Ella Minnow Pea: Anti-Censorship and Prompts for Creativity

I just read Ella Minnow Pea, a novel set on a fictional island where the High Council has begun to ban the use of different letters.

Along with its humor, there are two main reasons I like the novel:

Its Anti-Censorship Theme

One of the strengths of Mark Dunn’s novel is how it portrays the psychological costs of censorship. The mental tiptoeing around the language, the fact that letters have become minefields, the way neighbors begin to inform on each other for verbal slip-ups. One of the island’s residents, a teacher, says the following:

In the sanctuary of my thoughts, I am a fearless renegade. Yet in the company of the children I cringe and cower in a most depreciating way.

When the letter ‘D’ falls prey to the power-hungry and zealous Council, how do you teach kids grammar? (Never take the word “and” for granted.)

Semicolons are simply not an option. These youngsters are only seven! Young people of such age can’t fathom semicolons! Nor can I employ an “or” when I want the other one – the one that brings together, not separates.

The Way It Inspires Writing Creativity

Unlike the island’s residents, you don’t have any penalties hanging over your head for illegal letter usage. So you can use this novel as a creative writing exercise. Try writing a piece of flash fiction without the letter ‘V.’ Or a haiku without ‘O.’

The island’s residents have to scramble for synonyms and to find new terms for things. “Sun-to-suns” (as a substitute for “days”), and “learny-house” instead of “school.”

How well would you do during a letter purge?

A Good Video on Getting Things Done

Let’s say you have an idea for a project, but you don’t know where to start, and it seems like it’s too big for you to handle. Or let’s say you need to take care of something, like making a phone call to your bank, and the thought of it fills you with anxiety or frustration.

I came across a YouTube video recently that gives a potentially helpful approach to just getting things done. The advice includes:

  1. Breaking things down into small tasks, as small as you need them to be. (Like, logging onto a website, before taking a short break. Reading one page of an article. Typing one paragraph.)
  2. Giving yourself more than enough time for each task. For instance, you can set aside 15 minutes of your schedule just for logging into a site. Does logging in really take 15 minutes? Generally not. But if you’re dragging your feet for one reason or another, those 15 minutes can give you breathing room and space to plod. You also feel less rushed.
  3. The amount of time you assign to a task may vary. On days when you’re more energetic and feeling hopeful, you may need less time. On days when you’re depressed or low in energy, maybe only set aside time to complete one task. And then wait another day (or week) for the next step. The progress is incremental, but better than nothing.

When Does a Hobby Become a Compulsion? And When Does It Matter?

I recently came across a YouTube video of a woman who keeps hundreds of plants in her NYC apartment. She’s knowledgeable about her plants and dedicated to nurturing them, and this blog post isn’t about scrutinizing her decisions. I was thinking about passions and hobbies more generally and wondering – when does something shade over into an obsession? And is an obsession always a negative thing?

The hobby can be anything – collecting books, growing plants, making things out of yarn. People with an intense interest in these activities sometimes use the words “addict” or “obsessive” about themselves, often in a light-hearted way, but sometimes because they seem worried.

So, is your hobby a problem? That’s not something I can answer, but if you’re wondering about yourself, the following are some questions to consider:

  • Is your hobby putting you in debt?
  • Is it interfering with your relationships? For instance, if you share a home with someone, are they getting angry because they keep tripping over your plants or awesome Lego collections or whatever else it is that you love?
  • Is your hobby giving you some nagging anxiety? One form of anxiety is not being able to keep up with the most recent trends or buy the latest products. Are you mildly disappointed when this happens, or do you feel devastated?
  • What motivates your purchases or interests? With social media, for instance, we get a peek at other people’s amazing collections. On the one hand, these can be inspiring; you may see a new plant someone’s keeping in their gigantic plant collection and realize it would fit well in your own home. On the other hand, it could also place pressure on you to get new stuff – not because of genuine enjoyment, but because you want to keep up. You feel incomplete unless you have the latest thing or your collection resembles someone else’s. You’re regularly comparing yourself to other people.
  • If you feel like you have obsessive tendencies, do you think your hobby is a healthy choice among possible obsessions? Sure, maybe you spend more money on it than you intend, but at least you’re channeling your energy towards something that isn’t much more harmful.

Anyway, if you wonder whether your hobby is getting a little out of control, thinking about these questions may help. Enthusiasm may intensify into compulsive or obsessive behaviors, but whether or not you’re crossing some sort of line really depends on your personal situation.

How Important Is the Mystery in a Mystery Novel?

I’m not asking this question with complete seriousness (because a thoughtfully written mystery is important). But when I’m reading these novels, I’ve noticed that a lot of times I’m most interested in things that aren’t directly about the crime. I tend to care less about who the murderer is and more about a dozen other things.

For instance, the two most recent mystery novels I’ve read are Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan and Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten. The first one is set in the Philippines, and the second one in Sweden. With both novels, I wasn’t on the edge of my seat about who committed the murders. I found the novels absorbing for other reasons.

