Housecleaning and the Writing Life

March 8, 2012

One of the best books I have read recently, about writing, is A Broom of One’s Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning & Life by Nancy Peacock. This is a fabulous, entertaining, funny and well-written book about the writing life. Not a “how to” book as much as a memoir, Peacock writes about the houses she has cleaned, and how she has crafted her work and life as a writer, juggling both jobs. Her writing is lively and humorous, and she has keen insight into what makes us as writers “tick.”   An example of the former, while trying to find work she liked: “All I wanted was a job where I could show up, work, and go home with a paycheck. Oddly, this made me practically unemployable.”  An example of the latter, which I believe may be the most moving passage in the entire book: “Another big lesson is to finally understand that once I am a published writer I will always be a published writer, but that I will also always be an unpublished writer. I will get rejection slips, no matter what the New York Times said about my first novel. And hopefully I will always have material in need of some work,  because if I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love.”  That last line gets me. And I hope I remember it when I reach those difficult times in my writing where I doubt myself and my work.

Read this inspiring book!

 


Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of #4 – Melba Pattillo Beals

September 25, 2009

If you know about the Little Rock Nine and the events of 1957, then you already may know this famous woman. But I imagine that most Americans would not recognize the name of Melba Pattillo Beals.

In 1957,  Melba Pattillo was just fifteen, and she was one of nine young African-American students to integrate Little Rock High in Arkansas. Her story is told in her memoir, Warriors Don’t Cry.

At the end of the school year before, she raised her hand when her teacher at her all-black school asked if any students were interested in attending all-white Central High. Melba did not tell her mother, so it came as a shock when she was selected to attend Central High the next year.

The courage and cruelty that Melba writes about in her memoir is moving and personal. She was threatened with hanging, rape and violence, and people hurled words at her that no child – no person – should have to endure. Such hatred. People threw rocks through her windows at home, and her grandmother sat watch more than once with a shotgun poised for defense.

The Arkansas National Guard closed the doors of Central to the Nine, keeping them out, until Pres. Eisenhower ordered in federal troops of the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the desegragation orders. The situation was so tense and violent that each black student had their own soldier who guarded them against extreme violence, but who could not interfere when the students were called vile names and otherwise tormented. Thumbtacks were placed in seats, people walked on the back of Melba’s heels until they bled, she was tripped, and every day, every hour, was a battle.

Her story would be impressive and inspiring, regardless, but to realize how terribly young all of the Nine were – and to know that they changed the world – is awe-inspiring. Ms. Beals’s story is one that could give any teenager inspiration, strength and comfort, and one that can educate any adult about the price paid by those brave young students all throughout the country who desegragated schools in the 1950s.

All of us are in her debt, and those of the rest of the Little Rock Nine: Thelma Mothershed, Minnijean Brown, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Gloria Ray, Ernest Green, and  Elizabeth Eckford.

© writingreading, 2009


Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of #3 – Ruth Brown

May 13, 2009

Librarians are demure, quiet, old ladies with buns, right? Well, not exactly.

Although Ruth Brown fits much of the stereotype – a little bit frumpy, a single woman, plain in appearance – she took a stand for Civil Rights in her library in Bartlesville, Oklahoma in 1950 that cost her her job. What she did took courage and conviction. Her story is told in the book, The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library by Louise Robbins.

Don’t let the “library” aspect of this one throw you. It is full of intrigue, community infighting, passionate defenders of the status quo, persons willing to take great risks in an attempt to awaken a new social consciousness and justice among their fellow townspeople, class warfare, Red Scares, fabrication of evidence, issues over power and gender, and more. It is, in fact, a bit of a thriller.

Brown had been a librarian for many years in Bartlesville, leading a somewhat true-to-stereotype existence. But as the horrors of the Holocaust during WWII were revealed, she and other like-minded individuals formed the “Committee on the Practice of Democracy” to fight discrimination.

Bartlesville was very much a segregated city in the late 1940s. African-Americans were allowed to use the library and did not have to use a separate facility, but their use and access of materials was under different rules and conditions than white customers, at least prior to World War II.

But when Brown walked into a diner on night in 1950 with two African-American friends who were teachers, she crossed the racial line. The campaign to label her a subversive communist – and thus, oust her from her position, was underway. The American Legion, the D.A.R., and corporate magnates from Phillips Petroleum mounted an overwhelming effort to have her dismissed. She was accused of distributing “subversive” literature, although the books in question were actually recommended by the national professional library association as proper to have in a library, in order to represent a diversity of viewpoints on various subjects. One was even written during WWII when the Russians were our allies, but now it was labeled “subversive.”

