Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Archive for the ‘Creative Writing’ Category

Copyediting Services Offered

I’ve been neglecting this blog for quite some time now–I’ve gotten distracted by the siren call of tumblr, Twitter, and Pinterest. I return to offer freelance copyediting services to anyone interested.

My résumé is available here, but I’ll provide the highlights:

  • Graduated from Texas Christian University in December 2012 after 3.5 years of study
  • Bachelor of Arts in Writing with a minor in French Language Studies
  • 4.0 GPA, summa cum laude
  • Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society
  • Graduated from John V. Roach Honors College with departmental honors in English
  • Attended TCU on a full-tuition scholarship
  • Copyedited for TCU Press during a 6-month internship
  • Acted as web-editor-in-chief and copyedited for eleven40seven: TCU’s Student Journal of the Arts
  • Edited and offered writing assistance to TCU students as a writing associate at the William L. Adams Center for Writing, in which I worked with APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian as well as all subject areas (ranging from creative nonfiction to nursing to psychology to business)

I will copyedit in any genre: poetry, nonfiction (any subject area welcome), creative nonfiction, and fiction. I have worked across the curriculum at the Center for Writing, and I have worked with all creative genres by virtue of my specializing in craft in my writing major.

I will charge $15-$20 per hour based on the following criteria (I accept payment via PayPal):

  • Copyediting level desired (heavy, medium, or light)
  • Difficulty of the text (I will charge more for dense or academic texts)
  • Citations (the more citations and the more in-depth the style, the more I will charge)
  • Style guide
  • Content editing (art, charts, graphs, fact-checking, etc.)
  • Turnaround time desired

I am happy to copyedit in hardcopy or online, but for hardcopy I will request that you pay for printing and shipping costs.

I can provide quotes for your manuscript if you send a brief summary, one or two sample chapters, desired time for completion, and level of editing.

I’m also able to send basic workshop feedback for any creative pieces on which you may want comments, suggestions, or ideas for improvement.

Samples of my copyediting are available on my external portfolio, and I can be contacted at rachelk.spurrier@gmail.com to answer any questions.

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The Twinge of Teen Paranormal Romance

I grew up reading strong female characters: Hermione Granger from Harry Potter and Liesel Meminger in The Book Thief. They may have been bookish and awkward and shy, but they had an internal combustion that fueled them on (and of course, later on, Katniss Everdeen literally burned on). I admired these characters for their pluck and tenacity; as a teenage girl, I saw myself in them and what I wished I could be. Throughout high school, I basically ignored Twilight and only considered it while reading a chapter in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, because the chapter basically said that vampirism is almost always a metaphor for sex. After graduation, I decided to go ahead and read them and see what the fuss was all about, and I wanted to be able to legitimately say they were awful. 

I’m not going to spend an entire blog post on how bad the writing of those books are; if you’d like to see an entire website about it, click here. Quick disclaimer: I did enjoy reading them in the way that you enjoy eating an entire bag of Cheetos puffs in one sitting or chewing on gummi worms during a bad movie. But the greater messages of the books upset me in their treatment of young women.

Again, I will spare you the comparisons of Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen versus Bella Swan, because it’s just so easy: Hermione Granger continues fighting to defeat the Dark Lord even when the love of her life walks out, and Katniss Everdeen helps lead a revolution while her love is being tortured (granted, Katniss does have one too many breakdowns in Mockingjay but whatever). Bella Swan curls up in a ball on the forest floor when Edward leaves her, and she lives in a nigh-catatonic state until she begins flirting with another boy. Her only true happiness comes from Edward or Jacob, never from within. Message received: life has no meaning without a boy in it to tell you you’re special.

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The reason why I’m taking the time to write about this issue is because I read this article today. In it, Tara Isabella Burton confirms what I’d worried about all along: most, if not all, books in this category preach the same message–that you only have value if a boy loves you. And this is a genre that has its own section in Barnes and Noble. Burton lays out the formula for these books, and Bella Swan (ugh that name) fits all the categories:

  • Ambiguous in description but always “intelligent”: Bella Swan is described as good in school and pretty, but apart from knowing that she has dark hair and eyes and is clumsy, she could basically look like anyone. This is convenient because it allows the reader to imagine herself in Bella’s spot because she is so damn bland. The fantasy is easier to complete–Edward isn’t necessarily telling Bella how much he loves her, he’s telling you
  • Vampirism is a safe way for Bella to explore her sexuality without actually going all the way (despite that awful baseball scene in book 1, she and Edward don’t hit home base until three agonizing books later). These books provide a proxy for sexuality through vampirism or magic or some other fantastical world.
  • Bella is loved not for her intelligence, wit, or charm. Edward loves her because he cannot read her mind and her blood smells special. And yes, I get how creepy that sounds, and we even get to learn the Italian for it: la tua incantante or something. She is loved because she is “unique” to Edward, not through common interests or her personality. She is inherently special to one person, and only one man can see that. She is not special based on her own merit or to herself.
  • Bella’s female friends are basically seen as annoying, cumbersome, or irritating. She only has a mind for Edward. I get it–young love, whatever–but so many girls are too quick to throw away friends to hang out with a boy. And instead of proving that that behavior is dangerous and detrimental, Meyer makes it seem okay in the end because she marries Edward at the age of eighteen (or maybe nineteen but what difference does that make?) Yes, this is the message we are sending girls–get married right out of high school; it’s okay if you don’t go to college because you’ll be a wife and mother and that’s all that matters.

