All posts by Janet Coburn

Librarians’ Choices

Librarians are the gatekeepers of civilization. Perhaps I should say “guardians.” “Gatekeepers” implies that librarians decide what to admit and what to keep out.

In a way, though, librarians do have to make choices about what books reside in their libraries. They must make decisions based on space, for example, although through interlibrary loans that are now available to patrons, a wider selection of books is available than can be stored in a single building. But interlibrary loans take a while to get to the ordering library. Patrons would prefer it if the book in question were available on the shelves of their nearest branch, and right away, with no queues for bestsellers.

Librarians must go through a selection process to determine what books (and CDs and DVDs and magazines and newspapers, etc.) they will stock on their shelves. Not even the Library of Congress has every book ever printed. (My two books, for example, are not in their collection.) In order to make room for new books, librarians will “weed” their collections, consult their computers to determine what books haven’t been checked out with any regularity, and then get rid of them, often by holding library book sales. That’s one part of the selection process. (Books about making fondue, for example, likely haven’t been checked out in decades and would have been weeded years ago. Besides, people can and do now share fondue recipes online. But I digress.)

At the rate that books are being published, no library can keep up. Librarians consult references like the Ingram Spark catalog, and reviewers like Kirkus and Booklist to find new books that fill a hole in their collection – both fiction and nonfiction. Of course, these new selections are limited by budget, a factor largely dependent on tax dollars and voters these days. Publishers don’t just send libraries free copies of newly published books. Libraries buy books from library “jobbers” or distributors for more than the price they’re sold for at bookstores. Libraries have to pay extra because of the special library binding.

You might think that authors don’t like having their books available in a public library, but you’d be wrong. Library sales can total even more than bookstore or online sales. And reading a library copy of an author’s book can inspire a reader to buy their own copy or seek out other works by the same author. And the author does receive royalties for sales to libraries.

Now, however, there is much talk of censorship and what ought to be included in a library. Librarians have always stood against censorship and kept numerous copies of “forbidden” books on their shelves. Not that they’ve always been successful at keeping them on the shelves. Patrons routinely steal books from libraries, and when the subject is controversial, they sometimes take the book in question into the bathroom and deface it.

Schools and other institutions have more stringent rules for what they select for their libraries. A K-6 school, for example, would not own copies of graduate-level tomes. Their selection process would favor topics that are covered in the school curriculum and books that are likely to be interesting or useful to the age group served by the school. Sometimes parents become involved, petitioning schools or school boards to remove controversial books from school libraries. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t. But librarians tend to come down on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion, and have a differing opinion on what books might be interesting or useful or controversial. All of them are against book banning.

Then there are special-purpose libraries that have even more stringent selection criteria. A library in a correctional facility will have law books and even Shakespeare, but no books about gangs, Nazis, or drug use, for obvious reasons. (My husband once worked in a community-based correctional facility, which is how I know this. And no, that’s not where we met.) Prisons are also likely to include books at less-than-high-school reading levels, to take into account the population they serve. That is to say, they don’t discriminate against the minimally literate, but give them what they need and want.

It’s sad when a library closes, even if it’s just to merge with another one to offer more resources than either has individually. It still means that people who live in the catchment area of the smaller library have a harder time getting access to books and other media. But to bibliophiles and library-lovers, there was almost no historical event as tragic as the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and the murder of library guru Hypatia in 415 BC. After all these years, that still hurts.

Librarians are often stereotyped as repressed spinsters who delight in shushing people who dare make noises louder than the faint rustle of pages within their domain. In reality, they are, like the libraries where they work, upholders of the tradition of free, public access to learning. I can’t imagine life without them.

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Loving the Library

I love libraries. They and the books within them have shaped my life.

The idea of libraries went back, evidently, to ancient Assyria, but libraries in the United States caught hold in 1731, when Benjamin Franklin founded the Philadelphia Library Company with a bunch of his friends. I’m pleased to note that it’s still in operation today and has, as you might guess, many of Franklin’s papers and all sorts of historic books and manuscripts, including the Mayflower Compact and first editions of Moby-Dick and Leaves of Grass. The current collection is over 500,000 books.

