Uncommon Wisdom from a Forgotten Genius: Olga Jacoby’s Extraordinary Letters on Love, Life, Death, Moral Courage, and Spiritual Purpose Without Religion

“Love, like strength and courage, is a strange thing; the more we give the more we find we have to give.”

Uncommon Wisdom from a Forgotten Genius: Olga Jacoby’s Extraordinary Letters on Love, Life, Death, Moral Courage, and Spiritual Purpose Without Religion

Half a century before Frida Kahlo made her impassioned case for atheism as a supreme form of freedom and moral courage, before Robinson Jeffers insisted that the greatest spiritual calling lies in contributing to the world’s store of moral beauty, before Simone de Beauvoir looked back on her life to observe that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly [while] the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself,” a German-Jewish Englishwoman by the name of Olga Jacoby (August 15, 1874–May 5, 1913) — the young mother of four adopted children — took up the subject of living and dying without religion, with moral courage, with kindness, with radiant receptivity to beauty, in stunning letters to her pious physician, who had just given her a terminal diagnosis. These are more than letters — they are symphonies of thought, miniature manifestos for reason and humanism, poetic odes to the glory of living and the dignity of dying in full assent to reality.

First published anonymously by her husband in 1919 and hurled out of print by wartime want, the letters were discovered a century after their composition by the scholar Trevor Moore, who was so taken with them that he set about identifying their author. Drawing on the family dynamics unfolding in the letters and poring over the British census, he eventually uncovered Jacoby’s identity, tracked down her descendants, and teamed up with her great-granddaughter, Jocelyn Catty, to publish these forgotten treasures of thought and feeling as Words in Pain: Letters on Life and Death (public library).

Art by the English artist Margaret C. Cook from a rare edition of Whitman’s poems, published in the final year of Jacoby’s life. (Available as a print)

In 1909, at age thirty-five, Jacoby was diagnosed with a terminal illness she never names in her letters. Perhaps she was never told — it was customary at the time, and would be for generations to come, for doctors to treat female patients as children and to withhold the reality of their own bodies from them. But she refers to it in her characteristic good-natured humor as a disease of having loved so hard as to have strained her heart.

With their extraordinary intellectual elegance and generosity of spirit, her letters constellate into a masterwork of reason argued with a literary artist’s splendor of expression. Early into the correspondence with her doctor, Jacoby lays out her existential credo:

We always fear the unknown. I am not a coward and do not fear death, which to me means nothing more than sleep, but I cannot become resigned to leave this beautiful world with all the treasures it holds for me and for everyone who knows how to understand and appreciate them… To leave a good example to those I love [is] my only understanding of immortality.

A year into her diagnosis, she magnifies the sentiment with feeling:

Whatever we cannot know let us simply and truthfully agree not to know, but no one must be expected to take for granted what reason refuses to admit. More and more to me this simplest of thoughts seems right: Live, live keenly, live fully; make ample use of every power that has been given us to use, to use for the good end. Blind yourself to nothing; look straight at sadness, loss, evil; but at the same time look with such intense delight at all that is good and noble that quite naturally the heart’s longing will be to help the glory to triumph, and that to have been a strong fighter in that cause will appear the only end worth achieving. The length of life does not depend on us, but as long as we can look back to no waste of time we can face the end with a clear conscience, with cheerful if somewhat tired eyes and ready for the deserved rest with no hope or anxiety for what may come. To me all the effort of man seems vain, and his ideal thrown ruthlessly to the ground by himself, when, after a life of free and joyful effort, he stoops to pick up a reward he does not deserve for having simply done his duty.

Emanating from her letters is evidence of how Jacoby lived her values — her reverence for beauty, her devotion to generosity — in the minutest details of her life. One day, perturbed by the fact that her doctor didn’t have his own volume of Shelley’s poems, she spent two hours hunting the West End of London for the perfect copy that “can be put in your pocket when you go on a lonely ramble amongst the mountains.” Triumphant, with the perfect edition in tow, she told her doctor: “I don’t think any man or woman who has once been happy can read some of his small pieces without feeling all aglow with the beauty of them.” A dying woman, fully alive by the braided life-strands of beauty, generosity, and poetry.

Without the forceful self-righteousness with which fundamentalists impose their views on others, she came to see the fear of death as “only a misunderstanding of Nature.” She writes:

Not to be afraid when you are all alone is the only true way of being not afraid. Where does your courage come in, when you cannot find it in your own self but always have to grasp God morally?

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a the 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

When her doctor insists that she must turn to “God” for salvation, Jacoby responds with an exquisite manifesto for what can best be described as the secular spirituality of humanism and the reverence of nature:

My Dear Doctor,

Like you I believe in a higher power, but, unlike yours, mine is not a kind fatherly one. It is Nature, who with all its forces, beauties and necessary evils, rules our destinies according to its own irrevocable laws. I can love that power for the beauty it has brought into the world, and admire it for the strength that makes us understand how futile and useless it would be to appeal to it in prayer. But towards a kind and fatherly God, who, being almighty, prefers to leave us in misery, when by his mere wish he could obtain the same end without so much suffering, I feel a great revolt and bitterness. Nature makes us know that it cannot take into individual consideration the atoms we are, and for her I have no blame; no more than I could think of blaming you for having during your walks stepped on and killed many a worm (it was a pity the worm happened to be under your foot); but if during these walks your eyes were resting on the beauties of skies and trees, or your mind was solving some difficult problem, was that not a nobler occupation than had you walked eyes downwards, intent only on not killing. I think that Nature is striving towards perfection and that each human being has the duty to help towards it by making his life a fit example for others and by awaking ideals which will be more nearly approached by coming generations. In this way life itself offers enough explanation for living; and believing our existence to finish with death, we naturally make the most of our opportunities… Unable to appeal to a God for help, we find ourselves dependent only on our own strong will — not to overcome misfortune, but to try to bear it as bravely as possible. Religion having for an end the more perfect and moral condition of humanity, I truly think that these ideas are as religious as any dogmatic ones.

