In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman posits that information-transmitting media are never value-neutral vehicles of content. Rather, the nature of media inevitably shape the content they communicate. In other words, you can’t communicate the content of a book on television. The nature of television would necessarily alter the message of the book.
Postman further argues that, as our society has shifted from printed to televisual communication, the content and quality of public discourse has suffered. This shift is driven by the fact that television, as a medium, is best suited to entertainment. As a result, everything else is transformed into entertainment so that it looks good on television.
I was born after Postman’s book was published, so it’s hard for me to judge how much society has truly changed. To some extent, it seems that people have probably always trivialized serious, complex matters and/or spent large amounts of leisure time engaged in frivolous pursuits. What has definitely changed is the immediate availability of entertainment at any time and any place, as well as its explicitly addictive design. Perhaps because of this, entertainment is often seen not as an accompaniment to life, but as a serious life pursuit in itself.
Witness how TV is the center of most homes. Other furniture is acquired and arranged in deference to the television. In living rooms, the chairs and couches face the TV instead of each other–implying that the living room’s purpose is not conversation, but watching. The TV holds privileged status over any other activities that try to exist in the same room. If you’re reading a book, playing a game, or practicing a musical instrument, none of that matters as soon as someone else wants to watch TV. The TV takes over the space with its noise and flashing images, which often leak even into other rooms.
TV shapes interactions even when people aren’t in front of the screen. At any given social gathering, one of the most common topics of conversation is television. No other activity is as universal or unquestioned. People say they “have to” catch up on episodes. They force themselves to try TV shows that are popular, even if they don’t like the show at first. Many people say they don’t have time for x meaningful activity (exercise, writing, learning a new hobby), and then in the very next sentence bring up the latest episode in a popular TV show.
I don’t have a TV. I dislike to the extent to which the internet and social media already distract me from things that matter, and having a TV would only exacerbate this phenomenon. It seems more and more that we’re defined by what we choose to pay attention to–and while it’s not possible to completely ignore it, I aspire to pay as little attention to entertainment as possible.
Looking for something to read? I have recommendations!
Die a Little (read twice), Dare Me (reread), Queenpin, and The Song is You by Megan Abbott—Abbott is one of my favorite suspense writers. She’s somewhat like Tana French, with plots that twist and turn right up until the end. Her gorgeous prose verges on the poetic. I’m pretty much obsessed with her novel Dare Me, a murder mystery involving high school cheerleaders.
Jurassic Park (reread), Prey (reread), and Disclosure by Michael Crichton—I can’t get enough of Crichton’s tales of sci-fi technology gone wrong.
The Privileges and A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee—Dee writes literary examinations of family life. His novels are quietly gripping, the drama unfolding in well-contained jewels of sentences. The Privileges is a rarity—an entertaining, almost voyeuristic literary novel about a wealthy family involved in various suspicious exploits.
Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen—A humorous novel about a shallow, corrupt “biologist” and his failed attempt to murder his wife. This light read also has a surprising environmental component, with a plotline about an evil businessman who pollutes the Florida Everglades.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang—A Korean woman becomes a vegetarian, only to face social censure from friends and family. This short novel is at once weird, surreal, and moving. Definitely worth reading.
Euphoria by Lily King—A love triangle between anthropologists is a fascinating basis for a story, and King executes it perfectly. This book has it all: drama, sensuality, and keen observations. I also love that it features characters’ career ambitions, a topic that doesn’t occur much in fiction these days.
Pet Sematary (twice), The Shining, It, The Shawshank Redemption, Revival, and The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King – So, true confession, I’d never read Stephen King before this year. Perhaps because of my contrarian spirit, I often feel reluctant to read authors who seem universally popular. Since someone in my writing group always has one of his books in her purse, I figured I’d finally give him a try. Wow, was I missing out! He’s a fantastic storyteller. I’m particularly impressed with how easily he establishes characters. Some of the novels have lots of characters (It, especially). As a writer, I was skeptical about each new character introduction, only to find myself caring about the character and his/her world just a few pages later. He also has an uncanny knack for writing about children. His ideas for stories seem endless (obvious, but as a newcomer, I had fresh appreciation for it). The stories in Bazaar of Bad Dreams were so varied, ranging from the promised creepy stuff to morality tales to an unexpectedly hilarious story about a “Fourth of July arms race” in Maine.
Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia—As a former way-too-stressed teenage overachiever, I love reading admissions novels. Usually they feature some good-hearted brainy kid trying to make it to the Ivy League. Kanakia’s novel is a refreshing take on this genre. Reshma is a scheming anti-heroine, willing to resort to various dubious methods for getting into Stanford. Not only does the novel entertain with her twisted exploits—it also features metafictional elements and, on top of it all, surprising, touching moments of revelation. This is a memorable debut novel.
Between Us and the Moon by Rebecca Maizel—Another excellent YA novel with an intelligent female protagonist… Teenage Sarah longs to break out of her role as an astronomy nerd. During a summer vacation to Cape Cod, she tries on a new identity and finds a boyfriend. Because he’s in college, she lies about her age. Eventually her lie spins out of control. Loved it for the characters, who are all memorable and lovable—especially Sarah, even when she makes bad decisions.
The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane—This fantastic debut novel follows the life of an elderly woman who lives alone. One day, a government worker unexpectedly arrives, claiming she was sent to care for her. The setting and the thin line between real/unreal make the story feel dreamlike. It’s a mesmerizing book, gorgeously written and unforgettable.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (reread)—This is one of my absolute favorite classics. Reading Melville feels like having an erudite, intelligent friend explain the world to you. This book is full of wisdom, play, and deep love for both man and nature. Do not let your life pass by without reading this.
The Love of a Good Woman and Dear Life by Alice Munro—What is there to say, really, besides that Munro is one of the great short story writers of our time.
Little Children, Nine Inches, and The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta—Perrotta writes engagingly about suburban life. The Abstinence Teacher follows a high school sex-ed teacher and a devout Christian convert—a juxtaposition that could easily become stereotyped and predictable, but which Perrotta handles with admirable care and sympathy. Little Children is a fantastic novel about an affair between parents of toddlers. Nine Inches is a story collection.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert—For those of us who tend toward literary snobbery, it might be tempting to write off the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Don’t do it! This awesome novel reminded me somewhat of Euphoria (above) in its focus on a woman’s career in science. The main character is a 19th-century botanist. Full of ambition, adventure, and historical detail, this is a novel of great warmth and intelligence.
Bennington Girls are Easy by Charlotte Silver—Despite its clickbaity title, this is a well-observed novel about urban women in the years after college graduation. Silver chronicles early-twenties life with care and humor, sadness and surprise.
How to be Both by Ali Smith—It’s sort of hard to describe this novel, which juxtaposes a teenage girl grieving her mother and a 14th-century artist. It’s weird and wonderful, experimental and moving.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (reread) and The Finishing School by Muriel Spark—Spark writes with wit, warmth, and humor. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an incredible portrayal of that nebulous but defining influence, the elementary school teacher. The Finishing School is an amusing satire about private school and writers.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt (reread)—I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve reread this dark and twisted college novel. It’s an entertaining tale of intrigue and murder. Tartt is incredible at description, dialogue, and secondary characters. This book is made by all its of perfect little details–it feels like you’re reading in HD.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (reread)—Wharton chronicles an illicit romance among late 19th-century New York City elite. That makes it sound shallow, but it’s actually a novel of great subtlety, sensitivity, and beauty. Wharton is a master of social commentary, humor, and tragedy.
Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America by Richard Brewer—This book covers the history of land trusts, which allow for private land conservation in the United States. It also includes substantial chapters on current practices in land trust administration. This is an important text for anyone hoping to join or volunteer for a land trust. Of particular interest is the chapter on urban sprawl, one of the biggest threats to open space in America.
Finding Iris Chang by Paula Kamen—A memoir about the author, written by her graduate school friend. Chang is best known for her book The Rape of Nanking, which exposed this wartime atrocity to western audiences. She was an ambitious writer who’d published three acclaimed books before she committed suicide at the age of thirty-six. Kamen’s biography is a sensitive portrait of a brilliant, complex woman.