I have a t-shirt that says “I Love You to the Library and Back.” That’s what I should have said to my father. Every other Saturday, the bookmobile parked in the Rike’s Department Store parking lot, and I got my reading fix. I almost always checked out Green Eggs and Ham, until my mother told me that I should get something else, too. (My mother once tried to make me green eggs and ham. It worked for the eggs, but not so much for the ham. But I digress.) My dad drove me to the bookmobile and sometimes even to a small library just a bit farther away. I brought home double armloads of books and started reading them on the drive home.

Later on, my father even drove me to the library downtown, where I could check out a particular record album I loved and could find nowhere else (I now have it on iTunes, but this was long ago). Libraries now have CDs and DVDs and video games and ebooks and sometimes even tools you can check out. They also have computers that the public can use for searching the online “card catalog” and for their own wants and needs. They have children’s summer reading programs, storytimes, and crafts.

My father wasn’t really a reader himself until he was laid low by cancer and couldn’t even get to the room with the television. Beth McCarty, a family friend and the “traveling library lady,” brought books to shut-ins and never failed to bring my father bags of the Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey and Foxfire books he loved.

When I was in junior high, I volunteered to work in the school library during my free period, shelving books. It was there I became acquainted with Robert Heinlein’s juveniles and Ray Bradbury’s short stories, beginning my lifelong love of science fiction. (I once was concentrating so hard on the titles that I walked right off the little stool I needed to reach the upper shelves. But I digress again.)

I spent my undergrad college years working in the grad school library, which had closed stacks. I was a page and retrieved books for people and sent them down in what was essentially a dumbwaiter. It was my first exposure to the Library of Congress classification system, though it wouldn’t be my last. I loved the job, since when there weren’t any requests, I could read to my heart’s content from the topics shelved on whatever floor I was stationed on. In later life, I also read while on duty when I worked at an unsuccessful bookstore.

By the time I was a young adult (though older than what is called “young adult” these days in terms of fiction audiences) I made regular trips to the library. I discovered Sue Grafton’s alphabet series while she was still only a few letters in. Another type of fiction that I explored was children’s literature. The library never made me feel silly about checking out Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. And I particularly haunted the new acquisitions shelf. I was always on the prowl for something I didn’t know about that sounded interesting.

I thought of the overdue fines I paid over the years as my little contributions to the libraries’ budget. (A much more substantial contribution to the Ohio libraries – over $600,000 – was made by comedian Drew Carey, who gave away what he had won on game shows, before he ever hosted one.)

Of course, if Ben Franklin were alive now (and I wish he was), the concept of libraries would most likely never have gotten off the ground. A place accessible to anyone where they could get books for free? Supported by our tax dollars? It’s hard to imagine that going through these days.

Anymore I think of librarians as a type of freedom fighter. They take access to books and the privacy of patrons seriously. Back in 2001, when the Patriot Act was passed, they refused to rat out their patrons based on what “unsuitable” books they checked out. Now, they resist efforts to remove books from their shelves based on the wishes of pressure groups.

At one point in my life, I seriously considered becoming a librarian myself. I sometimes still wish I had. I would be proud to join their ranks, even with the low pay, lack of funding, and political nonsense. It’s a job that needs doing, and always will.

(I’ll have more to say about libraries next week.)

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A Tattoo? At My Age?

Recently I read a question online from a man who was asking whether he was too old to get a tattoo – at age 40! Every comment I saw reassured him that he wasn’t too old at all. (And that it both costs less and hurts less than he had imagined.)

I found this discussion particularly interesting because my husband and I both waited until we were over 60 to get tattoos. I started getting mine (I have three) approximately seven years ago. Dan got his first one just this month. My tattoos are two punctuation tattoos that are linked to mental health issues and one that represents my lifelong love of books. Dan’s is a bear paw, which represents his “spirit guide.”

(I know that non-native people who say they have spirit guides is problematic, as they are part of Native Americans’ spiritual beliefs and religious practices, which shouldn’t be appropriated by outsiders. I discussed this with my husband, and he said that he considers the bear his spirit guide because of a dream he had in which a bear literally led him out of danger. But I digress.)

Both of us are considering at least one more tattoo – a peace sign with doves for him and a compass rose or a yellow rose for me. Tattoos are sort of addictive. I never expected to get another tattoo after my first one, but here I am.

