Category Archives: journalism

Sick of the Virus

I am sick of all the coronavirus blog posts and memes. But there are a few that I’m particularly sick of, especially the defiant ones and the conspiracy theories. Here’s what I think, for what it’s worth.

No, COVID-19 was not engineered by the Chinese or anyone else. There are plenty of viruses running around out in the wild and jumping species without anyone having to create them in a lab. Just because this one might affect you doesn’t mean it’s special.

No, wearing a mask does not violate your civil liberties. Miners and construction workers have to wear hardhats. Painters have to wear masks or respirators. Surgeons have to wear gowns, gloves, and masks. There are laws about these things designed to protect the people involved. If they can suck it up and wear protective equipment without protesting, so can you.

No, your need for a haircut does not trump my need for staying off a respirator.

Yes, social distancing is inconvenient, but it still beats having your lungs filled with fluid.

Yes, the employees in businesses that are still open probably hate wearing masks too and sanitizing their hands multiple times a day. But they don’t want to take your viruses back home to the people they care about.

No, it’s not necessary to carry guns to rallies protesting COVID-19 restrictions. Shooting legislators and health authorities will not make a bit of difference to the virus. Show some dignity, people. 

Yes, states have the right to respond to the virus in any way they choose, but they ought to consider that the virus does not care about state lines or crossing them. An informed national policy would make the crisis less of a crisis, though.

No, people in the 70s did not like gas rationing, any more than people during World War II liked rationing of gas, sugar, flour, shoes, and many other commodities. But they put up with it for the sake of a greater goal. In this case, the greater goal that restrictions are required for is preserving the lives of innocent people.

No, you don’t need that much toilet paper. The virus attacks the respiratory system, not the GI tract. Leave some for others, for goodness sake. Let’s not be ridiculous here.

No, Bill Gates, Hillary Clinton, and George Soros had nothing to do with the origin or spread of the virus and are not using it as an excuse to microchip everyone. (Microchipping your pets is still a good idea.)

Yes, staying at home and sheltering in place can be boring. And trying to work from home or home-schooling your kids can be frustrating. But there are people who do these things by choice, every day of the year, and if they can put up with it, so can you. Boredom and inconvenience are not sufficient reasons to risk death for yourself or others.

No, politics has no effect on the virus. It hits red states and blue states equally, all things being equal. Some states are just more on the ball than others when it comes to limiting the spread of the virus. Look at Ohio – a red state with a governor who listens to a doctor and takes her advice about proper precautions. The virus wasn’t “timed” to interfere with elections either. There’s no way you can make a virus do that.

Yes, you are acting like an idiot if you harass (or shoot) employees who insist you wear a mask. They are carrying out their employers’ instructions or the health regulations of their state, county, city, or other authority. They’re not to blame for it.

No, no one is whipping up fear for fear’s sake. COVID-19 is already fearsome enough without it. This is not a plot to use fear to control us all. 

Yes, I have an axe to grind, “skin in the game,” as it were. I am a senior with an immune condition and an immunosuppressant medication. My husband has diabetes and a job in the high-risk environment of a grocery store. If either one of us gets the virus, we’re likely both toast.

There. I hope I’ve made it clear. These “news” stories, rumors, memes, and speculation have to stop. There are people’s lives at stake here, folks.

Don’t Mention It

Headline writers – love ’em or hate ’em. Sometimes they write hilarious headlines (though usually unintentionally) like “Murder victims seldom talk to police.” Those are the ones that make me laugh.

Then there are the ones that piss me off – the ones where the headline writer (usually not the same person that wrote the story) feels compelled to tell the world a woman’s reproductive status as if it were vital to the story. You know the ones I mean:

Grandmother locks intruder in basement

Mother of three wins science prize

Mom of the Year saved from serial killer

In each of these cases, the news is that someone foiled an intruder, won a prize, or escaped a terrible fate. If you must say it was a woman, which may or may not be relevant to the story, at least leave out whether she has managed to reproduce.

“Grandmother” headlines usually indicate that an older woman accomplished something. What do they put if she’s not a grandmother? That’s right, they focus on her age. “75-year-old woman locks intruder in basement.” I say, pick one. Either “75-year-old locks intruder in basement” or “Woman locks intruder in basement.” That’s enough information to make me want to read the story.

