When to Engage Reviewers: NEVER

ICYMI: About a week ago, The Guardian published new author Kathleen Hale’s account of “confronting her number one critic,” a book blogger who went by the possible pseudonym Blythe Harris. Said book blogger had given Hale’s first book, No One Can Have You, a “bad review.”

What ignited the fury of the book blogging community was Hale’s confession that she had stalked her online critic for months, even buying a rental car and hunting down her address. Apparently, Hale ended up at Harris’s actual real-life doorstep (Harris’s address was apparently procured from Hale’s publisher, which is a whole other kettle of fish).

Thankfully, nothing violent happened between the two women, but the mere fact that Hale went through all that trouble sent chills down my spine. I’ll have to rely on other bloggers for that knowledge, though; I had to stop reading halfway through Hale’s essay, I was so disturbed.

A screenshot of the review that (apparently) started it all:

Buzzfeed’s screenshot of Blythe’s Goodreads review (Some claim Blythe deleted the body of the review’s text some time after this firestorm erupted).

The essay came to my attention on Twitter, as most things do, because the online literary community exploded with fear, anger, and a plethora of other emotions. Book bloggers feared retribution for ever reviewing a book online. Some authors tweeted their horror at Hale’s actions, while other authors applauded her bravery. So I must confess that once I read the essay’s opening lines, I’d already heard Hale called both a stalker and a hero.

Stalking? Not stalking? I’m gonna go with stalking.

“Europe” seemed a vague destination for an adult planning a vacation. But a few nights later, lit only by the glow of my screen, I watched in real time as Blythe uploaded photos of Greece to Instagram. The Acropolis at night. An ocean view. A box of macaroons in an anonymous hand.

The images looked generic to me, the kind you can easily find on Google Images, but then Blythe posted a picture of herself sitting in a helicopter. The face matched the tanned Twitter photograph.

“Fuck,” I said. What if she was real and had simply given the book club the wrong address?

Then Judy updated her Facebook profile with photographs of a vacation in Oyster Bay, New York. I clicked through and saw the holiday had started on the same day as Blythe Harris’s.

Maybe it’s because I’m just starting out as a blogger, but I tend to agree with the “stalker” label, myself. Sure, I love creative writing and I’m just as insecure and protective of my work as the next young writer, but Hale has made it all the way to the publishing stage. Surely she knew better than to engage–not only online, but in person. Reviews will be mixed for any debut book; does that mean every new author should cyberstalk their most vocal critics and show up at their houses, demanding an explanation?

Does that mean every blogger should fear retribution from the author of every book they review? That sounds like a terrifying atmosphere for a community united by its love of literature and art.

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Triage and Tribulations

Kayla Nguyen sits in the Texas Christian University bookstore with a hefty study guide cracked open in her lap. Her chilled Frappuccino, a remedy for the sweltering Texas heat in June, leaves a wet ring on the scratchy brown napkin. She’s forgotten her drink already, despite the wilted look on her face and the way her exhausted head droops over the book’s pages. It’s a shame, because like the 89,452 pre-medical students who studied for and took the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) in 2012, she could use some caffeine.

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Kayla (pictured right) is a pre-med junior at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Kayla has paid about $50 for this one MCAT study guide, no small change for a young woman who’s trying to put herself through undergrad at Texas A&M University. She’s from a big Vietnamese-American family, and money has always been tight. Her savings from various minimum-wage jobs and the summer office job she’s currently on break from are quickly dwindling thanks to the material cost of her medical school aspirations. The kicker? She’s not even taking the test until January of next year.

All students hoping to apply to medical schools in the United States must score well on the MCAT, a standardized exam which tests students’ reasoning and critical thinking skills. The test is a crucial component of a prospective student’s application because every accredited school uses it.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which administers the MCAT, recommends studying for approximately three to six months before taking the five-hour exam. Many pre-meds spend thousands of dollars on intensive test prep courses to refresh their knowledge of the physical and biological sciences.

