Too Many “Coders”

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Who hasn’t heard the refrain: We need to prepare for a tech future. We need to do more STEM in the classroom. We need to teach our kids to code. That all may be true…up to a point.

But perhaps we’ve gone too far. Maybe we need to train people to be…well…people, and to WRITE. Here’s how a great article, “Aristotle’s Wrongful Death,” begins:

History is on the ebb. Philosophy is on the ropes. And comparative literature? Please. It’s an intellectual heirloom: cherished by those who can afford such baubles but disposable in the eyes of others.

I’m talking about college majors, and talk about college majors is loud and contentious these days. There’s concern about whether schools are offering the right ones. There are questions about whether colleges should be emphasizing them at all. How does a deep dive into the classics abet a successful leap into the contemporary job market? Should an ambitious examination of English literature come at the cost of acquiring fluency in coding, digital marketing and the like?

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a special report that delved into this debate. One of the stories described what was happening at the flagship campus of the University of Illinois and at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., casting these developments as different harbingers for higher education.

Illinois is pairing certain majors in the liberal arts — for example, anthropology and linguistics — with computer science. Assumption is doing away with a host of traditional majors in favor of new ones geared to practical skills. Goodbye, art history, geography and, yes, classics. Hello, data analytics, actuarial science and concentrations in physical and occupational therapy.

Assumption is hardly an outlier. Last year the University of Wisconsin at Superior announced that it was suspending nine majors, including sociology and political science, and warned that there might be additional cuts. The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point recently proposed dropping 13 majors, including philosophy and English, to make room for programs with “clear career pathways.”

While these schools are swapping out certain majors for others, some higher education leaders are asking whether such devotion to a single field of study — and whether a college experience structured around that — are the right way to go.

Want more? You can read it here

Telling Stories

There is a prevailing myth – likely perpetrated by publishers, established writers, and there fellow travellers that it takes a special talent to tell stories. That’s bunk.

That’s why I was pulled in by Daniel McDermon’s piece, “How to Tell a Story.” Here’s how he begins:

Before there was history, there was storytelling. It’s essential to our human identity. The stories we tell are how we know who we are. And sharing a tale with an audience can be immensely rewarding. But for novices, it can also be terrifying. Fear of speaking in public is very common. A great many of the world’s greatest performers have struggled with powerful stage fright. So you should know that you’re not alone. We’re here to help you build your confidence and find your own voice.

While his sound advice it primarily focused on public speaking, what he shares has enormous value for the written word. His advice continues:

There is no way to bet better at telling stories to people than by telling stories to people. There is no substitute for experience. “You just have to get up and do it,” said Aaron Beverly, who finished second in the Toastmasters world championship of public speaking in 2016. He compares storytelling practice to a gym workout. To build muscle, weightlifters have to get their reps in. And if you want to develop your skills as a speaker or storyteller, so do you.

The goal, Mr. Beverly said, is to feel so comfortable in the role that you go on autopilot. You build a sort of muscle memory for your body by standing up in front of a crowd, or on a stage, and speaking out. But you don’t have to do it all on a large stage. You can practice at an open-mic night, at a gathering like The Moth, or even at work by leading a meeting. If nerves are holding you back, start as small as possible. Ask a friend to listen and give you feedback.

Sharing a great story is like giving your audience a gift, because it will stay with them. They can even share it further, the same way that stories have been passed along since the beginning of human life.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Page Tuners at 90!

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One of my writing mentors once told me that there were three ingredients to being a successful writer: talent, persistence, and durability. I’ve always gotten the first two, but wondered about the third. Then I read this recent piece about Mary Higgins Clark who is still cranking out page-turners at the ripe young age of ninety! Here’s how the article begins:

At age 90, Mary Higgins Clark is often asked why she’s still writing. The suspense novelist gives two answers: “One, I love to write,” she says. “The second is I get very well paid to write.”

As she enters her 10th decade, Ms. Clark is still writing two books a year. Her fast-moving mysteries often feature a sharp, intelligent heroine who helps to discover the killer after a few false starts. Her broad commercial appeal has generated more than 50 best sellers, including such titles as “Where Are the Children?” (1975), “The Cradle Will Fall” (1980) and “We’ll Meet Again” (1999). All told, there are more than 100 million copies of her books in print in the U.S. alone.

