Where My Strengths Lie

I haven’t written on writing in a while. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about.

I used to think that I was a terrible creative writer. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have attempted to write fiction only to look at my work and feel absolutely dissatisfied with it. Every attempt I made at world building and character building seemed to be an epic fail, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I was so terrible at writing fiction. And it made me feel bad about my abilities as a writer. I had this concept in my mind that a writer wasn’t worth their salt unless they could write fiction. It’s taken some insight from some fellow Ravelers for me to realize that I’ve been looking at my abilities in the wrong light.

I’m not a good fiction writer. And that’s okay.

I’m a nonfiction writer. My best writing comes when I can look at a set of cold, hard facts and weave them together with some well-thought-out prose. I can take information and turn it into a story. I can take a concept and write a full essay on it. I can take bits of my own life and find a way to share them with you, which is why I have stuck to writing this blog for three and a half years.

So what if I get frustrated with the characters I create? The characters that populate our own real world create themselves. So what if I can’t come up with my own fictional land? The land around me…especially the land around me (Florida is so crazy it’s become its own meme) has its own stories to tell. I can’t draw, so I might as well write and play with yarn, right?

So, yeah…today’s post is kind of short, but I just wanted to let it out into the world.

The Future of Literature is Female

Last night, PBS’s The Great American Read revealed the results of its months-long poll of readers from all over the United States to determine this country’s best-loved novel. To very little surprise from me, the readers selected To Kill a Mockingbird by the late Harper Lee. (Coincidentally, my blogger buddy Mr Knitter has a dog named Harper-Lee, who is an adorable brown-eyed Staffordshire Bull Terrier. No doubt named after the author?) I didn’t expect the Outlander series to finish in second, though! I voted for several books and series on the list, including Mockingbird, 1984, The Hunger Games, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Gone with the Wind.

Before I get into my commentary on today’s post, I’ll list the top ten books and series from this list along with their authors.

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee * @
  2. Outlander (series) by Diana Gabaldon * @
  3. Harry Potter (series) by J. K. Rowling *
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen * @
  5. The Lord of the Rings (series) by J. R. R. Tolkien
  6. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell * @
  7. Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White @
  8. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott * @
  9. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
  10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë * @

See all those asterisks (*)? Those were all books written by women. Seven of those top ten books were written by women. And the @ signs indicate books and series that have female characters as lead characters in the books (and I included Charlotte’s Web because the title character is female…just not a human female; Charlotte A. Cavatica is a female barn spider who is just as much a lead character as Wilbur the pig is). Out of those ten, I’ve read Mockingbird, Harry Potter, Gone with the Wind, and Charlotte’s Web; I’ve attempted to read Pride and Prejudice and Little Women, but have never managed to finish them. Twelve of the top 20 books on the list were written by women authors, including Agatha Christie and Ayn Rand. You can see the full list of 100 here.

I was also inspired to get three ebooks from this list (I had previously purchased an Apple gift card to get a couple of novelizations of The Tribe that I plan on reading after I finish watching the entire series; I am currently halfway through Series 2…I still had some funds left over for more ebooks), all by women: The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (which was available for free through Apple Books, presumably because of its age), and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. (I also purchased the ebook of Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner, who did not make the list. I’ve previously read The Sound and the Fury.)

I’m amazed at how much Americans these days admire, read, and buy novels and series written by women authors! J. K. Rowling has become one of the best-selling authors of all time, first with the Harry Potter series and now as the woman behind Robert Galbraith and the Cormoran Strike series (kinda like how Nora Roberts writes crime novels as J. D. Robb). Jane Austen is celebrated by women all over the world as the foremother of the modern romance novel two centuries after her lifetime. My current read, Catching Fire, is part of a trilogy written by a woman (Suzanne Collins) whose protagonist is a fiery young woman (Katniss Everdeen). Jodi Picoult and Heather Morris and Celeste Ng are among a crop of recent women authors who’ve made waves on bestseller lists and on the way to writing modern classics. Nora Roberts, Danielle Steele, and Debbie Macomber are all hugely popular these days. And the runner-up from The Great American Read, Diana Gabaldon (the woman behind the Outlander series), has a huge fan following.

