Hang in there, friends! We are almost through February!
While researching and writing this article, I used several of the journalism resources offered by
Hang in there, friends! We are almost through February!
While researching and writing this article, I used several of the journalism resources offered by
My birthday is on November 22, which means it falls on Thanksgiving about every six or seven years, including this year. I had mixed feelings about this birthday–it’s been a rough few months for my physical and mental health so I wasn’t feeling particularly celebratory. But the funny thing about birthdays is that they come and go no matter how you feel about them and your life is politely waiting for you on the other side, like a dog that needs to be walked.
I hosted Thanksgiving and tried to be the hostess that I want to see in the world, so there was a lot of starchy food and cheese and alcohol and I didn’t make anyone say what they were thankful for this year. I am thankful for quite a few things though, even if I didn’t say it aloud.
I’m so grateful for stories and for the people who tell them. I’ve had difficulty accessing joy during the past few months and consuming stories has been one of the few consistent ways I can feel a sense of joy and hope. I finally got into Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (I tried a few times before and made the mistake of starting at the beginning) and his books have been the perfect combination of escape and grounding. In addition to Sir Terry, I found a few television shows, podcasts, and other media that have been deeply comforting and meaningful.
I’m also grateful for people who tell stories with me. Telling stories is one of the ways I connect with others, whether it’s a formal writing workshop or a long rambling conversation with my husband about how we’d fix a movie we almost liked. Good collective storytelling is such a vulnerable act–if you are going to be really creative, you have to let people into your weird mind at least a little bit. My favorite part of this Thanksgiving was sitting around my living room with friends and riffing off a set of jokes until we had a full-blown ridiculous narrative that we created just for ourselves.
Things are been slowly improving (she says cautiously) but this experience reminds me why it is so important to tell your stories, whatever form that takes. Someone might really need them.
Halloween is my favorite holiday. Costumes! Spooky stuff! Leaves crunching under your feet! Syncretism! Candy!
In honor of Halloween, the Illinois association of fundraising researchers asked for fundraising themed spooky short stories to run in their newsletter. My co-worker and I co-wrote a piece that is an homage to a certain classic vampire novel…you can read our story here.
While writing the story, I re-read said vampire novel and I’ve decided that one of the under-appreciated messages of Dracula is that it sucks to be the new guy at work. Why is Jonathan Harker traveling to handle a real estate deal with a reclusive aristocrat in the Carpathian mountains? Because no one else wanted to do it. I feel like poor Jonathan Harker often gets the short shrift in film versions–he’s portrayed as naive and stupid, but really, he’s just a brand new graduate at his first law job who gets sent on a crappy assignment and is completely in over his head. Quincey Morris would have tried to shoot his way out of Dracula’s castle, Dr. Seward would try to science his way out (yes, we are going to pretend that science is also a verb, just move along), Van Helsing knows what’s up and would just stake Dracula on the first night, and Arthur Holmwood wouldn’t be in the situation at all because he’s rich and doesn’t need to work. Jonathan Harker just wants to do a good job and winds up on the worst business trip ever.If you want to revisit some classic horror this Halloween, I recommend Extraordinary Tales. It is an animated anthology of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, each animated by a different artist and read by a different narrator. The narrators are fantastic and the animation is wonderfully macabre in different ways. It is currently available on Netflix.
Happy October everyone!
Happy fall to all those in the Northern Hemisphere! This week I pulled out my scarves and boots, started dousing myself (more) in spicy scents, and am trying desperately to resist buying every Halloween item in the stores.
I recently went on a lecture and tour titled “Grave Robbing 101,” led by author, podcaster, and Atlas Obscura field agent, Adam Selzer. Adam’s work focuses on weird and eerie history; for “Grave Robbing 101” he led us on a tour of Lincoln Park, a former cemetery, and discussed the history of graverobbing in Chicago during the 19th century. The tour was fascinating and I spent a lot of it scribbling down story seeds in my notebook.
