Striving for Perfection

Monday, January 22, 2018


Only God can create perfection, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it.

Following up on last week’s blog, I don’t understand why anyone would want to just sit down and write a novel without learning the craft first. Don’t those people want to write the best book they can?

I’ve said before, and I still believe, that there comes a point at which you have to stop writing that still imperfect book and start sending it out. If you wait for perfection, it will never happen. But I also believe in writing the best book I can at the time and under the circumstances. In other words, I strive for perfection even though I know I won’t achieve it.

Vince Lombardi said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”

When I was in college, I found a quote to live by and wrote it inside my literature book, which I intended to keep forever. But I lost the book at some point and I can’t remember either the exact wording or the author of the quote. I think the author was either a philosopher or a scientist, although I’m not sure. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to track it down, but it was on the same lines as the Lombardi quote. Here is a paraphrase from my very imperfect memory:

Those who strive for perfection will never reach it but will draw ever closer, while those who don’t strive for it are doomed to mediocrity.

If anybody out there can identify the quote, I’d be eternally grateful.

And I’ll keep striving for perfection.

__________

The photo is © 2013 by Kathryn Page Camp.

Learn Before You Write

Monday, January 15, 2018


I belong to several writers’ organizations that have email listservs for asking questions of other members. Recently, one woman sought guidance on how to get started writing fiction and asked for recommendations about classes, retreats, and other ways to learn the craft. One person recommended a specific online class, but the next person essentially vetoed that. The second person told her to just sit down and write it and then find some beta readers or a critique group to read it. Her response seemed to accept that advice, but it also highlighted her naivete. (I won’t give the details because I don’t want to embarrass her.)

Yes, if you want to be a writer, you have to write. That’s so obvious that it always surprises me when people feel they have to say it. But you start by writing short pieces and exercises, not with a book you hope to publish. Especially if it is fiction.

I just finished reading several middle-grade novels—all self-published or from small publishers—written by people who don’t understand how fiction works. The authors knew nothing about point-of-view or showing versus telling or how to make dialogue sound natural. And if I hadn’t been reading them as research, I never would have finished. I certainly won’t be buying anything else by those authors.

Experience has shown me that it is much harder to write fiction than nonfiction. Obviously, all nonfiction should create interest and flow well, and those types labeled creative nonfiction (e.g., memoirs and biographies and anything that tells a story) can be closer to fiction than to other nonfiction offerings. But creative nonfiction aside, most nonfiction is read for the information it contains, not for how it is presented.

Novels are different. Fiction readers don’t want information—they want an escape. A successful novel brings them into the story with the characters to experience what the characters experience and feel what the characters feel.

That’s what the fiction conventions are designed to do. A consistent point-of-view (single or multiple) helps readers identify with the characters and experience the story with them. A sudden POV jump breaks that connection. Showing helps readers see the world through the characters’ eyes. Too much telling distances the reader from that world. Dialogue that uses tags improperly makes the entire scene feel stilted and unrealistic.

So my advice to the woman on the listserv is to take classes and read books and attend conferences on writing fiction.

Then sit down and write.

A Page Family Tradition

Monday, January 8, 2018



Roland and I celebrated Christmas twice this year. The first celebration was with our children at Caroline and Pete’s house on December 23. And the gift of choice?

Books.

If I’m counting correctly, I got two, Roland got four, John got three, and Caroline got six. Poor Pete will have to read Caroline’s books if he wants any. And I don’t feel shorted at getting only two, because while I was there I looked through Caroline’s bookshelves and purchased the Kindle versions of the first book in each of two middle grade series that I was unfamiliar with. If I like those, I’ll get the ones that follow.

The photos at the top of this post show seven books that we gave Caroline and John, and they have their own story. Each one comes from a series of British books called the Horrible Histories. The Horrible Histories use humor to tell the darkest and bloodiest parts of British history and are suitable for what Americans call middle grade readers. We first discovered the series when we took the children to Scotland in 1996. We bought every one we could find then, and Caroline took has them now.

When Roland and I visited Scotland this past summer, I again bought every Horrible History that I could find. The tag on the outside of the wrapped present said “To Caroline or John,” not “To Caroline and John.” The instructions for dividing the books up were inside the package and said that Caroline got whichever books she didn’t already have and John got the ones she did. So Caroline ended up with four and John ended up with three.