However, because Kayla couldn’t afford those prep courses, she began studying all on her own for the January 2015 MCAT in mid-June using study guides, university course notes, and free online practice tests. She says studying on her own been a tough journey thus far—but that’s just life for most pre-med college students. After all, she wasn’t exactly expecting the process to be easy.

Back in the bookstore coffee shop, short hair falling in her face, Kayla finally remembers her neglected caffeinated beverage and takes a sip. The ice crystals numb her teeth and she begins to reflexively quiz herself on the names of every bone in her jaw.

Later, in October (t-minus three months to exam time), Kayla will tell me she’s reconsidering medical school right after college. Her hair is longer now—her natural color black, tipped with a rebellious streak of blue—as she crouches on the carpet of her College Station apartment.

“I’ve postponed my existential crisis because I had four exams this week, but I’m having it now,” Kayla admits over a video call, a Nutella-slathered croissant filling her mouth at ten o’clock at night. She’s beginning to wonder if this fast-paced schedule—four years of science and intensive lab training, months of preparation for an essential test, and then hopefully straight to med school—is even right for her. Working in a lab for a year or two before applying to med school might help improve her resume. That work would also balance out some unfortunate grades and, perhaps most importantly, give her time to think about what she really wants out of medicine.

Kayla’s not alone in her indecision. Few pre-med students sail through their undergraduate programs with complete confidence. After all, the numbers are often daunting. According to the AAMC, 56.9% of applicants were not accepted to any med schools in 2012. The 171 accredited medical schools in the United States can only accept so many students per class each year.

Despite the pressure, however, Kayla has made it to junior year, despite the hurdles along the way. She loves biology, the most common major for med school applicants, but she also believes health care is a basic necessity for all people. Instead of pursuing medicine simply for profit, pre-med students are now weighing the high costs of eight years spent in school against what they will actually make as doctors. Kayla, like every other aspiring doctor I spoke with, has chosen the long road to medical certification because she believes she can make a difference.

Kayla has clung on through weed-out classes like organic chemistry where her friends drop like flies; she’s watched them switch tracks to nursing, pre-dentistry, or drop out of the medical sciences altogether. She describes days when she looks around her two-hundred-seat lecture hall and recognizes only a few faces from freshman year. That can be a disheartening experience in a program where even friends compete for the tiniest differences in GPA, obsessing over exam curves because every element of their extensive medical school applications will count.

Today, I had the humbling experience of cutting through the skull of my anatomy cadaver and extracting the brain. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to describe it with words, but it was easily among the most amazing experiences I have ever had. The human body is a perfectly magnificent creation. ‪#‎MindBlowing ‪#‎PunIntended ‪#‎OnlyInMedSchool

– Facebook status of Tariq AlFarra

10176224_1594201727472532_5347009579557502365_nTariq AlFarra, a first-year student at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, is a friendly bear in a well-pressed suit. Tariq comes from a family of doctors, and his resolve to help others through medicine has only strengthened with every challenge he’s managed to overcome.

Tariq wanted to have ample time to study for the MCAT, so he took the test in the spring right before the June med school application deadline. That test date was cutting it close, especially for the typical proactive students who apply to med school. “I could get my score a year in advance. I could get it a month in advance, which is what I ended up doing,” he explains, now a student in his first semester of medical school. Fortunately, Tariq only had to take the exam once before he achieved close to his goal score.

“There are no rules!” Tariq says of the pre-med undergraduate program. “Especially pre-meds think there are so many rules you have to follow, and if you don’t do this or that by this specified time—Oh my god, you know?” He raises his eyebrows and laughs, lounging comfortably in his coffee shop chair. “The best advice I have is to do what’s best for you and what has worked in the past.”

At first, when Tariq was preparing for the MCAT, he struggled with practice tests because he was trying to follow his prep course’s recommendations religiously. However, after he realized he needed to learn the information before taking practice tests, he took a few months to learn the material, course-free. That’s when he began reviewing the material and taking one practice test every Thursday, a schedule that eventually doubled to two tests a week. The results were astounding; Tariq’s scores shot up within about a month, and his end score after taking the MCAT wasn’t too far off from his last couple of practice test scores.