I’ve heard various theories about why people get tattoos. Some say it’s a form of self-mutilation that flouts God’s law of respect for the human body. Some see it as one point in a spectrum of “body modifications” that include piercings and whatever those things that stretch earlobes are called. Others say tattooing is a practice that indicates membership in a “tribe” – bikers or chefs, for instance. Still others see tattoos as a sign of rebellion – a statement of defiance against social mores. (This claim is particularly often voiced when the tattoo-ee is a young person.) Then there are those who believe that a tattoo is an outward sign of an interior belief – love for God or for one’s mother, for example.

What’s the motivation for me? Aside from the punctuation tattoos, which have a specific meaning related to mental health, I consider my book tattoo purely decorative (although I guess it also proclaims my membership in the tribe of bibliophiles and writers). Dan’s is more of the interior-belief sort, a reminder of an experience that was deeply meaningful to him.

Some people scoff at tattoos because of aging. They say that tattoos acquired in the heedlessness of youth will be regretted when the skin becomes distorted by age, and elastic and crepey skin. But I don’t mind. The aging of my skin is a fact of life, one that I am not fighting off with expensive creams and lotions. That the tattoos will change too is a given. Neither of these facts is something to be mourned, however, at least not by me. In fact, the reality of change is a part of every life and I would be foolish to think it wouldn’t affect my skin art. Since I got my tattoos late in life, that also means that they have less time to fade than ones acquired at a younger age would.

But so what if my tattoos age? My stack of books will crinkle like the pages of an old book. That’s appropriate. And not enough reason not to get tattoos.

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Memories From the Closet

My husband and I have traveled quite a bit and everywhere we go, we collect souvenirs – primarily t-shirts, mugs, and shot glasses. The mugs and shot glasses are displayed on shelves and in curio cabinets in our home and occasionally used for their intended purposes. The t-shirts we actually wear.

Not that we can wear all of them. Many were destroyed in the tornado that also destroyed our house, and of the ones that remain, almost all are too small (or actually, we are too large).

I used to have a “beers of the world” t-shirt collection. I had Harp Lager and Guinness from Ireland, Red Stripe from Jamaica, Corona from Mexico, and so on. (Unfortunately, Harp Lager beer is no longer sold in Ireland, so there were no t-shirts available on our most recent visit. I did get a very nice Tullamore Dew t-shirt on our most recent visit, but that’s whiskey, not beer. But I digress.)

While in Ireland, we picked up shirts from the Cliffs of Moher and Sean’s Bar too. We’ve also bought t-shirts commemorating our visits to other cities and scenic locations. We recently resurrected one from Dubrovnik, too tattered by the tornado to wear, plus one from the Gauley River and one from Kartchner Caverns near Benson, AZ.

We also have t-shirts from many of the science fiction conventions we attended, plus ones with images of cats or armadillos, our favorite performers and bands (Pink Floyd, Bela Fleck, Kris Kristofferson, Jimi Hendrix, the Black Book Band), and more than a few with in-jokes or snarky or geeky sayings on them. I even have one with Hemingway’s sound advice: Write Drunk. Edit Sober. And of course one from my alma mater, Cornell.

(I also had a bunch of Banana Republic t-shirts back in the day, which really aren’t travel t-shirts, but along the same lines. My wardrobe used to consist almost exclusively of clothes in khaki, olive drab, sand, and camo, plus assorted other colors that BR featured in their line. I once hyperventilated in a BR store in La Jolla, and once a friend gave me some of their tissue paper, which I used as a backdrop for my bulletin board. I used to drive to the next state over to their outlet store. I pored over their travelogue-catalogs. I never forgave Gap for buying them out. It’s never been the same since. But I digress. At length.)

Why do I need all these t-shirts? Despite my age (and the advice everyone seems to want to give to someone my age), my everyday outfit is a t-shirt and jeans – and I’d rather wear an entertaining shirt than something boring. I wear this “uniform” to go shopping and to my therapist appointments (I have one t-shirt that says “The Light at the End of the Tunnel Is an Oncoming Freight Train.” I used to have one that said “Leave Me Alone. I’m Having a Crisis.”) I’d wear them to work, except that I work at home and wear my even-more-casual pajamas.

T-shirts today aren’t cheap. You can easily pay $30 with shipping. I have two on order now. One is a shirt from the Philadelphia Folk Festival, where my husband and I met. The other one, which Dan doesn’t know about (and he never reads my blog, so he still won’t know until it arrives), commemorates our trip to Montenegro. He had suggested that we replace some of our old shirts with ones featuring all the places we’ve traveled together, and I thought that would be a good place to start. After all, he recently surprised me with a t-shirt featuring Croatia.

