And Now a Brief Word…

Brevity is the soul of wit.[*] (Polonius, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, line 92)—William Shakespeare

Perhaps it’s winter’s elision into Spring, but I feel like it’s time for change, to experiment (a bit) with my writing here at the Sequence. Of late, several posts I’ve written here appear to run on the longer side. While I’ve enjoyed much of what I’ve written, I feel the need for some variation.

Something of a palate cleanser, if you will.

I don’t suggest that terser writing is some sort of literary sorbet. Hemingway, a master of succinct writing, has a short story collection entitled Winner Takes Nothing that neatly summarizes his far from sweet oeuvre.[†] Rather, I’m looking to pare down my writing a bit, try new writing styles, and perhaps write more efficiently. Few writers think they have enough writing time, and I’m no different. It’s this latter goal, working on finding more writing time, that inspired this post. So, here’s my plan for…

…Writing Succinctly to Accomplish More

(1) Short Changing My Words

Recently, I expressed my interest in writing shorter pieces to a friend, and she suggested flash fiction. I haven’t tried flash fiction yet, but the imposed word count (under 1000 words) felt inspiring. Having studied formal poetry, one salient revelation was that restrictions can provoke creativity.[‡] While a word count might seem arbitrary, it requires writers to produce leaner prose while limiting scenes, characters, and action. And similar restrictions could be applied to nonfiction—especially when paired with short-format nonfiction such as the listicle.[§] Choosing a word count, then, could produce focused, sharp writing.

(2) Research Is Revealing

Like many people who blog, I schedule my topics, alternating among my different interests. What I don’t do, however, is plan topics by their development time. If I think a topic needs more research or isn’t “gelled” enough, I move it to a later point. However, I find that my posts often run longer than expected, seeping into time I allotted for other writing projects. And writing several long pieces in a row places more strain on my time to develop future posts. I plan to keep writing posts I enjoy, but I believe that alternating between longer and shorter post can afford both variety and extra writing time for longer works.

So, I checked my word counts and confirmed that my longer pieces (on average, 1300 words) matched my perception of taking longer to write and often longer than estimated. These topics (literary themes, book reviews, etc.) required extensive development in terms of notetaking or research. Yet, my shorter posts, which focused more on personal experiences (usually reading), also happened to be time consuming. My impression that word count and time spent writing were in a proportional relationship wasn’t the whole story. While I had some insight into better scheduling, I needed to investigate my process further.

(3) Structuring My Writing Process—Just a Bit!

I tend to discover my text instead of planning it (ie, I compose at the computer). Typically, my pre-writing is minimal, often involving relevant research and jotting my ideas down. For example, I devoted significant effort to discussing an author’s approach to the orphaned main character trope for a recent review, something I found interesting but didn’t give readers the flavor of book. Of course, I cut this section, but using an outline might have prevented the need to do so. Outlining also visually demonstrates how lengthy a topic is by the number of points present, giving a rough estimate of writing time needed. Of course, revisions—extensive or not[**]—will occur. Likewise, I expect much of writing will be unplanned.[††] I hope, though, that having a blueprint for my writing in mind will keep from diverting into unnecessary asides.

Off to Write

My course from here is clear: to apply lessons learned. To my surprise, a little writerly navel gazing has proved to be inspiring. I’m looking forward to trying out these ideas (particularly flash fiction), and I’m pleased that I set my first word count (775 words; I finished near 830). Next up, scheduling and outlining the next Sequence. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have some pre-writing to do.

 

What approaches have you tried for improving your writing? Add your response to the comment box below. Also, sign up to the Sequence newsletter and stay up-to-date with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] Polonius adds this quip after a longwinded discussion of wasting time.

[†] Or, as my friends and I joked more than once, his stories were about “Dying alone. In the rain.”

[‡] Robert Frost comes to mind when considering how form can work for a poet.

[§] You’re reading my first listicle post.

[**] Even Hemingway revises extensively: he wrote the ending to Farewell to Arms 39 times because he had difficulties “Getting the words right”.

[††] I’m also certain that I’m likely to continue to tidying up the house when I get stuck. Today’s writing count includes two loads of laundry and unloading the dishwasher.

Book Review: All the Living

“That was what she wanted. That more than family, that more than friendship, that more than love. Just the kind of day that couldn’t be called into premature darkness by the land.”

All the LivingAll the Living by C.E. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

“That was what she wanted. That more than family, that more than friendship, that more than love. Just the kind of day that couldn’t be called into premature darkness by the land.”