In a field where scholarship and criticism was largely focused on works by men for the longest time, it is impressive and a bit interesting that a lot of the highest placing books and series on this list were by women authors! Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged experienced the largest jump in the voting, going from #43 to #20 over the course of the vote. (Speaking of Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead is the next book on my reading list after Catching Fire; The Fountainhead is by far the longest book on my reading list at the moment.) And the plots and genres of those books are just as varied as the authors themselves: Outlander and Gone with the Wind have elements of romance and historical fiction, Anne of Green Gables is celebrated in children’s literature, Harry Potter is child-oriented fantasy, Agatha Christie was the Queen of Mystery Novels, and Ayn Rand dared to challenge the minds and mores of her readers and openly bucked what was considered “politically correct” (in the original sense, not the modern sense) in her homeland of Russia as it descended into the communism of the Soviet Union and she ended up influencing an entire generation of readers and politicians in the United States (regardless of whether you agree with her ideals; I am just talking about her influence as an author).

I’ve talked so much here about women authors and the readers they’ve influenced, but it is also important to note that not all women in the world are as lucky as women in the Western World are. According to ProLiteracy, two-thirds of all illiterate people in the world are women. In many parts of the world where religious conservatism and patriarchal culture are still the norm, women’s education is considered subversive or even outright forbidden. Illiterate women are more likely to live in poverty. Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai was nearly assassinated because she believed all girls deserved the right to an education, and she has since made it her life’s mission to advocate for the education of girls and women all over the world…all while pursuing a university degree at the University of Oxford. Literacy is directly connected to the ability to advance oneself socially and economically. We should be doing everything we can to ensure that all who have the ability to do so can learn how to read and write and be able to provide proper assistance and learning strategies to those who may have difficulties in doing so due to issues like learning disorders like dyslexia. We shouldn’t be letting people fall through the cracks.

Women readers become new women authors. Women readers, no matter the genders of the authors that influence and inspire them, become inspired to create characters and worlds of their own. Women authors can stand on their own and beside the men who are also inspired to write and who’ve inspired women to write. Women authors are not just romance writers: they write political discourse and of fantastical worlds. They write horror stories and thrillers and crime & mystery novels. They write science fiction and dystopian novels and follow in the footsteps of writers like Ursula K. Le Guin. I think the future of literature is definitely female. We celebrate all great books, regardless of the genders of their authors. But it does put a smile on my face to see women authors doing so well and influencing so many readers today.

Are there any female authors who’ve moved or inspired you as a reader or writer? And that question is open to my male readers, too, because you also matter to me as a blogger. Feel free to respond in the comments.

Ernest Hemingway: America’s Answer to Marmite.

It took me about four months and many fits and starts, but I finally finished reading A Farewell to Arms! I’ll admit that part of the reason why it took so long for me to read it was because my nighttime routine of waking up several times a night to check on or help out my mom during my dad’s work nights messed up my sleeping patterns enough that I was often feeling incredibly tired and would end up falling asleep during the day, which would take time out of my reading. And some of it did have to do with Mr. Hemingway’s writing style as well.

What follows is my own account of my experience of reading this novel. It is not a straight-up review, as reviews tend to nitpick the text itself more or less, while I like to include my own personal insight on the overall reading experience. This is not intended to be an academic analysis, so I may change subjects without much notice.

A Farewell to Arms is only the second Ernest Hemingway novel I have ever read, and the first I have read of my own volition. I have mentioned previously that when I was a freshman in high school, my English class studied The Old Man and the Sea, which I have also said is usually a typical teenager’s first exposure to the work of Mr. Hemingway. I believe my dad has said he also remembers reading it in school as well. My experience of reading The Old Man and the Sea took place so long ago that I barely remember any of it! Thus, I consider A Farewell to Arms to be my first real exposure to Mr. Hemingway’s work. I bought it on a whim at my local bookstore, as when I went into the shop that day, I had no list of any particular books in mind and just decided to go with my gut. (My local bookstore has a pretty extensive classics section and seems to have just about every notable novel you could think of! The ones I bought back in March barely scratch the surface of what was there, and I’d love to go back and add to my collection whenever I have a significant sum of money again.)

Ernest Hemingway may very well be one of the most polarizing authors in the entire American literary pantheon. This post is subtitled “America’s Answer to Marmite” for a reason: that is because just like the British delicacy Marmite (and its Australian cousin Vegemite), unless you’ve had a longtime exposure to him, you’re either going to like Ernest Hemingway and his writing style or you’re going to detest him. There is no middle ground when it comes to Hemingway (or Marmite).