Or use a sex-neutral term: “Professor won science prize.” “Kettering resident locks intruder in basement.” “Intended victim saved from serial killer.” And think about it. You never see a headline that says “Father of three runs for city council.”  Deep down, the writers know that reproductive status is irrelevant to the story – as long as it’s a man who’s done something worth mentioning.

I also despise what is known as “inspiration porn” – those stories that tell how some brave boy invites a disabled girl to the prom. There’s always a photo so we can see that she uses a wheelchair, or has Down’s Syndrome, or something. We all applaud the boy for being so courageous and understanding.

These stories, while they may be meant to demonstrate that a person with a disability can still “live a normal life,” actually stress that it is rare enough an event for it to be news. The boy is the hero of the story, with the girl merely a prop for his altruistic nature. He’s seen as doing good by asking an “otherwise-undateable” partner to the dance. Frankly, I’d be embarrassed to be singled out in the news as either one of the couple.

Then there was Chopped, which I watched the other night. One of the guest judges had a prosthetic hand, a hook sort of arrangement. I was so pleased to see that no one even mentioned it, as it was not relevant to whether the man had a discerning palate.

Eventually, it was mentioned – by the man himself – during a discussion of harvesting stinging nettles. (He said that when foraging for them, he “used the hook.”) At that point, one of the other judges asked about it, respectfully, “if you don’t mind sharing,” and the guest judge told how he lost his lower arm to electrocution and should have died. I give all the Chopped team credit for carrying on as usual. Until and unless the man brought up the subject himself, I doubted that anyone would have said a word.

True, judge Chris Santos might have refrained from asking about the disability even then, but at least he had a legitimate opening. And once asked, the gentleman couldn’t easily back out of acknowledging his difference and answering the question on TV. But it was handled with a modicum of sense and sensibility.

It’s also worth mentioning that Guy Fieri often introduces contestants on his Food Network game show as a “father of twin girls” or “dad to five children” as often as he refers to mothers and their kids. American Ninja Warriors also announces the reproductive status of its participants, usually in heartwarming featurettes about Dad training with his kids.

I know “grandmother” stories are thought to be more interesting. I know that prom stories make people feel warm and fuzzy. I know that. But they also reduce people to stereotypes – a mom, a person with a disability. Maybe someday these aspects will not be deemed newsworthy, but until then such stories (or at least headlines) will continue to be written.

 

 

Hyphens and Help

So, I was an editor, but I was not the editor. There were editors over me – way too many of them. The company I worked for published several magazines and each one had an editor. I worked on all the publications and for all the editors. Sometimes I felt like I was a bone, with a pack of dogs fighting over me.

Then there was the executive editor, nominally in charge of all the other editors and a really great boss. He was a pleasure to work for.

There were other employees that I had to please as well – art directors, production managers, the Big Boss, and any number of others. It was a balancing act, or more likely, a juggling act. But I thought I had mastered it.

One day, one of the publication editors decided to take a completely new approach to the hyphenation of adjectives. She was a little old lady, well known for sending in manuscripts hand-written on cash register receipts and soap wrappers. Still, she was the founding editor of that particular magazine and she knew the content, the authors, and the industry better than anyone alive.

But there was the hyphenation. It was idiosyncratic and defied all rules of grammar and punctuation that I knew. Nor was it the first time that this editor had gone off on a stylistic tangent. I had memories of the times she had insisted that her odd notions of punctuation and grammar be adhered to.

The first person I saw after the hyphenation edict came down was the production manager. I ranted. I explained exactly how weird her system of hyphenation was. I told him what was wrong with it and why the way we had been doing it was perfectly fine.

“Well, you’ve got to consider that she’s 100 years old,” he said. (She wasn’t quite, but close.) “She’s set in her ways. She’s used to being in charge.” With every word, he expressed how unreasonable it was for me to be upset and how I ought to give in to her notions of proper punctuation. “Let her have her way,” he advised.

I left his desk deeply unsatisfied. Then I went to the executive editor. I went through the same spiel – the magazine editor, the “novel” method of hyphenation, what a hassle it would be, and how ridiculous it would look.

“Tch, tch,” he said.  “Isn’t that awful?” He said it without a trace of irony or condescension. I truly felt that he had heard me and sympathized.

And that was all I really wanted. I didn’t need explanations of why the batty editor had come up with this idea. I didn’t need ways to cope with her insane notions. I didn’t need to learn how to acquiesce gracefully to her punctuation regime.

What I needed was someone to understand.

