Melania Trump Steals Words

When I was teaching, I had to confront students about plagiarism far more than I would have liked. Never once did I have a “gotcha” moment. I hated it. I hated feeling like I had failed as a teacher to impart the importance of original work and/or the basics of how to (intentionally or unintentionally) avoid stealing other people’s words. I hated the look of shame in students’ eyes when I said the word “plagiarism.” I hated the chill that settled over the classroom when I lectured about it.

But I’m realizing now that the reason the whole topic was so charged was that my students and I cared.

Not once, after they were confronted with evidence of plagiarism, did I have students try to deny it. Those who’d done it intentionally felt badly and gave reasons that they’d cheated. Those who’d done it unintentionally also felt badly and promised to do whatever it took to make things right.

Not once did I have a student say it was no big deal.

It’s the denial of any sort of responsibility or moral culpability that’s so shocking in the Republicans’ response to Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech.

Photo: Marc Nozell from Merrimack, NH, USA (Wikimedia Commons)

Trump’s campaign chairperson Paul Manafort chalked up the similarities to the commonness of the words and ideas expressed. (Well, there are no uncommon words in “to be or not to be,” either, but you don’t find people claiming authorship of Hamlet’s soliloquy.)

Manafort even had the gall to blame the debacle on Hillary Clinton, even though the plagiarism was first noticed by independent journalist Jarrett Hill. Per Manafort, “It’s just another example, as far as we’re concerned, that when Hillary Clinton is threatened by a female, the first thing she does is try to destroy the person.”

Ultimately, the Trump campaign is trying to pass this off as a tempest in a teapot. Here’s why it’s not, at least to me.

For me, writing is hard. Damn hard. I have to go in, in , in: I have to probe into the whirling mass of thoughts and information stored in my brain, sort through the details of calendars and menus and the periodic table and the conversion rate of gallons to liters (1 to 3.79ish). I have to push all this to the side and think myself into The Thing, the idea or emotion I want to convey. For me, this takes enormous energy and focus, so much so that I often have to type with my eyes closed until I have the words right (which is why it’s sometimes so awkward to write in cafes). Then, once I have a taste of what The Thing is, a feel for it (sensory synonyms fail me here), I have to see if there are words that can capture The Thing.  Failing that, I have to verbally sidle up next to whatever The Thing is (thought or idea or feeling) and point to it, mime it, gesture at it evocatively enough that a reader or listener knows what I mean.

To somebody on the outside looking in, I’m just sitting at the computer, eyes closed and squinting, fingers on keyboard, DOING NOTHING. But what I’m doing actually takes a lot of psychological and even physical energy.

Some might say Melania Trump’s plagiarism is no big deal because both Michelle and Melania’s speeches were written by speechwriters. But by all accounts, both women worked collaboratively with their respective staffs, and if you’ve ever written by committee, you know that the capture of those words and phrases is just as hard won.

No, Melania didn’t just use “common words” that anybody might have used. She stole ideas. She stole emotions. She stole a person’s history and values and hopes.

Melania Trump stole Michelle’s words, and she needs to apologize.



“No man is an island”: Some thoughts on Brexit and the American tea party

It’s with some trepidation that I write a blog post about Brexit. I mean, I live almost 5,000 miles away from the UK, and most of what I know about Britain’s vote to leave the European Union comes from Twitter, newspapers, and magazines. I’m hardly in a position to provide any new observations.

What I can offer, however, is speculation about how something like Brexit might go down in the US.

I was really struck by the rhetoric and empty* promises of the Leave campaign , particularly by the pledge–splashed on posters, websites, and even on a massive bus–that the 350 million pounds the UK sent to the EU every week could instead be spent on the National Health Service.

brexit bus

I marvel that Brexit, the most fiscally irresponsible, blunder-headed, ill-conceived political campaign in decades nevertheless promised to shore up the social safety net.

Many have compared Brexit to the American tea party, but I just can’t imagine politicians like Ted Cruz or Paul Ryan (darlings, at various times, of the tea party) making a promise like that. I can’t envision them pledging that kind of money to health care, or schools, or even to infrastructure like roads and bridges.

No, tea partiers, I think, would promise that the money would go back in the taxpayer’s pocket.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to speculate what that means about the character of UK politics, but I certainly can say that it highlights the toxic individualism that seems to be taking over American political discourse, especially when it comes to guns and health care.

