Eyewitness Accounts, or, Why Nonfiction is Tricky

Eyewitness accounts are always tricky, as a plethora of psychology experiments and historical records show. Lately, my facebook friends are reminding me of this with some of the politically-slanted reshares making the rounds. The more on-the-nose a piece is for a given political view, the more time I will spend googling its veracity. Items with strong bias are the least likely to pass even a cursory round of fact checking. I could save myself a lot of time by muting updates from people who hit the share button without considering whether something is likely to be true, but I think expanding my knowledge is never a waste.

The gist of the one that’s bugging me is that it’s an eyewitness account with some glaring factual errors. I’m all for adding the eyewitness perspective to history and to debates, but only if context and fact checking balance it out. The need for research is even stronger when the eyewitness did not keep records throughout his or her life. Given how unreliable eyewitnesses can be five minutes after seeing an accident, trying to write a coherent account decades later is going to be riddled with errors. This is even truer if the witness is trying to talk about politics and events from his or her childhood. I challenge you to think of a major national or world event that happened when you were, say, 12 years old. Now, go and find a few articles on said event and tell me just how many details you misunderstood because you were twelve and also because so many years have passed.

My sensitivity to the challenges of nonfiction do not come from writing workshops alone. I’ve lost count of the number of times I had to change what I intended to write in a history paper because that great parallel I intended to draw didn’t hold up when I went back and found the source I’d read three months or three years before.

I know I can be an unreliable narrator of important events in my own life. I tend to go to other people who were there at any given event to see if I can confirm the chronology and any details I’m afraid I may have got wrong. Usually the details I’ve gotten wrong are minor, but in a couple cases they’ve been major enough I had to scrap a draft and start over.

The internet would be a better place if people fact checked their own work and if people thought a bit harder before hitting the “like,” “share,” or “retweet” buttons. Wanting something to be true because it supports one’s bias and something actually being true are not always the same thing. We all know this, but it seems a minority of us are curious or cynical or obsessive enough to do the work of checking sources and statistics.

On a tangentially related note, I’m glad we’re well past the 2012 election. I found 2012 a bit wearying due to the usual slew of misrepresented statistics, offensive remarks, and general hoopla. The bombardment of information is the main reason it’s been so long since I last posted. Anything I attempted to post went something like this: RANT RANT RANT thoughtful comment RAGE factoid RANT why do politicians hate women’s rights RAGE. Between that and a lack of bloggable new things in my life, I elected not to post.

The end is nigh

I had trouble deciding on a title for what I had nicknamed Sir Thesis of Doom, because everything is more ridiculous and giggle-provoking by adding “of Doom” to the end. I narrowed the choices down to two and then polled a few of the fantastic people who participate in National Novel Writing Month here in Boston. They all voted for the title I had been leaning towards, and so my thesis is now officially entitled “Paper Turtles.” Continue reading

Blogenning Theme of the Week: NaNoWriMo

If you walk into your favorite cafe in November and find an unusual number of people crowded around tables that seem too small and fragile for the number of laptops, hear the rapid tapping of keyboards, and see a couple people hunched over notebooks with inky fingers, you may have just stumbled upon National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) participants (hereafter referred to as Wrimos) holding a write-in. A second test of whether these people are Wrimos is to look for dark circles under their eyes, perhaps a bit of jittering from a few too many cups of coffee or cans of <insert name of energy drink of choice>, and a certain degree of deadline induced frustration. Wait for someone to shout out an “a-HA” when they figure out a crucial plot point and get to tap furiously at the keys again, listen for someone giggling like mad as they turn to their neighbor to share a particularly egregious typo that changes a character’s motivation from innocence to bizarre fetishest. Watch for the person who stops typing and stares at their screen with an expression of despair, and whose neighbor or perhaps friendly ML gives them a thought about how to move forward.

