Last Week’s Links

I’ve come across lots of interesting stuff lately.

When a Stranger Decides to Destroy Your Life

I’m including this article on all my blogs this week because it’s important that everyone with any online presence, no matter how small, read it.


From Book Riot’s Liberty Hardy:

To prove that there are a zillion amazing essay collections out there, I compiled 50 great contemporary essay collections, just from the last 18 months alone. Ranging in topics from food, nature, politics, sex, celebrity, and more, there is something here for everyone!

How to Get Your Intuition Back (When It’s Hijacked by Life)

I have written before about how I learned to trust my intuition, so this article naturally drew my attention. Judi Ketteler writes:

Suddenly at midlife, the gut instinct I had long relied on to make important life decisions left me. Here’s how I learned to get it back.

Through a combination of research and personal experience, she concludes that intuition depends on context, and she needs to let it catch up with her changed circumstances as she enters a new phase of her life. I find this an encouraging conclusion.

The Bugs in Our Mindware

Because I love baseball, I was drawn to this article that uses the metaphor of three umpires to explain that “Many obstacles lie on the path to rational thought”:

Three baseball umpires are talking about how they play the game. The first says, “I call ’em as they are.” The second, “I call ’em as I see ’em.” And the third says, “They ain’t nothin’ till I call ’em.”

The first “umpire is what philosophers and social psychologists call a ‘naive realist,’” who “believes that the senses provide us with a direct, unmediated understanding of the world.”

But, like the second umpire, “We tend to think, ‘I’m seeing the world as it is, and your different view is due to poor eyesight, muddled thinking, or self-interested motives!’”

Or, like the third umpire, some think “All ‘reality’ is merely an arbitrary construal of the world.”

According to Richard E. Nisbett, author of the article (which is an excerpt from his book MINDWARE: Tools for Smart Thinking), “Among the three umpires, the second is closest to the truth.”

Read Nisbett’s analysis to discover the “unconscious processes [that] allow us to correctly interpret the physical world,” especially how stereotypes can lead us to draw false conclusions about particular people. He also includes suggestions for making fewer errors in judgment.

How a Young Woman Lost Her Identity

Hannah Upp disappears for weeks at a time, forgetting her sense of self. Can she still be found?

A frightening yet fascinating story about a young woman who has periodically experienced what scientists call a dissociative fugue state, a condition about which little is known.

“It’s terrifying to think that we are all vulnerable to a lapse in selfhood.”

This Is Your Brain On Music

An interview with Dr. Assal Habibi, a research scientist at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, who studies how studying music affects brain development.

The idea behind the study was to see whether systematic music training has a measurable impact on the brains of children and the subsequent development of their cognitive skills and social skills.

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Writing

The First Time I Got Paid for Doing It

In a terrific essay Linda Summersea describes the night she, a high school junior, received a check for her winning entry in Lions Clubs International’s annual World Peace Essay Contest.

All aspiring essay writers should read this not just for its encouragement but also for its demonstration of how details produce powerful writing.

How Mindfulness Can Transform Your Writing Life

The more I practice mindfulness in my personal life, the easier it is to translate this skill to my writing.

In this short piece Vanessa Carnevale describes how taking a deep breath and writing down an intention (to be deleted later) helps her produce her best writing.

7 Simple Hacks to Get Writing When You Just Can’t

Kellie McGann offers some advice on how to write on those days when you think you can’t. There’s nothing ground-breaking here, but I find it tremendously helpful to be frequently reminded of these approaches to getting words onto the page or computer screen.

Writing as Responsibility

Sara Jones acknowledges that as a writer she has a responsibility to create something for the larger good, “but also – and possibly most of all – for myself. I must own my responsibility in making sure that happens.”

Finding Myself in a Book

Kelly Haworth describes how writing the YA novel Y Negative helped her discover her own genderfluid identity:

Writing Y Negative changed my life. It taught me that these feelings and ideas I had experienced since I was in high school were not me “pretending I was crazy.” They were real and other people felt and experienced them too. Writing this book let me express the emotions of trying to figure everything out – the pain, the awkwardness and the strength – and I emerged on the other side knowing that this pendulum inside me, this duality of male and female was exactly who I was. I identify as genderfluid now… .

Psychology Round-Up

Use Life Hacks to Minimize Bad Decisions

Financial planner Carl Richards discusses our cognitive biases:

A cognitive bias is a mistake we make because of a hole in our thinking. It’s a sort of mental blind spot; a lot of the time we don’t even know we’re doing it.

As an example of a cognitive bias, he uses his mother, who tends to forget things. One day she came to Richards’s house for a meal on her way home from buying groceries. She put her groceries in the refrigerator, then put her car keys into the refrigerator on the shelf next to her groceries. She explained that she couldn’t leave without her keys and having to get her keys from the refrigerator would remind her to take her groceries with her as well. She used a simple life hack to help overcome her cognitive bias of forgetfulness.

