Monday, April 30, 2012

Kidlitosphere Progressive Poem Finished

Well, the poem is finally complete and I have to say that it was so much fun to be a part of it. I followed it diligently each day as it was formed and shaped by a new writer. I got to meet some really great writers and people that love poetry as much as I do.

The line I contributed was near the beginning and so the poem was in it's infancy when it came here to the Swaggers. But I'm happy to report that the poem has grown into a piece worthy of standing on its own. I enjoyed the way it meandered. At times I was anxious about how it would wind back. There is a reference to the Titanic that was added on the anniversary of it's sinking. There is magic and mystery. And I was delighted to see the new line added each day.

If you are reading this,                                                            
you must be hungry.
Kick off your silver slippers,

come sit with us a spell.
A hanky, here, now dry your tears
and fill your glass with wine.

Now, pour. The parchment has secrets,
smells of a Moroccan market spill-out.
You have come to the right place, just breathe in.

Honey, mint, cinnamon, sorrow. Now, breathe out
last week’s dreams. Take a wish from the jar.
Inside, deep inside, is the answer…

Unfold it, and let us riddle it together,
…Strains of a waltz. How do frozen fingers play?
How do fennel, ginger, saffron blend in the tagine?

Like broken strangers bound by time, they sisterdance…
their veils of sorrow encircle, embrace.
Feed your heart with waltzes and spices.

Feed your soul with wine and dreams.
Humble dust of coriander scents your feet, coaxing
seascapes, crystal sighs and moonshine from your melody.

Beware of dangers along the path of truth
and beware, my friend, of too much bewaring–
strong hands cushion you, sweet scents surround you—now leap

without looking, guided by trust. And when you land
on silver-tipped toes, buoyed by joy– you’ll know
you are amazing, you are love, you are poetry—

here, you rest.
Muse. Up ahead, stepping stones speckle the stream, sturdy now.
May your words roar against the banks, your life a flood of dreams.

I am thankful to Irene Latham for hosting and adding the beginning and final lines of the poem. I hope to do it again next year. And maybe I can even convince the Swaggers to do one of our own.

Please enjoy and find a little time for poetry in each day.

Regina Gort

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


     I write historical fiction, stories that are grounded in historical fact, but rooted in fictional people. Doing that requires a lot of research, which I enjoy, but it’s hard work, too.
     Someone advised me to use my research to write non-fiction as well, to get double return on my efforts. So I tried it a few times, and to be quite honest, I stink at it.
     I have been told that the strength in my writing comes from Voice, and for me, Voice comes from getting into a character’s head. When that character is or was a real person, I find the Voice becomes stilted because that head is already inhabited, and I am unable to get fully inside. It inhibits my creativity.
     But that’s me. I know lots of non-fiction writers who manage to write creatively, and I admire them. Many of them are more comfortable with non-fiction than fiction. It amazes me!
Connie Nordhielm Woolridge
Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge (whose books include PB Just Fine the Way They Are and biography The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton) says “I love writing non-fiction and I’ve tried straight fiction. But when I even think about historical fiction, all I can hear is ‘Lies! All lies!’”

Rosi Hollenbeck
     Rosi Hollenbeck (who writes both fiction and non-fiction, but considers herself primarily a fiction writer) believes that “breaking into book publishing is easier with non-fiction.”

Sandra Neil Wallace
     Sandra Neil Wallace (wife of Swagger’s own Rich Wallace and a talented writer herself) will have her second novel (The first was Little Joe.) out in the fall of 2013. Muckers is historical fiction, yet Sandra is currently working on a biography. She says about the biography, “It will require much research, but the good thing is I don’t then have to create a novel out of that research.” Check out Sandra at

Mary Kay Carson
     Mary Kay Carson (whose latest work of non-fiction What Sank the World’s Biggest Ship? And Other Questions About the Titanic came out in April in time for the centennial anniversary of the sinking) says “To me, both are telling a story. With non-fiction, you have to use…your research to develop characters, bring scenes to life, and create plot-driving tension. With fiction, you can just use your imagination. That sounds easier, but it isn’t necessarily so! I sort of enjoy the challenge of working within the constraints of truth. It’s like the difference between using whatever you can find in your kitchen to come up with a decent dinner versus planning a dinner from scratch.

