P is for Pisanki (Polish Easter Eggs)

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My mom was a big one for hobbies.  Just a few of the myriad projects we tried our hands at as I was growing up were crewel embroidery, decoupage, cloisonné, acrylic painting, rock tumbling, resin grapes and other resin crafts (enter “klick-klacks”—anyone remember those?), and several different types of crystal growing.  That one came in handy when I needed an 8th grade Science Fair project, since all of my crystals were already well underway when it was assigned.

One year, something inspired my mom to dye Easter eggs the way her family had done it when she was growing up.   I hadn’t thought about this in a long, long time, but the collision of the A-Z Challenge, my Challenge theme, and the approach of Easter jogged the memory.  I know exactly which of my stories this recollection will make it into, too.

We skipped the brightly-colored store-bought dyes and stickers that year; instead, Mom got out a bag of brown onions and started peeling off the dried outer skins.   When she had a whole saucepan full of skins, she covered them with water and brought them to a boil.

“What color will the dye be?” I asked doubtfully.  It just looked brown.  I wasn’t too impressed.

“Brown,” she said.  “The most beautiful brown.”

Brown Easter eggs?  I thought she’d lost her mind.  Why dye Easter eggs brown?  You can buy brown eggs.  I longed for bright pinks and greens and yellows, and robin’s egg blue.

I confess, I wasn’t a very good sport about this one.

While the dye was boiling, we blew a bunch of eggs.  Everyone knows how to blow eggs, right?  Poke a little hole in one end with a needle, and a slightly larger hole in the other end, and blow through the smaller hole until all of the egg has exited through the larger one.  Make the holes large enough that the blowing won’t damage your eardrums, and keep count so you can use the eggs in cooking later, or just make scrambled eggs.

We sat down at the kitchen table with our clean, empty shells and set to work with clear wax crayons, drawing intricate designs and patterns on our eggs.  I know now that an even better method—the traditional Polish method—is to use melted beeswax and apply it with a pin.  Crayons are smeary, and candle wax is hard to see, but beeswax, when it gets hot, turns a dark enough shade to be easily visible as you work, and it leaves a clear, sharp image.

When our designs were finished, we lowered the eggs into the dye and left them there until they had achieved the shade we wanted—a lovely deep reddish brown.

The next step, as with any other Easter eggs, was to remove them from the dye and let them dry completely.

Once they were dry, we held the eggs over a candle to melt the wax and used a paper towel to wipe it all off.  The eggs lay on the table and glowed.  They were beautiful.  I don’t have any photos of ours, but they looked something like these:

Coffee and Vanilla[1]

And they don’t have to be brown—you can use the same wax method with any type of dye.  There are actually several types of Polish Easter eggs, depending on the region:

  • Kraszanki, dyed with plant materials (leaves, flowers, onion skins, beet skins, etc.—what my mom and I did was a combination of this one and the next one)
  • Pisanki , decorated by applying a wax design before dying
  • Skrobanki or Rysowanki, decorated with a design scratched upon their surface
  • Wyklejanki, decorated with yarn, attached with glue
  • Nalepianki, decorated with paper cut-outs or straw glued to them
  • Malowanki, hand painted

You might want to give it a try, whether you have kids or not.  With a little practice, maybe you can make some like these:

pisanki-wydrapywane-2 rabbit skrobanie[2]

That one is a goose egg–that’s the skrobanki style.  The ones below show you can also use color:

PolishEasterEggs 4-17-14[3]

 

Take a look at these eggs, too—there are so many, I couldn’t possibly post all the photos I would have liked to!

Here’s a Pinterest collection of them for good measure.  I think you’ll agree that they’re just beautiful.

My mom and I never did eggs like that again.  I don’t know why it didn’t become a tradition.  I’m sorry to say I never tried it with my own kids when they were young, either—but I can’t wait to do it with my grandkids!

Happy Easter!

 

[1] http://www.coffeeandvanilla.com/traditional-polish-easter-eggs-dyed-in-onion-shells/

[2] http://manualni.pl/jak-zrobic-pisanki-cz-2/

[3] http://thehungariangirl.com/2012/03/23/easter-egg-styles-from-central-and-eastern-europe/

 

O is for Oneirology

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When I lay down to take a little nap before dinner, I still hadn’t yet decided what to write for today’s “O” post.