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I’m glad that these books get teenage girls to read; I really am. But I cannot fully support an entire genre that teaches girls that their greatest value only comes from outside of them, that they are only worth something when a boy is validating them. This is dangerous and untrue. The truest lesson is that only when you love yourself can you love others or let others love you. I used to not believe this, but I do now, and I know this much to be true: you will never truly be happy until you believe you deserve someone healthy and whole who will treat you well. Emma Watson plays Hermione in Harry Potter and Sam in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which leaves us with this quote: We accept the love we think we deserve. If we teach girls that they only deserve love from other people and not themselves, they will only evaluate themselves in how others see them. Their only sense of self will come from external sources, rather than building an identity based on introspection. We cannot and must not let this lesson for girls when they turn the last page. We owe them more than that. Please read, but please know that your value lies beyond what a boy thinks of you. A girl needs to know she is a person who deserves love and affection from herself above all others.

A Tiny Corner of the World

One of the unintended benefits of unemployment following graduation is that I have an abundant amount of free time and no alarm set for the morning. Apart from applying to jobs left, right, and center, I’m also trying to publicize this blog more and update it more frequently. I’ve now linked my accounts to my Facebook and to my Twitter (follow me! @rachelkspurrier). Consequently, I’m trolling for subject matter. I’m looking a little closer at my PW Daily e-mails than I used to, unlike in college when I would check my e-mail on my way to class, skim through the updates, and forget all about the headlines once the professor began talking. Fortunately, learning more about the publishing industry is only a good thing when you’re trying to break into the business, but I usually look more at the Roundup Section with articles from across the Internet (by the way, the PW Daily e-mail is delightfully free, so you can sign up and get the latest industry news without paying the high subscription price).

I found an article about a writer’s New Year’s resolution to read fewer books, and before I dive in on my thoughts, I’d like to inclue a brief excerpt from one of my favorite books, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. An excellent crossover book that is semi-autobiographical, Alexie’s book provides some nice little truth bombs throughout the text. The following is one, where the main character is talking to his new friend Gordy at his new high school:

We ran into the Reardan High School Library.

“Look at all these books,” he said.

“There aren’t that many.” It was a small library in a small high school in a small town.

“There are three thousand four hundred and twelve books here,” Gordy said. “I know that because I counted them.”

“Okay, now you’re officially a freak,” I said.

“Yes, it’s a small library. It’s a tiny one. But if you read one of these books a day, it would still take you almost ten years to finish.”

“What’s your point?”

“The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don’t know.”

Wow. That was a huge idea. 

I immediately thought of this little snippet while reading Michael Bourne’s article, because his New Year’s Resolution is to read fewer books. He writes that he has read 776 books in the past twelve years, at an average of 60 books per year. I’m not a math genius, so I hadn’t really put the pieces together like that. In the past twelve years, I’ve probably read at least ten books a year, give or take (I’ve read fewer in the past few years, a byproduct of working and going to school). That’s only 120 books out of the hundreds of thousands of titles that have come out in the past decade. I’ve already written about the sheer vastness of the writing world, but I’d never really realized how minuscule the number of books I’ve read compares to the number of books published. Apart from being humbling, that realization both motivates me and exhausts me. Of course reading that article made me think of how little I know and how much I have yet to learn and experience, but mostly the realization of how little I’ve read is daunting. Yes, I want to read more and more often, but if my goal is to read everything, then I’ll never catch up. Covering the whole scope of everything written each year on top of everything that’s ever been published would be impossible, of course. And I have no intention of trying. Obviously not every book on the shelves is suited to my tastes or interests, and a good number of them get picked off the pile simply for literary quality or lack thereof (Danielle Steele, anyone?)

But I’ve still got to make the effort to read more. My little corner of the world of DFW has exposed me to literature, culture, the arts, but books are a whole other avenue for world exploration. Mr. Bourne has many more titles under his belt and much more literary experience (not to mention life experience), so I think he’s earned the right to pressure himself a little less on reading a book a week. He mentioned he’s the primary caregiver for his six-year-old daughter, so he probably could use a break. But as for me, I’m young, unmarried, childless, unencumbered by a strict schedule or responsibilities. I should be reading more, but I’m not. I guess I’m doing better than the average American; according to a Washington Post article, 25% of Americans did not read one book in 2006. Yet, as a writer and a lover of literature, I should probably be putting in a little more initiative to read more often. Perhaps the fact that I just found out the full series of The West Wing is now on Netflix instant watch is preventing me from putting more of my energy into book reading. Yes, instant watch is one of my greatest downfalls: for Lent last year, I chose to cut out instant watch. I saved a ridiculous amount of time, but I quickly returned to my bad habit after Easter.