All the Living, a novel that debates whether a young woman should “submit to love” (as the cover put it) or find her way in the world, offers readers a tension-filled love affair. And this tension seems to ratchet up quickly as Aloma arrives at the farm Orren inherited following the deaths of his brother and widowed mother. In the distance, she sees the mountains that she’s always hated, that reminds her of postponed dreams to go faraway and play piano without being overshadowed by the landscape. The house, the first in which she’ll ever live, is dilapidated, while the piano Orren promised that she could play upon is ruined. The tremendous change in Orren, wrought by grief, surprises her. Her own orphaning occurred when she was too young to recall anything but their absence, so her experience leaves her unready for his emotional distance. Her ignorance of farm life and lack of cooking and cleaning skills, the duties she is preparing to take on, too suggest future difficulties.
To these disadvantages, Morgan adds her characters’ youth (she is around 21 or 22; he is three years older)—something which becomes more concerning as the details of their courtship unfolds. Aloma and Orren met at the settlement school, where Aloma worked as the staff pianist since her graduation. Their dates consisted mostly of driving near the school and sex, which means they didn’t share in each other’s daily existence. Orren, an “Aggie” student at a college three counties away, planned to own a large farm one day and wants to marry her. She responded to his suggestion with humor, as her plans involved leaving. With their goals at cross purposes, it’s not difficult to envision how this relationship might falter over time if they couldn’t compromise on their goals. Meeting his family at the farm might have her eased into the lifestyle there—or at least given her an opportunity to walk away from that life with less at stake. With tragedy spurring their decisions, their relationship has the potential to founder badly.
But I found myself puzzled at points while reading this story. Because Orren mentioned marriage before the deaths occurred, it seemed strange that he never brought her to meet his family. Eighteen months is a long time to date a person, let alone a potential marital partner, without introductions to the other important people in one’s life. And unless he hasn’t mentioned his relationship with Aloma to his mother at all (which puts his intentions in question), I’d be surprised if Emma wasn’t interested in meeting his girlfriend. For storytelling purposes, it’s important that Aloma doesn’t interact with his family so that she cannot share in Orren’s loss or see the expectations he might have for her as his future wife by visiting the farm. While it makes sense that Aloma belatedly realizes she should have met Orren’s kin (she, after all, has no family to think of), it seems to strange that Morgan drew attention to this point and chose not explain it however briefly.

barn-all-the-living-review-artful-sequenceAnother puzzling moment involved the time period in which the story was set, something which was more difficult to decipher than it should have been. In fairness, Orren’s note and Aloma waiting for his arrival (instead of texting or calling) could suggest an era before widespread cell phone use (something which continued into the 1990s)—or just bad reception. For me, it certainly did not clearly signal the decade of the setting (1980s), which would have created the correct expectations for Aloma’s trip to the grocery store. Although the farm is isolated, the nearby community is small enough that most people know each other’s business. Since Aloma is charging her purchases to the Fenton account, the clerk mentions Emma “Sure had a lot of opinions”, which seemed odd (Heaven forbid a woman have opinions!). Her next remark was to ask whether Aloma and Orren were married. Aloma lies, but her blush betrays her and the clerk’s cordiality disappears from her face. Knowing that this story occurs in the 1980s would have explained the cultural attitudes towards women in general and marriage specifically. In a scene following the grocery incident, I eventually located one specific cultural landmark that places this story during the early 1980: the “Where’s the Beef?” posters, presumably referring to a Wendy’s ad campaign. I missed its significance in my initial reading, and I can see how somehow not familiar with this time would not understand it at all.
Were it not for Morgan’s prose (with rarely a word misplaced), Aloma’s efforts to conquer housework and cooking might have become tedious. The slow pace, however, allows the friction to arise between this disconnected couple. While submerging herself in work helps Aloma focus on Orren’s wants instead of her own, she becomes cognizant of how little she knows Orren. And the lack of piano coupled with not being married grates on her and they quarrel often. Morgan shines in making their days contentious. Although I’m not fond of Morgan’s tendency to provide conclusions about Aloma that the reader could be gleaned from the story, Aloma repeatedly shows that she’s “the girl who was always looking outward, getting to ready to leave”. Both Bell and Orren see this is in her: Orren accuses her of “fixin’ to leave”. Bell, the preacher who hires Aloma to play piano at services and who is unawrare of her attachment to Orren, says she is cagey about whether she wants her freedom or to be “took in”. Her interactions with him represent that outward turn. Aloma does not intend to hurt Bell, but she’s lonely and wants the attention Orren once gave her, attention Bell now provides. She doesn’t think, however, how her behavior might affect Bell or consider the implications behind the attention he gives her even though she knows that he believes her to be single.

Once Aloma becomes the church pianist, the collision between these discontented forces seemed destined. To be truthful, I half hoped that she might call it quits with Orren, though I didn’t expect it. The book’s prevalent drift is towards submitting to love (the topic of Bell’s first sermon), which often reads to me as “the woman has to sacrifice her dreams”. I can’t say I agree with that drift under most circumstances. Here, it’s too easy to imagine Orren and Aloma unhappy together despite Aloma’s submission, even though it helps her bitterness dissipate. Still, Morgan’s conclusion don’t promise an easy future and are satisfactory enough. And it kept me thinking about what love requires of us in terms of selflessness over self-centeredness long after the cover closed.

View all my reviews

Writing Advice: Solid Suggestions, Contradictions, and Context

Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.—Lev Grossman

Advice has something in common with Schrödinger’s cat: until it’s examined, its status is unknown. In the case of advice, the question is if it’s any good.[*][†] On a regular basis, somewhere in my social media streams, I find the flotsam of writing advice swirling amidst other writing topics, inspirational quotes, and the obligatory cat photos. For this post, I decided to wade in and see what I could find. I trawled Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.[‡] Then, I performed internet searches just to make sure I’d gotten a good sense of what’s available.

