Why “Exact Match” Is Not Reasonable

Lately my writing has taken a backseat to political organizing. Well, OK, I am writing, but what I’m writing is mostly press releases, social media posts, and postcards to get out the Democratic vote.

Aside: If you’re in the U.S. and you’re looking for a good way to put your literary and/or artistic talents to good use, check out Postcards To Voters. There are currently some 25K volunteers writing GOTV (Get Out The Vote) postcards for Democratic candidates. For more info, here’s a blog post about why I’ve been writing postcards for almost a year now. PTV will continue way beyond next month’s elections, because there are always elections going on somewhere.

For sure I’m editing too, because editing pays the rent and buys the groceries, and rent needs to be paid and groceries bought.

But it hasn’t left much time, energy, or (maybe most important) focus for working on Wolfie (whose draft #3 is almost done) or blogging.

Mostly I’ve kept electoral politics out of Write Through It, but sometimes editing, writing, and politicking converge in a way that I can’t resist. So here goes.

As the 2018 midterm elections approach, Republican strategies to suppress the potentially Democratic vote have become, if not more ingenious, then at least more blatant. “Potentially Democratic” generally focuses on people of color and people of limited means.

Take Georgia, for example.  The stellar Democrat Stacey Abrams, an African American woman, is running for governor against Brian Kemp, a right-wing Republican whose campaign ads have pictured him in his pickup vowing to round up illegal immigrants. Kemp is currently Georgia’s secretary of state. In Georgia, as in most states, the secretary of state is the official in charge of all things electoral.

You see the potential problem here?

The problem is more than potential. The Associated Press recently reported that some 53,000 voter registrations had been put on a “pending” list. Why? In many cases, it was because the voter’s registration info did not exactly match the info on government records.

Say you write your name as Marie Smith-Rodriguez and the government records say you’re Marie Smith Rodriguez, sans hyphen. That’s not an exact match. You’re now on the “pending” list.

Say you write your address as 123 Main St. #4 and the government records have you at 123 Main St., No. 4. That’s not an exact match either. To the “pending” list with you.

It takes a sharp eye to catch discrepancies like these. As a longtime copyeditor and proofreader, I know this, and so do you as a writer who’s reviewed her own work or seen what a copyeditor caught that you missed completely.

Not to mention — “#4” and “No. 4” mean exactly the same thing to a reader familiar with English style. Only digital readers are likely to have trouble with it, as you know every time you commit a typo in a URL or a password.

“Exact match,” in other words, is a very, very high standard, and alone it’s not a good reason to challenge a voter’s registration.

Now it’s possible that the Georgia secretary of state’s office will manage to cross-check all these “pending” registrations before election day. (Early voting in Georgia started yesterday, October 15.) Given Georgia’s voter-suppression history, I wouldn’t bet good money on this. So a voter shows up to vote and her name isn’t on the regular rolls. Does she know that she can cast a provisional ballot, which will be kept separate from the regular ballots until her registration is verified? Maybe yes, but not unlikely no; it’s not unlikely she’ll leave without casting her vote.

So “exact match” is one of the many faces of voter suppression, and no one knows it better than proofreaders, copyeditors, and writers who’ve learned from experience that “exact match” is an unreasonably high standard for something as important as voting.

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On Crossing Borders

I’m thinking of you, Allen Sawan.

I’m in the U.S. — Massachusetts, to be exact — watching images and reading stories about adults detained, children taken from parents at the southern U.S. border. Their only crime, if they can be said to have committed one, is to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A place so unpredictable and violent that undertaking a many-hundred-mile journey north with a two- or five- or ten-year-old in tow seemed the better bet.

I lucked out. I was born into a safe place and a safe time. The only real dangers I’ve faced in my life have been dangers I courted, by speaking out when I could have been silent or walking into possible difficulty with my eyes wide open. Yet I can imagine the desperate conditions that prompted these people to make this terrible journey, hoping — knowing — that whatever place they arrived at would have to be better than the home they had left.

