10 Writing Nightmares

A version of this was published on an older (now defunct) blog of mine. Enjoy! And let me know if these bring up any bad memories.

1) Misspelling the name of the person you’re writing to in an email or cover letter.

2) Producing an embarrassing typo for a word like ‘batch,’ ‘feckless,’ or ‘public.’

3) Putting the finishing touches on a 10-page essay, only to re-read the essay question and realize you didn’t answer it.

4) Repeatedly misusing ‘matriculate,’ ‘genuflect,’ ‘obfuscate,’ or any other polysyllabic word that was supposed to make you sound smart.

5) That brilliant manifesto/sonnet/one-act play you wrote last night? What it looks like the next morning.

6) Working on a 5000-word paper that’s due in less than 24 hours and based on volumes of source material you haven’t yet read.

7) Forgetting to delete something from your submitted work, such as a note you left for yourself. (“What am I even talking about?” or “Find source to back up this nonsense.”)

8) Basing the central argument of your essay on a logical fallacy or on your misreading of another person’s work.

9) Running out of ideas.

10) Submitting a piece of writing before you’ve fini

A Window Into a Surveillance State

I recently read Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder. Several years after the wall was torn down, Funder went to Germany to talk to people who had lived in the East German state, known formally as the GDR (German Democratic Republic). For her book, she interviewed victims and agents of the Stasi, and explored not only what their life was like back then, but how it changed once the wall fell.

The Stasi, or secret police, enacted a pervasive and powerful surveillance system. They amassed copious amounts of information on private citizens, including all kinds of mundane details. They collected information in a variety of ways, from intercepting mail to using informants.

When reading about the effects of the Stasi’s tactics, I started thinking about the surveillance we live under with the Internet, with cameras everywhere, with data harvested by governments and powerful corporations, with various algorithms making decisions about our lives, and with people eager to be informants and judges. I’m not claiming that my life in the U.S. is like living in the East German state. But it’s important to think about what Stasiland shows us, the dangers we face in a state of exposure and surveillance, including:

Continue reading “A Window Into a Surveillance State”

Projecting Our Emotions Onto Photos of Other People

It’s common on social media to see some gorgeous image from the past with people sighing over it saying how much happier life was back then.

A photo like this one, for instance, of a lady in a flowering meadow. The photo was taken in the 1950s.

The lady is smiling at the camera. And she’s pretty, and there are flowers all around her. Of course she’s happy, right?

We don’t know.

Continue reading “Projecting Our Emotions Onto Photos of Other People”

A mix of hopeful and bleak: the ending of If I Had Your Face

The endings of some novels are unambiguously happy, while others are overshadowed with tragedy. What about endings that occupy a more ambiguous space?

I recently read If I had Your Face by Frances Cha, a novel focusing on the lives of a group of young women in South Korea. They all live in the same apartment building, and each has her own struggles.

These struggles involve their job or career, appearance, relationships, and some of the paths they’ve gone down on (based on decisions they made before they knew better). Their problems are also connected to their precarious position in society – they aren’t wealthy or born into elite families. Their missteps aren’t as easily forgiven or recovered from.

By the end of the novel, they’ve generally become more savvy. Their self-awareness has increased. They’ve also helped each other out, and they seem to want to continue giving each other support when necessary. At the same time, their lives continue to be precarious. They’ve pushed disaster away for the time being, but disastrous possibilities still loom in their future or wait for them in the shadows of the paths they’re taking. They may have adapted to dealing more effectively with some of the brutal realities of the world. But the sense of hope at the end of the novel is tempered by some bleakness.

The ending feels more like a pause for breath. They’re breathing a little easier in this moment in time. But it doesn’t feel like a secure happiness.

You may be thinking that this is true of real life, which is one reason the mix of hopeful and bleak works well. However, it takes skill to pull off an ending like this. It doesn’t cater to people’s need for a conclusive answer one way or another. There’s no quick summary about how these women are doing years after the events of the novel.

But there’s still a sense of finality, because of everything that leads to the novel’s closing scene. Some scales have fallen from the characters’ eyes. They’ve stopped lying to themselves in certain ways. At the close of the novel, it’s night, and they’re all back in their apartment building. The sense of solidarity is strong. They’re better able to face the morning, whatever it brings. For the time being, they can count on each other for different kinds of support.

And maybe that’s enough, for now.

The Limitations of Artificial Intelligence…

… and what they reveal about human limitations and strengths. Two quick examples:

Watch this video, which focuses on a picture book while asking important questions about how our brains work vs. how AI works. At what age will a young child understand what happened to the thieving rabbit? Can AI understand the story’s shocking conclusion?

And consider this recent article from CNET on the biases in algorithms (a topic I posted about before). People sometimes think that AI-based decisions will somehow be objective, free from biases and errors in judgment. But what data do algorithms get trained on? And who gets to say what’s a fair AI decision and what’s not?

An example of reducing redundancy in fiction writing

I recently read The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters, a novel written in first-person POV about a newly minted detective who investigates a suspicious death. Sounds like many other crime novels, but the difference here is that no one seems to care about the investigation, because an asteroid is going to hit Earth in six months.