A Thousand Miles to Freedom by Eunsun Kim—Kim writes of her harrowing escape from North Korea into China and, eventually, South Korea.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo—I came to this book expecting to hate it. I heard about it through an essay on LitHub, which described KonMari’s barbaric attitudes toward books. As a book hoarder, I felt outraged, and I decided to learn more about this horrible person. Spoiler alert: two months later, I’d gotten rid of perhaps fifty bags and boxes of stuff, and everyone remarked on how amazing my room looked without the clutter. I still marvel at KonMari’s weirdly infectious spirit. I started out reading about her with full-on enmity, only to become a real “konvert.” It’s obvious she’s not much of a reader, from the callous way she describes maiming books to her assertion that thirty (thirty!!!) books is enough. Yet her guidance on how to deal with stuff is spot-on. Reading her book was a revelation. I suddenly realized I was surrounded by tons of stuff I didn’t use or even like that much. Once I got rid of it, my space felt so much better. Highly recommended for anyone who struggles with clutter!
Journey of a Thousand Miles by Lang Lang—The autobiography of the famous pianist. The chapters about his childhood and his struggles with his father are fascinating.
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold—Essential reading for any environmentalist/conservationist…Leopold originated the idea of a “land ethic”—treating land not as property, but as something with intrinsic value. We’re far from achieving this, but it’s an important concept and an eventual goal. Leopold also writes with reverence about spending time in nature and appreciating land.
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis—I grew up in a Christian community where you were told to “just have faith.” I always hated that; it’s not an acceptable answer for “why.” Lewis’s book is one of the better intellectual arguments for Christian faith that I’ve come across. I particularly liked his discussion in the initial chapters of the origins of morality.
The Machine in the Garden by Leo Marx—A cultural study of two traditional images in American writing: the machine and the garden. Marx traces these conflicting ideals from the founding of the country through the early twentieth century. There are some fascinating analyses of Hawthorne, Melville, and Fitzgerald in relation to nature/machine imagery.
God’s Harvard by Hanna Rosin—The author explores the interesting subculture of an evangelical college.
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal—This is a shocking tale about a serial imposter. A German man managed to impersonate his way into the richest circles in America, eventually taking on the identity of a supposed Rockefeller. This true story wouldn’t translate well to fiction, simply because it’s so outlandish and utterly weird.
The Radioactive Boyscout by Ken Silverstein—Last year I read The Boy Who Played with Fusion, a biography of Taylor Wilson. That book repeatedly referenced this one, so I decided to read it. Unlike Wilson’s story, this is a tale of scientific talent gone wrong. It’s at once sad and fascinating.
Once Upon a Time by J. Randy Taraborrelli—As a Hitchcock fan, I became interested in Grace Kelly and saw this book in the library. It’s about her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco. While her life is portrayed as a “fairy tale”* in popular culture, things weren’t really so happily-ever-after.
Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink—This is a helpful book for those of us who feel like we could lose a few pounds. It talks about how much habit influences our eating, and offers concrete advice on how to reduce your food intake. The main (uplifting) takeaway is that even small changes can have a positive effect.
Conning Harvard by Julie Zauzmer—An expose about Adam Wheeler, the student who cheated his way into and through Harvard. He was discovered in 2010, when I was still in school, and it was a huge scandal across campus. Julie Zauzmer (formerly of The Crimson) does a great job investigated all the details of his intriguing case.
Our Town and The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder—No one seems to talk about Wilder these days. I hope that will change. He was a major literary figure during his lifetime, winning three Pulitzers, two for plays and one for fiction. Our Town is old-timey and nostalgic, and the Matchmaker is a charming comedy. I’m curious to explore his fiction.
*I find it weird and sort of amusing that we use the term “fairy tale” to connote happy endings. Actually, most real fairy tales have horrific, gruesome endings.
Calling all central Minnesota writers and readers! Join me this Thursday for a writing workshop and reading at New York Mills Regional Cultural Center in New York Mills, MN. Here’s the workshop description from the Cultural Center’s website:
Join author and visiting artist Emily Eckart for an interactive writing workshop. After discussing basic elements of fiction common to all stories and novels, participants will get to try their hand at creating characters and story settings. After the workshop, Emily will read an excerpt from her new book, Pale Hearts, to kick off the Center’s monthly Open Mic night (7-9pm). Both the workshop and Open Mic are free to attend and open to all!
The workshop runs from 6-7, and afterwards there’s an open mic from 7-9. All ages and levels of experience are welcome to attend!
Looking for a publisher? Here are some independent publishers that accept submissions of fiction. Note that for most of these publishers, you first submit a query, synopsis, and sample chapters. If they are interested, they will ask for the full manuscript. Some small publishers have started hosting contests with substantial reading fees. The winner of the contest gets their book published. I do not recommend this strategy, as odds of publication are low and the fees add up quickly (usually they are at least $25). The publishers listed below do not have submission fees.
