Becoming a Wizard

Chrysididae crossing! Just one gorgeous wasp I collected in NY…

Being a budding entomologist is like being a child in a muggle world, and getting your letter from Hogwarts. Suddenly, all around you, a whole new world opens up – things that were there before, unnoticed, are now glaringly obvious to you even as the rest of the world carries on, oblivious. Like running up to platform 9 and 3/4 or the wall opening to Diagon Alley, entomologists see extraordinary and unique things in their everyday environment.

My unsuccessful Camponotus run… not a good sample population of the dimorphism I was seeing.

This is apparent to me whenever I am outside – at home, or in the city proper of Philadelphia. What’s that? Apidae nomada chasing one another around near the ground outside? Look at those three Xylacopa, buzzing by the roof of my house (uh oh…)! What a gorgeous, glossy Formica – my goodness, wing buds! She’s a queen! And check out the size dimorphism on all those Camponotus workers – they’re no Eciton, to be sure, but it’s still pretty drastic. As a budding entomologist, a whole new world opens up, right before your eyes. The everyday events of walking down the street, or exiting your car, can be filled with new, exciting observations and discoveries.

Okay, some of them are yellow and black… Megachilidae anthidium

One of my favorite things about this metaphor, however, is where it ends. Unlike in the Harry Potter universe, I (a wizard in training!) am allowed to share my knowledge and my world with the ‘muggles’. Showing my grandmother a spider brain under the scope, or showing my fiance the large Camponotus ants I’ve been hunting all week, or showing my queen Formica ant to the inquisitive man on the subway platform, brings me joy. By far my favorite thing to share, is my knowledge of beautiful bees. Ask a ‘bee muggle’ what comes to mind when they think of a bee and the answers are:

  1. Yellow and black
  2. Fuzzy bumblebees
  3. Honey
Augocholorini alert!

Very rarely, someone will say ‘sweat bee’ or ‘carpenter/mason bee’ to go along with the three things above. But the truth of bees, is that there is so much more – right in our neck of the woods. The amazement when I show someone the beautiful green Agapostemon, Augochlorini, or the red Nomada, or even dark blue Osmia that they can catch practically in their own backyard (not to mention the gorgeous Chrysididae wasps!) right here in PA or NY is incredibly fulfilling. Suddenly, they too are getting a brief glimpse into the magical world of insects that surrounds us – and they nearly always want to know more.

Me being added to the collections at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University – pretty close to a Hogwarts letter, right?

This post comes to mind mostly because I am more tuned in to nature right now than I’ve ever been before. With spring starting up, the world is beginning to hum and buzz with life again, and I am yet another year more knowledgeable about the world around me. I also spent most of my weekend chasing Camponotus with my aspirator (they’re fast!) – which afforded me a lot of time looking at the ground, observing bees, wasps, ants, beetles, spiders, worms, etc. Despite the fact that this would seem initially unexciting, little is more rewarding than getting peeks into this ‘secret’ world, constantly in motion all around us – it is times like these that I feel extremely lucky to have received my entomologist’s letter to Hogwarts.

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Character Flaws

17990375_1652112918136755_7909619328052172307_oThis past weekend, my fiance and I took a trip to Florida for Easter to visit his family. Despite the fact that this was our third trip down (aka, I’m not new to planes), I still managed to forget to pack some Dramamine for the plane ride. I spent the entirety of our descent into Punta Gorda wincing, holding onto my stomach, trying not to hyperventilate and thankfully, not vomiting on my beloved. As we exited the plane and returned to blessed, solid ground, my legs were shaking so badly I thought I might fall over.

A more perfect version of myself would have one of two qualities:

  1. A sturdier stomach, in which I do not get plane sick
  2. A more focused brain, in which I remember I get plane sickness and bring the medicine I own for said problem

But if I were reading about this moment in My Life: A Novel, a reader enjoying a well-crafted protagonist named Meghan Barrett, it’s exactly this kind of moment that would bring me, the character, to life for me, the reader. As I read the description of my wobbly legs nearly buckling descending the steps to the tarmac, complete with a description of my fear of fainting at my father-in-law’s feet and regret at forgetting my medicine, I’d likely howl with laughter and then call my fiance over to read those same lines with me. It is a character’s imperfections that make them real and interesting.