Writers get asked a lot where they get their ideas–for me, the two richest veins for ideas are real history and live performances (including theatre, music, and live lit). History provides such great examples of human relationships, desires, and interactions that it’s hard for me to walk away from a history book or documentary without inklings of stories. History feels like DNA strands for characters–not just for historical fiction, but any story about people.
I’m less certain why live performances inspire me. My theory is that it stimulates the “flow” state in me. Flow state is defined as the mental state of being completely present and fully immersed in a task and has been linked to creativity. In fact, Teresa Amabile, a research psychologist at Harvard University, found evidence that not only are people more creative in flow, they also report being more creative the day after a flow state. When I watch a performance, I’m completely immersed the experience and I find myself having story ideas connected to the performance for days afterwards.
And with that, I am going write some more about human shenanigans and gaze longingly at black glitter candelabras. Here’s to a fabulous fall, full of spooky fun and lots of ideas!
This month I attended the Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference which ran August 9-11 at the downtown Chicago campus. The conference is a mix of sessions and panels on writing craft and the writing business, primarily geared towards fiction and creative non-fiction writers as well as poets. Here are some of my takeaways from the conference and my tips for getting the most out of professional conferences and maximizing your comfort.
Writing Business: Residencies, Resumes, and Contests
Tips on Maximizing Your Comfort at Conferences:
Last but not least–if you are going to a conference, it is worth it to print out business cards (Vistaprint has good deals). I forgot mine two days in a row and I hate scribbling out details on scraps of paper that get lost and crumpled. Do as I say, not as I did!
As I mentioned May’s blog post, I’ve been learning to adjust my writing work style from what I call “Angry Goat Headbutts Rock In Between It and Lovely Grass” to “Slightly Wiser Goat Looks Around Curiously to See if There is An Alternate Way to Get to Grass.” The goat is me and the grass is the story, by the way, if that metaphor wasn’t clear.When writing (or anything else) starts to feel hard, my method up to date has been to keep showing up at the page and push through–effectively punch my way to the other side through willpower and gritted teeth. Sometimes this works…but sometimes it doesn’t. More and more research shows that willpower is a finite resource and can be fatigued by overuse and this has been true in my experience. There is a romantic notion that “real artists” devote all their willpower to their art–but that is not realistic or reflective of artists’ lives. Certainly not my life, as much as I might want that to be true. And even if my willpower was boundless as the galaxy and someone else could take care of all my physical, emotional, and social needs, there are some problems in writing that can’t be solved by sheer force.
When I complained to several friends about not being able to work my way through a story and having more and more difficulty gathering enough willpower to write, they asked about my writing practice and gently suggested that I prioritize fun and play in my writing.
“You’re using willpower for everything. Maybe trying playing as a different tool. Write stuff for fun, focus on the joy of it. Follow what feels good sometimes.”
I immediately made this face. And I kept headbutting away.
Back in January, I started taking flamenco dance classes–I wanted to learn flamenco since I was 13 and saw a performance at the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in my hometown but shortly afterward, I started experiencing severe foot pain and was diagnosed with a type of irritation of the nerve due to a quirk of my foot anatomy. There’s not really a cure since I can’t change the shape of my feet and my podiatrist told me to avoid high impact dancing and high heels, which is a perfect description of flamenco. But I continued to watch videos of flamenco performers and imagined myself stomping to the guitar.
Finally, bored with my exercise routine, I decided to give it a try and see if I could make flamenco work for me. I found that I could be in flamenco shoes and dance for one hour tops, and I could practice heelwork for 30 minutes at most. This means that even if I want to keep headbutting my way through some challenging choreography, I just can’t. I’ve found to my surprise that I can still keep up with the class even if I can’t practice for hours at a time and that some movements just take time to learn.
One day our instructor asked us to practice our expression. “Stop being so dainty! You are not ladies sipping tea! You are tigresses showing that you will not be trifled with!” she said. We stopped drilling footwork and instead tried making fierce faces at each other as we walked across the room. “I know this might seem silly or trivial–but you have to practice confidence and a range of expressions. If you don’t practice having a fierce attitude, it will be harder to perform with it. It’s important to play around with this.”
