Recently I came across an excerpt from a book when it was posted to Twitter.
I've posted the excerpt below and it's followed by a short quiz.
Don't comment until AFTER you take the quiz ok?
And don't READ the other comments till you've posted yours, ok?
Get a pen/pencil and paper ready (you really need to write by hand for this.)
Here are photos of the two pages.
I should mention this is NOT a trick quiz. The pink highlighting is NOT significant. Just read the text.
Now, using the pen/pencil and paper, write down what your very first initial response.
Give yourself thirty seconds. What you want here is your first, visceral response. Don't think, write.
Don't read past here till you're done.
Are you sure?
As sure as you are that you're not a robot?
When you look at what you wrote on the piece of paper is it about how this writing made you feel?
Or is your response more of what we'll call an editorial one? Syntax or spelling errors?
There is no right or wrong answer here and I'm not going to ask you to tell me what you wrote.
I will say this: If your response was editorial or analytical, you may be too focused on what's correct instead of what's powerful in what you're reading. That can be a problem when you're editing or revising your work.
Sure you want to have correct syntax and spelling, but more important than that is you want to have writing that makes people feel things. Envy, lust, anger, fear, or this case an incredible feeling of something I can't really find words for. When I read "they are chanting Welcome Home" I felt a welling of emotion that left me in tears. I have no words for the feeling but it was real and it was powerful.
The reason I wrote this post was that when I published this on Facebook a couple days ago I was dumbfounded to find several comments with blistering attacks on the writing. It was as though the commenters didn't feel a thing. I was bewildered.
Then I remembered that when I get deep into editorial mode, I can lose all sight of the higher power of the book. I can lose sight of what it makes me feel as I try to make sure all the syntax is well-oiled and sentences are plugged in and the paragraphs lined up, ready to pull the page down the road.
That work has to be done, yes indeed it does, but if that's the ONLY way you look at text, you're missing the bigger picture. Good writing evokes powerful emotion. Good grammar evokes satisfaction. Know and respect their roles. They are not the same thing.
Now, have at it in the comments section.
First. Not sure that's a good thing today, lol.
My honest response: I cringed. I would have stopped reading when I realised the topic if it hadn't been 'homework'.
I cringed not because of the writing (although I had to re-read the first page because I found the writing stilted initially, and of course the "we're are..."), but because of the topic. This is a hot political topic in Australia at the moment and the last thing I want to read about is something on the news every day.
I know you didn't ask for it, but I'm giving it anyway:
I'm staring at the word, trying to find more. That covers the gut feeling so perfectly. I'm a blend of Celtics with a dash of French seasoning, as white as they come, but I live in a country right now that in the modern world of international movies, airplanes, and the internet somehow always finds me surprising.
I got to "welcome home," and I cried.
Despite all that, I'd be sincerely shocked if it required any kind of first hand experience to get an emotional reaction from this passage. I share your bewilderment. I started to feel it when you asked if the reaction was editorial. "How could it be?" was all I could think.
Thank you for posting this. Really. And I'm so glad the title was in one of the images--I immediately marked it for reading.
Writing that does not give the reader anything that entertains, amuses, horrifies, appalls, thrills, scares, enlightens, astounds, elates, disgusts, angers, makes them weep, or offers any other profound emotion...that type of writing is mere words strung together. It is no more edifying IMO than "See Spot run." (Did I mention I tried to drop out of first grade because--as a competent reader since age 3, I told my (teacher) parents, "You call that READING?" True story.)
Nope. I don't call that reading. I'd rather read anything that generates any kind of deep emotion than a syntactically perfect anything.
Isn't that what revision is all about? Not word-smithing for perfect grammar and spelling, but rather making sure that every single page affects the reader, brings them hope and fear for the characters, touches them so deeply they can't stand not to know what happens to those characters on the page. Word-smithing is only the final touch-up pass. The other revisions come first.
At least that's my take on it. And yes, that sample was a tear-generating evocation of a complex mixture of emotions. It was wonderful.
I gave it a quick read-through (not looking for syntax/spelling errors) and thought it was terrific. I loved the explanation by the translator for giving longer translations than the speaker was saying . . . it introduced another subject that was actually stronger. Well done.
Same thing as writer. I cried. I thought, 'how true'. Wished I was there for some strange reason because I'm as white as you can get, WASPy white. But I'm always sad when I visit England and then have to leave, and then I'm always glad when I get to Canada.
That's what I wrote, and I saw this when you posted on FB and still had the same reaction.
Good lesson, oh wise one.
I have to admit that after I read the first paragraph I said "Whoosh, six eyes in six sentences. Janet must be trying to make some editorial point here." The second paragraph, however, totally hooked me. At the end of the section I wrote down WHOOSH! but Janet's words where much better. "An incredible feeling of something I can't really find words for." Exactly.
Welcome home is a powerful thing. As a Southerner living in cold New York it made my mother cry when we came home one summer for a family reunion and the whole family rushed out to greet us and surrounded us with "Welcome home!" I was nine. To me "welcome home" meant I didn't have to deal with people making fun of my accent, I could swim at a beach with white sand and warm water instead of rocks and freezing water. It meant shrimp gumbo and Mardi Gras.
As an Air Force family overseas, welcome home made us all cry. So did Lee Greenwood when he came to visit. I wrote about that on my blog a while back. It's under Military Life I think (my laptop is down and I'm not that agile on my phone).
Every so often I'll catch an American service member on Twitter saying "Hey, America I'm back!" and my response is always "Welcome home. We missed you" or some variant thereof.
As far as the writing sample, the heart is there. Everything else can be tweaked. The only quibble I had is at the end the author took something that is a universal feeling and made it very specific so the good universal feeling ended up feeling exclusive instead of inclusive and for me at least lost a lot of its power.
1. It's very moving.
2. How I feel.
It's about a very American experience, one that can happen when we return to our roots. People came here under an array of circumstances, few of them pleasant. To this day Americans are welcomed like family in Irish pubs, and I'm sure that happens in other countries our forlorn ancestors departed from.
I saw the initial comments on Facebook, after you posted it there, so I can't post my fresh reactions. Don't count me, I'd be a confound in your statistics. But, I didn't really recoil from the righting the first time I read it. I didn't really notice.