     I find that writing historical fiction sort of falls in between the two. I have to do tons of research (which means reading a lot of non-fiction) about the time and place where my story occurs, and I am limited by that history in what I can and can’t write. But I have the freedom to let my character think what I want him or her to think.
     I plan to stick to fiction writing, but isn’t it great that we don’t all feel comfortable writing the same thing? And that we have all kinds of writers who write in different genres? It sure makes reading a lot more interesting.

Kathy Cannon Wiechman

Saturday, April 21, 2012

What I’m learning from a 62-year-old rocker

I’ve always been a Bruce Springsteen fan. Born to Run is my favorite song of all time. My husband and I have played and cried over his repertoire on The Rising so much that it’s a household joke: to release tension, pop in the CD. But I’ve been studying Bruce more of late. He played the Super Bowl halftime show a few years ago. Jimmy Fallon dedicated two Late Night shows to him and I watched, riveted. I’ve got to see him in concert, I thought, and promptly purchased tickets for his Wrecking Ball Tour. On April 17th I was one of the throng at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, cheering him and his fabulous, although somewhat changed, E-Street Band.

I was absolutely blown away. To me, he’s the perfect package. Here’s why:

1. He’s the genuine article
Sure he’s played around with his personal appearance over the years, and his marriage to apparently polar opposite Julianne Phillips seemed destined to fail, but who doesn’t struggle with looks and relationships? It just made him more real. Down deep he knows who he is, and has never pretended to be someone he’s not. No pretense. No hoity-toity makeover.

2. He’s never forgotten his roots
He came from the working class and now he champions it. Bruce = resiliency of hard-working America. Sure he’s worth millions and owns homes in New Jersey, Florida, and California. But his money hasn’t changed the essence of who he is. In the old days, this Polish food lover and his band might have stopped by Sokolowski’s University Inn restaurant in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood after the concert for a bite. Nowadays, someone who works for him called the popular eatery a week before April’s show and placed a large takeout order to be delivered to Burke Lakefront Airport. That way he and his crew could eat aboard a private plane en route to their homes and families.

3. His talent is staggering
This singer/songwriter is prolific. His lyrics are snapshots and his music is a living, breathing organism that encourages millions of people to fist pump, sing along, boogie in the aisles, and appreciate the good things in life.

4. He’s a consummate professional
No slouch, he’s got the real working man’s work ethic. He knows how to work the crowd. He knows how to banter. Beautiful music swells the stage when he’s around. He also knows how to mix it up so we get some old with the new. Right this minute he’s converting some young kid who wasn’t around when Born to Run was released.

5. He takes care of himself
He plays his guitar over his head, slides across the stage on his knees, wades through the crowd, carrying a young girl from the audience to slide across the stage on her knees with him. Just by looking at him you can tell he works out. By respecting himself enough to keep in shape, he provides us with top-notch performances. He sang his heart out for three hours with no breaks. I wish I had that kind of stamina.

6. He surrounds himself with talented people he treats like family and they stick around
He married one of them and the rest are his best friends. The most veteran members of the E-Street Band have had successful careers of their own, but they want to stay with The Boss. The way he and Steven Van Zandt (loved him on The Sopranos) sing into the same microphone is adorable. These guys love each other so much they don’t mind getting sprayed with one another’s spit.

7. He’s got a huge heart
His music reflects his sentiments. His off-stage activities support people and organizations he believes in. I may not champion the same ones, but I have to admire someone who lives for something besides himself. His on-stage tribute to deceased saxophonist Clarence Clemons was the most elegant eulogy I've ever seen.

8. He respects his audience and works them into the show
In this tour, he makes his way into the middle of the crowd, guzzles a couple of proffered beers, then falls back into the audience’s waving arms, allowing himself to be carried back onto the stage. A young girl with a sign saying, “Dance with Me,” is pulled onto the stage to dance during Dancing in the Dark. During his audience walk he hands his microphone to a young girl and she takes over singing for him. Is some of this staged? Of course! But that doesn’t mean it isn’t great theater. And again, he’s marketing to his younger viewers. They’ll certainly be Bruce fans for life now.

9. He’s so obviously enjoying himself
He looks like he’s having the time of his life, and so I have one too.
The Boss, giving it all he's got, in Cleveland.