I don’t particularly like writing my characters’ imperfections – it feels almost like betraying a friend or revealing someone’s dirty secret since no one else in the world knows these characters (and their flaws) but me. If you like a person, you don’t generally go around telling other people about all the things they could be doing better, a la “Rachel? Oh yeah, she’s great. Real smart and lovable but she does have a temper. And man could she use a toothbrush.” By writing honestly about those flaws, my characters then generally have to go through exactly what I hate to go through myself: failure or embarrassment. But it’s overcoming those moments of failure (and the humor of living through some of them) that make the story interesting, inspiring, engaging – great.

Do you struggle to write about your character’s flaws and failures? How do you make sure you stay true to your characters? What kinds of flaws are your favorites to write (or least favorite)? Why? Tell me in the comments below!

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Biopoetics: Budbreak

A huge thank you to The Waggle for publishing this poem; you can read it here or listen to me read it here.

This is another poem in my sugar maple cycle, and I owe pretty much all of this poem to Margaret Skinner and Bruce L. Parker’s Field Guide for Monitoring Sugar Maple Bud Development. I highly recommend checking out the link, to see the great pictures and descriptions of the leaf and flower buds as they develop from dormancy to ‘Budbreak’. It’s one of my favorite sugar maple resources.

Photo by Eli Sagor entitled ‘sugar maple pointed buds’ (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic), link through photo

When I first began working on this poetry series and thinking about trees more deeply, I came to the conclusion that trees wouldn’t obey our seasons. So I hypothesized what I thought would be important ‘seasons’ for trees: Sunleaves, Deepnight, Sapriver, Budbreak, and Windborne. In human terms, Sunleaves is fall, Deepnight is winter, and Sapriver – Windborne take up early spring through mid fall.

Dormant buds begin as small conical shells of overlapping scales (that are actually highly modified leaves) surrounding either leaf or flower material. They survive winter by remaining inactive (we discuss this in brief in the ‘Sapriver’ biopoetics). As they leave dormancy into their initial swell, they grow larger but retain their conical shape. Trees exit dormancy when two conditions are reached:

  1. The minimum number of cold days has passed (hence why global warming creates serious concerns)
  2. Warming begins in conjunction with the longer photoperiods of spring

Basically, the longer days of spring can cause the buildup of gibberellin and this is part of the pathway for breaking bud dormancy.

After the bud swells, it continues to elongate and turn green (for leaves, yellow for flowers) and the scales surrounding the bud loosen, preparing for the emergence of what’s inside. In fact, they loosen enough to allow in parasites like thrips, which I wrote about in another poem (Comma after Late Budbreak, Defoliation by an Invasive Pear). Finally, the bud bursts into a group of flowers (called an inflorescence), or a wet-looking set of leaves (reminiscent of the ‘wet’ wings of butterflies right after they emerge from their cocoons). The wrinkled leaves are curled over the bud before they begin to unfold and spread wide, ready to photosynthesize. The flower bundles droop down, covered in pollen, before eventually shriveling up as seeds begin to form in their stead.

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Plotting and Pantsing

In the writing world, there’s a lot of talk about two kinds of people – the plotters, and the pantsers. There are the people who plot out every step of the novel from beginning to end, with scene cards and post its, while others sit down to write with almost no plan at all. And, of course, there are people in between.

Plotting is in my nature. I’m the kind of gal who wants to plan each meal she eats, who has to do lists about which to do lists to focus on each day, who wants to have her next ten years planned out by the hour (okay, not quite that bad). But plotting in writing, doesn’t seem to come naturally to me; in school, I detest writing outlines for my essays because I’d rather just finish the thing and reorganize as I go. For my story that I’m working on now, I’ve had the basic concept of the series idea in mind for at least three years and yet there’s only about fifteen post its on the wall to corral the material of four whole books – and most of those post its are about the historical context and not the story itself.