It’s like that sometimes. There are times when you need advice and there are times when you just need to vent. It is the wise boss – or friend or spouse – who can recognize which time is which.

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise,” and that’s the truth. Sometimes advice is unwanted; sometimes it’s unneeded; sometimes it’s intrusive.

I’ve noticed that men often have an immediate response that when something is complained about, it needs to be fixed, so they offer advice. (This is not always true. The executive boss who listened to my rant was male and he never proffered a single suggestion. But my husband, who has a “fix-it” complex, took time to learn this lesson.)

So did I, when it comes right down to it. I have friends who have lots of problems (and who doesn’t). Many times I tried to give advice to one of them or offer solutions to her problems, but they always met with stubborn explanations of why they couldn’t possibly work. Now I simply offer sympathy and a willing ear and I think we are both more content. She has a sounding board and I don’t sound like a know-it-all.

It’s a tough lesson to learn, especially for those of us raised on Ann Landers and Dear Abby. Sometimes advice is not what’s needed. Sometimes it’s just a little understanding.

 

 

Adventures in Publishing (Indie and Self)

I wanted to publish a book. And so I did. The second book was more difficult, and not because it was harder to write. I had some things to learn about the realities of publishing.

Oh, I did go through the usual rounds of submissions and rejections with my first book. It was too specialized. I didn’t have a big enough platform. It was a niche market. I didn’t want to self-publish, turned my nose up at it, in fact, but after a while, I started to think it was my only choice.

Then I found a small indie publisher (or they found me). They published just the kind of stories I had to tell – books about trauma, loss, renewal, and especially about mental disorders. And my book was about my struggles with bipolar disorder. Within two weeks after I submitted it, they accepted my manuscript.

There followed the usual rounds of back-and-forth. I’m an editor myself, so my book was in pretty good shape, but their editor made some excellent suggestions and tried to tame my idiosyncratic use of commas. I worked with a designer on the cover. He took my ideas and put them into visible form. After only a few tweaks, it was done.

There were still proofs to be approved, formatting decisions to discuss, a dedication page I had forgotten to add, a photo shoot for my author photo, copy for the back cover, a press release, and the myriad other things that had to be supplied, written, proofed, and approved. At last, less than six months after my manuscript was accepted, my book took final form and was published, in both paperback and ebook versions.

I was over the moon, needless to say. I looked for opportunities to promote my book, Bipolar Me. There weren’t that many and, as you may have guessed, the publisher was not a lot of help in that area. I did scare up an hour-long interview on a podcast (where it was clear the interviewer had not read the book), an interview (with picture) in the local newspaper and online edition, and a reading/signing at my local Barnes & Noble. (Very few attendees, but some interest from other people sitting in the café, which is where the event was held.) I sold very few copies.

The indie publisher also accepted my second book, Bipolar Us, a sequel to the first. Things didn’t run on the same rails as the first time. It was nearly a year until the manuscript was edited and formatted, the cover image produced, and all those other steps I just mentioned. It was frustrating to move so slowly when it had gone so smoothly before.

Then.

Just when my book was on the point of completion, ready to go to print, the publishing company folded. My first book would be available for only a few more weeks, and my second book would not see the light of day.

It was time for me to reconsider my notions of self-publishing. It seemed to be the only way I could get this almost-finished book over the finished line, as it were. Since then, I have been dealing with IngramSparks, providing them with the materials that the indie company had released to me (I still own the rights).

This week I approved the final paperback version for printing. (The ebook will come later, once I get my epub file.) And I fully intend to rerelease my first book as well.

I’m going to try to be smarter about publicizing and promoting my book this time. I’m going to make sure it gets reviewed and gets into the hands of influencers in the field. I’m going to take out a few strategic ads. I’m going to contact the local libraries and the local college bookstores to see if they will stock my book.

And in the meantime, I’ll be working on my next book, one in a totally different genre, that has been on hold while I wrestled with these two.

The Naked Audience

I had a public speaking engagement coming up. In fact, my publisher had arranged to have me do a reading/signing of my first book, Bipolar Me, at the local Barnes & Noble.

I do suffer from anxiety but, perhaps surprisingly, this did not have me paralyzed with fear. For one thing, I had supportive friends. Although the most common advice given to people who do public speaking is to picture the audience naked, a friend of mine offered to picture me naked instead if I thought it would help. And my husband offered to stand in the back of the room and shout, “Show us your tits!” if I started to freeze up. Such helpful friends I have!

