Creative Blogging

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 7, 2018

Events in my life are leading to a perfect storm for writing about blogging. I’ve been discussing blogging with my friend Laurie who is a professor of reading. She plans to include blogging in a course she’ll teach this spring. Laurie introduced me to the idea of multi-genre research papers, which is an alternative to the five-paragraph essay used in high schools. She was asking me about blogging because she wanted her students to use a blog for their progress reports. When I heard the concept of multi-genre writing I immediately thought of blogging because blogging is at heart multi-genre, or at least in the way these academics are defining the term. Blogging is both multi-media and multi-genre. I’ve been trying to convince Laurie that her students’ multi-genre research papers should be blogged.

Michel_de_Montaigne

Concurrent with this I’m reading for my nonfiction book club How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. Michel de Montaigne is legendary for developing the personal essay, and he has inspired countless readers and writers for centuries. Montaigne should be considered the Patron Saint of Bloggers. Montaigne retired early and became a contemplative, developing a personal philosophy by writing about his experiences. [Here’s an excellent essay, “Translating Montaigne” to help you find a copy of his work to read.]

And I just got The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker. Pinker is a cognitive scientist and approaches writing and grammar through studying how the brain works at communication. Pinker realizes that we all read and write differently since we’ve all moved online. I’m anxious to dive into this book because I want to scientifically and systematically improve my blog writing.

Then there’s the book I read last year, The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. She combines teaching writing with understanding memory. Writing the personal essay is all about recalling details when our brains are very poor at remembering. We constantly trick, lie, and delude ourselves, and learning why is both psychologically rewarding and artistically challenging. Contemplating the limits of memory is a fantastic tool for understanding how to write.

I’ve written two essays recently about blogging, “Blogging in the Classroom” and “Using Blogging to Accelerate Learning.” What I’m advocating is we start requiring children to blog their school work to teach them about reading, writing, memory, thinking, and history. Essentially what I’m asking is everyone become a Michel de Montaigne to write their personal history. I also expect them to be historians, teachers, preachers, scientists, philosophers, naturalists, and so on, to write about the world at large too. For example, here is Peter Webscott’s “Reading the world – visiting Montaigne’s Tower.” It is an example of a multi-genre essay about visiting Montaigne’s house. This kind of writing is how we should explore our personal experiences and thoughts, and blogging is how we can save those insights for a lifetime.

Creative blogging should be our tool to write our autobiography, one that is preserved, even after we die. Creative blogging is how we should communicate our deepest thoughts to our family and friends. Only the closest people to you will ever take the time to read your blog. Learning who they are is revealing. Blogging has the beautiful side-effect of showing which of our interests bores other people. That will probably scare you. Learning to know what you care about most and how much your friends and family care about what’s important to you is quite enlightening. It teaches how you are unique. It also teaches you how you overlap with other people, and that’s the key to friendships.

I also wrote this a couple years ago, “77 Things I Learned From Writing 1,000 Blog Essays.” Strangely, painful truths are wonderfully educational. I could probably come up with 177 things I’ve learned from blogging today. It keeps growing.

JWH

Reading Mentors

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Years ago, after reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell I contemplated how my life had been shaped by not having a mentor growing up. Looking back now, I see I had mentor-like encounters. My reading was guided by random external influences and that worked as a kind of mentorship. We expect teachers to be mentors, but they can’t, not really, not with so many students.

This is going to be a long essay to explain how I select books today to read and why. I feel compelled to jump back and write a history of my evolution of discovering what to read. Looking back, I wish I had known right from the first that some books are significantly better than others — that I should seek out the best. I also wish I had read from a wider range of subjects — that I could have had far more favorite subjects. And I wished I had learned at an early age that some books can be like junk food — making me addictive to empty calories.

Society expects schools to pick the best books for children, but I always rebelled against their choices. How can we raise kids to be better book selectors?

Bookstore reading

Can teachers ever select books perfectly customized for the individual student? How can teachers avoid turning off students by promoting the reading of unrelatable classics? How can parents and teachers overcome the urge to make kids read the books they loved so passionately but might not be relevant to their children’s lives? If only one book is taught in any given class period what are the odds that all the students will respond to it? Is the goal to teach reading – the ability to decipher fiction and nonfiction – or to teach kids how to find the right book that will provide them cognitive maps to reality? Are kids ever taught the dangers of reading? Are they ever warned that books can become a crippling addiction? Are they ever taught that books can spread dangerous beliefs, delusions, prejudices, hate, and lies? I wished I had learned those things early on.

It has occurred to me that how I found books have always influenced what I read. And what I read has always determined the direction of my life. Thus, I need to be more careful with how I find books. If you are not a bookworm you probably won’t understand this insight. Back in 1971 when I first took a computer course they taught us this acronym: GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). Before that, I remember hippies preaching, “You are what you eat.” From this, you might assume I’m about to write an essay on “You are what you read.” However, I’m going to take one step back and write, “You are what you find to read.”