And maybe that’s because Pantsing is also in my nature, despite the fact that I want to be a plotter – I want to have control over (or at least know) where my story is going. While I certainly have a lot of lists and plans for my life, I do get distracted along the way, getting pulled towards plenty of shiny objects that aren’t my main goal. When that happens, I end up missing the mark of a lot of the plotted out ‘points’ or goals I’d been hoping to achieve. And yet, it’s these moments of ‘pantsing’ that make me real and spontaneous and human – a being that can’t be charted.

And the more I work on these continuously evolving stories, the more I realize how important ‘pantsing’ has become to my work despite my desire to plot. My characters are not going to follow the line I set for them if it’s not in their nature; instead, when I try to force them down a path I will encounter their resistance. And this resistance, while frustrating, has pointed me in the right direction now more than once.

Pantsing is frustrating because it means 30-50K words can go away like ‘poof’ when you realize something new about your plot or characters. It would be nice if I knew them well enough at the outset to plot their lives like they would actually live them; and yet this exploration is so fascinating, so decidedly not self-directed despite the fact that all the words and characters come from me, that I can’t quite find the will to be upset about it for long.

Are you a pantser or a plotter? Somewhere in between? What strategies do you use to keep your writing on track? Let me know in the comments below.

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Collaborative Writing Challenge

Image taken from the CWC website, link through the photo

For the past few months, I’ve been participating in the Collaborative Writing Challenge – this project asks a group of around fifty authors to write a novel together, in some predetermined genre. Fifty authors! You say (I said). One book! Impossible!

Here’s how it works. The CWC puts out a call for authors to sign up for the project, a novel of a particular genre, and accepts first chapter submissions from all authors for a novel in that genre. The story coordinator, who oversees the writing of the book, chooses their four (or so) favorite submissions and sends them out to all the authors who have signed up for that project, asking for votes. The winning chapter becomes the first chapter of the project.

Meanwhile, the story coordinator is busy setting up a thirty-chapter writing schedule where all authors can sign up to try writing up to three chapters in that thirty-week schedule. No matter what happens in the book, it’d better be wrapped up by chapter 30! Each chapter gets assigned three different authors to attempt writing it within a week, using summaries of all previous chapters prepared by the story coordinator and the full chapter that comes right before theirs. The story coordinator picks a winner, to send on to the next group of writers and the process repeats. An example of how this works:

John, Taylor, and Monique are signed up to write Chapter 23; on Wednesday, they each receive the chapter summaries and reference notes for all twenty-two preceding chapters, and the full text of chapter 22. They have until Tuesday of the following week to each submit their version of Chapter 23 to the story coordinator. The story coordinator chooses Monique’s as the best submission, which is summarily is sent on to the people writing Chapter 24, and a chapter summary is prepared for all future writers.

I signed up last July when I had ‘nothing to do’ and when, in the middle of my winter quarter of graduate school, the email came that my turn to participate in the challenge I said some not-so-nice words while looking at my schedule for the week. My first attempt was a bust where I opened too many cans of worms without leaving any clues for my next-chapter authors – but my second attempt, chapter 27, for the fantasy novel Esyld’s Awakening – was chosen to be included in the final work. The blurb for Esyld’s Awakening is:

In a land of direwolves and dragons, the Abdita or “Hidden” are a species devoted to maintaining the balance between man and the earth. Guardians by nature, their powers are misunderstood.

When a dark force rises, the balance of life is unsettled. Blight and sickness spread.

Desperate for answers, King Rouaix Godfrey XVII turns to the mysterious Prime Order. He sets his knights – led by the unequaled Ser Pagaene – on the Abdita.

But the High Priestess of the Adbita summons a different kind of champion; Esyld, a guardian with wisdom on her side.

Thrown together, each tests the patience and fortitude of the other. But both sides have secrets, and it may take more than nature or man alone to stop what is coming. Can enemies work together to save all?