With a parent- or teacher-like magnanimity, Jacoby extends extraordinary patience to her doctor. To his self-righteous and patronizing remark that he pities her children on account of her atheism, she responds with a humble, generous reflection on how she hopes her nonreligious morality and spirituality would sculpt her children’s character:

I always feel that we, who are better off, are responsible for having let the poor get so low, and that it is duty, not charity, to help. Charles [her young son], the farmer that is to be, has promised always to keep a cow, to call it by my name, and let the milk of that cow go to the poor around his farm. Should he choose another profession, he will find that the idea of the cow can be worked differently. I hope he will follow my lead in living happy and dying content.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… — a child’s vision for a kinder and more equitable world

Jacoby takes particular issue with the idea of original sin, with which young minds are so ruthlessly branded and scarred under Christian dogma:

Why start an infant’s life with ideas of fear and sin? Let love be their only religion — a love they can understand and handle. With so many people hungering for love, why give so great a part up to Deity? Acknowledge, Doctor, if you had not had your good share of human love, a mother’s, a wife’s, and your children’s, you would not so well understand the other. A child, I think, is taught untruthfulness when you make him say that he loves God.


Have you ever come across a baby whose eyes were not all innocence and inquiry? And from the first you crush that innocence with those terrible biblical words. Mind you, they are words only. A sincere man will never agree to them when it comes to his own children, and a generous heart must repel them as strongly when they apply to others.

One of William Blake’s rare illustrations for Paradise Lost

She turns to another damaging aspect of religious dogma — its stunting of children’s natural curiosity about how the world works by keeping certain scientific truths from them or deliberately displacing those truths with mythic fictions:

As to children’s inquiries, they are often wrongly answered, and the higher the subject, the more you think yourself justified in lying to them. From these same children you expect in return truly felt love, good acts, truthfulness and a desire to learn… You absolutely cripple a child by not allowing him to think clearly on all subjects — and no dogmatic religion will stand thinking.

Illustration from Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

Jacoby proceeds to offer a lucid and luminous vision for what our moral and spiritual life could look like without religious delusion:

My idea is not a life without religion; it is a nobler religion I want. Of course, very good men have lived and are living, to whom your religion has been a help, but science is progressing daily, and in harmony with it our moral standard should be higher — high enough to do right simply because it is right. A religion that has helped mankind to get somewhat better should be resigned to let a still better one take its place. Like a growing child, humanity must outgrow its infancy, must stand alone one day and be able to stand straight without support.

In a sentiment our modern spiritual elder Parker Palmer would echo a century later in his lovely insistence that “wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life,” she adds:

To me a good man with his failings seems a better ideal than a perfect God. We feel nearer to him and nearer to the possibility of attaining his standard. This kind of ideal actually helps people to improve, and is therefore of more value to the world.

I do believe strongly in universal good, but not in individual good. As I ask for no help from God, I ask for no explanation from him of my sufferings. I just try to suffer the least possible, and still get a fair part of my aim in life — happiness. You see, I am not ashamed to say that to be happy seems to me a reason for living — as long as you don’t make others unhappy.

When her doctor condemns and insults her credo as a weakness, she responds with a passionate defense of what the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell termed our native “hunger of the mind,” which is the supreme strength of our species:

It is knowledge we want, the better and better understanding of magnificent Nature with its powerful laws that forces our soul to love, admire and submit. That is religion! My religion! How can you call it a weak and godless one?


Science is turning on the light, but at every step forward dogmatic religion attempts to turn it out, and as it cannot succeed it puts blinkers on its followers, and tries to make them believe that to remove them would be sin. This is the only way in which I can understand their continual warning against knowledge.

Illustration from Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

Four years after her terminal diagnosis, as two world wars staked on religious ideology lay in wait for her children, after four savaging surgeries and a heart attack had left her in constant acute pain, the 38-year-old Olga Jacoby died by self-induced euthanasia, intent to “go to sleep with a good conscience,” a pioneer of what we today call the right-to-die movement — another fundamental human right stymied only by the legal residue of religiosity. Inscribed into her letters is the beautiful source-code of a moral and spiritual alternative to religion — a courageous case for the right to live by truth, beauty, and altruism rather than by dogma and delusion, the heart of which beats in a passage from a letter she penned in the dead of winter two years into her diagnosis:

Charles may have to suffer from too tender a heart, but the world will be the richer for it, and because of that for his life.


Love, like strength and courage, is a strange thing; the more we give the more we find we have to give. Once given out love is set rolling for ever to amass more, resembling an avalanche by the irresistible force with which it sweeps aside all obstacles, but utterly unlike in its effect, for it brings happiness wherever it passes and lands destruction nowhere.

Complement the thoroughly inspiriting Words in Pain with Jacoby’s contemporary Alice James — William and Henry James’s brilliant younger sister — on how to live fully while dying, then revisit Tolstoy and Gandhi’s forgotten correspondence from the same era about love as humanity’s only real spiritual foundation.

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Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is charming, but it is also racist

Winifred Watson’s daffy characters are inclined to cheerful antisemitism, at a time when Nazism was taking over Europe. Can we still enjoy it?

In last week’s article on Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, I started with a silly but sweet bit of innuendo. It seemed a good way to introduce a book that is, for most of its 233 pages, a light, frothy delight and widely loved as a feelgood read, so much so that it was chosen as our “fun” book for September.

I understand readers’ affection; for the most part, I share it. But there’s no getting around the feel-bad aspects of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, specifically – as a few of you have pointed out – some distinctly racist passages.

“Well tell her not to be a damned fool and that I’m the man for her and not that black-haired, oily, knife-throwing dago. Don’t think I’m blind.”