I did, however, read the highlighted stuff first. So I sort of saw the "punchline" before I went "wait, what?" and read it again. It didn't make me cry, but very very few things do, so that's never part of my value judging. The idea of it..."we wondered when you were coming home." I'm not sure I ever thought about that, about whether stories of people taken and sold were still told in communities. And for a very long time, those communities probably wouldn't have known what happened to them.
I also saw this when you posted it on facebook. The power of feelings and thoughts it evoked, created my desire to share it beyond Janet's audience on facebook.
Interesting exercise. Because of how Janet framed this piece at the beginning, I approached it in a lectio divina manner, attentive to the word(s) or phrase(s) that drew me in or struck me.
The phrases that snagged me? descendants of the ones who had been stolen, welcome home, you are African, 300 years from home.
And I'm going to sign off now (just deleted many words) before I treat this comment area as my journal or blog, writing my reflections about those phrases.
Oh, man, I totally cried when I read this. I didn't notice any of the "problems" until a second read.
As writers it's a good reminder that at the end of the day you can have an exceptionally crafted book when it comes to language, grammar, structure, etc. but if you don't make the reader FEEL something, it doesn't really matter.
And while this piece is in some ways unique to those in the African Diaspora, it's also universal. Home is a concept that transcend race, place, and time. There's also the them of unity and ancestral memory. Powerful stuff.
I felt it was about identity, and our search for identity as a reader. When in reality your roots aren't about where you are born, but even further back than that. It made me realize that our commonality is even broader than geological points, moreover from the planet.
Well that was as rough a thought as I would ever want to put my name on, but it was my first instinct.
Now on to read the comments...(I will not delete my comment, I will not delete...)
Yes, I did take it as a critique challenge. But I don't like women's fiction and never have any emotional feelings for it. It all seems too self absorbed for me.
Also, the story did not comport with what Africans I've met think about African Americans. That is an obviously biased sample from educated Africans.
Such Africans do not think of themselves as one with African Americans. The notion that all Africans identify with each other as a group is false. Remember that only a few years ago in Rwanda there was a very bloody genocidal war.
The story as related may be the actual experience of the writer but all of our experiences are colored by our biased concepts.
Of course, tears.
But the part of 50 years or 300 years triggered a thought of Stockholm Syndrome- as if these sisters themselves had been kidnapped, but no longer had a memory of their home.
This is so powerful.
I also saw this on Facebook, so excused myself from the quiz. When I first read it, I went completely with emotion. In fact, I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I didn't even notice all the grammar mistakes the first time through. When I saw the comments I went back and reread it and of course saw them then.
This is a great example of something I've thought about often in my day job, teaching business writing. You can lose credibility if you make too many mistakes. You can lose the emotional connection if you are too worried about being correct. Finding the balance between "correct and connect" is the art of writing. As I tell my students, there's no formula for deciding--every situation depends on the writer's purpose, the audience, the context.
On another note, this is also an example of the tunnel vision we all get into sometimes. For me it's when I get deep into grading mode--sometimes I catch myself highlighting misused words and weird sentence structure when I realize a student just shared a personal, emotional part of themselves with me and I'm checking grammar. Thank goodness these days I'm grading online so I can go back and start over. Of course I value (and teach) correctness, but I never want it to be at the expense of losing the human connection.
I don't want to comment on the passage--if I did, I'd just cry again. I'd rather comment that I think this is my favorite blog post of yours, Janet, and that's really saying something.
Because this past week, especially, you've helped me to remember not only why I write, but how I move through this world--with thought, with feeling. Emotion is the very core of who I am. I used to think it sucked being someone who's so sensitive--this week only cemented the fact that it's been my gift all along.
It's easy as writers to get caught up in the work and ambition. It's easy, as you say, to lose sight of the big picture, to get bogged down in the details, to forget why you wrote that story, in that way, at that specific time in your life. It's easy to lose your voice--especially when everyone else seems to be shouting so loudly with words of their own. But when you remember--when you find your voice and rediscover your reasons for writing, when you get back to who and why you are, it's a kind of homecoming on its own.
I understand what this passage means in the context--it's beautiful and powerful and incredibly uplifting. I also know what it means to me, both spiritually and personally, and maybe it's not all that dissimilar.
Welcome home, welcome home.
"Did you think we would forget you?"
I messed up. Read past point where I was supposed to answer. It was visceral because that is how I read. And I am a terrible editor. That is a different part of the brain.
That said I will repeat that there are published books that have done extremely well (so I am thinking this one is not in this category), that are mega best-sellers with movies attached to them that are so badly written, so manipulative and contrived that they make me wretch.
This did feel contrived, unrealistic, and manipulative after a second and third reading, but initial reaction was emotional.
Today is the 13th of February. If you live in New York City, there are 10 hours and 35 minutes of daylight. Forty-three days of the year are already gone. If you had written 200 words a day, you would have 8,600 words done. Whoo hoo!
Yesterday was Lincoln's birthday.
Tomorrow is Valentine's Day. St. Valentine's was supposed to have brought messages of encouragement to prisoners. I'd like to encourage you to set your hearts and minds free. Write with the joy and genius of a child for one day.
Years ago my sister-in-law came down from Alaska to visit. She asked Cody, who was fairly young, to read to her. He read his favorite book and acted out each part very animatedly. She was rolling with laughter and asked him what he was doing.
"My teacher told us to read with color!"
Go forth and write with color!
I too read this on your FB posting, but I will say this, my initial reaction was the same with this second reading. (I didn't see the editing comments made there)
Goosebumps. I was so into what was being said, I honestly didn't SEE those mistakes, and that's no lie.
Goosebumps even though I'm profoundly exhausted with everything in the news and the disarray of relationships. Regardless of how I feel about the news, I thought this was one of the best portrayals of how it must feel to travel to a homeland you've never known, and to understand no matter how far removed you've been from it (300 years) it is still just that, the "home land."
Having said that, I also can't help but get a little twitchy with hyphenations. It's always struck me a little sideways. Folks can still hold tight to their ethnicity, but being born on this soil - granted, not by ancestral choice for some, still makes one an American. I guarantee, if this group had said "We're Americans" the ones living in Africa would have asked for the explanation, since the writer said they thought ALL Americans were white.
