Don't Shake the Flask

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Writing and Reading, Intention and Perception

I recently went to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC last weekend. It’s a haven for book nerds and book geeks, a veritable cornucopia of books and programming dedicated to the written word. The last time I went to the festival was over a decade ago when I was still a student. Back then, it was at UCLA and any sort of spontaneity was tempered by the fact that I was specifically going to the festival to get credit for a contemporary poetry class I was taking at the time.

But this time, I went myself and got to attend events I wanted to attend and not see writers who were required on a syllabus. This sort of freedom is the kind of thing that makes books fun for me. The freedom of choice. Maybe that boils down to my personality as well. I don’t particularly like being told what to do unless there’s a very good reason for it. I read what I want to read—I don’t follow book clubs. I might use book awards and word-of-mouth recommendations to help me choose what to read, but I wouldn’t dream of slavishly following them. On the other side, I also write what I want to write. To me, I only want to write about what I find interesting. Otherwise, it’s only going to bore the audience—which could just be me or anyone stumbling upon this blog post.

It’s this freedom of choice, however, that is the sticking point for some people who read and write. This very problem was brought up at one of the talks that I attended. What subject matter is appropriate for a writer to write about? Is the sky (and beyond) the limit or are we constrained by our own experiences? As readers, do we have a responsibility to read certain things and interpret the writing in certain ways?

The specific situation that generated these questions is that of writers recounting the African-American experience through fiction and poetry. Some argue that only African-Americans are allowed or qualified to write African-American characters. The main concern with this argument (as far as I understand it) is a mixture of the “write what you know” philosophy and the desire to take back the narrative from other writers (particularly white writers) who have appropriated their culture and identity and repackaged it in such a way that there is a high chance (and according to some, a 100% chance) of the African-American narrative getting skewed by a non-African-American lens—no matter how seemingly transparent. This, of course, can be generalized to any minority group that has been traditionally trampled by the majority, be it race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, religion, politics or any other social division.

On the other side, writers want the freedom to write whatever they want. As Joyce Carol Oates said in her talk, if we write only what we know, it’s actually “not very much.” One example that illustrates the importance of the freedom to write what you don’t know (or rather, what is beyond your personal experience) is genre writing. Of course authors haven’t traveled on spaceships or talked to elves. It’s probably very likely that a writer hasn’t murdered someone or summoned the bogeyman. Real life doesn’t have a happily ever after that ends with a marriage and the hero riding off into the sunset—instead, it’s complicated. But writing about science fiction and fantasy, mystery and horror, romance and adventure are not any less valid ways of telling a story. This isn’t just about the fantastic either. Writing whatever you want also means having the freedom to take your imagination anywhere—not only to another planet but also to another person’s experience.

Human beings, particularly ones who have grown out of toddlerhood, are probably the only animals on this planet with a truly sophisticated sense of the theory of mind. We can put ourselves in another’s shoes and imagine what it’s like to be them. The theory of mind is absolutely essential for us social animals. If we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t have a civilization. This is where I think the argument of writing whatever you can imagine rests. You can imagine the Other and empathize with the Other. You realize that the Other has similar fears and joys that you do. The Other is no longer Other but just as human as you and me.

It’s one thing to write about someone who isn’t you in a realistic and sympathetic way. Some, however, are leery about the times when portrayals of their own group go horribly wrong. The stereotypes and the prejudices. Bowdlerization and simplification. Outright falsification, sanitization, and erasure. One solution that some have proposed is that only people from a particular group should write about their own group. People in other groups shouldn’t even attempt to write about them. This particular proposal is unsatisfying and more importantly, extremely troubling to me. The natural outgrowth of this is to not only put writers but also readers in a ghetto. We already see this with some bookstores that shelve all the African-American writers in the African-American section or LGBT authors in the LGBT section regardless of whether these writers are penning stories about their own culture or something completely different. And by separating them out that way, isn’t this telling readers that they must belong to those groups in order to read them? This isn’t being inclusive at all.

So what can writers write about? Do writers have certain obligations they have in what they can write about? And what about readers? Do they have any obligations to the authors and to themselves for what they read? I still feel that writers should have the freedom to write whatever they wish to write. They aren’t constrained by imagination. But whatever they write, they should take responsibility for it because someone’s going to read their work and react to it. A writer is not free from the consequences of putting their words out for public consumption because they cannot control what other people do. A writer from a majority group is not entitled to automatic praise and good reviews when writing about a minority group. If what you wrote was wrong, then apologize and do better next time. If someone “misinterpreted” your words and got offended, then learn from it. I put “misinterpreted” in quotes because there are no wrong interpretations with literature. It all depends on the viewpoint of the reader and there are as many viewpoints as there are readers in the world.

