WOBF allows you to explore the outer reaches of the public domain with the random search terms of your choice. Of course, your terms hardly matter. The non-congruence between what you seek and what you find is part of the point. Whether you input “infinity,” “twilight,” “anemone,” or “ballet,” your choice will help you search, and perhaps discover, a scrap of the internet’s originary chanciness. Use it, and find the books for which you never knew to search.
(Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA)
Although the American myth of meritocracy continues to crumble to smithereens, some of its fragments are worthy of consideration.
For instance, what does it mean when people who cannot succeed by virtue of their demonstrated abilities and merit, nonetheless continue to achieve? In this context (which is ours), what does success—or failure—even mean?
Success is typically communicated by signifiers of wealth, respect, or fame. It denotes achievement—which itself connotes effort—both of which confer the legitimacy collectively extended to success.
But when wealth, respect, and fame are gained without effort’s exertion, success becomes a more fragile, fluid word. It no longer refers to a meaning relatively fixed by the collective, and depends instead on the relative interpretation of a powerful few.
Failure is, or maybe was, different. Failure, denoted by lack rather than plenitude has always been fluid. We see this in the concept of failing up, where failure must be modified and fixed by its direction. The collective agrees, relatively speaking, that failure is not fixed.
To whom does it really matter if success and failure are now both fluid, relative terms? Well, for the collective seeking to award success and punish failure, it’s a problem. When we become less capable of consensus on what constitutes effort and exertion, we can no longer agree on who has won, and what, or who has lost, and how.
For the individual, however—for you—the responsibility of relativity can be a gift. Determining success and failure according to your own criteria is harder than it sounds, but it allows you to set a standard that matters to you. This is self-help at its most autonomous. Rather than reaching for a collective sense of success that appears increasingly empty, we can extend our efforts toward the kind of success toward which we want to strive. Of course, we can still fail. But, then again, we always could.
Have you read A Sick Day for Amos McGee, winner of the 2011 Caldecott Medal? The story is gentle and kind, its pictures tender and sincere. It has quieted many a rambunctious child in my own chaotic house.
Aiming for classic status for Amos, the Steads approach their work not in terms of the risks they like to take but of the limitations they like to impose: “‘We didn’t want to necessarily be that rigid,’ says Philip Stead. ‘But…there’s something very beautiful about working with limitations. It kind of sets parameters for your project.'”
He refers to the deliberately defined color palette by which Erin Stead’s images, so delicate and precise, become durable. But he makes a more universal point. Limitations, parameters, and boundaries can be a conduit to creation.
We often perceive limitations as restrictions holding us back or obstacles keeping us from our goals. But limitations–certainly of color, form, and genre, but also of time, desire and will–can stimulate inventive solutions.
We see this at work in haikus, sonnets, villanelles (poetry in general), which raise expressions of limitations, or perhaps limited expressions, to an art form. But it’s a more flexibly applicable technique.
The task of creation is challenging, in part because the galaxy of invention is so vast. When everything is possible, it’s hard to make anything real. If we can choose all things, how can we settle on, much less commit to developing, any one thing?
But of course choices (usually) must be made. Decisions are very often required. In some cases, it can be surprisingly useful to narrow, even artificially, our choices. The Steads chose to limit their story to the subject of kindness and to restrict their color palette to “muted yellows, greens, blues and reds.” Other writers might find the imposition of a genre or a deadline a useful, even necessary, constraint.
It’s true that a limitation can be a hindrance. It’s also true that it can sometimes be a provocation.
The post may be old, but the book is a classic.
Spring is not a comfortable season in Minnesota. The snow melts, the wind gusts, and the rain pelts. But then, the snow rudely returns. The wind persists in gusting. The rain insists on pelting. While some days reach, gloriously, into the 50s, many others stall in the 30s, threatening the goodwill of exhausted citizens.
But if spring isn’t comfortable, it is comforting. When songbirds return to the shrubbery, loons to the city lakes, and sunshine to the horizon, it reminds us that coldness will warm, darkness will lighten, and green things will grow.