As I was practicing my tigress face at home, it hit me–I wasn’t playing in my writing because it felt too important. I love writing and stories and I want to write well so I was drilling but I wasn’t practicing a range of expressions. I was afraid that playing with feeling and expression would come at the cost of good writing but not playing was going to come with a cost too. If I didn’t start to play, I’d keep losing the joy of writing and watch it become brittle from drilling—and that was going to hurt like hell. It was already hurting like hell, which was why I was so fiercely opposed to playing because I thought I could work and drill my way out of this problem.
It’s scary to do something new and uncomfortable, but we do scary stuff for the things we love. So, I’m learning to play–I’d say learning to play again, but it’s been long enough that it doesn’t feel like “again” so much as learning for the first time. We’ll see where this takes me.
Happy summer everyone! I’ve been writing a lot of historical fiction recently and there are certain language issues that are unique to the genre. Here are three problems I’ve wrestled with over the past few years and some of the ways I approach them.
Language that is Period-Appropriate, but Sounds Anachronistic:Last year I wrote a short story set in a wealthy household in the United States between World War I and the stock market crash of 1929. In one scene, a child wants more illumination in her room in order to read in bed and because she is frightened of a ghost who is haunting the house. During that period, flashlights were growing very popular and rapidly replacing candles and hurricane lamps as hand-held lighting devices. My protagonist is scientifically-minded and safety-minded, so it is unlikely that she would purposefully fall asleep with a burning candle or lamp in her room and it is reasonable to assume that a person of her class would have access to a flashlight. However, the word “flashlight” felt jarringly contemporary to my beta readers.
I researched terms for flashlight, hoping there would be an antiquated term I could use to reduce the anachronistic feeling–but flashlights have been called flashlights since they were developed in the late 1890s. In fact, the name comes from the fact that early versions weren’t very strong or steady and could only produce a brief flash of light. The term “electric torch” feels old-fashioned, but that term is common to the UK, not the US where the story was set. One reader suggested using a brand name that sounded sufficiently old-timey–but to my frustration, the most popular brand of flashlights during that period was EverReady, which is still one of the most well-known brands today. Apparently, EverReady has been manufacturing flashlights under that brand name since 1905, without any regard for the needs of hard-working historical fiction writers.
In the end, I decided to go the opposite direction; rather than trying to make the item blend into the period, I highlighted the novelty of the item, even though flashlights wouldn’t have been that novel by 1924 for an upper-class child. The final version read, “Her room was dark even when she opened the curtains to let the moonlight in and turned on her new electric flashlight.” Calling the item “new” and specifying that it was “electric” made the item seem special and unusual, so while the term “flashlight” still felt modern, there was an explanation for its modernity in the text –she has a new-fangled toy!–and readers felt less jarred by the term.
Oppressive Language Commonly Used in the Past
I use the term “oppressive language” to cover both language used to actively oppress people, such as racial slurs, and language that was considered respectful in the past, but is now considered hurtful and demeaning by the people to which it refers.
I have heard the argument in favor of using oppressive language in historical fiction because it is realistic, but this is an over-simplified approach. And as artists, we choose how to interpret, highlight, and display reality; stating “I do it because it is real” denies the artist’s agency. It is more likely that “I do it because it is real” is followed by another value and desire such as “…and I want to show the brutality of the past so we don’t forget it” or “…and I want to express myself at all costs” or “…and I want to get attention because I value attention” or “…and I share those viewpoints and I want to express them through my characters” and so on. Whenever I find myself making the argument (about anything, not just oppressive language) that I am writing something in a particular way “because it is real” I ask myself what the second part of that sentence is. What value and desires are driving the car right now? What values do I want to be driving the car? And what are the clearest ways to express those values in my writing?