The first book I can remember is Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. My mother read it to me in the third grade (1959/60) after I had seen the film version with Wallace Beery. If my mother had chosen a different book for me I would have followed a different path as a bookworm? Both my parents were readers of tattered paperbacks. I remember mother reading Perry Mason and my father reading Mickey Spillane. Neither encouraged me and my sister to read. I guess they assumed our teachers would do that.

Evidently, at the end of the third grade, my teacher told my parents I had a reading problem and should attend summer school for reading. I vaguely remember going to a small, wedged shape room, probably a large closet rather than a classroom. The teacher told me to find a book and start reading. I went over to a twirling wire rack and found a small paperback titled Up Periscope. I started reading. It turns out I could read just fine. I don’t remember the summer school teacher ever giving lessons or even talking to him again. I was just bored by what they made us read in class. That twirling rack was an important book mentor and changed the direction of my life. The lesson I learned was I could pick my own books.

Starting in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades what I chose to read was determined by the school libraries and the physical locations where I came to browse. I was my own reading mentor. I remember always going to the beginning of the A’s of the kid’s section at Homestead Air Force Base Library in the 5th grade (1961/62). That got me reading Tom Swift (Appleton) and Oz books (Baum). Eventually, I worked up to the Hardy Boys (Dixon). I would have tried a greater variety of books if I hadn’t gotten hooked on series.

My sixth-grade (1962/63) teacher, Mrs. Saunders was the first teacher to be a book mentor. She’d read us books after lunch. I remember her starting A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and me rushing to the library after school and checking out a copy to finish on my own.

When I started the 7th grade (1963/64) at another school I found When Worlds Collide (Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie) again by browsing the beginning of a range. That simple routine was a reading mentor of sorts. By then I’d range up and down the alphabet looking for the kind of book I liked. I’d read a lot of so-so books. Books were like television or cookies, I consumed them as fast as I could. They were a commodity. I didn’t know there were great books. That’s when I could have used a reading mentor most. If only someone had only shown me how to find purpose in reading, rather than using reading for cheap thrills. If only a wise reader had shown me how to compare books to reality, or taught me about the quality of writing.

At this time I was fixated on space travel and biographies. I read for vicarious adventure. I found a numbered series that published cut-down biographies for children. I remember reading books about Ben Franklin, Aaron Burr, PT-109 and John Kennedy, and Blackjack Pershing. The numbered series acted like a mentor to me because I wanted to read them all. It also showed me that some people are more interesting than others, worthy of being written about. I wish I had had a reading mentor that that taught me that living is better than reading. On my own, I decided reading life was superior to real life.

In the 6th and 7th grade, my schools gave us order forms for Scholastic Books. I still didn’t know there was a genre called science fiction but I was drawn to science fiction books. Because of Scholastic Books, I discovered Jules Verne and H. G. Wells (too far down the alphabet to discover on my own I guess). These were the first books I bought after begging my mother to write a check. This was my first taste of owning and keeping books. I wish I had had some way of knowing what the other books were like on the Scholastic list. This was my first time I encountered a book list or publisher’s catalog. In a way, the Scholastic sales flyer was a kind of reading mentor.

Scholastic Order Form 1963

If I had found different books in the As and Bs at Homestead Air Force Base Library I could have taken a different path. I picked the Oz books because of the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz on television. Now that I am older I sometimes wish I had not started down the path of fantasy stories. I can see now that I didn’t pick what I chose to read. My tastes had already been shaped by television, which makes it another kind of mentor.

The first person to truly influence my reading was my 8th grade (1964/65) teacher. I’m sad I can’t remember her name because she was very important. She had an approved reading list. To keep the grade we earned from tests during each six week period we had to read three books, three magazine articles, and three newspaper articles — otherwise, our grade was dropped one letter. We could raise our grade each period if we read five of each. Eighth grade was the year I struggled with grammar, so I was able to turn my Cs into Bs by reading. This teacher is memorable for two reasons. She introduced me to Robert A. Heinlein and got me to read books other than science fiction. She also taught me library research and how to make bibliographic lists. This teacher couldn’t be a personalized reading mentor to all her class sections, so she worked out a method of inspiring reading and allowing us to choose our own books from an approved list.

Because I asked a librarian about Heinlein, I was shown the adult science fiction section at the Homestead Air Force Base Library. It was small, only two half-height bookcases of four shelves each. Those shelves shaped my reading for a year. Again, a limited set of books becomes a reading mentor.

In the 9th grade (1965/66) I started earning money mowing lawns and babysitting. This got me into buying albums and books. Having money and a bike let me ride to used bookstores. Because I was a science fiction fan I mainly bought books from the science fiction section. I could only afford cheap books. I mainly bought ten-cent used paperbacks that were very old. That limitation was a kind of reading mentor. I mass-consumed science fiction paperbacks from the 1950s. Even today I realize that shaped my personality more than anything else.

It’s a shame I didn’t know better. I should have read more widely. In junior high, I did branch into nonfiction reading books about science, nature, space travel, exploration, history, maps, sailing, etc., but it was still a limited focus.

In the 10th grade (1966/67) I joined the Science Fiction Book Club. This defined my reading for years. Also in the 10th grade, while going to school in Mississippi that only required 16 credits to graduate, I had two library study halls in a six-period day. Science fiction was rare in Charleston, Mississippi, so I began reading more nonfiction.