The project was interesting for me, as an exercise, because it forced me to write outside my comfort zone (let’s face it, almost all writing is outside my comfort zone but this was even MORE so). First, it forced me to let go of control – something I struggle to do in many areas of my life. You can’t choose what happens to the characters once they leave your chapter – your super-elaborate secret plan to solve all the plot holes may go awry after your pen leaves the page. A character you were counting on between your chapters to save the day may die (well, crap) and there’s not much you can do about it but stare at the chapter summary in frustration, shaking your head, before moving on. And because you can’t control everything, it forces you to be adaptable – perhaps, just like your characters at times are painted into a corner and must worm their way out via inventive solutions that you never would have considered were your back not against the wall. As a bit of a plotter, being forced to write by the seat of my pants in less than a week stretched my writerly talents. I also can’t control every comma placement or image description in the book; I know Esyld’s Awakening (despite our truly fantastic story coordinator) will have mistakes. But CWC is about the process, the growth for the writers, more than about the final finished product.

The CWC also forced me to write with incomplete information, something I don’t like to do which then stalls my writing progress. I’ve been thinking about some of my characters for years without ever really making an effort to put pen to paper for them. Why? Because I ‘don’t know them well enough’ or ‘haven’t researched the time period enough’ or ‘haven’t built up their world enough’. These are all valid concerns, don’t get me wrong; nothing makes for a worse book than one with huge anachronisms, poorly developed characters, and bad world building. But sometimes, you have to let go of your hesitation – of not knowing every detail – and just put words on the page. This process leads to important discoveries about characters and worlds, that would never have been made without writing it out. During CWC, you don’t have every word of every previous chapter – in particular, character development is tough. But you have to write anyway.

I’m signed up to try project 8, a romance novel (time period not stated but it seems likely to be a contemporary) and will enjoy the chance to flex my writing muscles again. CWC does play into one of my strengths very well – writing for a deadline! #sprinter – and has given me the motivation to keep up some writing even when grad school gets tough.

Would you try a project like CWC? Why or why not? Have you ever tried a collaborative writing project – with much or little success? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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The Marathon

Me, first day of grad school, not knowing what's about to hit me...
Me, first day of grad school, not knowing what’s about to hit me…

Grad school is a stressful place; don’t let anyone (including your pre-grad-school self, *cough* Meghan *cough*) tell you otherwise. Some of it, if you’re coming straight from undergraduate, will be stressful because you’re managing several facets of ‘real’ adulthood for the first time; some of it will be stressful because it is your seventeenth year of continuous coursework and that wears on a person no matter how much you love, or are good at, school work. And even if you’re not coming straight from college, grad school will still be stressful because you are being pulled in several directions at once – teaching, classes, and multiple research-related objectives require your attention.

I have just finished my second quarter at Drexel which means I have another 1.5 years of classes to go, then my qualifying exam, and then 3-5 years of continuous thesis work to complete. Thinking about the process is exhausting, and stressful, in its own right. And a lot of my stress comes from the fact that grad school, as the fifth year graduate student in my lab often says, is a marathon and not a sprint.

A lot of my work prior to graduate school was a sprint; you sprint through stage-managing or lighting a college play, for example. It’s a stressful two to three months, but it is only two to three months. A hard sprint, but you can power through. The same thing goes for coursework: a semester (now I’m on quarters) is sixteen weeks; the end is always within sight. Even the big writing projects I’ve completed – my play, Experimental Ambiguity, my gamebook app, The Burning Trees of Ormen Mau, and my only completed novel for NaNoWriMo 2011, Jheym’s Silence – all of those were projects that I completed in sprints of less than four months.

Which means that I am now facing something unlike any of my other big projects – a marathon. Unlike my prior work, I can’t just push through this with a reasonably close end in sight. This has been difficult for me to realize – at first, I wanted to treat graduate school like my previous work and ‘sprint’ through it. I stayed late each night at the lab, gave up breaks and weekends in the first four to five months, in order to push through our research projects. But the research was bigger than that – even that one project still isn’t close to done despite all that time input. Science is very slow, and if I try to treat it like a sprint I’ll end up, well, where I am now: stressed and overwhelmed.

