A Call to Pens–Writer as Social Activist

Life cycleIn the back yard of a Canadian middle-class home, a ten-year-old child plays with his neighbor while the supervising adult works in the garden. “What are those?” the visitor asks, pointing to freshly unearthed carrots, their ragged tops still attached. He’s an accomplished eater of store-prepared vegetable trays, with their polished and uniformly rounded “baby” carrots; nevertheless, when the adult provides the answer, it seems beyond ridiculous to him. Later, when he bites into one root, cleansed with sun-warmed water from the garden hose, his face lights with discovery.

Another child orders his favorite meal at McDonald’s. Though he’s uttered the words hundreds of times, until today they’ve been nothing more than a constellation of blended, meaningless sound. Chickenmcnuggets. Like the bag of frozen, pre-flavored “drummettes” his family purchases in the grocery story, he’s drawn no connection between his food and the clucking, pecking creatures he admires in the zoo. He is twelve.

An almost-ninety-year-old woman cries as she visits her family doctor and recounts the trials of the past four months. She has suffered two hip fractures—the first almost certainly due to a new medication, the second from post-surgical frailty. Ongoing mobility and memory problems mean that she’s been forced to bid farewell to her home of fifty years and seek assisted-living accommodations. During the interview, the physician is noticeably distressed by the woman’s tears and offers a solution: a prescription for antidepressants.

I promise I’m going to connect this all to writing, but first, can you spot the common thread within these true vignettes?

For me, they’re about what happens when you take human beings and, in the quest to make modern life efficient, full of ease and pleasure, lose meaningful connection to the natural world. Perhaps lose connection to what it means to be fully human.

What This Blog Post Is Not:

  • a rant against efficient food production. Mechanization and industrialization have freed millions, if not billions, from the drudgery and back-breaking work of manual labor. With the world’s population estimated at 7.32 billion and climbing, we have many mouths to feed.
  • a screed against psychiatric medications, because when used properly they save lives and alleviate suffering. (At one point, I myself was a poster child for better-living-through-modern-pharmacology.)
  • a call to suffer for the sake of suffering. I hold no truck with the romanticism of pain.

But We Pay a Hefty Price for the Disconnect

Unless things change, the first kid has lost the opportunity to know the pleasure and satisfaction of a hobby that contributes to thriftiness, fitness, self-sufficiency, and food security.

Both children are missing vital elements of food literacy. Unless corrected, they will likely pay with their health.

Also missing: a visceral understanding of environmental and agricultural issues, impacting the quality of their future citizenship. How can people make wise decisions about personal consumption and public policy when they lack fundamental information about how the world works?

In the case of the elderly woman—the example which chaps my hide and was the prompt for this blog post—the cost might well be her life. Tax a failing brain and struggling body with another chemical, and you’ve all but pushed her into the next fall, which will likely be her last.

A Looming Problem

The 2014 census estimates that there are 76.4 million American baby boomers headed for their twilight years. Over the next few decades, our society will cope with geriatric-derived issues on an unprecedented scale. (Among them, problems with: estate planning, accessible housing, loss of independence, physical and mental decline, elder abuse, etc.)

What happens when that grey tsunami meets the medical system?

Considering the elderly woman, do you think her doctor’s response is unusual? What likelihood is there that she will refuse the prescription, or that if she does so, she’ll be supported by her family and caregivers the next time she dissolves in tears?

Based on my experience as both former prescriber of antidepressants, house-call-maker and nursing home attendant, I’d opine the respective answers are no, and less than 10%. This is fairly standard care in North America.

What do you think of this response, though? Is there anyone here who believes that a grief reaction or existential crisis—natural, if unpleasant aspects of being human—can or should be healed by a pill?

The Call to Pens—Where You Come In

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Lean Writer, Fat Word Count? Engineering Your Environment for Default Success

fruitIt is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good premise must be in want of a functioning brain with which to execute it. Said brain is best nourished by blood pumped by a healthy heart contained within a healthy body, yes? Unfortunately, we Westerners live in an environment which discourages activity and encourages overeating. Indeed, some have gone so far as it label it “toxic”. The result? More than 70% of us are losing the battle to stay trim and fit.

On WU we’ve had several conversations about staying active and reducing sitting time. (Don’t Take Author Obesity Sitting Down and Becoming a Stand-up Writer.) That’s excellent. Unfortunately, it’s also insufficient. It takes me 15 minutes to consume a grande Carmel Macchiato with soy milk, but 1 hour and 10 minutes of brisk walking to work it off.

In the hierarchy of lifestyle medicine, this is why diet is proclaimed king to exercise’s queen.

Hope for Science-based, Simple Solutions

We all know that diets don’t work. We can talk about the science of this in another post, but willpower is a finite and easily exhausted resource. Turns out it takes as little as 15 minutes of mental effort to diminish the brain’s supply of glucose, thus undermining the part of the brain which weighs the desires of our future self against the present-day temptation.