In the 11th and 12th grade I worked and went to school so I stopped watching television and got little reading done. (This also became true after I got married and worked full time.) Being a bookworm requires the luxury of time.

In the 1970s while in college, I joined the Book of the Month Club and The Quality Paperback Book Club. This broadened my reading somewhat. So these book clubs became reading mentors. Book clubs allowed me to acquire hardbacks at a discount, but the two monthly selections also became a reading mentor too.

By this time I was regularly reading the science fiction magazines, F&SF, Analog, Galaxy, If, Amazing, and Fantastic. These periodicals had book reviews, and they became another reading mentor. In the late 1960s or early 1970s, I read a review of Heinlein in Dimension by Alexei Panshin. That started me reading books about books. However, I seldom branched out of science fiction. It wasn’t until I became an English major in the later 1970s that I began studying books outside the genre. But even then I rebelled against what my professors wanted me to read. For every required classic I was forced to read to pass a test, I read ten or twenty books of my own choosing.

Unfortunately, most of the books I chose were science fiction, with a smattering of popular science and biographies. Now let’s jump ahead about thirty years. Amazon.com changed my reading habits a lot. But what really changed my reading habits was Audible.com. From listening to books read by wonderful narrators I learned I was a very poor reader myself. I also discovered my poor reading habits caused me to read too fast and love books that could be read fast. Once I started listening to books I tried all kinds of novels and nonfiction I would never have enjoyed before. Suddenly, I loved 19th-century novels. Ones that previously had turned me off by all the slow tedious descriptive bits. I also got into long rambling nonfiction books.

I have to say audiobooks have been my best reading mentor. I was reading around 12-20 books a year during the 1980s and 1990s. Mainly because of work and being married. From 1963-1973 I probably read several books a week. From 2002-2017 I read one book a week, or about 52 a year, mostly because of Audible.com. Not only did I read (listen) to more books, my range of reading topics exploded like a nova.

Then around ten years ago, I started blogging and writing about books. I began to think more about what reading meant. I read more book reviews. The internet gave me access to book commentary from all over the globe. I read blogs by other bookworms and discovered whole reading vistas I had missed. Sites devoted to books and reading maniacs showed me countless paths other bookworms had taken.

Since the 1980s I’ve been fascinated by meta-lists. I created one for science fiction, first for a fanzine, and then for the internet. Since then I’ve found others creating general fiction meta-lists, like The Greatest Books, or even collections of meta-lists like Worlds Without End. These are another kind of reading mentor.

Then there is Goodreads and Listopia where millions of readers gather to discuss books. I can even browse what books family, friends, strangers, and famous people read. That’s another kind of mentor.

Finally, in recent years I’ve been greatly influenced by Best-Books-of-the-Year lists, and especially meta-lists that collect them all together. For example, here is “The Ultimate Best Books of 2017 List,” a meta-list created by Emily Temple, where she combined 35 lists covering 520 different recommended books. These annual lists have been getting me to read 6-10 books each year I never would have tried before, and often they turn out to be the very best books I read in the year.

In conjunction with the Best-of-the-Year meta-lists is ebook bargain sales. I subscribe to a half-dozen email newsletters that tell me what books are on sale each day as ebooks. I’ve already bought three books from Temple’s 2017 list. It’s hard to resist trying a book that is on ten or more Best-Books-of-the-Year lists for only $1.99. That makes for a powerful reading mentor.

It turns out the wisdom of crowds is true. It might make the best reading mentor of all I believe. I would think if kids in school had access to meta-lists of books kids like themselves were recommending it might be an excellent mentor to aid teachers.

It would be great to have had a human reading mentor growing up. To be honest, I was never trustful of grownups as a kid. I was a know-it-all little schmuck who wanted to make my own decisions, even if they were bad. I was greatly inspired by my peers, but let’s be truthful here too, my peers were not that wise. We were all too influenced by trends. Plus, I became addicted to science fiction at an early age, which made me ignore most everything else to read.

A while back I wrote, “What 12 Books Would You Give Your 12-Year-Old Self.” Even if I had a time machine I doubt I could have been much of a mentor to my younger self. We all wish we had known what we know now back then, but we forget that most of us are hard of hearing when it comes to taking advice. Today’s kids seem more connected to their parents than kids of my generation. Maybe today parents can be mentors. Rich folks have always been great mentors to their children. I do believe Malcolm Gladwell was right in Outliers that the kids who succeed in life start early and have mentors.

We try to design education curriculums that has the wisdom of mentors, but I’m not sure if such one-size teaches all plans can ever succeed. We know the internet inspires both good and bad in children but will we ever be able to channel its chaos? I wonder if kids can find other kids on the internet who could act as their reading mentors and provide the kind of wisdom I missed growing up. Teachers might try to catalog the best young adult bloggers to show their students. And I assume the internet allows teachers to be far more in tune with their students than teachers of my era.