Here is just another way Janet shows us she is a shark with a heart. What do we write for? What is the reason for a stories conveyance if not to help others feel what you are trying to impart? Recall a story that you remember well. What was it about the story you remembered the most. Was it that it made you laugh, or cry, or burst into song? These are the stories that stay with us, the ones where we are emotionally engaged by the characters or their circumstances. I have only been trying to write for about six months now and while I was able to write a 110,000 word book in a month, it isn't a great book -- yet. The thing I learned most, is what Janet points out here in this exercise. When I read my book do I feel anything, does it resonate with anything I can relate to? When I say yes to that, then I know I have done something worth talking about; until then Ill keep trying.
I find it fascinating to read everyone's reactions to this passage. For me, it highlights how strongly a story is filtered through a reader's point of view. In other words, there is no such thing as a neutral piece of writing. Everyone processes a work differently.
Okay, obedient Reider that I am, I've read no comments yet. I felt a deep curiosity about the people in the story, not just the girls being welcomed, but those doing the welcoming. For the first few paragraphs the writing style caused me to be disinterested. Had I not been *taking a quiz* I'd have quit reading. Once I got into the actual story, I became very interested and caught up in the image of this special setting.
Reaction: Mixed emotions. I started off a bit bored, was drawn in by the translator, and then when I got to the "Welcome Home" my breath hitched. And yet, the story somehow seems incongruous.
Commenting before reading what others wrote.
This is what I penned in my bedside notebook:
The voice was flat at first and the style stilted. But when the translator started speaking, the story came alive for me.
My first reaction was emotional, which is interesting because that's what I have the most trouble writing.
When I'm reading just for pleasure, not analyzing for any reason, I tend to skip over errors if I'm caught up in the story or the emotions. It's when a story falls flat for me that the errors jump out.
I actually read this yesterday when Janet tweeted about it, so this is my second reaction to it:
Why doesn't the sister want to sing, and what other times were they forced into singing?
But my first reaction yesterday was a sad, sort of disconnected feeling. I don't know that I feel that strong sense of home for anywhere, not even where I grew up, and it made me sad and envious of these women and their culture that welcomed them home after 300 years.
The danger for the author in this excerpt is that readers might get tossed right out of the story in paragraph one. That said, maybe the author deliberately set out to stylistically break apart the voices, but that only works if readers make it to the end without getting distracted.
I read it fast until "coming home" had me screeching the brakes and listening to what I can only describe as the universal connection called family. I too welled up. Who cares how it's said as long as someone is saying it.
One more thought. I interpret the flat language in the beginning to what you'd say if you knew a translator were translating. Just a thought.
I was going to leave this alone because I think the book is quite manipulative. I despise being manipulated by a writer. The line, "You are African 300 years from home," got me.
Yes, my initial reaction was emotional, so that's good. Next was irritation when I realized it wasn't a student paper, but rather a published book given the title that makes me twitch and the page numbers.
What pisses me off is this author is a renowned educator. She's a professor, lecturer, researcher and author. This is not a term paper by a high school student. Do the students in this university have to use proper English on their papers? Apparently the professors don't.
If I sent something with these mistakes to an agent I would most likely get an instant reject. All I have to do is write something emotional. It doesn't even need to be logical. Cripes, I give up.
"We're Americans" the ones living in Africa would have asked for the explanation, since the writer said they thought ALL Americans were white.
"We mourned Martin and Malcolm with you, we are so proud of you, we just wondered when you were coming home."
Yeah, doesn't quite makes sense does it? Malcolm and Martin were white? Those who mourned him were all white?
Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining.
The official ISIS slave price guide is out in case anyone is interested. 1-9-year-old Yazidi and Christian girls are the highest priced. Those are going primarily to the sex slave markets. Girls with green and blue eyes bring premium prices. There are more slaves in the world now than at any time in the world. Now those girls might have post traumatic slave syndrome. Oh, never mind. Most of them don't survive, that's why they're so high-priced. This is something we can actually do something about and no one seems to give a rip.
I wrote I felt a peaceful pressure in my forehead, and then I changed peaceful to gentle thinking that despite the disclaimer this was a trick quiz. I hate to reveal too much but then I was jealous. Beautiful is a vague word but that was the word I wanted. I stepped over one comma.
I have three saying taped to my desk where I write. One comes from a fortune cookie and reads - Not every soil can bear all things; be practical. Another is the name of my blog which I've been carrying around for years. And the third is a note I scribbled to myself - create material. Create sellable material. Now I have a fourth - the second to last paragraph in this post which begins That work needs to be done, yes indeed it does...
I hope you don't mind compliments Janet because that is a beautiful paragraph.
Joy, contentment, unconditional love and warmth. No other people on this earth have been torn from their roots their cultures destroyed, and enslaved as nonhumans for over 500 years in foreign lands.Breed for strength, and free labor,they built another peoples country and still to this day strive for acceptance,freedom and approval, then to discover a story of fabled hope and regeneration is joyous. To know, no matter the road you travel,no matter the blockade,there is a light-a bold flaring north star- somewhere in the universe where people are gathered singing the siren songs to bring you and your progeny home, yes it's joyous, heart-warming, and it is the basis of Hope.Faith personified.
More than you asked for JR, I know.
Yo me it reads like an eighth grader's fantasy of the real world. The writing errors don't seem to have the continuity of a purposeful style so read as errors.
The emotions it tries to elicit feel too contrived to me. It turns me off on many levels.
My reaction was one most Southerners have toward such things: defensive guilt.
We have been handed the blame for slavery for a long time, and like anyone who has been assigned guilt, we eventually get defensive. This is not the author's fault but my own; I carry the same baggage into the passage, just from a different angle. This entire country was built on the back of slavery, from the money-making aspects of Wall Street to the industries of the north, all were built on the backs of forced labor, either from materials that were cheaper than they should have been to the benefits of having Southern money to invest. Boston's textile mills profited from slavery; New York invested those profits. The purchase that opened the west was executed by a slave owner and with monies that wee largely created and paid for by taxes from other slave owners. Revenue from free labor flowed throughout America, but it is the south that bares the brunt of the guilt, like a wet towel hung on a line, where the water invariably drips from top to bottom.
