Calling all central NJ writers and readers! Join me for a fiction talk at Mercer Country Library (Lawrence Branch) at 10 am on April 21. I’ll be discussing description: what does it accomplish, and how can you use it to make your own writing more vivid? My focus is on fiction, but similar techniques are applicable to non-fiction as well.
A few months ago, I had the great fortune to be a Visiting Artist at New York Mills Regional Cultural Center. The center is located in New York Mills, a tiny, wonderful town in the middle of rural Minnesota. Despite its small size, New York Mills has a vibrant arts scene. The Center hosts concerts, art exhibits, classes, and a gift shop stocked with crafts by local artists. It also has a Visiting Artist program. Each artist is in residency for 2-4 weeks, living alone in a cheerful yellow house near the center of town.
My residency was scheduled for 4 weeks in November and December 2016. I flew from Boston to Minneapolis, rented a car, and drove the three hours to New York Mills. As soon as I set foot in the artist house, I felt a sense of peace and excitement. There was a scrapbook filled with journal entries from the artists who’d stayed there before. The house had a small kitchen, a bedroom, and two work spaces with large desks, perfect for writing. Once I’d stocked up on groceries, I holed up inside (frigid temperatures helped!) and wrote, drafting about 100 pages of my novel-in-progress. I met lots of interesting, friendly people around town–artists, writers, the local baker, a taxidermist. I learned about dark house spear fishing and the local boat factory. I also held a workshop, participated in a reading, and visited 3 English classes at the high school. It was a fruitful and creative month.
Finally, my talented photographer friend Kate Kearns took some lovely photos of me and my book last fall. I’m just getting around to posting them now because I’ve been preoccupied by several life changes, including a move. But, finally, here they are!
I finally had to get a smartphone last summer. I’d resisted for years. I hate the idea that gadgets are now controlling our lives, and I actively try to resist the internet’s intrusion into mine. I had a little texter phone for five or six years and it was great.
Then, the day before I left for a multi-month trip to Canada, my dad found out my phone “might not work” there. I don’t know the technical details, but the gist was I wouldn’t know if it would work until I got there. I was traveling to Newfoundland alone, so this was sort of a problem. Before I knew it, my mom was explaining phone cases to me and showing me how to use the plain black one I got. My poor texter was stuffed in the glove compartment and I was on the road with my new device.
Of course, the devices themselves aren’t all bad…for the most part. It’s true they’ll track your every move by default, unless you adjust the settings (or at least they allow you to think you’re adjusting the settings). But there are aspects of the phone that I’m really enjoying. I’ve downloaded a couple of exercise apps that are fun to use and might get me to work out more.
My favorite is the audiobooks. With Overdrive or Hoopla, you can check out audiobooks (or ebooks) from your local library. I was skeptical at first, but now I love it. There is something fundamentally satisfying about being read to. It frees you up to do other things at the same time—cook, clean, etc. all those annoying chores that would otherwise feel like time badly spent, but which now feel worthwhile because you’re reading at the same time. Also, it doesn’t strain your eyes. I am concerned about my nearsightedness getting worse as I age, mostly because I stare at computer screens so much. My job usually involves looking at a computer, and then I look at the computer even more when I write. So reading paperbacks worries me. The audiobook solves that. Another thing: I used to hate the slowness of the CD audiobooks, which I sometimes listened to on car trips, but with the smartphone audiobooks, you can increase the speed to 1.25, 1.5, or even 2 to use your time more efficiently.
Of course, the benefits are only worth it as long as you don’t get addicted to the phone. I didn’t download an email app, so I won’t be tempted to check my email all the time. For the same reason, I haven’t downloaded any social media apps. I recently read an interesting/disturbing article about how smartphones are actually designed to be addicting. It’s not that surprising, really; it makes commercial sense, and commercial activity is the highest value in American society.
It’s getting harder and harder not to have a smartphone these days, but always remember to protect your humanity and your real life. Resist tech companies’ efforts to make you into an obedient screen addict—use your smartphone as a tool, not an end in itself.