Ruth Brown knew when she walked into that diner that day that her act would be provocative, and that her membership in the Committee on the Practice of Democracy could get her fired. She did it anyway.

As a single woman, she did not have much to fall back on after a job loss, personally or financially. She ended up leaving town of her own volition. But her cause was taken to the courts, the national library association made important innovations in their practices and policies, and even Hollywood got into the act. A few years after the actual events, her story was thinly fictionalized and turned into a movie called Storm Center. Hollywood had been through the mill with the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the producers saw in her story a reflection of their own.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book, besides Ruth Brown’s story, is that it unveils so many aspects of American society that we are still struggling with today, particularly in recent years. “Terrorism” is the “new Communism” – and actions are taken today by our government and individuals in the name of “fighting terrorists” that 50 years ago, were used to defend America against the threat of communism. Although the events described in the book happened 50 years ago, much of it is very relevant to today. The book deals with issues of racial equality and justice, women’s power (or lack thereof), censorship, class and economic issues, and more.

Learn more about this brave woman, and be inspired! You’ll never think of librarians as “boring” again.

© writingreading, 2009


Web 2.0’s role in economic crisis

May 11, 2009

I think the pundits have it all wrong. It wasn’t just the bad mortgages that brought about the seizure and near-collapse in the US. economic system. It was – and is – Web 2.0.

Yup. That’s the conclusion I’m drawing, after reading The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen (link to newer edition). As you can tell by the title of this earlier edition, Keen’s premise is not really an economic one, though it is about what he sees as the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of our nation and culture brought about by Web 2.0.

What he points out – in a book that was published in 2007 – a year before the big economic meltdown – is that the free and freewheeling nature of Web 2.0 means that  anyone can create content. That means the death of the “expert” – which in turn, is really the death of many many experts. And entire industries.

Let’s look at the media. The massive layoffs and closures of large city newspapers, to a great extent, can be attributed to the growth of online media. To cite one example from Keen: Craigslist, which at the time of Keen’s writing, employed just 22 people, is essentially a free online classified ad service. But Keen points out – it is not free. It has cost us all. Each “free” ad takes money away from a local newspaper, and eventually, it takes away jobs. A San Francisco Chronicle VP believes Craigslist single-handedly depletes the Chronicle and other Bay newspapers of $50 million a year. Multiply that across the country for all the other large and small cities, consider that advertising revenue is a major part of the income needed for newspaper operations, and it is easy to see the domino effect of just one website – and a mere 22 people – upon the economy. In 2006, nearly 18,000 people lost jobs in print journalism.

And that is only one example. Granted, I’m not “blaming” Craigslist, nor do I dare to propose or suggest that it is single-handedly responsible for all of those job losses. That would be ridiculous. The point that Keen makes, is that job losses in the “real world” are not being replaced with job creation in Web 2.0. The 22 people of Craigslist stand in for thousands of people who worked in advertising at newspapers all throughout the country. Because ad revenues are down, that creates layoffs in the news department. And on it goes.

The example can be multiplied across any of the media formats – TV, radio, bookstores. Increasingly, these industries are losing jobs at a frantic pace. And “replaced” by virtual megastores, like Amazon.com, or user content like You Tube. User content sites like You Tube, obviously, won’t hire as many people as the movie industry in Hollywood or the news and cable stations throughout the country.

It’s easy to say “so what” if newspapers fail, or the millionaire Hollywood big shots and movie stars feel a little economic pinch. But all of these industries are made up of many many ordinary people. From the “go-fer” on the sound stage to the subscription order taker at the newspaper and many many others. Their jobs – if they still have them – remain at risk.

Keen worries that the proliferation of content by amateurs (I include myself in that group) not only “dumbs down” our culture, but may in fact threaten our democracy itself. Who, Keen asks, will do the hard-hitting and important investigative journalism that brought about Watergate, or any of the other major important news stories that help maintain and uphold the Constitution? Does any single blogger have the clout, skills, knowledge or power to do this? It is only businesses and industries that have this capacity.

I don’t entirely hold to all of Keen’s premises, but I do believe that much of what he writes about the economic consequences of Web 2.0 is very real – with frightening consequences.