Now all we have to do is find ones from Maine, the Leeward Islands, Benson AZ, Laurel Cavern, Carter Caves, Venice, Slovenia, and wherever we go next!

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What Good Is Fiction?

Nonfiction has purpose. It informs, educates, and illuminates. What does fiction do? Nothing but provide escape.

And what’s wrong with that? Nothing, as far as I can see. If there’s any time when people need escape, it’s now. I don’t have to detail the current political, social, and news situations to know that’s true. At times like these, who doesn’t want to escape to a desert island or another planet?

Actually, escapism has never been a bad thing. There are always things in life that need escaping from. At least there have been in my life. Misunderstanding, bullying, depression, loneliness – fiction helped me escape from these, from Green Eggs and Ham to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to A Wrinkle in Time to The Lord of the Rings.

Nor do you need high-brow fiction to provide escapism, though that is there as well. I’ve found escape in Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books, a cozy mystery/adventure series with included travelogues. In fact, mystery books still provide an escape for me. And science fiction and fantasy, perhaps the ultimate escapist literature, still fill many spots on my to-be-read list, as well as my to-be-reread list. (The fact that I am friends with several sf writers is also a factor.)

I’ve had my innings with classic literature, it’s true, particularly in college, when I was an English major – though one of my favorite courses was children’s literature (aka kiddie lit). If you look at my e-reader, you’ll find Shakespeare and Cervantes along with Grafton, Heinlein, Dumas, and others.

Fiction, like nonfiction, can inform, educate, and illuminate as well – spark thought and inspire to action.

Take Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In that book, it’s poetry (another “useless” pursuit) that helps the protagonist understand the value of literature and the futility of trying to suppress it. It’s still extremely relevant, considering all the book bannings lately. Or take Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as appallingly relevant as the day it was first written. Or The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, which has the first contact with an alien civilization being made by Jesuits. If that’s not thought-provoking, I don’t know what is.

There’s also historical fiction, which, while not always totally accurate (we have nonfiction biographies and autobiographies for that), speculates about the inner workings of famous people’s psyches and posits reasons for how they lived. Melanie Benjamin’s The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb and The Aviator’s Wife, about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, are two examples.

Then there is fiction about fiction and books that provide escape for the mind that cannot be found anywhere else. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is one such. John Irving’s The World According to Garp is another famous example. With books like these, one can delve into the mind of the creative person who provides escape for others.

Of course, nonfiction can be escapist as well. Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars provides an entertaining history of the space program, but also NASA’s current exploration of the possibilities of, well, going to Mars. Now that’s escapism – but not fiction. Histories can whisk us away to another time and place with explorers who climbed Mount Everest or charted the Amazon. Ernest Shackleton’s diaries can take me right out of a sweltering day and make me feel the freezing air and hear the buffeting wind of Antarctica.

I will admit that there’s a lot of nonfiction on my e-reader – including true crime, science, biographies, adventure travel, language, and mental health. But it’s fiction I return to again and again. I recently read a beloved novel that I hadn’t read in at least 40 years, and I still remembered not only the plot but also lines of dialogue. And I’ve tried my hand at writing fiction too, which provided mental escape of a different sort.

So, what good is fiction? Even if it’s only escapism, it’s extremely valuable and not to be sneered at. At its best, fiction can make one’s interior world more vibrant, more fascinating, and more meaningful; and the world around us more wondrous, more exciting, and more entertaining. That’s enough of a recommendation for me.

Help me satisfy my reading jones!

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The Thighs Have It

From chub rub to thigh gap, there’s nothing a woman can do to win. Apparently, there’s no perfect body out there and, also apparently, everyone wants to have one. But what there is, is lots of body-shaming.

I didn’t even know what “chub rub” was until I saw an ad for a product that was supposed to fix it. This was what we used to call a foundation garment but is now known as “shapewear.” Chub rub is what happens to your inner thighs when they, well, rub together. (Full (possibly TMI) disclosure: I have worn a foundation garment exactly once, when I was planning to don a tight Halloween costume (a slinky devil). It didn’t work the way it was supposed to. But I digress.)