For further research, Poets and Writers has a list of small publishers. Writer’s Market (published yearly) is also a helpful resource.
Leapfrog Press (UPDATE 5/1/17: A commenter notes that Leapfrog now charges $33 for fiction submissions, which they’re only accepting through a contest. This is an unfortunate development. Once again, I don’t think writers should pay to submit to contests, as chances of publication are slim.)
With the approaching publication of my story collection PALE HEARTS, I’ve been thinking about the writing process. When I first started these stories about four years ago, I had no idea how difficult writing would be. Creating each individual piece took time-consuming, grueling effort; publishing was even worse. Still, over time, I learned writing strategies that helped me press forward. Each author has their own collection of writing tips. Here are some that have helped me.
-Manage your time wisely.
Time management is key. Most of us will never make any meaningful income from writing. It’s frustrating, but it’s a fact we have to accept. During the four years that I wrote this book, I worked full-time. That meant setting aside dedicated writing hours and sticking to the plan.
Different strategies work for different people. Some people like to reach a specified word count per day. I write for a specific amount of time. For me, a useful writing session is at least two hours. That means writing for a full two hours after work at a specific time, such as from 6-8 or 7-9. The tricky part is fitting this in with eating dinner and other daily activities. During the work week, I make simple dinners so they don’t interfere too much with the writing schedule. I have a set number of hours that I plan to write that week (usually 10) and I strive to meet it. If I don’t meet the quota on one day, I make it up on another. For instance, if I want to write for 4 hours over the course of 2 days, but only write 1.5 hours the first day, then I write 2.5 hours the second.
For some reason, it’s hard to start writing, especially when you’re tired after a long day at work. There’s often the temptation to do other things “first”–organize your room, check websites, etc. Try not to give in to this temptation–or, if you must, manage it by promising that you’ll only spend 10 minutes procrastinating. Usually, once you dare to open your Word document, it gets easier.
Not that I have procrastination fully mastered. I often get to the end of the day and realize that I wasted an hour here or there. I’m always trying to discipline myself to use time more productively.
–Push through self-doubt.
Many writers, myself included, often feel terrible about our work. Sometimes I look at my drafts and think they’re the worst, stupidest stories ever written. Apparently it’s common for writers to feel this way, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to cope with. Self-doubt can sometimes feel overwhelming, an almost physical sensation of pain and paralysis.
I’m still figuring out how to deal with this. One thing that works well is reading some really bad writing to reassure myself. This might sound silly, but reading something terrible–especially if it’s published–is a nice and often humorous way to make yourself feel better about your own writing. I may not be fantastic, I think, but at least I’m better than that.
–Be prepared for rejection. Lots of it.
I knew, from stories about famous writers, that I’d probably get some rejections along the way. I had no idea what I was really in for. On average, I’ve sent stories to about 60 places before they get accepted. I don’t count my rejections, but I have hundreds at least, if not a thousand. Not only have I been rejected from lit mags, but also from newspapers, MFA programs, writing classes, grants, fellowships, and artist residencies. I’m not going to lie: it is brutal. The publishing world is cruel and arbitrary. You do get used to it–most of the time. Occasionally, when I start to think I’m fully hardened against disappointment, I feel hurt by specific rejections, like when I have a story that I thought was perfect for a particular magazine. Yet while rejections hurts, the publishing gods also hand out pleasant surprises. I’ve two pieces published in much better journals that I expected. It still surprises me that the editors liked these stories.
–Ignore your sense of embarrassment.
Writers tend to be introverts and perfectionists. As such, we often experience conflicted feelings when we publish. On one hand, we want our work to be published and read–that is the point, after all. On the other, we’re often mortified by what we have written. It’s weird to know that strangers might be reading our words, and by extension, our thoughts. We obsess over word choices and punctuation marks. I often feel a sense of intense dislike for pieces that I have previously published. I feel embarrassed by what I see as errors or oversights.
Many writers feel this way. I’ve heard other people express the exact same thing. I’ve even heard some writers advising others not to publish until they’re sure a piece is perfect, or “really done.” I believe this is foolish. Most of the writers I know are perfectionists to a fault. They could spend their whole life rewriting Chapter 1 before they ever felt fully confident about it. This is a natural hazard of the profession. If you wait until you feel perfectly confident or completely ready, you’ll never publish a thing. If you allow your embarrassment about past pieces to overwhelm you, you’ll never progress as a writer.