So my reaction was guilt and defensiveness. My joy in the reunion was tempered by the inherent guilt that accompanies any discussion of slavery.
Julie - I really do think people are tuning a blind eye to the modern day, happening right now, never stopped happening in some countries, slave trade. Especially the sex trade which pretty much pervades all countries. My cousin, author of over a dozen published titles, wrote a book on the sex trade in Europe. It's horrifying and brutal and true. She is also a missionary. One of their missions was to rescue women and children from the sex traders in France and I think Belgium. So the book was well-researched, full of first hand accounts. Very hard to read because of the horror of it. And my cousin is a very good writer, structurally and artistically.
My cousin, represented by a well-reputed agent, could not find an American publisher. Not sure why but one said the topic would offend her audience. She has written for the Christian market so I think maybe that is what that publisher meant? She did finally find a European publisher.
Slave traders do a fair business across our Southern borders. It is a worldwide travesty and growing because we mostly ignore it.
Matt, the antidote for feeling guilt for things you shouldn't, like the horrendous actions of our forefathers, is what Julie said. Taking action now. Fight for what is right. The human slave trade today is indeed a terrible thing.
I didn't really have a visceral response, well not my own anyway. It was immediately engaging so I found myself in her shoes before I could raise the curtains, while I was her I was reaching for a hanky.
I read the content, not the structure, and I felt the emotion behind it. I didn't even notice the grammatical errors on the first pass. In fact, this is a great example of why it's so hard to read for content and syntax at the same time. I have to pick one or the other while editing my own work. It's also a great example of how most readers' tendency is to read what was supposed to be there and auto-correct errors in your head without noticing them. That's why getting the help of a good editor is so important--it's too easy to skim right past your own errors repeatedly because you know what it was supposed to say.
To come back to the point of the exercise (because the subject matter of the piece is a political hot potato, and unless Janet insists I do otherwise, I'll keep my views to my own blog), my eye noted a few writing snafus as I read, but I was intrigued enough with the piece to keep reading. It was clearly written as an emotional response to an experience, and was not intended to be analytical. So I read the emotion and got it. I didn't cry, but I can only imagine what it must have felt like to be in that situation, that sense of solidarity and support. One thing I came away with was a sense of sadness, that being American wasn't enough for the author. That she felt she had to go to Africa to feel at home. Okay, that's borderline hot-topic, so I'll leave it there. :)
Oh yes, I had a follow-up question for Janet:
If this, or something like it, had landed in your inbox as the sample you normally ask for with a query, would you have requested? In other words, would you have read the emotion and asked for more, or would you have seen the less-than-perfect writing and passed?
I guess I'm jaded.
Where I live, no one has left...ever. They grew up here, went to school here and if they went away to college, they returned after graduation.
I'm not from here. I haven't been home in thirty five years.
But this week, I'm going home.
I'm pretty sure my wife will ask,"Do you know where you're going? It's changed over the decades."
"More than likely," I'll tell her as I click the seat belt on the rental. "But I grew up here."
I wonder if the mayor will meet me at the city limits?
In the next few years when we fly to Ireland and kiss the Blarney stone or eat haggis or dine on bratwurst in Berlin, I won't shed a tear. Even though my roots are European and date before the 1830's—I'm pretty sure the mainland will welcome our cash flow rather than their old cousins.
For me, this passage was out of context. Since I never had a chance to bond with the characters the emotional impact on me was negative.
Possibly, the previous 180 pages would have given me that gut wrenching sensation like when the first time I saw Old Yeller die. Maybe even like "Welcome Home!" did for so many Reiders.
But then, I'm jaded.
This is what I wrote:
I left the US in 1971. There was a period in the 80s/90s I didn't return for ten years. When I arrived at customs in New York I handed over my passport to the officer. He looked at me and without a word began to look through it. He studied the visa stamps I had accumulated.
I knew he was going to ask me, "Where have you been living all this time? Have you been working? Why did you go to this particular country?" I was ready.
He stamped the entry date. Then he smiled and handed me back my passport. "Welcome home." he said.
I almost cried. Little does this man know, over twenty years later, each time I return to the US, I remember those two little words. No, it's not the words that are powerful, it's how they make you feel.
Here's the response I wrote: I'm incredibly touched - the idea of a home that does not forget you resonates deeply in my heart. The idea of a country still mourning its lost children after 300 years is a beautiful thing. It allows these women to stand as individuals - African Americans, capable and still fighting for equality in the states - without hiding the evil that was done to their ancestors or pretending that, because it's in the past, it doesn't matter anymore.
I've moved a fair amount in my lifetime. I once read a passage, darned if I can remember where, that emphasized that every place we sleep takes a little bit of us, and gives a little back in return. You're not the same person after a two-night trip to Chicago or Portland or Seattle. You're just a little bit different. That's why home is such a deep concept for most of us. When we get home, we're always a little different, and home isn't quite home. As a Christian, that's part of why I value my faith so much - there is a home I will go to that I'll fit into perfectly, and every stab of homesickness will be cured.
Honestly, I didn't even notice the grammar the first time through. Writing well (grammatically correct) is a skill that can be learned in any classroom. Communicating a story that resonates with readers is a talent, and it's very difficult to learn.
@Colin - great question. I'm interested to hear the Shark's take on this from an agenting perspective.
I didn't notice errors on the first pass. I was curious to see where the writing was going. I actually didn't see anything uniquely profound (I've heard stories like this before), but my first thoughts were emotional. "Oh that's interesting that the people were so welcoming. How wonderful." The piece did resonate with me on an emotional level, but it wasn't powerful, if that makes sense.
The best writing is the stuff that leaves you raw, open, and remembering for days if not years to come.
Thank you. I needed to read this today.
Colin: What is there to represent? There doesn't appear to be any research for a non-fiction platform. It feels too stream of consciousness for a plotted fiction. That just kind of leaves a bad taste in you mouth.
It does have a taste of a white person writing it. It is a sack full of something that smells. African villagers don't think Americans are white. They think we are green with money. Small villagers don't welcome you with song they welcome you with their hands out.
When you get to the base of it slavery has been around in various forms since the dawn of time. Europeans and Americans did not start it and outlawing it hasn't stopped it.