Solid Suggestions

Much of what we’re advised about writing seems familiar after a few quotes. We should submerge ourselves in reading—read often and widely, particularly the works of celebrated authors and works beyond our own genre preferences. We need to actually write, write regularly, finish writing that piece, and submit our work for publication. It’s solid advice[§] that many repeat in their own way, so much so that it seems like an ever-expanding ripple in a pond. Here are few great variations on a theme:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. —Stephen King (GR)

Read all the time and keep writing. There are a million talented writers out there who are unpublished only because they stop writing when it gets hard. Don’t do that—keep writing. —Gillian Flynn

To be a successful fiction writer you have to write well, write a lot … and let ‘em know you’ve written it! Then rinse and repeat. —Gerard de Marigny (GR)

In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. —John Steinbeck

essay-1294197_1280

Contradictions Ahead: Apply with Caution

People say to write about what you know. I’m here to tell you, no one wants to read that, cos you don’t know anything. So write about something you don’t know. And don’t be scared, ever.—Toni Morrison (GR)

The more specific writing advice gets, the more disagreements emerge. Here are four exemplary writing rules many of us have encountered at one point:

  1. Show, don’t tell
  2. Avoid adverbs and adjectives
  3. Write what you know
  4. Vary word choice

To understand the source of this discord, it’s useful to examine one so-called rule more closely: show versus tell. Mary Robinette Kowal indicates that showing “mostly applies to your character’s internal life, emotions and physical sensation,” when telling would prevent the reader from sharing in the character’s feelings and sensations. However, Susan Defreitas argues that “hot tears, a pounding pulse, and clenched fists can stand in for sadness, fear, and anger. But that…doesn’t actually show what this specific character is specifically feeling… you either have to relay the thought process giving rise to those emotions or you should have already set up some key bits of exposition.” Similarly, she observes that this advice causes writers to provide involved character backgrounds when simply stating a few choice details would have accomplished the same effect. To this list, Kowal adds uninteresting action, that is showing every move a character makes (regardless of its relevance) instead of summarizing and (again) achieving the same result. Still Defreitas’s framing this “rule” as bad advice stirs up dissent. Michael Neff states that “I’ve never seen SHOW DON’T TELL as a hard and fast rule that covers all conditions and circumstances. Obviously, one may need to ‘tell’ at such time a certain type of exposition needs to be artfully delivered and dialogue isn’t sufficient.”

Feeling swamped with conflicting messages yet?

Having delved into this topic, two things became clear. First, such advice is most often proffered toward beginner writers, something which both Neff and Defreitas acknowledge. Less experienced writers, still learning how to make their writing flow, tend toward verbosity. Second, much like all the items on this  no means exhaustive list, “show versus tell” seems to suffer from either misapplication or strict over-adherence. It seems that the more novice writers may need a more precise understanding of  the advice provided, as well as permission to view such advice as a guideline to learning how to better self-edit.

For Your Consideration: Personal Preferences, Specific Information, and Context

Yet, some writing advice resists categorization, especially when presented outside its original context. For example, several quotes by Elmore Leonard surfaced in my research, some of which other writers found objectionable.[**] When I specifically searched for his writing advice, I found an article that he wrote for the New York Times. The rules he shares are his take on how he chooses to remain invisible as a writer, something he acknowledges won’t work for all writers. And most of those rules include successful exceptions (albeit from other authors). So, it’s really about his writing aesthetics, which he offers should they prove useful to other writers, even those more visible writers.

Then there are writers whose advice seem to lack mooring without context:

When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand. —Raymond Chandler

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. —Kurt Vonnegut (GR)

In Chandler’s case, this isn’t so much writing advice as it was a tactic he resorted to using because of the demand for more action in pulp fiction tales. I suppose it serves more as a literary life saver than an advisable course of action. And then there’s Vonnegut’s opinion on semicolons. While his outlandish metaphor may leave one reeling, his advice reduces to a dislike of semicolons.[††] As Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl) reveals, his advice (when examined in context) is more hyperbole than a strict injunction: after all, Vonnegut uses semicolons in his fiction writing. Avoiding semicolons, however, is a stylistic preference (not a rule!) and, as such, can be ignored by those who love their usage. But in Vonnegut’s defense, his colorful advice for writing short stories ranges from his personal preferences, more general advice (eschewing suspense, which of course won’t work for everyone[‡‡]) to specific and rather good information on characterization (such as ensuring that characters want something, “even if it is only a glass of water”). Again, once the context is understood, the writer can decide whether the advice offered is applicable.

writer-writing.png

And the Rest Depends on the Recipient

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. ―Neil Gaiman (GR)

You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write. ―Saul Bellow

Much of the remaining advice that I read bridges numerous topics, such as dealing with criticism, the revision process, sources of inspiration, and lifestyle choices for writer—all of which I left unaddressed because I realized that most writing advice (even advice that doesn’t specifically address writing like lifestyle choices[§§]) depends on its recipient. And it’s with that I find my conclusion. Unless it’s outright facetious non-advice or literal nonsense, most writing advice has potential to resonate with another writer. Our understanding and application of the advice in question may be imperfect but that doesn’t diminish its value . Writing is highly personal; we won’t all find Leonard’s advice on adverbs useful or Bellow’s revision remarks explicable without its context.[***] So where does that leave us? We must think carefully and choose wisely for ourselves. And most importantly:

Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.—Lev Grossman (GR)

What’s your favorite writing advice? Share it in the comment section below. Also, sign up to receive the latest Sequence’s newsletter to read the latest posts and more.