JWH

 

 

 

 

Using Blogging to Accelerate Learning

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, December 31, 2017

Last week I wrote “Blogging in the Classroom” but I don’t think I got my intended idea across. I’m going to try again. It’s been almost 60 years since I first learned to read and write. I imagine those skills are taught very differently today. And to be honest, I’m quite ignorant about what happens in 21st-century classrooms. That means my suggestions below could be completely impractical. However, I read several articles a day in The New York Times and Flipboard and often they are about the problems of education. Everyone wants to solve this problem, including me.

blogging in the classroom 2

I am very fond of thought experiments. I love exploring “If I knew then what I know now.” I also love applying technology to problems, including social problems. What inspired my previous essay was “What if I had started blogging when I first learned to read and write back in the late 1950s?” I further refined that thought experiment to include: “What if all kids had to blog their homework, book reports, tests, papers, essays, etc. whenever they wrote something for their teacher that work was open to everyone in the class to read?” My theory was peer pressure would have made me try much harder. And I would have loved having a history of my educational progress. But I’m not sure if that essay got at the heart of what I was thinking. I thought I’d rewrite it and make my intent clearer. (Notice that I’m using blogging to improve my writing, self-expression, and how I organize and present my thoughts.)

A subset of educational goals includes:

  • Getting students to become expert readers
  • Getting students to become expert writers
  • Getting students to master grammar, rhetoric, and logic
  • Getting students to think for themselves
  • Getting students to communicate abstract concepts clearly
  • Getting students to learn on their own
  • Getting students to learn how to teach others

Generally, this is done by a top-down teacher-student relationship. In modern times we work to get students to work cooperatively but the real focus is grades and test scores. Basically, we shovel knowledge at kids and then test them from time to time to see how much they retain. The reason I never liked school, nor was a good student, is because I never felt involved in the process. I never saw why I should cooperate with the educational system. Years later I learned why, but not while I was in school. And pleasing teachers or my parents was never an issue with me. I never had a mentor nor did my parents try to mentor me. I don’t know what percentage of students are like me, but what I’m going to suggest could motivate such kids.

Education has a lot of problems, mostly stemming from declining budgets and political attacks on the system. Plus, we expect children to learn too much. And we’re constantly trying to find one pedagogy that succeeds with all students. Then there’s the problem that we’re constantly experimenting without real evidence. And we throw way too much technology at the problem. Thus, I know what I’m suggesting is probably unwise. However, I would like to see more experiments with basic reading, writing, math, and science. I’m suggesting we use technology to do this. My whole experiment could be refashioned to use only paper and pencils but it would be slower. Humans have developed a symbiosis with computers and I think we need to accept that.

I believe the wild success of social media tells us a lot about educational psychology. We want to communicate. We want to be understood. We want acceptance. We want to be involved with other people with similar interests. For a planet with an overpopulation problem, too many people are lonely. We have a governmental system based on democracy, but we can’t reach any significant levels of agreement. And too much of our social interaction is based on anger, resentment, hatred, and that’s leading to more and more violence. We’re confrontational rather than cooperative. We’re narrow-minded rather than broadminded. We can only see our self-centered needs rather than empathetically understanding the needs of others. And most people have a poor grasp of reality, prone to embracing delusions.

What I propose is we switch students from handing in schoolwork to the teacher via paper and email, and instead post to their blog so that it’s public. I believe learning to read and write based on our fellow students’ efforts will improve our own and make us better human beings. Students should own their own blogs and not use school supplied blogging software. If students used their own blogs they’d be documenting their educational development for life. Students should sign up with WordPress, Blogger, or other international services and give their URLs to their teachers. Teachers should publish these links to all their students and require their students to read and comment on each other’s work.

All too often using blogging in the classroom is about teaching blogging. That by itself is of little educational value. Just another trendy effort to promote technology in schools. What I’m suggesting is teachers require students to take tests, do homework, write reports, all on their blogs, with the results be public. Grading can be private but I’m not sure if it’s even needed. Grades and standardized tests rank students unfairly and inaccurately, so why bother? What we really want is for each student to be the best person they can be by teaching every student that people have different talents and lack of talents. Failing at math doesn’t make you a dummy. It either means you lack a mental facility for math or you aren’t trying hard enough. Learning the limits of either is very important. Seeing how other people work will teach you about your own limitations and how to improve your best skills. We need to embrace the theory of multiple intelligences and recognize we’re not going to be great at all of them.

What we really want is for students to search for their talents and improve them. We want to teach them generalized learning skills that can be applied to any subject, talent, or endeavor. And I believe blogging can help do this. Peer pressure is very powerful. It can be cruel, but it can also be inspirational. If 25 students read what their 24 fellow students were doing it would show them far more possibilities than what one teacher can show them. We need to grow up knowing how other people think rather than constantly trying to figure out how to think for a test.

Let’s use an example. Let’s imagine the teacher posts this question on Friday afternoon: “Why did American go to the Moon in the 1960s?” When students first try this system, most will go to Wikipedia and write up a summary. On Monday the teacher can assign everyone to read everyone else’s essays and discuss the results. The teacher can show how easy efforts lead to simple thinking. The teacher can ask the students to look for unique or deeper interpretations. The teacher can guide the discussion about common ideas and dissenting opinions. The teacher can then assign the students to write another essay challenging students to find source material that no other student is likely to find. The teacher can tell the students to seek out complex and multi-plex explanations.