I slept for about an hour and a half, seemingly all of which was consumed with dreams.  Weird ones.

I rarely remember my dreams, so I immediately jotted down a few keywords and brief phrases so I wouldn’t forget (my short-term memory not being in even the same solar system as my long-term memory), and then I sat down and fleshed out everything I could remember.  Here’s the gist:

I was at a family reunion, but I didn’t know who most of the people were.  My cousin Susan was there, and my cousin Nancy and tons of other people I did know, but I also knew that even the ones I didn’t know were all family too.  I also didn’t recognize the house, which was huge and very opulent and dark.  I was in a big room furnished with several caskets and cribs, and it was hard to tell which was which.  They were all upholstered in maroon and looked very comfortable.

Two women I didn’t know were standing in a corner near a big roll-top desk, and one of them  was holding a tiny baby—a newborn in a yellow sleep-and-play suit.  I asked if I could hold him, and the woman said (not unkindly), “It’s a her, and no, it’s not a baby, it’s my mother.”  She explained that the “baby” had some kind of degenerative disease, like Alzheimer’s, except it didn’t just affect her mind, but her whole body.  That was why she was so tiny.

The baby’s head was deformed—huge in the back, tiny in the front—and she had only one eye; the other was just a blank, overgrown socket.  She also looked terribly  jaundiced.  I asked the woman if her mother (the baby) knew who she (the daughter) was—if the “baby” knew who anyone was—and she said, “no, there’s no recognition—I just tend to her needs.”

Something in the dream shifted, and I knew the reason I was there was that Tom and I were visiting someone .  My kids were all there, and we were all going to go to the beach—and I really wanted to go to the beach—but somehow I fell asleep, and when I woke up, nobody was around.  They had gone without me and I was all alone in this room full of caskets and cribs.

I found myself wandering around the house looking for someone.  Anyone.

In one room, I found someone on a bed, all covered up, crying.  I reached out a hand to try to comfort the person on the bed, and it turned out to be my mom.  She was dressed up for the family party in a black, blue, and white patterned blouse that she really did used to have, and we held hands and I asked what happened.  She said she and Dee (my aunt, her younger sister and best friend who in real life predeceased her by five years) had gotten into a terrible argument.

I didn’t question that Dee might have been alive at this party, even though I hadn’t seen her.  My mom covered herself back up and I left the room.

Then I was in a hallway, and as I passed by another open door, I saw that my mom was crying on the couch in that room.  I thought she had switched rooms because she wanted to be alone, so I kept walking—but then I passed another door and she was in that one, too, still crying, but this time I heard her say, “Dee, Dee,” and I realized that Dee was dead and my mom knew she was dead.

Then Tom was there again, back from the beach, and I was wearing two hats—a cloth bucket hat, yellow on the inside and white on the outside, with a straw wide-brimmed cowboy-type hat over it—and Tom wanted to wear one of them and I couldn’t decide which one to give him.  I took off the straw hat, since it was on top, but it was a struggle to separate them, and then I was left wearing only the bucket hat.  I was very uncomfortable (because a bucket hat really isn’t “me”) and it was also blinding (because it had no visor) and I didn’t like giving up the other hat.  I remember wondering why it was so suddenly bright, because the house had been so dark.  Where was I now?

And then I woke up.

One of my first thoughts upon waking up—aside from “whoa, that was weird”—was that I still didn’t have an “O” post, and I wondered if there might possibly be something about this dream that might be appropriate.

Of course.  Yes.  It was all about a family reunion at which I didn’t know most of the family members.  Sounds a lot like genealogy, right?  And after all, genealogy is the inspiration for my WIP, even though it’s fiction.

But nothing in the dream starts with O.  Nothing about dream analysis starts with O.

Or does it?  I started googling.

And you already know the answer:  The study of dreams is called Oneirology.

Talk about luck!

Do you remember your dreams?  Do they ever provide fodder for your writing?

