Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

Thomas Jefferson,
by Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

I recently got some fascinating new insights into the Declaration of Independence through Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Joseph J. Ellis.

For instance, Thomas Jefferson was chosen as author by default. He was the third choice, actually. The drafting committee wanted Benjamin Franklin, who was already rather a big-name celebrity in America as well as in England. But Franklin declined, saying he hated writing for a committee.

They turned next to John Adams, a fiery orator for ‘the Cause’ in the Continental Congress. But Adams recused himself, concerned that his vocalizing had caused him to be seen as a ‘radical.’ Adams wisely knew that they needed someone who was seen as a moderate to sway those who still hoped for a reconciliation with the Crown.

At the time the members of the Declaration’s drafting Committee of Five did not realize the importance of the project. Franklin, Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and even Jefferson were each anxious to return to their home states, for the debates over state constitutions. These negotiations were considered to be the real grass-roots action. As Jefferson holed up in Philadelphia laboring over the Declaration, he yearned to be at the Virginia General Assembly.

Still, Jefferson poured his heart and soul into the Declaration of Independence, creating what was not only an historic legal document, but also a masterpiece of writing. The second sentence has been called “one of the best-known sentences in the English language” by literary theorists.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

At the time, however, Jefferson’s genius wasn’t quite recognized and his opus was heatedly critiqued and edited by the Continental Congress. Jefferson “sat silently and sullenly throughout the debate,” which sounds a bit like the writer’s workshop from hell. “At one point, Franklin leaned over to console him, reminding Jefferson that this was the reason he never wrote anything that would be edited by a committee.” Ultimately, several large sections were cut, and it was this revised version that was printed and circulated throughout the country.

Ellis points out that almost more than the existence of the Declaration itself, Jefferson’s famous closing words, “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” became a rallying cry and a pledge that spurred on the revolution.

Still, Jefferson became a rather obsessed with his original draft. “He devoted considerable energy to making copies of his unedited version of the document, restoring the sections deleted by the congress, placing their revisions in the margins so as to differentiate his language from the published version.”  While he sounds like an editor’s nightmare (from my experience at magazines, it’s usually the writers who resist editing that need it the most), the congress took out some very key elements.

First, they deleted all references to slavery and also to Jefferson’s proposal to end the slave trade, which he roundaboutly blamed on George III. This ominous omission still haunts us today. They also cut a thorough anti-king argument which Jefferson modeled after the British Declaration of Rights, a seminal act which set precedent by limiting the Crown’s power, reinforcing Parliament’s authority, and outlining the rights of petition and free speech during England’s Glorious Revolution. This seems a most genius way for Jefferson to use Parliament’s own words and laws to reinforce the Americans’ rights.

They also rejected Jefferson’s doctrine of “expatriation,” in which he theorized the that since the colonists had come to America “at the expense of our own blood and treasure” (with no financial or other support of Great Britain), they were not beholden to that country. There were several other deletions including a tirade against George III for sending mercenaries to attack the colonists. In all, I tend to agree with Jefferson on many of his points. Then again, brevity is also important in these matters, especially when copies were made by hand. You can read Jefferson’s unedited version here.

revolutionary_summerEvery writer has known that mixed emotional jumble of having hard-wrought words deleted or rearranged. Often, however, a writer can find a strange satisfaction and even appreciation in this transformation. Not so for Jefferson. As he grew old and the country he helped found took shape, he grew less fixated on his version of the Declaration but never really got over it.

Ellis, however, defends Jefferson on this point. “At that time, he came off as a rather self-absorbed young man, though his early recognition that the language of the Declaration mattered a great deal proved to be prescient.”

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, by Joseph J. Ellis

The U.S. Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson

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As today, January 29th, is the birthday of Thomas Paine, I thought it would be appropriate to address freedom of the press … and on the Internet. Paine was a “pamphleteer” who self-published and distributed many essays including Common Sense, which rallied the colonists to war for independence. John Adams famously proclaimed that “without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” Throughout the American Revolution, Paine continued to publish his pamphlets, collected in The Crisis, which spurred on the rebel cause.

If he were around today, Paine would not be a politician or a pundit on TV, but a blogger. His approach was grassroots, much like that of the masses who rose up during last year’s Arab Spring, sharing their thoughts and organizing their protests via blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.

It’s pretty clear that freedom of expression on the Internet is inherently tied into freedom of the press and freedom of speech. This has been a hot topic lately, with the recent SOPA blackout and yesterday’s Twitter blackout. I do support the need to protect copyrighted material and understand the frustration of the movie companies and other copyright holders—I try to always link to the official clip, like I did with the Hobbit trailer, or use free clipart. But, there were some draconian provisions in SOPA/PIPA. Internet providers could be forced to block user IP addresses, like they do in, um, China. Also, if someone posted a link to copyrighted material, say as a comment on a blog, that blogger could be held legally responsible and thus shut down. What a relief that these bills have been sent back to the drawing board.