Hemingway has a reputation of being the epitome of the American vision of manliness and machismo, and his writing style, as such, is not incredibly nuanced. His reputation, as such, could make him the literary equivalent of men like Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone, Teddy Roosevelt, Clint Eastwood, and John Wayne. Any twists and turns that I came across while reading A Farewell to Arms came at me in a very straightforward manner. Hemingway has no time to paint the scene for you with his words: he tells you exactly what is going on as it’s going on and puts you right there with Frederic Henry as he experiences meeting and falling in love with the beautiful English nurse, Catherine Barkley. You are there with Frederic Henry as his knee is severely wounded while eating cheese in a trench with his fellow Army medics during a battle in World War I-era Italy (“I was blown up while we were eating cheese.”). You are there as he recovers in an Italian hospital and his relationship with Catherine becomes serious, and she eventually becomes pregnant with his child. You can see a pattern here. I won’t spoil the later parts of the novel for you.

In some ways, Ernest Hemingway’s writing style reminds me a lot of my own father, who I would consider to be very much of the same mold of personality of men like Hemingway and Chuck Norris and Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. (Any Hemingway readers may have just noticed I used a Hemingway trademark literary device in that last sentence, the polysyndeton: the deliberate insertion of conjunctions to break up the rhythm of a section of prose in order to make a point.) My father is also the kind of man who doesn’t like one to spin a yarn while telling a story (as I am one to normally do), he’s very much a “get to the point already!” kind of guy. Hemingway, I found, employs that same kind of attitude to his storytelling. His tone can be very blunt and succinct at times, but he also loves to insert as much detail into certain passages to try and set up the scene for you. He’s not really one for symbolism and the bigger picture because his style is so blunt. His descriptions of things are blunt. His recounting of events is blunt. His cynicism is blunt. It can come across as cavemanesque at times, but he was a minimalist by nature, from his time as a journalist into his career in writing fiction. His practice of “iceberg theory” (or theory of omission) is very much present in A Farewell to Arms, where he doesn’t tend to ponder very long about the meanings of things that have happened to Frederic Henry over the course of the novel. At times he leaves it up to the reader to fill in the blanks, and reading up on Mr. Hemingway’s life and writing style, these are techniques he would employ throughout his writing career (A Farewell to Arms was only his second novel, after The Sun Also Rises, which is Hemingway’s entry on the list of 100 novels being considered for the PBS series The Great American Read. It begins airing next Tuesday in the United States).

I can understand why a lot of female readers find him off-putting and consider him a misogynist. In A Farewell to Arms, Catherine is not really portrayed much as an independent-thinking or acting character outside of her relationship and interactions with Frederic, and he tends to treat her like a delicate object meant for adoration rather than an equal partner in the relationship, even before she becomes pregnant. A couple of teenage (?) girls that his company comes upon while his unit moves through the Italian countryside after he is kicked out of the hospital are seen as sex objects by some of Frederic’s men. This, combined with his no-frills, straight-to-the-point writing style tends not to appeal to the average female reader. The average female reader tends to rely a lot upon emotional reactivity during the reading process and also relies a lot on empathy, putting herself in a character’s shoes and trying to experience the character’s experience. Hemingway’s storytelling, by practice, tends to be the very opposite of that, which can make it difficult for the average female reader to put herself in his characters’ shoes. Thus, a female reader attempting to really read Hemingway for the first time is definitely taking on a challenge when she dives into one of his works. The most emotional part of the entire novel actually comes at the very end (again, I will not spoil it for you), and even then Frederic chooses to remain emotionally distant from what has just happened to him and resigns himself to walking back to his hotel in the rain, leaving it up to the reader to wonder what will happen to Frederic in the aftermath of what he’s just gone through.

So, did I end up liking Hemingway or disliking him? I ended up giving the book itself three stars on Goodreads (out of five), mostly because the readability of it did not flow as nicely as I would have liked and I didn’t find myself emotionally engaging with the novel…but that doesn’t mean it was terrible! For me, readability plays into emotional engagement and it left my own personal experience with it a bit lacking, but once I considered Hemingway’s writing style and put it into context with his life and his personality, I feel like I understand him a little better. Perhaps a different adventure would connect with me a little better than the foreign-to-me concepts of love and war did. I haven’t moved out of the gray area just yet, but I honestly would take the risk and read another one of his novels. Perhaps I should’ve started with The Sun Also Rises! But A Farewell to Arms wasn’t too bad for my first voluntary foray into an author as polarizing as Ernest Hemingway.