 

N is for National Anthem

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Most Americans know “The Star-Spangled Banner” is our national anthem. Most of us, I assume, also know at least most of the words, even if we sometimes injure ourselves in our efforts to carry the tune.

The song commemorates the battle at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, after which, “by the dawn’s early light,” Francis Scott Key was inspired when he saw that “the flag was still there.”

One could argue fairly convincingly that the song came into being just as the country itself was coming into being, though it wasn’t officially declared the national anthem until 1931.

In Poland, it’s the opposite.

That is to say, the Polish national anthem, “Dabrowski’s Mazurka” (“Mazurek Dąbrowskiego” in Polish), was written by Józef Wybicki in 1797, two years after the final partitioning of the country led to its total obliteration from the map.

That’s right: the Polish national anthem came into being a couple of years after there was no country to sing it to.

Somehow, knowing this makes the opening lines of the song even more powerful . They can be translated in several ways, the most common of which are these:

     Poland has not yet died / So long as we still live.

     Poland is not yet lost / So long as we still live.

     Poland has not yet perished / So long as we still live.

Whichever English version you prefer, you can feel the hope, the spunk, the spirit of these people. They were not giving up on their country just because it didn’t currently happen to exist.

In fact, Adam Mickiewicz explained to his students in 1842 that the opening lines of the song “mean that people who have in them what constitutes the essence of a nation can prolong the existence of their country regardless of its political circumstances and may even strive to make it real again.”[1]

You might say that while Americans were celebrating the birth of a new nation and in search of people to fill it, Poland—or more accurately, Polonia—was comprised of many people in search of a place they could freely call home while still maintaining their Polish identity.

Poland’s physical presence was re-established at the end of WWI in 1918, and the Mazurka became the unofficial anthem then. It was officially adopted as the national anthem in 1926.

You can listen to it here (with lyrics in both Polish and English).

 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poland_Is_Not_Yet_Lost

M is for Memory

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Most people have probably heard of the woman whose amazing memory made the news a few years ago. Known only as AJ, she can recall what happened on any given date:

Asked what happened on Aug 16, 1977, she knew that Elvis Presley had died, but she also knew that a California tax initiative passed on June 6 of the following year, and a plane crashed in Chicago on May 25 of the next year, and so forth. Some may have had a personal meaning for her, but some did not.[1]

She was asked if she knew who Bing Crosby was. She said she did. Asked if she knew where he died, she responded, “Oh yes, he died on a golf course in Spain,” and then she also provided the date, including the day of the week. [1]

I confess—I can’t do that. I would have gotten the Elvis question right, and I can tell you where I was and what I was doing when I found out (and also where he died), but I suppose a lot of people of my era can do that. It was Elvis, after all.

But I do have an incredible long-term memory, the kind of memory that sometimes frustrates other people, since I often remember the events of their lives better than they do themselves, assuming I was there for whatever it was.

Short term memory?  Not so much.  My husband makes fun of me because I forget things all the time.  But long term, I remember all kinds of things, both important and unimportant, whether I want to or not.  Mostly unimportant, unfortunately.

Go ahead—give me a Top 40 song from the 70’s. Chances are pretty good I’ll be able to tell you who recorded it and when it came out. “Dancing in the Moonlight”? King Harvest. Late fall of 1972.

(After I wrote that, I looked it up. Wikipedia says it was a 1973 song. They’re wrong. It might have peaked on the charts in ’73, but it came out in the fall of ’72. I know this. I don’t know exactly why I know it, but I do.)

If you show me any American-made car built in the 1950’s or 60’s, I can tell you the make, model, and year.  I’m especially good at General Motors cars.

I can also tell you the birthday of just about every single person whose birthday I’ve ever known.

I don’t know why.

I can describe all of the classrooms I sat in throughout school from nursery to grad school. I can map the summer camps I went to.

I can remember the first time I climbed out of my crib—not just doing it but also the thinking process that went into it—and what my bedroom looked like, and what the curtains looked like in the bathroom. And even though we moved out of that house when I was five, I could sit down right now, fifty years later, and draw you a detailed floor plan, including furniture placement. I could tell you all kinds of things that happened there.