“He’s not a dago,” said Miss LaFosse furiously.

She stared at him. He was dapper, neat, brisk, with brilliant, liquid brown eyes and dark hair. He had a jutting nose, a full-lipped mouth and a look about him that said he was not a man to play tricks with, yet a hint he could be pleasant enough if folks were pleasant with him.

“And yes,” thought Miss Pettigrew; “somewhere in his ancestry there has been a Jew.”

“I wouldn’t advise marrying him,” she tells her friend Miss LaFosse. “I don’t like to jump to conclusions but I think there was a little Jew in him. He wasn’t quite English. And, well, I do think when it comes to marriage it’s safer to stick to your own nationality.”

Related: Enid Blyton had racist views. But I still read her | Sian Cain

Related: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: has naughtiness ever been so nice?

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Chaos, Time, and the Origin of Everything: Stephen Fry on How Ancient Greek Mythology and Modern Science Meet to Illuminate the Cradle of Being

Inside the “grand cosmic yawn” that gave us everything we’ve ever known (including the word “cosmos” itself).

Chaos, Time, and the Origin of Everything: Stephen Fry on How Ancient Greek Mythology and Modern Science Meet to Illuminate the Cradle of Being

“Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges wrote in his sublime meditation on the most elemental and paradoxical dimension of existence. But what was there before there was time, before there was substance? Before, in the lovely words of the poet Marie Howe, “the singularity we once were” — “when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was liquid and stars were space and space was not at all”?

Since the dawn of human consciousness, this question has gnawed at the insouciance of our species and animated the most restless recesses of our imagination. It is the foundation of our most ancient origin myths and the springboard for our most ambitious science. It is also — curiously, thrillingly — where these two seemingly irreconcilable strains of our hunger for truth and meaning entwine.

So argues Stephen Fry in the opening of Mythos (public library) — his gloriously imaginative, erudite, warmhearted, and subversively funny retelling of the classic Greek myths.

“Chaos” by George Frederic Watts, circa 1875. (Tate Museum)

Millennia before James Gleick wrested chaos theory from the obscure annals of meteorology to make it a locus of magnetic allure for modern science and a fixture of the popular imagination, the ancient Greeks placed chaos at the center of their cosmogony. (So enduring and far-reaching is their civilizational sway that we owe even the word cosmogony to them, from kosmos, Greek for “world” or “order,” and their suffix -gonia, “-begetting.”) Fry writes:

Was Chaos a god — a divine being — or simply a state of nothingness? Or was Chaos, just as we would use the word today, a kind of terrible mess, like a teenager’s bedroom only worse?

Think of Chaos perhaps as a kind of grand cosmic yawn.

As in a yawning chasm or a yawning void.

Whether Chaos brought life and substance out of nothing or whether Chaos yawned life up or dreamed it up, or conjured it up in some other way, I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Nor were you. And yet in a way we were, because all the bits that make us were there. It is enough to say that the Greeks thought it was Chaos who, with a massive heave, or a great shrug, or hiccup, vomit, or cough, began the long chain of creation that has ended with pelicans and penicillin and toadstools and toads, sea lions, seals, lions, human beings, and daffodils and murder and art and love and confusion and death and madness and biscuits.

Whatever the truth, science today agrees that everything is destined to return to Chaos. It calls this inevitable fate entropy: part of the great cycle from Chaos to order and back again to Chaos. Your trousers began as chaotic atoms that somehow coalesced into matter that ordered itself over eons into a living substance that slowly evolved into a cotton plant that was woven into the handsome stuff that sheathes your lovely legs. In time you will abandon your trousers — not now, I hope — and they will rot down in a landfill or be burned. In either case their matter will at length be set free to become part of the atmosphere of the planet. And when the sun explodes and takes every particle of this world with it, including the ingredients of your trousers, all the constituent atoms will return to cold Chaos. And what is true for your trousers is of course true for you.

So the Chaos that began everything is also the Chaos that will end everything.

There is, of course, the favorite question, that eternal fulcrum of human restlessness: What was there before the beginning? Before the Big Bang, before Chaos, before the everythingness of being? In consonance with Stephen Hawking’s wryly phrased and elegantly argued observation that “the universe is the ultimate free lunch,” Fry reminds us that before there was everything, there was, simply, nothing — not even the Borgesian substance we are made of:

We have to accept that there was no “before,” because there was no Time yet. No one had pressed the start button on Time. No one had shouted Now! And since Time had yet to be created, time words like “before,” “during,” “when,” “then,” “after lunch,” and “last Wednesday” had no possible meaning. It screws with the head, but there it is.

The Greek word for “everything that is the case,” what we could call “the universe,” is COSMOS. And at the moment — although “moment” is a time word and makes no sense just now (neither does the phrase “just now”) — at the moment, Cosmos is Chaos and only Chaos because Chaos is the only thing that is the case. A stretching, a tuning up of the orchestra…

In the remainder of the thoroughly enchanting and elucidating Mythos, Fry goes on to trace the origins of so many of our present givens — the names of planets and diseases, the words “fraud” and “doom,” our precepts of beauty, our taxonomies of love — to a complex, imaginative, and imperfect civilization that lived long ago, which imprinted cultures and civilizations to come with its layered legacy. Complement it with Jill Lepore on how the shift from mythology to science shaped the early dream of democracy, then revisit Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s wordless existential cosmogony inspired by Pinocchio and this gorgeous 1974 Hungarian animated short film exploring the tragic heroism of hopefulness in the Greek myth of Sisyphus.

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?

Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Let’s start with a Canadian writer. No, not that one. Brooke Sherbrooke actually recommends Michael Crummey’s The Innocents:

I realise that over the next few months, the most widely read Canadian writer will be our treasure, Margaret Atwood. However, I am reading another writer from Canada – one who writes almost exclusively about the Newfoundland & Labrador coast, with stories of almost mythical intensity. Michael Crummey’s latest is The Innocents. The prose in the first two chapters is lyrical. It has become a bit grittier since then but I am always willing to ride whatever waves roll in, when Mr Crummey is the writer. I loved Sweetland and am thrilled to be reading these maritime lilts again.

It’s a polyphonic oral history of people’s personal experiences of the Soviet Union, its collapse and the aftermath, based on interviews that Alexievich had conducted over 20 years. I’d been wanting to read something by Alexievich for a while, and now I want to read everything that she’s done. This book was fascinating, moving and often deeply shocking – even though you know at an intellectual level how brutal some of the history is, the individual, personal experiences create a much greater emotional impact. I came out of it feeling that I understood a lot more about what life in the Soviet Union – and in the countries that succeeded it – was actually like. Extremely highly recommended.

Written with the verve and pace of a Cold War thriller, the terrifying tale of a closed world gone wrong. A misguided test that literally went nuclear, the Soviet rush to denial and cover-up, and the reckless attention to future prevention.

The incredible clean-up operation is morbidly detailed, and the huge risks to hundred of thousands of mobilised personnel. The deaths, illness and environmental devastation that followed the disaster are haunting and unforgettable.

It feels very current in one sense where the geopolitical causes of war are concerned and, to an extent, ‘fake news,’ but horribly dated when it comes to its depiction of race and women’s place in society.

It’s also a bit of an outlier of the genre, or what it’s become, in that it’s oddly optimistic.

First published in 1954, it is a charming novel about a wealthy Mississippi family; the story of Uncle Daniel Ponder, told by his niece, Edna Earle, who runs the Beulah Hotel in the small town of Clay. Uncle Daniel may have the ‘sweetest disposition’ in the world, a Southern gentleman of the old school, but he is ‘simpleminded’ and childish in his actions, so much so that Grandpa Ponder has him put away in an asylum, but Uncle Daniel soon manages to get out. He then ups and marries Miss Teacake Magee, but it doesn’t last long and Grandpa Ponder carries Daniel off to the asylum again, but he is soon out, and marries again. This time it is a seventeen year old girl named Bonnie Dee Peacock from the country…. When Bonnie Dee dies in mysterious circumstances there follows one of the most informal and entertaining trials in fiction, bringing this delightful tale to its fitting climax.

I think this is a much better novel than The Underground Railroad (which I thought was good, not great). Whitehead is in total command of the story in The Nickel Boys, keeping things taut and tight (am I mixing metaphors or creating redundancy here?). A more intimate canvas allows for richer characterisation. Across about 200 easily-read pages it delivers some real heft and punch.

A spare and stark short novel reviewing the life of a haunted figure – that Roth alter ego that features so prominently in his work. It has some of his most remarkable writing, getting right to the heart of the human plight. The Everyman of the title references not only the famous morality play but also the jewellery store belonging to the central character’s father which is called Everyman’s. We review this lonely commercial artist in his declining years, travel back to his childhood, and see the loss of wives and friends to illness or betrayal or both. It’s a summation of his life – looking at what it meant to him and those closest to him – another Ivan Ilyich with something of Tolstoy’s unflinching gaze. Whatever our sympathies, however his flaws strike us, he and his brother and his colleagues who he contacts as final illnesses strike are most defiantly present and ready for us to experience. You could say we share the humanity of these characters and the book offers as unconditional a solidarity as the character of Knowledge in the original play. “I will go with thee, and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side”.

Jonathan Franzen spoke. Lots of people told him to shut up. Classic internetz.

Enjoy raging about Imani Perry’s opinions on Jane Austen.

An interview with Hans Fallada’s son to mark 10 years since the English translation of Everyman Dies Alone (aka Alone In Berlin).

Margaret Drabble’s 1977 “Brexit novel”.

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Critique: 10 Ways to Write Excellent Dialogue

write excellent dialogueFor many people, dialogue is the heartbeat of fiction. As arguably the only true form of “showing” in written fiction, it offers an inexhaustible source of energy for dramatizing characters, catalyzing conflict, and enhancing every available opportunity for entertainment. That’s why it’s so important to take full of advantage of dialogue, and that’s why we’re going to be taking a look at ten ways to write excellent dialogue.

The essence of dialogue is familiar to any of us old enough to have exchanged words with another human being. It is communication. It is expression. Sometimes it’s comfort. Sometimes it’s anarchy. Often, it comes easily. Usually, it’s interesting. Sometimes, though, it’s boring.

You know how it goes—both in real life and on the page. Boring conversations are those in which one or more participants isn’t hearing anything that interests them. That’s simple enough on its surface, but the most important takeaway for novelists is that the reasons dialogue might fail to be interesting are sometimes counter-intuitive.

Sometimes the problem is the content (i.e., the characters really aren’t saying anything interesting). Other times, it’s the delivery (i.e., the characters are saying important things, but the words feel stiff or forced). Still other times, the problem is that the dialogue is too on-the-nose (i.e., it spells out too much for readers instead of creating subtext) or perhaps it’s that the scene itself lacks forward drive within the overall story.

When all these problems are recognized and corrected, what you end up with is dialogue that captures readers’ full attention and drags them through the story, one fast page flip after another.

Learning From Each Other: WIP Excerpt Analysis

Today’s post is the fifth in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you have shared with me. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.

Today’s post is inspired by Lenna V.’s excerpt from her historical novel. She wanted to know if she succeeded in her first attempt at writing dialogue:

This is the only full scene I’ve completed so far, and honestly, I can’t recall ever writing dialogue before… I would love any feedback you’d be so kind as to give!

Before we get into the excerpt, let me just say that for a first attempt, this is excellent! Lenna has also got a good handle on staying in POV and creating an engaging narrator voice for her child character (something even more evident in the earlier portions of the excerpt, which I won’t be sharing since they’re not pertinent to today’s topic of writing entertaining dialogue).