Graduate school is forcing me to re-evaluate how I manage my projects. For a sprint, making a to-do list of easily definable goals that I can cross off and watch the list grow ever-shorter is helpful and motivating. For a marathon, a to-do list that seemingly never ends or gets shorter is more of a burden; instead, making a got-done list is more helpful for keeping motivated and reminding oneself that, yes, you are accomplishing things even if it seems like your work is at a standstill. Making sure to praise myself for taking time for me – reading books, going on dates with my fiance, etc – is also critical to staying sane; for a marathon, you must pace yourself, and remember to take care of yourself throughout the race.

A lot of what I’ve been learning about myself in my graduate program reflects on my writing issues; it’s funny to me that, always, my science seems to be so tightly intertwined with lessons about writing. All of my successful writing projects were completed for a deadline; I was sprinting, with a defined finish line in sight. I’ve yet to write a novel, make a game, or even jot down a creative nonfiction piece without a date in mind where the work will be ‘finished’. It seems in both science and writing, internal motivation and balance are critical skills I’m sorely needing to learn.

Have two seemingly disparate parts of your life ever interacted to teach you valuable, cross-disciplinary lessons? How do you manage the ‘marathons’ in your life? Tell me in the comments – I could certainly use your helpful hints!

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Biopoetics: Euplectella

A big shout out to Eyedrum Periodically for publishing this poem; you can find the link to the poem here, see it with the correct formatting here, or listen to me read it aloud here.

A preface: it seems not a lot is known for certain about the shrimp Spongicola japonica or its host, Euplectella spp. What follows is a loose biopoetics of the ‘science’ that inspired this piece.

Image/Public domain (NOAA)

S. japonica shrimp are small, translucent shrimp sometimes pictured with an orange tint [though it was hard for me to tell if that was their actual color (unlikely) or perhaps some kind of image manipulation or stain]. When they are still very young, and thus small, these ocean bottom-dwelling shrimp find their way inside Euplectella spp. – sponges made of silicon that form a sort of lattice as pictured left. Two shrimp live in a sponge together, a male and female pairing, and grow up eating the nutrients “provided” by the sponge (it’s unclear to me if they eat algae off the spicules or get particulate matter that the sponge absorbs first or…); as they grow bigger and can no longer fit through the lattice of the sponge, they become trapped inside the sponge for life. After the pair reproduces, their young leave the sponge while they’re small enough to escape and go in search of their own place.

Euplectella spp. are thought to live on the abyssal plane (according to this website anyway), about 3000 to 6000 m deep. They are known for their fantastic spicules (what constructs the lattice) which have fiber optic qualities; since the spicules house bioluminescent bacteria, they glow quite consistently and brightly. The sponges grow on mud and hold themselves to it with fibers that grow like a messy ball at the end of the sponge. The sponges are relatively tall and thin, held up by rods (again, the spicules) which are covered in syncytium which seems to be a cob-webby mesh that catches particulate matter. Basically, these sponges are like a deep-sea skyscraper for shrimp.

The sponges can come detached from the mud and, eventually, they can wash up on beaches. In Japan, dried sponges containing two dead shrimp were given as gifts to couples at their weddings, considered to be a sign of eternal love and thus a symbol of good luck.


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The Uncomfortable ‘A-ha’

Photo by Fredrik Rubensson entitled ‘diary writing’ (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a novel I’ve been work-in-progressing with various amounts of gusto for the past four years; clocking in at around 35,000 words now, the book was shaping up to be a real high-quality piece of work. If I was struggling anywhere, it was with moving past that 35K mark, not with loving what I had already written…

Until I sent the beginning of the book off to be read by an editor at a publishing house as part of an unfinished manuscripts call. Now as I sent it off, I had no real hopes that it would be picked up by that publisher. I mean, what are the chances? The book did get rejected a few months later, with a very kind no-thank-you note. And while the editors did not compile a list for me of things to improve upon, the simple fact that I’d sent the book off for someone else to read it made me ask myself the question ‘What didn’t they like?’.