I happen to know that men get chub rub too. More than one gentleman of my acquaintance has had it. But with men, it doesn’t get called chub rub and they don’t get special garments to combat it, just powder. (“If I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the talcum powder,” as the old joke goes.) I think the world would be much more entertaining if men had to try to wriggle into shapewear.

These days, even thin women can’t win. To be truly visually acceptable, they must have what’s known as a “thigh gap.” This means that when a woman stands straight with her feet together, there should be, well, a gap between her thighs. You have to be able to see daylight between them. I haven’t seen shapewear advertised that will produce a thigh gap, but it’s only a matter of time, I suspect.

And of course, thigh gap isn’t even a desirable look for men. Once they have their six-pack abs in place, only one thing below the waist matters. And there’s no shapewear for that, that I know of.

Fashions in size and weight for women come and go, generally depending on what the upper classes think is fashionable. When thinness was a sign of poverty and famine, a well-padded figure was the ideal for Victorian ladies. (Queen Victoria may have had something to do with it too.) When heftiness was a sign of a peasant’s starchy potato diet, suddenly slim was in. Slim or even skinny has stayed in for seemingly ever.

Societal pressure tries to force (or entice) women to conform to whatever the current version of “perfect” is. Fashion models become role models. And fashion designers’ idea of perfect sizes ranges from zero (!) to four, tops (and bottoms).

But lately, there has been some pushback on this notion. Runway models are increasingly required to have a certain, non-zero, amount of body fat before they can walk the catwalk. And Sports Illustrated made a splash (sorry not sorry) when their Swimsuit Issue cover model was unashamedly plus-size and very curvy.

(I remember the days when model Kate Moss was praised for her “heroin chic” look, featuring an emaciated body and pasty, sallow skin. It wasn’t a look I liked and I’m glad it’s gone. If that makes me guilty of body-shaming, I’ll have to own it. Also, I can’t explain the fashion trends of super-plump lips or bushy eyebrows, any more than I can explain the dress-up geese trend from years past. But I digress again.)

Anyway, I don’t plan to do anything about my thighs, even if I do occasionally get chub rub (usually only when I wear dresses, which I try never to do except for nightdresses). And I’m learning to cut out body-shaming, especially fat-shaming, from my thoughts and words. I really need to. I’m fat, after all.

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Who Doesn’t Want a Hug and Kiss?

Everyone wants a hug and a kiss, right? Well, no, not absolutely everyone. What kind of displays of affection are unwanted? Let me count the ways.

I, for one, could do without the symbolic kisses, in which two ladies touch cheeks and make a “mwaa” noise, then repeat on the other side. Fortunately, I run in circles where that just doesn’t happen. (Or I run in circles in order to avoid them.)

Kisses on the lips are sometimes unwelcome, depending on how well you know the person. I once knew a grandmother who quailed when her small grandchildren insisted on kissing her on the lips. Usually, when you see this sort of kiss moving in, you can move quickly enough so that the peck lands on the cheek instead. If you can’t avoid a kiss on the lips, be sure to return a dry, pinched, spitless peck, so the kisser may get the idea and not go back for more.

Hugs are quite variable. Some people like the full-on hug, which science tells us should last 20 seconds or more for proper fulfillment or endorphins or something. I don’t recommend trying this with someone you’re just meeting. In those cases, a handshake is perhaps preferable. Others prefer the less intimate, A-frame hug, in which both parties keep their distance and lean in only the tops of their bodies for the squeeze. “Buddy-hugs,” involving one arm across the back and shoulder, are pretty acceptable, especially between men at sporting events and sometimes in office situations that are really casual. (Offices are not generally safe places to display affection, though. You’re there to work, not snuggle.)

In general, you should avoid hugging anyone you just met. (Although that’s how I met my husband, in a group of people who all hugged. I didn’t want to offer a hearty handshake and feel left out. But I digress.) Also to be avoided are huggers who, shall we say, lack certain standards of hygiene, as well as those who go the other way and wear too much cologne.

Teachers have a particular problem with hugging. Sometimes a hug seems perfectly natural to console a young child or as a way of praising a child for completing a drawing that looks something like a horse. But teachers these days are wary. How much hug is appropriate? How old can a child be and still receive a hug that’s not creepy? (Four or five, probably. Fifteen or sixteen, no.) And is anyone watching who might report you? Some schools have zero-tolerance policies, as though hugs have been weaponized.