So let’s take a look! (The bolded entries and superscript numbers will correspond with the tips I’ll talk about in subsequent sections.)

Bouncing onto a vacant armchair that was a lot firmer than he’d expected, Jory sat back to scan the room. There were people scattered around doing a variety of quiet activities, and it made for good people-watching. He loved people-watching….

A little lady with snowy white hair tied in a knot behind her head caught his eye. She sat at the piano, facing away from him, but unlike a lot of the people here, her back and shoulders weren’t hunched. She sat up straight as she played a pretty melody he sort of recognized with no sheet music in front of her….

He recognized her. She lived in the apartment next to his great-grandma. She was one of the ones that smiled and waved if she caught him looking in the open door. Not so bad. He could try talking to her. Slowly, he pulled himself up and shuffled over to her. She looked even older up close, but she had kind eyes.


“Hello there!”

After an uncomfortable minute of her just smiling at him,2 he caved.3

“It was a pretty song you were playing. It sounded familiar.”

“Really? It’s called ‘Blue Skies.’ Do you know the words?”4

“I don’t think so.”

She turned back to the keys and began a simpler version of the song, singing quietly along this time. As she sang through the chorus, he started to recall two guys with funny hats and canes. It finally clicked.

“Oh, it’s in that Christmas movie my mom makes me watch every year.”

White Christmas? Yes, it is! I am so impressed that you remembered it.5 You were tapping out some fun rhythms.”

“Didn’t really notice I was doing it ’til you stopped.”6

“That’s the best kind of music, when it comes straight out of your soul.”7

He gave her an odd look8 and glanced around for his mom. She was still talking to the girl at the desk.

“My name is Mrs. Murphy.”

“Nice to meet you. My name’s Jory Wolanski.”9

“You live next door to my prababcia.”


“Sorry, my great-grandma.”

“Ah, you’re Mrs. Wolanski’s great-grandson?”

“Yep. I’ve seen you sometimes when we walk by to visit her.”

“I’ve seen you too, now that I think about it. Your… What was it? Pra…?”


“Thank you. Your prababcia seems like a very nice woman. We haven’t had much opportunity to talk yet.”

“She is. She moved here ’cause she fell and broke her arm, so now my dziadek—sorry, my grandpa—thinks she needs to have extra people around to make sure she’s okay. She said she agreed ’cause she likes being around people she doesn’t have to cook for all the time.”

Her eyes lit up, and her mouth twitched into a small smirk as she stifled a chuckle. “Well, that’s a good reason.”

“No, it’s not. She’s the best cook!10 I miss her Sunday dinners.”

10 Ways to Write Dialogue Readers Love

Beyond the basics of properly punctuating dialogue and creating a sensible back-and-forth flow between speakers (which Lenna aces), the next level of great dialogue becomes something of a magic act. Just as in real-life conversations, good dialogue is as much about what isn’t said—or what is said with eyes and body language alone—as it is the words we use.

Great dialogue is more than just a functional exchange of information. It’s a dance of unexpected motives, fears, desires, uncertainties, and revelations. This is true for “big” scenes, but just as true for small exchanges. In fact, the nuances of great dialogue are often more important in “small” scenes because there’s less going on and readers need a little somethin’ extra to keep them fully entertained.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at ten fast ways to boost your dialogue from good to great.

1. Clarify Your Speakers

Within the back-and-forth of a conversation (especially if it’s between just two characters), you can often get by with very few identifying speaker tags or action beats. Readers understand that if one character said the first thing, then the other character is the one saying the second thing, and so on—to a point.

For this to work, readers must have no doubt about which character speaks first. In this instance, the introductory line “Hi” could feasibly belong to either character. Adding a simple “Jory said” to this first line would be more than enough to clear up any initial confusion.

Usually, it’s best to punctuate dialogue with an action beat or speaker tag at least every three lines or so, both to orient readers and to avoid “talking-head syndrome,” in which the author fails to keep characters grounded in the setting.

2. Place Each Speaker/Actor Within a New Paragraph

One of the most important rules of formatting dialogue is putting each new speaker in a new paragraph of their own (something Lenna demonstrates throughout the majority of her excerpt). An important variation of this rule also gives each new actor a line of their own, even if they have nothing to say. This addition isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, since pacing and other considerations will play in. But usually you’ll get the cleanest flow of intent by simply giving  silent actors their own lines, prior to the next bit of dialogue.

Sometimes, as in the case of our excerpt (“After an uncomfortable minute of her just smiling at him, he caved”), you may need to rework the former part of the sentence a bit to put more emphasis on the actor (e.g., “She smiled at him for a minute. / He caved.”).

3. Place Action Beats on the Same Line as Their Dialogue (Unless the Preceding Action Is Lengthy or Indirectly Related)

In a rule related to the previous one, make sure action beats appear on the same line as the related dialogue, as in “He caved. ‘It was a pretty song you were playing. It sounded familiar.’”

The exception to this is when the action goes on for more than one sentence or isn’t directly related to the dialogue. If Jory’s action beat had been a two-sentence description of him looking around the room, trying to avoid the old lady’s eyes, then it probably would be better placed on a line of it’s own with the following dialogue separated.

4. Build Subtext by Creating Dialogue and Action That Don’t Fully Support Each Other

And now we get to the good stuff. On-the-nose dialogue is dialogue that says nothing more or less than what it seems to be saying. If the old lady is saying nice things, well, then, she’s nice, which is… nice. But it doesn’t give the author much room to initiate curiosity or understanding within readers. It’s a wall instead of a cracked door.

When Mrs. Murphy explains the song to Jory by saying, ““Really? It’s called ‘Blue Skies.’ Do you know the words?”, I think there’s a subtle missed opportunity to really get to know this character. As it stands, her thoughts seem to go no deeper than her dialogue. But is this truly all an old woman in her situation would be thinking?