For me, NaNoWriMo is all about community. There’s something amazingly inspiring about having a group of people who share the same goal, all of them fighting to write a novel in a month. Support is something writers struggle to find in the early days, and while I have a writing community outside of that one month I appreciate the spirit of people gathered who just want to write. 

I participated in NaNoWriMo five times, from 2006-2010. I “won,” by which I mean reached 50,000 words in November, four out of those five times. The year I got perhaps 16k written was 2008, right after I moved to Boston. I only got to two write-ins that year, which may have as much to do with my loss as the fact I worked an exhausting retail job that paid very little and came with oddball hours while attending graduate school full time. Having the support of a community helps remind me why NaNoWriMo is fun and that I’m not the only one struggling with a half formed novel that sometimes tries to squirm into a different shape. Attending write-ins also helps remind me that I’m not the only one with numerous non-NaNoWriMo committments and deadlines in November. They remind me that failing to reach 50k isn’t synonymous with “losing.”

I’ll be sitting this year out, though I’ll likely try to attend some write-ins. November, for me, is Thesis Editing Month. Boston participants may find me hunched over my laptop with marked-up papers next to me, cursing at a recalcitrant draft. I fully recommend NaNoWriMo to anyone who wants to write a novel, especially to people who understand that winning is really about getting anything written at all. It doesn’t have to be the full 50k. It doesn’t even have to be 1k. The point is to write.

Applications and the impersonal

The hardest part about writing a personal statement for applications (teaching abroad) is knowing what other people will find interesting and relevant. Of course I find my life interesting and worthwhile or I would have veered off onto a different path in recent years, but people won’t want to read much about what brought me to this point. It’s not that different, in some ways, from deciding where a fiction story begins. Including too much backstory and context bores people to death, and it turns into that whole “show versus tell” thing we hear so much about in writing workshops.

Showing rather than telling is just as important in nonfiction, but a personal statement is too short to work in very many details. In the same way, by trying to keep things short, sometimes my blog posts are about as indicative of my crafting skills as notes (more like word sketches, if you will) I record in journals while sitting in noisy coffee shops, breathing in the steam from an Americano and not minding one bit that I’ll leave smelling like espresso.

I’m trying to outline the main points before I start a real draft. Maybe an outline will let me prescreen for relevance. It’s too easy to meander into memories of the London flat with what I nicknamed the “stove of death” in the kitchen because it was an old, pre-safety-features gas stove. I remember cigarette smoke from flatmates, I remember burnt toast that set off overly sensitive alarms and brought bored firemen whose first questions were often “alright, who burned food this time?” Birthday parties with Ouzo, gatherings in the kitchen with foods (pungent cheeses, Indian spices, again with the Ouzo) from my flatmates’ respective home countries, windows that did not have screens, smoky pubs, almost missing a flight to Norway, and fascination with how the mud uncovered by the Thames at low tide looked in sunlight.

There isn’t much relevance in that list of first memories which come to mind when I think about the semester in London, yet pieces of it also speak to what makes me adaptable and a good candidate to teach abroad. I adjusted to living with five strangers, none of whom were American or British. I liked learning about where they came from and talked a bit about what made my country of origin interesting. Traveling, albeit briefly, on the continent and in Norway made me want to travel more in non-English speaking countries. How much of that really speaks to what people hiring foreign teachers want to know about a candidate? They are my memories and I turn them over like Tarot cards, wondering what the images and words mean in the context of all the other images and words, watching for patterns forming.

If I’m going to look at memories as if they’re cards, then perhaps I should go for a five card spread. Pick the five most relevant things, then recast them as the personal statement equivalent of a five paragraph essay. I’ve always thought Tarot is a tool for understanding self. Predicting the future is impossible, about as impossible, I feel, as guessing what people reviewing applications will most want to know. Perhaps one card will show five people around a kitchen table in a London student flat, giving one another nicknames (me, the professor; Vanessa, the Queen of Everything; Yezad, malakas), even if the names never make it to the printed page and the only bit of summarized dialogue is me explaining English terms like “DJ”. Another card may show me as a little girl exploring vendor booths on Westford Common during one of the local festivals in my home town, either the one about strawberries or the one about apple blossoms, because traditions continue and there are good things to add to a cultural exchange.

