Books by Melissa Bowersock

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Power of Words

Over the past week, I have been struck by the battle of words that has raged across the media, both social and mainstream. It has been very similar in tone to the back-and-forth before the election, although it seems that recent events have touched people in far more emotional and core ways than that. That’s the good news; things of this nature should touch us at a very deep level. The bad news is that the activation of this core level has led to a deep divide in rationalizations, justifications and the search for solutions.

This blog is neither the time nor place to discuss violence in our country nor the cure for it.

But what I have been acutely aware of during the discussion is the use of words.

Language is a universally human trait. Yes, I know, animals have language, too, but since I don’t speak dolphin or chimpanzee, I can’t attest to the qualities of their languages. Our language, however, is an intriguing mix of describing facts and layering in emotion. It’s easy to imagine a man in the Stone Age saying (grunting?) to a friend, “Mammoth coming.” This simple observation of a fact is devoid of emotion, but when the man adds, “Run!” suddenly it’s a different story. And if he happens to add, “Run fast!” then the heightened emotion kicks the whole drama up several notches.

This very simple language of spare words has, over the millennia, evolved into a highly nuanced vehicle for conveying ideas. We no longer have to rely on simple adverbs (“Run fast!”) or adjectives (“Big Mammoth!”). We have now at our disposal an abundance of words that can denote any degree along a scale of emotion from mild to mixed to manic. It’s one of the most phenomenal qualities of words that they can convey passion, panic, longing, hatred, fear. It is exactly these qualities that make writing so powerful, both in the realm of story-telling and in journalism, for as words convey emotion, they can also promote it. Who can deny the rose-colored contentment felt after finishing a romance novel? Or the arousal induced by “adult” fiction? Inciting emotions is what pulls us into a story, what makes it relevant to us and what makes us care about the outcome. Words compel us to cheer Rhett Butler as he strides away from Scarlet; they instill in us to a righteous hope when Tom Joad says, “I’ll be there.”

Journalism, however, is not (most of the time) story-telling.

Journalism is supposed to be predicated on the truth. Journalism is supposed to be about gathering and presenting the facts of an issue. But words, those simple building blocks of communication, can like any tool be used for good or ill depending on the writer’s intent. They can be used to convey a message or incite emotion.

As an example, read the two sentences below.

He shot 20 children.
He massacred 20 innocent children.

You may agree that one or both of those statements are factually correct, yet notice the difference in the emotional content. The emotionally loaded words take the simple statement to a new level. I am not making a judgment about either statement, or about the things that are currently being said and written, but I am, during this time of high emotion and fear, paying particular attention to the words that are being used.

Because words are powerful.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Lessons Learned in 2012

The end of the year is always a good time to look back, take stock, figure out what we’ve learned (or not) during the course of the year. It’s one way to gauge how far we’ve come in the last 12 months. Some of the things I learned this year are:

How to sell without selling. Back in March after the Tucson Festival of Books, I wrote about the process that moved me from being an isolated (and insulated) book writer/seller to being a connected part of the human race and forging links with readers. It’s amazing how much difference a change in perspective can make. Now I get to listen to other people’s stories. I get to hear about what’s important to them, what they remember, how they learn. It’s much more enjoyable to meet people person-to-person, reader-to-reader, rather than book writer/seller-to-customer.

Reviews/Awards/Criticisms. Back in August, I talked about reviews and how they can be ecstasy or agony for a writer. Any given book can elicit every reaction from a one-star “horrible” to a 5-star “perfect!” depending on the reader. Does that mean the book is horrible? No. That means, to that person, on that day and at that time, the book did not meet their needs, their expectations, their hopes and dreams. Does it mean the book is perfect? No. It means, to that person, on that day and at that time, the book did meet their expectations or even exceeded them. The book didn’t change; what changed were the readers. The experiences that shaped them and the filters through which they view the world are very different and something over which the writer has no control. What’s a writer to do? Write the very best book they can. Period. Adapting the “Think Globally, Act Locally” mantra, think Amazon #1, think NYT Best Seller list, think Oprah’s Book Club and the Today Show, but just write the best book you can. Don’t write what you think people want to read; don’t write for the market; write the story that wants to be told. Write the book you want to read. It won’t speak to everyone but it will speak to some. Give it the truest voice you can.

AFGEs. Life is a classroom. If we really think about it, we learn something new every day. It may be something as small as learning not to take a deep breath while eating a powdered doughnut, or as big as learning that cancer doesn’t care who you are or what you still want to do with your life when it points its boney finger at you. The fact is that we never reach the head of the class. We always have more to learn. And learning makes us a better person that we were five minutes ago. Unfortunately, we may not always like the lesson that’s being served. In AA they have an acronym for that: AFGEs. An AFGE is Another F***ing Growth Experience. AFGEs may not be the things we want to learn, but for one reason or another, they seem to be the things we need to learn. Whenever we are served up an AFGE, it may be a hard pill to swallow, but the quicker we swallow it, the quicker we will assimilate the lesson and move on to the next thing, a better person.

We’re all in this together. I’m an introvert; I think most writers are. For many years, I toughed out all the ups and downs of being a writer by myself. I went through the anxiety of submitting manuscripts to agents and publishers; I withstood the rejection letters and rejoiced in the acceptance letters.  I fumbled and fell into the pit of a vanity press. I discovered pay-to-publish and then, finally, self-publishing. I taught myself the process of formatting a book for publishing, designing the cover, writing the blurbs. I worked out how to format a story for e-books. Then, everything changed. I discovered writers’ forums online. I jumped into Goodreads and LinkedIn with the joy of an ugly duckling who finally finds where the swans hang out. I made fan Facebook pages for all my books and began to discover all the other writers and writers’ groups there. The culmination (so far) has been WANA, the We Are Not Alone forum created by Kristen Lamb. Finding community like this has been a game-changer. I am not alone. I am but one of many, many writers who toil and pour their hearts out and hope for a kind word for their children stories. It’s a new experience, but we’re all learning that cooperation works better than competition. Supporting each other works better than suppressing each other. Together we can bring our stories to light. Together we can raise them up and deliver them to the world. Together we can ensure that the stories that need to be told are being told.

It’s a great feeling.