Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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Are author interviews boring?

The reason I’m asking this question is because The Next Best Book Blog has run an interview of me today (click here) . It’s a series called Would You Rather, and the header asks a rhetorical question: Bored with the same old-fashioned author interviews you see all around the blogosphere? I had a load of fun answering those questions and I hope you’ll check it out.

I got to thinking during the interview. I’m not like those authors who want to cut themselves when they hear “Where do your ideas come from?” or “What are your greatest influences?” As I blogged yesterday, I often forget my influences, but I also feel a bit ashamed about them; so many are the usual books writers are “supposed to know”. Still, if I had to pick from among cliches and sentiments, I’d rather answer questions like, “Does an artist have a responsibility to society?” or “Is there any way to bring back the noble hero?”

Asking a writer where ideas come from is obviously loaded,  and to certain parties can be a put down. What do you mean where do my ideas come from? They come from me. I know a lot of people assume they “lack ideas” (they don’t, and more about that in a moment), and ideas must “exist somewhere”. But how would we feel if we asked a writer, “Hey, where do you get your ideas?” and s/he answered, “A vending machine outside Hammond, Indiana.” Would we seek out that machine? Would the art be interesting, then, if you could buy it for a quarter?

Any time I hear a piece of beautiful music or read an amazing book, I’m stunned by the artist’s creation. It’s shocking to think there existed nothing, but then an artist came around and released a symphony or an epic poem or a monumental sculpture straight out of empty space. It must have a source! Where? Tell us where!

That hope for a source is worth investigating.

I had a neighbor once tell me—most writers hear something like this—that, despite never having written a thing, she should write a book about her life. I asked why. Oh, she said, my ex-husband cheated on me, and I had a tough childhood, and my eldest daughter is in therapy over my ex-husband’s affairs, and I used to work in hospitality but I quit because I thought I’d raise a family.

She felt the weight of all this experience, all the sadness. I could sense it. But was it all that different from what anyone else has ever felt? Who knows. The book she imagined doesn’t exist. She never found (or carved out) time to sit and write.

Curious things happen when you force people to sit and write. I see it among my community college students. Most of them—perhaps 90% of them—believe they lack ideas. They’ll prove it to you: ask them to write a regular old college essay and it will drip with “say no to drugs” and “it’s unfair to be judged” cliches high schools dump into young brains. But when you make them freewrite—just keep pen to paper for ten minutes without pause and allow whatever comes to come—all kinds of intimate surprises appear.

If you want to know where writers’ ideas come from, try freewriting. When you see what’s there, what came from you, ask yourself which of those bits you’d be willing to develop and share with strangers. That’s what a writer is. We share the bits most people pack away while wondering where the good ideas are.

glue

 


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Independence is a myth (part 2, the expanded version)

I’ve written about this topic before, as long-time readers of my blog will know. This week’s True Community article deals with the myth of independence. Any basic look at human interaction makes it clear that we are interdependent, and that our fate and lot is determined not just by the actions of neighbors but by people who’ve long since died. Why does that offend us? Why are we so reluctant to think of ourselves as members of systems instead of islands.

I hope you enjoy tonight’s article.

Here’s another bit on the same topic from 2012, titled The Pre-Birth Menu.

Three Lamps


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Luck vs. Intelligence

I had a curious experience this week at the college. It illuminates assumptions my students have about learning.

I’ve assigned The Big Short to my sections of English 102 (it’s an intro to research class). Most of the students who refused to read it have either dropped the class or no longer attend. The rest, about 60% of the originally registered, fall somewhere between the few students who are able to engage a decent discussion of the material to the rest who find the book impenetrable. That second group really offered me interesting items in recent essays.

I asked a question regarding luck vs. intelligence. Two of the figures in the book (Ledley and Mai), young men who shorted the CDO market in the middle of the last decade, describe themselves as lucky even though they do very intelligent things. They research the markets. They seek the help of folks (whom they perceive to be) more knowledgable than themselves. They actively seek out people who might offer them an opposite point of view to their own and, when they are unable to find any, conclude that they must be right about what they have learned.

Most students considered them to be primarily lucky. They ignored their actions and focussed on their descriptions of themselves. After all, these men must be self-aware. They’re rich!

Students also revealed striking assumptions about how one acquired knowledge. Some of them:

1.) There are two groups of people. One group knows things. The other group does not. If you exist in the second, you cannot move to the first. (This despite all the evidence in the book to the contrary!)

2.) You’re lucky if you know things and unlucky if you don’t.

3.) If you have someone who can help you, you’re lucky. If you ask them for help, you’re even more lucky.

4.) It’s not fraud if it takes someone time to figure out they’ve been tricked. Fraud only occurs when the person who’s been tricked figures it out right away.

5.)It’s normal to get tricked. Therefore, it’s not fraud.

6.) You’re lucky if you make a decision to improve your life. If you choose not to improve your life, it’s because you’re unlucky.

There are others but they’re complicated and would require me to deal too deeply with the reading material here. The ones I’ve listed, I think, are already shocking. While they help me understand why some percentage of my community college students look at learning as a hopeless endeavor, they don’t help me understand how these lessons have been formed. You’d assume students understand that they once did not know how to drive but eventually learned. It had something to do with luck, I suppose—you must, for example, have access to cars and education. But you must still start from a position of ignorance. You were not born knowing how to drive.

The assumption that you’re supposed to have already understood everything when you begin the lesson must come—I’m guessing—from the drill and repeat and review structure of their high school classes. If this is not true, I’m at a total loss. It really pains me to think that students believe they should already know how to do the things their college classes are teaching them and how horrible it must feel when they realize how unlucky they are.