Just like Lent is a time for reevaluating life choices, New Year’s is another opportunity to reflect and resolve to do better. My New Year’s resolutions are fairly basic: be kinder to everyone, smile more often, exercise more frequently, be more organized, get a job, etc. Standard stuff, really. But I should add on the list to read more books. Until I’ve reached Bourne’s 776 count, I’m still a literary novice and a writing rube. I will note, however, that Bourne admits himself that his need to make lists of all the books he’d read was a tad bit obsessive. I assume that he, like me, has a type-A personality, so I’ll try to avoid the pitfalls of my perfectionism and just go with the flow on which books I read. And I need to set a realistic goal. When I was trying to finish up my thesis, I made the decision to write three pages a day, which was a lot less terrifying than writing ten a day for three days. I finished with more ease and less stress, and I think this whole book goal should be the same. Instead of viewing it as a challenge, I see it as an opportunity to hunker down with a good book with a mug of hot chocolate and get immersed in new knowledge and new worlds.

Give Me the Streets of Manhattan

Well, I did another disappearing (and reappearing) act for a number of good reasons but not-so-good excuses–graduation, illness, travel. First and foremost, I neglected updating this blog while I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at Texas Christian University. Yep, that’s right, I am now officially a graduate with a BA in Writing! Actually crossing the finish line was one of the most rewarding, challenging, and fulfilling things I’ve done in a long time. While trying to keep sane as the deadline for my 140-page thesis approached, I was busy going to Kansas for Thanksgiving, visiting NYC to celebrate my one-year anniversary with my man friend, and taking exams. Fortunately, I made it through the whole thing in one piece with a couple rather sparkling (if I do say so myself) commendations: Honors Laureate from the John V. Roach Honors College and summa cum laude (I hung in til the bitter end and kept up my 4.0 GPA). Unfortunately, all this hard work led to a severe lack of sleep, which weakened my immune system. The fever and congestion set in early in December, and now I’ve officially had bronchitis for two weeks, though I think possibly longer considering I started coughing three weeks ago. Needless to say, hacking up my lung every two minutes (I have some fabulous back pain from the intense coughing spasms) has prevented me from updating my blog after I walked across the stage. Now that I’m finally getting back with it, I’m writing this post under the influence of codeine cough syrup, which was a last resort from my doctor when he realized I’d been coughing pretty much non-stop in the two weeks since I’d seen him last. So, if this post sounds a little off, write it up to narcotics.

Now that I’ve got a pretty little diploma sitting on my shelf, I have to face the future: getting a job. If you or anyone you know is hiring in the NYC metro area, let me know! I am taking any leads I can find. Facing the new year and facing a new chapter in my life has a nice pathetic fallacy to it, because as 2012 comes to a close, so does the time in my life that I spent at TCU. I’ll miss Fort Worth, my job at the Writing Center, the campus, and most of all my friends, but like most somewhat well-adjusted adults, I realize change is necessary and vital to continuing to grow and flourish. I’m busy updating my website, putting finishing touching on my resume, and writing cover letters.

But apart from filling up the folder titled “Professional Development” on my computer, I’m back to writing again. This writing is actually, well, fun, very much unlike what I was doing towards the end of this past semester. The writing I completed for my thesis (four essay comprised of 20-50 pages each) was done at breakneck speed towards the end, and once I turned it in at the very last minute (technically four minutes past the deadline), I thought I’d never want to write again. I’ve actually told the boyfriend to forcibly hold me down and say, “REMEMBER HOW MUCH YOU HATED FINISHING YOUR THESIS?” if I ever say, “You know, maybe I should go get an MFA in Creative Writing.” The reasons for me slowly coming to hate CNF were pretty basic–I’d been working on the damn project for three years and I was tired of looking at it. Mentally and emotionally exhausted, I was just trying to eke out the final draft in time to graduate. I wasn’t reading for fun; I wasn’t writing for fun; and most of my time seemed devoted to managing a low level of panic.