In my community in Southern Oregon, voters have repeatedly turned down funding for libraries and public safety.  I have seen many letters to the local paper that read, basically, “I’ve got my own books and I’ve got my own gun—why should I pay for yours?” It’s a weird sort of invincibility that ignores the horrifying truth: ours is a community in crisis. Our local social safety next isn’t just frayed around the edges, it has great, gaping holes. And it’s the most vulnerable—children, the elderly, the ill—who are likely to fall through.

I wondered what an analogous movement locally might look like, but it’s hard to find something similar when taking geographical scale into account. Oregon (98,466 square miles) is roughly the size of the UK (95,058 square miles). We do have a longstanding (since the 1940s) proposal to have sections of Southern Oregon and Northern California join together into a separate state called Jefferson, but that’s more of a secession than an exit.

I guess I’m still parsing out how I feel about all of this, but I do feel deeply envious of the assurances citizens of other countries have: health care, reasonable gun control, a secure physical infrastructure. And, despite the names that occasionally get hurled at me on Twitter for these opinions, I refuse to believe that wanting those things makes me a Communist.

I’ll just keep coming back to John Donne’s Meditation XVII:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.


*Nigel Farage, for example, immediately walked back the pledge to send the 350 million pounds to the NHS within hours of the referendum

**Edited to add:

I’ve mentioned the funding crisis in Josephine County umpteen times on this blog. This FB exchange with my eloquent friend Kriston Eller sort of explains why:

KE:  Every time I read that you have no funding for libraries and public safety, I get 1st surprised all over again, even though I have read it many, many times; 2nd confused that this is even a thing that can happen in our country; 3rd disgusted that people can be so wrongheaded and selfish; and 4th angry that you have to tolerate that.

me: YES! And while I feel kind of silly for repeating it again and again and again (and again), I feel like I have to help keep it from being normalized (the whole “frog in the boiling water” thing).

KE: Oh, for sure. I really do think I go into a sort of denial about it because it’s just too stupid to be believed.

Conversations With Various of My Body Parts

Scene: midnight, my bed.

Me: Cut it out

Brain: What do you mean cut it out I don’t know what you’re even saying to me right now

Me: I said cut it out. I want to go to sleep and you keep talking

Brain: Okay okay okay. That’s chill. I respect that you have things to do tomorrow. I’ll shut up so you can get some sleep. You and me, we’re good

Me: . . . *gets drowsy*. . .

Brain: *whispers* remember that one stupid thing you said ten years ago?… yoooou suuuuck….



Scene: 10:00 pm, my office

Me: Imma look at those pictures now

Heart: Why do you do this to me?

Me: But Imma look at those pictures of my kids when they were babies

Heart: You know how I get

Me: Yeah, but Imma look

Heart: *breaks*

Me: Oh, shit, you were right

Heart: *with dying breath* youuuuuu sssssuck



Scene: 10:00 a.m., running track

Me: Okay, Imma run

Knees: *squeaking* You’re gonna what?

Me: Imma run

Knees: AYFKM?

Me: Imma run real slow

Right knee: Shouldn’t you lose a little weight first?

Me: shut up

Left knee: remember what happened last time? Do the words plantar fasciitis mean NOTHING to you?

Right knee: *calls down to foot* dude, she’s doing it again

Foot: dammit

Brain: note to self–buy ibuprofen. In bulk

All together: yoooouuu sssssuck

Why Do Libraries Bring Out The Best in Us?

A young JCLI volunteer (my daughter!) protesting the library's closure.
A young JCLI volunteer (my daughter!) protesting the library’s closure.

I don’t want to bore you with the story of my local library—I’ve told it a gajillion times. If you haven’t read it, you can do so here or here (I’m quite proud of this library, as you can tell!).

But I will tell you that even after the roller coaster ride of emotions I’ve been on with that crazy, beautiful library, nothing prepared me for the despair I’d feel when, on the morning of February 23, 2016, the Cave Junction branch of the library was vandalized.

It was a slap in the face.

After everything we’d gone through—the work and worry, the tears and triumphs—to have the library torn apart as though it meant nothing? To have the very door of the library—which had become a symbol for our movement, for our single-minded insistence on reopening—smashed into tiny shards of glass?