Saturday’s #Twitterblackout protested the announcement that Twitter will begin censoring individual tweets at the request of any country’s government. Hello China and Iran. Reports charge that this new policy is tied to a $300-billion-dollar investment made by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talaj.

However, Josh Cantone at Mashable argues that Twitter’s change will actually aid political activists by highlighting the censorship enforced by these governments. He also says it will be pretty easy for users to get around the censorship. That may prove the case, but I still took part in the #TwitterBlackout. I knee-jerk react against anything that looks to, in any way, limit our freedom of the press. Ok, it was kind of silly, everyone tweeting about how we weren’t tweeting. But it sent a message. Also, the AP reported that “many of the tweets calling for a boycott of Twitter on Saturday—using the hashtag #TwitterBlackout—came from the Middle East.”  So how could I not show solidarity with people who are fighting for the freedoms that we in the US sometimes take for granted?

Also worrisome is the concern that Twitter will begin to kowtow to corporations, who are already sending requests to block specific tweeters and tweets. Check out more than 4000 such corporate cease-and-desist orders.

Whatever you think about Occupy Wall Street, it was pretty scary and Orwellian that such massive civilian protests (with so many arrests!) were not reported by any major media outlet for nearly a month. The only reporting or coverage was online. I was reading the Hunger Games at the time, and it reminded me of the whispered, and covered-up, rebellions in Panem. Chilling. One could almost argue that keeping protests out of the media is as powerful, or more so, than actually suppressing them. After all, it was Glasnost that brought down the Soviet Union, just as social media fueled the Arab Awakening. Information is empowering. Without freedom to exchange information, how can we monitor and protect our other constitutional rights? The Supreme Court recently ruled that corporations have the same rights as individuals. I’m a capitalist, but this is deeply unnerving.

It’s not just political barriers that are being broken down by online dialogue. The Economist reports that bloggers have improved and expanded “the global conversation about economics.” The blogosphere has spotlighted economic theories and ideas that have been largely ignored by academic circles, “advancing bold solutions to America’s economic funk and Europe’s self-inflicted crisis.”

So going forward, I hope we’ll continue to be wary of attempts to regulate or circumscribe voices on the Internet. As Paine said, “such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants is the liberty of appearing.”

Thomas Paine via Wikipedia

Pampleteer Thomas Paine Would Be A Blogger

The New Yorker: Was Thomas Paine Too Much of a Free-Thinker?

Twitter’s New Censorhip Plan Rouses Global Furor

Twitter Blackout: Taking a Stand in Solidarity

Computer World: The Real Reasons Why SOPA/PIPA are Real Bad

The Guardian: Stop SOPA or the Web Really Will Go Dark Says Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales

Work Hits Gone Dark to Protest SOPA/PIPA

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Don’t even try to read this post. WordHits has gone dark for the SOPA/PIPA protest blackout. OK, a little early since I won’t be up at midnight. I do support copyright protection and the need to enforce that, but these acts are seriously, dangerously flawed. Freedom of speech. Freedom of words.

If you need to look up something on Wikipedia, better hit that before midnight. They will also be dark for all of Wednesday, January 18. You can read why Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales feels why this is a crossroads in freedom of information and freedom of expression on the internet.

So is SOPA Dead? Not Exactly Says Forbes

Stop SOPA or the Web Really Will Go Dark Says Jimmy Wales

How Does SOPA Work InfoGraphic

Stop SOPA Action Center

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To me, it seems fitting that the New York Marathon and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) both take place in November, since running and writing are very similar pursuits. There are the obvious comparisons: both require motivation, both can be challenging (OK, grueling), and both are somewhat addictive. I would take this further, though, and argue that writing is running for the mind.

Like runners, writers can get their fix many ways. This month some 250,000 determined souls are partaking in NaNoWriMo—a word-count marathon in which they will crank out 1666 words (about 6 pages) daily for a month-end total of 50,000 words (200 pages). For those of you who are rolling your eyes, here are six famous novels penned in under a month.

Others choose to more slowly craft their passages writing, editing, and revising as they go—kind of like fartleks or interval training. Graham Greene’s goal was to get 500 polished words each day. The hill run is the writing that you don’t want to do—a school assignment, a work memo, a business proposal. (Full disclosure: this post felt like a bit of a slog.) The sprint or speed workout is free writing, in which you just spew out whatever is in your head without worrying about structure or grammar for a short burst of time. Many writers use this technique to come “unstuck” from writer’s block. Finally, the grind-it-out track work, say running sets of 440s, is like the daily crank of writing a column, a blog, a journal, or a passage in a book. John Grisham maps out a detailed outline, and then progresses with a page a day.