One of the stickiest situations is when a child doesn’t want to hug or kiss a relative. The sight of a large, looming face, perhaps with a thick layer of lipstick, moving in on a tiny, helpless face, can be terrifying. A hug might lead to unpleasant, unwanted tickling that could result in embarrassingly wet underwear. But children are frequently told, “Go kiss Grandma” or “Hug Uncle Bill now,” an order that’s difficult to refuse.

Some experts say – and I agree with them – that children should not be forced to kiss and hug when they don’t want to. It teaches them a lesson about bodily autonomy that contradicts the other lessons we try to impart – that they shouldn’t let other people touch them unless they invite or want the touch. Indiscriminate touching can lead to grooming far more than learning about two mommies can.

Bodily autonomy is a lesson that needs to start early and continue until adulthood or even beyond. Think about bra-snapping in junior high. Think about being pinned against the locker and kissed. Think about a slap on the ass with a towel in the locker room. Then think about molesters out in the real world. It’s a continuum. Accepting unwanted touch can lead to disaster.

I’m not saying that icky grandma kisses will lead to child rape. I’m just saying that the choice should be up to the prospective kissee or huggee. (Personally, I’m awfully fond of kisses on my head or forehead, or on my neck, with perhaps a discreet nuzzle thrown in for good measure. But that’s TMI. Never mind.)

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Whose Daughter? Whose Wife?

Emily St. John Mandel noticed back in 2012 that there were many, many books with titles that related to someone’s daughter. “No trend that I’ve ever noticed has seemed quite so pervasive as the daughter phenomenon,” she said. “Seriously, once you start noticing them, they’re everywhere. A recent issue of Shelf Awareness had ads for both The Sausage Maker’s Daughters and The Witch’s Daughter. I’m Facebook friends with the authors of The Hummingbird’s DaughterThe Baker’s DaughterThe Calligrapher’s Daughter, and The Murderer’s Daughters, and those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.” She actually made a spreadsheet of the number of daughter books and came up with over 530. “I don’t mean to suggest that 530 represents the total number of these books,” she added. “Five hundred and thirty was just the arbitrary point where I decided to stop counting, because the project was starting to take too much time. I was only on page 88 of 200 pages of search results.”

Well, I took over her mission and recorded still more daughters that were the subject of books. One of the best known is The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan. Among the others I found were the President’s, General’s, Senator’s, Governor’s, Admiral’s, Colonel’s, Judge’s, and Sheriff’s. And the Bishop’s, Apostate’s, and Vicar’s. Not to mention the Alchemist’s, Apothecary’s, Taxi Driver’s, Merchant’s, Outlaw’s, and Killer’s. There were even ones that recognized that sometimes women had daughters as well: the Harlot’s, the Mistress’s, and the Book Woman’s daughters all came up on the search.

But the phenomenon doesn’t stop there. I also found a plethora of books devoted to various people’s wives. The most recent and popular was The Time-Traveler’s Wife, but there are plenty of others. Some I found particularly interesting: Zookeeper’s and Tiger’s (two separate books), Nazi Officer’s, Traitor’s, Lightning God’s, Liar’s, Shape-Changer’s, Dopeman’s, Conqueror’s, and Dark Overlord’s. Lobotomist’s (I think I need to read that one) and Anatomist’s and Knife Thrower’s. Lots of occupational ones – Shoemaker’s, Pilot’s (and Aviator’s), Headmaster’s, Optician’s, Woodcutter’s, Centurion’s, Mapmaker’s (a fascinating book that I’ve actually read), Tea Planter’s, Clockmaker’s, Chocolate Maker’s, Restaurant Critic’s, Runaway Pastor’s (no, that’s one, not two), Penmaker’s, and Banker’s wives were all featured. And some that are just puzzling: Salaryman’s, Janitor’s, Centaur’s wife.

That’s where I stopped recording them. I’m not a big fan of spreadsheets.

The reason I bring all this up (there actually is a reason) is that I’m always annoyed (not to say pissed off) when there’s a campaign that defines a woman in terms of her relationship with someone else: Breast cancer could happen to your wife or your mother. Being attacked on the street at night could happen to your daughter, your fiance, your niece. Abortion, stalking, mental and other illnesses – all could happen to a person related to you.

It’s not that you shouldn’t be aware of how these tragedies and distressing situations can affect those around you – loved ones, relatives, neighbors. And it’s not like there aren’t a few similar things that could be said about husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers, or male friends (killed in war or suffering from prostate cancer, usually).