Works Cited and Consulted:

“Bad Writing Advice from Famous Authors.” Flavorwire. N.p., 19 Jan. 2013. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://flavorwire.com/364797/bad-writing-advice-from-famous-authors

Bell, James Scott. “5 Pieces of Writing Advice You Should Ignore.” Jane Friedman. N.p., 07 Aug. 2016. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://janefriedman.com/writing-advice-to-ignore/

Charney, Noah. “Gillian Flynn: How I Write.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company, 21 Nov. 2012. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/21/gillian-flynn-how-i-write.html

Defreitas, Susan. “The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear (and Probably Already Have).” LitReactor. N.p., n.d.  Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://litreactor.com/columns/the-ten-worst-pieces-of-writing-advice-you-will-ever-hear-and-probably-already-have

Forgarty, Mignon. “Vonnegut’s Famous Semicolon Advice Was Taken Out of Context.” Quick and Dirty Tips. N.p., 08 Aug. 2016. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/vonneguts-famous-semicolon-advice-was-taken-out-of-context?page=1

Flood, Alison. “Cormac McCarthy’s parallel career revealed – as a scientific copy editor!” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 21 Feb. 2012. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/21/cormac-mccarthy-scientific-copy-editor

Furness, Hannah. “Motherhood is no threat to creativity, author Zadie Smith says.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 12 June 2013. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10116709/Motherhood-is-no-threat-to-creativity-author-Zadie-Smith-says.html

Kowal, Mary Robinette. “Bad Writing Advice explained.” Mary Robinette Kowal. N.p., 31 Oct. 2014. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/bad-writing-advice-explained/

“Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Story.” Open Culture. N.p., n.d. N.p. 10 Apr. 2015. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.openculture.com/2015/04/kurt-vonneguts-8-tips-on-how-to-write-a-good-short-story.html.

Leonard, Elmore. “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 July 2001. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html

Neff, Michael. “Top Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice.” Algonkian. N.p., n.d.  Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://algonkianconferences.com/TopTenWorstWritingAdvice.htm

Popova, Maria. “9 Books on Reading and Writing.” Brain Pickings. N.p., 17 Sept. 2015. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/01/09/best-books-on-writing-reading/

Popova, Maria. “How Steinbeck Used the Diary as a Tool of Discipline, a Hedge Against Self-Doubt, and a Pacemaker for the Heartbeat of Creative Work.” Brain Pickings. N.p., 12 Aug. 2016. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.  https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/03/02/john-steinbeck-working-days/

“Quotes About Writing Advice (676 quotes).” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/writing-advice

Shepherd, Jack. “30 Indispensable Writing Tips From Famous Authors.” Buzzfeed. N.p. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.buzzfeed.com/expresident/writing-advice-from-famous-authors?utm_term=.htxAJxWMY#.arXJkAVmw

“When in Doubt, Come When in Doubt Have a Man Come Through a Door with a Gun in His Hand.” Quote Investigator. N.p., n.d. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/03/31/gun-hand/

NOTES:

[*] Which is at least better than being dead or alive, as is the cat’s case.

[†] And that’s before we consider whether said advice is wanted or unsolicited.

[‡] Quotes obtained from Goodreads are marked (GR); all others are linked to their specific sources. The Goodreads quotation page is in my reference list.

[§] None of us would be writing without first reading. And if you want to write, sooner or later you must put words on a page.

[**] “Never open a book with weather” makes James Bells’s list of writing advice to ignore. It seems a bit unfair, since Leonard’s article addresses some of these concerns.

[††] A preference he shares with Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy also dislikes exclamation marks.

[‡‡] Notably suspense writers.

[§§] Suggestions include wrecking your life (Jerry Stahl) or not having children, which Zadie Smith admirably rebuts here.

[***] Still looking for the context for midnight writing…

Reading Out Loud: Books, Kids, and Their Partners

In some ways, it’s a natural impulse to become the reader—to share the books you love—particularly if you have a child in your life, whether said child is yours or not.

I first read to a child while I myself still counted among their numbers. As is often the case in such cases,[*] I was babysitting a younger child who asked me to read a book I hadn’t seen in some time—a Doctor Seuss book, if I recall correctly. The teens are a bit early for nostalgia, but it reminded me of how much I loved reading Hop on Pop and other beginning reader books. It was fun to revisit an old friend and gleefully recite silly rhymes.

