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October 2015

Five Reasons (Six if you’re a writer) to Like Cursive Writing

Some things once given as necessary are now seen as expendable. Cursive writing is an example. Let me caution you before reading: maybe you don’t use cursive. This post is in no way meant to criticize that. If you are an adult, you’ve made an informed decision because you likely were required to learn it.

I advocate for its inclusion in education curricula for the reasons listed below. When I’ve had a conversation on the topic with someone that opposes it, the only argument I hear is “it’s obsolete.” This post should convince you otherwise. If not, there are some interesting bits here about cognitive development. Bottom line: give your kids the choice you had.

Fine Motor Skills

The intricate movements necessary to differentiate some letters lead to better dexterity for the hand. Researcher William Klemm talks about hand-eye coordination and elaborates, “in handwriting the movements are continuously variable, which is much more mentally demanding (than single-stroke block letters).”

There is a creativity associated with the movement as well. With “continuously variable” letter combinations, our brains constantly formulate new movements, new paths for our hand. Later, we add personal fluorishes to the movement. As adults, we don’t think of it anymore and our movements are practiced and quick. For children, it’s an important part of developing.

A Higher Level of Thought

Studies connect the use of cursive with a higher level of thought. The same parts of the brain we access during reading are used when we write by hand. Typing on a keyboard doesn’t do this. Single-stroke block letters do it only in a lesser way. The implications for the development of a child’s brain are considerable. In effect, their brains receive a diminished diet of stimulation compared to the education we had.

Just in case you forgot!
Just in case you forgot!

Test-Taking Skill

Cursive writing is also a test-taking skill that allows a proficient student to write more in less time. I taught eighth and ninth grade English for four years and required cursive writing on all exams and in-class assignments. This was not without controversy. There was some parental resistance. My students all went on to the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, where final exams (in just about every subject) require considerable amounts of writing. This is one reason I, and the department-at-large, felt strongly that block print should be discouraged.

Students with developed handwriting convey more ideas in less time. Cursive writing aids not only the physical act of recording the thoughts, but the mental ability to organize those thoughts.

Better Learning

Everyone learns in a slightly different manner. Many of us benefit from visual learning. Charts, graphs, photos and videos help us understand. We all benefit from this to a greater or lesser degree.

The same is true for writing. It’s called kinesthetic learning and most of the time we associate it with learning physical skills. This is often referred to as “learning by doing.” In my case, and I’m sure others, it also means that the act of writing helps commit information to memory. Because I take the time to write something, my brain seizes on it as important. Anytime I write out directions to go somewhere, I don’t have to worry about whether or not the slip of paper is in my pocket, it’s already memorized.

Better Listening

This also affects note-taking in class. When I taught speech we went over mistakes people make when they listen. One of these was “listening too hard.” It means we sometimes make the mistake of giving equal weight to everything that is said, rather than pick out significant points or facts.

This is precisely the tendency for someone taking notes on a computer. Meanwhile, the person who writes his or her notes can still make this mistake (as I did), but has a lot of motivation to develop new and better listening habits. Sharpening the skill allows the student to pick out relevant information and the kinesthetic aspect of writing helps the student commit the information to memory.

Research for the Writer

The age of mobile phones and the vast tools we have access to via the web tend to downplay the need for written notes. Instead of recording information, we return to it at will by bookmarking its location. This plays out in a greater context than writing: there is an increased tendency for people to no longer remember an answer to a question, rather, they remember where to find the answer to the question.

Written notes for a writer, however, are a necessary thing. Writers very often must research various topics to plausibly use them in a story. What is easier, to bookmark something and continually return to it for reference? Or writing it down, thereby committing it to memory, and having access to it whether or not you happen to be in front of a computer? It is no contest, and the writing flows much more easily when you have knowledge of the topic, rather than rely on access to that knowledge.