In the following excerpt, the detective, Henry Palace, is at a suspect’s house. The suspect, whose name is Toussaint, has something on his mantel:

There’s a scale model of the New Hampshire state house on the mantel above the fireplace, six inches high and fastidiously detailed: the white stone facade, the gilded dome, the tiny imperious eagle jutting from the top.

“Like that?” says Toussaint when he comes back in … and I set the model down abruptly.

In this excerpt, the narrator never explicitly says, “I picked up the model of the state house.” He just describes what the model looks like. It’s only at the end, when he tells the reader, “I set the model down,” that you know he even had it in his hands.

This is hardly a pivotal moment in the novel. But it’s still a nice example of how you can cut down on redundancy in fiction writing. A narrator doesn’t need to always share each movement, such as picking things up or opening or closing windows and doors.

It’s like if your narrator said, “The window was closed. I opened it.” Would it be necessary to say that the window was closed? Usually not. (Though, who knows, sometimes you’d want to keep that line, maybe to create a certain effect with your prose or to illustrate something about a character’s thought processes.) In any case, when editing your work, it’s important to be thoughtful about these choices.

[By the way, this is off the main topic of the post, but I do recommend The Last Policeman. It’s a good, absorbing read. One head’s up, though: The novel contains multiple descriptions of suicide and suicidal thoughts, plus it focuses on tragedies that are extremely improbable but happen anyway. Just keep that in mind, because sometimes you need to have a certain frame of mind to enjoy a book; other times, you may want to put off reading it.]

Which Kinds of Mistakes Do You Accept in a Nonfiction Book?

In one nonfiction book I’ve been reading recently, I found an inaccurate description of a novel.

In another nonfiction book, the author mischaracterized a Jewish holiday. The author himself is Jewish, but not observant, so maybe he bought into an inaccurate interpretation.

On the one hand, I understand that each of these books has a lot of information backed by hundreds of footnotes. Probably some mistakes are inevitable.

On the other hand, I don’t know how many mistakes the author is making. I picked up on the two I mentioned earlier, because I already knew about the holiday and the novel under discussion. But what about the topics I don’t know about? Can I trust the author to give me accurate information?

Maybe the nature of the mistake makes a difference. For example, getting a date wrong may not be a big deal, if it’s just a typo. Though even that kind of error can be confusing and misleading in certain contexts.

Nonfiction authors often do use fact-checkers, so I’m hoping that many errors will already be caught before publication. Meaning that the book will largely be accurate, with maybe a few minor errors slipping past detection.

But I’m interested in what the line is. Which kinds of mistakes would lead you to put the book aside? And which would you respond to with more lenience?

Some Thoughts About Feeling Superfluous

One of the things people fear most is being “unneeded” or “useless.” When people feel like they’re superfluous, and that no one really needs them around, they tend to wonder about two things:

  1. “How will I get by?”
  2. “What am I even living for?”

The question of “How will I get by?” comes from a basic survival fear. If someone is made redundant at their job, and no one else is interested in hiring them, how will they keep a roof over their head and afford food, clothes, and health care? If their family doesn’t seem to need or want them, where will they go? When you’re on the fringes of the pack or out in the cold, it’s much harder to get by.

The question of “What am I even living for?” comes from a loss of purpose. When people feel superfluous, they wonder what it is they’re meant to do. People generally fare better when they’re needed for something or doing something meaningful – when they can create or build things, provide care, render assistance, inspire or teach others, give themselves and others opportunities to grow, explore something interesting, and give love to others in tangible ways.

Why Do Many People Feel Superfluous Nowadays?

The pandemic has exacerbated certain tendencies and accelerated trends that have already been provoking a sense of superfluousness in people, namely:

  • Job loss or job insecurity
  • Isolation
  • A feeling of helplessness

Numerous small businesses have been wrecked this past year, but even before that many were contending with steep competition from internet commerce, along with struggling to pay rising taxes and rent in many places.

Many jobs continue to be in danger from automation, where technology (automated computer processes, AI) performs the necessary tasks and makes human involvement largely obsolete. The pandemic has brought on another wave of automation. For some, job retraining and new placements will be possible. However, there are various barriers to retraining and starting fresh, including the fact that individuals aren’t infinitely adaptable or transplantable. Retraining programs often fall short in various ways as well.

As for isolation, this is more than just being on your own now and then. It’s being cut off from others – family, friends, romantic partners, colleagues, community. The sense of being cut off can stem from literal physical isolation. (For most people, simulations of togetherness via Zoom and other online platforms don’t come close to replacing time spent together in-person.) Isolation may also stem from a feeling of profound loneliness even when you’re among other people. In either case, there’s some lack of mutual connectedness.

Another aspect of isolation is the belief that no one really cares about you. You experience callousness, empty promises, and an abdication of responsibility. This is crushing.