I could give you a pretty fair description of the inside of my paternal grandfather’s house, which I haven’t been in since before he died when I was seven.  I can smell my maternal grandmother’s service porch and the water in her bathroom and my aunt and uncle’s little convenience store on the shores of Ackerson Lake as if I’d been in them only a week ago, but the last time I was in any of those places, I was fourteen.

It’s not just a result of having kept a journal for so many years, since the memories go back much farther than the journals do, and it’s also not a result of having been an avid camera bug all my life, because although photos definitely can and do jog memories, I also have a crystal-clear remembrance of things for which there are no photos.  I have no photos of the store on Ackerson Lake or my grandmother’s service porch or the inside of my grandfather’s house.  I just remember them.  Clearly.

In fact, pretty much everything that has ever happened to me, everywhere I’ve ever been, and everything I’ve ever done, is available for total recall if I want it. And of course, as a writer, I want it.  Even the bad stuff.

In fact, this party trick makes it both very easy and very difficult to write fiction. Easy, because so many events are so readily available as potential fodder for my stories. Difficult, because I sometimes have trouble shifting between truth and fiction.

Until fairly recently, I assumed everyone else’s memory was the same as mine. I didn’t know it was just me until I read about AJ a few years ago and realized that although my memory is far from as amazing as hers, we’re actually more alike than different.

The researchers who studied her (and are still studying her) have so far identified only two hyperthymesiacs (she being the one they named the condition for), and they’re actively looking for others whose phenomenal memories might contribute to their research. They’ve devised a quiz, which is available for free online. I took it this morning and scored “Very Above Average.” I was given an additional battery of questions, and they requested my contact info for potential follow-up.

Do you have a fantastic memory? How does it affect your life, your work, your relationships, and your writing?

Do you think you might have hyperthymesia? Take the quiz here! 

 

[1] http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=1738881&page=1

L is for Literature

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I’d envisioned a much more detailed post than this, with photos and such–but the day got completely away from me, and if I’m going to get this date stamped on the right day, I need to post it NOW.  So please forgive me for the brevity!

The most famous and beloved Polish writers of the Romantic period, known as The Three Bards, were Juliusz Słowacki , Zygmunt Krasiński , and Adam Mickiewicz. In a period when there was no nation to call home (in fact, all three wrote in exile), they were concerned with keeping Polish identity alive.

Of the three, Mickiewicz (pronounced mitz-keh-vitch) is the most widely known. In Poland, he’s regarded on the same plane as Shakespeare or Homer. His most famous work, Pan Tadeusz, a literary historical novel in verse published in 1834, is the Polish national poem and is required reading in Polish schools.

The Three Bards were considered prophetic, and their work, which was sometimes allegorical and sometimes historical, was always intended to instill the Polish people with hope for the future even as they worked, though their art, to restore a lost world.

In a way, that’s what I’m trying to do, too.

K is for Kotlety Schabowy

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My mom was not particularly proud of her Polish heritage. She adored and was devoted to her brothers and sisters, and she always told me she was “Papa’s favorite” (though I suspect Papa—my grandfather—was the type who routinely made sure all of his kids and grandkids thought they were his favorite, and I even suspect that each of them was his favorite in different ways and at different times—cf the Erma Bombeck article of many moons ago) –but she just really didn’t much like talking about her Polish roots. She was American, she said, “from the day I was born, right here in the good old USA.” The only time she ever made anything Polish at home, as far as I knew, was when my grandmother was staying with us.

This is why I was surprised to discover only recently that her wonderful pork chops, the pork chops I grew up on and that I still make for my own family today, were actually Polish. My mom just called them “breaded pork chops.” She never bothered to mention that “breaded pork chops” in Polish is kotlety schabowy.

Hope you enjoy them as much as we do!