The world is not even a good place, much less a perfect place. If feel like you need to support some charity the Heifer Project is great. Don't go there and screw things up worse than they are. Charity works best if you start at home.
My queen, we do a a nice community here. It is pretty damn diverse and people aren't afraid to remark with true feelings. Please stop trying to incite rioting.
This post was a total unmasking. Thank you JR. Regardless of its origin or original context and purpose, it succeed in bring out real mindsets and emotions or lack of. You will never have a great writ ing voice if you cannot find the voice in the writings of people who are unlike yourself. (Me)
So many miss the take away here, and that's sad. No experience compares to the 'fable'and there are no excuses for the events that it's predicated upon. It's the feeling it evokes, and of course it's contrived, it's fiction.
I can't name what I was feeling. It was a lot of emotions at once. Grief, happiness, a sense of connection and shared humanity...
Craig: We do have a nice community here and - while I haven't clicked on any profiles to see if it's appropriately diverse - I believe it's a warm and welcoming place for anyone.
But I don't think Janet is trying to 'induce rioting'. If this piece feels political to you or it smacks of sentimental, that's perfectly fine. To me, it felt genuine and lovely. I guess it's just another testament to how you can't please all readers all the time.
However, for those wondering, this was written by Dr. Joy Degruy, an African American professor. That took literally three seconds to google. (Reposting to fix the name)
“ It was beautiful. Extremely well written for the raw emotion it exposed and the vulnerability of the woman. In just a few short passages she exposed 300 years of slavery, it’s modern day martyrs and the sense of a subcontinent that had it’s people, stolen and now returning. I didn’t notice the writing because the deep intuitive feelings overcame any possible technical flaws. It made my heart ache.”
My first response was definitely emotional. Have to admit I didn't even think about the quality of the writing. Maybe on additional readings, but yeah. Definitely felt the emotional impact.
Now going back to read the comments.
I saw this when you posted it on Facebook. I love this story. It's a whole other side to slavery - the people back home. It's touching and beautiful.
I saw what others posted on Facebook, and I just wanted to say to some of those people, "Bitter much?" And "Grow up and feel."
And I am a grammar nazi. If there are mistakes, I see them. But I still saw the emotion in these lines.
My day job is a copy editor, so my first comments were about the syntax, the errors, etc. But I was also able to see that it was a beautiful story of acceptance and welcome.
This is exactly what I wrote:
- lots of grammatical errors
- extra words that are not needed
- but beautiful story
I don't think writing has to be perfect to tell a gorgeous story. And I daresay that most people would rather read compelling stories over "perfect" writing that doesn't move them.
Craig: My question began, "If this, or something like it, had landed in your inbox..." I wasn't talking about this specific piece. It was more about Janet's approach to something like this (full of emotion, but perhaps not displaying the best writing skills) when it hits her inbox.
And one of the reasons I wanted to avoid political or social commentary in my response is because that wasn't Janet's point. This was supposed to be a writing exercise, exposing how we read, to make us think deeper about how we write.
I am usually not a big fan of Janet's articles. I find her too tough for my thin rookie skin. I continue to consume her articles because they are "good for me" but I don't like the taste. This article just reinforced that I need to be here on her site even if sometimes my feelings get hurt - this was brilliant and just what I needed and at the right time. Thank you Janet.
I had goose bumps. I'm a middle aged white male in Canada and I still felt as if I was sitting between the two sisters and one of them. I felt the emotion. It made me realized one of my prime mistakes. When I began writing again a year ago, and I did a lot of reading, I read about the need for conflict, conflict, conflict - especially early on. That doesn't have to be a gun fight. It can be a struggle between a woman and the others in the group (unspoken), between her and her sister and even within herself. Perhaps lots of guns are exciting but this was moving and drew me in.
After a year of editing my current book, and actively pursuing a writing career for the past eight, this finally pinpoints the reason I struggle with editing and why my final drafts come out stilted. My immediate response to this passage was "over-explanatory dialogue." Shame on me.
Oy. I think I need to be less of a librarian, and more of a writer. Bookmarking this, especially in the throes of edits, to remind myself what's most important in my writing.
Thank you. For everything.
My initial take before reading comments was that this is a nice excerpt about something near and dear, the homeland.
"And one of the reasons I wanted to avoid political or social commentary in my response is because that wasn't Janet's point."
Very true, Colin, except QOTKU could have picked any other piece but this and conducted a similar exercise. Maybe she chose this because it's black history month, IDK.
I would like to add...I liked what Julie said, but I usually do because what she points out always resonates with me. I didn't even notice the title, but now that I have? The piece is a bit of a turn off.
I also like what Matt Adams said.
I realize this isn't meant to be about slavery, but about the writing. However, since the writing is reflecting this, I wonder if the professor realizes slavery began in Africa, has been there for centuries and still is, even today?
Donna: It came across her Twitter feed. Clearly it affected her, despite the fact that, in editor mode, she would have colored it red. My guess is that's what inspired the article. I know our beloved Shark is not opposed to giving vent to her thoughts on topical issues, and she has every right to do so on her own blog. I just don't get the impression this was one of those times.
My first reaction was about the content and its emotional appeal. I wanted to keep reading. These are the kinds of stories that drew me to the field of history.
This post and the comments thereafter confirm what I thought to be true; that empathy is a decision.
If one can choose while reading to turn off/on their emotions, then one can also change their concluded bias, no matter what their initial rationalizations are. The condition is not permanent. They can choose to empathize.
Maybe there is hope for humanity.
If we choose.
Besides flash fiction contests, I've never commented before reading the comments because I try to avoid redundancy. But here goes.
I had to intentionally and necessarily block my personal feelings because I kept trying to relate this to my own experience. Instead, I tried to put myself in the writer's shoes and experience the moment with her. When I did, I found Joy and Discovery.
For a person who so often confronts hostility and rejection, she now discovers open arms and a welcoming committee. And her name, naturally, is Joy!
She put me right there with her. I was at the translator's other ear with a close-up view and all I could do was smile smile smile.
Unfortunately, even in my writing groups sometimes, it seems editing becomes the focus, rather than critiquing the piece, determining whether or not the piece engages the reader in the desired way. This exercise will serve as a reminder to me to critique with the proper mindset.
