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A Free Press Needs an Advocacy Program

Journalists need a good advocacy program, some serious public relations efforts to remind people why journalism is important, why a free press is so essential. Here are some suggestions that aim to inform the public and change their attitude toward the press:

1. Fact checking:

Why doesn’t the New York Times and other newspapers make it clear front and center what they do to verify facts?

o Make it clear that there are multiple sources and statistics are always backed up.

o Make public the number of people whose sole job it is to check the facts.

o Make more prominent the relationship between newspapers and fact-checking organizations.

o Spell out the fact that journalists are not allowed to vote, protest, and remind people of how much they give up because of their work on our behalf in the name of truth.

o Let’s develop a way that it’s easy to compare publication to publication, some chart almost like calories on a package of food. PolitFact ranking of X vs. Fox News ranking of Y

2. And speaking of truth,  Read More 

Differences Between Fiction and Non-fiction: More Complex than Just True or Imaginary

I am preparing to teach a new class entitled to “From Daydream to Story: An Introduction to Fiction” – a class specifically designed for nonfiction writers and journalists, or people with story ideas but no experience in fiction. In the process, I have discovered that most explanations for the difference between nonfiction and fiction have to do with the reality of the material in nonfiction. Nonfiction is true and fiction is from the imagination. I would suggest, though, that there are a number of other distinctions:

Fiction is a close-in view of life. Think of going from nonfiction to fiction like the process of Google maps as it zooms in from a position in the stratosphere, zooming down into your backyard. And even closer than your backyard, zoomed in to the exact expression on someone’s face  Read More 

The Writer's Life and the Allure of the Keyboard

How many arggghs are there in arthritis? What a drag – the thing I love to do most in the world is now so painful that every time I think of something to write I ask “is it worth the pain?” Every task around the house is judged according to its impact on my hands. (A friend called it ‘wrist cycles.’) Do I really want to spend my now limited wrist cycles on pulling weeds, untangling that extension cord, chopping  Read More 
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Six Ways That Setting Can Drive Plot

Setting is not simple backdrop, like a green screen on which a film is shot. Setting in fiction plays an important role in plot and characterization. Whether you write sci-fi, historicals, or modern fiction, your setting can make or break your story. So, what are some of the keys to a well-drawn fictional world?

Four Major Mistakes with Setting
Setting is frequently considered the easiest and most fun part of writing. A writer seems happiest when describing rooms, clothing, smells in the air, the look of the lights, the weather. This focus makes sense, since we’ve spent a lot of our lives deciphering objects and their meanings. As fiction writers, we’re focused on the close-in vision of things. Big-concept people write essays. Fiction writers know that it says a lot when the curtains are torn versus curtains festooned with gold thread.
But I’m finding that there are at least four major mistakes with setting. Many writers:
1. Over-do it with too much explanation and description, getting lost in the wallpaper and descriptions of the light < Read More 

Buddhism for the Hyperactive ...Or...Noisy Buddhism and the Beloved Monkey Mind

I used to think I was too hyperactive for Buddhism. I have a visceral reaction to phrases like “clear your mind” and “treat thoughts like clouds that will pass by” (a lovely visual but one that devalues the thought.) It felt like yet another instance of the pressure I have been under all my life – sit still, stay on task, march in a straight line, don’t daydream, be more like an accountant and less like a dancer. The superiority of the quiet and contained, left-brained and linear! Arggh! Even walking meditations were a struggle for me because my fellow practitioners were covering 3 feet in five minutes as I was sprinting around the retreat grounds. I found no joy in trying to go to an empty place. To sit still and drain my mind sounded like Orwellian hell, like Stepford spirituality. But then I was introduced to the power of the mantra.

Loving My Monkey Mind

In Buddhist practice one is encouraged to contain or suppress the mind that jumps from topic to topic, distracting you with a mind-bauble here and a silly thought there – the Monkey Mind. As an alternative, I think of a hummingbird, which I consider my totem animal. But I am an artist and in many ways, I consider my monkey mind to be the best part of me. New ideas come from mental wandering, from allowing your mind to jump from a grocery list to a new idea for water conservation, to a great idea about the organic food supply chain, to a child’s toy, and a remembrance of a store in France. Creativity comes in the spaces between two decisions, in the unusual combination of things previously unrelated. And that’s the way both  Read More 

The Mathematics of Fiction

I have seen it so many times: the look of a young writer who is calculating the odds that they will ‘make it’ in literature. They are checking the ranking of their book on Amazon.com, the hits to their blog, books sold, hours clocked, word count checked daily, tracking shares and likes or any other mathematical measure to give one solace, or some faint indicator that they are approaching their goal of success, at the same time that they practice an art that always raises the bar on quality and holds many in obscurity without reason.

It is akin to using a ruler to judge the taste of cake.

Since we do these numerical calculations while we know that the quality and impact of art cannot be measured with mathematics, I would like to offer some additional math about fiction and the writing life:

First, the math of the art:
• You will have 10 ideas for every story you complete
• It will take up to 20 published stories to discover the thematic thread that runs through your work  Read More 

Good Storytelling Techniques are Required for Family Stories

The key elements of good storytelling apply to writing the story of your family. I teach a five-week course or one-day workshop that focuses on the material above and the keys to storytelling below:
• concentrate on the place where the action is greatest
• be very clear about the catalyst for change– the pogrom, the famine, the opportunity
• begin on page one with as much of a punch as you possibly can
• evoke many if not all the senses
• make sure that all characters are nuanced. Even villains must have redeeming qualities or flaws that can be understood.

The Personal Advantages of Writing Your Family Story
Anyone who writes, and anyone contemplating writing knows that it can be a daunting task. The New York Public Library article also reminds us of the personal advantages of writing this story: a better understanding of  Read More 

The Advantages of Fictionalizing Your Family Story

I am obviously a big fan of historical fiction (my last two novels are based in the Middle Ages) and I tell my students writing their family stories that there are advantages to crossing the line into fiction – either fictive biographies or historical fiction.

First, fictional characters can be the personification of important forces  Read More 

Turn Off the Tree and House Lights for a Natural Light Christmas

‘Tis the season for increased energy usage but I’d like to suggest something else: let’s do away with Christmas lights on the tree and the house altogether. Let’s go for a natural light Christmas. #naturallightchristmas

Watching Before the Flood I am reminded that oil fuels our transportation section but the coal industry is the primary source that fuels the electrical grid so anything we can do to reduce electrical consumption can help battle climate change. Anything at all. Especially now that the White House will be driven by climate deniers and potentially even heads of oil companies, everything we can do, counts. Think of the trade-off: rising sea levels; increased tornadoes, hurricanes and typhoons; and out-of-control wildfires, versus twinkly lights inside a house that is already lit, or outside while the occupants are inside.  There have been plenty of suggestions  Read More 
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How and Why You Should Write the Story of Your Family and When to Veer into Fiction

Happily, my new course on “Crafting the Story of Your Family: For Writers and Non-Writers Alike” at The Writing Salon has begun and I am reminded of what the New York City Library has listed as one of their “20 Reasons You Should Write Your Family History”: the historical and literary record needs more material from previously underrepresented people – women, people of color, the poor and working-class, the disabled. In short, if you think the historical record is too filled with privileged white men, get writing.  Read More