What interesting subtext could be suggested here with a more surprising line of dialogue or a contrasting action beat (e.g., she looks sad or isn’t initially quite so interested in talking to Jory)? Unexplained emotions, especially when at odds with dialogue, offer a wealth of interesting opportunities, not just for developing your characters more but for unfolding them in an artful way that tugs at reader curiosity.

5. Use Each Speaker’s Motivation to Create an Undercurrent of Forward Motion and (Probably) Conflict

Some dialogue statements will have only one meaning—the obvious one. But optimally, these statements are evened out by many others that have double and even triple meanings. When Mrs. Murphy tells Jory she’s impressed he knows the song, that’s a statement with a single obvious meaning. But the fact that it also comes across as a bit patronizing piques the possibility of a bit more.

Maybe she means what she says and is only being unconsciously patronizing in the way all adults occasionally are with children. But maybe amidst her niceness, she really is a little patronizing—and Jory hears it and resents it. Suddenly, the tenor of the conversation shifts ever so slightly. Suddenly, there’s a little bit of conflict, a little bit of push and pull in the undercurrent of the characters’ personality and motivations.

This is why it’s important for authors to identify their intentions for a scene’s forward motion and thematic content. If a scene is just what it is (i.e., an introductory conversation between two people who will become friends), then you’re missing out on opportunities to deepen the scene’s complexity and, via that, your readers’ investment.

6. Substitute Evocative Action Beats for Dialogue Where Possible

Although I see dialogue as one of written fiction’s purest opportunities for “showing” (since dialogue translates directly and requires no added description), it’s also still true that actions speak louder than words. When it’s possible to replace a line of dialogue with an evocative action beat, it’s usually best to do so. Not only does this create variety in the dialogue, it can also add powerful visual subtext.

For example, Jory’s on-the-nose spoken response “Didn’t really notice I was doing it ’til you stopped” could be conveyed with a simple action beat such as “He shrugged.”

7. Look for the Latest Possible Entry Into Dialogue Sentences

One of the most common bits of advice you’ll hear about leveling up your dialogue has to do with mimicking real-life speech patterns (without being slavish to them). In real life, most people don’t speak in full sentences all the time. Depending on the character’s voice, it’s often a useful idea to begin a sentence at the latest possible moment. (As a general example, the question “Did you have a good day?” could be shortened to “Good day?”)

In our excerpt, both Jory and Mrs. Murphy have similar voices, largely because they both speak in full sentences. An example of tightening up the dialogue might include changing Mrs. Murphy’s “That’s the best kind of music, when it comes straight out of your soul” to “That’s the best kind of music—straight out of your soul.”

8. Watch for Out-of-POV Action Beats From the Narrating Character

Like any part of fiction, action beats need to properly reflect POV. In this scene, told from Jory’s close POV, the action beat “he gave her an odd look” feels jarringly out of POV. How can Jory know his look his odd? Would he really think of it this way? It would be better to rephrase the adjective to something more narrator-centric, such as “he gave her a questioning look.” Or, for my money, you could replace it altogether with the more evocative “he squirmed.”

9. Cut Any “Throat Clearing” or Filler Dialogue

Good dialogue is tight dialogue. This means cutting lines that advance neither plot nor character. Filler, such as that often referred to as “throat clearing,” usually qualifies as useless since it advances neither. Character introductions and other bits of small talk are common culprits (unless the banalities are contrasted with an ironic context to create subtext).

For example, our excerpt uses a straightforward exchange of names. Although functional, the exchange feels clunky. Were this my piece, I would consider deleting these two lines outright and introducing the names through another medium or working them into the dialogue more casually or obliquely. You’ll notice  the conversation runs on smoothly with the introductions deleted—a sign the intros aren’t adding anything beyond their basic info.

10. Eliminate Sneaky Repetition

Another way to tighten up dialogue is to look for accidental repetition. A great example is found at the end of the excerpt when Jory says, “No, it’s not. She’s the best cook! I miss her Sunday dinners.” The last two sentences here are conveying the same emotional information. Either one could be deleted to tighten the dialogue, but of the two, I would choose “she’s the best cook”; it’s more on the nose and creates less subtext than does “I miss her Sunday dinners.”


Dialogue offers so many ways for writers to play creatively with their stories in a powerfully expressive way. Learning to use it to its utmost is what will set your stories a step ahead of the pack.

My thanks to Lenna for sharing her excerpt, and my best wishes for her story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!

You can find previous excerpt analyses linked below:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the most important part of writing great dialogue? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

The post Critique: 10 Ways to Write Excellent Dialogue appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.

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A Pioneering Case for the Value of Citizen Science from the Polymathic Astronomer John Herschel

“There is scarcely any well-informed person, who, if he has but the will, has not also the power to add something essential to the general stock of knowledge.”

A Pioneering Case for the Value of Citizen Science from the Polymathic Astronomer John Herschel

“It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote as she led the first-ever professional female eclipse expedition in 1878. The sentiment presages the importance of what we today call “citizen science,” radical and countercultural in an era when science was enshrined in the pompous pantheon of the academy, whose gates were shut and padlocked to “the man of the people,” to women, and to all but privileged white men.

Two decades earlier, Mitchell had traveled to Europe as America’s first true scientific celebrity to meet, among other dignitaries of the Old World, one such man — but one of far-reaching vision and kindness, who used his privilege to broaden the spectrum of possibility for the less privileged: the polymathic astronomer John Herschel (March 7, 1792–May 11, 1871), co-founder of the venerable Royal Astronomical Society, son of Uranus discoverer William Herschel, and nephew of Caroline Herschel, the world’s first professional woman astronomer, who had introduced him to astronomy as a boy.