So, for those of you who’ve read Hemingway, did you feel the same way I did or did you get something completely different out of it? Have you ever come across any authors that challenged you and your reading preferences like Hemingway did for me? Have you ever gone out of the box when it comes to reading choices just out of pure curiosity? Share your experiences in the comments! I look forward to hearing your insight on Mr. Hemingway or any other author you feel like discussing!

June 12: Anne’s Legacy

The 12th of June marks the second anniversary of the PULSE nightclub massacre in Orlando, which I wrote about extensively last year in the entry “PULSE: One Year Later”. Two years on, we as region are focusing on how to live with the pain and sadness the events of that day has left with us, and those most deeply affected by it are continuing the healing process day by day.

Today I would like to focus my writing on another victim of hate, one who made her legacy by just trying to survive in the most difficult of situations and writing vividly and truthfully about her experiences. Anne Frank was born on this date in 1929 and would have turned 89 if she had survived to the present day. Of course, she is best known for the diary that she kept during the years she and her family spent in hiding in her father’s office building in Amsterdam in order to escape from the Nazi regime that had been occupying the Netherlands at that time. She began her diary just a few months before going into hiding, a diary which had been given to her as a gift for her 13th birthday in 1942.

Her family (consisting of Anne, her sister Margot, and her parents Otto and Edith) went into hiding in the summer of 1942 after her sister Margot had received a call-up from the SS (although Anne was not informed of this until they were on their way to their arranged hiding place). The Frank family were joined by her father Otto’s business partner Hermann van Pels (who was given the pseudonymic surname “Van Daan” In Anne’s diary) and his wife Auguste (“Petronella Van Daan”) and son Peter (who also only received a change in surname in her diary). They were later joined by an eighth person, Fritz Pfeffer (“Albert Dussel”). All through their ordeal, their sole contacts with the outside world were a trusted group of employees of Otto’s and Hermann’s who provided them with food, supplies, educational materials for the three teenagers, and even the occasional stash of yarn. (Seriously! Anne Frank was a knitter! In one of her diary entries, she talks about asking one of the helpers to bring her some wool so that she can knit herself a jumper/sweater to help her keep warm in the winter. She begins knitting said jumper in September 1942. There is also a photo of her from 1941, aged 12, knitting. Based on the image, she was right-handed and a thrower.)

Anne maintained her diary from 1942 until just days before she and her family were arrested in August 1944, beginning the last tragic act of their fate as victims of the Holocaust for all but one of those eight. The group was detained at Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands for a month following their arrest before being sent out on literally the last train to Auschwitz, a notorious concentration camp in Poland. The men and women were separated upon arrival, the last time Otto Frank would ever lay eyes upon his family. Anne was spared from the gas chambers that day because she had turned 15 just three months before arriving; due to his age and his slight frame, Anne falsely believed that her father had been killed. In October 1944, Anne and Margot Frank and Auguste van Pels were transferred to Bergen-Belsen in Germany, while Edith Frank stayed behind, dying of starvation in January 1945, just three weeks before the Allies liberated Auschwitz. Both Anne and Margot contracted typhus at Bergen-Belsen, and the two sisters died within weeks of each other in February or possibly March of 1945. The Allies would liberate the camp in April 1945. As for their fellow annex-mates, Hermann van Pels was gassed to death in October 1944 at Auschwitz; Fritz Pfeffer died at the Neuengamme camp in Germany from illness in December 1944. Auguste van Pels was transferred to Buchenwald just weeks before the Frank sisters’ deaths, and then was (according to an eyewitness) murdered by Nazis during transport to Theresienstadt in what is now the Czech Republic, about a month before the Allies liberated that camp. The last to die during the Holocaust was Peter van Pels, who is believed to have died at Mauthausen camp in Austria sometime between 11 April 1945 (when he was listed as being transferred to the sick barracks there) and 5 May 1945 (when the Allies liberated that camp), at just 18 years of age. Otto Frank was the only member of the group to survive the Holocaust.