The goal of this assignment is to teach research and writing history. With every assignment, the goals of improving reading and writing will be involved. We will also be promoting thinking and writing clearly. Students will be encouraged to use statistics and infographics. Students will be encouraged to analyze each other’s motive for expressing a point-of-view. Students will be encouraged to debate each other’s results. Students will be encouraged to combine their research and collaborate. Students should be encouraged to find consensus they can agree upon, but with everyone playing the devil’s advocate. We need to teach about fake and false information. We also need to teach students how not to be intellectual bullies, trolls, and assholes.

Then the teacher should assign their students to write yet another version of this essay so that it competes and encompasses the results of the other students. The teacher should encourage students to write their best version — the one they want the world to read. Most writing classes I’ve taken only urge students to submit one draft. It’s very important to teach students to go through multiple drafts.

Students should be encouraged to critique each other’s writing but taught how to do it kindly. The goal is for each student is to have 25 mentors (24 fellow students and 1 teacher).

Blogging is hard and time-consuming, so I don’t know how practical it is to integrate into a standard curriculum. However, I do believe the 10,000-hour rule applies here. I would suggest one hour a day of essay writing and a couple hours a week reading/critiquing other students’ work. That should accumulate 10,000 hours from grade 3 to grade 12. If computers are available in the classroom I’d recommend typing in tests and other schoolwork and sometimes spending time on discussing other students’ work. A major educational goal is to learn how other people think through reading their work and how to think clearly yourself by writing for others.

Mastering typing and software tools lead to much faster writing and rewriting. I would allow grammar and spelling checkers because they constantly nag writers to improve on the basics. Using them are almost like playing video games because you want to beat them.

JWH

(Goodby 2017 – Hello 2018)

Looking Forwards v. Looking Backwards

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Do you read books about the past, or about now, or the future?

Our Nig by Harriet WilsonThis morning I started work on an essay about African-American fiction in the 19th century. It began with a question that had popped into my head: “Who was the first black novelist in our country?” This kind of fun sleuthing on the internet inspires me to write essays. I quickly came across articles about how Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had discovered a long forgotten book in the early 1980s called Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black (1859) by Harriet Wilson. That made me want to research a number of other things. Have earlier novels been uncovered since? What were the second, third, fourth, fifth novels? What about short stories? Were any bestsellers in their day. Before long I realized I could spend weeks on this project.

Men-Into-SpaceI usually think of several ideas a day for researching and writing. I start work on just a fraction of these ideas, and complete work on damn few. Another idea I got yesterday was to write about Men Into Space, a one-season TV show of 38-episodes (1959-60) that worked to be very realistic about space flight. A lady in my online book club mentioned it and I was surprised I hadn’t known about it before now. It’s not available on DVD except as DVD-R sales through places like eBay (because it’s in the public domain). It is available to watch online at YouTube. However, I did find a book, Men Into Space by John C. Fredriksen that extensively writes about the series. I’d love to write a book like this – if I could focus my mind for a year or two.

The Spacesuit Film - A History 1918-1969 by Gary WestfahlWhile researching Men Into Space I came across another book The Spacesuit Film: A History 1918-1969 by Gary Westfahl that covered Men Into Space as well as other movies and television shows that prefigured the space age. Hell, this exactly the kind of book I’d love to write too. But can you imagine the time it would take? But wouldn’t it be fun to watch all those old movies and television shows analyzing them for how they imagined the future? However, how many people read such books? I want to, but the $39.95 price for the paperback stops me. Even the $19.99 price for the Kindle edition is making me think long and hard.

This suggests another idea for researching. How many people buy and read these esoteric kinds of history books? How many people love to study tiny segments of forgotten history? I have this nagging desire to write something longer than blog essays. This month was supposed to be the month I began a book-length project. And I did start on an idea, but once again got side-tracked by too many distractions. But I’m back to focusing my mind on the project.

I have to ask myself, who is going to read what I write and why? Why spend a year, or several, writing something few people will want to read? It occurred to me this morning I could divide books into three categories: about the past, about the present, about the future. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction.

To Be A Machine by Mark O'ConnellI’ve always loved science fiction, which is future-oriented. But when I think about writing about science fiction, that’s past-oriented. Because I write for Book Riot, I can also write about contemporary publishing. I even think about writing books like To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell, which is essentially about how science fiction is affecting our world today.

I also came across this pledge drive for Farah Mendlesohn yesterday. She is writing a book about Robert A. Heinlein and is looking for backers. She’s gotten 143 supportors so far. This is also exactly the kind of book I’d love to write – but is that the rough number of people who would be interested in reading it?

I’m now worrying that I’m spending too much time thinking about the past. Is that because I’m getting older and it’s natural for aging folks to analyze yesterday? I assume that many people who like my blog do so because they are somewhat like me – they are older and thinking about when they grew up, and we all loved some of the same things.

I believe my less popular essays at Book Riot are due to writing about topics that bore their demographic readership, which tilts young and female. This makes me wonder if I should accept that I like to write about things that appeal to a subset of aging baby boomers, or if I should work to write about topics that have a wider appeal across different age groups.