Perhaps the reason that public speaking doesn’t terrify me is that I studied speech and debate in high school. Once you’ve been in an extemporaneous speaking contest and drawn the topic “If a chicken had lips, could it whistle?” there’s little that can daunt you in the future. (For those interested, I said, no, it could not.)

I also have some experience teaching college and business school English. Sometimes this endeavor was fraught with peril. Once I was teaching a lesson based on a reading about AIDS and one of the students informed me she had heard that it started in Africa with people “messing with monkeys.” I told the class that I denied that was what happened.

One student piped up, “People do screw sheep, you know.” (He did not say “screw.”) I knew this was meant to disconcert me. “Mr. Chadwick,” I replied, “can you please tell us what disease you can get from screwing sheep?” (I did not say “screw” either.) He did a perfect spit-take, the only one I have ever caused or indeed seen in real life.

(I referred to my students as Mr., Ms., or any other courtesy title they were entitled to, on the theory that if they were required to call me Ms. Coburn, I should extend the same dignity to them. But I digress.)

I had even done public speaking at business functions. Once I had to address a group at a power breakfast meeting, introducing a new magazine that the publishing company I worked for was launching. I even opened with a joke. (“I thought that since we’re launching a new magazine, I should open with a toast. My husband said, ‘A toast? At breakfast?’ ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘how about cinnamon raisin toast?'”) There were gratifying chuckles.

Another time, I was asked to give a humorous talk at the retirement dinner of my boss. (Again, my husband was prepared to stand in the back and heckle.) I borrowed a technique I had seen used at a business conference and created an imaginary slide show. I used one of those little clicker gizmos that nuns used to carry in Catholic schools to “advance” the slides and then described whatever scene I wanted to set up a punchline. (“Here’s a picture of Carl dressed as The Big Bad Wolf for Halloween. The next day he called in sick with distemper.”) Afterward, they gave me $100, so I suppose now I can call myself a professional stand-up comic.

My Barnes & Noble talk, though, didn’t exactly go off without a hitch. Only two of my friends showed up (plus my husband). Luckily the event was held in the bookstore’s cafe and I managed to suck in a few patrons, especially during the question and answer session. I had to skip my introduction, as the audience already knew me, and cut my joke, too. (“What is bipolar disorder like? It’s like sex. You can’t adequately explain it to someone who’s never had it.”)

Anyway, I counted the appearance as a success. I read a few short pieces from my book, which I had cleverly printed out in large type beforehand so I wouldn’t squint. I signed a book for one of my friends and a bunch for the store so they could put “Signed by the Author” stickers on them. One member of my accidental audience asked for my autograph and a few words of wisdom, though she didn’t buy a book.

And the store said they’d be glad to have me back when my second book, Bipolar Us, comes out later this year. No joke.

Gaslighting America

Gaslighting appears to be the latest “trend” in emotional abuse. Articles abound on the subject, from definitions of the term to checklists of signs to analysis of the abuser and the abused. I’ve written a number of times about gaslighting, in particular how it relates to mental health.

The next topic that has been appearing under the headline “gaslighting” is whether the American people as a group are being gaslit. Let’s take a look, shall we?

To start with a definition, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which the gaslighter denies the other person’s perception of reality, with the intention or the effect of making that person think that she or he is crazy. There are a number of classic emotional abuse techniques involved such as isolation, projection, dehumanizing, and others. It is usually an intensely personal interaction between two people, though it can also happen when more than one family member “gangs up” on a relative, for example.

But increasingly now it is being said that an entire group – the American people (or some subset of them) – is being gaslit by another group.  Call them the Powers That Be or more familiarly the Government with a capital G.

Let’s take one example, climate change. We know, according to almost every climate scientist, that climate change and global warming exist. Yet the Government has instructed various of its agencies to remove any mention of climate change from their documents and websites.

Is this gaslighting? No. The statements that deny what we know to be happening do not lead us to believe that the Government’s version of reality is true and that we might be crazy. We merely believe that the Government is wrong. These are examples of obfuscations, misstatements, hiding information, or outright lies. But they are not gaslighting.

Take another example of denying reality, statements by politicians. Some of these are untrue (that is, lies), but in many cases, video or audiotapes exist that prove them wrong. Either the politician did not say what she or he claims was said, or has changed stances since the original statement.