What gets to me is that the afflictions are said to be visited on women in relation to someone else. Isn’t it bad enough when a woman is raped or gets cervical cancer strictly as herself? Why do we have to define her as someone’s something in order for her to deserve our attention?

Even the sisters and the daughters are encouraged to think, “It could be my mother or grandmother. It could be my best friend.” I guess “It could happen to any woman” isn’t specific enough. There has to be an emotional connection to make them worth caring about.

But there are plenty of women without family or community connections who are subject to diseases and disasters – the homeless woman, the one who has always lived on her own, the widow with no children. Why can’t we care about, have sympathy for, and work toward the health and happiness of them too?

Or are they only worthwhile and interesting when they’re daughters or wives?

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Ghostwriter Gigs

For the past several years, I have been working for a transcription service, typing up shareholders’ and lenders’ info sessions, conferences, and other sorts of gatherings to discuss primarily business issues.

With the slowing of the COVID pandemic and other factors, however, transcription assignments have been thin on the ground, or at least in the inbox.

Fortunately, I have discovered ghostwriting. Actually, I was applying to be an editor, not a ghostwriter. But I screwed up on the qualifying test. I’m a good editor, but I wasn’t used to their way of editing. When I was an editor in magazine publishing, I worked for a small company. We didn’t have lots of editors, subeditors, associate editors, assistant editors, acquisitions editors, line editors, content editors, proofreaders, or much of a budget for freelance writers. A simple editor had to do virtually all of it. And I was a simple editor.

So when I was faced with a sample text to edit, I did it the way I always had – I attacked all the problems I saw during my first editing pass, then went back to attack the rest of the problems – things I’d missed or that only became apparent on a second or third reading. Problems of flow, continuity, grammar, style, punctuation, and other arcane pieces of an editor’s craft were addressed in a somewhat random fashion.

What the company wanted, however, was a series of separate editorial steps – first (for some reason) spelling and punctuation, then moving upward through a series of other steps done in a certain order until all the editing was complete. I did my usual slash-and-burn editing, which didn’t at all mesh with their procedure. I was turned down.

But I noticed that the company also employed ghostwriters. “I’m a writer,” I said to myself. “I’ve written many an article that I didn’t develop myself on topics that I didn’t select. Why can’t I do that with a book?” This time I passed the trial assignment and became an actual ghostwriter. Then I went through the various processes associated with the position, such as selecting a pen name, creating a profile, choosing which niches I could write in, and so forth.

I expected to have to request orders and wait to be accepted, but almost immediately I received a request from a prospective customer. The book requested was on pets, which I know something about, but specifically on dogs, which I know little about. Some discussion ensued, but I was granted the assignment – 27,000 words, due in three weeks (the usual deadline given for a book of about 30,000 words). That works out to about 1,500 words a day, a number I could easily meet.

Then I got another assignment, a self-help book. The time period overlapped somewhat with the deadline for the pet book, but I took the assignment regardless. After all, 3,000 words a day would be a stretch, but since the overlap was only a week, I thought I could handle it.

While I was finishing up the first book and working on the second book, I sent out more requests for invitations to work on other books, thinking that it might take me a while to line up another assignment. That’s how I acquired my third assignment, which overlapped with the second one, with revisions on the first assignment thrown in. The third assignment was a self-help/business book on a subject I had written something about before in a blog. After some back-and-forth with the customer to make sure we meshed, I signed on for the assignment and the customer signed on for me.

I am finding the job rewarding, though not necessarily financially. The money isn’t great, only a few hundred dollars per book, but more than I ever made at transcription, even when the taps were open and the assignments flowing daily.

I’m writing nonfiction just now, but I think I’ll try taking the test for fiction ghostwriters too, just to give myself more options. I don’t have as much experience with writing fiction as I do with writing nonfiction, but I do have some. And I figure that being able to write both will make my services more marketable and keep the assignments coming in.

Will it be frustrating to see someone else’s name on a book that I actually authored? And not even my pen name at that? Other writers will know what I mean when I say that as long as they spell my name right on the check, I won’t mind. (Not that anyone pays by check anymore. So just so long as they deposit it to the right PayPal account, I’ll be satisfied.)