Writing: More Important Than Ever

The Information Age brought us e-mail and social media. What does one do to realize the potential of these forms…oh, yes! One writes! Along with these things, we’ve seen the magnification of communications blunders. Nevermind talent, a merely competent writer is in demand! Today, he or she is a “content provider.” Does cursive writing make me a better content provider? It does, for all the reasons listed above.

Plus, I think a page of written notes looks cool. Thanks for reading!

Creativity (Part IV) Spark

The original question that inspired these creativity posts asked what books I recommended for the creative process. My answer is any book. There is no particular book I know on the process that is particularly helpful because my reading in this area is nonexistent. Still, any experience is of help. Sometimes we just need to hear the same thing said in a different way.

Here are are my tips for finding that extra bit of creativity when needed. I consulted no other articles putting this together, but have read on this topic in the past and these suggestions likely echo others. What makes sense for one often makes sense for others.

Spark Tip #1: Read

This past week I read a somewhat dated action/suspense thriller. It mainly concerned terrorism. This book gave me the idea for a new chapter in my current project, a middle-grade mystery. More

Most of our character creations to date!
Most of our character creations to date!

specifically, the chapter concerns a key figure in the story and his experiences. There is a direct relationship between the information and unraveling the mystery. None of it involves terrorism. In fact, it’s mainly about carpentry.

How did the book inspire this? I’m not entirely certain. No similar chapter appears in the book. Nonetheless, the text engaged in a way where the thought processes used were similar to what was needed to create the idea. Logically, that is the best answer I can give.

Reading stimulates our brains, and fiction in particular should spark the creative center. If it doesn’t, the author isn’t doing a good job. We constantly concoct visuals to go with the text. This is the reverse of how I write: my brain creates a visual and text is written that puts the same visual in the head of a reader. That’s the idea anyway.

Different tools stimulate our brains in different ways. As an example, each night before studying in college I did the New York Times crossword. It took a couple of months to actually finish a full crossword, but complete or not the clues stimulated the analytical parts of my brain and made the reading much easier. Our classes were largely discussion based (small school), so breaking down large amounts of text into easy-to-explain summaries was the task at hand. It was a sort of game and the crossword gave the right mental nudge to do it.

Spark Tip #2: Write!

“Wait, but that’s exactly what I’m having trouble with!” Think of it as a lateral maneuver. Your mind won’t go where you want it to, so take it somewhere else and find another path to what you want. Write about something fun, or something you know. There is a scene in Finding Forrester, where Sean Connery plays a famous author, that rings true. He sits down to write while his protege sits across from him waiting for inspiration. “Start with something familiar,” Connery says and gives him an old essay. The younger man copies the first sentence and then he’s off on his own writing journey.

Everyone writes a bit different and our experiences are unique. Maybe you love to compose poetry, but the project in front of you isn’t a poem. It doesn’t matter because, again, you access the right part of your mind. Once you wake up those brain cells, put them to work on what you really want to write.

The results of my experience with this are mixed. I have a hard time writing about my hobbies and tend to lose focus on the intended message. Our experience with our interests is immersive; there is a lot of information stored in our heads! We have so much detail in our memories is not always easy to put aside that clutter and effectively communicate our experience. So it is sometimes a frustrating exercise to write about things we love.

That said, the effort expended is not a waste. Part of the creativity we want to access is simply forming sentences and varying their structure. That is a worthwhile way to spend time.

Spark Tip #3: Edit

You might also backtrack a bit if you’re in the middle of a project. Do some light editing or re-read the previous chapter. In other words, re-connect with the ideas that advanced the story or make

If you haven't done this, authors, make the opportunity happen. It is too much fun to miss.
If you haven’t done this I hope you get the opportunity. It is too much fun to miss.

new connections. It’s a good idea even if the storyline you want to write isn’t directly related (possible, but unlikely).

This is an effective technique. First, it puts me more at ease with the book draft because it cleans up a few things. Second, it re-establishes the pace of the narrative. The mental energy that goes along with being part of that pace opens up the story. Once again, we’re immersed in the feel of the book. If you pair this with the fourth tip, it should give you somewhere to go.

