given his antipathy toward the series, the plots would have Hornblower being demoted or something.

I’m not certain what it is, but something about novels (particularly classic ones) make writers long to re-write that book or use the same characters in a new plot or satirize what was originally serious.

Look at Shakespeare. I’ve seen Hamlet written as a YA novel set in 20th century Britain and twisted in postmodern style, Lady Macbeth given her own first-person narrative, and countless R & J knockoffs. Richard III became a Nazi-ish figure, the swastika replaced by a white rose on his flags, representing the House of York. Melville’s Captain Ahab owes a great deal to King Lear. (Nobody has taken on Titus Andronicus, to my knowledge.)

Jane Austen has her own industry. P&P with vampires, Emma in an American high school, I don’t know how many other variations. And just this past weekend, I read a retelling of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

There’s a variation on this that I encountered on a writer’s review website: fan fiction. The fan fiction writer uses another writer’s characters and creates new stories for them. (I’ve heard that Fifty Shades of Grey started out as fan fiction of Twilight, and E. L. James changed the names of the lead couple once her work built an online audience. I don’t know if that’s true.)

As someone who’s never had difficulties with conjuring up fictional people in my head, I read about fan fiction and was baffled. So I decided to take my question to the website discussion forum.

What’s the appeal?

I was told that it’s partially a way of developing fiction writing skills. The scaffolding and framework of the story are there–someone else has done the work of imagining the characters–but the aspiring writer has to construct the rest of the building-story. I read variations of the fan fiction theme: writers who wrote a prose version of a television series episode, writers who took a famous and/or beloved (by her) story and rewrote it from another point of view, writers who did all sorts of, um, interesting things with their favorite movies or plays.

(I never did “get” it. I’ve never loved someone else’s characters like I love my own.)

Honestly, it was mostly crappy stuff. Generally, the writers were beginners and didn’t know how to write fiction well. (The best ones moved on to original projects and dabbled in better-quality fan fiction as a fun diversion or writer’s block-buster.)

The other issue was the quality of what they were imitating. Somehow, these writers gravitated toward trash, things not worthy of existing in the first place, much less worthy of being the framework for someone else’s creative endeavors.

Imitation can only rise to the level of the model; it doesn’t rise above it. If it rises above the model, as Shakespeare did with his source material, it isn’t true imitation at all. It’s art on its own, existent apart from the source. That’s why the best retellings of classic stories use the original as a framework, not a plot dictator.

The novel I read this past weekend, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, was a retelling of Jane Eyre. But while the author used the same basic structure, character relationships, and some key events, she didn’t adhere rigidly to everything in Bronte’s original novel. Some characters are more sympathetic; some events are altered; she fleshes out Gemma’s ancestors’ relationship to their native land in more detail. But Gemma still has questions about her identity, still longs for financial security, and still has to fight for a voice and empowerment in a world where money and gender determine power.

It’s a fun read, and part of the fun is seeing how Margot Livesay, the author, uses various elements in fresh, modern ways, explores the same questions that Bronte did, and adds questions that she didn’t (or couldn’t) explore. The framework helped provide the means to ask those questions and provided a way of viewing the answers. It provided a way of organizing the often chaotic quality of our questions about power (and who does or does not have it), gender, and equality in romantic relationships.

photo by kblount, morguefile.com

But the effectiveness of the questions and explorations are determined partially by the quality of the framework. If Livesay had decided to explore these same issues and used a crappy, trashy novel as her framework, I doubt the result would’ve been art. But she chose Jane Eyre, an intelligent novel (original reviewers believed the book “too intelligent” to be written by a woman!) and the result is satisfying.

So the moral of the story is this: be careful what you imitate and who you imitate. Some things and people aren’t worth your while. Others are worth more than life itself.


The definition of “is”

photo by JessicaGale, morguefile.com
photo by JessicaGale, morguefile.com

Quick: In a complete sentence, define is without using the word is.

Not easy. When defining a verb, my instinct is to use the word “is”. I flounder more than an actual flounder and end up drowning in a weak mumbly-gook of words that don’t mean anything. My best attempt is this:

Is defines itself as the present moment state of being of a singular subject.

Huh? I’ve baffled even myself and I supposedly know of what I speak.

A lot of times, there are days when I start up the computer and want to write, have the opportunity to write, and know vaguely what I want to write. I might even have a few phrases floating in the maelstrom of my mind. But the chaos never settles. I keep writing the scene, making my word count, writing pretty phrases, but I’m not saying anything. The book isn’t progressing. I’m putting words on paper, yes, but I’m trying to make length, not story.

Back in college, we called this “bulling”. As in, “I bulled my way through that paper.” Usually this involved manipulating font sizes and margins, adding qualifiers and speaking in that academic language that muddles even the clearest of words.

(Like is.)

Come to think of it, politicians are brilliant at this. Late night comedians find glorious riches to mine, thanks to politicians’ eloquent way of saying nothing in as many words as possible.