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My Personal Writer’s Retreat

I am on a writer’s retreat. It’s not an official one, but I don’t care!

What is a writer’s retreat? There are actually several kinds: the writer’s residency, the writers’ workshop, the writers’ conference, and the writer’s retreat. All of them are designed to provide writers (and prospective writers) with space and time to pursue their craft, and perhaps inspiration and instruction. Some of these categories overlap a bit, but let’s tackle them one by one.

Writer’s Residency

Writer’s residencies are perhaps the classiest of all these kinds of retreats. You go to a location like a large house, which you share with other writers-in-residence. Each of you has a separate room and are free to work on your writing as you please. The residency lasts for anywhere from a week to a month or two. The one catch is that, because residencies are so sought-after, you have to apply to get one, and the competition is fierce. So it’s not the kind of thing you can plan on and, as we’ll see, planning is one of the primary prerequisites of getting the most from your desk-away-from-desk.

Writers’ Workshop

A writers’ workshop is the place to go if you already have a work-in-progress, but are stalled. These are a combination of critiques and feedback on your work and some writing classes to help you improve it. These are typically held over a long weekend and may take place at a college or university. They’re a particularly good deal if you live in the same town. Otherwise, you’ll likely be put up in a student dorm, which is why they’re usually held during school breaks.

Writers’ Conference

Like workshops, these are often held over a long weekend. Unlike workshops, though, there are usually industry professionals like agents and publishers in attendance. Frequently, there are professional writers there too. The pros give little mini-seminars on various aspects of writing or getting published. If you’re really lucky, you may be able to sign up for one of the spots on a speed-dating sort of consultation with one or more of them and pitch your idea or get feedback on what you should do next. There could also be interactive writing sessions, in which, for example, you have half an hour to write to a prompt then share your work with the others in your group.

Writers’ Retreat

Writers’ retreats can last for a week or a weekend. They provide a secluded location, often very scenic, where you can write for hours without distractions, other than going out to stroll about the aforementioned scenery to get inspiration. These can be solo affairs or be open to several writers, who generally write all day (or night) and gather for meals and perhaps sharing sessions. Writers’ retreats are sometimes held in really classy locations – in another country or overlooking a fantastic beach, for example. Hence, they can be quite pricey.

DIY Writer’s Retreat

The DIY writer’s retreat is when a writer retreats (duh!) to a secluded location near their home – a local hotel, for instance, and holes up writing for however long they can afford to stay. There are also stay-at-home versions which require that you have at least a room with a door, no children, and no phone (or your cell turned off).

There are several ways a writer can sabotage their own writer’s retreat, though. Sitting staring at the computer (or legal pad, if you’re a poet or merely old-fashioned) is one. Giving in to distractions is another. It’s best if you have a plan in place – a certain number of hours to write every day, an outline to show you where you’re going, or other way to organize your time and work. A DIY retreat doesn’t work for everyone, needless to say, but it’s by far the cheapest way to retreat, unless you run up a whopping hotel bill (which is still cheaper than the kind held in exotic places). And there is no feedback from other writers unless you have a regular writers’ group that meets during or afterward.

I’ve had my own personal 10-day writer’s retreat this past week-and-a-fraction. I did have one distraction – three cats who were pests when it came to getting their noms on time. It’s a pet-sitting gig for friends in another state who have gone on a cruise and didn’t feel comfortable boarding their little darlings. I had a plan – one writing session in the morning and another in the afternoon, with evenings free for research and relaxing and practicing my catspeak (meow, meh, ma-aa, aa-aa). I’m writing this during a morning session. That’s my plan and I have stuck to it, except for a long lunch with a nearby friend that spilled over into the afternoon.

And I have had specific projects to work on. I’m doing ghostwriting right now and have two overlapping projects. Mornings were for working on the book about pets and the afternoons for the self-help book. (I’ve finished the pet book, so I’m writing this during a morning session.) And the outlines were largely laid out for me, so I could just write away. The only phone calls were from my husband.

Fortunately, when I get back home, I do have a study with a door I can close, and our cats, while annoyed about not being able to get to their favorite window perch, have other perches and other windows available to them. It’s a bit noisier when my husband gets home from work, but hey, you can’t have everything. I’ve enjoyed this break enormously, though I don’t expect to have the opportunity to do it again soon. It’s even harder to get pet-sitting gigs than ghostwriting gigs!

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