This semester I took a fantastic class about land trusts and land conservation in the United States. One of the final readings was especially unsettling. It’s called “The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources” (1). The author, Mary Berlik, argues that the United States indirectly causes significant deforestation around the globe. The reason? Many forests in the U.S. are protected, but Americans still consume huge amounts of lumber and wood products.
Berlik takes Massachusetts as a case study. Massachusetts is one of the most densely populated states, yet it also has a large amount of forest cover (2). This forest is the product of new growth, coming after a period in the 1800s when Massachusetts was clear-cut for agriculture. Although logging continued into the 20th century, the volume of timber harvested has steadily decreased.
Twenty-first century Massachusetts residents hold strong environmental values. Anti-logging attitudes are among their cherished beliefs. Meanwhile, U.S. imports of lumber have tripled over the last several decades. Between 1965 and 1997, the average American home size increased by 44%. Approximately 15% of wood consumption in the country is used for home construction. The result is this: Massachusetts harvests much less wood per capita that Japan, Switzerland, France or Germany, yet it consumes more than all of them—not just a little more, but more than twice the per capita consumption of its closest comparison, France.
Massachusetts residents resist timber harvest in their own state, but their demand for wood means the products have to come “from somewhere.” These “somewheres” are countries around the globe. The United States imports hardwoods from tropical countries, which are often home to fragile ecosystems and great biodiversity (3). Exacerbating the problem is the fact that these countries often have fewer environmental protections. They may also have less advanced equipment, which cannot process lumber as efficiently and leads to wasted product. In short, the “not in my backyard” attitude leads to greater environmental devastation elsewhere. Berlik has some strong words on this subject:
Notably and hypocritically, the protectionist attitude often fails to address the link between high levels of domestic consumption and the unavoidable impacts this imposes on the global environment, especially beyond US borders. In addition to the tangible issue of whether humankind can live sustainably within the earth’s ecological limits, there is an environmental question of whether the burden of natural resource production should be placed on remote and oftentimes fragile landscapes, and the intriguing sociological question of whether affluent citizens might alter their patterns of resource consumption if the environmental consequences of this behaviour was apparent in their own backyards.
It’s not quite as simple as allowing sustainable harvest on Massachusetts public land. Much of the forested land is privately owned. Local regulations complicate the issue, with different towns having varied logging regulations. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, anti-logging sentiments run high.
Reading this, I wondered how many people equate “logging” with “clear-cutting.” It is possible for a forest to be sustainably managed, such that most growth is left standing and only certain trees are harvested. Education about global wood production and sustainable forestry could change this situation, since Massachusetts residents are already inclined to care about the environment.
Even if the state increases its wood production, it will not make much progress unless consumption drops. This is the fundamental problem. Getting people to consume less is very, very hard. Consumerism and overpopulation are the root causes of most environmental problems. Overpopulation can be addressed through poverty alleviation, education of women, and availability of birth control—not easy tasks by any means, but concrete objectives that have been studied and observed to work. Consumerism is trickier. How to you get people to stop buying things—without forcibly reducing wealth or abridging freedom? That will have to be a topic for a future post.
1. Berlik, Mary M., David B. Kittredge, and David R. Foster. “The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources.” Journal of Biogeography, vol. 29, 1557-1568. Blackwell Science, 2002.
2. At the time of the paper, 62% of Massachusetts land was forested. I assume the percentage has gone down since then. Massachusetts is undergoing rapid development. In my once-quiet hometown, new developments are springing up all over the place. Which leads to another question. Could sustainable lumber harvesting add value to the otherwise “valueless” tracts of land that are marked for development? It would provide revenue without leading to the strain of population growth.
3. The United States imports softwoods from Canada, which presumably does not have as much environmental impact as imports from tropical countries. However, Berlik does not offer a breakdown of hardwood/softwood percentage in U.S. wood consumption, nor an analysis of how increasing sustainable timber production in various states would address this. It seems the most important question is whether the U.S. could supply its own hardwoods. Supplying its own softwoods—assuming the logging operations are well-managed—could increase sustainability, since it would decrease shipping distance.
