29 July 2015

About Those Things You're Not Supposed To Say To Writers

Yesterday, there was a hashtag running wild on Twitter. I follow a lot of professional writers, so I saw a lot of tweets carrying the tag: #TenThingsNotToSayToAWriter. They were mostly funny, but some of them made me cringe. And one or two of them shot me right through the heart. For example:

A writer is, by definition, someone who writes. Some of us, like the tweeter cited above, write long-form novels for traditional publication. Some of us write essays or short-form fiction, which we publish in magazines or blogs. Some are journalists. Some of us are poets, either traditionally published or self-published. But anyone who writes is a writer, and it is insulting - and short-sighted, in this information age - to suggest otherwise.

It is true that there are a lot of terrible writers in the world. The opening of the internet has enabled anyone with a keyboard and some very basic skills to establish a blog and start writing. This is one of the things that surprised me when I first started blogging, and that continues to surprise me to this day: many of the most successful active blogs are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, or are full of posts that are simply poorly thought out or poorly composed and presented. In the beginning, I commented on posts that I thought needed more work or more editing. Sometimes I wrote posts responding directly to bloggers with whose ideas I strongly disagreed.

I learned quickly, however, that the world is so saturated with writers doing their own thing that my opinion simply doesn't matter. Nobody cares where the apostrophe goes, as long as they have a solid and engaged readership. That's what makes any writer successful, after all: people who want to read your writing. You can have seventeen finely-crafted, well-edited, traditionally-published novels that no one has ever opened, or you can have one blog with thousands of followers who read your work on a daily basis. Who's the real writer?

Nor do I agree with the suggestion that being a writer necessarily requires any specialized training, like being an eye surgeon:

With apologies to Harlan Coben, who, despite his snarkiness, is a very successful novelist by any measure, one doesn't just wake up one day and decide to do eye surgery. But that's how most novels get started. There is an idea, and the idea is sketched out, crafted, and put to paper. A novelist is someone who writes novels, and nothing more. He doesn't need specialized training, an advanced degree, or a professional license to do so. He just needs to write. That's not to say it's easy work, or that it doesn't require discipline and skill and talent and the support of professionals with experience. Not everyone can do it. But someone who decides to do it can. And should.

In my quest to become a writer, I have been rebuffed many, many times by professionals who treated my inquiries and enthusiasm the same way Coben and Mieszkowski apparently would. I'm a lawyer by training, and several writers have said, "I don't try to practice law, and you shouldn't try to write fiction." One editor rejected me many years ago with the blunt: "I'll call you when I get a traffic ticket."

On the other hand, I have been encouraged by many kind-hearted people I've reached out to. A high-school friend who is an editor at a major publishing house handed me her business card and told me she would read my completed manuscript whenever it was ready. (It's not ready yet, but I still have her card.) Another friend, a very successful published writer, offered to put me in touch with her agent (again, when I'm ready). Even the great Philip Roth, whom I had the good fortune to meet in person some years ago in a social setting, was kind and encouraging. "Just write it. If it's good - and there is every reason to expect it will be - it will find readers."

If you know someone whose writing you like, I can suggest a few things you can do that will put you into the encouraging column. First, if their writing is traditionally published and is available for sale, buy it. In a bookstore, if possible, or for your electronic reader. If you can't find it for sale, check it out of the library. If it's a blog, visit often and post comments. Share good writing - give good books as gifts, or pass them on to people you think might like them. Choose your favorite titles to discuss at book groups. Write online reviews. Repost and tweet blog entries that have struck a chord with you. This increases readership, sending your favorite writers down the road to success. And for blogs, click on the ads - doing this provides the financial support that enables your favorite bloggers to keep going.

If you are a writer or editor, aspirants are asking you questions because they admire you and are seeking your expertise and help. Good writing is not a zero-sum game. Helping out another writer is not going to ruin your own career. There is and will always be a market for good content. Stephen King is not threatened by J.K. Rowling; they sing each other's praises and they both rise. Instead of discouraging aspiring writers with mean-spirited tweets, be welcoming. Everyone will benefit from your efforts.

01 April 2015

Jailed For Miscarrying

I read a news report yesterday that I have been thinking about it ever since. I want to share it with you. Please be warned that the facts of the story contain some graphic details. (I have adapted my description of the facts from a UPI story that you can read for yourself here.)

The story is that of Purvi Patel, a 33-year-old woman of Hindu descent from mostly Irish-Catholic South Bend, Indiana. In July 2013, Patel miscarried a pregnancy at her home, where she lived with her immigrant parents and grandparents. It is not clear exactly how advanced the pregnancy was - that was one of the issues at her later trial. But Patel expelled, along with a lot of blood, a recognizable fetus, which she claims was dead. (Whether it was actually dead at the time was also an issue at the trial.)

A few hours after miscarrying, Patel went to a local hospital, because she was bleeding heavily. Before she left for the hospital, she cleaned up the mess and put the fetus in a dumpster at a shopping center across the street from the hospital. She then presented herself in the emergency room for treatment of her heavy bleeding.

Although Patel did not initially tell the emergency-room doctor all of the details of what had happened, it was apparent to him that she had recently given birth. Her womb still contained a placenta and a severed umbilical cord, and the doctor opined that her pregnancy had been "fairly far along." The doctor decided that he was looking at a case of child abuse, and, as a mandatory reporter, called the police and sent them to Patel's home in search of a newborn baby.

