My days rarely start with a hook or end with a cliffhanger. The most satisfying hours are not spent on the edge of my seat in suspense. Momentum means being on a roll, in flow, where the rest of the world goes away and later I’ll wonder where the time went. Disruptions break the momentum.
"Fiction isn't like life," Christine DeSmet of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies told her novel-writing critique lab last year. Fiction creates an illusion of reality through techniques that are anything but. What breaks the momentum in fiction is having everything run smoothly. Engrossing as I find working a jigsaw puzzle, you’ll only keep reading about it if two of the pieces are lost and the cat’s running off with a third and the landlord’s going to put my furniture on the curb unless the puzzle is completed by five o’clock.
From tracing ancestry or writing history to indicting thirteen Russians for interference in U.S. elections, it all begins with gathering and evaluating evidence. Friday’s meticulous indictment details the suspects’ use of social media fraud to sow discord and spread distrust. However this plays out, no one can promise it won’t happen again. Care in gathering and evaluating evidence can make us less vulnerable.
Check your sources. You can only do so much to distinguish fake news from real, but how many even try? It doesn’t take long for a social media post to go viral. I can’t count the posts I’ve seen shared by at least four or five contacts before the first comment by someone who’s checked it against Snopes.com or noticed it’s from The Onion.
Monitor your confirmation bias. There’s a well-documented human tendency to believe what’s consistent with our pre-existing beliefs and dismiss what conflicts with them. If I tried to reexamine every issue every time it arose, I’d never get through the day. But remember that matching our expectations doesn’t always make things true. If the subversives weren’t playing to your biases this time around, the next ones might.
Look outside your box. One of the Russians’ strategies was to weaken the U.S. by increasing polarization. We can resist by refusing to play. We can read or watch media that doesn’t tilt to our side, listen to people with different life experiences, and be open to the possibility of common ground. It might not only make our nation less vulnerable but also make us better neighbors, historians, or writers.
One author drafts entire novels in longhand. Someone else jots the simplest notes to self on an electronic device. Fear not, I won’t tell you which to use, much less jump into the fray about what to teach in grade school. But how, when, and why people choose which technology intrigues me.
Different physical ways of writing interact differently with the brain. Students who take notes by hand have to put the material into their own words and formats. Afterward, they answer conceptual questions about the material better than those who use laptops. Keyboarding requires less mental processing; the student can type more nearly verbatim. When something closer to transcription is the purpose, the laptop has the edge.
Conversations with writers and others reveal that many of us vary our writing tool based on purpose. I use longhand to journal, to get unstuck, and to wrestle with a sentence that refuses to work. Almost all my blog posts begin with ink on lined yellow pad. If a longer scene or exposition is clear in my mind, I’ll go to my desktop computer and let the words flow. My typed drafts are wordier and need more later edits. Other writers tell me they have the opposite experience.
When do you write by hand? When do you keyboard?
Seeing ourselves as others see us is greatly overrated. Not having been filmed in decades, watching myself as a talking head in Dare to Dream: How Rotary Became the Heart and Soul of Polio Eradication was a bit of a jolt. On the other hand, what fun to see and hear leaders I know today as a writer, or worked with thirty-odd years ago as a Rotary staffer, or both. How young we all were!
Rotarian Ken Solow’s remarkable documentary recounts how Rotary decided to rid the world of polio and assembled partners for the effort. While my role as historian* is only a bit part in global polio eradication, Dare to Dream reaffirms that beginnings matter. The polio story in 1979-88 was messy, confusing, and sometimes mired in controversy or mistrust. That’s how movements begin. They succeed, if at all, because believers press on through the confusion and mess.
* Rotary and the Gift of a Polio-Free World, Volume I, Making the Promise, and Volume II, Almost Every Child.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.