In Smaller and Smaller Circles, the two main investigators are Jesuit priests who are trained in forensic sciences; they’re unusual lead characters for a mystery novel. What stayed with me most about the novel was the exploration of corruption – in law enforcement, government, high society, and the Catholic Church. In Detective Inspector Huss, I enjoyed the peek into Sweden (specifically Gothenburg in the late 1990s) and the way the author portrays the methodical work of a police detective and her colleagues.

Other mystery novels I’ve read in recent years, like some of P.D. James’s books, were most memorable to me because of some of the psychological insights and beautiful descriptions. Even if I’d found out the murderer’s identity in advance, I would have kept reading.

A “shocking reveal” often doesn’t turn out to be that shocking, because readers have seen it all (or feel as if they have). Other things can suck the reader in. An exploration of richly detailed settings, other cultures, ethical issues, psychological states, and character dilemmas make the story more compelling. So that even if I’ve figured out who used the garrote in the attic, I still don’t want to put the book down.

Alarm Sounded About Children’s Mental Health

Multiple agencies have declared a mental health crisis among kids in the U.S., tied to the effects of the pandemic.

The causes may include grief from losing loved ones, the stress of parents losing their jobs, the social isolation, the disruptions to routine, the sense of helplessness, the significant increase in screen time, and the struggle to catch up at school after months of attempting to learn via Zoom. Also, maybe the feeling that they’ve been left behind and that there isn’t a bright future waiting (and they still hear quite a bit of pandemic doom-mongering).

Throughout the pandemic, many people have lost trust in various institutions, including the ones currently announcing the mental health crisis. I don’t yet know what they’re proposing as solutions.

Four Mistakes People Make When Writing About Abuse

Abuse (whether physical, emotional, or sexual) shows up a lot in fiction. Whether it’s written well or not depends on multiple factors, but the following are some mistakes I’ve come across when people write about abuse:

They include it just for a bit of drama

Any event in a story can contribute to the unfolding drama. What I’m talking about is when authors seem to not know what to do with the characters or plot, so they toss in some abuse. Because it’s a thoughtless inclusion, they don’t consider the ramifications of the abuse or explore its impact on the characters. It’s just there to add some adrenaline-fueled moments.

They include it just for “sympathy points”

Abuse can make a reader’s heart go out for a character. The problem is when it’s written thoughtlessly. The author wants to make the character seem more vulnerable, and they aren’t sure how to do it, so they add some abuse. They don’t really follow up on it or think about how it might affect the character both short-term and long-term.

They don’t do any research

There isn’t one way to react to abuse. So it’s important to not just find a checklist somewhere and make the character do all the things on the list (like a generic guide to post-traumatic stress). However, it’s still important to research potential responses to abuse and consider the ways in which your character may react. How might the abuse might change them? How do their responses and decisions reflect their specific character traits or psyche?

There are many factors that influence the effects of abuse, including the victim’s age and temperament, the type of abuse, the identity of the abuser, and the influence of helpful and supportive people. Research may also cover things like court trials, custody disputes, or life in a domestic violence shelter. Some authors make the mistake of not looking into these things.

They rush to happy endings or force Forgiveness scenes

Happy or hopeful endings are possible in a story with abuse. But you need to build up to those kinds of endings. Sometimes, authors slap them on to the story, and they seem to come out of nowhere. They’re rushed or otherwise unconvincing.

Another problem is when authors try to push forgiveness. Maybe because they want to send a message that it’s best to forgive. They may also assume, incorrectly, that forgiveness always means reconciliation or a restoration of a relationship. Forgiveness is not a requirement post-abuse; furthermore, how victims experience forgiveness (if they do experience it) varies. Even if an author is very pro-forgiveness, they need to take that into account.

These problems with writing about abuse boil down to not thinking enough – about the specific characters, the situation they’re in, and what it might really be like for them. To make your fiction convincing, you need to get to know your characters. And if you put them through something like abuse, give it thought, so that it doesn’t come across as a gimmick or throw the readers out of the story.

How to Write a “Strong Female Character”

It’s easy! Just follow these guidelines:

  • Don’t bother too much about character development.
  • Give her a lot of the following kinds of dialogue: expository statements about key plot points; echoes of what other characters have said; chiding comments (verging on nagging, but try not to make her nag too much); sarcastic quips in response to something interesting or funny that the hero has done.
  • Toss in some action sequences where she’s beating someone up while wearing tight clothes, short skirts, and/or high heels.

There you go. Behold the strength.

How Personal Should You Get Online?

If you’re setting up a YouTube channel, an Instagram account, or a blog, how much of your personal life should you share? There seems to be an expectation that you’ll share all kinds of details, whether it’s photos of your kids or a discussion of your medical issues. But what’s right for you?

