On Being “Discovered”

In the days when being Freshly Pressed was the holy grail of WordPress blogging, you’d often see bloggers proudly proclaiming “I’ve been Freshly Pressed”. Just a quick side note, in case you’re unfamiliar, Freshly Pressed used to be the section of the WordPress.com homepage where the WordPress editors chose the best of the blogosphere to be featured.

Laptop blog photo

The WordPress blogger’s native environment

Being Freshly Pressed was a huge thing to happen to a blogger. One day, you’re writing away, publishing your work and wondering what kind of reception it will get. And the next, you’re on the front page of the WordPress community. Your reader stats spike upwards so fast that they could give you whiplash and your comments section overflows with abundance. Exciting stuff!

At the end of the last year, the WordPress team gave Freshly Pressed a new look. It’s now called Discover. It’s the hot destination for editors’ picks, thought-provoking topics and recommended sites. And on Tuesday, I was Discovered! My post, talking about language and accents in Disney movies, was featured on Discover: Disney’s Loss of Innocence.

 

Discover screenshot 2

A screenshot of my post on Discover

I’ve enjoyed the lively discussion in the comments that this post prompted. Not all of you agreed with what the researchers are saying, but hearing different perspectives is all part of the fun. And I’ve realized that one of my favourite writing topics is to break down academic research — specifically related to language and linguistics — into readable, (hopefully) thought-provoking and conversation-starting blog posts.

Having made the decision to put my postgraduate academic aspirations on indefinite hold, it’s a great way to keep up-to-date with the linguistics world and to write about interesting, diverse topics without any pressure of deadlines and grades. If you’re new to my blog, you can read about my decision here. And also, welcome to all my new readers and followers!

So, you’ll see more linguistic-themed posts in the near future. I hope you’ll join the conversation!

Looking back at 2015

2015 was a good year — it brought new blogging adventures, my graduation, and an unexpected twist at the end of the year (you’ll have to read to the end of the post to find out about that).

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A piece of wisdom from Thomas Hardy

During the summer, I participated in the WordPress course Blogging 201, which gave me the boost I needed to refresh areas of my blog and plan for future posts.

I would have liked to post more often. My readership and reader engagement with the blog (i.e. via comments, follows and likes) increased during the two months when I posted my ‘Between the Pages’ series, with several themed posts about Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. Continue reading

Fortified by Poetry

This week, I listened to Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with the poet Mary Oliver. Although I was familiar with Mary Oliver’s name, I knew nothing of her poetry other than the often-quoted final lines from The Summer Day:

Mary Oliver ~ Siyan Ren

Unsplash photo, courtesy of Siyan Ren

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Between the Pages: Thomas Hardy’s Writing

TITLE HER

Between the Pages is a new, weekly blog series which explores the life, times and creative works of well-known authors. I plan to run the blog series until the end of 2015, focusing on one author per month. New posts every Tuesday, plus occasional bonus posts.

The first post in the series is a brief biography of the author, the second looks at the historical period of the author, and the third post discusses their creative works. Finally, the last post includes selected quotations and short excerpts by the author.


hardysignature

So, I know I said that these posts will be published every Tuesday… And it hasn’t escaped my notice that today is Wednesday. I am a punctual person when deadlines are important, but when deadlines are self-imposed and there’s no great urgency, I think it’s okay to cut ourselves some slack. 🙂

When you think of Thomas Hardy’s writing and storylines, it wouldn’t be surprising if you think of gloom: death, depression, dark and rainy English countryside filled with mud (it’s not all pretty and picturesque, you know). When I researched material for this post, I was amused to find this Guardian infographic: Which Thomas Hardy novel is the bleakest? The graphic lists a key of all the bleak events that occur in each of Hardy’s novels — Jude the Obscure scores the most (no surprises there!), closely followed by Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge.

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Fun with Blogging 201!

I’m having a lot of fun with Blogging 201, which is a two-week WordPress course about developing your blog. I’ve been spending a lot of time hanging out in The Commons, which is the Blogging 201 area for chatting about all things blog-related.

Fun with Blogging 201

Although my blog looks fairly similar to how it did before I started the Blogging 201 course, changes are going on behind the scenes. I have plans for scheduling a blog series: a succession of posts which all relate to a particular topic. As I sit here and type, my notebook is open beside me with plans for my blog series.

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What’s Your Blog Name Origin Story?

When I started blogging four years ago, I knew that I wanted a blog title which would give me the scope to write about multiple topics. I also wanted my blog title to evoke culture in a dual sense.