But the Page family book-giving tradition isn’t just about the gift. Caroline and Pete gave me a book called Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War Over Words Shaped Today’s Language, which they bought when they visited Jamestown this past summer. When I opened it, Caroline said something like, “That comes with the Page family tradition.” And I immediately responded, “You read it before you wrapped it.”

Some people might think that disrespects the gift receiver, and we would never read a book (or rather the same copy of a book) that we intended to give to someone who would be insulted by the practice. For the Pages, however, it shows that the giver appreciates the gift being given as much as the receiver will. Caroline and Pete bought Founding Grammars specifically as a gift for me, and it was as good as new when I opened it. But books are to be read, and I’m glad I instilled my love for reading in my daughter.

Caroline read Founding Grammars in advance because we don’t see each other very often, but it can also work the other way around. Roland wanted Grant by Ron Chernow, and I gave it to him. When he opened the present, I told him that I wanted to read the part about the Siege of Vicksburg sometime in the near future. I can do that because Grant will be in our condo whenever I am ready to read it. (The book I’m going to write next will be about the Siege of Vicksburg from the point of view of the citizens—or rather one girl—trapped there, but it helps to know what was going on in General Grant’s mind, too.)

So why do I call it the Page family tradition when the Camps were doing it? It has become Roland’s tradition, too, but it came from my side of the family and descended on Caroline and John through their Page blood.

What it really means, however, is that we all love to read.

And everyone should have that tradition.

Family Photos or Family History?

Monday, January 1, 2018

Both.


We celebrated Christmas at Caroline and Pete’s house on December 23, then attended church together on Christmas Eve morning before leaving for Missouri to celebrate Christmas again with Roland’s mother and siblings. But before we left the church, we had our picture taken as a family.

Taking family photos at Christmas brings back memories. My older brother, Donald, got interested in photography when he was in high school and became semi-professional in college. So during each of my college years (and probably for several years after), he took a family picture and made it into a Christmas card. The first one I remember and have a copy of is below. I’m guessing it was from 1968, when Donald and I were both in college and Daddy was serving a yoked parish at Lake City and McBain, Michigan. That’s the McBain church on the top and the Lake City church on the bottom. Or it could have been 1969. Daddy accepted a call to Schoolcraft, Michigan that November but didn’t start until January 1, 1970. 


I think these next three pictures are in order, although I only have a date on the middle one, which is from 1971. The last one appears to have had dust on it when it was scanned, but I had to include it because it is the only one I have that shows me in my contacts (probably taken in 1972 or 1973).




Photos help us remember what our families looked like, but they do much more. When I look at each of these photos, memories from that time come flooding back.

And that’s what family photos should do.

You Can't Stop Christmas

Monday, December 25, 2017


The Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II found it challenging to celebrate Christmas the way they were used to, but they did their best. That includes both the secular and the sacred aspects.

Take the residents of Topaz War Relocation Center, for example. Immediately upon arrival, four churches were formed: Buddhist (yes, they did call it a church), Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Seventh Day Adventist. The various Protestant denominations combined while they were in the camps, with their ministers sharing duties and taking turns preaching. Actually, all of these religious groups were already used to the system because they had organized the same way in the temporary assembly centers.

As the first Christmas behind barbed wire approached, the Christian churches and the secular community made plans to celebrate. School classrooms put up small greasewood Christmas trees, and dining hall staff participated in a contest to see which mess hall had the best decorations. The highlight of the week was a pageant entitled “The Other Wise Man,” with Goro Suzuki taking the lead role. (You may know him better under his stage name Jack Soo playing Detective Nick Yemana in the TV sitcom Barney Miller.)

The Topaz Times also got into the spirit of the season. Here is cartoonist Bennie Nobori’s Christmas comic from the December 25 edition. (Regular readers of this comic strip would have known that Jankee was in love with Topita.)



But Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, and the sacred celebrations are the most meaningful. The pageant had a religious theme, but the more traditional Christian elements were there, too. Yoshiko Uchida writes that carolers from her (Protestant) church came by on Christmas Eve and that she and her family attended its Christmas Day service.

The Japanese Americans celebrated Christmas behind barbed wire fences while they were being treated as enemies by their own country. If they could do that, then we can celebrate it wherever we are and in any circumstances.

Because Christmas is all about Jesus, and even Satan can’t stop it.