It was a punch in the gut.

But then something amazing happened.

Word got out about what had happened and we were inundated with offers of help. Our community rallied around us. A local diner, The Powederhorn Cafe, held a “Pi Day” fundraiser (with pie and coffee and proceeds going to the library). Oregon Public Broadcasting covered the story and addressed the lack of law enforcement that might mean nobody would have to answer for the crime. People and businesses donated money for a reward to find the perpetrators. Superhero librarians in other parts of the state offered help and held fundraisers. And good-hearted people from around the country donated money and, more importantly, sent their kind words and support.

The library was insured, of course, but on our shoestring budget, even a $5,000 deductible is a big chunk of change. With all of the support and donations, our library met that goal and topped it, raising over $11,000.

I felt like the Grinch, but in a good way. My heart grew by three sizes that week.

And I began wondering: what is it about libraries that brings out the best in us?

I think the very idea of a library assumes that people are basically honest. If a person borrows a book (or magazine, or CD, or DVD), they will bring it back for somebody else to use. Sure, some people will bring back materials late (lord knows I’m one of the worst offenders here—I could probably fund a full day of operation on my overdue fines alone). They may even abuse the system by stealing books (but those people are few and far between). But at its very core, the library assumes a social contract, an ethos of paying it forward.

Libraries exist because we want to share the hard work of the mind, the growth and expansion that comes from deep thought and wide experience. We want to hand over new discoveries that can be enhanced by diverse perspectives, and we want to hand down knowledge to the next generation so that we and they can benefit. Together.

These words feel small and paltry when compared to the potential of the library. This short movie based on the wonderful book The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, on the other hand, says far more eloquently what I wish to say…and it says it with no words at all.

Yours, Mine, or Ours? The Centuries-Old Debate over Public Lands

I grew up in Humboldt County, California. It’s known for a lot of things, but mostly for marijuana, great coffee, and gorgeous landscapes like this:

Rockefeller Forest, Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Wikimedia Commons










Sadly, Humboldt County is also known for sometimes violent battles that pit economic development and conservation against each other. So I grew up thinking of forests, oceans, and lakes as contested spaces, places of both sublime beauty and imminent threat.

I now live in Oregon, one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse states in the US.


By Oregon's Mt. Hood Territory. ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Oregon’s Mt. Hood Territory. ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
oregon coast
The Oregon coastline looking south from Ecola State Park, with Haystack Rock in the distance by Cacophony (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Oregon welcome sign at Hells Canyon by Staplegunther at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, from Wikimedia Commons









Given that I spent my youth learning that open land meant open conflict, I’ve been increasingly nervous about local land-use skirmishes. For example, last summer, a dispute over a mining claim at the Sugar Pine Mine, just a half an hour from my home, almost spiraled out of control as a call went out to militia and “patriot” groups to take up arms against the Bureau of Land Management.

The whole thing fizzled, but I was still on tenterhooks.

Then a bunch of gun-toting, skewed-Constitution wielding, cowboy-wannabe militants took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. Schools closed. Offices closed. Residents were intimidated. Federal employees were harrassed and had personal information like social-security numbers and credit-card numbers stolen–in some cases they even had to relocate. As these stories emerged, I realized how close my own community had come to living out that nightmare.

So I was already thinking about these issues when I read this article in The Guardian about urban public and private spaces in London and elsewhere, and about this protest to end the privatization of public spaces.

The two situations are entirely different for a number of reasons, of course, not least of which is that England has a long and embattled history over enclosure, the closing off of common lands and restriction of their use to one or more landowners. In early modern England, enclosure was used to create deer parks and to convert arable land to the more-profitable pasture for sheep and cattle. Eventually, conflict over  enclosure led to violent riots.*

While anti-enclosure acts were passed in 1489 and 1516, the practice continued and the situation grew worse as England’s population increased. Those who farmed grew increasingly resentful of those who tended herds and flocks. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, enclosure riots pitted tenants against gentry. In part galvanized by debates over enclosure, a new political movement emerged that espoused ideals of liberty and commonality: the Levellers (named after those who tore down, or “leveled,” hedges during enclosure riots).