Screenshot from Oxford Dictionaries

Screenshot from Oxford Dictionaries

In other words, I wanted to come up with a blog title which would reflect my curiosity about culture in an anthropological sense, giving me the opportunity to write posts about travel, language and linguistics as well as exploring the culture of literature, film and music.

Whether or not we choose to follow popular culture or engage with the arts, we are all influenced by society and its customs, and for many people, cultural choices form part of their identity.

I experimented with various combinations of Cultural + ?, before settling on Cultural Life. I think that adding life into my blog title adds a personal touch to my blog. It gives me the freedom to write about aspects of my life as well as acknowledging that our daily lives are bound up in culture.

Laptop blog photo

An ideal set-up for an afternoon of blogging!                                                                   Thanks to Public Domain Archive for the photo.

So, that’s how I created my blog name!

What’s your blog name origin story? How did you decide on a blog title? And what do you want your blog title to convey to your audience?

Blogiversary: Cultural Life turns 4!

Four years ago today, I sat down to write my first post on Cultural Life. For the first few months, views from blog visitors trickled in and comments were a rarity, but during the last few years, my blog has attracted more and more visitors. One of my posts was even Freshly Pressed! I would love to be FPed again in the future: it gave me such a boost to continue blogging and the comments from readers were lovely.

My blog stats are still modest compared to some bloggers who get thousands of views per week and hundreds of comments on every post, but to me, blogging isn’t all about statistics: it is about community. I feel a part of the WordPress community and I have  ‘met’ so many amazing bloggers whose writing has inspired me and motivated me to keep blogging.

Embed from Getty Images

When I look back at old Cultural Life blog posts and think how much I have learned and how my writing and approach to blogging has changed in the past few years, it makes me excited for the changes that will, no doubt, take place in the next four years.

To all my readers, thank you for taking the time to read, comment and leave feedback on posts. It is truly appreciated!

“When the unimaginable happens, how do we go on?”: an interview with author Eleanor Vincent

In April this year I read a book which I found immensely moving. Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent is a brave, courageous and inspirational memoir. In this interview, Eleanor Vincent talks to Cultural Life about the challenges of writing non-fiction, the process of writing Swimming with Maya and healing after the tragic loss of a child.

Eleanor Vincent

Award-winning author and memoirist Eleanor Vincent

Eleanor Vincent is an award-winning writer whose debut memoir, Swimming with
Maya: A Mother’s Story
was nominated for the Independent Publisher Book Award and was reissued by Dream of Things press early in 2013. She writes about love, loss, and grief recovery with a special focus on the challenges and joys of raising children at any age.

Called “engaging” by Booklist, Swimming with Maya chronicles the life and death of Eleanor’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Maya, who was thrown from a horse and pronounced brain-dead at the hospital. Eleanor donated her daughter’s organs to critically ill patients and poignantly describes her friendship with a middle-aged man who was the recipient of Maya’s heart.

Since the initial publication of Swimming with Maya in 2004, Eleanor has been a national spokesperson on grief recovery and organ donation, appearing on CNN and San Francisco’s Evening Magazine. She has been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, and been interviewed on radio and television programs around the country.

She was born in Cleveland, Ohio and attended the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and received an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College, where she occasionally teaches writing workshops on creative nonfiction and memoir.

Her essays appear in the anthologies At the End of Life: True Stories about How we Die (edited by Lee Gutkind); This I Believe: On Motherhood; and Impact: An Anthology of Short Memoirs. They celebrate the unique and complicated bonds between mothers and daughters, making hard decisions as a parent – whether your child is 14 or 40 – and navigating midlife transitions with grace and authenticity.

She lives in Oakland, California.

SwM cover

What made you decide to write a memoir?

The moment Maya died, I knew I would write about it. Our story was so personal and so emotional; it naturally lent itself to being told just as it happened – as a true story of loss and overcoming. It was also a way for me to keep Maya alive, because each word I wrote about her was an act of mother love. At that point in my recovery, it would have felt very artificial to tell the story in fictional form. I needed to be willing to risk revealing our family life and myself in a very deep and intimate way.

Life can be over in a moment. This is a truth we all try to defend against, but Maya’s sudden death at age 19 showed me that life could veer off in directions I had never imagined. When the unimaginable happens, how do we go on? This is the question Swimming with Maya attempts to answer. How do we get back up after life knocks us down? As a memoir, my book is a very personal account of one woman’s journey. It is not a self-help book, but it is inspirational and motivational because it shows how I became more resilient than I ever thought I could be. I should note that I had been writing professionally for more than two decades when Maya died. In addition, I was working on my MFA in creative writing at Mills College at the time. I was well equipped to take on what turned into a ten-year effort.