Is this gaslighting? No. We either believe the original statement or we believe the new statement. At no point do we consider our beliefs, our perception of reality, to be crazy. We believe either the old statements or the new statements, but they conform with our perception of reality and we resist believing the statement that denies it.

What about general statements about reality? Suppose the Government says the economy is booming, but all you see around you are failing businesses, people out of work, people working multiple jobs to get by, or working people living below the poverty line. The Powers That Be are denying your perception of reality and they usually have statistics to “prove” it.

This may indeed be gaslighting. We are left to wonder which is true – our perception of reality or the Government’s. The Government has an ulterior motive for denying our perception of reality – to put forth their own vision and say that theirs is true and ours is wrong. We might indeed be tempted to doubt the evidence of our own perceptions and wonder: Is that true? Is the economy really in great shape? Maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe I’m crazy to hold the view I do.

The antidote to this kind of gaslighting is to do work that few of us are inclined to or able to do – our own research. Most of us are unequipped to do in-depth research on economic theory and the sociological implications. All we can do is rely on the perceptions of others, perhaps people we consider to be experts or people who share our perception of reality. Support of this kind is one of the ways to defeat gaslighting.

The temptation here is to pinpoint one specific area of the Government – one politician – and claim that he is gaslighting us. I won’t go into specifics because I fervently dislike diagnosis as a distance (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-AT). But let’s say that a politician denies nearly every perception of our reality and calls the people who disagree crazy.

This is only gaslighting if we are tempted to believe that we are crazy. The essence of gaslighting is that the abuser replaces our perception of reality with his or her own. There may be people who disagree with said politician, but few of them are tempted to abandon their own views of reality in favor of his.

I would call what is happening in these cases “attempted gaslighting.” If we do not give in and accept or consider that the other person’s point of view is or might be valid, we cannot be gaslit.

Strength, support, and the light of day are the antidotes to gaslighting. As long as we keep a firm hold on our reality, or belief in our own sanity and the validity of our perceptions, we can resist attempts to gaslight us.

 

Satanic Panic and Politics in America

The U.S has long been uneasy with the idea of the occult, from Harry Potter to Halloween parties. But the most extreme form of fear occurred in the 1980s, when panic swept America. “Stranger Danger” and “Good-Touch/Bad-Touch” were taught in schools. Someone – many someones – were after America’s kids.

But these weren’t ordinary pedophiles the nation learned to fear. They were occultists. Satanic. Devil-worshippers. And they wanted our children for acts that were unholy as well as sexual. Black masses. Ritual killings. And of course there were the run-of-the-mill child pornography rings, made up of community leaders.

The center of the “Satanic Panic” was daycare centers. As Vox magazine pointed out:

Although it was a time of economic growth and financial prosperity, the Reagan Era was also a time of unease centered on population growth, urbanization, and the rise of the double-income family model, which necessitated a sharp rise in the need for daycare services. As a result, anxiety about protecting the nuclear family from the unknown dangers of this new era was high.

Uneasy with the idea of women of child-bearing age entering the workforce, society seemed bent on convincing them that leaving their children in the care of others was fraught with danger. Unspeakable danger. The worst anyone could envision. So bad that no one could be trusted.

The only safe thing to do was to stay home and keep your children under your own eyes at all times. The ultimate expression of this was the McMartin Preschool case and the ensuing trial.

Rumors of sexual abuse at the daycare center run by the Buckey family mushroomed into florid accounts of ritual abuse. Arrests were made. The community was outraged.

The Institute for Psychological Therapies explained it thus:

The formal charges were wrapped in a conspiracy theory that portrayed the defendants as satanists who used the preschool as headquarters for a vast kiddie porn/prostitution empire that produced millions of child sex photos. The children were allegedly drugged and forced to participate in satanic rituals and sex games with teachers and strangers at both on and off campus locations. During those episodes the children encountered turtles, rabbits, lions, a giraffe, a sexually abusive elephant, dead and burned babies, dead bodies in mortuaries and graveyards, goat men, flying witches, space mutants, a movie star, and local politicians.

The allegations seemed literally unbelievable, impossible in fact, but arrests were made and a years-long trial began. The call to action took the form of “Believe the Children!”

The result? Reports of similar atrocities around the nation and indeed around the world. More and more daycare owners and workers accused.