“I decided that I could be happy in the process or I could just sit there and stress myself out. I knew I could have a good summer or I could have a bad summer,” Tariq explains.

For pre-med students, he says, “As long as you have a plan and you have no reason to believe that it will fail—and you don’t do something stupid like start cramming the night before—do what you think is gonna work best for you.” Tariq shrugs and confesses, “I don’t care for rules, honestly, because I don’t like to follow them.”

You’d think that junior and senior pre-med students, most of them science majors who have been memorizing challenging formulae since high school, would ace any test. However, there’s a reason pre-med students like senior biology major Alesha White describe the exam as simply “a beast.”

Alesha, a soft-spoken sorority woman with an infectious smile, has an obsession with all things Hello Kitty. Sitting across from me in the same Starbucks where I met Kayla Nguyen last summer, she delicately nurses her coffee. Her dark, almond-shaped eyes widen as she describes the worst test she’s ever taken.

“You can know a lot. You can know all the information, but if you can’t apply that, you get the questions wrong,” Alesha says. “Practicing the way they want you to answer those questions is the hard part. I took about five practice tests before I took the test itself last month.” She explains how she’s already scheduled her second MCAT for January, so she will have to study intensively while also going to school, instead of having all summer to prepare.

The problem is, the MCAT’s 144-question design tests prior knowledge and ability to apply general chemistry, physics, chemistry, and biology. In other words, pre-med students have to know their previous science courses from back to front—and there are some questions that come from material covered senior year. The MCAT’s three timed sections of 40-52 questions combined with passages from each of those disciplines make for an incredible testing pace.

 “Every time I do well on a test or pass a difficult milestone in pre-med, I grow more confident in my ability to make it through.” – Caleb Ashbrook, senior chemistry major at TCU

On September 2, 2014, Alesha entered the MCAT test center in Dallas with her head held high. Cubicles containing computers with pairs of headphones draped over the sides lined the room—so at least the room resembled the highly regulated testing centers she’d been taught to expect. She hardly even noticed the other test-takers.

A sign posted on the wall declared, “Calculators, timers, and other electronic devices are PROHIBITED.” Alesha knew this; she’d been practicing mental math techniques all summer. Once she finally sat down at the computer and turned on the program, Alesha felt her brain switch into that laser-focused mode she got when taking stressful tests. The first section, Physical Sciences, had been historically the hardest for her in practice tests.

Then the proctors announced the official start to the exam, and the entire room exploded into quiet concentration. Alesha squinted her eyes and began.

A hockey puck of mass 0.16 kg is slapped so that its velocity is 50 m/sec, Alesha read silently to herself. It slides 40 meters across the ice before coming to rest. How much work is done by friction on the puck? As the clock ticked, she took a breath and pictured the equation, burned into her retinas from practice exam after practice exam. After some mental math, she had her answer. (C) -200 J, because the work-energy theorem relates the change in kinetic energy to the work done on the puck, and all work done in the puck is friction.

Click. One question down, fifty-one to go.

Time limped on and it felt like her brain was leaking out her ears, but Alesha kept her eyes firmly on the blue-tinted glow of the computer screen. By the third section, Biological Sciences, Alesha had been taking the MCAT for more than three hours. Her stamina was flagging, and that fatigue probably affected her score. (She won’t know until a month later, when she opens an AAMC-marked envelope to retrieve her three-part scores.)

A hundred and ninety-six questions later, time was called and Alesha stood up in a daze. It felt like she had been preparing for the MCAT her entire life, and she was finally getting to the home stretch—until January 2015, when she will take the test once more.

Three pre-med young men marched across the TCU campus, armored in purple and pink Susan G. Komen t-shirts over cotton-candy-pink scrubs. They had submitted their MCAT applications, and most pre-meds would be resting from the ordeal of the past four years, anxiously anticipating their admission responses.