The simple act of sending it out pushed me to go from thinking about what I might like to write to what my readers might like to read. And this, it turns out, was an important enough distinction that I had an uncomfortable ‘A-ha’ moment and scrapped all 35,000 words to begin anew.

The plot changed; the order of the books in the series changed; elements of the characters’ personalities that I had not previously known were uncovered to me. What had begun as a writing-fantasy-on-paper became a more realistic, flawed group of characters with  a completely different set of factors affecting their lives together. It amazed me how just this one shift in focus could make me realize that my whole novel in progress so far was bad: not bad writing, perse, but bad planning.

From that one question, other questions unfolded: Why must this scene be on the page (even if I enjoy it)? Why must the book start here? Where should I give the backstory of this event – and who should give it to be most realistic? How can I make this character more realistic without losing her quintessential awesomeness? Is this believable or am I asking for too much from my readers? These are hard questions to answer sometimes, but the shift from me-centered-writing to reader-centered writing was revolutionary, even if uncomfortable.

This fascinated me mostly, I imagine, because of my incredible ego; on so many writers’ blogs I have read about all the ‘bad rough drafts and manuscripts sitting under the bed never to see the light of day’ and I thought to myself, “my writing is excellent”. And in a sense, that is true; I have a talent for imagery, am competent with witty dialogue, and can wrap up a plot cleanly. But there is so much more to writing than the writing – the decision making, the planning, can matter just as much, if not more, to keeping your readers engaged. And the choices made, those hard decisions, can make for just as bad a manuscript as one littered with purple prose.

Have you ever had an uncomfortable writer’s ‘A-ha’ moment? Let me know in the comments below!

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Biopoetics: Honey bee dance evolution from Apis mellifera to Apis florea

Whew, what a title! A huge shout out to Slag Review for publishing this poem in 2016 – you can read it here and listen to me read it aloud here. You can find the scientific paper this poem was ‘found’ in here.

Honeybee in Rochester
A foraging Apis mellifera in my backyard this summer. Photo credit/Meghan Barrett; published in 2017 in The Waggle.

This poem is about my favorite organism (though not my favorite species) – the bee; specifically, the honey bee. The paper this poem was found in is titled “Dance precision of Apis florea – clues to the evolution of the honeybee dance language?” and explores the dancing communication behavior of two species of honeybee.

All honeybee species use something called ‘the waggle dance’ to communicate the direction of and distance to new food sources and possible new nests (if the colony is getting ready to swarm – where they take off, and find a new home together). You can see a great video of this behavior here (starting around 1:20) – it’s pretty cute. The duration of time a worker bee spends wiggling back and forth indicates how far away the source is, the direction she orients her dance indicates the direction of the source in relation to the sun, and there is some evidence to suggest that she can also describe how ‘exciting’ her find is with the vigor of her dancing.

Different species of honeybees nest in different locations – some nest in the open, on a branch or cliff face (like Apis florea), and others nest in much more precise locations, like a cavity in a hollow tree (such as Apis mellifera). This leads to differences in how precise the dances of these species need to be when advertising for new nest sites; open nest sites require less precise dances than small cavity nest sites. By contrast, almost all advertisements for food sources do not need to be very precise – usually floral patches are very large (like cliff faces).

This paper studied the dance precision of A. florea and A. mellifera; they found that A. florea workers danced with the same imprecision whether they were advertising food sources or nesting sites. In contrast, A. mellifera increased its dance precision when advertising a new home for the swarm, as compared to food sources. I won’t get into a long evolutionary explanation here since we’re running low on word count, but the authors suggest that their results present evidence in favor of the waggle dance evolving firstly for communicating about nesting sites – and then was later adapted for foraging as well.

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NaRMo is here!

NaRMo is here! For those of you that missed my last post, NaRMo is National (Book) Reviewing Month – a month-long celebration of reviewing hosted by SUNY Geneseo every February where anyone can submit reviews of their favorite reads to the NaRMO website here. I managed to get a few minutes of time from Dr. Lytton Smith, the founder of NaRMo, for an interview about the project – check it out, below!