__________

Most of the information from this post comes from various editions of the Topaz Times, which was the camp newspaper. As a U.S. Government publication, its contents are in the public domain.

Additional information comes from pgs. 128-130 of Desert Exile: The Uprooting of an American Family by Yoshiko Uchida.

When a Photo Isn't Worth a Thousand Words

Monday, December 18, 2017


Unaltered photos don’t exactly lie, but they can mislead. Consider this series of library photos taken by Dorothea Lange at Manzanar, California on July 1, 1942.

First, let me make it clear that I don’t believe Lange had any intention to mislead. To the contrary, her photos show a real desire to generate sympathy for the Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. As noted in last week’s post, many of her photos show the miserable conditions they were consigned to. She also personalized them with photos of family groups and children or ones showing them improving the camps on their own initiative.

I’m assuming Lange took the library photos because that’s the assignment she was given. But the captions she added had subtle messages contradicting the subject matter. Take the above photo. It appears to show a man comfortably reading (but note the crate for a chair) in a well-stocked library. And at first glance, that’s exactly what the caption says:

A barrack building has been turned into a library at this War Relocation Authority center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry. A trained librarian of Japanese ancestry employs modern techniques in the management of this library which already contains a large stock of books donated by friends.

“A large stock of books donated by friends.” In other words, the government didn’t take any responsibility for stocking the library. The caption with this photo makes it even clearer.



The Main Library of this War Relocation Authority center. The Librarian is a graduate of the University of California Library School and employs modern library techniques. All books have been donated. [Emphasis added.]

Many donations were used books that people simply didn’t want, so the library collections at the camps weren’t nearly as varied as at public libraries and couldn’t meet the demand for popular reading material. And the donated magazines were probably more outdated than the ones you find in your dentist’s waiting room. The lack of variety comes out in the caption of this next photo.



A corner in the library at this War Relocation center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry. This section contains books in the Japanese language, most of which are translations of English classics.

Since books written in Japanese were confiscated before or when the Japanese Americans left their homes, Lange’s caption tells us that they had no access to books with their own cultural stories and history.

Taken alone, these photos imply that the U.S. government was taking good care of the Japanese Americans it had incarcerated against their will. But the real story—or at least part of it—comes out in the captions.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but those words can be misleading even without Photoshop.

So be skeptical.

_____

All photographs in this post were taken by Dorothea Lange. They are in the public domain because she was a War Relocation Authority photographer and the photos were taken as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government.

Hidden HIstory

Monday, December 11, 2017


Two weeks ago, I participated in a library book fair. Although I was selling copies of all my books, I wanted to highlight Desert Jewels, my middle-grade novel about the Japanese-American incarceration during World War II. So I put together a photo album with some of the official photos taken at the time by War Relocation Authority photographers.

I had plenty of pictures to choose from, but I was especially grateful for the ones that had recently become publicly available. Obviously, the Internet has increased access to almost everything, but that’s only part of this story. The other part is that many of Dorothea Lange’s most unsettling photos were quietly suppressed by the Army and buried in the National Archives. If you are interested in learning more about that story, I recommend Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment. It’s worth buying just for the photographs.

Look at the picture at the top of this post, which Dorothea Lange took on June 30, 1942 in one of the hastily erected barracks at Manzanar, California. Manzanar was the first camp to be constructed, and many of the earliest residents lived there the entire time they were incarcerated. However, most of the Japanese Americans lived in temporary “assembly centers” while their more “permanent” accommodations were being built. Lange took the photos below on June 16, 1942 at the Tanforan Assembly Center, which was a former race track where horse stalls were converted into living quarters. There were some hastily-built barracks there, too, but I’m guessing that the interior photo shows one of these horse stall apartments.



As you can see, the living accommodations were anything but luxurious, and they came with minimal furnishings—one cot per person and nothing else. Eventually the Japanese-American residents built furniture from scrap lumber and found other ways to make their quarters more comfortable, but they had to rely on their own limited resources to do it.

Dorothea Lange didn’t last very long as a War Relocation Authority photographer, but I’m glad we have found the record that she left.

Photos are a great source of historical research, and they seldom lie. But even before Photoshop there were ways to make them tell a misleading story.

I’ll talk about that next week.

_____

All photographs in this post were taken by Dorothea Lange. They are in the public domain because she was a War Relocation Authority photographer and the photos were taken as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government.