Becoming the Reader

In some ways, it’s a natural impulse to become the reader—to share the books you love—particularly if you have a child in your life, whether said child is yours or not. From the bookworm parent’s perspective, it’s truly a highlight to share a treasured childhood book with your child and watch that book become one of their favorites. It’s also a great opportunity to meet new books as well as catch up on books you might have missed the first time ’round.[†]

The respondents[‡] I polled about reading to children also happened to be parents, who primarily read to their children around bedtime for about 15 minutes, though one respondent ran a bit longer. Usually, parent readers take turns or allow the children to select the books. I personally like to select books when it’s my turn to read, since it’s a good opportunity to introduce books I think he’ll like as well as broaden his horizons.[§] If he expresses a preference for another book, though, I typically go with it—unless we’re reading something short because bedtime is running late!

The Kids Are Alright…with Reading Aloud

Of course, this makes me curious about what it’s like being read to from a kid’s perspective. As I mentioned in another post, I loved the story hour at my local library when the children’s librarian would read various stories aimed at younger audiences: I still recollect her soft voice declaiming words slowly enough for her listeners to easily follow along, how she looked up from reading and smiled at the gathered children. There, too, were read-along-book sets and other recorded stories I enjoyed. And my mother introduced me to the pleasures of listening to an audiobook on a car ride.[**]

Since I don’t much remember bedtime reading, I conducted an informal Q&A session with my household’s resident child. My interview revealed that he likes being read to by me, the spouse, and a close family friend, although he’s generally happy to have anyone read to him. While he didn’t choose a favorite reader on the home front,[††] I’ve learned that I do the best voices and that my spouse adds a lot of funny bits. So far, he likes that I choose stories for him, even though my spouse and he takes turns selecting books. And neither of us can keep story time to 15 minutes. A certain someone is good at wheedling for a few extra pages. In fact, he enjoyed the Alice in Wonderland so much that he’s requested that we start reading it as soon as we’re home.

And he’s not the only one who can’t wait.[‡‡]

Share your favorite childhood stories and books in the section below—I might read them to my tot soon! Also, don’t forget to sign up for the Sequence newsletter to keep up with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] Reading to younger siblings also counts as another common avenue. Since I’m a youngest child, that’s right out for me.

[†] As I noted elsewhere, I read A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner for the first time in 2016!

[‡] Thank you very much again, respondents!

[§] Otherwise, it’d always be The Magic School Bus stories.

[**] I was a teenager, and the book was Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier.

[††] My child, the diplomat.

[‡‡] The timely completion of this post, of course, being interrupted by said child.

Science Asides: Ethics in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Recently, I chanced upon an Atlas Obscura article discussing lördagsgodis, the Swedish tradition of indulging in candy on Saturdays. What drew my attention, however, was that title mentioned “human experimentation”. As it happens, lördagsgodis’s roots can be traced to experiments performed on mentally ill patients during the mid- to late 1940s that established sugar’s role in cavity formation. The study, which neither benefited its patients (quite the opposite) nor obtained their consent, was not unique to Sweden.[*] In fact, its ethical issues suggested those raised in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the tale of an African-American woman whose cells, collected without her permission in 1951, led to profound scientific discoveries. Given how deeply this nonfictional account delves into medical ethics, politics, racism, and scientific discovery as they intertwine with the lives of Henrietta Lacks and her family, I will focus on the more poignant moments that exemplify these issues.

As author Rebecca Skloot observes, patients of US public wards often were unaware that they served as research subjects, something some researchers considered to be an acceptable trade for receiving treatment (29–30). Such patients, particularly impoverished, poorly educated African-American patients living in the pre—Civil Rights era in the United States were unlikely to ask questions: the presumption that physicians “knew best” coupled with widespread racism alone prevented such a thing (Skloot 63). And before the advent of Institutional Review Boards in 1966 (Sparks 2017),[†] research involving human participants did not receive much formal oversight (Skloot 131, 136). What happened to Henrietta Lacks, specifically taking her cancer cells without her knowledge or consent, was both the norm however unpalatable we might find it.

For Henrietta, there were more personal consequences related to the treatment that permitted her cells to be collected. Johns Hopkins, the hospital where Henrietta was treated, standardly informed women of childbearing years that hysterectomy led to infertility—one of the rare instances where patients did receive adequate information from physicians in this book. And yet this did not happen in Henrietta’s case. Her records revealed that she would have refused treatment had she known (Skloot 47–8). And although she would not have lived long enough to bear another child (Skloot 86), the choice should have been hers. The tissue sample collected from this hysterectomy, however, continued to grow long past its expected life: the discovery of an immortal line of human cells had been found (Skloot 40–1).

slacks ethics microscope.jpg

The importance of Henrietta’s cells (called HeLa) to scientific research is vast. For example, HeLa played a large role in proving that Salk’s polio vaccine worked—and it was African-American scientists and technicians who produced the massive quantities of HeLa cells needed to do so (Skloot 93–7). Yet this achievement also represents one of the most painful juxtapositions in The Immortal Life: the HeLa factory was located at The Tuskegee Institute, a place better known for its infamous syphilis study involving African-American men.[‡] The terrible disparity between HeLa’s role in saving the lives of so many people—regardless of their racial background—and the unnecessary deaths of African-American people is more shocking when you consider that twelve of the Tuskegee study participant’s children still receive benefits (CDC 2017).