I’m not even a mother, but still — I can imagine.

Not easily, mind you. The mind flinches from imagining, the way a finger recoils from a hot burner. But I can imagine.

This is why I’m thinking of you, Allen Sawan. You were born in a fine place at a fine time, but when you were ten years old things went horribly wrong. The place was Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. You turned ten in 1975, the year civil war broke out in Lebanon. Your life was changed forever. By the time you reached twenty, you wrote — much, much later — you “had seen more body bags than most people in the civilized world have seen garbage bags.”

I knew about Lebanon’s civil war. I thought I knew about Lebanon’s civil war. I started college as an Arabic major. If I hadn’t changed course, I probably would have spent my junior year in Beirut, around 1971–72, several years before everything blew up.

What was it, three and a half years ago? You contacted me out of the blue. As an editor I’ve been contacted out of the blue quite a few times by hopeful writers, and in most cases I’ve had to say: Not so fast. This isn’t ready for prime time.

But your sample chapters were ready. They took me somewhere I’d never been, into the world and mind of a young man not yet twenty whose life had been turned upside down and who had risen to the challenge.

Travvy and I read the very first copy of Allen Sawan’s Terrorist University.

We took each other on, editor and writer, writer and editor, and on an accelerated deadline you produced Terrorist University. It’s one of the books I’m proudest of having worked on. But you kept going. You found a mainstream publisher, and out came Al Shabah, The Ghost, closely based on Terrorist University but tighter. I was thrilled to find that the work we’d done together was pretty much intact.

In the years since, we’ve become friends — friends who’ve never met in person but still friends. You live in Ontario now. You and your wife have raised your three children in peace. Each of them was born in the right place at the right time, and their world didn’t turn upside down when they were ten.

I joke that Canada should build a wall on its southern border, to keep out the USians who despair of their country and want to emigrate to someplace better. You joke that you will build a tunnel that my dog and I could escape through. I know for absolute certain that if we needed that tunnel, you of all people would be willing and able to build it.

Your kids, like me, have been lucky. They were born at the right place and time, in a Canada that let you in and let you stay. They’ll learn about your life the same way I did: from the stories you tell so well.

So I’m thinking of you, Allen Sawan. Of you and your children — I’ve never met them either, but one of these days I think I will. Of all you went through to make it possible for them to grow up more like I did and less like you did.

And I’m thinking of the children taken from their parents at the U.S. border. What stories will they have to tell, ten and twenty years from now? What lessons will they pass on to their children?

What stories will the parents tell? Of struggling against such odds to get this far, and then being treated like criminals by the richest country on earth?

I think of your story, Allen Sawan. It never goes away.

Writing for Change

Over the holiday weekend I drafted a letter to the editor of my area’s two weekly newspapers, the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Vineyard Gazette. (Can you guess where I live?) The letter dealt with ways to reduce gun violence. By the time I emailed it off yesterday morning, eight other women had reviewed it, commented, and signed on. All were members of a local women’s group I belong to. (A 10th signer was added last night.) You can read the pre-publication text on the website I manage for this group.

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about Postcards to Voters (PTV), a national all-volunteer outfit that writes get-out-the-vote (GOTV) postcards to Democratic voters in state and municipal elections across the country. My #1 goal was to let others know about PTV and encourage them to get involved. To make sure I got my facts right, I emailed the link to the leader of the group. He emailed back to say he’d already shared the link with a candidate inquiring about PTV and was planning to do so again.

On the editorial side, when I first saw the political e-newsletter What The Fuck Just Happened Today? (WTFJHT — “Today’s essential guide to the shock and awe in national politics”), it was love at first sight. When curator-editor-publisher Matt Kiser put out a call for assistance — not just for financial contributions to enable him to do this full-time but for volunteers to help with the writing and editing — I thought, Hey, I can do this.