My guess is writing about contemporary subjects or about the future has more universal appeal. I wonder if writing about today or tomorrow isn’t more psychologically positive for both me and readers. But I’m so fascinated by the past, especially esoteric subjects.

I’m currently reading The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman about Paul Erdős, a brilliant mathematician, and The Five Gospels, about the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who work to figure out what the historical Jesus actually said. Both of these books are intensely fascinating. Both of these books are about the past and have little relevance to today or tomorrow.

I have to wonder if I’ve given up on tomorrow because I don’t have much hope for the future, either for myself, or the planet, and I’m finding pleasure and meaning by exploring the past.

I’ve always loved science fiction but when I read science fiction today I’m usually very critical of works that are based on unrealistic ideas. I don’t believe in all those far out futures like I used to. As a writing challenge maybe I should work to write about positive futures that could be realistic, ones we can hope to find. Yet, my most popular essay ever is, “50 Reasons Why Humans Are Too Stupid To Survive.” Gloom and doom does sell. Hell, the TV shows my friends and I binge-watch focus on awful people and horrible events.

Writing is about focus. Writing a book is about intense focus over a great time span. I’m wondering if choosing to write about the past isn’t a way of escaping the present or future? I also wonder if writing about the future isn’t a way to give myself hope for tomorrow?

Maybe you can’t relate to this topic because it’s about writing. Think of it this way. Do you love watching old movies and television shows, or new ones? Do you listen to old music or new music? If you’re mentally young, no matter what your age is, you’ll be enjoying whatever is new.

I’m being more and more drawn into the past. 1950s movie westerns, mid-20th-century written science fiction, 1960s romantic movie comedies, 19th-century novels, 1950s jazz, 1940s film noir, 1920s modernistic literature, Victorian scientific romances, etc. Growing up, I always thought about the future…

JWH

 

I’m Known for Human Stupidity and Dinosaur Dreams

By James Wallace Harris, August 26, 2016

If you search Google for “humans are stupid” my essay “50 Reasons Why the Human Race is Too Stupid to Survive” comes up in the #1 spot. At least it does for me, and for my friend Connell in Miami. I’ve been wondering why that essay gets 50-75 hits a day. I just searched on “why are humans so stupid” and I’m the #1 return again. If I use Bing, I don’t come up at the top of the returns. It’s weird to think that people are wondering why humanity is stupid, and come to my blog for answers. So far I’ve gotten around 15,000 hits. I feel a little guilty about spreading negativity. I guess it’s a positive sign I’m not getting more hits. Some of my readers who leave comments have been pretty down on the world. I suppose I can use the number of hits I get each day as a barometer to measure unhappiness in the world.

Smoking Dinosuars - Gary Larson

If you happen to search on “dinosaur dreams” I’m the #2 return on Google and #21 on Bing. (Why doesn’t Bing like me?) This is very weird too. Evidently, 30-50 people each day have a dream about dinosaurs, search Google to find out why, and come to my blog to read “Do You Dream About Dinosaur Attacks?” So far, over 13,000 people have done that. That’s pretty amazing that so many people dream about dinosaurs. Even more amazing – some of my readers have dreams just like mine, where dinosaurs show up, and everyone knows to be quiet and still, but some dumbass always makes a noise near us to attract their attention. I’m always more mad at the noisemaker in these dreams than scared of the dinosaur.

JWH

Writing For Other Sites and My Health

James Wallace Harris, Thursday, April 28, 2016

I’m publishing less here because I’m publishing more elsewhere. That doesn’t mean I want to give up writing for my blog, but I do need to develop a plan for what’s best to post here. When I write about science fiction its obvious to give those essays to SF Signal, because science fiction is what they’re all about. Plus, they get more readers. And I’ve been accepted at a general book site, so now I can write about all the other books I’m reading for them. I’ll let you know what site that is when they publish my first essay and I have a link. They’ve accepted two essays so far. That leaves non-book subjects for me to write about here at Auxiliary Memory. I just need to find the time. My plan is to publish one blog post here each week. All told, that’s committing myself to writing eight essays a month. The ones I write here might be short, like this one.

I’ve been retired two-and-half years now, and writing essays has turned into my retirement hobby. That’s worked out very well because writing counteracts brain rust. I’ve noticed the longer I go without writing, the more trouble I have remembering words and pronouncing them. I’ve always called blogging piano practice for writing essays, well now I know it’s exercise for the mind too. I highly recommend blogging as a hobby, for the young or old. Writing over a 1,000 blog posts has really paid off.

Essay writing is turning out to be preventative medicine for dementia. Writing is showing me my physical and mental limitations. Because the newer essays require so much research, I’m having to push myself much harder, causing me to hit a wall each day. That’s an effective barometer of my mental and physical health. Each day takes more psychic management, and it’s all too obvious each birthday I pass leaves less creative energy. I doubt I’ll be able to do a fraction of what I’m doing now in my seventies. Getting old sucks, but that’s not news to anyone already old. It might be news to my friends who have yet to retired. Before I retired I thought all I needed was time. Well, at least I’m still learning new things.