You will need:

ingredients for mom's pork chops 4-12-14

  • Pork chops (any cut is fine; my mom always used center cut loin chops—the ones that look like little t-bone steaks—but boneless loin chops work well too.)
  • 1 egg  (this is enough for up to about 8 chops)
  • saltine crackers, crushed to small crumbs, but not to powder (I usually just crush a whole tube of crackers, but half a tube is enough for 3 or 4 chops)
  • salt and pepper
  • Lawry’s season salt or McCormick Season-All (they’re basically the same thing, you know)
  • cooking oil
  • three dinner plates
  • a cast iron or other oven-safe heavy frying pan with a lid that fits tightly

pork chop prep

Procedure (the oven should be preheating to 350 while you’re doing all of this):

  1. Break the egg(s) onto the first plate and scramble well.  You can add a teaspoon of water to make it stretch a little further.
  2. Put the crushed crackers on the second plate.
  3. Lightly season the chops to your taste with salt and pepper on one side and Lawry’s on the other.
  4. Dip one chop at a time into the egg and then into the crumbs, coating thoroughly.
  5. Set prepared chops on the third plate while you do the rest.
  6. Heat about 1/3 cup of oil in the cast iron skillet (depends on how many chops you’re doing).
  7. Fry the chops on medium heat, 3 at a time, about four or five minutes on each side until golden brown.   It doesn’t matter if they’re not cooked all the way through.
  8. If you’re only doing three or four, they should all fit in the pan you fried them in.  Just put the lid on the pan and bake at 350 degrees for ½ hour to 45 minutes (depends on thickness of chops). Remove the lid in the last ten minutes or so.
  9. If you’re making more than 3 or 4 chops, you can put them all on a jelly roll pan and cover it with foil so they can all bake at once.  That’s what I did tonight.

pork chops cooking 4-12-14

These are tender and juicy, never dry or tough, and they have fantastic flavor. My mom always served them with corn on the cob and some kind of noodles or macaroni and cheese. A great comfort food dinner!

BONUS: How to make perfect corn on the cob every time!

  • Clean the ears and cut off the ends.
  • Heat water to boiling in a pot large enough to hold however much corn you’re making.
  • Add about ¼ cup milk and 1 tsp sugar for every quart of water. DO NOT ADD SALT.
  • Put the corn in the boiling water. Cover and turn off the heat.
  • In 15-20 minutes you will have perfect corn.

Smacznego!

 

J is for Journaling

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It all started with Harriet the Spy.

Harriet, the eleven-year-old girl who aspired to be a writer and who carried a composition notebook everywhere she went, was my first—and really my only—female literary hero. I can’t begin to guess how many times I read that book.

Thanks to Harriet, I started keeping a journal when I was ten (and in fact I called it a Harriet Notebook), and my first entries were obvious attempts to emulate Harriet herself:

I must find out why Mom has been acting so strange lately. Think about this.

Yep, I really wrote that. My very first “journal” entry.

The first pages of that book also contain the lyrics to a Beatles song (“Get Back”), the Greek alphabet, and a detailed chart titled “Indian Color Significance.”

By the time I hit the sixth or seventh grade, it had become more like a diary than a journal (I realize they’re technically synonymous, but I’ve always thought of a diary as being more mundane and personal, and a journal as containing somewhat larger thoughts and ideas). The pages of those early books chronicle a seemingly endless series of teenage crushes and heartbreaks, which continued fairly relentlessly until I married and had children. Then, not surprisingly, the entries begin to tell of adventures in parenting; and later still, they focus on the adventures of a divorced and financially-strapped mom of three trying to make it through college and then grad school.

All in all, those early diaries comprise an unremarkable narrative of day-to-day life—a narrative likely to be of little interest to anyone but me. The entries, rarely remotely insightful, are comprised almost entirely of poorly organized, uncrafted stream-of-consciousness.

All the way until 2000, the books themselves looked just like Harriet’s:

journal 20 pic

The first page of the last book starts out with “an attempt to clarify—both for myself and for [a friend]—how I see agency, personal definition, and the ‘victimization’ of women as well as our subjugation.” Quite a stretch from the opening lines of the first book, but after all, they’re separated by twenty-five years.

In any event, that was the last book. After that, I switched to a computer. And with that switch came a gradual shift in approach, from diary to journal, though most of what I wrote in the transitional period from 2000 to 2005 was lost, first in a switch from Mac to PC and then to the blue screen of death.