Admittedly, I haven’t done much research on the Levellers, but graduate school friends had, and I was used to thinking of them as (problematic) foot soldiers in the long march towards equality and democracy (yes, I know that’s a progressivist view of history, but there it is). In other words, I was taught that I should admire the Levellers for their egalitarianism and proto-democratic ideals.

With the comparison of any two historical events one is tempted to draw parallels, and a cringe-y part of me wondered if the Bundy militia members who took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge had ideological roots in the radical movements of 17th-century England (especially since the Bundy militia declared that the only legitimate basis of American civil rights was the Magna Carta, a claim the Levellers also made). I wondered: with their claims of taking land back “for the people,” were the Bundy militia the philosophical descendents of the Levellers?

There are similarities: both the riots over early modern enclosure and the armed takeover of the wildlife refuge were violent. Both had their roots in questions of power and authority over land. Both situations were influenced by changing population patterns and socio-economic realities.

But there is one critical difference: the land the Bundy militia attempted to take over is ALREADY public land, owned by the American people. It has been enclosed, in a sense, but access and usage are managed in such a way to balance agriculture, conservation, and recreation.

In fact, while they purported to be returning the land “to the people,” the only concrete idea the Bundy militia espoused was one they recycled from the standoff at Bundy ranch in Nevada: allowing ranchers free access to the refuge (and, indeed, to all federal lands in the West). In essence, they wanted to re-privatize the land, to close it off to all but grazing. In that sense, they are more related to the landowners of early modern England, those who would take the lands out of public usage.

After a long and tense standoff with the FBI, the Bundy militia have now been cleared out of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. One of their members is dead, many others under arrest. They destroyed habitat, desecrated Native artifacts, and dug latrines near sacred ground. They left behind trash, firearms and explosives, and even human feces. And chaos. They left behind them utter chaos.

No, the Bundy militia weren’t part of some egalitarian effort to free the land for the people. They were selfish, deluded egomaniacs intent on misreading the Constitution for their own personal gain.



*more info about later conflicts surrounding enclosure can be found here: The Enclosure Movement in England and Wales, R. Oliver

**These complex and heated debates over who owns the land—the federal government or the state—that have impacted me and my community in very immediate ways. The federal government ended payments meant to reimburse timber-dependent counties for loss of revenue, and now—because the voters in my county tend to be very anti-tax and voted down a library district—my local library closed for 18 months and is now only open thanks to donors and grantors. And public safety in our community is practically nil–if you live outside of the county seat, you have a handful of law enforcement officers available to return your call, and then only between the hours of 9:00 to 5:00 Monday-Friday. Our public safety system is like a car spinning wildly out of control…and about to go off a cliff in July when federal payments end.

Five Expert Tips For Sucking At Writing



Write in a café.

There’ll usually be someone saying something incredibly weird and/or offensive. Once you tune in, you won’t be able to concentrate anymore, but you’ll be cool with it because it’s all fodder for the novel.

So far, I’ve overheard the following conversations:

  •  A man, staring soulfully into the eyes of his companion, telling her she has a “luminous energy.” That his one regret is that he hasn’t spent enough time with her. That he wants to kiss her, then and there. That his wife probably wouldn’t approve.
  • A man discussing the remodel of his home, bemoaning the cruel fact that “toilets these days just aren’t constructed for the modern American asshole.” I’m preeeeettty certain he meant it in an anatomical rather than metaphorical sense, as he went into great detail (I will spare you).
  • A blind date during which the first question was “What kind of rifle do you own?” followed by discussion of the vast medical conspiracy behind flu shots and the following conversation:
    Him: What’s your last name?
    Her: Turner.
    Him: Are you related to Ted Turner?
    Her: …..?



Read widely and well.

This will make you a better writer. It will also make you a better procrastinator.

You will endlessly compare yourself to another writer who is not you and whom you will never be. Ignore that the writer cannot be you and you cannot be that writer because that would defy all known laws of the universe and everything would implode. Wish you were Geraldine Brooks anyway, universe implosion be damned.

Bonus: If you read a wide variety of authors, you’ll return to your writing sounding like one of those old See ‘n Say toys that comes back with a different voice each time you pull the string. Paragraph 1, you’ll sound like Donna Tartt. Paragraph 2, Donald Trump.

Showing three fingers isolated on white


Go to conferences.

You will get to spend a lot of money and sometimes it will be worth it but sometimes it will just be a chance to go out of town and drink a lot of coffee and wine instead of staying home and drinking a lot of coffee and wine.