What about helplessness? Sometimes, people have a tendency to overestimate how helpless they are in various situations and miss out on ways to change their lives. But there’s no denying that helplessness goes beyond self-imposed mental limits. People may realize that they have much less influence over their surroundings than they thought. For instance, that their government on multiple levels isn’t responsive to them. One of the issues harshly brought to light by the pandemic is the disconnect between the governing elite and the people they govern, as seen with the insensible policies and the remarkable indifference to serious concerns.

Continue reading “Some Thoughts About Feeling Superfluous”

Four Ways Toxic Relationships Mess Up Your Perception of Kindness

Whether it involves family, romance, or friendship, a relationship with toxic patterns of behavior can change how you perceive yourself and other people. And particularly when it’s abusive, it can mess with your perceptions of kindness. I’ll give you a few examples:

Kindness Becomes Unreliable and Short-Lived

Often, there are moments of kindness even in an unhealthy relationship, or periods of time when kindness and consideration are on the ascendant. You may feel, if not happiness, then relief during those periods. Sometimes, you allow yourself to hope that things will get better in the long-run.

When those hopes are dashed often enough, you perceive kindness as something that isn’t a consistent part of relationships. You see it instead as fleeting and provisional. Even if you walk on eggshells in an attempt to maintain peace and avoid any outburst or explosive conflict, it won’t last.

The idea of being in a relationship of mutual consistent kindness may come to seem unrealistic. And when you experience kindness from others, you have a difficult time trusting its longevity.

Kindness Serves As a Get-Out-of-Jail Free Card

In a toxic relationship, acts of kindness may become an effective way of giving cruelty a pass. If you complain about mistreatment, you’re reminded about the times (or time) that the other person was kind to you, did things for you. How can you be so ungrateful? How dare you complain about anything?

Kindness can also be a way of smoothing over a nasty fight or an incident of abuse without having to deal with any of the underlying issues. Instead of a meaningful change for the better, what you get is a gift and some good behavior, at least for a short while. Until the next explosion.

In these situations, kindness comes across as superficial. Like papering over a wall where mold is spreading or the wood is rotting.

Kindness Communicates an Insult

Kindness no longer seems very kind when you realize that someone is helping you just because they’ve characterized you as incompetent. They’re telling you, without necessarily saying the words, that you’re incapable of doing all kinds of things. This sort of “kindness” becomes a way of diminishing your abilities or keeping you from developing.

Kindness Performed for You Isn’t About You

You may come to realize that acts of kindness are more like acts of self-aggrandizement or a performance put on for others. Kindness may be limited to occasions when there’s a third party, an audience for the selflessness.

The kindness may also only occur when the other person wants something from you. Otherwise, you may as well not exist.

How Can You rethink Your Perceptions of Kindness?

A toxic relationship may make you more wary about other people’s motives, and this cautiousness has its benefits for sure. The problem is when you can’t detect or trust kindness when it’s sincere.

What are some of the things you can do to reconsider your perceptions of kindness and open yourself to sincerely kind behavior? Although the following suggestions are broad, and aren’t 100% effective in all situations, they’re at least a starting point:

  • Look at acts of kindness in a wider context, not in isolation. (Pay attention to how someone interacts with you as a whole – and see if the kindness is embedded in patterns of behavior that are damaging or abusive.)
  • Allow yourself time to get to know people better. (For instance, if someone you have just met keeps pressuring you for intimacy, closeness, moving in together immediately, etc. you can definitely take a step back and regard them with caution.)
  • Figure out the things you want from relationships in your life – what mutual giving, trust, and love look like to you. What do you consider unacceptable treatment (to receive or inflict on others)?
  • Distinguish between kindness expressed in concrete actions or speech, vs. a fuzzier “kindly feeling.” There are people who claim to be kind, but their kindness doesn’t seem to manifest in consistent thoughtful behavior. It seems like they’re paying lip service to the idea of kindness.
  • Work on improving how you communicate, both as a speaker and as a listener. This includes strengthening your ability to stand up for yourself and explain your thoughts.
  • Also, work on communicating well with yourself. For example, how do you talk to yourself when you’re struggling? Do you speak to yourself reasonably, or do you tear into yourself and chronically put yourself down? Even if there are various aspects of your life that you’d like to change – and even if you’re full of regret or disappointment about how things are going – there’s no need to be horrible to yourself or to ignore anything that’s good or that has good potential. Treating yourself horribly may “feel normal” by this point, but it doesn’t have to be your normal. With practice, you can start replacing horrible put-downs with more measured and nuanced speech (avoiding extremes of negativity without going into extremes of unrealistic positivity).

A Block Editor Tutorial (WordPress Gutenberg)

Though I’ve struggled with their recent conversion to the block editor, I intend to keep using WordPress for blogging. On YouTube I found a decent tutorial for the block editor, and I followed some of the tips while writing a recent post. (Including how to move the hovering toolbar up and out of the way – shown at around 3 minutes and 45 seconds into the video.)

I thought I’d share it here in case you’re looking for a tutorial that’s easy to follow:

If there are specific features you’d like to learn more about, I recommend opening the video in a new tab in YouTube and checking the description box. You’ll find a breakdown of the video with timestamps.