10. Like an Energizer bunny he keeps going and going and going
He could be resting on his laurels playing the occasional reunion tour, or retire and do something else entirely. But he keeps plugging away. He’s no fluke. He’s the real deal. (Back to #1.)

Kim Van Sickler

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Gun Control - A Rebuttal

When a subject is highly controversial... one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one's audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.
-Virginia Woolf

A few posts back, Kim wrote about the Trayvon Martin case.  She compared the writer’s power to that of a loaded gun.  Her concern was media spin and the way writing can alter a public opinion.

I agree.  Our own bias creeps into our writing. 

In fact, a couple of key words can manipulate the meaning in a sentence.  A good example is the concern that the public "rushed to judgment" in the Trayvon Martin case.  Here, the word “rushed” implies that the public response has been too hasty.  And the word “judgment” leaves the impression that the reaction is unfair. 

If instead, the sentence were constructed to read, "the public responded with concern,” the implication would be one of justified anxiety rather than rash opinion.  It's subtle, but those word choices influence the reader.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen the public response to the Trayvon Martin tragedy described in different ways by different sources.  William Bennet at CNN, also described the public's response as a "rush to judgment."  But Marcus Breton of the Sacramento Bee wrote, "National outrage speaks to public doubt of Zimmerman's self-defense claim.

Though both men were writing about the same topic, the variance in their word choices gave the reader two different stories.

I worried about this after reading Kim's post.  My own story about the Trayvon Martin case would have been written using different words.  And while I kind of think we're off on a tangent by discussing this topic on this particular blog, I hope that a different perspective can be welcomed and pondered with kindness.

So, with great respect and love to Kim (without whom there would be no Swagger blog), this is my perspective and mine alone.

A Few Facts

Leaving race and ethnicity out of it, the facts of the incident have clearly raised some red flags in our country.
·      Though Zimmerman’s legal defense of his actions is self-defense, there is no proof that George Zimmerman was being threatened or sustained any injuries during his altercation with Trayvon Martin
·      Trayvon Martin was unarmed
·      Police dispatchers told the neighborhood watchman, Zimmerman, not to follow Trayvon Martin - to wait for the police, but Mr. Zimmerman continued to follow Martin
·      Trayvon Martin was shot and killed

But the sad fact is, we rarely leave race and ethnicity out of it.

On the Meanings of the Words Race and Ethnicity

Understanding the difference between the terms "race" and "ethnicity" might shed a bit of light here:

Ethnicity is a term that indicates a country of origin (i.e. Italian or Mexican) or religion (i.e. Jewish or Muslim.)

Race refers to physical features that society perceives as “black” or “white.”

So, in this case, society looks at Trayvon Martin and sees him as a "black" kid because of his physical features, or society's perception of his appearance.

We are also hearing a lot about the controversy of perception based on appearance, and in some cases, seeing examples of biased images in addition to predisposed text.  In the greater media, this is being referred to as the "hoodie" dispute, as some have maintained that wearing a hoodie implies something inherently threatening.

I wear a hoodie (my husband's old, ratty, caked-with-breakfast, dark blue one) every morning when I drive my kids to school.  It's comfy and warm.  I'm so attached to it that I have a name for it.  I call it my "wubby."  Nobody looks afraid or crosses the street.  So why am I non-threatening in a hoodie but a young "black" man isn't?

Jon Stewart made this tongue in cheek commentary on the hoodie issue.

George Zimmerman's appearance has also been closely examined but in an almost opposite way.

As if all of our assumptions of guilt and innocence are based on appearance or "race." 

Maybe they are.

Which brings us to George Zimmerman's perceived race.  He's harder to slip into a racial category than Trayvon Martin simply by breaking down his features.  Because of his caramel skin tone and dark hair we might think, Mexican?  But he could be Indian, Middle Eastern, Italian or even black.  On voter registration forms Zimmerman described himself as Hispanic but his father described himself as white while is mother lists her country of origin as Peru.

And his last name, Zimmerman, well that sounds kind of Jewish. 

And while Jews in this country were certainly not considered racially "white" a hundred years ago, most Jews are now perceived as part of the white “race.”  This is true of other ethnic groups as well – Polish, Italians, Irish – all of these ethnic groups were once viewed with the kind of hairy eyeball with which we see Mexicans today. 