Spark Tip #4: Consult Yourself

You made an outline, right? Okay, go back and take a look. Remember the arc you envisioned when all this started. It sounds a little odd, I mean, you might have the outline pinned to the wall and think you constantly access it. But we can and do lose focus. My chapter book mystery The Shield of Horatius is set, mainly, in modern Rome and the characters visit some amazing sites. There is a mighty temptation to drone on about the surroundings.

We put together likable characters that interact in interesting ways and…maybe…we overdo it. We fall in love with the dialogue and forget to serve the story even while we think we’re serving the art. The art, however, isn’t writing, it is storytelling. Witty banter between characters only does so much for the book. Consult your outline. Get back on track with the story.

 

Mind maps and other idea-generating practices also might be useful. I use and recommend these for essays, but never had a need for them when it comes to writing narrative fiction. No matter what anyone suggests, when you make the effort you likely will find something that suits you. As I said, our writing and our experiences all differ. It stands to reason there is no true model to produce a creative spark in every single one of us.

Good luck with your writing and thanks for reading!

Notes from ‘Molly Goes to Shanghai’

This is not something I’ve done before. Consider it the “special features” section on a DVD. I wanted to record some of my thoughts (and/or the shared thoughts between Amy and I) and learning experiences while working on the books. These posts include things we learned that are not shared in the books, as well as the thoughts behind the content we did share.

Shanghai Vibe

The city is busy, fast, modern, and perhaps a bit more worldly than the capital in Beijing. This mirrors the differences between New York City and Washington, D. C. here. One travel article I encountered said that taking the high-speed maglev train from the airport into the city was a perfect introduction to Shanghai because of the high speed. The words “fast” and “fashion” were the first used to describe the city when I interviewed our contributor.

The skyline of the Pudong area of Shanghai as seen from the Bund.
The skyline of the Pudong area of Shanghai as seen from the Bund.

She said that Shanghai men are immaculately dressed. Not in terms of social events, but for business. Tailored suits, precisely-manipulated hair, expensive imported shoes, a Shanghainese businessman spares no expense in terms of appearance. Well, there is likely a lot of competition in the world’s most populous city, so I can understand looking for an edge. Li, our contributor, did not talk about the fashion habits of Shanghai businesswomen.

There is a sense in the city that it is elite. It has long been a trading center. When Deng Xiaopeng instituted economic reforms in China (1978), many coastal cities were given some economic leeway. He left out Shanghai. This was in spite of the city’s status as a driver of the economy. In this, perhaps the city’s elitism worked against it. I recently read Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng and it gives the impression that the city was never quite tamed, at least in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party.

No matter, the reforms extended to Shanghai in 1992. Since then, the famous new skyline of the Pudong area of the city arose. More than a little of it was the result of investment from firms in Hong Kong and overseas. As the buildings grew, so did the population.

Language

Another important piece of the “elite” self-image is language. In China there are, in the main, two languages: Mandarin and Cantonese. There are also a number of other forms of the language and Molly Goes to Shanghai Calligraphy Smallthey share aspects of one of these. Wu Chinese shares the same characters (spelling) as Mandarin, but the pronunciation is different. Shanghai has its own dialect of Wu that is called Shanghainese.

I have contradictory information about Shanghainese. The thoughts shared, at the same time, is that a Mandarin speaker cannot understand a Shanghainese speaker, but they speak the same language. This is true, from what I’ve learned, with many phrases. The differences are in pronunciation. However, Shanghainese is more expressive than Mandarin. That is, it has a larger vocabulary so the language is more descriptive. This means a Mandarin speaker would not recognize at least some words, possibly many. A Shanghai native could write down something the Mandarin speaker understood, but then say it aloud and be incomprehensible.

Crossroads

Shanghai is open to the ocean via the Yangtze River. It is the longest river in Asia and third longest in the world. As such, Shanghai is not only open to the ocean, but also to the interior. It’s important to note, for geography quiz purposes, that the city is not actually located on the banks of the Yangtze, but on its last major tributary (the Huangpu) before it empties into the East China Sea.