The low level of panic abated little by little once I was done, and because of graduation and Christmas, I received an iPad mini (if this were a tech blog, I’d explain my reasoning, but it’s not, so I’m not explicating my thinking process) and some Amazon gift cards. I have my reservations about Amazon, but I’ve already committed to the Kindle format, so I keep with it. I got some new books and sat down with my cozy little iPad by the fire to read. And you know what? I got inspired. Reading In Praise of Messy Lives: Essays by Katie Roiphe actually got my brain gears turning again and churning out the writing without deadlines and without fear of workshop or critique. I wrote seven pages in an hour and have been taking notes in my notebook ever since as the mood strikes me. I won’t have too much time to devote to writing now that I’ve got to hunker down to job stuff, but the relief is overwhelming to know that my honors thesis did not fully turn me away from writing, that I still have a passion for what I love doing most. I have several ideas for essays so far, mostly about things that happened at TCU, because I want to write about my time there before I emotionally close the door on that part of my life. The one I have worked on so far finds loose inspiration from Walt Whitman’s “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” from which I stole the title line for this blog. I’ll briefly recopy it here:

1
Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling,
Give me autumnal fruit ripe and red from the orchard,
Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows,
Give me an arbor, give me the trellis’d grape,
Give me fresh corn and wheat, give me serene-moving animals teaching
content,
Give me nights perfectly quiet as on high plateaus west of the
Mississippi, and I looking up at the stars,
Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers where I can
walk undisturb’d,
Give me for marriage a sweet-breath’d woman of whom I should never tire,
Give me a perfect child, give me away aside from the noise of the
world a rural domestic life,
Give me to warble spontaneous songs recluse by myself, for my own ears 
only,
Give me solitude, give me Nature, give me again O Nature your primal
sanities!
These demanding to have them, (tired with ceaseless excitement, and
rack’d by the war-strife,)
These to procure incessantly asking, rising in cries from my heart,
While yet incessantly asking still I adhere to my city,
Day upon day and year upon year O city, walking your streets,
Where you hold me enchain’d a certain time refusing to give me up,
Yet giving to make me glutted, enrich’d of soul, you give me forever 
faces;
(O I see what I sought to escape, confronting, reversing my cries,
see my own soul trampling down what it ask’d for.)
2
Keep your splendid silent sun,
Keep your woods O Nature, and the quiet places by the woods,
Keep your fields of clover and timothy, and your corn-fields and orchards,
Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum;
Give me faces and streets–give me these phantoms incessant and
endless along the trottoirs!
Give me interminable eyes–give me women–give me comrades and
lovers by the thousand!
Let me see new ones every day–let me hold new ones by the hand every day!
Give me such shows–give me the streets of Manhattan!
Give me Broadway, with the soldiers marching–give me the sound of
the trumpets and drums!
(The soldiers in companies or regiments–some starting away, flush’d
and reckless,
Some, their time up, returning with thinn’d ranks, young, yet very
old, worn, marching, noticing nothing;)
Give me the shores and wharves heavy-fringed with black ships!
O such for me! O an intense life, full to repletion and varied!
The life of the theatre, bar-room, huge hotel, for me!
The saloon of the steamer! the crowded excursion for me! the
torchlight procession!
The dense brigade bound for the war, with high piled military wagons
following;
People, endless, streaming, with strong voices, passions, pageants,
Manhattan streets with their powerful throbs, with beating drums as now,
The endless and noisy chorus, the rustle and clank of muskets, (even
the sight of the wounded,)
Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus!
Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.

The essay is basically about how I have come to love NYC after having either mistrusted or hated the city most of my life. Here’s a little snippet, now that my brain finally seems to be shutting down from the cough syrup:

“Well, that’s the place to go if you want to be a writer.”

This response, or some variation thereof, is one I often heard when people asked me what my plans were for graduation and I told them somewhat sheepishly that I was going to move to New York City. Like asking a child what she wants to be when she grows up or asking a high-schooler where she will go to college, asking a college graduate what she will do after graduation was the constant question I heard whenever I announced I had just graduated. I was enormously proud of this accomplishment, and with good reason—I had graduated in three and a half with a 4.0 GPA from a private university, which I attended on a full-tuition scholarship, so I kind of enjoyed telling people that I was finally done. I had ample opportunity to brag, because being in your late adolescence means that whenever you meet someone, they will ask you where you go/went to college and what you will do/are doing.

Part of this repetitive, “Oh, yeah, New York is the place for writing” was from people who did know the publishing world or were familiar with the number of famous writers who live(d) in the Big Apple. Because we had already established that I graduated with a BA in writing, my fellow conversationalist would assume I was going there to play the part of the wide-eyed, enthusiastic, idealistic young woman bent on fulfilling her dreams (this is not why, but I let them think that because it sounds so much more romantic than the real reason). With a knowing nod, we moved on to other topics, so I did not have to explain that many of my writing idols (Eula Biss, David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, etc.) had all lived in New York at one point or another, and that their experiences in the city had shaped their writing.

The other group who gave this response came from people who viewed the big city as the only place for anything cultured, erudite, or urbane. This subset of people were my family and friends and acquaintances, who, like me not too long ago, knew little to nothing about New York City and both revered and feared it like some exotic foreign country, totally unfamiliar and strange, full of exciting and dangerous things. I did have to explain that five of the Big Six publishers were located in New York and that many other fields claimed their respective capitals in NYC. As cheesy as it sounded, I would proffer, “Well, it’s one of the literary and cultural capitals of the world,” and their already wide eyes would grow wider at the idea of going to such a wonderful and terrifying place.