What inspired the title Swimming with Maya?

In the final part of the book, I recount a dream I had about Maya. She was swimming in a pool, gliding under water so effortlessly, and that seemed like a great metaphor of how she was still such an important part of me, “swimming” in and out of my consciousness. I believe the veil between worlds is very thin, and that those we love continue to be with us, and participate in our lives even after they make the transition we call death. Also, Maya loved water. She loved to swim, and she was on the diving team at her high school. Early in the book, I tell the story of teaching the infant Maya to swim. That was the first of many experiences of letting Maya go, something all parents struggle with. Her death was the ultimate letting go.

Maya

Maya, age 17

Did you find it therapeutic to write Swimming with Maya?

Oh definitely! Writing is the way I process almost everything. Certainly something as traumatic as the death of a child requires a deep re-examination of everything and writing is ideally suited to that process. But I need to emphasize that writing was only one of the many healing modalities I used. I knew I’d need to pull out all the stops to recover. So I sought peer-to-peer support through the Compassionate Friends, individual therapy, and spiritual counseling. In addition, I did tons and tons of self-care: walking, healing touch, swimming, dancing, healthy food, lots of rest and time in nature. Family and friends were also very important to my recovery. At a certain point in the process, Swimming with Maya became much less about my personal recovery and much more about telling a story readers would resonate with – I worked very hard to take my book to that next level, to turn it into a page turner.

You chose to donate Maya’s organs after her death. I think organ donation is an issue which many of us choose to avoid thinking about, perhaps because we are squeamish about thinking about our own deaths. But in the United States alone there are approximately 100,000 people on the waiting list for organ transplants. It is a sensitive topic to talk about but also a very important one. Do you think your views on organ donation changed at all after Maya’s death?

If anything, I grew more passionate about helping others – and organ donation is the ultimate helpful act. It is a great privilege to be allowed to save another person’s life, or restore their sight, or contribute to the reconstruction of their skin tissue after horrible burns. All this is possible only through the generosity of donor families, and the medical miracle of transplantation. Sadly, many thousands of people, including children, die every year while waiting for a “gift of life” and a transplant. Swimming with Maya shines a light on this process from the vantage point of the donor mother and other family members. I think it provides valuable testimony for anyone considering becoming an organ and tissue donor.

As well as Swimming with Maya, you have published other pieces of non-fiction and memoir: one about the wedding of your daughter, Meghan, and the other about the birth of your grandchild. Have you ever written fiction?

I write in all genres, including poetry. Early in my career, I published a few short stories. I’ve begun several novels but for various reasons never completed them. Writing narrative nonfiction, or creative nonfiction as it is sometimes called, comes very naturally. I get to use fictional techniques – scene, dialogue, character development, and plot – in the service of telling a true story. In some ways, writing fiction is more freeing because you are not bound by “what really happened.” On the other hand, few things are more interesting than what really happened. Truth is often stranger than fiction, as the cliché would have it.

Do you prefer to write non-fiction?

That depends on the purpose or the intention behind a particular piece of writing. I’m currently working on a book that began its life as a memoir but that is morphing into a novel. Certain stories ask to be told in certain ways. As a writer, I have to take direction from my material.

As a writer, what do you think are the biggest challenges, especially when writing non-fiction?

Writing a memoir is difficult – and satisfying – on so many levels. The writer must be both narrator and character and that is not an easy balancing act. The narrator needs to know more than the character does. Getting that perspective requires time, and willingness to dig deep.

I highly recommend Vivian Gornick’s book on writing memoir, The Situation and the Story. It helped me to make that separation between the character of the mother in Swimming with Maya and the voice of the narrator.

I also think plot is an important aspect of memoir. You can’t just tell the story exactly as it happened. You have to create turning points in each chapter, and have a major realization or turning point sometime in the last quarter of the book. In that way, it’s much like writing a novel. You have to constantly ask yourself, “What is at stake here?” If there is nothing on the line for your characters, the reader will lose interest quickly.

So writing a compelling memoir, or personal essay, requires a lot of craft, as well as deep level of honesty and ability to see from a broader perspective and convey that to the reader.

Do you have a particular routine you follow when you write?