I am thrilled to share Compulsive Reader’s review of PALE HEARTS. Reviewer Ruth Latta had many kind things to say about the book. She also took the time to write in detail about some individual stories. The stories she focused on were somewhat different than the ones that occupied the greatest part of my attention, and it was refreshing to see the book through someone else’s eyes.
I particularly appreciated the assessment that “the fifteen thought-provoking stories in Pale Hearts are both literature and entertainment.” I’m starting to realize that I sit right in the middle of the great supposed “literary” and “genre” divide. I love Melville, Flaubert, and Faulkner. I also love Stephen King and Michael Crichton. I find a lot of so-called literary fiction pretentious and boring, while many great genre fiction books are overlooked by the literary world. Some of my favorite contemporary authors, like Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, and Donna Tartt, are people who don’t fit neatly into genre/literary distinctions. I hope I can achieve that balance in my own work.
There will never be a perfect time to write. We’re all busy, stressed, and tired; these seem to be the default conditions for about 90% of life. Moments of inspiration are rare. If you rely on them, you won’t finish anything. It’s better to work steadily, even when you don’t feel like it. Often the feeling of being “uninspired” is actually procrastination in disguise. If you push through the first twenty minutes or so of drudgery, you will start to enjoy the work.
Set a daily goal.
This gives you something to work toward. Many writers aim for a certain word count or amount of time. Meeting the goal forces you to be productive. It also gives you a reason to feel accomplished at the end of the day.
Block the internet.
The internet is a pernicious influence. After writing for “a while,” I’m often tempted to spend “five minutes” checking email. Five minutes is never five minutes. Checking email leads to clicking on a blog update or visiting an online sale. Soon this becomes reading “just one” article, which ends up being more like five or six. Few among us can resist the internet once that enticing browser window is open. Save yourself by investing in an internet-blocking app. Freedom is a good option. Alternatively, back away from the computer and write longhand.
Join a writing group.
Even disciplined individuals benefit from having other people involved in the writing process. Writing groups provide valuable feedback, and they hold you accountable when your productivity starts to flag. This is especially important in periods of personal difficulty, when life events threaten to derail your writing. I went through a challenging time last year when I was in real danger of not writing a word. Instead, though I wrote badly and with great pain, I continued to produce new chapters of my novel—simply because my writing group required these chapters for meetings.
Be selfish with your time.
Writing takes time, and time is in short supply. Most writers have other responsibilities that come first, usually working and/or being a parent. With all the “real” things you have to do, it’s hard to justify spending some of your time alone, creating a document of questionable value that may or may not get published. It may seem like you “should” do the laundry first, or clean the house, or socialize. These things are important. However, if you always put writing last, it will never get done. If you really want to finish your story/essay/book, you must take the time to do it. No one is going to give it to you. Lock yourself away for an hour in a place where you won’t be disturbed. Ask yourself how you’ll feel a year from now if you don’t progress on this project. If the thought of not finishing your story/essay/book doesn’t bother you, then maybe it’s not worth it. But if the idea of not finishing makes you feel sad or disappointed, then you owe it to yourself. The laundry can wait.
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!
It’s been a fun first month for Pale Hearts. My first reading was at Trident Booksellers in Boston. The atmosphere in this bookstore is especially nice because they have a cafe, so reading attendees can relax with a glass of wine or a snack. Although I had a cold, I forged through and had a great time. I’m so grateful to all the enthusiastic people who came!
Next up was a book signing at Richards Memorial Library in North Attleboro. I was there as part of their Local Authors Fair. It was wonderful to meet other authors from the area and see their books.
In other news, Pale Heartsis now available at Norton Public Library. Richards Memorial Library will also be adding a copy to their collection. I was so excited to see my book right in the middle of Norton’s new books shelf.
It’s great to see Pale Hearts listed in the library catalogs. (Also, how fitting that Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” comes up as a related result!) If your library is part of the SAILS network in Massachusetts, you can request Pale Hearts. But you’ll have to wait–the book is currently checked out!
Pale Hearts is out in the world! The books are printed, orders have shipped, and my first book signing went wonderfully yesterday.
I’m so grateful to the readers who stopped by! I was impressed to hear that someone already read the entire book on Kindle. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy lives to say hello, and thanks especially for buying the book. I am truly appreciative.