In my house, spring also signals the return of the most comforting of all childhood tales, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. The story, written by Du Bose Heyward and illustrated by Marjorie Flack’s delicate, saturated pictures, wears its generational coziness on its title page. There, the “as told to Jenifer” invokes a beloved family tale handed down from father to daughter (and, according to Heyward’s biography, from mother to son).
Heyward may be better known for his 1925 novel Porgy, upon which the Gershwin opera, Porgy and Bess, is based, but he published The Country Bunny in 1939. It’s a story about Cottontail, a clever bunny “with a brown skin and a little cotton ball of a tail,” who wanted to be one of the five Easter Bunnies who brought eggs to children on Easter.
But “the big white bunnies who lived in fine houses and the Jack Rabbits with long legs who can run so fast” laughed at her ambition. They laughed even harder when Cottontail, “much to her surprise,” found herself with 21 babies to take care of: “Only a country rabbit would go and have all those babies,” they said.
Cottontail put aside her Easter-Bunny dream and tended to her babies. As time passed, and her bunnies grew, she taught them to sweep, clean, cook, wash, sew, mend, sing, dance, garden, and create. When she heard that one of the Easter Bunnies had become too slow and Old Grandfather was to pick a new Easter Bunny to take his place, Cottontail brought her children to the Palace of Easter Eggs to watch the festivities.
Reader, she is chosen. Indeed, she displays such verve, such persistence, and such heart in her role that she is given the incomparable gift of the little gold shoes.
I love Cottontail’s story not only because it’s the softly feminist fulfillment of a dream. It’s also (if I may), a story about letting go of a dream so as to return to it with a more experienced, more nuanced perspective. Cottontail becomes an Easter Bunny not because of her steadfast, single-minded commitment. She becomes an Easter Bunny because her most challenging life experiences fostered the wisdom, kindness, swiftness, cleverness, and heart required to fulfill her dream.
That, to me, is a believable (or at least aspirational) heroism.
The book, it must be said, is a bedtime investment—a concise Mo Willems it is not—but its story about a timely triumph of kindness and heart is a tonic amidst the perennial cruelty of These Times, making every moment spent with it a true comfort.
If it’s difficult to accept vulnerability as a precondition of strength, it’s even more difficult to express this acceptance. Few of us want to reveal our weaknesses, particularly weaknesses that have been (and maybe still are) difficult to overcome. For some, however, revelation is a requirement.
Among writers, memoirists face a singular burden of expression. Though their work frequently illustrates triumph in the face of adversity, their expression of vulnerability is often their most effective tool.
For lessons in expression, memoirists can look to fiction writers. The best fiction writers are expert at endowing their characters with the kind of vulnerability that solicits readers’ care. That care fosters a connection–offering insight into weakness and strength that extends beyond the page.
Consider Jo March and her initial rejection of and later regret over Laurie, or Estha and the shame he hides after his encounter with the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man, or Harry Potter and the loneliness contingent on the private pain of his scar. We connect to these characters through their fragility. Their recognizable vulnerability enables us to examine our own.
Unlike fiction writers, however, memoirists don’t have the luxury of distance. The presumption of truth that defines their work ensures any tenderness expressed is their own. Although this provenance raises the stakes, it also raises vulnerability’s value.
Vulnerability is less Achilles Heel, more Athena’s aegis. Aspirational memoirists can and should coach themselves to embrace vulnerability’s inherent, etymological power. They should remind themselves that the example of their fragility will inform their depiction of strength, inspiring readers’ connections, motivating their reflection, and perhaps moving them to action.
By viewing their vulnerability as a mirror, a conduit, a facilitator, and a tool, memoirists can generate a power from which readers draw significant courage. The work is not easy, but it’s worth it: Like the very best fiction writers, the best memoirists transform vulnerability into a power so stable it can hold up others.
Against the black background of 500,000 lives lost to COVID, “vulnerability” feels like it has lost some of its millennial sheen. It’s no longer (just) Brené Brown’s shame, and an opportunity for open-hearted living. Today, it means feeling—and being—a persistent target for viral attack.