Told that the police were on their way to her home, Patel revealed to the doctor that the fetus was across the street in a dumpster. The doctor relayed that information to the police, who gathered at the shopping center across the street to conduct their search. Patel went into surgery to have the placenta removed; while that was going on, the doctor joined the police outside and assisted them with their search. They found the fetus fairly quickly, exactly where Patel had told them it was, and it was definitely dead.

A criminal investigation was initiated, on the theory that the fetus had been born alive and breathing, and that Patel's neglect had caused its death. Patel was interrogated as she emerged from anesthesia in the recovery room at 3:00 AM, without benefit of a Miranda warning, and was ultimately charged with child neglect and infanticide under Indiana law.

The pretrial investigation uncovered text messages between Patel and a friend in which they had discussed buying abortion drugs online, but there was no evidence that Patel had ever purchased them. Both she and the fetus tested negative for the presence of the drugs. To support its theory that the fetus had been viable, the prosecution hired a pathologist who placed the fetal lungs in water and observed that they floated, and were therefore capable of holding air.

Patel was convicted, after a jury trial, on both counts. She was sentenced on March 30 to twenty years' imprisonment.

I find this case troubling - even horrifying - on many levels. The aggressive prosecution of a woman in her situation raises many very serious issues. Where were the emergency room doctor's ethical loyalties - to his patient, or to the police? Most states have statutes in place that protect doctor-patient communications from disclosure in legal proceedings. The idea is that doctors must be able to treat their patients effectively, without fear of legal reprisal. Where was the confidentiality in this situation? Did Patel have a right to expect that her doctor would not turn her in to the police?

Why was Patel questioned right after coming out of surgery, without benefit of a lawyer and without being advised that she was entitled to one? (The Miranda requirement is federal and not subject to the Indiana legislature's whims.) Many of the questions she was asked while coming out of anesthesia seem unnecessarily harassing and even irrelevant. (According to the UPI report, she was apparently questioned repeatedly about the identity and race of the father.)

On a larger scale, what sort of precedent do we set by prosecuting a case like this? Will women be discouraged from seeking medical assistance after miscarriage, for fear of being charged with a fetus's death? Should a woman who delivers a fetus prematurely at home be given the responsibility of determining its viability and, in her extremis, seeking medical care for it? Will women be charged criminally if they miscarry after engaging in poorly-advised behaviors during pregnancy (drinking alcohol or eating unpasteurized cheese, for instance, or failing to wear a seat belt? Skipping their vitamins)? Patel's defenders have noted, pointedly, that the law under which she was charged has been used only twice - both times against immigrant women. (The other woman apparently attempted suicide by poisoning herself during her pregnancy, and her newborn died shortly after birth.) Is this a simple fact of circumstance, or is there, as Patel's defenders charge, discrimination afoot?

I know many of my readers will have a lot to say about this. Please let me know what your thoughts are, in the comments. I know that this is a highly-charged issue, but I trust you to keep your comments civil.

30 March 2015

The Approach of Spring

There is no feeling like spring.

It comes every year, without fail, though we begin to wonder whether it will. This year, it is particularly welcome, as we’ve had an unusually snowy and cold winter. This morning – March 30 – there was a light cover of snow on the ground when I woke up. It’s gone now, and the sun is struggling to come out, but the fact remains that spring is a process, not something that happens suddenly and clearly. Two steps forward, one step back.

So much has happened since I last wrote, on the small stage and on the larger one. My second daughter got into her first-choice college via the early decision process in mid-December. Swearing that she does not want to be “that kid” who gets into college and then coasts for the rest of senior year, she has kept up her academic and extracurricular efforts admirably. I don’t know that I’d be working as hard as she is if I were in the same situation. She sees graduation on the horizon – her own personal spring, if I can make that comparison – after the long, cold winter of hard work during junior and senior year. It’s coming, and the blossoms will be beautiful.

I’m horrified, and admittedly terrified, by much of the news I read on a daily basis. Legalized discrimination – the thing our parents’ generation fought so hard to defeat – is creeping back into our national life. If you are a regular reader, you know how I feel about the use of the concept of “religious freedom” to marginalize entire groups of people. As a nation and as a society, we need to treat all people – men, women, old, young, gay, straight, and of all ethnic backgrounds – with the basic dignity that all people deserve. In establishments of public accommodation – stores, restaurants, malls, and schools – all people must be offered equal service, regardless of the proprietor’s personal prejudices. This should not be negotiable in 2015. I am absolutely horrified to see that it apparently is.

And last week’s deliberate plane crash in the Alps. I’m afraid of flying to begin with. My husband has permanent fingernail-marks in his arms to prove it. The idea that one person could use his status as a pilot, a position of public trust, to commit mass murder absolutely terrifies me. I’m not sure what can be done about it. Do we ban everyone who has ever been treated for mental issues from flying planes, or operating other public conveyances? That seems extreme. Someone on the radio said that, given how rare these events are, it seems impractical to change the way cockpit door locks operate. I’m sure that the families who lost someone are not comforted by the idea that it’s statistically unlikely to happen to anyone else anytime soon.

And yet, despite the ice and cold and the hard work and the terrible news, spring approaches. The idea that hope is on the horizon is one we need to cling to. We can’t do anything else. What are you hoping for this spring?