I do not wish to sound like I am insulting anyone who views New York City in this way; indeed, I still do in many ways, mostly because I understand that truly being familiar with a place takes years, and even in my hometown I often find myself a mere visitor in the world of upper-middle class white suburbia. In some ways I am still like my friends and family who both revere and fear New York as some sort of mythical Oz where you either reach all your goals or end up in a back alley with your wallet stolen and your throat slit. We view the city this way because of lack of exposure and the aura of mystery that has grown around the Great White Way.

I grew up knowing phrases like “the Great White Way” because I was relatively “cultured,” you could say. My parents took my brother and me to plays, musicals, art exhibitions, museums, symphonies; we all played musical instruments; our house was drowning in books, tables trying to come up for air underneath waves of newspapers and open books clinging to the life vest of a bookmark. I knew the things that cultured, intellectual people are supposed to know, both from exposure and my perfectionist streak that led me to learn history and art and literature in school. I took ballet lessons for almost a decade and played the flute. I read the classics and studied for tests. I grew up in the DFW metroplex, so I went to a big city on a regular basis. I knew more about this kind of life than say, my uncle’s wife, who grew up in Nebraska and didn’t see an escalator until she was nineteen. In short, I knew what city folks know.

But I was also hopelessly Midwestern. My family was fortunate and affluent enough that we got to take regular family vacations, but we almost always travelled west—Washington, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Hawaii—and almost rarely east of the Mississippi—Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and rural Kentucky were about as far east as we went. I went to Florida once to visit a friend but without family. My parents distrusted people on the East Coast—my grandmother raised my mother to not like Yankees, and this grandmother was the only grandparent of mine not to live and die in Kansas. There wasn’t much choice but to fit into the Midwestern stereotype: hardworking but not too ambitious, polite but not effusive, kind but not warm, honest but not abrupt, and pragmatic but not blunt.

These values were further instilled by a practical, Methodist worldview, so when I first visited New York City at age fifteen, I, like most of my Texas peers, viewed the big city as a place full of pushy, rude, aggressive North Easterners who neither had manners nor patience. I was also scared—perhaps the New York City of the 1970s and 80s had been popularized so much in movies and TV shows that the rest of the country was unaware that the City had sorted out some of those issues, thank you very much. So when I got off the plane at LaGuardia, I was there for a weekend-long trip with the rest of my high school band. Two hundred of us did sightseeing in one amorphous blob that clogged already full sidewalks and unfortunately undermined our own ability to enjoy the city. During that brief visit, I saw Midtown East, Times Square, Battery Park, Central Park, Carnegie Hall, Rockefeller Center, and the New York Philharmonic. I hated it. The masses of people were forceful and abrasive; the flashing lights of Times Square and the constant barrage of shouting and honking were overstimulating; and the street peddlers and panhandlers were a bit overwhelming for a sheltered tiny white girl. The only part of Manhattan I actually liked was Central Park, and we only spent a brief hour there before boarding the buses again.

When my parents suggested we go back and see some Broadway shows to celebrate my sixteenth birthday the next year, I politely said thanks but no thanks—I’d had enough of New York for a lifetime. I got my doses of New York through seeing my high school’s production of West Side Story, watching 30 Rock and Thoroughly Modern Millie, flipping through women’s interest magazines, and reading my favorite essayists like the aforementioned Sedaris and Crosley. New York was still a faraway place of fairy tales, which offered both the fantastic and the phantasmagorical, like a forbidden forest. And more intriguing still, all these books and movies and shows had these references that I couldn’t catch, like little jokes that only the insiders got, things like Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock saying, “I would go, but I haven’t been above 72nd Street in over a decade” and then pausing to take a drink of scotch for comedic effect or Sloane Crosley complaining about the conundrum of choosing between a taxi or a subway late at night or David Sedaris talking about how much he hates Midtown during the holidays. I chalked my failure to know a sign of my being a good, down-to-earth Midwesterner and not one of those snobby, East Coast types. I excused my knowledge about art and architecture and literature by being a) grossly illiterate in the world of fashion and b) a girl who could saddle and ride a horse, milk a cow or a goat, break ice on the pond for the cows in winter, and feed the chickens. Not getting the punch line for a joke about Astoria or Park Slope wasn’t a defect, necessarily, just indicative that I wasn’t one of those impatient, rude New Yorkers with their gaudy accents. I’d keep my splendid silent sun and corn-fields and quiet places by the woods—you could keep the streets of Manhattan for all I cared.

Have a safe and happy New Year, everyone! See you in 2013!

Excuse Me, But Is This Too Revealing?