On the plus side, the other conference attendees are likely to be cool and interesting. They’ll also appreciate the bookish-seeming shoes you’ve been dying to wear (like, I don’t know, maybe these which I bought for my birthday and that I love so much I want to marry them):




Do your research.

Before you’ve finished your first draft, go to QueryTracker. Research all of the agents who represent your work. Fall in love with one or two of them—I mean, just know in your heart of hearts that she/he is THE ONLY AGENT who could possibly really understand you and your work. Imagine the laughter and hijinks as you get together for drinks in New York to discuss the details of your publishing contract. Get so excited that you finish your half-assed manuscript and don’t really bother with editing or beta readers (because you’re certain that the #MSWL Your Dream Agent (YDA) tweeted out last week was just like what you’d written and A SIGN FROM THE UNIVERSE). When YDA rejects your query/manuscript (or worse, never gets back to you), assume that it’s not because you jumped the gun and sent out your work before it was ready but because you are the worst writer who’s ever dared put pen to paper (or, I don’t know, finger to keyboard?). Your ideas suck. Your words suck. You suck.

(The above has definitely not happened to me. More than once. Or twice.)



Keep being a horrible writer.

Because writers are doing what they’ve felt called to do. Because there’s something about writing that taps into a soul-deep core of human need for stories, for connection and meaning. Because when we don’t write the world seems a little flatter, a little grayer, a little less shimmery.

Write on, friends.

We’re A Nation Of Cowards



Original Post:

About two weeks ago, my husband and I were casually chatting with our daughter. Out of the blue, she said, “Mom, you know how sometimes I hug you for an extra-long time in the morning and kind of seem like I don’t want to go to school? That’s because I’m wondering if today’s the day there will be a shooter in my classroom.”

She told me she and her best friend even have a bucket list, just in case they get shot at school.

She’s 12.

About a week later, on Friday, October 1, 2015, a gunman killed nine people and wounded nine others at Umpqua Community College, about 70 miles from where we live.

On Monday, a bomb and shooting threat was received at Rogue Community College, in our town. The campus was shut down and schools in our county were either locked-in or had extra police officers.

Last night, a note containing unspecified threats was found at Southern Oregon University, about 40 miles from us, prompting officials to close the campus.

I just don’t know what to say. Over the last few days, in person and on Facebook, I’ve had conversations with those who (like me) favor gun control and with those who don’t.

Those who would like to see more regulations are frustrated. We keep having the same conversations: why not? Why not put commonsense gun laws in place?

Those who oppose gun regulations are also frustrated. Our conversations go something like this:

I say there are too many guns. They parrot Wayne LaPierre of the NRA and say the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. (Ignoring that the police can’t possibly tell the difference between the two when entering an active shooter situation.)

I say we need better gun laws. They say that won’t work because criminals don’t obey laws. (Ignoring the obvious slippery slope—if the lawless won’t obey laws, why do we have laws about theft, or murder, or drunk driving?)

They say we don’t need gun control, we need mental health. I nod and say, okay, let’s have better mental health.

I say over 90% of Americans agree we need better background checks for gun purchases. They say that it’s a slippery slope to abolishing the second amendment.

The same conversation. Each time.

And now I feel like a massive raw nerve, shaking with anger and confusion and fear.

I want to kick and scream and yell into the universe, “WHY? WHY NOT AT LEAST START SOMEWHERE?”

Why can’t we start having better background checks? Start improving mental health access? Embrace logic and reason and empathy when we’re discussing guns and gun control? At least start and see if it works. See if we end up with fewer dead kids.

The sad, disillusioned core of me knows the answer. We can’t do these things because of the NRA.

The NRA has carefully crafted an environment of paranoia that makes people think  having armed teachers in the classroom is a viable solution to gun deaths.

The NRA has purchased enough elected representatives that Congress recently extended a ban on research to even find out what forms of gun control work best.

The NRA has created a dystopian society in which it can produce a cartoon for kids, warning them to stay away from all of the guns lying around. You know, because it’s the grown-ups’ constitutional right to leave guns lying around.

And gun manufacturers just keep churning out more guns, more profits, more death.

