Author Jenna Blum: “I didn’t become a writer to not say what I believe in”

A great writer hamming it up for the camera

Hamming it up for the camera, or searching for an angle that clarifies today’s America?

How does a socially conscious novelist speak her truth in the Age of Trump?

For my long-time friend Jenna Blum, author of the New York Times bestselling novel Those Who Save Us and one of Oprah’s Top 30 women writers, it means weaving her values into her stories, sharing her views on social media, and engaging in political activism.

On Saturday, Jenna was the featured speaker for a program hosted by the Boston chapter of the Women’s National Book Association, speaking on the “crucial role of women’s literary voices in literature in the current political climate, and the fusing of art, writing, and activism.” She gave a wonderful talk, mixing personal stories, an understanding of history, and a sense of humor laced with vocabulary befitting a native of New Jersey.

Jenna’s own life story infuses her political outlook and her alarm over the election of Donald Trump. The daughter of a Jewish father and news writer and a mother of German heritage, she grew up in a household surrounded by books and an awareness of 20th century history. To write Those Who Save Us, a story set in World War II Germany, for over a decade she immersed herself in the Nazi era, reading deeply and serving as an interviewer of concentration camp survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation.

This perspective fundamentally shapes her view of America’s current political situation. Referencing Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie, she said that Election Night 2016 was “like Carrie at the prom,” expecting “something awesome,” only to see it turn into a nightmare. Every morning, she wakes up knowing that “something bad has happened to my country.”

Her alarm over the Trump Administration has galvanized her into action, and she has now taken on the role of political activist. She also regularly uses her Facebook page to post action alerts and to share her views of the unfolding situation. (In the process, she sometimes fields criticisms from readers who are fans of her books — which I can attest she handles with both respect and honesty.)

Jenna’s success as a writer was not overnight. She turned Those Who Save Us into a bestseller through sweat equity, including exhaustive self-marketing, countless book club appearances, and talks across the country and internationally. It is to her credit that she is willing to risk some of that hard-earned privilege by urging us to resist what is going on in Washington D.C. today.

Such actions sometimes require facing fears personally. She talked about going to the January women’s march on Washington with names of lawyers written on her arm, in case she was detained and her cell phone was taken away. In fact, Jenna confessed that the Trump phenomenon has activated her “Anne Frank complex,” her label for “persistent fears that the Nazis are going to take me away.” Furthermore, she is aware that other authors are being counseled by publishers and friends to keep their political viewpoints to themselves, and she’s heard that advice as well.

But her remarks on Saturday made clear her belief that this is a time for people to step up and be counted. She is putting those beliefs into action. Besides, she said, “I didn’t become a writer to not say what I believe in.”

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How do you take and keep notes?

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Janet uses a hardcover sketchbook for her notes.

Okay, dear readers — especially academicians, students, lifelong learners, frequent conference goers, and other “information society” folks — here’s my question: How do you take and keep notes?

This Way Out (1972), a classic early guidebook to non-traditional higher education by John Coyne and Tom Hebert, includes some marvelous chapters on lifelong learning skills and practices, pre-digital style. It says this about taking notes:

Make a decision now for life, just how you are going to keep your lecture and reading notes. We wish we had done this earlier so that we could have saved them. We’re always in situations where we take notes. Watching a TV discussion, public lectures, conversations. We have finally settled on 4-by-6 inch scratch pads, and yellow legal pads for interviews and long lectures. There must be better systems. One friend takes notes (any size), quotes and interesting miscellaneous Xeroxes, stapes them to 5-by-8 inch cards which he labels and keeps in a card file.

Of course, their note taking system is a blast from the past. The mere idea of recording notes onto paper is foreign to a lot of folks, especially in this digital age of tablets and software programs like Evernote and OneNote.

That said, I remain drawn to taking notes the old fashioned way. It is an aesthetic as well as educational preference.