Once I have my five cards translated into a statement, I’ll find friends to edit and call it good. Then I will send it out into the world and hope for the best.

The Blogenning Theme of the Week: Writer’s block

For me, writer’s block is usually a product of stress and exhaustion. Usually it comes when I’ve taken on a lot of projects and haven’t had time to step back and look at the larger picture. With nonfiction I already know the whole story, and the question is how to tell it and which points are the most important. If I get lost it’s that I get lost in the logistics and my own doubts.

So how do I get past writer’s block? Generally I either switch to a different project for a few days and write less for a few days while feeding other parts of my psyche. I’ll take a few walks, go hang out with friends, spend extra time lost in a good book, or wander over to a museum. All are methods that work. Usually, if it’s a block rooted in logistics, a few days of shaking up the routine will dissolve the problem.

Blocks coming from my own doubts, however, are a lot more difficult to deal with. That’s when I have to take a few days where the most I write is a few paragraphs of notes and maybe a page of cathartic whinging. Usually I return to the place where I know writing is a craft and skill with which most people have to accrue lots of practice before the kinks are worked out. Sometimes it takes a lot longer and I have to wander farther away before I find my way back. Writing isn’t easy, and anyone who thinks it is either isn’t a writer or is one of the rare few who either has a direct line to the muse or who is lying through his or her teeth for the cool factor.

Writing can be a lonely process, so having other people who have struggled with the same things is always helpful. I’m fortunate to have so many people around me who get it. National Novel Writing Month is the best thing ever for connecting with other crazy people — I mean, writers.

Which reminds me, if I start flirting with the idea of participating in NaNoWriMo this year in any more time consuming sense than attending write-ins to work on my thesis, please talk some sense into me. It’s addictive, NaNoWriMo is, and this year I can’t afford to indulge my addiction.

Tea and spice

People who know me at all well know tea is essential to my well being. I do not exaggerate. Even when I decide I need to mostly cut caffeine out of my diet, as happens every so often when I want to detox, I will decaffeinate my tea and keep on drinking it. It isn’t the warmth and flavor alone that make it essential but also the memories wrapped up with it. I especially need tea when I’m working on computer drafts, a kind of Pavlovian reaction, as though tea is what will bridge the gap between where my creativity is more functional (handwritten drafts) and what I must do in order to turn in submissions (word processing).

In the fall, as the weather cools and the temperature in my apartment drops, I start to wrap my hands around the cup whenever I take a sip. It’s a kind of contentment I miss during the summer, the same way I miss curling up under a blanket when I’m reading at home or watching a movie.

Baking is one of my favorite stress relief activities, and one of my fall favorites is Scottish shortbread. It tastes great, but the flavor isn’t my favorite thing about it. The only way to mix it properly is with hands in the dough, using warmth to get the butter to combine with the flour. I will squish it over and over until it’s mixed, just enjoying the child-like sensations. The warming butter smells delicious, and once it’s finished baking it’s lovely to dip in a cup of tea. Chances are I’ll end up with more shortbread than I’ll want to eat this fall, which is one reason I love friends who will take the excess off my hands.

Every once in awhile there’s a summer day cool enough that I want oatmeal, and I always cook it with cinnamon and, if I’m feeling fancy, a pinch of cloves. This last summer that happened sometime early in August, and something about the rainy weather combined with having to have the AC on (more because of the humidity than the temperature outside) made my apartment feel like fall. Busting out the cinnamon and cloves for oatmeal that day left me looking forward to the kind of weather we’ve had the last few days.

Yesterday I walked a few miles getting errands done (partly for my plans of planningness), and I loved being able to wear long sleeves so much. I never got overheated, and I could look forward to a cup of decaf tea and curling up under a blanket at the end of the day. I’m a creature of very simple desires sometimes. Maybe a Friday night spent reading, studying a new language, and writing isn’t exciting, but it’s definitely satisfying now and then.