I’d like to emphasize, though, that I’m speaking of writing in general terms here—not necessarily fiction, not even writing for publication—but simply typing or handwriting thoughts into words whether it’s in a diary, a memo, homework, or even a letter. Just as running boosts your muscles and your cardio-vascular system, writing gives your mind a real workout. The catch with writing is that you often have a good idea of what you want to say, but the tricky part, the gymnastics, comes when you try to string the words together. Even when we know what we want to write, it can be tough to actually do so. Words can come out the wrong way, be unclear and confusing, or simply not read as you had imagined they would. (For example, I wish this post came off a little breezier and more fun.) Even worse, sometimes the words don’t come out at all. But squeezing out those words, just like pushing for extra miles on a run, can really boost your brain.

“The practice of writing can enhance the brain’s intake, processing, retaining, and retrieving of information,” explains neurologist Judy Willis, MD, in a series of articles on the brain and education for Edutopia. Willis found this to be applicable even when students were writing about complex math and science theorems. Makes sense, because to write about something, your brain really needs to absorb and comprehend it.

In a study published in last February, a horticulture professor found that over a five-year period, her college students who had writing homework assignments scored significantly better on the same test (avg 16.2 out of 18 questions) than those who studied but had no writing assignments (avg 10.2 out of 18).

If you’re a runner, you know that just about any problem seems a little less intmidating after a long run. Sometimes the solution will actually come to you on the run—bingo—but, more often, you simply get a sense that you will be able to muddle through. Likewise, when faced with a daunting project at work or a personal problem, it really helps to write a detailed memo or plan-of-action. Somehow, the act of writing it out can make the whole thing seem more doable. You may even come up with new ideas or solutions because writing forces you to look at things from many angles. Did you ever not really like a book until after you had to write a paper about it? (Ahem, Moby Dick.) Then, in the process of digging around the book and analyzing it, you came to see new things and grew to appreciate, or even love, said book. The same way running stretches our leg muscles, writing expands our brain power.

In addition to firing up the neurons and pistons, which by the way running also does, writing is most therapeutic. Since the 1960s mental-health professionals have advocated “journal therapy” to combat stress and depression. If something’s really upsetting you, spend a few minutes venting about it with a pen or your laptop. If there’s a specific person involved, writing an imaginary letter or email in which you spew your frustrations can be a good thing. Just be careful to hit delete NOT send.

“Besides serving as a stress-coping mechanism, expressive writing produces many physiological benefits,” writes Jessica Wapner for Scientific American, in the article “Blogging—It’s Good For You.” Turns out writing can also improve memory, sleep, and even boost the immune system—all benefits that are also attributed to running.

I’m thrilled at the explosion of bloggers on all subject matters. You can google just about any arcane fact—from the flower that only grows on two slopes of the Alps (Sempervivum pittonii) to the first US submarine (the Turtle)—and, voila! Someone has blogged about it. I hope the writing movement will continue to grow. Just as people run daily to keep fit, so should people take 15-30 minutes out of each day to write. It doesn’t have to be “the great American novel,” but your thoughts and musings are of value. It bothers me that people think that if they can’t write bestseller, they shouldn’t write at all. Heck, millions of runners train 5-7 days a week with no expectation of becoming Frank Shorter or Greta Waitz. More than 47,000 people entered this year’s NYC Marathon, but only a handful had a realistic expectation of winning. (Like accomplished authors, these elite runners dedicated most of their time to intense training and prepping.) The rest of the pack were there to run and, hopefully, to finish on their goal pace. Writing is and should be like that. People should write for themselves, regularly. Who knows? Maybe you will pen something that gets published and is widely read. But, more importantly, even if that’s not your aspiration, don’t let it stop you. Writing is like running for the mind—do yourself a favor and write!

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“You go into a fugue state of exhaustion and inspiration.”

Head Waiter Mike Scalise offered the most apt description of the Bread Loaf experience. Don’t look for any such wisdom in these thoughts. I just can’t let go of the mountain and the memories:


Fireplaces that looked decorative on day one turned out to be vital.

Brief reactivation of Ross White’s phantom Twitter and Facebook accounts.

David Shields’s self-described “fiction driveby shootings.”

Every day, growing lore about the Nut Shack.

So many beautiful words and beautiful moments in the Little Theater.

Best Couple we hope are a couple: Tamara Choudhury and Jeff Stauch

Best Couple we know are a couple: Alan Carl and Benjamin Roesch.