Keen’s book now is available in a new edition, which I haven’t read, but it looks like it could provide some additional insights, judging from the subtitle, which explicitly includes the economy as one consequence of Web 2.0.

© writingreading, 2009


Page Smith’s Sweeping History

March 23, 2009

I’ve been meaning to write for sometime about Page Smith’s huge and sweeping multi-volume “A People’s History…” series.

First, let me say that I’ve only read one volume of this eight volume work. Each book is massive. Vol. 4, entitled The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years weighs in at slightly more than 1000 pages. Umph!

But let me tell you why you should read it, or any of the other volumes in this series. Forget the boring history textbooks of high school or college. Smith’s work is both vast, and detailed. He covers all of the basic historical ground – politics, presidents, wars, economy, exploration and so on. But he also has fabulous chapters about cultural life – theatre, literature, religion, and more. He impressively combines narrative of larger historical events with eyewitness history, built from diaries, letters, newspapers, and other first hand sources. These first hand accounts breathe life into the old dusty facts that died in a history class long ago, and are now revived with vigor in Smith’s work.

Sure, it is a massive tome, and one that may take quite some time to read. But I found it interesting, educational, and a helpful way to quickly dig into specific subjects and areas of interest, even if I wasn’t interested in the whole thing.

However, I did have two small problems with it. One, is the lack of an index. This means if you happen to recall reading about something several hundred pages ago – but can’t recall which chapter, there’s no easy way to go back and find it. The second problem I have is a related one – and that is a complete lack of footnotes. The good news is that he is pretty good about including at least a general source citation within the text, like “So-n-So wrote in his diary…”, but I miss having the specifics.

© writingreading, 2009


Grocery shopping was never this much fun!

September 28, 2008

What a hoot! One of the most hilarious books I’ve read recently has to be Hillary Carlip’s A la Cart: The Secret Lives of Grocery Shoppers.

OK, so it sounds weird – and it is – but what Carlip has done is to take abandoned shopping lists, and invented characters around them. But she goes it all one better, and dresses up as the characters she’s invented. Think: Tracey Ullman goes grocery shopping!

Carlip has written full biographies of her characters, but what really is the kicker is the photographs in this book. Take a look at her video to see some previews (warning: contains PG-13 material and some content may be mildly offensive.) Her transformations into the various characters are amazing (only 1 or 2 are not thoroughly convincing) and hilarious! Quirky, but cool!

© writingreading, 2008


A Unified Theory of the Web, & the World

August 6, 2008

Recently, I read Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web by David Weinberger. I don’t read tech stuff, or even technology and culture type books, hardly ever, but when I started blogging a few months ago, this title seemed particularly apt. Partly because it fits with the idea of a blog – each post being a “small piece” – “loosely joined” by theme on my blog – and likewise, it would apply to the blogosphere and web, by extension.

I found his book to be not only highly readable, but insightful and entertaining as well. An example of the latter and his sense of humor: spam is “annoyance marketing”.

He studies the web as a communication medium, and among other things, feels that the web is primarily a written universe. Not just written computer code, but written words. Contrary to Luddites’ views of the web being the death of literacy, Weinberger makes a convincing case that to the contrary, the web enables people to communicate. Not only that, but it enables them to communicate with people with shared common interests, regardless of geography, economic or social class, or other barriers that exist in the “real” world. The vision that Weinberger concludes with is a blissful universe made possible by the passion and self-fulfillment born of shared interests. He says it allows us all to connect with our truest nature.

“Everyone’s an expert” is another benefit to the web. We learn how to discern reliable voices through their persistence and the advice they give, like regular contributors to newsgroups and forums. So if in my off-time I enjoy helping others learn to navigate the new digital universe, I need not work for Microsoft or some other large software corporation – I can simply make my contributions through the web’s own forums.

One of the biggest points Weinberger makes is the social nature of the web. When this book was published in 2002, blogs were out there, but I don’t think they were quite the big thing they’ve become over the past few years. (I could be wrong about this, being new to the blogosphere myself), but I find much of what he talks about to be very applicable to what is called today “Web 2.0” – with Facebook, myspace, and others.

Weinberger’s commentary ultimately goes beyond the Web, however. Because the Internet is so much a part of our daily life, much of what he writes about the Web is equally true about the World. Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web – is really a Unified Theory of the World, too. The case he makes is a promising one, full of optimism and hope.

© writingreading, 2008