As for readers, well, that can get complicated too. Readers read for all sorts of reasons, none of them any less valid than another. Readers also have the choice of what to read (with the exception of literature classes). Books are art, are commodities, are choices. What they aren’t is the equivalent of bran cereal that we have to eat every day to keep regular. It seems, on the surface, that readers have carte blanche in what they read and how they interpret what they read. There are many authors who have the view that once the book is published and out in the world, there’s really nothing they can do to respond to other people’s interpretation of their work. But that’s not entirely true. The book is the focal point of a discussion between the author and the reader. And while the writer should be cognizant that the reader can react in any sort of manner to their words, the reader should also realize that it’s an act of bad faith if they willfully misinterpret a writer’s words and ignore the context in which those words were written.

In the end, I would argue for freedom of writing and reading whatever you want. This doesn’t mean you also have freedom from the consequences of what you read or write because there is always another human being on the other side of those words. What’s important is that as a writers and readers, we should try to learn and understand the other point of view no matter how difficult or painful it may be. And by trying to expand where we go with words rather than insulating ourselves with our own experiences, we can take the first step in erasing those boundaries between Us and Them.

April 2015 Camp NaNoWriMo Prompts for Week 2

I had intended on posting this earlier, but things got a bit crazy with work and then this weekend I got distracted with the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. So this got pushed further back. But better late than never, right? So here it is, the prompts for week 2!

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April 8, 9:00am-12:00pm (UTC -8)
Headlines from Nature – April 2, 2015 Issue

  • Total recall (10 min)
  • Communication breakdown (30 min)
  • Welcome oblivion (30 min)
  • Turning point (10 min)
  • Like falling in love (20 min)
  • Here be dragons (30 min)
  • Global effects (10 min)

April 8, 10:00pm-12:00am (UTC -8)
Mad Men Quotes

  • “One minute you’re on top of the world, the next minute some secretary’s running you over with a lawn mower.” (10 min)
  • “I told him to be himself. That was pretty mean I guess.” (15 min)
  • “I’m not a solution to your problem. I’m another problem.” (30 min)
  • “One never knows how loyalty is born.” (20 min)
  • “Fear stimulates my imagination.” (15 min)

April 9, 9:15am-11:00am (UTC -8)
Fairy Tale Elements Part 1

  • Talking animals and objects (10 min)
  • Cleverness, trickster, word games (20 min)
  • Traveler’s tales (30 min)
  • Origins (5 min)
  • Human weakness explored (10 min)

April 9, 9:00pm-12:00am (UTC -8)
Fairy Tale Elements Part 2

  • Human strengths glorified (10 min)
  • Tall story, slight exaggeration, hyperbole (20 min)
  • Magic words or phrases; repetition of phrases/words (30 min)
  • Guardians (5 min)
  • Monsters (15 min)
  • Struggle between good and evil, light and dark (25 min)
  • Youngest vs. oldest (10 min)
  • Sleep (30 min)

April 10, 7:45am-10:00am (UTC -8)
Fairy Tale Elements Part 3

  • Impossible tasks (10 min)
  • Quests (30 min)
  • Gluttony/starvation (20 min)
  • Keys, passes, opening new doors (10 min)
  • Donors, benefactors, helpers (30 min)
  • Enchantment (15 min)

April 10, 6:30pm-8:30pm (UTC -8)
List of Musical Styles

  • Acoustic (15 min)
  • Ambient (30 min)
  • Ancient (30 min)
  • Avant-garde (5 min)
  • Baggy (15 min)

April 10, 10:00pm-12:00am (UTC -8)
Catchphrases

  • “Ooh, you are awful…but I like you!” (10 min)
  • “I don’t believe it!” (20 min)
  • “Listen very carefully, I shall only say this once.” (30 min)
  • “I have a cunning plan.” (10 min)
  • “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” (5 min)
  • “Say hello to my little friend.” (15 min)

April 11, 9:00am-12:00pm (UTC -8)
Magic: the Gathering Key Words Part 1

  • Flash (10 min)
  • Flying (20 min)
  • Fight (30 min)
  • Fading (10 min)
  • Fate (20 min)
  • Fear (30 min)
  • Flanking (5 min)