Tariq AlFarra and his classmates, however, did not mind that their volunteering efforts would not be recognized by medical schools. Nor did they mind the playful rumors that they had been wearing the same pair of scrubs for three weeks straight. “I had several pairs and I washed them all!” he protests now.

Dr. Chumley, Tarriq AlFarra, Trent Boehm, and Thomas Parnell (a member of the Chumley Lab) sport the pink scrubs in support of Frogs for the Cure.

Last spring, Frogs for the Cure coordinator Ann Louden asked Tariq to enlist other pre-meds to get involved in raising awareness for breast cancer research. “But I thought, why not stop there? We wanted a campus-wide movement,” he recalls. Tariq set out to register as many students as possible to participate in the Frogs for the Cure music video. And the “pink scrubs guys” did, doubling the previous record with 2800 students.

“At that point, I knew for sure that I was doing it because I believed in the cause, not to put it on my application,” Tariq recalls. “And that’s an indicator to myself that I’m doing the right thing with my life.”

Less than a month after her exam (still scoreless), Alesha sips her coffee across the table from me, contemplating the experience. “I expected it to be hard,” she shrugs, her high voice cheery. “I guess the whole thing just reinforced the difficulty.”

When asked whether she still wants to pursue medicine, Alesha nods and her smile dims. She tells me about her older brother, who was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate and required surgery immediately after birth because he couldn’t eat. “I remember having to go with him to so many different surgeries, so many different doctor’s appointments, and to me that was real life, and normal. The fact that I found comfort in that as a kid amazes me now.”

The friendly, caring doctors who reassured her family provided a model for the kind of personable doctor she now wants to become. At the time, Alesha hadn’t realized how stressful the process must have been for her family. However, as Alesha grew older, she began to grasp how much medical professionals had helped put her, and her brother, at ease.

Then, Alesha says quietly, her mother contracted cancer in her lungs and it spread to her brain. She lost her mom at age twelve.

“It was hard,” she says now. “But my goal is to prevent that, so that another girl like me doesn’t have to face that. So that another child like my brother born with a cleft lip and cleft palate doesn’t have to face the same ridicule. And so, preventing that pain and that hurt is why I want to pursue medicine.”

When asked about her practical experiences with medicine thus far (an unspoken requirement of most med schools is experience shadowing a doctor, volunteering at blood drives, et cetera), Alesha’s smile returns. “I volunteer at a free health clinic called Open Arms in Arlington,” she says, beaming. Until she got to interact with real patients and take their vitals (a practice not common to most shadowing experiences), Alesha hadn’t known for certain that she could commit to becoming a doctor. But when she saw those patients’ faces, she knew she could never do anything else.

Making Her Mark

Unlike many college transfers, Monica Kemp hasn’t changed her mind since she first tread Texas soil. “I knew I would love it here because I researched literally hundreds of schools,” she says. More than a thousand miles from home, Monica lounges on her neatly pressed bed in her neatly crafted dorm room. Two construction paper artworks, gifts from her cousins, spell out her name in foam letters with “TCU” underneath.monica room 2

“My room is very descriptive of me: I like all my stuff because I chose everything for a reason—including TCU.” Monica has always known exactly what she wanted, from her college to her clothes.

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A few weeks before Monica starts fourth grade, she finally gets to choose her own clothes for school. Of course, most kids would leap at the chance to grab the first clothing item to catch their fancy; but Monica is not most kids.

Monica’s little sister, a peppy second-grader-to-be, bounds straight over to the racks of frilly children’s clothing. Nicole ends up selecting a pink tie-dye tee, a denim skirt, and a crocheted shawl with a pink bow to top off the look. “It matches!” she exclaims to her mother, pointing to the bubblegum-colored backpack in the shopping cart.

Meanwhile, nine-year-old Monica strolls to the opposite end of the aisle, examining the merchandise from underneath her heavy black bangs. She extends a hand and grabs a shirt, slinging it over her arm with no hesitation. Then she circles around the display and snatches some pants before returning to her mother.

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“Mommy, look what I got,” she says, brandishing her treasure.