At risk of sounding calloused, I didn't find the piece moving (like I know it was meant to be). The subject matter IS, but the writing didn't quite do it for me. I think the mention of crying (especially the phrase 'burst into tears') put me off. Maybe if I had had more context or rapport with the character speaking? It wasn't the brevity though, as I've read 100 word ff stories here that evoke a lot more emotion from me. I don't mean to put the piece down as I can see it meant a lot to someone (whoever wrote it), but being honest, it didn't resonate with me.
Hmm. Looking at all the responses, it just goes to show how subjective interpretation is! And no I didn't see the typos first time through... and I'm usually a stickler for that stuff. So I guess it held my interest.
And Colin's point - I remember Janet saying that she wouldn't take on someone with typos in their letter or sample pages, even if they had superb writing skills. At the time I thought, "what! Typos can be fixed! Excellent writing is what is supposed to be gold!" But her reasoning made sense - if someone has typos in something they are sending to an agent (esp. more than one or two), it shows they haven't cared enough to proofread, send to stickler beta readers, print out and proofread with a ruler, etc. It shows they either aren't meticulous or don't care enough, which is a good reason for an agent to decline working with them for the long haul. So I am also interested in what Janet would say about a particular example that evoked such a visceral response from her!
I admit that I read this first on your FB feed. I didn't cry but was saddened and felt power. This time, the first thing that came to my mind was, "Africa claims its souls."
I'm surprised people attacked the writing.
Often I will begin a book and not like it. My dislike comes mainly from two things, the author voice is completely different from the last book I read. I fell in love with the last voice and the new voice seems weak. The other reason is I've learned all these rules to writing. Don't do this or that, this is frowned upon, agents won't rep you if you write that way. If the story grabs me, and it's the voice or the message I'll read to the end.
What pressure to fit into a box.
After quitting writing for 48 hours and dusting the house I feel liberated. This post validates my liberation. I can't worry about all those rules. It grates my anarchist spirit. Fuck the rules.
In the introduction to the third edition of Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journy, he says "An effective story grabs your gut, tightens your throat, makes your heart race and your lungs pump, brings tears to your eyes or an explosion of laughter to your lips." He goes on to say (I paraphrase) without "...some kind of physiological reaction from a story," it affects the audience on an intellectual level and will leave an audience cold.
Last month I read seven books by K'wan. It's harsh crime but I fell in love with the blood thirsty assassin and cried for him and the other characters. It grabbed my gut, and I was able to overlook the graphic "erotica" and violence. I needed a breather so read a book on buddhism and now I'm devouring Gary Corby.
I'm white Tasmanian. I grew up in the 80s, where everyone around me was white, and the only black people I'd ever seen were on TV. My understanding of the African American experience started with Sesame Street and ended with The Cosby Show (with a cursory nod to movies like Malcolm X, which I never watched, and a vague history of the civil rights movement). This was more knowledge than many of my peers had.
Fast forward to the last ten years, and into our white-white world two things have happened: one, we have a thriving African migrant community in my area of Tasmania now, and two, I have three African-American facebook friends, one of whom is very vocal about the African American experience. I learn a lot. A lot. I soak up what she says, and realise that I have a long way to go before I can begin to understand.
I love our African community. I've been to the wedding of a French-speaking Congolese couple (WOW!!) and next weekend I'm going to a Ghanan baby naming ceremony (nobody knows the baby's name yet, it's a secret until the big day).
Reading this piece, though, was a major connector in my personal mental cultural understanding puzzle. I suddenly connected the difference between my stiff-upper-lip English-Australian experience and the Congolese wedding party, with how my African American friend describes her experience.
I'm still learning a lot. Don't think I'll ever plumb the depths of understanding. But I love the idea that one day, somehow, my African American friend will experience that same sense of "welcome home".
I celebrated twice.
First with the thrill of the image, celebrated in the sense of feeling deeply--the bravery, the wisdom.
Then with the fact that, though I am a grammarian-type author by nature and training, I didn't notice any 'mistakes,' proving again the first thrill.
Anyone who reads just to crit the writer’s sentence structure reminds me of the driver who told the cop he didn’t slow down because he was driving too fast to study the grammar on the speed limit sign.
My first reaction? I recognized and noted that the message was simple and powerful, but my appreciation for it was tempered by the way it was told, and by my own experience. It did not ring true to me, and so it could not bring me to tears. American born, I have roots outside of the U.S. When I travel back, it never feels like homecoming to me—I am not welcomed like a lost child and I am not lost—and I don't think it ever will. I am the other in that place. As much bigotry as I am exposed to in the U.S., for me, this is home. This is where I meet people with whom I feel belonging and connection.
Also, what Amy said. "I find it fascinating to read everyone's reactions to this passage. For me, it highlights how strongly a story is filtered through a reader's point of view. In other words, there is no such thing as a neutral piece of writing. Everyone processes a work differently."
And, to Matt Adams: defensive guilt. I did not feel it in reaction to this excerpt, but I know how it feels. Thanks for naming it for me.
First thing I noticed was the error "We're are".
I didn't get any visceral reaction at all. At the chanting 'welcome home', I got a bit 'aw, how sweet', but that's about as far as it went.
I know I was in analytical mode and that it got turned on by the mention of 'there will be a quiz'. If Janet had said at the outset, "I want you to tell me how this writing makes you feel" my reaction may well have been different.
Back some years, my then husband and I took a motorcycle trip to the Snowy Mountains in Australia (we lived in Sydney at the time). We rounded a particular bend in the road and the whole vista of the high plains spread out before us. The rocky outcrops, clear streams, tall grasses shimmering in the breeze. I burst into tears. I'd come home.
Analyzing it later (as I tend to do) I realized that my reaction to the view was because it reminded me so very much of the scenery of my youth before I came to Australia.
I have a similar reaction every time I hear a good Welsh Male Voice Choir sing Myfanwy.
I guess that is the kind of reaction I may have had to the piece of writing had Janet not set me in analytical mind set by telling me there was going to be a quiz. Naughty Janet.
Interesting how our minds work, isn't it?
I wrote just one word: 'touched'
I didn't notice any errors on my first read through, and only one on the second. That doesn't surprise me, though. I'm a sucker for sentimental stories. They were chanting back to you, 'Welcome home,' and Did you think that we would forget you? still give me goosebumps.