So now I copyedit most issues on the fly. The first draft of each issue usually appears online in very early afternoon Eastern Time (Matt’s on the West Coast). I’m on- and off-line a lot while I’m working, so I generally catch it not long after it posts. Editing is via GitHub (which took me a while to figure out, but I managed).  Matt appreciates my contribution, I keep up with the national news, and I have the immense satisfaction of putting my skills to good use.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about writing and editing, it’s usually with the product in mind: books, stories, poems, reviews, plays. newspaper features, blog posts, etc. I tend to forget that writing and editing are also useful skills with lots of practical applications. In these trying political times, the need for clear writing has never been greater. For starters, activist groups frequently have occasion to issue press releases, letters to the editor, position papers, and calls to action.

Plenty of people have the ability to produce such documents, but those of us who practice writing and/or editing as vocation or avocation have an edge that comes with experience. An example: On social media and in the organizations I’m involved with, I’ve noticed that capable writers often don’t think enough about their audience. I’ve seen arguments and even flamewars ignited by careless wording. Earnest activists sometimes forget that to be effective, what they write must be read and, ideally, shared; and readers all too readily skip over documents that are so jam-packed with detail that there’s no white space on the page.

Press releases and letters to the editor are more likely to make it into print if they’re clear, concise, accurate, and well organized. Posters are more effective when the information on them is correct and complete, and if you’re paying for printing, it’s a lot cheaper to get it right the first time. Lots of people can spot the occasional typo (and crow loudly about their catch!), but it takes someone with proofreading or copyeditorial experience to maintain the focus to do it consistently.

So, writers and editors, the Resistance needs your skills, and maybe you’d find the experience of putting them to good if unpaid use immensely satisfying.

W Is for Write

There’s a verb for you.

By writing the writer spins a thread of written words from some mysterious place in her brain.

Your writing will teach you what you need to know.

Maybe what you most need to know is whether you’re a writer or not, a real writer. Writers wonder about this a lot, especially writers who don’t make a living writing or aspire to make a living or even part of a living from writing. Also writers who can’t point to books — ideally several books — that have their name on the cover, or a sheaf of clippings with their byline at the top.

Writers are ingenious at coming up with reasons they’re not real writers. Do nurses and carpenters and cooks and teachers keep coming up with reasons that they’re not real nurses and carpenters, cooks and teachers?

I blogged about this a while back, in “What Makes a Real Writer?” I don’t have a whole lot to add to that, and once again I’d refer all worried writers everywhere to Marge Piercy’s classic poem “For the Young Who Want To.”

For me the key is, was, and always will be “The real writer is one / who really writes.” But read the whole thing anyway.

These days I’m not all that worried about whether I’m a writer or not. Whatever else I am, I’m someone who can write well, who has writing in her toolkit, well honed and ready for action. I see myriad ways out there that this particular skill can be useful, from telling stories to reporting or analyzing news to blogging to trying to keep political discussions on social media reasonably focused and civil.

Writing is important, whether you call yourself a writer or not.

It’s a rare writer who can do all the things that writers collectively can do, but it’s an equally rare writer who can do only one thing.

Another Piercy classic is “To Be of Use.” You can probably infer the gist from the title alone, but again — read the whole thing. Here’s the stanza that grabbed me by both hands this time through:

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

 

In the world these days we’ve got fires to put out and fires to keep going and fires to rekindle from scratch. Writing can do all these things.

Write.

Write.

Write.

N Is for Narrative

Like many other word people, the cataclysmic 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign and its ongoing aftermath got me wondering whether my particular skills as a writer and editor could be useful and, if so, how. Clarity and accuracy seemed way down low on the country’s priority list.

Then in late January, I found Theodora Goss’s blog post “The Politics of Narrative Patterns.” It began like this:

There are all sorts of reasons the American election went the way it did, but I think one of them, and perhaps quite an important one, was the way in which our thinking is determined by narrative patterns. What do I mean by narrative patterns? I mean that in narratives, in stories, there are underlying patterns we are familiar with. They recur from story to story: stories are often variations on these patterns. When we encounter these patterns, we feel fulfilled, comfortable — we recognize them, we like to read about them. We like variation, but only a certain amount of variation. Too much variation makes us feel unsatisfied, as though somehow the story is written “wrong.”