Photo thanks to the Geneseo English Department Blog; link through photo

Me: Hi Dr. Smith – thanks for agreeing to do an interview with me about this great project. Let’s get started with our questions – How did NaRMo get started – what was the impetus?

Dr. Smith: Friends and relatives are always asking how to find great new books. And beyond the bestseller charts, that can be hard; review space has been trimmed to cut costs in newspapers, and even online ventures struggle. There’s attention and space for generating work, but we can only generate work if we first read it, and the literary world is well aware that we need more readers of what we’re producing, not least because there are amazing viewpoints, ideas, and stories that will enrich us when they’re heard. I felt that it’s time we signaled as a culture our commitment to shared reading – to reading and talking about books – not just by the wonderful book groups that run all around the country, but by devoting a month to the endeavor – with the hoped-for aim that it will leads to year-long habits of reviewing!
Me: How do you see Geneseo and NaRMo (as a project) benefiting each other? Does the academic ‘host’ for the project provide it with something unique?

Dr. Smith: I think Geneseo students provide something unique. I had the idea over a decade ago and I’ve mentioned it to a few people along the way without much uptake. At Geneseo I found myself surrounded by students whose ethical commitment to the world includes the kind of generosity that book reviewing requires: taking your time, generally without any form of compensation except maybe books, to tell others about someone else’s book. The reviewer largely fades away. Geneseo students recognize the value of doing something that enriches the community first, and the self as a result, so this is an ideal place for it. Plus, I found that Geneseo students were already reading contemporary writing – that my students were introducing me to books I’d not found. I wanted to help create a space for them to share that.
Me: What is the importance of the project? Of book reviews?
Dr. Smith: Whatever one’s political persuasion, we live in a time of great doubt, of people willing to discount someone else’s truth. That move gets a lot, lot harder when you read a book that shares their experience. Research shows that fast broadband internet access makes us more polarized in our political views, that it encourages a cognitive dissonance. I think literature is a crucial way to dispel that, but you can only have that happen if you have the swarm of book reviewers helping people find those books. The social realism of Dickens is still relevant today, but we also need to hear the social realism of a book like Alena Hairston’s poetry collection The Logan Topographies, about African-American coal miners in West Virginia. There are some books that get all the attention, some authors who get hundreds of reviews for anything they write, and often those voices are white and male. If National Book Review Month can draw attention to the fact that there’s a lot more going on, I do think it can elevate political discourse and help us all understand one another a little more.
Me: What kinds of books/reviews does NaRMo accept/prefer?

Dr. Smith: Anything contemporary. It’s important that we reflect what people are reading and want to read. We want books that you, as readers, are passionate about. The poet and critic Craig Dworkin once made the point, a point that’s stuck with me a long time, that in a world where so many books are published, where we can’t possibly read everything, we need to become better at sharing what we are reading, even in brief reviews, so that everyone can have a sense of what’s going on, even if they can’t read everything.
Me: What does the future look like for NaRMo?

Dr. Smith: Right now, Geneseo is the main hub of activity, and New York state more broadly. I hope within the next three years we’ll see more parts of the country come on board, so that it begins to feel truly national, so that we can start making comparisons across place, having conversations that extend beyond Geneseo itself. We’re starting a student club, Geneseo Reads, to foster that year-round, extra-curricular reading and discussion, and I hope that model might extend beyond Geneseo: to other public liberal arts colleges, to other New York schools, to reading groups, to high schools, to places of work. What are auto workers in Detroit reading and what do they want to tell us about it? What about the people of Green Bank, WV, “the town without wifi”? This project exists at Geneseo less because we’re a university and more because we’re committed to the public good, to citizenship in all its dimensions, including literary citizenship. I think the future of NaRMo needs to assert that by creating more links with a public outside of the university – again, something I think Geneseo does very well, and why this feels like a great home for it.

A huge thanks to Dr. Smith for his time, and for starting this great project. Even if you’ve never written a book review before, NaRMo offers easy guidelines for writing quick, helpful book reviews and the official month of reviewing starts today! Get out there and share the writing you love!
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