Several years before he coined the word photography, Herschel became the first prominent scientist to argue in a public forum that the lifeblood of science — data collection and the systematic observation of natural phenomena — should be the welcome task of ordinary people from all walks of life, united by a passionate curiosity about how the universe works.

John Herschel (artist unknown)

In 1831, the newly knighted Herschel published A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy as part of the fourteenth volume of the bestselling Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopædia (large chunks of which were composed by Frankenstein author Mary Shelley). Later cited in Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck’s altogether excellent book Histories of Scientific Observation (public library), it was a visionary work, outlining the methods of scientific investigation by clarifying the relationship between theory and observation. But perhaps its most visionary aspect was Herschel’s insistence that observation should be a network triumph belonging to all of humanity — a pioneering case for the value of citizen science. He writes:

To avail ourselves as far as possible of the advantages which a division of labour may afford for the collection of facts, by the industry and activity which the general diffusion of information, in the present age, brings into exercise, is an object of great importance. There is scarcely any well-informed person, who, if he has but the will, has not also the power to add something essential to the general stock of knowledge, if he will only observe regularly and methodically some particular class of facts which may most excite his attention, or which his situation may best enable him to study with effect.

Diversity of snowflake shapes from a 19th-century French science textbook. Available as a print.

Pointing to meteorology and geology as the sciences best poised to benefit from distributed data collection by citizen scientists, Herschel adds:

There is no branch of science whatever in which, at least, if useful and sensible queries were distinctly proposed, an immense mass of valuable information might not be collected from those who, in their various lines of life, at home or abroad, stationary or in travel, would gladly avail themselves of opportunities of being useful.

Herschel goes on to outline the process by which such citizen science would be conducted: “skeleton forms” of survey questions circulated far and wide, asking “distinct and pertinent questions, admitting of short and definite answers,” then transmitted to “a common centre” for processing — a sort of human internet feeding into a paper-stack server. (Lest we forget, Maria Mitchell herself was employed as a “computer” — the term we used to use for the humans who performed the work now performed by machines we have named after them.)

Couple with a wonderful 1957 treatise on the art of observation and why genius lies in the selection of what is worth observing, then revisit Maria Mitchell on how to find your calling.

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After Caroline Calloway: should ghostwriters speak out against their subjects?

Natalie Beach’s tell-all about the controversial influencer wasn’t the first case of a ghost exposing their subject, following Julian Assange and Donald Trump

Thirty years after ghostwriting Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal, Tony Schwartz described the experience as like putting lipstick on a pig. He felt a “deep sense of remorse” at helping bring the man who would become president gain wider attention. Andrew O’Hagan famously detailed the extraordinary details of ghosting Julian Assange’s memoir, including watching the WikiLeaks founder eat jam pudding with his hands, before the latter backed out of a £600,000 book deal. This week, the writer Natalie Beach joined the grand tradition of ghostwriters speaking out about their subjects, with a deeply intimate essay in the Cut laying out how she used to ghost everything for her former friend and controversial “influencer” Caroline Calloway: from Instagram captions to the aborted book that once attracted a $375,000 (£300,000) publishing deal, until their relationship broke down irretrievably.

Beach’s account says that after the pair put the book proposal together, the influencer felt unable to write it. Beach says she “bought us time with the publishers by writing a quarter of the manuscript by myself”.

Continue reading…

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Debut Groups, a Website Launch & Words of Wisdom About Critiques…and a MEGA Critique Giveaway

by Colleen Paeff

The year or two leading up to the publication of an author or illustrator’s debut book is a rollercoaster ride of exciting milestones (“I signed my contract!”), new experiences (“Hello, Copy Editor.”), and sheer terror (“You expect me to read my book aloud in front of how many children?”). And, like a rollercoaster, it’s best experienced with friends. That’s where debut groups come in.*

The Soaring ‘20s Picture Book Debuts is a collective of picture book authors, illustrators, and author/illustrators with debut picture books being released in 2020** and beyond. We’ve pooled our resources, talents, and sympathetic ears so none of us has to experience this ride solo—and that’s fitting because we certainly didn’t get this far on our own. We’re all in the happy position of awaiting the release of our books thanks to the authors, illustrators, teachers, editors, or agents who looked at our work and offered targeted feedback to help improve it.

And now we’d like to do the same for you!

To celebrate the launch our new website Soaring20spb.com, we’re giving away 20+6 free manuscript, dummy, or portfolio critiques in the MEGA SOARING ’20s CRITIQUE GIVEAWAY!

If you’ve been in the picture book game for a while, you probably already know the value of a thorough, thoughtful critique. But if you’re new to writing or illustrating for kids or you’re on the fence about whether or not to hand your baby over to a set of critical eyes, allow some of our members us give you a nudge:

“Critiques have been an essential step (many steps! multiple flights of stairs!) on my path to publication.”

Angela Burke Kunkel, author

“If you’ve put your all into your work-in-progress and are ready to see it with fresh eyes, a critique is a fun way to open new pathways in your brain and to rekindle your enthusiasm for your work.”

Shelley Johannes, author/illustrator
MORE THAN SUNNY (Abrams, Spring 2021)

“The more we embrace the journey of improving and collaboration, the more we learn and the better we become as authors, illustrators and artists.”

Sam Wedelich, author/illustrator

“I’ll always remember how Jo Whittemore, author of FRONT PAGE FACE-OFF, critiqued me years ago. She called problems in my manuscript ‘opportunities.’”

NoNieqa Ramos, author
BEAUTY WOKE (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, spring 2021)

“The more you have your work critiqued, the less personal it becomes. You learn to listen for the gems of advice, questions, concerns, and ideas that other readers/writers have for you. Then when you take those gems and apply them to your work, the proof is in how much your writing is improved and how much your skill grows as a storyteller. And while this process sometimes has you feeling vulnerable and exposed, ultimately when you send your writing out into the world, you will feel so proud of it!”