If we aren’t aware of our own cognitive biases, Richards suggests asking our spouse or partner: “Trust me — they know our biases.”

Once we’ve identified our cognitive biases, we can, like Richards’s mother, begin to take precautions to help us overcome those biases. That way we can avoid making the same mistake over and over again.

How different are your online and offline personalities?

“As the internet gained prominence in our lives, we gave up anonymity and also the desire to mask our real identity online,” writes Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. With ever larger portions of our time spent online, particularly in social networking, how much of our real self are we projecting online?

Before the internet, Chamorro-Premuzic writes, our identity, styles, and values were revealed mainly by our material possessions, “which psychologists described as our extended self.” However, today many of our valuable possessions have dematerialized into digital presentations such as communications, photos, videos, music, messages, and written words that are “largely invisible and immaterial until we choose to call them forth.”

Yet in psychological terms there is no difference between the meaning of these dematerialised digital artefacts and our physical possessions – they both help us express important aspects of our identity to others and these identity claims provide the core ingredients of our digital reputation. A great deal of scientific research has highlighted the portability of our analogue selves to the digital world. The common theme of these studies is that, although the internet may have provided an escapism from everyday life, it is mostly mimicking it.

Chamorro-Premuzic points out that research has revealed that, “although our digital identity may be fragmented, it seems clear that our various online personas are all digital breadcrumbs of the same persona; different symptoms of our same core self.” He concludes that developing algorithms for making sense of our online data might, in addition to producing targeted marketing tools, “also educate individuals about their own personality and perhaps even help them become smarter and happier consumers.”

Do you find this a comforting thought?

Male vs. female brain? Not a valid distinction, study says

How are men and women different? It’s an age-old question that modern science is still trying to answer. In this article Malcolm Ritter reports on recent research that suggests the brains of men and of women are not essentially different.

The research, published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined MRI scans of more than 1,400 brains. Examinations focused on the anatomy of the brain rather than on how the brain works:

They scored variable traits like tissue thickness or volume in different parts of the brain. They focused on traits that showed the biggest sex differences, dividing the scores into a predominantly male zone, a predominantly female zone, and an intermediate range.

The result? “It was much more common for an individual to score in both the male and female zones than to show a lineup that indicated only one sex or the other.” In other words, human brains do not belong to one of two distinct categories, male or female.

However, Larry Cahill, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, who didn’t participate in the new study, points out that this research doesn’t rule out differences in how the brains of the two sexes work. There’s “a mountain of evidence proving the importance of sex influences at all levels of mammalian brain function,” he said.

On Memoir

All of these articles are from a collection called Self Portrait. There are more articles in the collection than the four I have chosen to focus on here. All of the articles deal with how or why to write about oneself, and what happens when someone does.

25 Famous Women on Writing Their Own Stories

Whether writing a memoir, personal essay, confessional blog post, or private journal, examining your own life is far from easy — even for the professionals. For this week’s Self-Portrait series, we’ve rounded up 25 women’s thoughts on the joys and struggles encountered by female writers in telling their stories. Read on for their wisdom on everything from the tricky nature of memory, to sexism in the literary world, to the question of other people’s privacy.

Read more of what these women have to say:

1. Maya Angelou

Trying to work with that form, the autobiographical mode, to change it, to make it bigger, richer, finer, and more inclusive in the twentieth century has been a great challenge for me.

2. Cheryl Strayed

I didn’t write anything that didn’t happen the way I remember it happening, and yet I’m fairly certain there are things that others would remember slightly differently.

3. Lena Dunham

I feel as though there’s some sense that society trivializes female experiences.

4. Zadie Smith

I wouldn’t write about people who are living and who are close to me, because I think it’s a very violent thing to do to another person. And anytime I have done it, even in the disguise of fiction, the results have been horrific.

5. Nora Ephron

In the way I grew up, we knew that you might write about almost anything if you could just find a way to tell the story.

6. Roxane Gay

Contrary to what my writing might suggest, I am a private person, and knowing that certain information about me is freely available to anyone who might stumble across it makes me uncomfortable.

7. Joan Didion

We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.

8. Elizabeth Wurtzel

The reason it’s very easy for me to write about myself is that I know I’m just like everybody else. I know when I describe what’s happening with me that it’s going to ring true to other people.

9. bell hooks

One of the things that I found, as I tried to cross boundaries, was that I had to give people something that allowed them to identify with what I was saying, and not just offer some abstract idea that might not have any relevance to their lives.

10. Elizabeth Gilbert

It just so happened that every single one of my questions and desires and fears intersected with like ten million other women who have all of those same questions and fears and desires.