I’ve read books that feel this way, too.  Recently, I read a literary novel that left me wondering, “what the heck was that about?” Granted, one of the main characters was a trouble-shooter for a government agency, and his testimony (and later, memoirs) reflected the need to cover up the truth of an international politically sensitive matter. In short, the scandal of an American woman caught up in an international drug trafficking ring. Bang, bang, the woman’s assassinated and everything is managed just fine, thank you.

Even if the woman’s motives aren’t clear.

Even if the target of the bullet wasn’t her.

Even if the intended target doesn’t know himself that his death was supposed to set off a string of violent events, culminating in the assassination of a Third World dictator. (Or dictator wannabe. I wasn’t certain.)

It was the government trouble-shooter’s doublespeak that troubled me. (It also alienated me from the characters other than the narrator. But it’s a literary novel, so I guess literary readers are supposed to be okay with alienation. The harder it is to read, the more profound the content must be, right?)

Why can’t you just say it? I wanted to yell. Just admit the truth! It wouldn’t have done any good. Fictional characters don’t respond to criticism from their readers.

Just say it. Kill the academic muddling. Stop the political double-speak and spin-doctoring. Quit  justifying while apologizing. End the meaningless babble to fill air time and attract attention and increase web traffic.

Just say what you need to say. Then zip it. God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason, you know.

For once, I’ll take my own advice.

Have a great weekend, y’all.

Illusions: how a one degree shift in perspective changes communication

There’s an older woman sitting across from me, one table over. I see part of her face over the shoulder of the man with her. When she puts her hand over her lips, wiping away a bagel crumb or a drip of coffee, she looks like my mother-in-law. But she isn’t. It’s an illusion.

The illusion disappears when her hand drops from her face. She is herself again (whoever she is). But she just rested her chin in her palm again, and she becomes the fake mother-in-law: the hair curled and styled the same, the eyes peering out from glasses, the forehead wrinkling in a particular pattern.

It reminds me of those two-in-one sketches that fill coffee table books in the optometrist’s waiting room. Is this an old woman in a scarf or a young lady in a hat? Is this a candlestick or two faces? 

One eyeblink, a one degree change in perspective shifts the entire picture. A hand over the lips, a hand away from the mouth, and the entire face is different.

Years ago, while our old church was splitting, two people in our small group argued over a particular phrase: good Christian. One man described a group of people as “good Christians.” The other man retorted,

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘good Christian.’”

There were many factors in why this conversation went badly. Cultural backgrounds, emotional hurts, and language barriers all played a role in the miscommunication. But the big difference was this: one man was thinking theologically and the other man was thinking differently.

I saw where both were coming from. Theology guy was hearing “good Christian” and was thinking of Romans, where Paul declares that no one is good. He might also have been considering the passages that make it clear there’s no hierarchy of Christians.

Practical guy was saying “good Christian” and thinking in real-world terms, where we routinely call certain people good and others bad. (Would you rather get in a car with Ted Bundy or Billy Graham? Wouldn’t we say that one man is a “bad guy” and the other a “good guy”?)  Or we say that certain people are “good Christians” because it’s easy to see their faith in their personal lives and it looks winsome and appealing.

If I hadn’t been in such a state of lethargy from my depression, I might’ve banged their heads together and hollered. (If only I’d been manic. . . .) But even in my depressive fog, I knew that the men were talking past each other. Both believed they were hearing the other person. In reality, they heard what they thought the other said. Two words, heard from different perspectives: a landmine of potential arguments.

Is it a candlestick or two faces? Is it my mother-in-law or her impostor? Is a person good or not?

It depends on perspective.

Back in high school, I read The Scarlet Pimpernel. Marguerite, a French exile during the Revolution, despises her husband, the lackadaisical dandy Sir Percy Blakeney. She ridicules him, treats him coldly, and can’t understand his actions when he learns that her brother is in great danger. She has also been blackmailed into helping a French spy find the mysterious and brave Scarlet Pimpernel, who orchestrates the escapes of the threatened French nobility.

Then one day, she walks into his study and finds a ring. Not just any ring, but a ring with a star-shaped flower on it. The signet ring of the Scarlet Pimpernel. In a flash, she realizes the truth: her husband is the Pimpernel, and she has placed him in danger.

A one degree shift. Everything changes for Marguerite. Now she sees her husband, not the illusion of her husband.

I remember that small group argument and how much the disagreement hinged on perspective. Would it have taken a one degree shift in perspective to change the entire thing? It might’ve taken more, in this case; there were significant barriers in communication.

But I also think of Marguerite picking up the Pimpernel’s signet ring. At that point, she doesn’t know everything, but she knows the most important thing: she has misinterpreted everything about her husband. How much difference would it have made for the two men to know that they were miscommunicating and using the same words in different ways?

Maybe it would’ve made a world of difference.

Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered at all.

I’ll never have a chance to know.