But the bottom line? Few convictions – none in the McMartin case – and many elsewhere that were later overturned. A new focus on how therapists should interview children for forensic purposes. And perhaps some women frightened out of the workplace, but no end to the profound need for daycare (although funding for that was another matter entirely).

By 1992, reported Vox, “the Department of Justice thoroughly debunked the myth of the ritualistic satanic sex abuse cult.” But the panic didn’t end there.

Flash forward to the 21st century – the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections. Then there was “Pizzagate.” According to Salon, “this bizarre pizza-pedophilia piece of make-believe seems to have struck the right kind of nerve in this simultaneously gullible and paranoid time to become a lasting, serious concern.”

Accusations focused on a Washington pizza parlor called Comet Ping Pong. It was another theory based on dreadful, unthinkable threats to children.

There were rumors of human trafficking and child abuse in a seemingly innocent pizza place. Again the allegations veered into absurdity, such as emails contained code words – “cheese pizza” for “child pornography” because they have the same initials. Salon noted: “If ‘pizza’ is code for pedophilia, the rumor mongers reasoned, clearly a pizza restaurant is the dungeon where all the horrors go down.” The crimes were said to take place in the pizzeria’s basement. Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, the shop had no basement. (It’s perhaps notable that one of the accusations in McMartin was that much of the abuse occurred in underground tunnels, which didn’t exist either.)

As compared to the “Satanic Panic,” it didn’t gain much traction, except with one sorry citizen who believed it so wholeheartedly that he showed up at Comet Ping Pong Pizza with a rifle.

But, like the “Satanic Panic,” Pizzagate had a political subtext. Well, not even a subtext, really. The thing that made Pizzagate special was that it was an attack on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who had only a vague connection to someone who knew someone who visited the pizzeria. It was unclear what her involvement in the supposed human trafficking/pedophile ring might have been, but it was clear from emails, the conspiracy theorists claimed, that she knew all about it.

Again, Salon nailed it:

Hoaxsters and the deranged collaborated to create a compelling and nonsensical story about depraved, satanic elites operating with impunity. This struck a chord with people who have long seen the mainstream media and politically powerful and well-connected people as manipulative and evil.

Especially if those implicated are people the theorists don’t like, such as working mothers, daycare center workers, or Hillary Clinton. Does it seem odd to anyone else that, while pedophilia is statistically a predominately male crime, women seem to be at the bottom of the dogpile, the subtext, the unseen movers?

References

http://www.ipt-forensics.com/journal/volume7/j7_2_1_9.htm

https://www.vox.com/2016/10/30/13413864/satanic-panic-ritual-abuse-history-explained

https://www.salon.com/2016/12/10/pizzagate-explained-everything-you-want-to-know-about-the-comet-ping-pong-pizzeria-conspiracy-theory-but-are-too-afraid-to-search-for-on-reddit/

What Grade Level Are You Writing At?

Writing for children and writing for adults have some things in common. One is knowing what grade level you’re writing at.

Let’s start with adults. You may think, “Aha! Anyone who graduated high school, which is most of my typical audience, should be reading at the 12th-grade level.” Alas, that isn’t so.

The general rule when writing for adults of average intelligence – the ordinary readership of mainstream books, magazines, ezines, and blogs – is that the writing should be around the 8th-grade level, or at least somewhere between 7th and 9th grade.

You can speculate about the causes of this: the American education system, the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t read except for work and restaurant menus, the disappearance of not just grammar but whole parts of words in tweets and texts. Whatever, it has become the rule of thumb. Of course, if you are writing for an academic journal or a high-tech audience, you will likely be writing at a higher grade level.

Writing for children is more difficult. Yes, you can write at the grade level of the students you are trying to reach (or a bit below to include slow readers). The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is a big help with that. It categorizes words by what a child in each grade should or is likely to know.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, it is. But it can be worse. Producing writing or reading samples for textbooks is fraught with all sorts of perils. One can be asked to write at very precise levels – 3.1 to 3.4, for example. The change of a word or two or breaking a long sentence in half can make the difference. If your assignment includes using specific phonics or grammar requirements (diphthongs, consonant blends, irregular past tense verbs), you can be hard-pressed to write a story that follows the rules and is still enjoyable to read.

Fortunately, writing for children outside the classroom is somewhat easier. While it’s a good idea generally to stay close to the recommended levels for the grade level of your intended audience, skillful writers can break the rules at times. J.K. Rowling, for example, was able to use the word “sycophantic” because its meaning was clear in context from her description of Crabbe’s and Goyle’s behavior.