Not long after Henrietta was identified as the HeLa “donor” in the early 1970s, the Lacks family discovered that her cells were still alive, a revelation they did not understand and found alarming (Skloot 173, 175–81). Further interactions with researchers did little to improve their understanding. When researchers obtained blood samples from Henrietta’s family to establish genetic markers for HeLa, the Lacks family thought they were being tested for cancer (Skloot 180–4). More alarmingly, the resulting study published Henrietta’s name with her genetic information (Skloot 197–8). And more medical information was revealed about Henrietta without consulting the Lacks family. In the 1980s, her medical records were published, something which caused immense grief for Henrietta’s daughter, as Deborah read intimate details about her mother’s diagnosis and the anguish she suffered before her death (Skloot 209–10). Other family members, however, were angered by the profits made by biomedical companies while their family remained impoverished and could not afford health insurance (Skloot 168, 193).

And this is perhaps the most concerning theme that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reveals: thoughtlessness. Mary Kubicek was an assistant who was sent to collect tissue samples during Henrietta’s autopsy in 1951. Unaccustomed to dealing with dead bodies, she focused her gaze away from Henrietta’s eyes. Then, she noticed Henrietta’s painted toenails and realized that Henrietta was an actual person, not just a collection of cells. It was something she had not considered before. It’s astonishing how many researchers (most but not all of whom were white) echoed this refrain and never thought about whether patients and/or their families might have concerns, even after ethical standards were changed. And this best represents what was most needed here, for researchers to think of Henrietta Lacks as a human with rights instead of as HeLa’s source. To think of all patients involved in research as people first.

* * *

Originally, I intended to end where the book does, with the emphasis on the need to see patients as people instead of mere study subjects. Instead, I discovered something of an unpleasant (if unsurprising) postscript: the Lacks family again needed to protest the public distribution of information about Henrietta. In 2013, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory published the genome of a line of HeLa cells to an online database that allowed public downloads of this data. Although no laws were broken (Callaway 2013), it seems the researchers did not consider the ethical implications of making genetic data  publicly available that could be potentially reveal private information about Henrietta’s family (Skloot 2013). The database subsequently was removed and the National Institutes of Health, who also planned to publish a similar paper, established a review board (that includes two of Henrietta’s family members) to determine who will gain access to this genetic information in the future (Zimmer 2013). While this hopefully will provide Henrietta’s family with much needed closure on this topic, questions remain about how geneticists should handle such sensitive data for other patients.

What response did you have to learning about Henrietta’s story? Share it below in the comment section. Also, sign up for the Sequence newsletter and keep up to date with the latest posts!

Works Cited

Callaway, Ewen. “HeLa Publication Brews Bioethical Storm.” Nature (2013): n. pag. http://www.nature.com/news/hela-publication-brews-bioethical-storm-1.12689.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 08 Dec. 2016. Web. 25 Feb. 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm.

“Tuskegee syphilis experiment.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Feb. 2017. Web. 25 Feb. 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuskegee_syphilis_experiment.

Glasser, Hana. “An Adorable Swedish Tradition Has Its Roots in Human Experimentation.” Atlas Obscura. N.p., 04 Jan. 2017. Web. 25 Feb. 2017. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/an-adorable-swedish-tradition-has-its-roots-in-human-experimentation.

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2011.

Skloot, Rebecca. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Sequel.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 Mar. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/24/opinion/sunday/the-immortal-life-of-henrietta-lacks-the-sequel.html?_r=0.

Sparks, Joel. Timeline of Laws Related to the Protection of Human Subjects. National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2017. https://history.nih.gov/about/timelines_laws_human.html.

Zimmer, Carl. Zimmer, Carl. “A Family Consents to a Medical Gift, 62 Years Later.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Aug. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/08/science/after-decades-of-research-henrietta-lacks-family-is-asked-for-consent.html.

 

NOTES:

[*] Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, resided at a facility for mentally ill patients where medical experiments were carried out on the African-American patients living there, again without consent. She likely was a study subject. She died in 1955 (Skloot 274–6).

[†] HeLa also played a role in the formation of these boards. The discovery that researcher Chester Southam had been injecting HeLa cells into patients (roughly half of whom were diagnosed with cancer) without disclosure and consent caused a scandal that prompted the National Institutes of Health to create these boards (Skloot 127–36).

[‡] This study’s notoriety primarily stems from (but is not limited to) the fact that researchers purposefully withheld treatment from patients afflicted with syphilis long after a cure was developed in 1947. Ultimately, most patients died terribly, with many having infected both wives and children (Skloot 50, “Tuskegee Syphilis Study” 2017, CDC 2017).

Writing Molly Weasley: How Rowling Knit Kindness into Her Character

Although Ron isn’t an especially sensitive soul, he still shares at least some of his mother’s compassion for others, the very compassion that prompted her to knit a sweater for Harry.