Monica’s mom eyes the child-sized button-down blue shirt and khaki slacks that belong in the school uniform section. Both of her daughters attend a public school in Gresham, on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon—their options for unique school clothes could not be more open.

“That’s great, Mon. You sure that’s what you want?” she asks, stifling a smile.

Monica’s blue eyes are serious. “Yes, Mommy. I want to look nice.”

After the first day of school, Dawn Kemp realizes just how different her daughters are. “What happened to your school supplies, Nicole?” she asks her youngest.

Nicole makes a guilty face that morphs into a smile. “I gave them to…” She counts slowly on her fingers, but then gives up. “My friends who didn’t have any.”

“And you, Monica?” their mother asks.

Black-haired Monica opens her backpack. Everything is in its place. She reaches in and pulls out a pencil; a dot of blue nail polish glistens on it. She pulls out a notebook with the same marking. “No one took my stuff because it’s mine,” she says simply. In college, Monica will mark every dish in her cramped kitchen arsenal with a tidy purple “M.”

A decade later, Monica crushes the phone to her ear, feeling the slide of glass against her cheek. She remembers endless nights spent researching colleges, aching to find somewhere that felt like home.

“We need to Skype!” Monica’s mom says from her living room in Gresham, a hundred and twenty-three miles north of Monica’s apartment at University of Oregon. Monica can hear the exclamation point and it sends her heart pounding.

The black-haired college freshman taps her phone. “Okay, hold on.” She snatches her laptop from her desk, where soft gray Oregon light filters in through the window. As always, the goslings and so-ugly-they’re-cute nutria splashing in the creek below the window catch her eye, and she pauses. The scene is peaceful, but Monica’s heart is not. Much as she loves this apartment, a nice place isn’t worth staying for.

She plops down, nearly dropping her laptop with the force of her bounce. On her computer screen, the blue Skype icon leaps as if it’s cheering her on. Her hands aren’t sweating at all, not even a little. Then her mom’s face swims into view, glasses and all. “Ready, Mom.”

“Hi, Mon.” Dawn Kemp’s voice is strained. “Remember that time you told me you were wasting those sixty-five bucks on the application fee?”

Suddenly Monica can’t breathe. “Yes…” Horrible scenarios of failure race through her mind. No, darn it. She hadn’t busted her butt in high school for nothing. Her feet had always ached by the time she ping-ponged from dance practice to National Honor Society meetings, and then to work at a local daycare.

Back in her apartment, Monica remembers to breathe and stare at her mom with fists clenched. She’s done everything she can; now it’s time to face the music.

“Well, you proved yourself wrong!” her mom squeals.

Monica’s eyes widen as the envelope leaps into view. She registers the giant purple “Congratulations” mere seconds after the envelope’s bulging seams. It’s the envelope, all the way from Fort Worth, Texas.

Monica rarely cries, but she can’t just hold back the tears when her southern-bred mother gets all teary-eyed too. They laugh at the choked-up feeling in their throats and sift through the papers together. Joy hums across the wireless connection.

Later, when Monica’s friends take her out for a birthday dinner, she’ll blow out the nineteen candles. Her mouth will curve into her signature wolf grin—bared gums and all. Finally, a school where she can talk to the professors as people instead of as presenters behind a microphone. A place where she can truly shine.

The next day will be harder, when she has to face the fact that her family won’t be able to afford this dream of hers. The debt would be unthinkable. Ever the planner, Monica begins to draft back-up plans and back-ups for those back-ups. South Carolina would be nice, too, she thinks.

Months later, the Kemps will fly all the way to Chattanooga to visit Monica’s aunt and uncle. That’s when Charlie and Jo-Anne will spring the glorious news on her: they will pay for her education.

She will get to be a Horned Frog.

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What’s the Role of a Critic?