I read this twice and I honestly didn't notice any grammatical mistakes or poor writing. This person is telling her story in her own voice, and that voice is very strong. What puzzled me and what I wrote down is why is this person's sister glaring at her because they all have to sing again? I would think the sister would be very moved by the welcome the narrator is receiving. I am moved.
Now I'm very curious to read the other comments!
I didn't catch a single typo while reading. It reminds me when I'm editing someone's work and I notice I haven't marked anything for several pages because I was so caught up in the story. I have to go back and re-read those pages, but I'm certain to make a note in the margin that I got consumed in the story here -- and that's a good thing.
This excerpt brought to my mind when some Cuban families were recently reunited after forty-odd years apart. They were home -- wherever they happened to be -- because they were back with family.
As the father of adopted children from another country, this passage spoke to me in additional ways than what was on the page. I came away with a smile, maybe a jealous smile, and also with curiosity of what one of my children might discover one day.
I was so moved by the emotion of the piece, and the compassion and inclusiveness of the women, I didn't notice anything about the writing itself. I have to force myself to be editorial, and always read the through the piece first for the content and emotional pull before I go back to read with an editorial eye because I can often forgive bad writing if the content gets me in some way. I always know a book isn't working if I start finding the typos and bad grammar because if I'm noticing those things, I'm not engaged with what's going on or the characters.
I first read this via twitter, where it was prefaced with, "Get ready to cry." I cry quite easily, so my first reaction was not to read it. But I did. And yes, I cried.
The second time, I saw it on Janet's FB page. Yep. Made me cry again. Those words and the emotions they evoke are powerful. I was . . . not sure what word I want to use here . . . disappointed, maybe, by the comments on FB criticizing spelling and syntax and saying that people who reacted emotionally were "missing the point." That was ironic.
So this is the third time reading it. Still evokes powerful emotions.
Janice, I thought what you said about empathy being a choice was really interesting. I hope people can choose to be more empathetic. Wouldn't that be nice? I wish it were a choice, as there are times I'd love to have less of it. But I can't seem to turn mine off. I'm very emotionally sensitive and vulnerable to the feelings of others. I tell myself it's an asset for a writer, but it can be damned uncomfortable at times.
This was incredibly moving. I thought of my boyfriend, who is African American, and my son, who is Latino, and how they carry a loss from their heritage, both distant and immediate, that I will never experience. Nothing in the writing tripped me up or kicked me out of the story. I laughed at the detail of the sister glaring because now they would all have to sing again.
While the language at the start seemed a bit too stiff, I quickly let that go. I was curious about the translation == which kept me reading. The payoff was touching and made me mist up.
I'm so glad you posted this. I do find myself overly critical at times -- focused on which word to use, sometimes losing sight of the emotional content.
I wrote simply, "A poignant anecdote." I have no issues with the writing; it's concise and it got the job done. But I understand how your readers might be inclined to critique the writing, even harshly. After many years of writing and aspiring to be a writer, it's hard for me to just sit down and enjoy a story. I'm constantly and often unwittingly reading through an analytical lens.
This is a great workshop exercise.
Yeah, I admit that I was mostly annoyed by the bad grammar and punctuation, but that might be because this sort of scenario was never going to evoke more than an 'well, I guess that's kinda sweet' reaction from me, whether it was perfectly edited or not. It's just not something that resonates with me, possibly because I don't suffer from sentimentality. The concept of being 'welcomed home' by a bunch of strangers in a place I'd never been before is something I would find bizarre and a bit uncomfortable to be honest, so nothing tugged my heartstrings in this piece. The only reason my eyes might be watering a bit is from the twitching nerve caused by all the run on sentences...
Slavery in Africa, or anywhere does not equate to the US experience in the least.
My first reaction was that it was a great story, one of those 'right on, well said' moments. My next was that maybe it was made up, but still I liked it and the idea.
I never did get to editing it, but maybe because I'm a writer, not am editor.
KDJames - Having a tender heart can make for good writing :) However, Empathy is when we truly understand another's perspective - it's about THEIR journey, not ours.
On another note Reiders, I appreciate Janet's words- "Good writing evokes powerful emotion. Good grammar evokes satisfaction. Know and respect their roles" . Excellent words to live by when writing, every day. I think this should be the sub-headliner this week :D
So after my first post, I went to bed and let my subconscious work on the piece overnight.
What made the second half of the excerpt work for me, and what makes many books work for me, and music and paintings and movies and stories, was the emotional resonance.
We write not to tell stories, but to share the emotional resonance of what happens in that story. In the first half of the excerpt Our Heroine tells her story, but she only lays down the facts.
But the translator brought out the emotional resonance based on their experience by casting it in a different light than Our Heroine had originally shone on it.
There are certain themes that tend to resonate within the hearts of most people. The concept of Home is one of them. For good or ill, it resonates within us. Never the same, as we each of us are formed by our own experiences.
We all react to the concept of Home. Can anyone listen to the MoTab sing "Goin' Home" and not have some sort of reaction to it?
I think this is part of the advice "Write what you know." But it's not "write about dating because you've dated" or "write about being a parent because you've been a parent." It's more about "write about joy because you've experienced joy. Write about sorrow because your heart once broke."
Stephen King can write really scary stuff because he knows what scares him. He taps into that fear, how it feels, its rhythm, its patterns and applies that to his writing.
I could write lots about losing babies, but unless I was able to give my story the emotional resonance I experienced, I'm not communicating the full message.
This excerpt was a very stark example of the importance of emotional resonance in our writing.
At least, it was for me.
LynnRodz, "welcome back" always tears at my heart strings as they stamp my passport as well.
JohnFrain; as usual you nailed it. I'm the same way, when I read something I instantly dive head first into the story, no matter the writing style or level. If someone can establish a flow, a babbling brook, disjointed story-line that captures me, then I'm all in. The last thing on my mind is correcting someones methodology, grammar, or structure (see the latest winner of the flash fiction...)
I love this community, and today's comments were spot on and kept on topic.
I understand what you mean about being too analytical, but for me, I get distracted by obvious grammatical or spelling errors and it pulls me out of the story. It's hard to follow the flow of emotions when I'm stumbling over the words.