As I wrote in my first essay on hobbies, I find how fiction writers portray hobbies in their stories fascinating because (I’m quoting myself here) “hobbies represent a versatile means of characterization that can make a character more complex or succinctly communicate certain ideas about the character—almost like shorthand—that inform character behavior and even the narrative itself.” Given this versatility, authors include character hobbies to accomplish diverse goals in their text. Early in the Harry Potter series,[*] J. K. Rowling introduces hobbies in several interesting ways. Nicolas Flamel, a character who is discussed but never appears in the book, is an opera lover (220). Providing him with a hobby gives readers a glimpse of his personality while preventing this cameo character from being one-dimensional. In contrast, other hobbies help develop the plot. The Famous Witches and Wizards Cards (found in packets of Chocolate Frogs) represent a magical version of trading cards. While their presence doesn’t reveal much about the children collecting them,[†] Rowling’s inclusion of this hobby is inspired because such cards are natural things for children to collect—as Ron and Harry do—and it allows her to interject information into the narrative as needed. When Neville gives Harry a card for his collection, Harry discovers why the name Nicolas Flamel seemed familiar. As a result, the trio (Harry, Ron, and Hermione) finally find out what is being hidden at Hogwarts: the Philosopher’s Stone (102–103, 218–221). The most intriguing use of hobbies in this book, however, involves character development. In this second essay of a series that explores how writers employ hobbies in their writing, I will discuss how Rowling uses knitting to further illustrate aspects of Molly Weasley’s character.

yarn-and-knitting-needles-rowlingBefore we discuss the role of knitting, it’s useful to examine Harry Potter’s first encounter with Molly. Meeting the Weasley family at Kings Cross Station was more than a fortunate solution to Harry’s difficulty in finding his way onto Platform 9¾ (91–93). Rowling uses this scene to introduce several important characters to the series (among them Molly Weasley) and create certain expectations of them. When Harry approaches Molly for assistance, she correctly determines that Harry is new to Hogwarts and needs help without him needing to say very much. This episode demonstrates that Molly (accompanied by five of her own children) is quite proficient at sorting out children’s needs, even when the child is not hers. She kindly points Harry in the right direction and he soon is on the platform. Shortly thereafter, we learn that Molly did not recognize Harry before Fred and George informed her of his identity (97), which establishes that her choice to aid Harry represents her normal behavior versus an attempt to ingratiate herself with a famous individual. Furthermore, Harry also overhears her ban Fred and George from asking potentially painful questions about his past as well as forbid Ginny from taking a gander at Harry. Given that celebrities tend to be treated as objects of curiosity instead of people who might want their privacy, Molly’s actions here represent an act of empathy. From this brief appearance, then, we expect Molly Weasley to be maternal, kind, and empathetic.

With this sketch of Molly’s character established, Molly exits the text until the final chapter. The remaining information we learn about her is gleaned from Ron’s remarks, most of which occur during the train ride to Hogwarts. The pertinent points here are that the Weasley family is far from wealthy, hence Ron’s secondhand belongings and bagged lunch—which, of course, includes Ron’s least favorite kind of sandwich. Charitably, Ron credits his mother with being too busy looking after the five children to recall his food preferences (99–101).[‡] Although these details are minute, they establish important information about Molly and set the parameters of what her hobby will reveal about her. When authors use hobbies to provide additional character exposition, the hobby in question either disrupts our expectations of the character or complements them. Rowling chooses to complement Molly’s character, thus giving her a hobby that suits her circumstances. Since Molly is quite busy (and occasionally frazzled by) caring for her several children, her hobby needs to be practical and inexpensive. Additionally, a hobby such as knitting is an excellent way to supplement a tight clothing budget, especially since some items may be reused for younger children (scarves, mittens, hats, etc.). Knitting also permits generosity. For gift givers on a budget, a handmade item (such as knitted one) represents an affordable gift that is useful to the recipient.

Yarn and knitted itemsWhen we next hear about Molly, it’s during the chapter on the Christmas holidays—when her hobby makes its debut in the series.[§] Harry, Ron and his brothers signed up to stay at school over the holidays. On Christmas morning, Harry received a Weasley sweater accompanied by delicious homemade fudge.[**] It’s a small moment in the story: Ron appears to be a bit embarrassed that she made Harry a sweater, while Harry thinks it was nice of her. Yet, it is important in several ways. Molly, despite other demands on her time and finances, nonetheless makes Harry a gift. Why? Because Ron let her know of Harry ’s potential for a present-less Christmas (200). Although Ron isn’t an especially sensitive soul, he still shares at least some of his mother’s compassion for others, the very compassion that prompted her to knit a sweater for Harry. This small gesture, therefore, further illustrates that Molly’s examples of kindness and generosity set the tone for her children. Whether it’s Fred and George helping Harry load his trunk onto the Hogwarts Express (94) or Percy offering Harry endless advice about wizarding chess on Christmas Day (204), the Weasley children seem prepared to help others and share what they have. Also of note, Molly’s decision to gift Harry with a Weasley sweater marks the moment when Harry begins his transition from family friend to honorary family member. While Fred and George agree that their mother makes more effort when knitting a sweater for someone who isn’t family, they nonetheless ensure that everyone, Harry included, wears their Weasley sweater and eats together because “Christmas is time for family” (202–203).[††] With the exception of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry hereafter spends his Christmas holidays in the company of the Weasley family, collecting a new sweater with each passing year.