April 11, 10:00pm-12:00am (UTC -8)
Magic: the Gathering Key Words Part 2

  • Protection (10 min)
  • Persist (20 min)
  • Phasing (5 min)
  • Poisonous (30 min)
  • Provoke (15 min)
  • Prowl (10 min)

April 12, 9:15am-12:15pm (UTC -8)
Proverbial Phrases

  • A word to the wise is enough (15 min)
  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder (10 min)
  • Absolute power corrupts absolutely (30 min)
  • Everything comes to those who wait (15 min)
  • Finders keepers, losers weepers (10 min)
  • Flattery will get you nowhere (30 min)
  • Honesty is the best policy (10 min)
  • If anything can go wrong, it will (20 min)

April 12, 2:45pm-5:00pm (UTC -8)
Magic: the Gathering Key Words Part 3

  • Scavenge (10 min)
  • Scry (15 min)
  • Shadow (30 min)
  • Soul bond (20 min)
  • Splice (10 min)
  • Split second (15 min)

April 12, 10:00pm-12:00am (UTC -8)
Animal Metaphors

  • Black swan event (10 min)
  • Butterfly effect (20 min)
  • Red herring (30 min)
  • Jumping the shark (10 min)
  • Lone wolf (30 min)

April 13, 9:00am-12:00pm (UTC -8)
Drosophila Gene Names

  • Capricious (10 min)
  • Deadpan (20 min)
  • Hindsight (30 min)
  • Mastermind (10 min)
  • Slouch (20 min)
  • Wishful thinking (30 min)
  • Breathless (5 min)
  • Glass bottom boat (10 min)

April 13, 3:10pm-6:00pm (UTC -8)
Genetics

  • Surface change (15 min)
  • Rose, pea, duplex (30 min)
  • Day/night cycle (15 min)
  • Desert (30 min)
  • Compass (10 min)
  • Transposable (20 min)
  • Expression (10 min)

April 13, 9:00pm-12:00am (UTC -8)
Cucumber Varieties

  • Lucky dance (10 min)
  • Thunder (15 min)
  • Tasty jade (5 min)
  • Diva (30 min)
  • Genuine (15 min)
  • Stonewall (30 min)
  • Impact (15 min)
  • Early triumph (20 min)

April 14, 9:15am-12:00pm (UTC -8)
Food Metaphors

  • Pear-shaped (10 min)
  • No such thing as a free lunch (20 min)
  • When life gives you lemons, make lemonade (30 min)
  • Spaghettification (10 min)
  • Carrot and stick (20 min)
  • You can’t have your cake and eat it (30 min)
  • Breadcrumbs (5 min)

April 14, 10:00pm-12:00am (UTC -8)
Condiments

  • Ketchup (10 min)
  • Forever young (monkey gland sauce) (20 min)
  • Salsa (30 min)
  • Bird’s eye (colo-colo) (15 min)
  • Gravy (20 min)

April 2015 Camp NaNoWriMo Prompts for Week 1

Whoa, it feels like forever since I last posted to the blog. All I can say is that things have been very busy of late and sleep and fun times have been shoved aside in favor of work. I will try to post a little more often this month since it’s Camp NaNo and once again, I’m doing @NaNoWordSprints on Twitter.

The following are the prompts I used for the first week. (The entire archive of prompts from the past couple of years is located here.) Feel free to take any or all of them to help inspire you in your writing.

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March 31, 10:30pm-1:00am (UTC -8)
Sneaking around camp

  • Raid (15 min)
  • Crawl and hide (15 min)
  • Physical exertion (30 min)
  • Stealth (10 min)
  • Taken (20 min)
  • Late night (15 min)

April 1, 9:00pm-12:00am (UTC -8)
Eurovision 2015 song titles/Editing

  • Warrior/spelling and grammar (10 min)
  • Chain of lights/fix plot hole (20 min)
  • Black smoke/consistent characterization (30 min)
  • Goodbye to yesterday/unnecessary description (10 min)
  • Unbroken/polish some dialogue (20 min)
  • One last breath/rewrite a scene (30 min)
  • Face the shadow/revise transition scene (5 min)
  • Hope never dies/work on awkward phrasing (10 min)