In the past ten years or so, my jottings have become almost purely a writer’s journal. What I mostly find myself writing about these days are characters, plot lines, and possible scenes and themes, though at times, the mundane and the philosophical both still find their way in.

Forty-five years I’ve been doing this now.

None of what I’ve written in my journals has ever been meant for anyone’s eyes but my own. Yet I continue to write my entries whenever the mood strikes me—if not daily, at least frequently.

I’ve only recently learned that there’s a name—that is, a clinical diagnosis—for the obsession to write: Hypergraphia. I’m not sure where one draws the line between merely loving and even needing to write and being hypergraphic, but I do know that if writing is an illness, then I guess I have it.

But if I do, I’m in good company. Dostoevsky, van Gogh, Lewis Carroll, and Robert Burns are all reported to have had hypergraphia as well.

What about you?

I is for Identity

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I was looking for inspiration for my “I” post and coming up blank. I knew I wanted to talk about Identity—specifically, American identity, and even more specifically, my Polish-American identity.

I don’t come by it very honestly, really. I’ve never been to Poland. I don’t speak any Polish. I have in me, of course, several other nationalities and ethnicities, as most Americans do; and of course I am very interested in and proud of the stories and accomplishments of my English and Swiss ancestors.  But my Polish immigrant ancestry is the most recent, and thus the most immediate, and it’s also the most . . . well, the most. Fully fifty percent.

In my search for inspiration, I googled Polish American Identity, and one of the hits gave me this article by Caroline Puckowski, in which the author, a young woman whose parents came from Poland, recognizes and then laments the loss of the Polish part of her identity as her family becomes more and more Americanized.

She opens her article with the following lines:

I stood on a gravel path between two perfectly straight rows of gravestones, hands shoved into my pockets as I tried to hide from the blustering wind. Despite the unseasonably cold weather, a number of visitors strolled about the cemetery. Flowers and candles adorned the majority of graves, testaments to friends and family who had recently come to pay their respects. I, too, had come to do the same.

The cemetery she’s referring to is in Poland, and she’s there to leave flowers on the grave of her grandfather. The article is dated May 31, 2012.

It got me.

It got me because in the last days of May 2012, I too was trying to get my bearings in a cemetery far from home, though not as far as Puckowski had ventured.

st john's cemetery jackson mi 5-20-12

This cemetery is in Jackson, Michigan, where my grandparents settled when my grandfather, a boilermaker for the New York Central Railroad, was transferred there from New Jersey in 1913. I was in Jackson on a research trip (much of my novel is set there), though my first stop was to visit the graves of my grandparents and nine aunts and uncles buried there.

But it took me three days to find them all.  It’s a big cemetery, and I didn’t have a map.

I found my grandparents’ headstone last; it was clear on the other side of the cemetery from the others. The names on this stone, in addition to those of my grandparents (Joseph and Apolonia), belong to my much-beloved Uncle Eddie, who never married; my grandfather’s brother Alex; and Josephine, a child who died in infancy, though I like to think of her as my Aunt Josie.

urenowicz headstone 5-22-12

That my other aunts and uncles are in the same cemetery but so far removed from this site, as well as from each other—and two other aunts and uncles are interred in California, while my mom is here in Wisconsin—strikes me as symbolic: the scattering of a family across time, across so much time.

In my mind, though, they are all still together. Laughing. Making jokes. Cooking and eating the most marvelous meals. Celebrating life.

I spent quite some time at each grave, remembering their smiles, their laughter, and their sparkling eyes, and marveling that the last time I’d seen most of them, I was fourteen years old.

I shed many tears.

This, I thought—this is my Polish-American identity: my enduring love for beloved relatives who, though I haven’t seen them in forty years, still and will forever shape my worldview, how I think, and who I am.

I speak no Polish. I’ve never been to Poland. But Poland and its people, its customs and traditions, are in me. In my heart of hearts, I know these Polish-American souls have shaped who I am.

But I brought no flowers.

I wish I had.

And when I go back again, I will.

H is for Heuristics

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I’ve written before on the left brain-right brain conundrum, but I didn’t really offer any solutions. Today’s post is all about solutions.