It is also roughly located in the middle of the two dominant cultures of China. We’re painting with a broad brush here, but there are, essentially, two major cultures within China, the North and the South. Some commentators say Shanghai is its own culture somewhere between and I am inclined to agree. Anyway, because of all these factors, geographical and cultural, Shanghai is at the center of things. This is also true politically as Shanghai politicians often have significant influence on national politics.

 

These are a few of the things I learned while researching Molly Goes to Shanghai. It is a privilege to learn so much while working. It makes it fun. Thanks for reading!

From End to Beginning (Creativity Part III)

Let’s take a moment. I know this doesn’t need to be said, but here it is: everyone’s approach to creativity is different. That said, I talked to a friend today who also writes and consults in marketing about his approach to the process. It was basically the same as mine.

Finish at the Start

The end dictates everything that happens. Because this is true, you have to start with the end. Story arc is something I always cover when we speak at elementary schools. It’s an easy thing with the illustrated series because the stories start and end at Molly and Michael’s house. There are many other elements we present, but the story itself ends where it begins, with knowledge gained.

It is, naturally, different with a longer story and the example genre here is a mystery. There is a sought outcome that may or many not involve location, but has everything to do with knowledge. The knowledge may be a location, or who did it–basically, the resolution of the main conflict. Items must be found, secrets uncovered, clues understood, trials faced, shortcomings overcome, and villains defeated. Some of it happens along the way. The story’s goal must be clear, both to writer and, eventually, reader. Everything in your story arc must serve the story resolution.

At our most recent school talk.
At our most recent school talk.

You have to know the end before you begin. If you do not, there is nothing to direct where the story goes. Obscure the end, make it uncertain to the reader, but be certain for the purpose of writing.

Wide Open Choices

The Shield of Horatius is a story about a lost artifact. That was the resolution I sought. So…where do I start?

It’s much easier to see the process in hindsight. I introduced the story of the artifact, its user, its protector, and then its finders (while also revealing the reason for their journey). It is a four-and-a-half page introduction that spans 2,500 years. It’s not a dry introduction, the first two segments take place in the heat of battle. Actually, I didn’t write the first segment, it is quoted from the Roman historian Livy. The second segment is historical fabrication on my part, though it takes place during events that are part of the historical record. The third part (re)introduces two of the main characters.

There was an end, now there is a beginning.

Creative?

How do we go from Point A to Point B? There must be points along the way. We move, within the story, in increments that inform, shock, frighten, endear, or produce any other effect we want to have on the reader. The goal is twofold: move toward the end and keep the reader interested.

It is at this point that you stop looking at the whole process as “creative.” Why? Because you’re filling gaps, doing things that make sense, creating the necessary events to lead to a plausible and exciting conclusion. You’re creative at every turn–varying sentence structure, using vivid language, revealing character–but it doesn’t seem so. For the writer, it’s a straight line from beginning to end, though the story may (and should) include twists and turns.

That is why creative process, in this context, is difficult to describe. There is no ritual I can give someone to think creatively. When you have the end and know where to start, the rest reveals itself. It doesn’t have the feel of creation, it is just storytelling. The thing is, and this is difficult to remember, the story only exists inside of you. No one else knows even if it is something that in your mind seems so clear.

And it is clear, or will be when things are going well. Things line up, twists pop to mind, the story pours out of you…when things go well.

When things don’t go well, there are a few things that help and we’ll discuss those next time.

 

Un-Creative Process

We started a discussion on creativity and reality intervened. A good reality: we released a new book. Even better for this post, I had the opportunity to discuss creative processes with my wife, Amy Houston Oler. She is a designer and illustrator, which you may know.