Nor does it help to frame food choices as a moral decision (i.e. apples = good, chocolate bars = bad). If we do, it’s not long before we:

1) brew an outright home-grown rebellion or
2) deal with the Healthy Halo Effect—having made the morally superior choice to eat a salad, we feel entitled to eat the burger and cookie, thus consuming more calories than we would have otherwise done, all while living in denial about the outcome.

So if white-knuckling doesn’t work, and morality-based decisions backfire, what can move us forward?

If only it was possible to tweak our environment so that healthful food choices could be made by default. If only there was a research team dedicated to disseminating science-based recommendations on how to mindlessly reduce caloric intake on an incremental basis.

Happily, there is such a group. But before we pay them a quick visit, care to take a brief quiz on your food-environment literacy?


  1. The maximum size of my dinner plate should be ___ inches.
  2. Assuming two glasses have the same volumetric capacity, which shape encourages me to pour less liquid: short and wide, or tall and skinny?
  3. What object should be given a prominent place on my kitchen counter?
  4. True or false: When asked to estimate the calories contained within a specific meal, heavy participants are less accurate than their skinnier counterparts?
  5. In a kitchen designed to facilitate slimness, the freezer will be in which position on the fridge: top, side, or bottom?
  6. My fridge should contain no more than ___  juices or soft drinks (diet or regular) or energy drinks in single-serving containers.
  7. On average we control what percent of our family’s nutrition?
  8. What item should be placed in the front center of a breakfast cupboard?
  9. True or false: When it comes to measuring out food portions, food researchers and professional cooks—the experts—are able to compensate for cues like bowl size, spoon size, etc.

What Is in the Drinking Water of Upstate New York?

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Confessions of a Serial Non-finisher

SnailsI’ve been telling myself that no one wants to read a heavy-duty confession on a Monday morning. But since this is when my WU slot arises and since my brain refuses to cough up an alternate subject for a post, it appears we’re stuck with seeing this through.

You ready? *deep breath*

Hi. My name is Jan and I’m a recovering serial non-finisher of long-form fiction.

I’ve been writing for about six years now. Five years ago, much to my astonishment and delight, I became the Voice of the Unpublished Writer for WU. The implication of that honor — at least in my mind — was that I’d immediately begin working to put myself out of a job, both to give another writer the chance to be part of this awesome community and to satisfy my own ambition. Yet until a few months ago, barring the travelogue I wrote in grade seven, and which exceeded the suggested word count by 900%, I had never finished the first draft of any long-form fiction.

It’s not that I don’t write or can’t write, though there was a gap of twenty-five years when I pursued the practice of medicine and gave up all dreams of writing fiction. (Perhaps entrenching a habit of self-denial that I’ve had to break again and again.) Since picking up the pen as an adult, I’ve written nearly 500 blog posts for various sites. For a time I edited and wrote for the WU newsletter. I’ve entered flash fiction contests and sent in pages for agent-sponsored critiques. In all instances where I’ve had deadlines set by another party, I’ve met them with time to spare and work, I believe, of a reasonable standard.

I also have a hard drive littered with fiction projects. In one world of linked characters alone, I have three first drafts in the 50,000-80,000-word range. One novel’s first draft is approximately 85% complete, which was how far I got before I started down a frustrating and circular path.

You’ll note, however, that I said I was in recovery.

While I have theories about what holds me back, and theories about what made this project different than my numerous false starts, we can talk about that in another blog post. Today I have a different goal.

Today I’d like to talk to the other serial non-finishers in the crowd, because from casual comments to pleas for help on WU’s Facebook page, I know I’m in good company.

First, to those of you who publicly blew off steam and bared your soft underbelly to the world, thank you. Your comments helped the struggle become impersonal. They gave me hope in the form of thoughts like this one: If X, who is otherwise put-together and a fabulous human being, also struggles to finish, maybe I’m not hopeless. Maybe this is just my awkward writing adolescence. So X, while while I’m sorry for your pain — and trust me, I know how discouraging those months and years of self-doubt can be — allow me to express my gratitude for your openness.

Second, this post is my attempt to pay it back, because when you’ve been a non-finisher for any length of time, two questions lodge in your mind and, like a tick, siphon off creative blood.

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Should You Set Limits with Your Readers?

barbed wire
A few years ago, it seemed like you couldn’t swing a deceased feline without hitting an author in the grip of a meltdown. Even if the conflict was minor, once it became public, the internet’s retribution often turned malignant. Virtual mobs would descend upon the author’s blog, clotting the comment section with hostility. Their fiction was systematically targeted for one-star reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. By committing acts which alienated readers, writing colleagues or the reviewing community, authors could decimate their platform and threaten their career within a matter of hours.

Small wonder, then, that many authors staged a quiet retreat from social media.