For example, in a story I wrote a few years ago, the protagonist is a young Black journalistworking for the Conservator (the newspaper owned by Ida B. Wells and her husband Ferdinand Barnett) in the early 1890s. I struggled a lot with whether or not to use the term “colored” in the story–it was the term used by the Conservator to describe its readership and used in its reporting so the term is certainly “realistic” but using it now would be racist and demeaning. I reflected on my values in writing this particular story and came up with these guiding principles:
With these principles in mind, I did a lot of research on how the most common terms for Black folks in 1890 ( including “colored” and “Black” and “Afro-American”) were used by Black people themselves in that era and what the political and social context was for each (good article on that here). I asked several other writers, including Black writers, to workshop the piece and weigh in on language. I read a lot of writing by Black writers and social scientists of the 1890s-1930s and contemporary Black writers who have published fiction set in that era. I thought about how that character would feel about the term and how he would want to talk about himself. And I tried to be very, very mindful of blind spots I have as a white writer living in 2018.
In addition to the oversimplified “realism” argument, I have also heard writers and readers frame decisions about oppressive language as if either you must either use it frequently and graphically or not at all. Oppressive language is a form of violence and there are many, many ways to tell stories that engage with violence. You can describe violence in graphic detail, you can refer to it abstractly; you can focus on the experience of the person enacting the violence, you can focus on the experience of the one who is being hurt, you can focus on the experience of an observer, you can focus on all three experiences; you can describe the consequences, but the not the actions, you can describe the actions but not the consequences etc. etc. The choice isn’t between describing violence in graphic detail or not engaging with it at all –and it’s the same for oppressive language.
For example, I could write a character in 1700 who hears the word, “bitch” hurled at her on every page. I could have it happen once. I could write, “The shopkeeper was staring at Nancy and Rosie and as he passed he hissed an ugly word at them. Nancy felt a jolt of anger and fear.” I could use an antiquated term that would have a similar impact on the character as “bitch” in 1700 but doesn’t have the same impact on a reader today, such as “trollop” or “slattern.” All of these examples engage with oppressive language but do so in very different ways.
Common Terms of the Past that are Now Anachronistic
This is the opposite of the flashlight problem. Sometimes a term used for a common item, say a household appliance, has completely fallen out of use and your readers won’t be familiar with the term.
Like the problem of oppressive language, it’s important to review your goals as a writer. I love learning new terms, especially obscure historical words. But as a writer, I also want my work being intelligible and I want to be judicious about demands on my reader. I’d rather my readers follow a plot or wrestle with a new take on history than look up a word in a specialized dictionary. If the obscure term is really important to the story (for example, a mathematical instrument being used to solve a problem that is key to the plotline), then I try to reduce the work that a reader has to do by using context clues, or I find a reason for the character define the term for another character (does the mathematician explain to their doctor friend what the item is?).Sometimes, I replace an archaic word with the modern equivalent for the same reason a costumer might put a hidden zipper an elaborate opera costume. It lets the costume fulfill its purpose without being a gigantic logistical pain in my ass. If an obscure but formerly common term is going require energy from my reader (either by looking it up or guessing from context clues I had to spend time writing) but doesn’t add to the narrative, I use a modern word.
And on that note, I’m going to put down my
keyboard, typewriter, quill, stylus writing implement and enjoy some sunshine in the park.
I often refer to writing as my asshole best friend. It never leaves me (it may be dormant, but it never actually leaves) and it will always tell me the truth, even when–especially when–I don’t want to hear it. Am I overscheduled? Overanxious? Overcontrolling? Not getting enough sleep or food? Those conditions show up as blocks in my writing process which forces me to address them or at the very least, acknowledge what’s going on. Natalie Goldberg* said, “To write is to ultimately deal with your whole life,” which I find to be infuriatingly true.
Today I finished a story that pushed me to confront one of my beloved myths: the cure for every problem in my life is to work harder. God, how I love that myth. It means that everything a) can be fixed and b) if it isn’t fixed, it’s because I’m just not working hard enough. If a friend told me that they were struggling I wouldn’t reflexively say, “Just work harder!” but I tell myself that a lot.I’ve been bumping up hard against this myth in my life and in my writing during the past few years. In the case of this story, I found it more and more difficult to work on the piece and I didn’t know why. I was excited about the first draft and my beta readers got what I was trying to express and gave productive feedback for improving the story. But as I edited the piece I started to feel worse and worse until I was dreading working on it. I told myself that this was just a case of losing new story energy and reminded myself that new story energy, like new relationship energy, is lovely but not very reliable for a long-haul journey.