Creating a Concept

A moment of dual inspiration led to Molly and the Magic Suitcase. As we packed for a trip to Florida, our daughter crawled into my suitcase. She made a scooting motion as if she expected the suitcase to take her somewhere. I said, “Look! It’s Molly and her magic suitcase!” and snapped a photo. Amy immediately seized on my offhand remark as a concept for children’s stories.

What does this mean? It means, first of all, you have to be open to creation. Amy wanted to illustrate a children’s book since age ten. I gave it some thought years ago when a friend and I tried to develop a concept called “Dickie Matrix.” You may hear about that some day. Otherwise, I hadn’t thought about it, and wasn’t thinking about it in that moment.

Being open to creation means you recognize moments like this for what they are or what they can be. You must recognize opportunity when it presents itself. That is easier said than done. We all have experiences where, in hindsight, we missed the signal. Sometimes it is obvious, but not often. Other times, it hits you subconsciously. Three or four times in my life, I had dreams that were fully scripted movies or plays. I didn’t write anything down. The dreams were interesting to me, but I didn’t recognize the opportunity to create.

This map appears in The Shield of Horatius. These are key locations for the story.
This map appears in The Shield of Horatius. These are key locations for the story.

Inspiration, more often, is subtle. You sit in a coffee shop and idly wonder about a group of three people discussing something at a nearby table. You see a road that disappears over a hill and consider what is on the other side. A headline conjures images in your head that may or may not have anything to do with the story. You read a passage in a story that stirs curiosity because its information is incomplete.

“Secret negotiations in Norway”

Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed a “Declaration of Principles” that was to govern negotiations between Israel and the (then) Palestinian Liberation Organization. It was an unlikely breakthrough. I was in college at the time, studying political science. Several news stories referred to “secret negotiations in Norway,” but nothing elaborated on it. It stirred my curiosity. So much so that I researched and wrote a 20 page paper on what happened.

It was simple: there was a question that needed an answer. There was a story to tell. It was a story something inside of me had to tell.

A Legend of Rome

I grew up reading mysteries (and comic books). After we finished the first two books in the Molly and the Magic Suitcase series, it was time to try something new. We wanted to reach older readers, but use some of the same elements: introducing language, food, and different aspects of culture. It was a simple concept to flesh out. I aged the characters and led them back to a destination they previously visited. I had the setting, the characters, and the idea it would be a mystery.

The setting, of course, was Rome. There is history on every corner, and, quite literally, in every wall. For example, today there is a restaurant on the Aventine Hill, just west of the Circus Maximus. Part of its walls are the ruins of an old Roman temple. I wanted to incorporate things like this, wanted to tie the history of the city into the mystery. It wasn’t a creative decision for me, it just made sense. When you have a concept, creativity often feels like common sense.

The next step was a simple Google search: “legends of Rome.” This led me to Publius Horatius Cocles, the famed defender of a bridge. It was a modern day mystery so I made the story a lost artifact. The survival of any shield from that era (508 BC) is much less than likely, but I had the concept, and at least two questions that needed answering: where is the artifact now and how did it survive to present day?

This was the story I had to tell. A hundred more questions arose and were answered. How did the kids’ friend connect with the concept? Why do Molly and Michael get involved? How did the shield survive the first sacking of Rome in 390 BC? What about the subsequent sackings? What were the antagonist’s motivations? I knew the right questions were asked because I had fun doing the historical research to come up with believable answers.

Review

The key is recognition of creative opportunities. Many writers and songwriters keep a journal close at all times. They expect inspiration at any time. My approach to The Shield of Horatius was much more structured because some of the parameters were already set. The second mystery is a work currently in progress, and I sometimes wonder if the concept wasn’t somewhat forced. Still, I’ve written close to half the book and my editor eagerly awaits more (not because of a deadline). Perhaps I need to take my own advice and recognize the opportunity.

This is just the first step. By no means does it represent the total creativity needed for the book. Each sentence requires it, but, first, you need a story to tell!

 

Molly Goes to Shanghai!

Cover for Molly Goes to Shanghai. This is Yuyuan Garden.
Cover for Molly Goes to Shanghai. This is Yuyuan Garden.