So, how do you know what grade level you’re writing at? There are various ways and a number of programs to help.

The most important of the measures of “lexile,” or grade level, is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. It returns results matched with readability levels. The easiest place to find it is in Microsoft Word. You can turn on the feature when you set your preferences for spelling and grammar check. It provides two different measures of lexiles, but the Flesch-Kincaid is the easier to understand.

If you prefer, or if for some reason you’re not working in Word (such as working in WordPress), you can find various readability checkers online, which use a variety of measures of readability. I’d recommend the one at  http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/. Sign up for a free account, then run your writing through it. In mere seconds, you’ll have a lexile. Plus, there is a handy chart that tells what each of the levels means.

I ran this post (so far) through Word’s checker and The Writer‘s readability tool and got a grade of about 7th- to 8th-grade reading level, which corresponds to articles on The Writer‘s website up to some of President Obama’s speeches. (Also, only 2% passive sentences. Yay, me!) I’m right on target, according to the experts.

I wouldn’t check every piece of my writing against the readability scores, though you certainly can. But if I write a post that seems to read a bit stodgy or jargon-y, I might.

It takes only a few seconds to do and may improve your connection with your readership. Not to mention giving you a direction to go when you start revising.

How to Write When the Muse Takes a Hike

We’ve all had those days when we simply turn away from a blank screen (or a blank piece of paper, if you’re a traditionalist) and say, “I just can’t write today.” And we’ve all had those passionate days when writing draws you to your keyboard and sucks you in and you can’t not write.

But what about those in-between days? Those when you think of writing and simply say, “meh.” How do we find inspiration or motivation or something to get us writing on those days?

There are the traditional motivators: deadlines and schedules. I’ve used both myself. (And most writers cherish the quote from Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”)

In fact, for my blogs I use both. I have a loose schedule in which I start writing on Wednesday and have a hard deadline of Sunday by noon to post them. Those have worked for me. But if I haven’t written anything by Friday, I get nervous, and that motivates me. Or it makes me consider reposting or repurposing an old post or one from the other blog. And repurposing is a form of writing.

But there are also less traditional motivators. Here are a few.

Boredom. This is closely related to avoidance of worse stuff. If there’s nothing happening in your life or in your house (I can hear all you parents laughing), don’t waste your time on tedious household chores. Sit down and write. Unless you’re writing ad copy for funny-looking tables, writing is not boring, or at least not as boring as, say, ironing. The ironing will still be there when you’re done writing. Believe me, no one else will do it. And no one else can do the writing.

Faking it. This has worked well for me when even the writing is boring (see ad copy, above). Pretend to write, just so that anyone walking past your desk will think you are writing. Write just one sentence. I’ve found that if I do that, I pretty much know what the next sentence should be. Before I know it, I’m writing!

If you really want to get some writing done, set out to write the first paragraph. Either you will realize what the next paragraph should be or you will realize that the paragraph you’ve written shouldn’t be the first one. Maybe it needs an intro. Maybe it should come later in the piece. By the time you’ve shoved it down, paragraph by paragraph, you’ll find where it goes, use it as the conclusion, or dispense with it altogether.

Reading. Read with attention and intention. Read something by your favorite writers and try to see the “bones” of their writing. Highlight whatever it is you’re struggling with, be it description, dialogue tags, or first-person narration.

Or read something serious and look for quotes that make you think. Then write about what you’re thinking. Agree or disagree; just write. Read a headline that makes you angry or puzzled or skeptical. Read the article and write a reply to it. Read the newspaper and write an op-ed. If you like, you can call this research, even though it looks to your family or your co-workers like you’re loafing.

Introductions and cover copy. Writing the preface to a book, even one that doesn’t exist yet, will (or should) give you a sense of the theme of the book. So what if you re-write it after you’ve finished the book? It’s a way to get started. Writing the cover copy or inner flap description can make you realize what you need to be writing. Say the cover copy you write says, “A suspenseful thriller that follows in the footsteps of Tom Clancy.” That can make you realize that what your book needs you to write is another suspenseful or thrilling scene. Or that you need to read more Tom Clancy (see reading, above).