April 3, 9:00pm-1:00am (UTC -8)
American game shows

  • The price is right (10 min)
  • Jeopardy (20 min)
  • Deal or no deal (30 min)
  • Family feud (10 min)
  • Wheel of fortune (20 min)
  • The dating game (30 min)
  • Pyramid (10 min)
  • Win, lose or draw (10 min)
  • Survivor (20 min)
  • Everything goes (10 min)

April 4, 3:00pm-5:00pm (UTC -8)
What if

  • What if your main character discovered a dead body? (10 min)
  • What if the antagonist’s grandmother called in the middle of an Important Event? (20 min)
  • What if a character arrives with some distressing news? (10 min)
  • What if the weather ruins some important plans? (30 min)
  • What if a mysterious package gets delivered to the wrong person? (20 min)

April 4, 10:00pm-12:00am (UTC -8)
Medieval folklore

  • Giants, strength, conflict (10 min)
  • Rites of passage (15 min)
  • Fool, commentary, vice (30 min)
  • Dance, costume, community (15 min)
  • Traditions (10 min)

April 5, 2:15pm-4:15pm (UTC -8)
Senses

  • Sight (20 min)
  • Hearing (10 min)
  • Smell (30 min)
  • Touch (10 min)

April 5, 7:00pm-8:30pm (UTC -8)
RADAR sprinting: Festivals

  • Porcupine freedom (15 min)
  • Pepper jelly (10 min)
  • Renaissance (20 min)
  • Sasquatch (15 min)

April 6, 10:00pm-12:00am (UTC -8)
Quotes from Gilgamesh

  • Who would venture there? (10 min)
  • The door through which the cold gets in (20 min)
  • The weeping does not end day or night (30 min)
  • Pay heed to a little one that holds on to your hand (10 min)
  • Study how it is made (10 min)
  • A slippery path is not feared by two people who help each other (10 min)

April 7, 12:30pm-2:00pm (UTC -8)
Headlines from Science (April 3, 2015 issue)

  • Realizing the promise (10 min)
  • A community for disaster (20 min)
  • New products (20 min)
  • ‘The Blob’ invades Pacific, flummoxing climate experts (15 min)

April 7, 10:00pm-12:00am (UTC -8)
Jeopardy!

  • Bagpipe, bazooka, breathless (10 min)
  • Mummification, goddess, cult (20 min)
  • Nickle, mercury, gold, helium (10 min)
  • Some say cheese like casu marzu is better with these little critters (20 min)
  • This comes in many different sizes. It can both frighten and delight. And it never lets go. (30 min)

Old Town Skulls

Old Town, San Diego, CA

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Crouching Kitties Hidden Sheep

The Lunar New Year Tết Festival last weekend was interesting and had some terrific food, but I’d have to say I had a lot more fun at the Chinese New Year Festival today. A lot of it had to do with the really great performances (the Naruwan Taiko group drew a huge crowd and they were awesome. I highly recommend seeing them if you have a chance), the energetic and personable MCs, and the somewhat intimate layout of the festival downtown which is really a feat considering the size of the city.

This year is the year of the sheep/ram/goat. (This isn’t clear because the Chinese character is inclusive of all these creatures. But “Year of the Horned Ruminant” doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it.) However, I saw few of these at the festival–only at a children’s puppet show and depicted on the t-shirts the local Chinese cultural association were selling. The big draw was mainly the dragon and lion dancers.

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A new cat cafe opened in San Diego last December. It’s not the first cat cafe to open in the US though. That honor goes to the one in San Francisco which opened last October. The cafe was on the same block as the festival so I figured I might as well pop in and see how it was like. I think this is a great idea to help cats from the local humane society to get adopted. So if you’re seriously thinking about adopting a cat, this is the place to go. If you’re a crazy cat enthusiast with grabby hands, however, this might not be for you. The employees really do look out for the cats’ well being and there are pretty strict rules for visitors.

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On the 101 with a Quarter in My Shoe

Yes, there was a quarter in my shoe. Apparently the change I got from my morning coffee fell through a hole in my pocket. Anyways, here’s what I did on Presidents Day. Note of advice: get to the beach early or you’ll never find parking. (I got to Carlsbad at 8 AM and I thought I was lucky getting a space. The beaches open at 6 AM.)

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Carlsbad, CA

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Oceanside, CA

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Sunset Cliffs, San Diego, CA

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Super Beach Sunday

Cabrillo National Monument, Tidal Pools

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Lions and Tigers and No Bears

At the San Diego Safari Park

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Koi on a Sunday

At the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum

An Educational Saturday

Various museums at Balboa Park (San Diego)

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