During the second semester of my freshman year, I was sitting in the hallway of my dorm studying for a psychology exam. My roommate was in the middle of a family crisis, so I was giving her privacy while her boyfriend comforted her. From what I can remember, it was a Friday night, so a lot of the girls were dressing up for a night out, wearing surprisingly little considering it was 40 degrees outside. One girl (I can’t remember her name so I’ll call her Nicole) was waiting outside her room for her friend to arrive. Nicole’s back coat was longer than whatever dress or skirt she was wearing underneath, and when the friend arrived, Nicole turned with her back to me and opened her coat and asked, “Is this too short?” For all I knew, she was flashing her friend. Like most things in life (relationships, money, etc.), my motto is “If you have to ask, you can’t _____.” For example, “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it” or “If you have to ask someone to change or tell you they love you, you can’t afford to be with them.” My motto in this case was, “If you have to ask if it’s too short, then it’s too short.”

As I said, this motto applies to many areas in life, including writing. Every creative nonfiction writer, especially memoirists, faces the dilemma of how much he or she should reveal while writing personal narrative. Oftentimes, the characters in the memoir/essay are still alive and ostensibly can get their hands on a book. And often the writer is not portraying the characters in a particularly flattering manner. Unfortunately, the writer cannot wait for every possibly offended person to die or cut out all the salient details, so the question is, “How much should I reveal?” Casting others in a negative light is dangerous or implying potentially harmful sentiments has its consequences.

It’s no secret that memoirists often tweak the facts of the past to suit their purposes (if you want factually accurate, buy an autobiography), but how far is too far is the debate that rages on in the writing community–at what point does omission or minor changes become lying? Should writers alter their story to avoid hurt feelings and harming relationships at the risk of their own artistic integrity? My answer? It depends on how important these relationships are to you and how understanding the other person is likely to be, especially if he or she is litigious (think libel) or particularly sensitive. Some memoirists write under a pseudonym or change the story enough that they decide to publish the book as fiction–the creative nonfiction has become narrative nonfiction. The story is marketed as a novel, and the writer is free to manipulate the story any way he or she pleases. The internal turmoil can be excruciating for a writer, but after careful contemplation, he or she comes to the conclusion that he or she is most comfortable with.

But not all would-be memoirists go through traditional publishing channels. Blogging sites allow any writer to instantly write, post, display, and share anything he or she likes–from fiction to political opinion to book reviews to memoir–without the inspection of an editor or a lawyer, for that matter. If your blog is not advertised to your family and friends, feel free to post whatever you want. But it’s like posts on Facebook–consider your audience before you press enter, because there are 100+ people who might see it. And be doubly careful, because once you press publish, there’s no disguising yourself or taking back what you said once someone has read it. The “e” in “e-mail” or “e-journal” does not stand for “electronic”: It stands for “evidence” and “eternal.” Whatever you put out into the blogosphere is fair game for anyone to read, copy+paste onto a word document, and keep forever.

Is it counterproductive to the writing process to self-censor in the name of sparing others’ feelings? For one, writers who are not absolutely clear about their meaning leave the ambiguity of the written word as a communicator (again why going through a traditional publishing channel when discussing personal issues is preferable to the blogging world). But to answer my question: Yes, and no. Many writers pride themselves about their transparency and honesty in their writing, baring all in the name of the craft. But for me, I have different priorities. I’ve edited out a fair bit of potentially damaging material from my own work, or if I do write pieces that are damaging, I never submit them for publication or share them with others. I cannot claim to be a tell-all writer, but I’m okay with that, because I put my family and friends first and my needs and wants as a writer second. I struggle with the decision to hit the delete key, but usually I don’t regret keeping my relationships intact. I’d rather give up some of my artistic authenticity than insult my loved ones or harm our relationships. Perhaps I lack the courage or even maturity, but I have plenty of writing material without hurting others. One of my favorite authors of all time, David Sedaris, is shameless when using his family’s stories in his work. I suppose he’s already cleared it with them or maybe has come to terms with the possibility that his family will resent using their histories. I have no idea. But I am not a bestselling author, and I do not pretend to be more than I am as a writer. I have humility and appropriately modify my writing.

As I mentioned above, many writers claim to be set apart from the crowd by their open and honest writing. News flash: it doesn’t. I may self-censor, but because there is a plethora of writers who claim to be brutally honest, any declaration of honesty is rendered null and void. So when you’re considering how confessional to be (and that’s a whole other topic–confessional writing), remember that putting it all out there is not being artistic. A true memoirist carefully selects what to reveal in order to craft a narrative. Writing ad infinitum about your feelings or problems in an attempt to be an artist without consciously deciding what to discard and what to display is the opposite of good writing. The best writers are meticulous in the way they portray themselves and others–before they submit the manuscript or press “publish,” they have decided what to include and what to leave out and have accepted the potential fallout.