After discussing some narrative patterns popular in our culture, Goss notes that male characters have more archetypal options than female characters. Right, thought I, thinking of the path-breaking work writers of f/sf (fantasy and science fiction, hands-down my #1 go-to choice for fiction) have been doing since the 1970s and earlier to expand the possibilities for female characters.

Then Goss ties this to presidential elections, past and present. “People did not get so excited by Barack Obama, when he first ran, because of his policies,” she writes. “No, he was the young hero who had overcome adversity and triumphed.”

And Donald Trump? “He fit another narrative pattern: the stranger who rides into town and imposes order, bringing justice to the frontier. . . . It did not hurt him that he was not morally pure, because we do not expect the gunslinger to be morally pure — no, that’s reserved for heroes.”

Immediately it dawned on me that the wise old man in the race, the Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and maybe Walter Cronkite character, was clearly Bernie Sanders. Wise old(er) men have loomed large in my fantasy life since I was a kid, but I never “felt the Bern.” The more I researched his record, the less impressed I was. But I had such a hard time conveying my reservations to my many, many Sanders-supporting friends that I finally stopped trying.

When a narrative pattern takes hold, facts take a back seat. This applies to writing as well as politics: novels that capture the public imagination and become runaway best-sellers seldom do it on their literary merits alone. Don’t tell me the gatekeepers of the publishing world, the agents, editors, publishers, reviewers, et al., are impervious to the power of narrative patterns!

What about women? asks Theodora Goss. Plucky girls are OK, but what happens when they grow up? “We only have two patterns for older women who want political power. One is the Virgin Queen, like Elizabeth I: a woman is fit to wield power if she is willing to give up other aspects of being a woman, such as marital relationships or children.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t  fit this pattern. “What was left?” Goss asks. “The Wicked Queen. We know what she does — she seizes power (illegitimately) for her own gain, to satisfy her own ambition. She kills people or has them killed (this too was a criticism lodged against Clinton). And the Wicked Queen cannot be allowed to gain power — she must be defeated. All of our stories have told us that, from childhood on.”

Walk around that for a while. It resonates.

It also brings me round to the question of what can we word people do in this world where it seems our skills are only valued if we put them in the service of spin, obfuscation, manipulation, and outright lying.

It brought Theodora Goss around to a similar place. At first she thought (feared?) that writing had no use and maybe she should have gone into another line of work. “But now I think that one of our most important tasks is telling stories, and I am a storyteller. I am a perpetuator and creator of narrative patterns. That means I have an obligation to be aware of the patterns, to wield them in ways that are good, and true, and useful. And I can create new patterns.”

That’s the key: the old patterns won’t lose their power with the wave of a pen, but they can be undermined and transformed, and new patterns can be created. I saw it happening in f/sf, where women went from being add-ons and sidekicks to having their own adventures.

Well into the 1960s, lesbian characters in pulp fiction had basically two options: go straight or die. Cracks began to appear in the pattern before the end of the ’50s, and over the following decades, thanks in large part to lesbian and feminist writers, presses, and readers, new patterns were created. In many quarters these days “go straight or die” is an anachronism.

Note my inclusion of “readers” here. The culture’s narrative patterns are very strong, and the gatekeepers, often citing “market forces,” have a vested interest in perpetuating them. Books that break or undermine the dominant patterns are unsettling, and plenty of people don’t like being unsettled. It wasn’t a commercial press that broke the back of the “go straight or die” lesbian stereotype: it was Daughters., Inc., the small lesbian press that in 1973 published Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. The novel’s “underground” popularity caught the attention of mainstream publishers, and Rubyfruit Jungle went on to become a mass-market best-seller — and a cultural icon for a lot of us.

Narrative patterns are deeply rooted in all our heads. They’re our default settings when we read, when we write, when we choose among political candidates. They’re powerful for sure, but they aren’t invincible. Words, our words, can change them, one story at a time.