I tend to putter before I write – do dishes, water plants, tidy up – that sort of thing. I find that very soothing and writing can be very anxiety provoking. So I try to soothe myself into alignment with the material before I begin. I’ll usually reread what I’ve already written on a given piece. Sometimes, I’ll read a short inspiring poem or favorite paragraph by another author, before I begin or if I get stuck. But mostly, it’s just about getting my butt in the chair for a certain number of hours. Doing my time.

On average, how long does it take you to write a book?

There is no average. Again, the material I’m working with is the determining factor. Swimming with Maya took ten years to write. But the material was extraordinarily difficult. I had to take frequent breaks to grieve. And, I was still raising my other daughter and working full time, so it was a long process. I completed a first draft of my current book in less than five years – so that is much faster. But revision can also be a long process. I let the writing and rewriting drive how long the process will take.

Are you working on any writing projects at the moment?

Yes. I’m working on a series of highly personal essays about my father, who recently died at the age of 92. That material is very fresh so I’m not yet sure what form it will take. I may turn into a book of linked essays, or I may decide to fictionalize it.

I’m also working on the book I mentioned which is based on my time in a cohousing community in Oakland. Cohousing is a form of intentional community where each person or family has their own house but you share meals together several times a week, and the community is self-governing, which means participating in lots of meetings. It’s a wonderful idea. In practice, I found, it was very challenging. My particular community was full of amazing people and I want to tell the story of how we interacted, what worked and what didn’t, and what I learned as a result. I ultimately decided to leave. It was a painful lesson, one I am mining for laughs, because there is something inherently funny about a wonderful ideal that turns into a disaster.

For more about Eleanor Vincent and her writing, you can visit her official website here, like her author page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @eleanor_vincent
Buy the book and post a review at Amazon.com
Visit the publisher Dream of Things to order Swimming with Maya directly: Dream of Things

Musings on Fame, Fortune and the Pseudonym of J. K. Rowling

Two of J. K. Rowling's novels: her first novel for adults, published last year, and the fifth book in the Harry Potter series

Two of J. K. Rowling’s novels: her first novel for adults, published last year, and the fifth book in the Harry Potter series

When I first head that J.K. Rowling had published a book under the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, I watched the number of Amazon reviews climb rapidly. And when I looked at The Cuckoo’s Calling on Amazon, shortly after the mask was whipped away from the face of the author behind it, there were no one-star reviews. But I watched over the next couple of days as the customer reviews page went from a relatively small number of favorable reviews by people who had clearly read the book to a forum for people who wanted to air their (mostly negative) personal views on Rowling, her fame, her celebrity status and the quality of her writing. Many of those ‘reviews’ have since been removed by Amazon, presumably for breaching their review policy. But I was struck by the amount of people who left one-star ‘reviews’ on The Cuckoo’s Calling, calling Rowling a fraud and duping people by creating a biography for her pseudonym. The latter point is the one which caught my interest and made me think, “Hmm, this would be good fodder for a blog post!”

My feelings towards Rowling’s use of a pseudonym are sympathetic. Perhaps she wanted to publish a book which would be reviewed solely on its own merits and not based on the fact that it came from the pen of one of the most famous authors in the world. And who can blame her for that? In the recent days, we have witnessed the frenzy which fame brings. The wait for the birth of the baby of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge was covered in obsessive and compulsive detail by media outlets around the globe. Is it any wonder that Rowling wanted to publish a book, in her own words, “without hype or expectation”?

J. K. Rowling is not the only female author to don a masculine nom de plume. Mary Ann Evans, author of classics such as Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, wrote under the pseudonym of George Eliot, so that her novels were taken seriously in an era when female writers were not treated equally to male authors. There was a common – and erroneous! – assumption that women couldn’t write serious novels and were only fit to write light, insubstantial romances. So, too, did the three Bronte sisters: Emily, Anne and Charlotte, who wrote under the names Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell.

Now, in the western world at least, fortunately there is no longer any need for any woman to disguise her writing as the work of a man in order to be taken seriously. But, thinking back to articles I read about the publication of the Harry Potter series, Joanne Rowling was advised to publish as gender-neutral J. K. Rowling because it was thought that it would appeal more to boys than a book with “Joanne Rowling” on the cover. According to this Wikipedia page, “her publishers demanded that she use two initials, rather than her full name”. However, Rowling’s reason for choosing a male name as a pseudonym for The Cuckoo’s Calling was to distance herself from the book, in the hope that the real identity of Robert Galbraith would stay hidden. In the FAQ section on the new official website for Galbraith’s books, she states that she wished to “take my writing persona as far away as possible from me”.