I want to yell and scream and shout and holler, but I’m scared nobody will listen. Because I’m just a mom. Everybody expects parents to get all hysterical about their babies being in danger. It’s not like I’m a politician or a lobbyist or somebody important.

To be honest, writing this scares me. I’m afraid of voicing my opinions. I’m afraid of the scorn and ridicule of even my own friends and family, those people I love but disagree with.

But we’re a nation of cowards. America has been afraid of the NRA and gun manufacturers for too long. We need to demand accountability from our politicians. We need common-sense gun control, and we need research and respectful debate about how to balance constitutional rights with the rights of our children to grow and thrive in safety.

What kind of world do we live in that we can even think about debating whether a teacher should have a gun in the classroom? In which Congress would actually BAN research on reducing gun deaths? In which 5-year-olds regularly have “dangerous intruder” drills? This is complete fucking insanity.

I just don’t know what to do or say to my kids. We’ve left them such a mess.


Another Update, 5/18/18:

This time it was in Santa Fe, Texas. 10 dead.

Another Update 2/14/2018:
This afternoon, a shooter (again, I won’t say his name) killed 17 people and wounded numerous others in Parkland, Florida. I’m so afraid. Not just of shooters and bullets and seeing the bodies of my dead children, but afraid that as a society we’re growing numb, that we have no problem thinking about the unthinkable.

My friend Jennifer J. has an idea. What if we keep our kids home from school until SOMETHING is done? I propose that “something” be doing away with the Dickey Amendment, which threatens to defund the CDC if it funds research on gun violence (even Jay Dickey, eponymous sponsor of the amendment, changed his mind about it, saying “We need to turn this over to science and take it away from politics”).

This could be a walk-out. Or a one-week strike. Or longer. Perhaps we could wait until the bell rings and then pull them out one minute for every student who lost their lives today? (Thanks to Ann S. for that idea that preserves school funding.)

Can we change things? Can we live with ourselves if we don’t try?

(And please, if you don’t like this idea, call your representatives, join an effective advocacy group, or write a letter to the editor.)


Update (September 14,2016)
Early this morning, in a nightclub in Orlando called Pulse, a shooter (I won’t say his name) killed 50 people and wounded 53. The shooter’s father said the shooter became enraged when he saw two men kissing on the street.

This is the worst mass shooting (in terms of numbers of dead) in US history. The shooter used an AR-15, a type of assault rifle also used in Newtown and Aurora. We do not know how to keep this type of weapon out of the wrong hands, however, as Congress has rejected an amendment that would have repealed a ban on conducting research into the causes of the gun violence epidemic.

We need to act. We need to hold our elected officials accountable. We need policy, not just prayers.

Here is a link from the Huffington Post on contacting your representatives: “An Easy Guide to Contacting Your Elected Representative About Gun Control.”



Trolling Librarians Are The Best Librarians

Hacking’s a terrible thing. Terrible.

Except when it isn’t. Like when this guy pretended to be a Target sales rep and trolled people opposed to Target’s new gender-neutral toy marketing policy.

Or like when the American Library Association got its Facebook account hacked a few hours ago and librarians got all funny and beautifully weird and trolled the hackers, like in the screen shots I captured below.

Did I mention I freaking love librarian humor? These people are the salt of the earth.


Librarians are very discreet:


Did you know your library records are always kept private?:


Librarians can guide you to examples of words like “misogyny” (ya know, if you’re a visual learner):


No, but really, some good advice from Stephen and Steve here:


Libraries Matter, No Matter What

A young JCLI volunteer (my daughter!) protesting the library's closure.
A young JCLI volunteer (my daughter!) protesting the library’s closure.

In May 2007, all four branches of the library in Josephine County were closed due to lack of funding. More than 82,000 people were left without access to any library whatsoever.

(Over eight years later, I still feel a little shocked writing that.)

A past library levy had been absorbed into the county’s general fund. When the federal government failed to renew a decades-old subsidy (meant to reimburse county governments for the loss of income from logging on federal lands) and voters (mistrustful of county government) failed to pass a measure establishing an independent library district, the libraries were closed.

I was there, and I was devastated. I kept thinking about how a whole generation of kids would grow up receiving the message–from their own community–that books, literacy, and knowledge don’t matter. That learning about the world outside their borders doesn’t matter. That libraries don’t matter.