The following are some points consider:

You’re allowed to have boundaries

Even if you decide to post about personal topics, such as your mental health, you should draw boundaries. There are probably a variety of things that you still want to keep private.

You may think, “Of course I don’t have to share everything,” but it can be easy to forget, especially when people pressure you. People become interested in your personal life. They want to know more about your relationships and where you live. Many times, they’re just curious. But some people will dig into your life for worse reasons.

Also, keep in mind that you can reset your boundaries. For example, if you begin to talk about a medical problem you’ve been struggling with, you can later decide that you no longer want to discuss it. It’s up to you.

Resist Posting Impulsively

The click of a button often leads to regret. If you’re about to share something personal, take a break from your computer or phone. Do something else for a while. Consider the ramifications and whether it’s worth it for you to follow through on posting.

Sometimes, you become tempted to share personal information because you know it will get you more clicks, likes, and subscribes. But in the long run, will it be worthwhile for you? Will it harm you? You can’t know for sure how every decision will play out, but you can at least keep the risks and drawbacks in mind.

Ultimately, you may decide to share something personal. At the very least, don’t do it on an impulse. What you post can wind up staying on the Internet for as long as there is an Internet. Even if you delete it, people can make copies and post it elsewhere or use the Wayback Machine to find it.

Consider Your Safety

I’ve watched YouTube videos where you can see someone’s whole house, including entranceways. You can figure out where they live based on what other houses in the neighborhood look like or based on street signs. People also post videos and photos of their kids outside of easily identifiable structures, such as schools and churches.

Speaking of kids – child predators often steal images of children from social media and blogs. These can be ordinary photos, at least to normal people. But they wind up getting exchanged among creepy and dangerous people.

Keep safety in mind when posting online. For example, if you’re posting a short video of yourself, make sure there isn’t an envelope or a prescription bottle with your full name and address visible in the shot. Consider what people can learn about you from your posts. Can they see the make of your car? Are you wearing an ID badge from your workplace? Does the world really need to know your date of birth, your kids’ birthdays, and other identifying information?

Consider the Effects on Other People

Even if you’re fine with posting a lot of information about yourself, how much are you exposing about other people?

There may be tension between what you think would make excellent content and what other people need for privacy. You may want to include your spouse in photos posted publicly, but they may have no interest in appearing online. You may want your kids to feature prominently in your videos, and maybe they seem enthusiastic about it. But do they understand the potential pitfalls of appearing in videos that anyone can see?

How will your content change your relationship with your loved ones? For instance, if you’re frequently filming the time you spend with family and friends, it changes how you interact with them. If you’re sharing sensitive information about your kids, such as their medical history, how will they feel about this when they get older?

What Raising Awareness Sometimes Looks Like

Recently, I wrote a post about how influencers don’t need to be political commentators or activists. Then I came across a funny video by Caitlin Reilly, where she pretends to be an actress who is raising awareness about a serious issue. Enjoy!

Loving Yourself and Loving Others

In recent years, I’ve seen an idea pop up in articles or blog posts about self-love, and it goes something like this: “If you don’t love yourself, you can’t love others” or “You need to learn how to love yourself before you can love others.”

But is this true? I think it’s simplistic.

Even if you struggle to love yourself, you may still be able to love another person. Even if you struggle to perceive your own worth and good qualities, you may still see what’s good in other people. You may be biased against yourself, and blinded to what’s in you. But your perception of other people may be more generous and loving.

Telling people that they can’t love others unless they first love themselves seems hopelessly pessimistic and discouraging. It can make people seriously doubt if they can ever experience the joy and closeness of a healthy relationship, unless they first meet the goal of loving themselves. (Also, loving yourself isn’t “all or nothing.” There are days when you may not be able to stand yourself, and other days when you’re more accepting of who you are and kinder to yourself.)

That said, self-loathing may encourage a loathing of other people. Meaning that a lack of compassion for yourself may also combine with a lack of empathy or compassion for others. This is one of the potential dangers of self-loathing, especially an entrenched and persistent self-loathing.

Another danger of self-loathing is destructiveness. You may be driven to hurt yourself and to damage your relationships with people. You wind up behaving in unloving ways and hurting them.

So yes, self-loathing can be destructive and needs to be addressed. But I still don’t accept the idea that you need to reach a state of self-love in order to love others.

Maybe it’s also useful to distinguish between love as a feeling and love as a set of behaviors. Ideally, the two go together, but actions are generally more important. For instance, I’m not impressed by people who claim to love their spouse or children but then mistreat them. Do you really love the people you mistreat? Love shouldn’t just be something that’s felt “deep down”; it needs to manifest as action.

I do encourage people to behave in loving ways to themselves, even if they’re not feeling much love for themselves. Likewise, treating others with love and respect, even when you’re in a low mood, is something to aim for. Behaviors can also have the effect of strengthening certain feelings and attitudes, including the love you feel towards yourself and others.