Yes, she certainly did that. The author blurb for The Cuckoo’s Calling is entirely fabricated, claiming that Galbraith has served in the military and that the book draws on “his own experiences and those of his military friends who have returned to the civilian world”. It is this claim which has upset quite a few people. Claiming that the author of the book has experience of the military when he (she) does not is controversial. I did a quick Google search and amidst the excitement about the publication of a new Rowling novel, there are people who feel that Rowling lied to them. Now, of course, the truth is out and the Robert Galbraith bio is no longer being printed inside The Cuckoo’s Calling; the author blurb has been changed to “Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling”. But the ethical question of deceiving one’s readers remains pertinent.

I am a Rowling fan and as I stated earlier in this post, I understand her reasons for wanting to use a pseudonym. However, deceiving readers with a false blurb about the author is unethical, in my opinion. I am disappointed that Rowling, an author whom I hold in high regard, thought it was acceptable to publish a book with a dishonest author bio. In the FAQs on the Robert Galbraith website, Rowling wrote about her reasons for choosing the content of the author info, including the fact that Galbraith’s work in the civilian security field gave “him a solid excuse not to appear in public or provide a photograph” (quote source: Robert Galbraith website). I can understand the difficulties which would have been posed if readers of The Cuckoo’s Calling had wondered why debut author, Robert Galbraith, turned down all public appearances. But I still think lying to one’s readers is unacceptable. In terms of readers feeling duped because Galbraith’s bio fictitiously claims the author has insider knowledge, having served in the military, according to the FAQs on the website the factual content of The Cuckoo’s Calling is “from military sources”. This gives credibility to the book. Nevertheless, the question remains about the controversial issue of the use of a fake author bio. As the character, Dolores Umbridge, said in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, “[We] must not tell lies”.

What do you think? Is the fake author biography of Robert Galbraith acceptable or is it completely unethical?

Weekly writing challenge: ebook or real book?

This week’s writing challenge from The Daily Post is a “Mind the Gap” challenge, inviting bloggers to share their opinion on a controversial issue.

This week:

How do you prefer to read, with an eReader like a Kindle or Nook, or with an old school paperback in hand?”

Technology
Public domain image: Science And Technology by Petr Kratochvil

I taught myself to read when I was four years old. I have always loved books. If I’m feeling stressed or anxious, I seek out the nearest book store and dive into it; being surrounded by literary tomes is very calming and I will happily spend hours browsing. When I first heard about eReaders, I was emphatically unimpressed. I am not a Luddite. I don’t have a problem with technology. But now that eReaders are ever-increasing in popularity, it is becoming a serious issue.

I would like to skirt around the topic and diplomatically say that both ways of reading have their merits. But I’m not going to sit on the fence bookshelf. I prefer paper-and-ink books: A) With ebooks it is impossible to replicate the wonderful feeling of picking up a brand new book that you have bought, running your finger down its glossy unbroken spine and becoming absorbed in its pages. B) You can’t have chatty conversations with the book store assistant about which books to purchase. C) Looking through the ebook section online is simply not the same as browsing in person. Spending hours on a computer makes my eyes feel like they have run a marathon or the optical equivalent of one. What would that be? A readathon, I presume.

The idea of a world without paper-and-ink books is frankly dystopian. You wouldn’t be able to hunt out a treasure in a preloved book store or go to the library. You wouldn’t be able to flip through the worn pages of your favorite literary treasure so you can find the best quotes. eReader buttons are not an adequate replacement. Furthermore, books have personality! Call me a geek or a nerd or whatever but I love owning different copies of my most loved books. I have around three or four copies of some of my favorite literary classics because they have different illustrations or interesting covers. Personal preference for real paper-and-ink books aside, I am curious about copyright issues related to the popularity of ebooks. Illegal sharing and misuse of files is known to be a common problem in the music and film industries. Will the ebook industry have the same issue?

Have I convinced you about the ebook versus physical book debate yet? Ebooks may be the future, as some people proclaim, but I will not succumb willingly. I will continue browsing in book stores, looking in the library and lending books to friends. Some things are just too sacred to be changed.

Having said all this, I am a hypocrite. The reason for this shocking two-facedness? I am currently thinking about jumping on the bandwagon and buying a Kindle (they are portable and great for traveling), although the mere notion of buying one feels like being unfaithful to my beloved real books.

What do you think about eReaders? Do you think ebooks will overtake paper-and-ink books in terms of popularity or do you think ebooks and physical books can comfortably co-habit? Share your thoughts in the comments section below; I’d love to hear them!