Best Couple who really aren’t a couple (happily for their suitors): Lauren Edmondson and Liz Wykoff.

Still in awe of the fabulous waiters and staff. Such talent…such multitasking!!

The girl pack getting their fun on: Trish Woolwine, Alex Beers, Angie Chatman, Amy Schriebman Walter, Claudia Zuluaga, and Molly Absolon.

Kalapana Mohan at a too early 8 am after the first barn dance, radiant in a beautiful Indian-print Kameez tunic, hair perfectly in place. Asked how she was feeling post dance: “Very … very bad.”

Waiter flashmob to Lady Gaga’s Telephone.

Staff flashmob to Hall and Oates’s Rich Girl.

Wishing I’d had more time reading in those Adirondack chairs.

Alan Heathcock ghostbusting in Robert Frost’s cabin.

Philip Levine … stand-up comic.

Kris Bigalk and Señor Squirrel.

Every other person on crutches.

If only Charles Baxter’s lecture on “undoings” had come earlier in the conference.

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s black Stetson: Western hot.

Nate Brown’s bow ties: handsome devil.

Chad Frisbee’s dancing shirt: 70’s sexois.

Jeff Stauch’s rainy-day speedo: no comment.

Turns out, alcohol does not prevent BLARS.

Suspicious repeat fire alarms in Cherry.

Unreal full moon.

All too real howling at moon.

Luis Alberto Urrea’s special box of writing wisdom.

Noreen Cargill working magic in the office at all hours of day and night.

The person who smells a waiter is a fool.” –Shuchi Saraswat. Though in fact, Shuchi and the waiters smelled and looked (and sang) beautiful(ly). Especially compared to the rest of us.

Oh, we just loved our moments in the Blue Parlor. Laughed and cried. Thank you Harriet Clark!

Blue Parlor Best Supporting Actor: photographer and sommelier Rolf Yngve.

Badass runners: Dave Essinger, Molly Absolon, Jeff Stauch, and Mike Kerlin.

Wondering each day:
A.)  What hat will Alan Heathcock wear?
B.) What will be on Rob Kaplan’s T-shirt?
C.) What name will they give to today’s stew?

All other questions anticipated and answered by the genius and in-depth daily reporting of The Crumb!

Another scoop for The Crumb!

Poet Laureate Philip Levine and Ross White, getting another scoop for The Crumb.

Amy Schriebman Walter every day in the Apple Cellar writing poetry.

One Minute in Heaven: General Contributors read from the hallowed podium … to ourselves.

(Thank you to Ru Freeman, Nicholas Boggs, and the 3 others who attended.)

Slice of Heaven: Courtney Maum’s Missed Opportunity.

Miss, missing that mountain air.

Best late-night antics and stamina: Richard Bausch tied with the waiters. Ok, the waiters really took this category, but the indomitable Bausch gave them a run for their money.

Bestest and Most Wonderful Presence (even when he wasn’t there): Tim Manley!

Michael Collier dancing on the table at the barn dance … got it on film.

Somehow all were unscathed after the body-slamming mosh fest during Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Top complaint on the feedback forms: “There should always be bacon the morning after a barn dance.”

Wishing I could hit replay and do it all over again.

Just like I’m replaying all the Bread Loaf lectures and readings on iTunes.

“What a remarkable time in literary Brigadoon.” Sharon Gelman.

Barely the tip of the iceberg. I know I missed a lot. A laptop conked me on the head during the shuttle up to Bread Loaf, so my own fugue state was also a semi-concussed one.

Does anyone else still hear that bell ringing?


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Apologies for the radio silence but I have been on a mountaintop in Vermont since last Wednesday, attending the 86th annual Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.  The irony of a writers’ conference is that there is precious little time for actually writing, and pretty much no time for blogging.  We participate in workshop, sharing our work, and each day there are a series of craft classes. Today, I am looking forward to Richard Bausch’s class, “Failing the Art of Exposition.”

And then there’s reading … and readings! From 4pm to about 10 pm each day, there are so many wonderful readings in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. There are too many luminaries for me to enumerate here.  But here’s a list of this year’s faculty and guests. All of these readings are being made available on iTunes–here is the link to Bread Loaf on iTunes.

To get an idea of the hectic schedule, check out today’s edition of Bread Loaf’s daily paper, The Crumb.

Then of course, everyone being writers, things carry well into the evening, er I should clarify morning, hours. Thankfully, coffee is available all day, strategically stationed around the campus. I have been mainlining it.

To get a sense of the goings on, check out the Bread Loaf feed on Twitter:  #blwc11.

Bread Loaf Writers Conference Official Site

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