It’s a bit turned around, but this time out the Kindle edition of Molly and the Magic Suitcase: Molly Goes to Shanghai is available!

This is the skyline of the Pudong area of Shanghai as seen from the Bund.
This is the skyline of the Pudong area of Shanghai as seen from the Bund.

We’re thrilled with this one. It took a lot of research and we had our main contributor proofread it. It’s fun and there is much to learn.

The print edition will likely be available tomorrow, but we won’t make a formal announcement until Monday. We reach more people that way. Here are a few images.

Molly wonders what awaits in Shanghai, China!
Molly wonders what awaits in Shanghai, China!

Be Creative

“Be creative.” This likely conjures different thoughts and meanings depending on your interests or work. There are different creative aspects to what I do now and that is what this post discusses. It is the creativity associated with writing a book series, as well as marketing work. First, however, let’s consider what “creative” means.

The Creative

The word is sometimes used as a noun. This is true in marketing and advertising firms. A creative is someone who works either in design (whether graphic or web design) or produces content. Ten years ago, the latter would simply be known as a copywriter. Today, however, video production is more integrated into blogs and websites, so the definition must expand to include the person who develops these visuals, as well as the person that writes the script.

My work entails some of these things, but it didn’t always. Before I was a “creative,” when the term was mentioned, the thought that came to mind was of someone who created something out of nothing. Sometimes it was true. Now things are different. We don’t create ad campaigns based on creativity, at least not if we’re smart about our approach. Any sort of campaign should be an extension of a company’s personality or culture. This has been the advisable direction of content creation for at least five years, and some companies make good use of it.

Our most recent school talk, sharing the characters we created for the first nine books.
Our most recent school talk, sharing the characters we created for the first nine books.

There was another image of a creative person, in the agency context. It was someone who wasn’t particularly professional or organized. One might say rebellious, but indulged may be a better description. Indulged, that is, if they did a good job of being creative. And again, from the outside, that appeared to be some sort of magic.

Creative Work

There are creative people in all walks of life and work. Some solve internal problems in a new way, others see possibilities in new markets (or new possibilities in old markets), and a good number figure out the next big thing in terms of products or machine tooling, etc.. Teachers are creative on a daily basis, tailoring lesson plans for students with different learning styles or challenges. A retail salesperson is creative in how he or she interacts with people, because no two customers are exactly the same. A book author is creative in finding a new story to tell.

This is the work I can discuss. Some of my experiences apply to the other areas, but this is a writer’s blog.

Someone asked recently what books I recommended for the creative process. I have no recommendations. Well…that’s not true. Any book can inspire creativity.

“NO,” you shout, “that isn’t what I came to learn. How do you get creative?” In other words, what steps can I follow to be more creative with writing, or have an easy flow of ideas?

Be Creative

It starts with capability. What resources can you call on? How much experience do you have writing? How many hours have you put into it? How much have you read? Have you read different types of books? How familiar are you with writing styles? Literary devices? How varied is your vocabulary?

All of these things give you choices; choices in narrative, in sentence structure, and much more. Writing fiction is more than telling a story. It needs to be told in a way that is effective for the audience you want to reach. That is my perspective. A writer can be as artistic as they want, but in the end if you fail to communicate the story to an audience, then all you accomplished is expression. When no one receives your message or is able to form another interpretation, then what good is a story? That is why having choices in how you write is necessary. Writing creativity starts with capability.

That is the beginning. Give some thought to your own capabilities and how you might improve them. I can identify particular experiences that improved mine: writing hundreds of letters and several speeches when I worked in politics,  learning Greek and Latin roots while teaching them to 8th and 9th graders, and instructing the same students in literary analysis. Some people say you need to live before you can write something of consequence. If it is experience you need, it is experience with writing. It comes both through hours of reading and composing.

This is pretty general, but it’s already run long. We’ll discuss the creative process in the next post and it will be here soon. Thanks for reading!