Critics can tell us how they perceive a work of art (from books, to movies, to TV shows, to art, you name it). They can lay out well-reasoned arguments, detailing patterns they’ve noticed in such-and-such industry today (as in Emily Nussbaum’s “Shark Week“), for why an artwork is the best they’ve seen in years, or the worst. They can shape our culture’s tastes by providing their expert opinion in a field which they are intimately familiar.

Although critics are essential to several industries that rely on separating great work from sub-par or offensively awful work, they often get a bad rap. This is especially true thanks to the advent of the internet, which means that anyone with an internet connection and the ability to sign up for a free blogging website (such as this one) can comment on what’s good and what sucks.

And that’s great–I’m glad the conversation has moved from the elite, ultra-cultured critics of newspapers past and into the hands of, well, everyday folks like you and me. Sometimes gorgeously snooty sentences like “fraught fifties milieu” can put off people who just want to know whether a show is worth watching, or a book worth reading.

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe critics because they are so overly promoted by the industries they are paid to critique. I always roll my eyes when commercials proclaim a movie “the #1 movie in America,” citing a vague body of “critics.” Are we really supposed to believe three different movies released in the summer blockbuster season are “the best movie [they’ve] seen in a while”? I’m sure their reviews included some actual measurement of the flaws and strengths of these movies, but when taken out of context reviews all seem to run together and lose their weight.

And you know what? Sometimes, when you’re itching to see a movie with terrible (online) reviews, you just have to suck it up and buy your ticket and popcorn. I’ve dared to see many movies in this way (often children’s movies or genre films), and I haven’t been disappointed by following my gut. If I want to see a movie about giant robots controlled by champions of various nationalities, fighting Godzilla-like monsters in gorgeously directed fight scenes, then I’m darn well gonna see it. Sure, maybe some critics for fancy magazines hated Pacific Rim, but my friends and I adored it.

[Note: This post was originally posted on my first attempt at a blog on October 19, 2014.]

What’s Hard About Writing?

Let’s face it: writing is hard. Why else would even writers who enjoy language and stringing together words put off their deadlines until the last possible moment? Why do students agonize over papers and businesses hire outside writers to streamline their communication?

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Writing is another form of communication that often stresses people out because ideas are conveyed in writing, rather than with graphics, sound, or face-to-face conversation. For some people, losing the added benefit of a vocal tone or certain essential nonverbal gesture can feel crippling.

Even the most experienced writers, who know grammar and sentence structure back to front and can knock out a paragraph in a couple minutes, struggle to convey their meaning skillfully. Good writing often requires solid arguments, extensive research, and a point. To produce an engaging piece, a “good” writer must also pay attention to their readership and adjust their storytelling techniques accordingly.

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In my own writing, I struggle to break out of the cumbersome essay format drilled into me at school. I love long, sometimes unwieldy sentences as long as they sound grandiose. Adjectives are my very best friends. Of course, particularly with the advent of the internet, readers are now much more apt to read simple sentences and skim bolded words and bullet points.

Obviously, I find that difficult. (Just see my above sentence.)

slide_bullet_pointsBut even with the problems I encounter daily as a writing major, I’m still lucky. I’ve worked hard to become a decent writer, but some of my abilities came from childhood and maybe even genetics. (My grandmother is a retired English teacher and librarian.)

Until recently, I thought of writing as easy, or at least natural. I’d agonize over sentences, but at least I never had to worry if they were grammatically incorrect; I’ve always been that weirdo obsessed with the proper placement of commas. Before I started working as a peer tutor at my university’s writing center, I couldn’t understand why other people struggled so much with the writing process. My first tutorials all took place online, and I’m shamed to admit that I went overboard in critiquing some students’ academic papers when I was supposed to be guiding them through the process.

However, once I was experienced enough to start face-to-face tutorials, I looked those students in the eye and realized that they’re plenty smart–they just have trouble getting words on the page, or at least putting them in the right order. Some just can’t wrap their heads around APA style, and who can blame them for that? (For the uninitiated, it’s TERRIBLE to learn.) Many of the students who seek help at the writing center may not have the same innate grasp of English I acquired through my years of reading everything in sight.

In the end, though, I think we’re all just hoping to pass our classes.