Here’s another wrench in the race debate: Most “black” people in America often have enough biological indicators to prove they are made up of as much European (white) descent as African (black) descent.  So if the genetic make up of a person is 50% African and 50% European, or like Zimmerman 50% "white" and 50% Peruvian, what race are they?  Well, in America, we all seem to agree on the answer to this question. 

Just look at our “black” president.

Yes, there’s the rub. Race is a social construct.  It’s fabricated.  We make race up as we go, based on individual and collective opinion of a person’s appearance.

There is no such thing as race.

But that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as racism. 

On Racism

Many people today believe that we live in a post racist society.  But it’s hard to deny that racism seeps into the way we think, act and write when we look at statistics.

The majority of Americans may not know that those perceived as white get better jobs, political positions and are paid more, aren't aware of the way the media portrays stereotypes based on race, ethnicity, gender and social class, or are privy to the glaring statistics in the achievement gap.

And sometimes, we don't recognize it in writing.

For example, in the sentence, “most African Americans are shot by other African Americans.  But that little factoid hasn’t gotten much attention,” there may be an unwitting racist implication.  According to Mirriam-Webster, a factoid is 1. an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print. or 2. a briefly stated and usually trivial fact. 

But black on black crime isn’t an invented fact nor is it trivial. 

It also doesn’t exist because there is inherently something wrong with men who have certain physical features (race).  And here, it's important to note that murder rates between white men are also higher than murder across racial lines.

In fact, research shows that crime rates in general have a closer relationship to social class, developmental experiences, age and gender than race. 

Back to Writing

It is important to write about this.  But in our text, each word choice is a potentially biased decision with the power to sway the reader to whatever the true opinion of the writer might be. 

Kim's bringing the Trayvon Martin case to our blog posed a challenge for me because our views were diverse and because the topic is in the realm of my profession as a humanities professor.  I was saddened to see that even here in our ostensibly safe little writing blog, the pain that these thorny discussions of race can cause are ever present.

In the end, the only solution is to allow the debate, to be respectful but to carefully question each others assumptions, and to be mindful about the writing we read and the writing we produce. 

Juliet Bond

Monday, April 16, 2012


After 27 years of the Highlights Foundation’s week-long summer workshop at Chautauqua, the Foundation has decided to move to a new level this summer. They have created three new week-long workshops, each with a tighter focus, but with many of the same faculty members as Chautauqua. Each of these workshops will serve 33 writers (Chautauqua served 100), and will be held at the Boyds Mills, PA, facility where the Founders Workshops are held—and where the Swaggers met. Using this facility allows them to reduce the cost for attendees. The three new workshops are:
 Writing From The Heart (led by Joy Cowley, Jillian Sullivan, Christine French Cully, & Lori Ries)
 Fiction Writing for Children & Young Adults (led by Patty Gauch, Jillian Sullivan, David Richardson, & Robert J. Blake)
 Nonfiction Writing for Children & Young Adults (led by Peter P. Jacobi, Candace Fleming, Larry Dane Brimner, Lionel Bender, & Stephen R. Swinburne)
 And each workshop boasts a number of special guests to enlighten your experience. Click here for more information.
The original gang, pre-Swagger, meeting for the first time at a Highlights Foundation workshop in November 2009.

As fans of the HF workshops, the Swaggers recommend you select which workshop best meets your needs & give it a try. Here are our Top 10 reasons why:

#10 More affordable than Chautauqua with the same spirit & philosophy
#9 Unparalleled caliber of faculty & staff
#8 Inspiration & valuable tips on craft
#7 Opportunity to bring one’s craft to a higher level
#6 Meeting others who also like to play with Words
#5 A manuscript review from professionals who treat you like a friend
#4 Lasting relationships with some of the industry’s most experienced and successful writers
#3 Focus on one’s individual needs
#2 Time away in a beautiful setting
And the #1 reason to attend a Highlights Foundation workshop this summer is:
Three words—breakfast, lunch, dinner.