 

Finding Solace in Books

I’ll be a little bit confessional here, and I’ll try not to get too self-pitying or melodramatic. I was bullied as a kid. Socially awkward and a bit of a know-it-all, I didn’t really understand my peers, and they didn’t really understand me. Add in anxiety problems, insomnia, and severe depression, and you get a kid who has a really hard time fitting in. I got called ugly, weird, and a whole host of other words about nerdy, geeky kids who don’t really know how to relate or connect to kids of the same age. It didn’t help either that I was still growing into my features, and my growth spurts left me gawky and clumsy. I got along better with adults than I did with most of my classmates and struggled to make friends. I was often pretty lonely and found solace in books. I read the Harry Potter series incessantly and used the books as an escape and calming influence for my anxiety. Without sounding too pathetic, Harry, Ron, and Hermione were my friends when I felt friendless and alone. When I had episodes of anxiety or insomnia, I would read those books until I calmed down and/or began to finally feel tired. Today, I have small tattoos of the three stars that appear in the upper corners of each page on my shoulder blades as a reminder of how far I’ve come since those elementary school days.

In middle school, I got introduced to cyberbullying, and some of my classmates used instant messaging as a platform to tell me that I dressed badly, I needed to fix my eyebrows, and that I was weird with my obsession with reading, history, and school. I’d get online and half an hour later end up crying in my bedroom because of something some girl said to me. Fortunately, I got older, found a group of friends with whom I fit in pretty well, got some self-confidence, and left the days of being bullied behind me. Sometimes the memories still sting a little, but I lead a relatively happy, productive, normal, and successful life these days, and those memories feel distant and foreign.

I wasn’t alone, of course. Two girls I knew played tricks online: girl A would get girl B to talk badly about girl C online. Girl A would then copy and paste the conversation of what girl B said about girl C, and then girl A would send the conversation to girl C so she could see what girl B said about her. Insane? Yes. And with the advent of myspace and facebook, bullying online is public and 24/7. A family friend of mine who is in high school found out the unfortunate consequences of Facebook bullying. She broke up with her boyfriend over the phone before her mom drove her home from an after school activity. The ex-boyfriend posted a status immediately afterward about their breakup, unfairly accusing her of being mean and heartless. During the drive home, a bunch of friends started posting on the status, saying mean and rude things about my friend, and when she did get online an hour later, she was greeted with over a dozen comments about what a horrible, mean person she was.

Bullying is in the public spotlight now more than ever before after the Columbine shootings and teen suicides as a result of bullying. Various state legislatures have tried to pass legislation against bullying with mixed results, and the battle to fight bullying and its negative effects is raging on. Publishers have joined in the effort with books targeted to help both bullies and the bullied cope. 35% of teens turn to books to cope with bullying. This article (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/54458-a-call-to-action-bullying-and-books.html) outlines some of the actions publishers have taken to combat bullying.

As Shannon Maughan explains, many books and resources are available:

There are picture books and early readers featuring characters playing together peacefully and making each other feel welcome and included in a peer group. Nonfiction books for elementary-age students help identify different forms of bullying and spell out an action plan for kids who are dealing with the problem. Several middle-grade novels use humor in stories of kids coming to grips with being bullied (or perhaps being a perpetrator). And not surprisingly, the books for teens include powerful novels about suicide and other devastating fallout from bullying behavior, as well as titles designed to boost self-esteem or to offer hope for those enduring the pain of bullying. Additionally, there are some new guides for parents and educators on the topic. Authors and publishers alike have been inspired to work on projects with an anti-bullying theme and have increasingly developed effective ways to get the word out about their books. 

Check out the article to find examples of publishers like Random House and DK launching campaigns and publishing books to help fight bullying and its negative effects.

I want to highlight here how books serve as a resource for comfort and for education. Bullying has become a national epidemic with 13 million students bullied each year. Books are an escape as well as a tool. My parents, ever supportive and loving, bought books about how to help me to fit in and manage the bullying, and the books I read provided a much-needed escape and outlet for the panic attacks and depression. Books gave our family a way to handle the situation and move forward. Without books, I’m not sure how I would have gotten through some of the things that happened. I also was fortunate enough to discover the transformative power of the written word. In the fourth grade, at least when I was fourth grade, students had to learn how to write a two-page paper for the annual standardized. After I turned in my first practice paper, my teacher called me up to her desk, set down my paper, and smiled at me. She told me I had a gift, a special ability, something I should nurture and foster. She showed my papers to other teachers, pointing out my sensory detail and vocabulary. I began to write as an outlet for the difficult emotions I was experiencing, and writing gave me a chance to express everything that was in my head that I couldn’t get out otherwise. The transformative power of the written word had changed me.

I’m so glad that publishers are making a concerted effort to educate, inform, and help both bullies and the bullied. Knowledge is power, as clichéd as that saying is, and the more students, educators, and parents know about bullying and how to cope/handle, the better they will manage the consequences of bullying. Hopefully anyone affected by bullying will find comfort and safety in the written word.

Banned Books Week!