[Note: This blog post was originally published on my first attempt at a blog on October 15, 2014]

The Role of Research in Writing

For many creative (and magazine) writers, “research” can be a scary idea. The word implies giant encyclopedias piled high around a rapidly scribbling writer with mad eyes and a surfeit of sleep. However, without research, our writing can become stale and less credible. How else can a story about pirates come to life?

It’s not like most writers have direct experience with swashbuckling heroes and villains. The details of a ship, from the creaking of the bow to the number of ship masts, serve to create the setting. For example, one of my favorite authors for children and readers of all ages, Brian Jacques, set his exciting tales on the high seas. He included historical details about The Flying Dutchman in one series, blending rumors and historical accounts with fantastic events.

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This series of nautical novels uses secondary research to build a realistic, vivid world.

The need for well-researched prose applies to “pure” fiction as well as journalistic or magazine styles. A writer’s research can of course come from personal experience, through careful observation of a potential character or situation as a writer (not a participant). However–particularly in magazine writing but also in fiction–secondary research from more official sources is often needed. Newspapers, public statistics, journal articles, and other secondary sources can help the writer become an expert on their subject.

Writing about something you understand–at least on the surface level–is usually much easier. And perhaps most importantly, the majority of writers will be writing about something completely foreign to them, whether it is skydiving or a professor with an eccentric hobby. If we as writers don’t know what we’re talking about, how can we expect our readers to do so?

[Note: This blog post was originally published on my first attempt at a blog on October 8, 2014]

Why Tell Other People’s Stories?

Sometimes the only way to portray the complexity of everyday (and extraordinary) people is to tell their stories. Of course, telling true narratives when you’re used to writing fiction can be a hell of a struggle. Introverted fiction writers like me draw stories from their heads—they may draw inspiration from real life, but they have free rein when it comes to dialogue and the chain of events.

But as intimidating as it may be to interview multiple people and glean many perspectives for a magazine-style feature, someone has to tell these stories. Features often star celebrities, from Miley Cyrus to college basketball miracle Dewayne Dedmon, but not everyone has an army of PR experts and eager reporters. Not everyone has a voice, however dire their situation. The ones most in need can often be the least heard. That’s why we have to tell their stories.

For example, Rolling Stone recently profiled a once-privileged gay teen, whose struggle with her conservative family left her broke, homeless, and abandoned. It’s a familiar narrative, but one that’s often obscured by more optimistic images of happy gay couples and the issue of marriage equality. “It gets better!” is a common phrase, uttered to prevent LGBT teens from committing suicide. People hate to talk about the consequences of coming out, because LGBT teens often end up like Jackie.

After what felt like an eternity, her mom finally responded. “I don’t know what we could have done for God to have given us a fag as a child,” she said before hanging up.

As soon as the line went dead, Jackie began sobbing. Still, she convinced herself that her parents would come around and accept her, despite what they perceived to be her flaw. As planned, she drove to Canada to celebrate her birthday with friends. When her debit card didn’t work on the second day of the trip, she figured it was because she was in another country. Once back in the States, however, she got a call from her older brother. “He said, ‘Mom and Dad don’t want to talk to you, but I’m supposed to tell you what’s going to happen,'” Jackie recalls. “And he’s like, ‘All your cards are going to be shut off, and Mom and Dad want you to take the car and drop it off at this specific location. Your phone’s going to last for this much longer. They don’t want you coming to the house, and you’re not to contact them. You’re not going to get any money from them. Nothing. And if you don’t return the car, they’re going to report it stolen.’ And I’m just bawling. I hung up on him because I couldn’t handle it.” Her brother was so firm, so matter-of-fact, it was as if they already weren’t family.

The writer who told Jackie’s story couldn’t help her completely, but by drawing national attention to a secret crisis, Alex Morris changed the conversation. And maybe that’s all we can hope to do—whether we write fiction or journalistic prose, the truth will always get out.

[Note: This post was originally published on my first attempt at a blog on September 29, 2014]