Compiled by Juliet Bond, Graziella Pacini Buonanno, & Kathy Cannon Wiechman

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Candace Fleming: Highlights Foundation Success Story

I met Candy Fleming while attending the Highlights Week at Chautauqua in 2007 and my life has never been the same. When I say that, I don't mean it as a cliche; it's fact. We rode the same bus into Chautauqua from the Buffalo airport, we stayed at the same hotel, and we kept bumping into each other. I think it was my second day at the conference when Candy accidentally read a piece of my work (long story!), we started talking, and ever since then have become great friends.

I have devoured her work, and loved every piece of it from Muncha, Muncha, Muncha, to Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School, to Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart (which just won the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for Best Non-Fiction) to name a few. She is just one of The Highlights Foundation's success stories.  

J.E.: Chautauqua. I remember hearing the name the first time and thought it was some secret society that could only be mentioned in whispers. I didn't realize it was as everyone says, "A magical place". What about Chautauqua was spellbinding to you?

C.F.: Have you ever seen that old musical, Brigadoon, in which a magical Scottish village appears every hundred years through the Highland mist? In many ways, Chautauqua reminds me of that Scottish village. Every couple of years it rises up on my life's horizon -- shimmering, seductive, beckoning me to come and write.  And I always answer its call, because magic and muse seem to seep from every porch and rosebush.  For me, it was a life-changing place.

J.E.: The word "break" insinuates that it's not hard work, overlooks the countless hours perfecting the correct words to show, not tell, and minimizes dedication to craft, but I can't think of an easier way to ask the question, so, when and how did your first "break," come?

C.F.: Way back in 1993, I attended the Highlights' Writers Conference at Chautauqua. I came with a so-so picture book manuscript in hand and left a week later with a much improved story -- thanks to my mentor Jerry Spinelli (OMG, Jerry Spinelli!!!).  A few months passed, and I decided to attend my first SCBWI conference. I went because the scheduled speaker was Anne Schwartz, an editor from Knopf whose list I adored. 

Feeling both scared and hopeful, I decided to take along a picture book manuscript, the same one I'd worked on at Chautauqua. I didn't think she'd get a chance to actually read it, but.... By pure luck, on the first day of the  conference, my story was chosen to be read during an open mic session. Even luckier? Anne Schwartz was in the audience. Not only did she like the story, but she invited me to send it to her. I did, and the rest is history (my history, anyway). We've been together ever since -- for almost nineteen years and something like twenty books. She's an extraordinary editor, as well as a dear friend.

J.E.: After spending time myself at the Barn in Boyds Mills, I feel like the magic has definitely followed Highlights from Chautauqua to PA. As a faculty member, what advantages do you see  to having the Barn assume the Chautauquan role?

C.F.: The biggest advantage is the intimacy and intensity of the workshops. While the week-long conference at Chautauqua covered a multitude of topics related to making children's books, they didn't especially lend themselves to an in-depth exploration. At Boyds Mills, we can do that. We can roll up our sleeves and get to work on individual projects that are important to attendees. We can make a real difference in the work.

J.E.: You are running an upcoming Founders Workshop at the Barn. Tell us what you hope the writer/attendee learns?

C.F.: I want participants to leave my workshops with a clearer understanding of their writing process. I want them to understand how to improve their particular project, and set them on the path towards creating a publishable work.

J. E.: As a successful author, is there any appeal to just kicking back and resting on your accolades?

C.F.: Sure, there's lots of appeal. After all, I'm basically lazy. But as much as I'd like to rest on my laurels, I can't. Ideas nudge me. Stories prick at me. I have to write. It's what I do.

J.E.: Typically how many projects are you working on at one given time?

C.F.: I typically work on three projects at a time -- one picture book manuscript, one novel, and one non-fiction project. They sort of circulate around my desk until I'm forced, either because of an impending deadline or my own compulsions, to settle in and focus until completion.

J.E.: All of us struggling writers that are aiming to write for publication are on the lookout for any gem, insight, or magic trick that will move the process forward for us, so……. what is it?

C.F.: My advice?  Go to work every day. Write the stories you want to write. Listen to your heart, and your voice, and create the stories that only you can create. And stop obsessing about stuff like word count, and publishing trends, and blogging. Put that energy into your craft.

J.E.: When you write non-fiction, your research has to be impeccable as well as exhausting. Since you write fiction, non-fiction, picture book, and space station operating manuals, which genre is easiest for you, or are they all equally demanding?