The left brain is the conscious, logical side. If you’re a writer, this is where your Inner Editor resides. All writers have an Inner Editor—that’s the voice that tells you everything you write is garbage.

shakespeare's inner critic

The Inner Editor is a bully.

The right brain is the subconscious, creative side. That’s where the Muse lives hides.

There’s a bridge between the two sides (the corpus callosum), but most of us struggle to get across it, because smack in the middle of it is the massive barricade commonly known as Writer’s Block. No matter how hard we try to shut up the Inner Critic and no matter how persuasively we try to reassure the Muse that it’s safe to come out, the obstruction hinders communication between the two sides.

Heuristics are like a set of tools that can dismantle the roadblock piece by piece.

Here are four heuristic strategies you might want to try:

1. Mind Mapping: Pretty much everyone these days learns to do this in about the third grade, but by the time they hit college, they’ve largely given up on it as a kid’s kind of thing. Bring it back out.  It’s useful.  Really.

Start with a topic or an idea. Write it in the middle of a piece of paper and draw a circle around it.  (This is a great opportunity to go wild with colored pens and pencils.  The Muse loves color!)  Draw a few radii out from the center circle and define a subtopic for each one, again with a circle around each.  Then give each subtopic its own set of subtopics, etc.  Don’t censor yourself.  Sometimes ideas that look like crap at first can turn into very useful stuff indeed.  And if an idea doesn’t pan out, you simply won’t wind up using it in your story/article/novel.  No sweat.  The point is, nobody’s ever going to see this but you.

In writing fiction, one strategy you can try is to start with the title of a story in the center (Level A–see the sample below), and then the elements of fiction in the Level B subtopic areas (character, setting, plot, symbolism, theme, point of view). You can then give each of these a few radii and new bubbles of their own (Level C), and each bubble will then continue to branch further and further out (Levels D, E, etc.).  Some ideas will spider further out than others, and that’s fine.

Here’s a sample mind map:  sample mind map structure

 

2. Directed Freewriting: Ask yourself a question. It might be about a character, or about the relationship between two characters. It might be about motivation (either yours or a character’s), or a particular conflict, symbol, setting, or theme. Just keep it narrow and focused. Something like “Why does Sammy shut the door in Paul’s face?” can be a good question, or “What’s important about the rain in this scene?” Just make sure you’re not asking a yes-or-no question, or an either-or question. Try to use Why or How questions, since those lend themselves to more useful exploration.

Now write down the question, set a timer for five minutes (or ten, but I like five), and write nonstop in answer to the question.

Don’t stop writing for anything, not even to think about what to write next. Just write whatever is in your head. If you’re thinking, “this is stupid, I’ve got better things to do,” then that’s what you’re going to write. The idea is to get in tune with what’s in your head and get into the habit of writing it down. This is a great strategy for opening the communications between the brain and the hands. In particular, don’t stop to fix typos, and don’t stop to reword anything. Just write until the timer goes off. This isn’t getting published. Nobody’s going to see it but you.  Anything useful that you produce during these sessions can be crafted later.

Freewriting all by itself can be useful, but it doesn’t really become a heuristic activity until you start looping.

 

3. Looping: When your freewriting timer goes off, finish the sentence you’re on and stop writing. Read what you wrote and highlight anything in it that looks potentially useful or interesting. Set the timer again and do a new freewrite on one of the ideas you just highlighted. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Looping forces you to go deeper into a topic than your initial ideas might otherwise take you, and it’s a great way to overcome writer’s block.

 

4. Fact-Idea List: Divide a sheet of paper (or a word document) into two halves. On the left side, list all of the facts about your topic that you can think of. (This is a good place to list details from your research.) Then, on the right side, list all of your ideas.

Now look at the list of facts and see if you can combine any of them to create new ideas. Add the new ideas to the Ideas side of the sheet.

Then look at each idea on the Idea side, and try to take it apart to determine what facts led to it. List the new facts on the facts side.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

A fact-idea list uses both inductive and deductive reasoning to force its creator to come up with new ideas, and it also draws attention to facts that might not previously have seemed significant.

 

Have fun crossing the bridge!