In August 2007, a group of concerned citizens banded together to form Josephine Community Libraries, Inc. (JCLI), and after 18 months of fundraising—stuffing envelopes, staffing information tables, and begging councilors and commissioners for money—volunteers reopened the Grants Pass branch of the library. Committed to providing library services throughout the county, the board of directors made it a priority to reopen the other three rural branches as soon as possible after the opening of the main branch.

I’ll never forget the opening of the Children’s Room on that cold December day in 2008. I was standing at the circulation desk so I could take pictures. On the other side of the ceremonial ribbon stood crowds of excited and curious kids. When the ribbon was cut, the kids streamed into the room. When it came time to check out, they had stacks of books in their arms and magic in their eyes.

On that day, we sent a message to the kids in our community: we care. We care about their education and imagination. We care that they have a future in the larger world.

Last fall, citizens placed a library district on the ballot in Josephine County that would have provided long-term, sustainable funding for libraries in Josephine County. Sadly, it didn’t pass. If it had, renovating the Children’s Room would have been one of the first priorities.

However, despite our disappointment in the results of the election, JCLI remains determined to provide quality library access for the children in our community by launching First Chapters, a project to modernize and enhance the Children’s Libraries in Grants Pass and Cave Junction.

The project will fund updated books, mobile bookshelves kids can reach, and furniture that actually fits them. It will provide technology that matches their need to learn and resources that fit their need to play.

Just one of the many books that needs replacing.
Just one of the many books that needs replacing.

JCLI has also partnered with Oregon’s Kitchen Table, a group of non-partisan, non-profit community organizations that is helping JCLI with crowdfunding, so that as many people as possible can donate to the project, to feel ownership of the amazing work libraries are doing in our community. If you’d like to help out, you can make a donation here.

First Chapters

By reopening the libraries, we transformed the message we were sending to our kids. Instead of telling them that books, knowledge, and culture are expendable, we taught them the importance of lifelong learning and connection with community and the outside world. With First Chapters, we can reinforce that message. We can teach them that libraries matter, no matter what.

I Am Not My Writing

“Power of Words,” Antonio Litterio. Wikimedia Commons

I’m currently revising a novel in which some folks have said I do a whole lot of telling and not enough showing.

I trained as an academic, so it’s practically a given that my early fiction attempts would skew towards the didactic, the wordy, the analytic. I knew that going in.

So if that feedback is so straightforward, why am I struggling with feelings of embarrassment, even shame? (And now we enter Inception-level neuroticism, in which I’m a little embarrassed about feeling shame.)

All I really have to do is add some more dialogue, inject more ambiguity in my characters by showing actions rather than explicating motives.

But when I sit down to do so, when I open the file and look and what I’ve written, when I revisit the feedback I’ve gotten, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t see these issues before.

Why do we writers do this to ourselves?

When I teach writing, I hammer the idea that writing is a skill, a techne, that improves with practice and feedback. I also insist my students share the following assumption: a critique of someone’s writing is not a critique of that person. I can object to a vague thesis or point out a comma splice and still think the writer is good and smart and worthwhile.

By the end of the quarter, my students can recite my mantra with me: “I am not my writing.”

So why can’t I take my own lessons to heart?

I think the answer lies somewhat in the mystification of the writing process. Those who don’t write regularly see only the final product, not the messy process, and so creation seems magical.

And indeed there are some inexplicable moments in the creative process when the right word or the perfect action is gifted to the writer by something that resembles a muse. But those moments are few and far between, patches of inspiration on a path littered with absurd turns of phrase and cringe-inducing dialogue.

Good writing seems to come from some place deep inside. I can deal with that.

The corollary, however, is chilling: if we can’t produce good writing, does that mean we don’t have good insides?

Obviously that’s poppycock, and yet . . . when has the subconscious ever made sense?

So I’m left relying on a process that seems to work for me: naming the thing that shames me. It’s a technique both modern and ancient. Dredge up the fear and give it a name. Call it by that name and declare its powerlessness.

My fear: if I write something someone doesn’t like, I am a bad writer, a poseur, an object of ridicule. I am bad.

That fear is absurd: I write to tell stories, to connect. If somebody teaches me how to tell a story differently, in such a way that I can connect with other people in better and more powerful ways, they have given me a gift. I want to use that knowledge to make my writing better.

I am not my writing.