C.F.: I think all three genres are challenging... and exhilarating.

J.E.: Writers often talk about becoming the character they're writing about so that they can fully get to know them. Other than doing the completely sane thing like baking a birthday cake for Ben Franklin, have you done anything kinda weird to get into character?  

J.E.: I'm always doing stuff that some people might consider weird as a means of finding my way into a character. For example, when I learned that Eleanor Roosevelt wore Channel #5, I bought a little bottle for myself (which pretty much ate up most of my royalty check). I dabbed it on my wrist every day that I was writing and sniffed it. It brought me closer to her -- or at least I thought so.

J.E.: E-reader or Book?

C.F.:   Book

J.E.: Favorite Food?

C.F.: Chardonnay.... oh, wait, that's not a food. Um.... a still-hot-from-the-oven baguette with Irish butter.  Add some brie, a couple apple slices, and a glass of Chardonnay, and it's the perfect meal.

J.E.: Favorite Movie?

C.F.: Gone With The Wind -- the story's kind of schmaltzy, but Clark Gable is to die for!

J.E.: Favorite Place?

C.F.: The shores of southern Lake Michigan.  It's one of the few places where I feel completely happy and entirely at peace.

J.E.: Driveway full of snow… Shovel or hire the neighborhood kid?

C.F.: I like to shovel my own driveway. It's good exercise. Besides, I actually like snow.

J.E.: Dinner…. Get out the apron or get out the car keys?

C.F.: Dinner?  I get out the apron...  and tie it around Eric's waist!
Candace Fleming and significant other, fellow author Eric Rohmann
J.E.: Writing…longhand or computer?

C.F.: I write all my drafts -- everything from picture books to biographies -- in longhand. I use only wide-lined, loose-leaf notepaper and blue Bic pens. I like the smell of the ink (seriously). It puts me in the writing mood.

J.E.: If we could come into your writing space/office and take anything we wanted, except one thing, what would it be? Why?

C.F.: That's an easy one. You can take anything but my current manuscript. Because the first draft is written in longhand, I don't have a copy.

Jon Egan

Monday, April 9, 2012

2012 Kidlit Progressive Poem for National Poetry Month

The Kidlit Progressive Poem is moving across the blogosphere with a new line added each day by a new writer. Irene Latham has organized a schedule and the poem runs April 1 to April 30 in honor of National Poetry Month. Today I add line 9. I couldn't think of a better way to spend my birthday than contributing to poetry.

Below you will find the poem and the schedule so you can follow along.

If you are reading this
you must be hungry
Kick off your silver slippers
Come sit with us a spell
A hanky, here, now dry your tears
And fill your glass with wine
Now, pour. The parchment has secrets
Smells of a Morrocan market spillout.
You have come to the right place, just breathe in.
1  Irene at Live Your Poem 
2  Doraine at Dori Reads
3  Jeannine at View from a Window Seat
4  Robyn at Read, Write, Howl
5  Susan at Susan Taylor Brown
6  Mary Lee at A Year of Reading
7  Penny at A Penny and her Jots
8  Jone at Deo Writer
9  Gina at Swagger Writer's
10  Julie at The Drift Record
11  Kate at Book Aunt
12  Anastasia Suen at Booktalking
14  Diane at Random Noodling
16  Natalie at Wading Through Words 
17  Tara at A Teaching Life
18  Amy  at The Poem Farm
19  Lori at Habitual Rhymer
21  Myra at Gathering Books
22  Pat at Writer on a Horse
23  Miranda at Miranda Paul Books 
24  Linda at TeacherDance
25  Greg at Gotta Book
26  Renee at No Water River
27  Linda at Write Time
28  Caroline at Caroline by Line
29  Sheri at Sheri Doyle
30  Irene at Live Your Poem 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Editing pressure

I’ve been an editor since high school, but here’s a copy-editing problem I’d never run across until a few days ago. I find it fascinating, but then again, I’m an editor.

One misspelled word. Three options for fixing it. What would you do?


When I typed that word into this document, my computer automatically deleted one "s" so the word would be spelled correctly. It did it so quickly that I couldn’t tell which "s" it eliminated. I had to go back and reinsert a third one for the purposes of this blog post.