I’m learning what it takes to do research, and that’s given me much greater respect for serious writers. It’s one thing to write an opinion piece, it takes several magnitudes more effort to include useful facts. Especially if you order them in some kind of coherent fashion.

I’ve had  two essays published at SF Signal in April. The first, “The Biographies of Philip K. Dick” is about the many books written about PKD. Duh! Titles are important. The second, “How Well-Read Are You in Science Fiction?” serves two purposes. First, it asks how many classic science fiction books do you have to read to feel like an expert. Second, it describes how to use the Worlds Without End’s database to catalog the science fiction books you’ve read, which then allows you to see how you stack up on more than fifty “Best SF/F/H Books” lists. Read the article if you want to learn how, it’s a lot of fun to use the WWEnd database. Here’s an illustration of how well I did with their “WWEnd Top Listed” list. It’s color coded. Blue and green are books read, with blue being favorites, yellow means the book is on my to-be-read list. Orange means I’m reading that book currently. Yeah, I’m embarrassed to let people know I’ve never read I Am Legend by Richard Matheson or Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – but I own both.

top-listed

I don’t think I mentioned another article I wrote for SF Signal. Damn, I forget them as fast as I write them. But I do like plugging this Great Course. See “How Great Science Fiction Works – A Great Course in SF by Gary K. Wolfe.” If you love the history of science fiction, this is an excellent overview of the genre, and is only one credit at Audible.

JWH

77 Things I Learned From Writing 1,000 Blog Essays

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 20, 2016

This is my 1,000th blog post and I’ve learned a lot from blogging.

My first post was “Access time in a fifty-five year old brain” published 12/26/2006. Here’s the first paragraph:

The main reason I’ve created this blog is to help me remember.   After that I want to study how information is organized with the ultimate plan of taming the horde of competing topics that have tangled up my synapses.  I’m hoping if I can find a way to organize my thoughts I will be able to remember facts and details more efficiently and faster.  If I can’t, then the search box will do the job my neurons can’t.  My access time for my gray matter runs from instant, to many hours, to total failure.  This started as a noticeable problem in my late forties and has been getting worse ever since.

Well, I’m still struggling to organize my thoughts, but I’m quite confident Auxiliary Memory has been an huge help as an external memory device. Blogging is also a form of mental exercise that keeps my declining mind in shape. After nine years, or 3,314 days, and over a million words, I have forgotten most of what I’ve written, but it’s still there for me to retrieve. I’m often surprised to reread what I write. Blogging has turned out to be an incredibly useful tool, and I wonder why more people don’t blog.

To celebrate these nine hundred and ninety-nine essays, I thought I’d note some of what I’ve learned.

  1. Blogging is like piano practice for writing.
  2. Essay writing is a concrete way to organize thoughts.
  3. Original thoughts are thin and vague, and it takes a lot of work to make them coherent.
  4. Often coherency doesn’t show up until days of writing and rewriting. 
  5. We don’t realize how unclear our thoughts are until we try to put thoughts into sentences.
  6. Thinking improves with editing.
  7. The quality of my writing is directly related to the number of times I reread and edited an essay before I hit the publish button.
  8. There is no relation between getting hits and what I’m interested in writing about.
  9. I can’t predict what people will want to read. The old essay that gets the most current hits is “Do You Dream About Dinosaur Attacks?” If you search Google for “Dreaming about dinosaurs” my piece is 2nd in their listing. Evidently 30-50 people a day research this topic. I never would have predicted that.
  10. If my goal is to get hits, then I should review products. Product reviews are my consistent hit getters, but I quit writing them. 
  11. Science fiction is the subject that has garnered my most readers, and my favorite topic to write about.
  12. Don’t expect your friends and family to read your blogs.
  13. Only a few of my friends have subscribed to my blog and will occasionally mention reading an essay, or post a reply.
  14. I’ve learn to write what I feel like writing and not to worry if it will be read. I’m currently getting 250-350 hits a day, mostly due to Google searches, but also because of a handful of regular readers. I have 1,500 subscribers. But I can’t assume that a hit means a read. Just because a person clicks on a Google search return doesn’t mean I’m providing them with information they want to know. And many of my subscribers are other bloggers hoping I’ll read their blog. (Which I do try to do.)
  15. It’s extremely hard to write a 1,000 words that someone else will want to read.
  16. Few people want to think about a specific topic the same time that I do.
  17. There are very few people that have the same mixture of interests as I do.
  18. Blogging is a way to embed your personality into words.
  19. Blogging is a way to find out how many of your friends, family, and strangers think your interests are interesting.
  20. Blogging is a way to express yourself without boring your friends.
  21. If you want to find out how interesting you are to your friends, blog your thoughts. You might be surprised.
  22. There is a direct relationship between how much time my friends are willing to listen to me talk and whether or not they will read what I’ve written. My most chatty friends, the ones that never let me get a word in, never read my blog. I don’t say this as a hurt ego, but to show that blogging will reveal which of your friends are actually interested in what’s going inside of your head. Don’t blog if you don’t want to know.
  23. Blogging will reveal what your true interests are to yourself, and how fanatical you are about them.
  24. Blogging is a good way to meet people like yourself online.
  25. Blogging is a good way to learn if you have common interests or obscure fascinations.
  26. Blogging is a way to learn when your thinking is faulty.
  27. Blogging is a way to learn when your thinking is political incorrect.
  28. Blogging is a way to learn things about yourself that you don’t see – because readers do.
  29. Blogging is a way to test the limits of your memory.
  30. If you blog about a past event and try to document it with photos, outside reference material, interviews with people at the event, you’ll learn that memories are piss-poor at best.
  31. A well written blog about an event written within 24 hours will provide a better memory than your brain.
  32. If you get an idea for a blog post start writing it as soon as possible because the idea will disappear quickly.
  33. Blogging is mostly memory, opinions and reporting.
  34. Reporting is when you document events outside of yourself.
  35. Being a good reporter is hard.
  36. Opinions are a dime a million, essentially worthless unless you can back them up with evidence.
  37. The more evidence the better. 
  38. My personal memories are only interesting to people if I can frame them in a universal theme. And even then, few people will read them. One of my favorite memory-lane pieces, “Super Men and Mighty Mice” has gotten the least amount of hits. It was about being kids and pretending to fly, and begins like this:

    During the Ozzie and Harriet years, when I was seven and people called me Jimmy, my sister Becky and our best friends Mikey and Patty, would beg old tattered terry cloth towels from our moms and pretend to be George Reeves. We’d tie those old faded pastel rags around our necks, stretch out our arms, hands flat, fingers pointing forward, tilt our heads down and run like Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, occasionally jumping with all our might, with the hopes of getting airborne like Superman, or at least Mighty Mouse. And when we were burnt out and our little bodies too tired to try any more, we’d go to sleep at night and have flying dreams.

  39. It’s hard to write Jean Shepherd type nostalgia and get hits. Shepherd is famous for A Christmas Story. Nostalgia just doesn’t index well on Google.
  40. Nostalgia does appeal to readers who have similar past experiences. It’s lucky when you find those people, or they find you. 
  41. Blogging teaches elements of journalism. If you want hits, you have to write what other people want to read. That means focusing on current popular topics, and writing short pieces that don’t exceed the common attention span. I decided long ago to write what I’m interested in and at lengths longer than most people want to read. So it goes. 
  42. I’ve learned that I naturally think in 500-1500 word essays.
  43. 500-1500 words is far longer than what most people want to read.
  44. Titles are very important.
  45. Delete all the words that people will skim over.
  46. I’m a verbose writer and don’t delete enough.
  47. Over the years I’ve often written about topics I’ve already written about but have forgotten that did.
  48. I have common themes I repeat but I hope are refined with each new approach. 
  49. Regular blogging helps with my writing and thinking skills.
  50. Regular blogging helps with my verbal skills. This was a real revelation.
  51. Regular blogging keeps my vocabulary active. If I don’t blog for a week or two I start forgetting words, and forget how to pronounce them. That old saying, “Use it or lose it” is true.
  52. Blogging has been a great social outlet since I retired.
  53. I can express myself better in a blog than I can talking.
  54. Blogging helps me listen to other people.
  55. Blogging makes me wish my friends blogged so I could read their thoughts.
  56. Blogging makes me wish my friends blogged so they would make their thoughts more coherent.
  57. Blogging is somewhat like being in a hive mind.
  58. I wished I had started blogging when I learned to read and write.
  59. I wished I had learned to read and write at age 4, when I started being self-aware.
  60. I wished my parents, grandparents, and ancestors had blogged so I could read about their inner lives.
  61. I wish the Library of Congress would archive blogs.
  62. I wish politicians, famous people and people doing interesting jobs would blog. Sound bites on television makes people seem shallow, tweets make them seem snarky, and Facebook makes them seem silly.
  63. Everyone approaches blogging differently. Some people use it like a diary, making short notes about their day. Others post photographs of all the places they visit. Some people repost other people’s blogs that they like. Some people write excessively about tiny topics, or say essentially nothing about big topics. There’s no one way to blog.
  64. Folks want to read about your dreams about as much as they want to see your vacation photos.
  65. Sometimes you have to guess what you remember. In recent years many writers have gotten into trouble for writing nonfiction that turned out to be fiction. Memory is closer to fiction than nonfiction. That’s just how it is.
  66. Wikipedia is my absolute best memory bank.
  67. Google makes a great spelling tool and dictionary.
  68. Sometimes I have to play Six Degrees of Separation to remember a person. IMDb is great tool for that.
  69. I’ve learn to fact-check my memory.
  70. I always try to send friends my blog when I mention them, but most people don’t care.
  71. I generally get photos from Google and use them without credit. I shouldn’t do that. I do try to get generic photos, or things in public domain.
  72. Sometimes people use my posts and photos without credit. Sometimes I think it’s flattery, other times I think fraud.
  73. Blogging is good for my mental health.
  74. Blogging gives me a sense of purpose after I retired.
  75. Blogging is a way to examine my life – remember an unexamined life is not worth living.
  76. Blogging is a way to be philosophical.
  77. Blogging is a way to push myself to do more.

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JWH