Her latest, a murder mystery out this month called “I’ve Got My Eyes on You,” is the 43rd book she’s written solo (some of her other titles have co-authors). Set in Saddle River, N.J., where Ms. Clark lives with her husband in real life, the book opens with the murder of an 18-year-old girl who ends up at the bottom of a swimming pool after a party at her parents’ house. Among the suspects: her boyfriend and a neighbor.

Want more? You can read the full piece here

Heart or Head?

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Tim Parks knows how to get the conversation going and the emotions flowing. Here’s how titled his piece in the Roving Eye column in the New York Times Book Review: “Should Novels Aim for the Heart or the Head?”

That will keep you reading. Here is part of what he shared:

And he [Montaigne] asks a question that no one asks these days: “Is it right for the arts to serve our natural weakness and to let them profit from our inborn animal-stupidity?” Aside from its astute selection of moving detail, art is constantly in the business of manipulating our emotions, as if this were an end in itself. This, after all, was Plato’s objection to the arts and every kind of artistic effect — that it was manipulative and potentially mendacious. Or simply a waste: “How often,” Montaigne asks, “do we encumber our spirits with yellow bile or sadness by means of such shadows?”

If we apply these ideas to narrative fiction as it is today, what do we find? First, the idea that a book, or film for that matter, stimulates extreme emotions is constantly deployed as a promotional tool. Terrifying, hair-raising, profoundly upsetting, painfully tender, heartbreaking, devastating, shocking, are all standard fare in dust-jacket blurbs and newspaper reviews; it is as if the reader were an ectoplasm in need of powerful injections of adrenaline. Anything that disturbs us, arouses us, unsettles us, is unconditionally positive. “You will be on the edge of your seat.” “Your heart will be thumping.” “Your pulse will be racing.” Aristotle’s response to Plato, that arousing emotion could be positive so long as the emotion was clarified, cathartically contained and understood, is rarely invoked. At best there is the implication that arousing emotions fosters sympathy, perhaps even empathy, with fictional characters and that such sympathy then breaks down our prejudices and hence is socially useful. So readers will frequently be invited to contemplate the sufferings of threatened minorities or discriminated-against ethnic groups, or the predicament of those who are young, helpless and preferably attractive. But this is an alibi and we all know it; what matters is stimulating emotion to sell books.

Want more? You can read the full piece here.

Paula Hawkins

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One of the most popular writers today is Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train. And for many of us, we’re always interested in learning about what great writers read: Some excerpts:

What books are currently on your night stand?

“As If,” by Blake Morrison; “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead; Virginia Woolf’s “A Writer’s Diary.” I’m also listening to the audiobook of “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” by Marlon James.

What’s the last great book you read?

“A Little Life,” by Hanya Yanagihara. I came to it rather late — I’d been put off by what I’d heard about the upsetting subject matter, but when I heard Hanya speak about the book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May I changed my mind. And I’m so glad I did, because while it was every bit as traumatic as everyone said it would be, it is also a remarkable study of friendship, suffering and the difficulty of recovery. Incidentally it is the first audiobook I have ever listened to, and I’m now a total convert. I’d forgotten what a joyous thing it is to allow yourself to be told a story.

Want more? You can read the full piece here.

The Writing Process

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There are a few writers who help define what writing is for all of us. John McPhee is one of them. That’s why I was intrigued by a review of his newest book: “Draft NO. 4.” Here is part of what the reviewer had to offer:

Followers of John McPhee, perhaps the most revered nonfiction narrative journalist of our time, will luxuriate in the shipshape prose of “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process,” a collection of eight essays that first appeared in The New Yorker, his home for more than 50 years. Writers looking for the secrets of his stripped-bark style and painstaking structure will have to be patient with what is a discursive, though often delightful, short book. McPhee’s publisher is presenting it as a “master class,” but it’s really a memoir of writing during a time of editorial cosseting that now seems as remote as the court of the Romanovs. Readerly patience will be rewarded by plentiful examples of the author’s sinewy prose and, toward the end, by advice and tips that will help writers looking to become better practitioners of the craft and to stay afloat in what has become a self-service economy.