I tried doubling down and working through the dread. I set writing dates up with friends, set weekly goals for editing, and showed up at the page. But working harder didn’t work. I tried taking a break then attacking it again, but that didn’t work either, the dread just got worse. I felt so frustrated and afraid–if working harder wasn’t helping, what could help?
On the recommendation of a friend, I started reading the book Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. A line from Chapter 3 stuck to me.
The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work. To see them, you need only look at the work clearly-without judgement, without need or fear, without wishes or hopes. Without emotional expectations. Ask your work what it needs, not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.
After another frustrating and painful session with the piece, I tried something entirely new. I asked myself, without judgment, without emotional expectations, What feels so bad about this? The answer came immediately: I feel like I’m losing the soul of the story. This doesn’t feel like my story anymore. And that hurts.
Inquiring after the pain and listening rather than trying to muscle through the pain opened up a new path for my work. I started a another draft with the goal trying to recapture the feeling of my original draft. I didn’t throw out the workshop comments but I tried to lean into what made my story unique and excited when I first wrote it.
I’m not sure if I hit the mark, but the dread dissipated and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that dissipating dread is probably a good thing. Once again, my asshole best friend was willing to tell me the truth but I had to ask and actually listen like the good friend I want to be.
*I’m pretty sure it was Natalie Goldberg. I searched for the origin of this quote and I haven’t found it yet. If anyone knows the origin, please tell me!
Hello dear readers,
As some of you may have noticed, I’ve been absent from social media and this website since summer 2017. There are two primary reasons for this:
Which brings me to…next steps!
I’ve decided to split off my prospect research content into a new website. Going forward, my author’s website will be www.ameliaaldred.com and the posts will focus on storytelling, upcoming appearances, and publications. My prospect research website will be www.thephilanthropologist.com and the monthly posts will focus especially on culture and philanthropy and include guest contributors. On the same note, on Twitter @ameliaaldred will be devoted to creative writing content (and other media shouting) while my new account @AnthroPhil will be devoted to prospect research content. The list of prospect research resources on ameliaaldred.com has been migrated (and updated!) to thephilanthropologist.com. Fellow nonprofit professionals can check out the first blog post now!
I’ve enjoyed interacting with all of you at readings, conferences, and online and I’m excited about these new ways of connecting with folks.
Best wishes, Amelia
Are campaigns passé?
How do nonprofits compete with giant tech companies and startups for data analytics professionals?
How do prospect researchers plan for the General Data Protection Regulation?
I spent the past week discussing these questions and many, many more at the Great Lakes Prospect Development Forum in Ann Arbor, MI. The Great Lakes Forum is a conference for professionals in prospect research, prospect management, and analytics and focuses on large nonprofits. The conference was hosted by the University of Michigan and supported by the CASE District V Venture Fund (thankyouthankyouthankyou).
For me, a good conference includes hearing some provocative questions, listening to demos of other organizations’ solutions and experiments, and having at least one in-depth conversation with a colleague (or set of colleagues) from another nonprofit. I got all three at the Great Lakes Conference–here are my key takeaways in the first two categories:
discussion at our organizations? What compliance strategies are appropriate for our donor bases? How can our organizations continue to communicate our values and mission through our approach to data privacy? The General Data Protection Regulation will be enforced starting May 2018, but many nonprofits, even major research universities, are unaware of the full scope and penalties of the law. I facilitated this discussion at a break-out session and we came up with some creative approaches to messaging and compliance. For example, what if universities viewed educating alumni about data privacy and fundraising methods as part of our role in educating future philanthropists? Fundraisers are already in the business of educating alumni about philanthropy (promoting class gifts, explaining different planned giving options, introducing philanthropy to the newly wealthy, etc.), what if we also explained the role and importance of personal data to effectively supporting our organizations and missions?
This week, I’m back at my desk, comparing notes with my colleagues and figuring out how to adapt some of the ideas we heard at the conference to our own set of challenges. I’m looking forward to what we’ll all bring to the Great Lakes Forum next year!