Put positively, if you feel a strong sense of shame and inadequacy about your writing, you’re a real writer for sure. Just don’t let those feelings derail you!
–When attempting to publish, visualize success.
This probably sounds corny, like something out of a self-help book. However, in the face of crippling odds, it really does help. Most of my published stories received several rejections before they were accepted at literary journals. Although this was discouraging, thinking about how I would feel when the story was published helped me continue submitting. For my book, this was especially helpful. I submitted my story collection to about 50 indie presses over the course of a year. The process was horribly discouraging. A few publishers loved my writing, then said they no longer accept story collections. Others praised the manuscript, but had full publishing schedules or were going out of business. Sometimes I wanted to forget the whole thing. But then I imagined how it would feel to hold my book in my hands. I thought of how glad I would be to have the collection given the status of book, not just a bunch of printed-out pages. I kept submitting, and PALE HEARTS was finally accepted by Insomnia Publishing.
What are your favorite writing strategies? Comment below!
Hello loyal blog readers! In anticipation of PALE HEARTS coming out this fall, I’ve set up an author Facebook page. I will use this page to post updates and events. If you’re on Facebook, head on over and give it a like!
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert–This is a pleasingly ambitious historical novel about the life of a nineteenth-century female botanist. It seems cliche to use the word “sweeping,” but that really does describe the experience of reading this novel. It deals with science, love, family, and perhaps most strikingly, female sexuality, all within the context of one woman’s intellectual quest to describe the natural world.
Euphoria by Lily King–This is the story of a love triangle between anthropologists, based loosely on events in Margaret Mead’s life. King’s writing is gorgeous and the characters are well-realized. The subject is fascinating, the setting vivid, the plot suspenseful. All of this ties in for a perfect read!
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark–This lovely short novel somehow captures perfectly a beloved teacher’s influence, positive and negative, on young students. It’s very difficult for writers to describe such a fleeting, ephemeral thing, yet somehow Spark does it in a way that’s timeless and touching.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton–This classic is really worth reading. Wharton is a master of describing the nuances of forbidden love, within the context of wealthy late nineteenth-century New York. It’s entertaining and heartbreaking and suspenseful all at once. If you love reading about love, this subtle, beautiful novel is for you!
What did you read this summer? Post your recommendations in the comments!
Go online with a specific goal in mind. Stick to it and then get off.
Set social media time limits. My goal is fifteen minutes a day or less. That’s enough to post something, check your notifications, and get off. Even better, go on social media only every two or three days.
Turn off email notifications for social media. That way you’ll be less tempted to go on Twitter, Facebook, etc. every time you check email.
Take note of how much time you spent online. Visualize how that time could be better spent in real life (What are the things you think you don’t have time for? Exercise, reading, taking a class, getting outdoors, DIY projects?)
For long periods of concentration, invest in an internet-blocking app like Freedom.
Set aside periods of no-tech time–weekends, or a few week nights. Physically separate yourself from your laptop and phone.
Keep parts of your life offline. Try not posting photos of everything. It’s worth printing out special photos and putting them in a physical photo album that only you can see.
Don’t always reply to emails or texts right away. I know, this is heretical these days. However, I believe this is about habit and culture formation. If you’re in the habit of replying to messages right away, it reinforces the need to check your phone or email constantly (and if you don’t, you become freer from your devices). Reply time is socially enforced. When we reply instantaneously, everyone expects others to reply right away–causing us to become dependent on phones and laptops. By taking longer to reply, we shift the norm and break the cycle.
Consuming one thing makes you want to consume all the things. It’s not enough to read one or two news stories about an event or person; you have to read all of them.
You find yourself thinking about social media even when you’re not it. You think of tweets or pictures to post even when there’s not a phone or laptop in sight.
You’re not on the internet and you’re itching to get back on. The moment you try to do something serious, your mind urges you to take an internet break.
Every time you read a book or watch a movie or do anything at all, you feel the need to know what other people thought about it. You seek out reviews, amateur and professional, trying to find a piece of writing that sums up your feelings about it in an eloquent, satisfying way. These never exist, but you keep searching for them anyway.
You realize there’s an emptiness to the constant pleasure-seeking, scrolling mindlessly through social media feeds–and yet, even once you’ve decided none of these things are satisfying or enlightening, you continue anyway.