Otto received Anne’s diary from one of the helpers, Miep Gies, after the war. She had not read the diary in order to prevent it from being used to incriminate anyone. When he finally read her diary, he decided to translate it into German for some relatives in Switzerland. The relatives convinced him to compile his late daughter’s writings into a manuscript as a testament for those who suffered persecution under the Nazis, and so he compiled and edited the manuscript himself for publication. It was eventually accepted for publication in the summer of 1946 and released in June 1947 as Het Achterhuis. It would receive its first English publication in 1952 as The Diary of a Young Girl. Otto remarried to a former neighbor and fellow Holocaust survivor in the early 1950s, and would spend the rest of his life living in Switzerland. He made it his life’s work to honor his family and friends who had died in the Holocaust and to preserve the memory of his daughter as sort of a monument of what the Holocaust had stolen from her: not just her life, but also her ambitions and her potential.

Anne’s story is only one of millions whose lives were stolen during the Holocaust, but hers is one of the most widely-documented and also one of the most relatable. A lot of this is due to her young age. She kept her diary between the ages of 13 and 15, and in those two short years, she managed to grow along with her writing and it became much more introspective in the later entries. She explored a lot of issues and feelings that so many girls deal with at her age: boys (including a brief infatuation and a few shared kisses with annex-mate Peter van Pels), periods, sibling rivalry, and personality conflicts with a parent (in her case, her mother, with whom she had difficulty connecting with; Anne had an extremely close relationship with her father, who she affectionately nicknamed “Pim”), just to name a few. Although she loved movie stars and had pasted pictures of them to the walls of her bedroom in the secret annex, she had aspirations of becoming a journalist after the war (as written in her diary on 5 April 1944). She had such an astute skill in observation, even if the “story” she was observing was just her everyday life in hiding and her reactions to developments in the war going on around her. She probably would’ve made an incredible journalist, much like Nellie Bly before her and Christiane Amanpour after her (which would’ve been an incredible accomplishment as a female journalist). The Nazis took all that from her, and the only crime she was guilty of in their eyes was that she was Jewish. That is the only reason why Anne Frank did not get to live to fulfill her potential: she was Jewish and was under the rule of an oppressive regime that believed that the Jewish people were not worthy of fulfilling the ridiculous vision that their hate-filled leader had for his “Thousand Year Reich” that would ultimately last all of 12 years. In those 12 years, 6 million Jews (about two-thirds of the European Jewish population at the time) would be murdered at the hands of the Nazis (most of them systemically between 1941 and 1945). Millions more Roma (Gypsies), handicapped people, ethnically Polish people, LGBT people, chronically ill people, political opponents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Soviet POWs would also die at the hands of the Nazis during that time.

Anne Frank’s legacy is not just a testament to the persecution she and millions of other European Jews faced as a result of the Nazi regime. She also left a legacy as a female writer, writing about her own truths and experiences in a way that became so accessible to readers all over the world, especially girls the same age range she was when she wrote her diary. I first learned of her story in an issue of Reader’s Digest when I was about 8 years old, and it has stuck with me all these years. Her story inspired me to keep my own diary as a tween and teenager, writing about my own experiences and feelings that I went through at that age and trying to make sense of news developments during my growing up. Even now, her story inspires my desire to keep blogging. Essentially, Anne’s diary was way ahead of its time, serving as her blog to her own experiences during World War II. The only differences between a diary and a blog are the medium and the audience: a diary generally is handwritten for an audience of one, while a blog is digitally written for an audience of many. Thanks to Miep Gies preserving it and Otto Frank compiling and editing it for publishing, what began as Anne Frank’s diary has become a bestseller and a forerunner to what we know today as the blog. And it is a work that continues to enlighten and serve as a source of inspiration for young writers everywhere. Anne Frank did not die in vain. And because her story continues to be told, the Nazis failed in trying to extinguish the voices of her and millions of other European Jews.

I know this post was a long one, but her story is one that has always grabbed me, first as a young person, and then as a woman, and now as a writer. I close this post with the picture of her I mentioned earlier in the post of Anne at around 12 years of age in 1941, knitting.

(I think Anne would’ve absolutely been amazed at how much knitting has skyrocketed in popularity these days. And also at how colorful a lot of today’s yarns are.)