Although vulnerability can make us feel extraordinarily alone, “vulnerability” contains the roots of collective rescue. From Latin stock “to wound,” vulnerability once referred not only to our susceptibility to wounding but also to our power to wound. These referential foes–to be hurt and also to hurt–have flowered again during our pandemic year.
Now (as, in some ways, always), we’re vulnerable because we can be wounded, get sick, stay sick, die. We’re vulnerable because we love people who can also be wounded, get sick, stay sick, and die. And yet we’re also vulnerable because, in our vulnerability, we can wound and sicken others.
To be vulnerable means to carry an enormous weight, but its etymology suggests it’s not one we must–or even can–privately bear. Instead, the discomfort of our vulnerability can serve to remind us of our collective responsibility to safeguard one another.
As we pass the signpost marking a quarantine year, we can mark our progress not in days (ha.), but in terms of our ability to accept vulnerability as both weakness and strength. We now know the associated cost of denial: When we fail to accept our vulnerability, we relinquish the power we have to keep ourselves and others safe.
The propinquity effect describes the likelihood that interpersonal relationships develop—and develop more deeply—according to proximity. We’re more likely to forge friendships and develop deep relationships with people who live near us or with people we frequently see.
This may be unsurprising, given that physical proximity provides so many opportunities for, and thus expands the time we spend in, conversation (an effect made abundantly clear during the pandemic). More surprising might be the propinquity effect’s relevance to book development.
In my last post, I advised authors with underbaked, underdeveloped manuscripts to take a break. A break aids consolidation, which in turn enables authors to return to work with newly accrued knowledge and a fresher perspective. (Also, sometimes it just feels good to take a break, even if we don’t want to or don’t feel like we deserve to.)
But a break doesn’t need to be passive. Authors can help themselves (and maybe extend their enjoyment) by activating the propinquity effect. By identifying and reading the books with which their work is in conversation, and by producing imagined responses, authors establish deeper connections between their work and the proximate books with which their work is in relation.
By making the most of propinquity, authors enlarge their perspective and view their work’s particular qualities and strengths more critically. This not only benefits their manuscript, it also helps refine extratexual efforts such as query letters or marketing materials.
In fact, the propinquity effect should be considered an incentive for taking a break. Authors may benefit from a pause in their work, but their manuscripts benefit when authors develop the connections between their manuscript and proximate titles.
Sometimes, authors seek editorial work for a manuscript that isn’t yet ready for the editing stage. (And oftentimes, authors are surprised to hear this feedback.) But what if your manuscript is underbaked (or unformed or underdeveloped)? What can you do to prepare your manuscript for eventual publication?
If your manuscript doesn’t qualify for developmental work, you’ve received good news and bad news. The good news is simply the fact of feedback. Manuscripts are many and editors are few: If an editor responds to your work—even to say it’s not yet ready—something in it caught their attention.
The bad news is the manuscript is underdone. It could be the argument lacks precision, illustration, or evidence. Or it may be the treatment of argument, illustration, or evidence lacks depth, detail, or distinction. Regardless of the cause, after the hyperintense effort of writing, you may feel frustrated or demoralized by the prospect of a return to drafting.
What should you do? You should take a break.
“Take a break” sounds like an ineffective or childish intervention, but findings from brain-based research are robust: When it comes to periods of acute skill acquisition, emotional engagement, work productivity, and of course muscle activity, taking a break is imperative for mental, emotional, or physical consolidation.
Taking a break from the work also clears brain congestion to enable more efficient neurological processing. This, in turn, might help you see your manuscript more clearly, and through the critical perspective required for self-revision.
So, if you’re an author with manuscript feedback that amounts to “not yet,” fully enact that assessment: Take a break.
What does it mean to work as though we live in the days of a better civilization? Although frequently attributed to Alasdair Gray (despite his disavowal), the line belongs to Gray’s contemporary, Canadian Dennis Lee.
In Civil Elegies, Lee writes:
And best of all is finding a place to be
in the early days of a better civilization
For we are a conquered nation: sea to sea we bartered
everything that counts, till we have
nothing to lose but our forebears’ will to lose.