 

Have you ever tried any of these?  Do you have other strategies that work for you?  I’d love to hear about them!

 

Source for Shakespeare’s Inner Critic cartoon:  http://tr.pinterest.com/pin/3870349651834271/

G is for Geography

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As part of a recent Washington Post survey asking Americans what they thought the U.S. should do about the current conflict in Ukraine, participants were asked to identify Ukraine on a blank world map. You can see the map here; each dot indicates someone’s guess. Red means you’re warm. Blue is cold.

The upshot of the article is that the less able the respondents were to locate Ukraine on a map, the more likely they were to support the idea of American military intervention there.

Such a conclusion leads to plenty of pretty interesting and potentially disturbing implications, but the WP does a pretty fair job of covering those, so I’ll leave them to it.

I was more than a bit distressed, however, to notice the number of respondents who plunked their cold blue dots smack in the middle of America’s heartland. One should not infer from this that anyone is silly enough to think Ukraine is actually in Nebraska, but rather that the Americans who put their dots there (or in Florida, Iowa, Tennessee, Colorado, or Alaska) can’t locate the United States on a world map at all.

I did an exercise like this in one of my classes several years ago. Preliminary to a unit in which the students were going to be reading The Kite Runner, I gave them each a blank map of the world and asked them to identify Afghanistan with a red X. Only one student got it right — and when I told her she was right, she laughed and said, “Really? I totally guessed!”

We were already at war in Afghanistan. Some of these students had friends and even family members there. But not a single one of them knew where “there” was.

It’s true that none of those students actually put their red X anywhere within the United States, but a couple of them did put them in Canada, and one or two in South America. And these were college students. Not just college students but honors students.

Americans in general really are notoriously bad at geography.

I don’t always know where countries are either, to be honest—no high horse here—but I like looking things up. When something’s going on in a place I can’t already identify on a map, I go online and find it.

But in looking up where my grandparents came from, I got pretty confused.

(You were wondering what all this has to do with my WIP, weren’t you?)

My grandparents were Polish. I’ve known that all my life. And I assumed, logically, that that meant they came from Poland. A logical assumption indeed, but wrong. In fact, on both ships’ manifests, they’re both listed as Russian.

I went in search of a map to find the cities they were from, but as it turned out, those cities are both in Lithuania.

Needless to say, I was pretty confused.  It was a real game changer for me, to discover after all these years that we were actually Lithuanian.

Except we’re not.  Or not exactly.

As it turned out, the problem was that I knew nothing at all about Polish geography, history, or psychology. I was looking at a present-day map of Poland and assuming that it was the same now as it always had been. Anyone looking at a present-day map will find the cities of Wilno and Kowno (aka Vilnius and Kaunas) thriving just fine, well within the borders of Lithuania.

But when my grandparents came to the U.S., Poland didn’t look like that.  In fact, at that point, Poland didn’t exist at all.

Until the late 1700s, Poland was quite large. But in 1772, the surrounding kingdoms (Prussia, Russia, and Austria) divided it and each took a big chunk. Then in 1793, Prussia and Russia each took another chunk, and in 1795, the three countries divided the remainder among themselves, and Poland as a country was no more. It was not reinstated until the end of World War I, and its borders were shifted yet again during World War II.

My grandparents were born in what was known as the Russian Partition, but they never identified as Russian.  They were ethnically Polish, and that distinction was a source of great pride among Poles.  Their country, during the period from 1795 to 1918, existed within their hearts.  They were Polish just as surely as they would have been if there’d been a country to actually hail from.  But there wasn’t, so on official documents, they were listed according to the nationality of whichever kingdom had absorbed their land.

Poland as we see it on a map today has only existed for about seventy years, and it’s only 120,726 square miles in size—less than half the size of Texas.

So now you’re wondering, maybe, what the current situation in Ukraine has to do with all of this, and why the Ukraine situation is relevant to my WIP.

The answer is this: Poland borders Ukraine, and in fact much of Ukraine was once part of the original Poland. Some of the same land that was disputed and partitioned in the 1700s is the same land that Russia is once again interested in today.

And I don’t know about anyone else, but I think it’s important to know where it is.

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