Anna Crowley Redding, author

Convinced? Go to our website to enter to win a free picture book manuscript, dummy, or portfolio critique in the MEGA SOARING ’20s CRITIQUE GIVEAWAY by midnight on September 15 and you could be one of 20+6 lucky winners!

*We’re not the only game in town! Check out KidLit411’s list of Debut Year Groups (scroll all the way down to the bottom).

**One of us got bumped up to 2019! Look for Author Saira Mir’s MUSLIM GIRLS RISE: INSPIRATIONAL CHAMPIONS OF OUR TIME (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster) on October 29.

Big thanks to Tara for letting us share the news about our giveaway on her blog!

(And Tara says thanks right back!)

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Kate Dopirak Craft & Community Award

The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) is offering a new award that honors the wonderful spirit and work of late children’s book author Kate Pohl Dopirak. The Kate Dopirak Craft and Community Award will offer one picture book writer:

  • Full tuition to the SCBWI International Conference in L.A. in 2020
  • A 20-minute phone consultation with Tracey Adams of Adams Literary (Kate’s agent)
  • A 20-minute phone consultation with Andrea Welch of Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster (one of Kate’s editors)

The #KDCCAward will alternate yearly between picture book and middle grade/YA. Submissions will be accepted for this inaugural award from September 1 to October 31. 

Please consider applying…and please help spread the word.

Thank you.  ️ ️ ️


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The First Surviving Photograph of the Moon: John Adams Whipple and How the Birth of Astrophotography Married Immortality and Impermanence

A dual serenade to being and non-being, composed in glass, metal, and stardust.

This essay is excerpted and adapted from Figuring.

In 1847, the Harvard College Observatory acquired a colossal telescope dubbed the Great Refractor. It would remain the most powerful in America for twenty years. Enraptured by the imaging potential of the mighty instrument, observatory director William Bond befriended the daguerreotypist John Adams Whipple (September 10, 1822–April 10, 1891). Whipple thought of photography as a figurative art rather than a technical craft, but he applied it to the advancement of science. The two men began a series of collaborations that lit the dawn of astrophotography.

John Adams Whipple and Harvard’s Great Refractor telescope.

Four years into it, Whipple would awe the world with his stunning photographs of celestial objects — particularly his photographs of the Moon. Louis Daguerre himself had taken the first lunar photograph on January 2, 1839 — five days before announcing his invention, which marked the birth of photography — but his studio and his entire archive were destroyed by a fire two months later. Whipple’s remains the earliest known surviving photograph of the Moon — an image that continues to stun with its simple visual poetics even as technology has far eclipsed the primitive equipment of its photographer.

The Moon by John Adams Whipple, February, 1852 (Harvard College Observatory)

Whipple’s collaboration with Bond was the beginning of what would become the world’s largest collection of astrophotography plates at the Harvard College Observatory. From this vast visual library, a team of women known as the Harvard Computers would wrest pioneering insight into the nature of the universe, patiently analyzing and annotating the glass plates that today number half a million.

Partial solar eclipse by John Adams Whipple (Harvard College Observatory glass plate collection)

A year before his Moon photograph, Whipple had used the Great Refractor to make the first daguerreotype of a star: Vega, the second-brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere, object of one of Galileo’s most ingenious experiments supporting his proof of heliocentricity. An emissary of spacetime, Vega’s light reached the telescope’s lens from twenty-five light-years away to deliver an image of the star as it had been a quarter century earlier.

When the pioneering astrophotographers of Whipple’s generation began pointing one end of the telescope at the cosmos and affixing the other to the camera, we could behold for the first time images of stars that lived billions of light-years away, billions of years ago, long dead by the time their light — the universe’s merchant of time and conquistador of space — reached the lens. Against the backdrop of the newly and barely comprehensible sense of deep time, the blink of any human lifetime suddenly stung with its brevity of being, islanded in the cosmic river of chaos and entropy, drifting, always drifting, toward nonbeing.

“Four Views of the Solar Eclipse, August 1869” by John Adams Whipple

We say that photographs “immortalize,” and yet they do the very opposite. Every photograph razes us on our ephemeral temporality by forcing us to contemplate a moment — an unrepeatable fragment of existence — that once was and never again will be. To look at a daguerreotype is to confront the fact of your own mortality in the countenance of a person long dead, a person who once inhabited a fleeting moment — alive with dreams and desperations — just as you now inhabit this one. Rather than bringing us closer to immortality, photography humbled us before our mortal finitude. Florence Nightingale resisted it. “I wish to be forgotten,” she wrote, and consented to being photographed only when Queen Victoria insisted.

I wonder about this as I stand amid the stacks of the Harvard College Observatory surrounded by half a million glass plates meticulously annotated by the hands of women long returned to stardust. I imagine the flesh of steady fingers, atoms spun into molecules throbbing with life, carefully slipping a glass plate from its paper sleeve to examine it. In a museum jar across the Atlantic, Galileo’s finger, which once pointed to the Moon with flesh just as alive, shrivels like all of our certitudes.

Pinned above the main desk area at the observatory is an archival photograph of Annie Jump Cannon — the deaf computer who catalogued more than 20,000 variable stars in a short period after joining the observatory — examining one of the photographic plates with a magnifying glass. I take out my smartphone — a disembodied computer of Venus, mundane proof of Einstein’s relativity, instant access to more knowledge than Newton ever knew — and take a photograph of a photograph of a photograph.

Annie Jump Cannon at work
Annie Jump Cannon at work

The half million glass plates surrounding me are about to be scraped of the computers’ handwriting — the last physical trace of the women’s corporeality — in order to reveal the clear images that, a century and a half later, provide invaluable astronomical information about the evolution of the universe. There are no overtones of sentimentality in entropy’s unceasing serenade to the cosmos.

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