Virtually no part of McPhee’s long career, full of months-long or years-long research trips and hours or days staring at a blank computer screen, resembles the churn-it-out grind of today’s professional web writer. Except the earliest part, which he returns to often: the English class at Princeton High School whose teacher, Mrs. McKee, made him write three pieces a week (“Not every single week. Some weeks had Thanksgiving in them”) for three solid years and encouraged her students to critique one another, to the point of hissing and spitballs. Her constant deadlines led him to devise a crucial tactic: Force yourself to break from “wallowing in all those notes” and determine an ending, then go back to worrying about the beginning. Which leads to the first formal rule he provides, and then only a quarter of the way through the book: When you’re getting nowhere and “you don’t know what to do. Stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead.”

Want more? You can read the full article here

Insider Information

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Many writers look for “insider information” on not only how to write but also how to market what they write.

I’m always looking for both, and that’s what intrigued me about a recent interview with literary critic Parul Sehgal. Here is part of what she shared:

I love being part of both a tradition of literature and this fantastic, fractious, quarrelsome thing known as criticism, which is part of literature, and on top of it, and alongside it.

Criticism can be a way of adding to a bank of knowledge, a bank of understanding, a way of refreshing and renewing and protecting language.

In scientific fields, there’s this established idea that you’re always standing on the shoulders of giants — that every discovery pushes the whole enterprise forward. When it comes to the arts, though, we don’t talk about things that way. We tend not to say that, because of some novel, we now know X or Y. But I’ve always felt that to be true. Because of the modernists, for example, we have a greater sense of subjectivity.

I like to think of literature and criticism as an act of pushing something forward, of mapping new terrains, internal and external, of doing things with language that reveal something about what it means to read and to live.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Men and Women

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Most would agree that men and women are different. That notion is a bit of a no-brainer. And most would also agree that male writers and female writers bring different skills to the craft.

But for me, I never thought deeply about just what those differences were between male writers and female writers. That’s why I found a recent piece by Nicole Krauss, “Do Women Get to Write With Authority?” so intriguing. Here is part of what she shared:

On forms to be filled out in waiting rooms, I always hesitate over the question of occupation: writer or author? For years it was only writer; now it’s a question of mood. Writer forever has her work ahead of her. Author has already done it. Writer bears no great claim: Like anyone else, she is just scrabbling away at it, unsure, experimenting. Author comes with distinction, and the right to expect that she will be read. Now, though, I think the perceived honor of the word is wrapped up in “author” sounding like a chip off the granite block of authority.

Both “author” and “authority” evolved from the Latin “augere” — to increase, to originate — and expanded in “author” to be someone who invents or causes something. Which returns me to a question that bothered me to no end when I was younger: Who gives her the right? Or more like: How does she take it? How does she claim for herself the authority to increase or originate, or invent or cause something, such as a book that people will read?

Want more? You can read the full article here.

Grisham’s Rules

Writing Techniques

Few novelists have been as wildly successful as John Grisham. And unlike some writers, Grisham shares his secrets! Here are his first two suggestions:

  1. DO — WRITE A PAGE EVERY DAY

That’s about 200 words, or 1,000 words a week. Do that for two years and you’ll have a novel that’s long enough.

Nothing will happen until you are producing at least one page per day.

  1. DON’T — WRITE THE FIRST SCENE UNTIL YOU KNOW THE LAST

This necessitates the use of a dreaded device commonly called an outline. Virtually all writers hate that word. I have yet to meet one
who admits to using an outline.

Want the other six? You can read them here.

Grisham’s Rules

Writing Techniques

We all have our favorite writers. As a guy who writes primary military techno-thrillers, I tend to gravitate to writers who excel in that genre: Clancy and his successor writers, Stephen Coonts, Dick Couch, Larry Bond, David Poyer, Rick Campbell, P.T. Deutermann and a few others.

But for all of us, there are writers who, while they write in a different genre, are so successful that we hold them up as examples regarding how we should write. John Grisham is one of those writers, and when he is generous with his advice, as he was in his New York Times piece, “John Grisham’s Do’s and Don’ts for Writing Popular Fiction,” We all listen.

Here’s just a taste to whet your appetite:

  1. DO — WRITE A PAGE EVERY DAY

That’s about 200 words, or 1,000 words a week. Do that for two years and you’ll have a novel that’s long enough.

Nothing will happen until you are producing at least one page per day.

  1. DON’T — WRITE THE FIRST SCENE UNTIL YOU KNOW THE LAST

This necessitates the use of a dreaded device commonly called an outline. Virtually all writers hate that word. I have yet to meet one
who admits to using an outline.

Intrigued? You can read the entire article here.