Bad writing. You ought to know bad writing when you see it. It’s all around. Say to yourself, “I could write a better short story/blog post/advertisement/headline/sitcom script than that.” Then go do it. Even if that’s not the style or genre you usually write in, do it anyway. You’ll be exercising your brain and writing muscles. And at least you’ll be writing something, not staring at the blank screen or paper.

The future. If you want to be a published writer, you have to write. It’s not enough just to want it. You’ve got to do it. Every time you sit down and write will get you closer to that goal. Remind yourself of that dream and write, dammit! Even if what you write isn’t very good yet, there’s always the next draft, or your writer’s group, or the example of your favorite writers to encourage you.

At first, you may have to trick yourself into writing. But your writing may go more smoothly the next time. And the next time. And the next – until at last you summon the muse or the passion takes over. You know, the way you’ve always heard writing should be.

 

 

 

School Shootings and the Tipping Point

Teen activists may hold an answer to school shootings.

I say “may” and “an answer” because each shooting is different. There’s no one reason for them.

There is a common denominator. It’s not mental illness, or divorce, or bullying, or the Internet, or video games, or no prayer in schools, or toxic masculinity, though each of those may be a contributing factor in some school shootings.

The common denominator is that school shootings are, well, shootings. Before we address the contributing factors, we must address that.

To do that, we must talk. Negotiate. Problem-solve. Not rant, spout slogans, or pass around memes. Not blame mythical “crisis actors.” None of that will help. Let’s discuss what proposed solutions are feasible, practical, and actually helpful.

This time the kids are taking the lead and speaking up. Mandatory suspension means their walkouts may fail, at least if they walkout until Congress does something, as was suggested.

But other students are speaking out in other ways – talking to the media, visiting elected officials and attending sessions of legislative bodies. Encouraging voter registration among their peers.

And you know, these efforts may fail as well. It’s difficult to get your message across when you’re trying to get the attention of people who live and die by ballots, not bullets.

Here’s the thing, though. With the Parkland school shooting, we may have reached a “tipping point” in our society. Even if legislation doesn’t work, as so many say it won’t, there is a force that can catch the nation’s attention.

Grass-roots activism.

Here I won’t praise the efforts of the 1960s, when under-30s protested and helped stop a war, though I surely could.

What I want to talk about is attitudinal change. Societal change. It can happen and it has happened.

Think about the things that used to be commonplace and succumbed to pressure from groups and individuals.

Smoking is a prime example. Despite push-back from tobacco lobbies and cigarette manufacturers, smoking has tapered off in public and in private. Restaurants started with smoke-free seating areas and now in some states are completely smoke-free. Public buildings and many private ones are too. Smoking around young children is particularly looked down on.

Why? People spoke up, including teens (see truth.org). And society reacted. Look at old movies and how many characters in them smoked. Then look at modern movies and notice how few do. It’s almost like someone realized that these characters are representations of our changing society and – perhaps – role models for kids, even if only subliminally.

And look at drunk driving. MADD – Mothers Against Drunk Driving – changed society’s view of drunk drivers and prompted legislative change; for example, getting states to lower the limits for what is considered “impaired,” holding drinking establishments responsible for taking the keys from patrons too wasted to drive, and requiring harsher punishments for repeat offenders.

Non-legislative solutions are having an effect as well – the “Designated Driver” idea and PSAs that say “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.” There are smaller, local efforts too, such as providing free cabs on the holidays associated with over-indulgence.

What happened in both examples was that society reached a tipping point. After so many deaths and so much ill health, individuals and groups decided that the prevailing practice had to change.

And change it did.

There are reasons to believe that the Parkland shootings may be that tipping point for change. For the idea that school shootings are not just an everyday reality – or shouldn’t be.

Businesses are cutting ties with the NRA, for one. These are protests that will get attention because they are backed up by dollars.

Sure, many teens (and adults and businesses and law-makers) will ignore the issue. Even teens succumb to the “it can’t happen here” mentality. But others are saying that it can and does happen anywhere. In elementary schools, where the students are too young to mount effective protests. In colleges, where students should.

And in the surrounding society, people are saying, “Enough already with the thoughts and prayers.” Even sincere ones have changed nothing, and insincere ones substitute for actual change.

Likely the change that is coming will be incremental and slow. And after the tipping point is reached and the mass of everyday Americans demand real answers to school shootings, maybe we can turn to the related factors like acceptance of bullying and the broken mental health care system. Grassroots efforts and public education are key.

But first, let’s listen to the kids. They have the most to lose.