Rowling’s use of Molly’s hobby in the first Harry Potter novel expands our knowledge of this character a great deal beyond her initial portrayal. We not only witness her generosity and compassion, but also see how her influence shapes her children’s generosity and kindness. The sweaters she knits, which the twins describe as “warm and lovely” (202), symbolizes her love for her family. Thus, her gifting Harry with a sweater can be viewed as her extending that maternal love to him. Rowling’s thoughtful placement of this hobby, therefore, allows her to shape expectations about this character both here and in the stories that follow.

What’s your favorite hobby in the Harry Potter series? Share in the comment section below! Also, don’t forget to sign up to the Sequence’s newsletter at the popup window.

NOTES:

[*] Unless otherwise specified, I will be referring to events in the first Harry Potter novel. The edition cited here is:

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.

[†] Since Rowling’s goal is plot development instead of character exposition, this makes sense. However, it’s likely that Harry’s interest in these collecting cards stems from their novelty and that they provide him with more information about the wizarding world.

[‡] It’s also the reason why his sweater is typically maroon (200).

[§] Intriguingly, I don’t believe we ever see Molly knit in the books (unlike other knitters in the series), even though her knitting is mentioned in most of the books. If I’m wrong, let me where I can find her knitting!

[**] I’m using the term “sweater” as it is a universally accepted term for this garment (in American English, “jumper” refers to a dress).

[††] Molly couldn’t have said it better.

Public Reading: For the Love of Libraries

We were book lovers, so we went to the library as often as we could: After all, it felt like another home.

“I always knew from that moment, from the time I found myself at home in that little segregated library in the South…I always felt, in any town, if I can get to a library, I’ll be OK.” –Dr. Maya Angelou[*]

As a child, I inhabited my hometown’s library. I swept through the familiar stacks, seeking books I hadn’t yet read or favorites to re-read. In the background, I could overhear my mother discussing my reading level with the children’s librarian. The same librarian hosted the story hour. She’d sit nearly surrounded by a semi-circle of children, showing us the pages as she slowly read them aloud. Afterwards, I could check out as many books as I could carry—and I frequently needed to tuck the stack under my chin to avoid dropping them.[†] I finished roughly half of the books before my mother drove us home. We were book lovers, so we went to the library as often as we could: After all, it felt like another home.

Of course, I found echoes of myself in books featuring other bookworms and the libraries in which they lost themselves, the librarians which they befriended. My favorite part of Robin McKinley’s version of the Beauty[‡] and the Beast story involved reading.[§] The novel features a bookish heroine who marvels at the books she finds in the Beast’s library, some of which have not yet been written.[**] Considering how many times and how long I’ve waited for sequels to be published, I’m confident that this magical library is a bookworm’s dream. In the Discworld series, however, it’s not only possible to find books that have yet to be written but also to travel through time and to different places through L-space (that is, library space).[††] In some way, I’ve always felt this to be true of reading. How often had I found myself lost in book only to surprised when I became aware again of my actual surroundings? And these novels also feature the Librarian of the Unseen University, once a human wizard who found key advantages in being transformed into orangutan.[‡‡] Never saying much more than “Ook”, he manages to communicate his meaning all the same and he’s good to have on your side. His unique approach to helping is entirely in keeping with what I know of librarians, all of whom work hard to serve the public.[§§]

And if libraries mean the world to a someone whose childhood was reasonably comfortable, imagine the difference they make to children with different backgrounds. Dr. Maya Angelou spoke of her first library as a soothing balm, the kind that helped her find her words again and her vocation. For another young woman, libraries acted as an equalizer. Although she could not afford to buy books the way her friends did, her free public library card permitted to read nonetheless. Even coming from a family that collected books, I know there’s many books I would not have read without this free access. And libraries don’t just hold books. Poet/filmmaker Greta Bellamacina shared that libraries provided a quiet place to study that her home lacked. Libraries provide safe places.

For these reasons, I feel dismay whenever I read about efforts to defund public libraries. Since I’d personally prefer that Fahrenheit 451 remain a work of fiction,[***] I urge readers to get out and support our community libraries and fund groups that protect libraries. I would like my child to continue reading all those books eagerly, after story hour, the way I did. I’d like all children to have that second home to visit.

Have a favorite librarian or library story? Share in the comments section! Or better yet, support your with a donation! Also, don’t forget to sign up to the Sequence’s newsletter at the popup window.

NOTES:

[*] Library, The New York Public. “Interview: How Libraries Changed Maya Angelou’s Life.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/the-new-york-public-library/interview-how-libraries-c_b_775980.html&gt;.

[†] Naturally, this librarian also ran the summer reading program, which I read for the way some kids train for sports.

[‡] Technically, her name was Honour, but she got herself nicknamed “Beauty” as a young child by insisting she’d rather be called beauty. Of course, the name stuck, which made her awkward teen years so much more…awkward.

[§] McKinley, Robin. Beauty: a retelling of the story of Beauty & the beast. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1978.

[**] For the record, this novel predates the Disney film.

[††] Pratchett, Terry. Guards! Guards! New York: HarperTorch, 2001.

[‡‡] Obtaining books from the top shelves features highly on this list.

[§§] Although, their approach involves less implied violence.

[***] Not to mention The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984.