Hi everyone and Happy Banned Books Week! This week is one of my favorite weeks of the year. Today is the first day of October, and here in Texas it feels a little bit like fall. Miracles! This year is the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week, so we’re celebrating thirty years of the right to read. Books like To Kill A Mockingbird, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 are still under fire; people are still attempting to take these amazing, inspiring, wonderful books off bookshelves in schools and libraries. And it’s not just classics that are threatened–books like Speak and The Kite Runner are being challenged all over the country. Check out Simon & Schuster’s page to see some quotes from frequently challenged authors: http://pages.simonandschuster.com/bannedbooksweek

I hope everyone celebrates Banned Books Week by reading a banned book. What book will you read? I still find it incredible that some of the most wonderful books in the English/American literary canon suffer attempted censorship, so everyone should rejoice in our freedom to produce, write, publish, and read banned books. After all, a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.

Even if some books aren’t outright banned, some are hoping to impose ratings on books, especially books for Young Adults. I read an article (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9558797/Fifty-Shades-of-YA-Should-teen-books-have-ratings.html) by a young adult author, CJ Daugherty, who discussed the possibility of imposing a ratings system on YA books in the UK, but the discussion isn’t limited to our friends across the pond (http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/05/18/is-it-time-to-rate-young-adult-books-for-mature-content). When I first read these articles, I couldn’t express my outrage. I struggled to find the words to explain how indignant I felt. After all, movies have ratings systems–if you’re under seventeen, you can’t see an R-rated movie without an adult. However, I never snuck into an R-rated movie before my seventeenth birthday. When I did finally go to one after my seventeenth, the girl at the register didn’t even card me, but the thought of a young person hooked on reading having to show ID to buy a book rankled me.

I do agree that some YA adults aren’t appropriate for elementary-age children. If I had kids, I’d limit if they could read The Hunger Games series (a lot of violence) or the later books of the Harry Potter series (lots of adult themes and death), but I want to leave that choice up to individual parents rather than imposing an arbitrary system like the MPAA does on movies. CJ Daugherty is a fan of the system in the United States where publishers place a recommended age on the back covers of YA books, but some feel that this doesn’t go far enough.

Why should books be exempted from ratings while moviemakers are forced to edit down their movies to receive a lower rating than NC-17? An NC-17 rating effectively cancels a movie’s ability to turn a profit, so filmmakers cut out a lot of the juicier tidbits to avoid the ire of the MPAA, and I do not want to see books go the same way, where authors have to water down the content to avoid getting a bad rating. The ALA believes that a rating system that would require authors to edit out content is nothing short of censorship.

Plus, where would you draw the line for what is appropriate and inappropriate for which ages? Three curse words is inappropriate for twelve-year-olds, but five is acceptable for thirteen-year-olds? Making out is taboo for 5th graders, but second base is okay for 7th graders?

Sarah Coyne, a professor in Brigham Young University’s department of family life points out that many books, if adapted into movies, would quickly be rated R within just a few pages. She argues, “I don’t think anyone would argue that books like Harry Potter orTwilight didn’t have a big influence on adolescents. When you see a TV show like Gossip Girl, you get a hint of the [adult content], but I don’t think parents are aware of how much worse it is in the books.” But books are different from movies. Beth Yoke, executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Association, asserts that books provide a safe avenue for exploring more adult topics. “Books can be a safe way for young people to explore edgier, sensitive, or complicated topics, and they provide parents the opportunity to help their teens grow and understand these kinds of sensitive issues.”

Plus, books with too much edited out don’t truthfully depict what it’s like to be a teen. I led a fairly vanilla young adolescence, but I had friends whose activities, if displayed onscreen, would get an R-rating in a second. I think books should accurately portray what teens experience–their trials and tribulations, their triumphs, their heartbreak, their mistakes. I learned a lot about what it’s like to grow up and how to survive the perilous word of teenagerdom from reading books like Speak and Go Ask Alice. Without those books, I would have been more lost than I already was in a complicated world of teenage drama and emotions.

I fully support a parent’s right to closely monitor what his or her children read and to prohibit his or her own children from reading inappropriate material, but for goodness’ sake, let’s not create an organization that limits teens from reading a whole range of books. It’s hard enough to get teens to read today in general, so why on earth are we narrowing the field of what they can read? I cannot bear to one day see a young, avid reader who can’t buy The Perks of Being a Wallflower because they aren’t old enough to read it, according to a third-party organization.

Although I don’t want to fall into the trap of a slippery slope logical fallacy, I don’t there are too many steps between limiting what children can read and banning books altogether. Books challenge people, force them out of their comfort zone. Books are a door into another world we might have never experienced otherwise. And it’s brain exercise. Brain waves while watching a TV show or a movie are pretty stagnant, but while reading a book, brain activity is alive and on fire. Books spark creativity and imagination; books teach us about ourselves, whether the setting is the suburbs or a fantasy world. Let’s promote creative innovation rather than stifling expression.

 

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