My visceral response to the comments was: people get visceral about grammar? It's English, there is no grammar, there are just a bunch of largely inconsistent, occasionally divergent, conventions, through which various institutions and individuals, like to imagine they can determine an orthography. Typo, is a good example, you don't spell it typo' even though you know it's a contraction. It's not even the correct term, it's a convenient solecism, utilised to spare embarrassment; there is no typesetter to attribute errors to, they are just errors.
I didn't even see the--typos, I grew up reading newspapers typeset between two and three am, by a far sighted NGA card-holder and pressed with a flong made from recycled bog-roll.
Catching up on yesterday's comments. Some interesting stuff. I edited my husband's dissertation on the trans atlantic slave trade, so I am going to resist going too in depth here except to say Xyne is correct, American slavery was a unique beast in many, many ways. It is truly incomparable to pre-colonial African slavery.
To Julie's point, the slave trade does indeed exists today. I guarantee you at the local level, in most places across the country, groups exists who fight it. Make sure you know signs of sex trafficking to watch for, and if your town has any big events, keep a look out for potential victims. The Super Bowl, NCAA tournament, KY derby - these are times sex trafficking is at its peak. Reach out to your local orgs and see what you can do.
They just arrested two people here for trafficking minors. It's a horrible reality driven largely by western dollars.
Catching up as well. My first response was feeling, not editing. Incredible story and presents a point of view that, I am sorry to say, I had never really considered. What about the friends and relatives who were not kidnapped and sold? Incredible.
One thing to keep in mind is that this is an excerpt. Go into page 180 of your own writing (or, heck, page 8) and you'll see how illogical some things might sound if you start there.
So while it's okay to be curious about the sister's reaction to having to sing some more, it's difficult to blame the author for the groundless statement. It's likely a reference to something that came earlier in the story. Don't let that stop you; instead, let it make you curious to read the rest.
DeadSpider, nice point about the word typo. I laugh at myself on that one cuz yep, I do that without thinking. Well, I used to anyway!
I loved the excerpt. Very poignant. It reminded me of the feeling of belonging that persists in Appalachians.
John, regarding the singing: I'm not blaming the author for anything. The point is that those were my immediate, visceral responses, not a final, considered or analytical one. Blow-by-blow is how we read, without hindsight, and I wonder if the (for me) slight conflict between what the author is saying and her manner of saying it isn't part of the exercise. (Though that's only a guess.)
And my reaction was that it distracted me, derailing my train of thought from the building power of the overall piece. I hadn't seen further than that at the time. In hindsight, all sorts of thoughts occur - but they come after the reading, not during it.
It is Sunday, almost noon and I have read many, but not all, of yesterday's comments. Please let me add another thought.
Many years ago I lived in Jo'burg South Africa for almost a year. It was the height of apartheid there, and the height of black demonstrations for equal rights here.
As a lily white girl standing on the outside looking at my county, wondering why the divide was so great, and then turning around and living the extreme of that system on a day to day basis, I could not wait to get HOME, to the familiar of my FAMILY, my flawed, cruel, loving, misunderstood, kind hearted, F'ed up American Family.
The soil I had left was as imbedded in my heart as the memory of what it was like to step upon it again when I returned home. Yes I cried.
It doesn't matter how it's spelled, structured, placed among other words or tossed in disjointed conversation among children, or uneducated adults, or by writers who consider themselves editing geniuses, HOME is perfectly stated, and as always, the complete story.
Tears, joy, longing. To be welcomed home to a place you didn't even know you were missing, yet it was missing you is incredible. Where is my tribe? Where are my people? Who would welcome me home to where I feel I belong? Where is my home no matter where I travel and no matter how long I am gone? For me home is my husband and I feel incredibly lucky to have found him. Those of us who are mutts with no real sense of place or history - we make our own.
I had to laugh when I read that people were commenting on the grammatical errors and syntax - I was too caught up in the meaning to look at the form.
I'm normally as nit-picky as they come. Grammar and spelling mistakes leap off the page and sock me in the eye. Not this time. It never occurred to me to read this with an editorial eye, the story itself was so powerful. I cried when I read, "Welcome home."
This story touches on the one big sense of loss I feel having moved from Britain to Canada - that sense of continuous connection to people and events a thousand years in the past. I have no regrets about the move, but I think it will be many generations yet before the immigrant cultures in North America can feel that deep historical connection to our adopted home.
>> Xnye: Slavery in Africa, or anywhere does not equate to the US experience in the least.
Very true, and I thank you for the reminder.
I reacted strongly to this, and the topic of home, but in frustration, not understanding or empathy. Without ignoring or meaning to diminish the weight of history behind the story, I think it sounded like a tourist's "home."
I've moved a lot, and even though I'm "from" South Dakota in an important way, every time I visit I also know it could never be my true home. My dad mourns the fact it's not his home, either, and it took him nearly fifteen years to accept the consequences of moving away.
If the young woman moved there long enough for the honeymoon period to wear off (three to six months according to bloggers in the Foreign Service), I bet that same feeling of "home" would wear off, too. There would be too many unaccountable, unfamiliar things that everyone else would assume was normal.
I was also surprised by the description of the African's reaction to African-Americans. Like one of the very early commentators, I believe she encountered it, but the Africans I have known have not felt connected to the African-American community - strongly the reverse, in one case. So with my limited experience that emotional note wasn't going to catch.
My aunt has a WW2 letter from a cousin who was stationed in the same German village our ancestors fled from. He said, "they speak the same German we do at home, and they have the same religion," (my family left Germany during religious upheaval). It's fascinating, and perhaps emotional, but not a homecoming. We all want to move to a mythical place that accepts us in a totally new and complete way - and the historical context of her experience adds poignancy to that universal need - home and place don't really work like that.
But then, I'm the wrong person to be commenting. I have no home. I miss (almost) every place I've ever lived, desperately at times, and I know there is no place on earth where I won't be homesick. I want to be a Wendell Berry, but the truth is, if I ever manage to live in one place longer than five years I'd probably be digging a hole to China - even knowing what a hole I'd be digging in my soul.
That is why I write. And probably why my protagonists never get to quite make the home they want.
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