Blogenning Theme of the Week: Language

I’m in charge of this week’s Blogenning theme (cue evil laughter) and I figured I’d go with something I’ve been interested in and working on quite a bit. As topics go, “Language” is pretty open ended.

I’ve disliked my monolingual status for a very long time. It touches on a number of things that annoy me about Americanism. Every so often I run into people who complain about experiences abroad because not enough citizens of countries they visited spoke English. They seem utterly perplexed that people in a country named France would speak mostly French, or that people in Greece might speak mostly Greek. Geographically, the US is isolated, bordered by two countries. One speaks Spanish. The other speaks mostly English, with one French speaking region.

Unlike some nations, the US does not require students to learn a second language. The economy is global, and research shows that learning a second language makes it easier to pick up a third. If we started students learning a second language in elementary school, it would make it so much easier for learning more later. Not only is it easier to learn language as a child, it circumvents the problems middle school (when foreign language often begins to be taught) students face with the onset of puberty-caused self consciousness. I mean, elementary school kids can also be exceedingly shy, but on the whole they’re more likely to participate.

I tried to start studying French in… I think ninth grade, so my last year of junior high school. I didn’t go back for more French until I was nineteen, when I did manage to do more of the whole speaking out loud thing, but it was tough, and I really wasn’t interested enough. I did marginally better studying Japanese when I was, eh, sixteen or seventeen (time runs together after awhile) mainly because I watched a lot of anime at the time so I had a bit more familiarity with the language.

For years after my semi-disastrous attempts to study languages, I thought I’d failed because I didn’t have whatever it is that makes some people absorb foreign languages quickly. I also thought it would take way too much time to start learning, and that I would be better served focusing on other things.

Lies. I had already decided to start learning a second language this year when I realized that teaching abroad would be the right path for me. I did a bit of research into which do-it-at-home programs might work best for me, and then started in on it. Half an hour to an hour of practice with an audio program on my iPod isn’t much to ask of myself. Being a fairly confident adult, I’m even able to practice at work when I’m on break or when I cover an overnight shift.

The best part is that I’ve realized how much more functional some of the newer language programs are than the methodology of some in-person classes. I never learned numbers quite as readily through memorization, but the program I’m using throws a new number or three at me, out of order, in separate lessons so I learn the number and not where in the sequence it fits. So. Much. Better. It really isn’t just about memorization and repetition. Application of lessons learned is so important.

I played with the Rosetta Stone software when I tried to figure out which method appealed the most, but I went with Pimsleur in the end. My bone to pick with Rosetta is that it teaches reading at the same time as speaking, which I find makes it harder to pick up on pronunciation the first few go-arounds. I get tripped up by trying to sound words out, which is somewhere far south of useful considering the way language changes over time, as proven half the time when people unfamiliar with English names wander into my territory, going wait, is that really how Gloucester, Worcester, and Quincy are pronounced? Depending who I’m speaking with, I may decide to share the story of how our word “sheriff” came initially from “shire reeve,” which does eventually sound like sheriff if you repeat it quickly ten times. Pronunciation, like ruins of old cities, soften and wear down over time.

Pimsleur is neither perfect nor cheap, but I’m finding it helpful and more intuitive than classes I once took. I think this is a lesson I should remember when it comes time for me to teach.

Every once in awhile I stop and look at my life and realize how much more content I grow year by year. Crossing items off the list of “always wanted to do” and moving them over onto the list of “accomplishing/accomplished” is satisfying. It’s not a bucket list, per se, because I’m pretty sure I’m not going to care after I die. It’s a list of things I want to accomplish to make my day to day life happier, however many of them I have left (given my family’s longevity, that’s likely a good sixty some odd years, barring disaster or disease, and sixty years of discontent sounds, well, miserable and highly preventable).