11. Maxine Hong Kingston

What is universal? There could be some peculiarity that you have in your self, but if you can make it an art, make it part of a story, then when another person reads it, it becomes part of his or her life. And so one’s odd self and ideas become part of the human universal story.

12. Meghan Daum

Honesty is not the same as confession … Confessing means asking the reader for something — for forgiveness, for punishment, for some kind of response that makes you feel less alone. Honesty means offering something to the reader — a piece of yourself or a set of suggestions.

13. Alison Bechdel

For most of the time I was working on this book I found myself in varying degrees of self-loathing.

14. Jesmyn Ward

The memoir is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. It was so hard for me that I plan to never write another memoir again.

15. Mindy Kaling

You can choose not to write about your embarrassments and things that make you feel vulnerable, but it’s not like people can’t see them anyway.

16. Diane Keaton

I did discover things about myself in the process of having made the choice to write a memoir.

17. Sandra Cisneros

The only reason we write — well, the only reason why I write; maybe I shouldn’t generalize — is so that I can find out something about myself.

18. Janet Mock

I wrote Redefining Realness because not enough of our stories are being told, and I believe we need stories that reflect us so we don’t feel so isolated in our apparent ‘difference.’

19. Sloane Crosley

There is a difference between asking for permission and giving someone an ample warning. I’ve always given a warning.

20. Audre Lorde

With any oppressed people — and this is true of women, although it started with the Black poets — the ability to speak out of your experience and see it as valid, to deal with your definition of self and recognize that we must identify ourselves (because if we don’t, someone else will to our detriment) is a human problem.

21. Leslie Jamison

I’m interested in essays that follow the infinitude of a private life toward the infinitude of public experience.

22. Janet Malcolm

Autobiography is an exercise in self-forgiveness. … The older narrator looks back at his younger self with tenderness and pity, empathizing with its sorrows and allowing for its sins.

23. Marjane Satrapi

Here’s the problem: today, the description of the world is always reduced to yes or no, black or white. Superficial stories. Superhero stories. One side is the good one. The other one is evil.

24. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Of course, not all fiction is honest, but fiction, by its very nature, creates the possibility of a certain kind of radical honesty that memoir does not.

25. Stevie Nicks

I won’t write a book until everybody is so old that they no longer care.

How to Write Someone Else’s Memoir

Maureen O’Connor writes about the ghostwriters responsible for a lot of the celebrity memoirs that we read:

Intimacy is the currency of memoir, and to preserve that feeling of direct access, the ghost’s job is, quite literally, to disappear.

While some ghostwriters have enough credentials to land them co-author status, most must accept a contract that pays well but requires them to keep their authorship a secret.

Isn’t a memoir written by someone else actually a biography? No, one prolific ghostwriter told O’Connor:

“Biographies are about looking at that person from the outside,” whereas “memoir is really trying to give the reader this person’s experience.”

How many celebrity memoirs are ghostwritten? A senior editor at a major publishing house told O’Connor, “I’d reckon 95 percent of memoirs by public figures involve a ghostwriter to some degree.”

O’Connor also discovered that “The problem with writing an article about ghostwriters is that nobody will go on the record.”

I Made Sense of My Childhood by Reading the Memoirs of Maya Angelou and June Jordan

Naomi Jackson pays tribute to the women whose memoirs taught her that she, “the child of working-class West Indian parents,” could become a writer.

About Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which she read at age 12 or 13, Jackson writes “Her book showed me that it was possible to survive the scrapes of a rough childhood and to come out on the other side as a whole person.” In college Jackson came across June Jordan’s Soldier:

Reading Jordan’s memoir prodded me to consider writing about my own life; it convinced me of the value of my story, which I wasn’t sure anyone cared about until then, and illustrated the benefit of writers’ bravery in breaking the taboo, especially strong in Caribbean communities, of telling family secrets.

The lesson that Jackson learned from reading these two memoirs was that “books could help heal readers.” Those books taught Jackson that writing the truth would make her stronger and would also help strengthen readers of the books she wrote.

What I Left Out of My Memoir

Mac McClelland’s memoir, Irritable Hearts, is “about grappling with post-traumatic-stress and major-depressive disorders.” She wrote the book because “reading it from someone else during the grappling would have helped me feel less ashamed.”

Yet there was one detail in the original manuscript that a friend warned her about:

“You and I both know that some people won’t bother reading beyond that. It’s easy for a reviewer to pull that detail out of the book and throw it into a review, out of context.”

McClelland never tells us what that detail was, but she does explain why she chose to leave it out because its inclusion would have detracted from the larger story about the nature of trauma that she had to tell.

The point of a memoir is not just to narrate events that occurred, but rather to shape those events so as to find their meaning. Sometimes figuring out what to omit can be just as hard as—or even harder than—knowing what to include.