But what good is that in a nation of
losers and quislings
Although Lee’s early work denounced Canada’s colonial complicity and earned him the Governor General’s award in 1972, he is better known for his children’s poetry. In fact, his poetry was a favorite of engineering professor Deb Chachra, who recently namechecked Lee in Metafoundry, her newsletter on the nexus of infrastructure, engineering, art, and individuals.
In Issue 73: Our Cyborg Collective Body, Ourselves, Chachra invokes the slow-burning apocalypse in William Gibson’s scifi novels (specifically, The Peripheral and Agency) to describe the current COVID crisis. She then cites Lee’s poetic injunction, calling on us to imagine a systemic, collective response.
What would it look like, after all, to build an infrastructure fit to serve a better civilization?
According to Paul Graham Raven, infrastructure is a “tool,” “an extension of baseline human abilities.” It’s a systematized technical augmentation–but with a biological input (us!).
In the context of COVID, we know our bodies have needs that manifest individually but must be met collectively: We become infectiously ill individuals, sometimes so ill we must be isolated from the collective to be cared for by the collective before returning to the collective. Needs like these are met (or not) through infrastructural responses, such as public health, also public education.
Yet, to build tools to meet the needs of a better civilization, we must not only identify needs that have not yet been met, but also determine those needs that have not yet been recognized as the collective’s responsibility.
In Sexuality for All Abilities, Katie Thune and I argue that there is an individual and a collective need for comprehensive sex education for young people in the special education classroom. While writing this book will not determine a better civilization, arguing for recognition of a collectively solvable problem may help hasten its arrival.
Way back in January of 2018, on my negligible commute, I tuned in to Minneapolis Public Radio for the local angle on NPR’s special series, “Abused and Betrayed.”
The conversation was guided by Marianne Combs and focused on the silent epidemic of sexual abuse among people with intellectual disabilities. Combs was joined by NPR correspondent and special-series investigator Joseph Shapiro, sexuality educator Katie Thune, and attorney Patrick Noaker to discuss the Minnesotan context of this national problem and respond to listeners’ phone calls.
The guests’ words were incredibly powerful, but my driveway moment was attributable to the anguish expressed by the parents and caregivers who called in to discuss the abuse sustained by their loved ones with disabilities.
Particularly memorable–and devastating–was the voice of an elderly woman who talked about the exploitation of her adult son. She recounted a situation that occurred years ago, when a powerful man in the community approached her young adult son with a sexual proposition. Her son has a traumatic brain injury: He lives independently, but he has limited cognition and social awareness and can be easy to confuse. The powerful man preyed on this vulnerability, framing his proposition as an arrangement that would help powerful man “relieve stress” and “do his job better.” Her son ultimately agreed, believing his actions were necessary and that he would be paid for them.
A few years later, the man died. When her son learned of the man’s death, he explained to his mom that he would be inheriting money, and why. She was of course shocked and furious, but what followed was even worse: When her son didn’t receive his money, he couldn’t understand why and accused his mother and siblings of stealing it.
The mom’s voice, broken in suffering, compelled me to reach out to Katie Thune to ask about turning her educational curriculum, Sexuality for All Abilities, into a book. The result of our efforts, I am proud to say, is Sexuality for All Abilities: Teaching and Discussing Sexual Health in Special Education, released this week by Routledge, as part of its Eye on Education series.
We created this book to give educators and others the tools and confidence required to teach topics in comprehensive sex education in the context of special education. In it, we draw on the expertise of educators, the experience of teachers, the stories of parents and caregivers, and the words of people with disabilities to inform lessons on healthy relationships, public and private spaces and behaviors, consent, hygiene, and other important topics necessary to living an informed life.
The book is a useful resource in and out of the classroom, but it’s also a contribution to the better civilization we strive to build—a civilization in which we acknowledge a wide range of individuals with varying abilities, and in which we seek to supply the education necessary to live as fully, safely, and with as much autonomy and pleasure as possible.