Some writers disappeared altogether. They preferred isolation to making a catastrophic mistake. Others abandoned all attempt at two-way conversation, effectively becoming broadcasters to their readers.

Still others looked for the magic formula which would allow them to maintain two-way, author-reader interaction. As consensus grew about what constituted best practices, they adopted them with a fervor that I might go so far as to term rigid. This included rules such as:

  1. One should never respond out of reactivity. (Or post while drunk, high, etc.)
  2. Stick with politically correct material.
  3. Treat your reader with the model touted by commerce: the customer is always right.
  4. Avoid engaging reviewers. Period.

With the exception of the Avoid Reactivity/Drunk-posting rule, I’d argue that there are problems with all these approaches.

It’s one thing to thoughtfully decide that you don’t enjoy social media or that, as Seth Godin says, it’s an overrated way to get attention for your books. It’s quite another to abandon it out of fear, if only because you’ll risk taking that sense of personal smallness into your fiction.

The one-way broadcasters may think they are safe, but they risk offending readers who’ve been trained to expect a conversation, and who see anything less as a hard sell.

Those who stick with politically safe material risk building a brand known for its bland.

If the customer is always right, to whom will you grant that status? “Reader” is a self-identifying descriptor and can be claimed by anyone who chooses, from the super fan who’s signed up for your street team and devoured your fiction (hi, Mom!) to the individual who skimmed a few blog posts and proclaimed you were derivative. Will you be equally devoted to both?

As for the decision to leave reviewers to their own devices, that’s nice in theory, but what if they won’t leave you alone? What if readers show up with negative reviews and post them on your blog or Facebook page? (The precipitating case of this post because Nora Roberts recently created a policy banning this practice, prompting mixed reactions on WU’s Facebook page.* For the record, I think her decision is brilliant.)

Further, if those rules are iron-clad, what explains the outliers?

I’m not saying you should try this at home—at least not without careful consideration—but some authors are rewarded when they talk about controversial subjects, mock commenters, or ban reviewers. How exactly does that work? [Read more…]


Minimalism When Writing Fiction

clutterOn an evening in July 2014, along with my brother and another hundred perspiring attendees, I crowded into one of the few remaining indie bookstores in my hometown. We weren’t there for a rock star novelist, I’m sorry to say, but rather for two non-fiction writers. I’d been reading their blog for a few months and their message was already having a positive impact on my writing (and larger life). I was eager for an in-person reinforcement.

Have you heard of Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, aka The Minimalists? They are two contemporary leaders in the — surprise! — minimalist movement.

To be clear, I’m not speaking of minimalist literature, which is a form of stripped-down prose made popular by authors such as Hemingway and Raymond Carver, but rather a lifestyle in which one aims for a mindful pattern of consumption so that you’re not trading valuable time and energy for possessions you don’t prize.

Nor am I claiming to be a poster child for the minimalist movement. (As if.) But I was and remain at a point in my life where the message was welcome and necessary if I was to keep on writing fiction.

How can minimalism help in the writing life?

1. It can help recover writing time.

I live in an aging, middle class neighborhood and my cul de sac contains ten homes, housing approximately twenty-three people. We weathered a winter storm two weeks ago, yet if I stand at my front window, I can count eleven cars which have yet to be cleared of snow. That’s eleven vehicles which have been superfluous for fourteen days, and which weren’t protected from the elements because their logical homes — the double garages abutting each house — are stuffed with boxes of surplus possessions. (Only two of the ten homes in our neighborhood can park vehicles in their garage.)

I’m not judging my neighbors. They are kind, mature adults who have the right to make their own financial decisions and bear the results.

Also, I’ve participated in the same pattern of over-acquisition. My present weakness is books and kitchen supplies, and in a past, dramatic example, we over-consumed with the travel-trailer which nearly killed us.

But I’m sure you can appreciate that each vehicle represents a huge investment: time spent to earn the money so they could spend time to shop for the car, so they could spend time on its maintenance and cleaning. When a vehicle outlives its use, they’ll spend time to dispose of it properly.

Minimalism simply invites us to recover our time by eliminating unnecessary purchases upfront or, once we’ve acquired objects, to pare them down to what we truly need and mindfully desire, thereby reducing the time we waste on the latter part of the consumption cycle.

Personally, it’s a message I need to hear repeated at this time of year as we make decisions about gift-giving and receiving. Rather than saddling our family with time-stealing objects, we’re aiming to give them experiences, such as attending a movie or play together.

2. It can help recover writing energy:

Once I adopted a sparer aesthetic, I discovered an interesting thing: more willpower to begin writing, which is at least 60% of my internal battle. According to this article, I’m not unusual. (There are other simple measures  to boost willpower, meaning that the same things which help you write will help you stay slimmer over the holidays.)

What does a minimalist aesthetic in writing look like? Well, for me this has meant:

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