But when I was actually presented with the word for editing, it wasn’t in a computer document. It was a hard copy. On paper. In other words, my task was to take a red pen and slash through an "s". But which one?

I chose the second one, just because it seemed most symmetrical to cross out the middle "s" and leave the two bookend ones intact. But was that fair to the second "s"? By most logic, the first and second ones are correct. It’s the third "s" that shouldn’t be there, right? What do you all think?

It’s interesting that this editing tension came up when considering the word pressure. As William Shatner famously said in Airplane, “I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.”

Rich Wallace

Monday, April 2, 2012

Locked and Loaded

What are the four most polarizing words in America right now?

Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

A public rushed to judgement the moment the 911 recording was released. But as details of the actual events leaked out, it appeared the outcry wasn't ever really about what happened between these two men in the first place. It was about the power of the symbols "white" versus "black". Loaded words. Words so loaded they're making some people do really rash things.

Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald, explained that George Zimmerman is white, not Hispanic, because "white" is an identity that confers status and privilege, and "black" is a term that was imposed on others as a justification for slavery and exploitation.

In the April 9th issue of Time Magazine, Joe Klein mentions that most African-Americans are shot by other African Americans. But that little factoid hasn't gotten much attention.

One week earlier, Time Magazine ran a commentary on Trayvon Martin's death by Touré entitled, "How to Stay Alive While Being Black." The article ran a photo of a much-younger smiling Trayvon with a caption stating he had gone out to buy Skittles when the shooting occurred. This is the same photo that much of the country saw in all initial stories about the shooting.

But the boy who died was four years older than the cutey-pie in the photo. He was about six-foot tall and approximately 140 pounds. Eyewitness accounts talk about him wearing a hooded sweatshirt or hoodie, clothing that some people claim hoodlums wear to hide their face.

And here's the seven-year-old photo that ran everywhere of George Zimmerman, taken when he was booked on an assault-on-an-officer charge that was eventually dropped.

In a police video made public after the shooting, George Zimmerman is a much slimmer man today. He's also only five-foot nine-inches tall.

Matt Sedensky of the Associated Press quotes Betsi Grabe, a professor at Indiana University-Bloomington. She's an authority on how news images affect public opinion. "At the center of most stories we tell in our society, cross-culturally and across the centuries, is the struggle between good versus evil." She believes the media initially rushed to judgement and the photos that ran with the stories were a reflection of which character was perceived as victim and which one the aggressor.

Recent photos have been released of both men, showing a smiling Zimmerman in a jacket and tie and Martin with gold teeth and wearing a white sleeveless undershirt commonly referred to as a wifebeater. Not surprisingly, when those photos run, the slant of the stories portray Zimmerman as the victim.

Communities across the nation are rallying on behalf of Trayvon Martin. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, Reverend Al Sharpton, NAACP, and many others are demonstrating for the right of young black men to walk the streets without getting shot. Which is becoming increasingly more difficult in states like Florida with "Stand Your Ground" laws, which basically protect people who shoot others in self-defense anywhere they are allowed to be.

People across the country like Cleveland, Ohio, City Councilman Zack Reeds and Florida State Representative Alan Williams, donned hoodies to show their solidarity with Trayvon. They believe a person shouldn't be profiled just because of the clothes he's wearing. Famous people, like President Obama, have weighed in, saying that if he had a son he'd probably look like Trayvon. Filmmaker Spike Lee Tweeted what he thought was Zimmerman's address so that people could find him directly and do what to him, I shudder to think, but it wasn't his address. It was the address of an older couple that had no relation to the shooter. They had to flee their home for their own safety. Then Roseanne Barr did exactly the same thing. To the same elderly couple.

This crazy media circus isn't about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. It never was. It's about our role and the role of people like us in the world. It's about Us vs. Them. It's about symbols, perceptions, and posturing. It's politics. It's great drama.

And so, to you, the wordsmith, as you labor to create your characters, situations, and worlds. Your work is so much more than just words. It will be viewed by people who infuse it with their life experiences. Your characters' dialogue, physical descriptions, and actions could have the power to provoke primal responses in your reader. And if it's real-life, it probably should. Heady stuff.

"I Volunteer!" Katniss reacts when her baby sister's name is called to compete in the Hunger Games.

Kim Van Sickler