For some reason, this topic has been on my mind recently. In a recent post I wrote about a fellow singing class student who keeps written notes on each voice class session. At annual board meetings and workshops of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in New York City, I’ve taken delight in watching peace educator Janet Gerson‘s use of hardcover sketchbooks to take and preserve her notes, as well as to host her artistic forays and distractions.

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And at times she goes artistic.

Alas, unlike Janet, and ignoring the sound advice of Mssrs. Coyne & Hebert, I have not developed a uniform personal note taking system. When I have my act together, I am biased toward Moleskine notebooks. But I also use other brands of notebooks and sketchbooks, my weekly (paper) calendar, scraps of paper, and yes, my computer and tablet. (Sidebar: Even Moleskine has bowed to technology, now offering a “Smart Writing System” that integrates paper and digital writing using a “paper tablet.”)

Individual preferences aside, for purposes of learning and retention, taking notes by hand may very well be more effective than typing them into a laptop or tablet, as suggested by a study published in the research journal of the Association for Psychological Science:

Dust off those Bic ballpoints and college-ruled notebooks — research shows that taking notes by hand is better than taking notes on a laptop for remembering conceptual information over the long term. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

So, this is my gentle case for taking notes like some of us learned in grade school. Here’s to heading over to your local stationery or office supply store and picking up a notebook or sketchbook, along with a nice pen that makes writing a pleasure.

Conversations and the construction of knowledge

(image courtesy of ClipArtBest.com)

(image courtesy of ClipArtBest.com)

Okay, dear readers, I’m about to get a little academic geeky on you, but please stick with me on this: In InterViews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing (3rd ed. 2014), co-authors Steinar Kvale and Svend Brinkmann examine the notion of “conversation as a construction site of knowledge.” Invoking this phrase in the context of conducting formal research interviews, they posit that the interactive nature of good conversations can create new knowledge.

This brilliant turn of words was introduced to me by Dr. Maureen Duffy, a leading authority on workplace mobbing and most recently co-author, with Dr. Len Sperry, of the deservedly praised Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014). I’m probably guilty of oversimplifying, but in essence Drs. Kvale and Brinkmann are wrapping some theory around how conversations over ideas, information, insights, and experiences can build and expand our understanding of the human condition.

I have found this to be profoundly true when it comes to learning about the nature of work, workers, and workplaces.

The “new math” of conversation

I’m no math whiz, but I do understand that one plus one equals two. However, a good conversation may yield a different, more powerful equation, whereby one plus one may equal three…or five…or ten, at least when it comes to potential new understandings. And when even more people get into a good mix of conversation, then all bets are off.

My recent phone conversations with Maureen have centered on a book project (see below), but because we’re both immersed in the world of workplace bullying and mobbing, we sometimes discuss our work generally. I can attest that sharing our respective expertise has led to knowledge constructing moments for both us, with insights emerging from the back and forth of attentive conversation.

This is among the reasons why I have written in praise of conferences and workshops that allow for genuine exchanges during formal sessions, break times, and enrichment events. As frequent conference goers know well, there’s a huge difference between gatherings that are interactive, friendly, and engaging, and those that are stuffy, hierarchical, and pretentious. With the former, you wish it could go on for a few more days. With the latter, you can’t wait for it to be over. If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on this stuff, here are several blog posts of possible interest:

Conferences as community builders (2015)

Workshopping human dignity (2014)

Inspiration in Amsterdam (2013)

Why conferences? (2013)

Stay tuned: A cool book project is in the making

I’ve been on the phone with Maureen a lot in recent months because she invited me to join her as co-editor of an exciting book project on workplace bullying and mobbing. The two-volume book set will feature a comprehensive, multidisciplinary collection of chapters by leading and emerging U.S. experts on bullying and mobbing at work, with a focus on American employment relations. We have a very supportive publisher and a great team of chapter contributors, and we’re looking at a 2017 publication date. I’ll be sharing more news about the project in the coming months.

The joys of publish or perish

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English and environmental studies professor Christopher Schaberg (Loyola-New Orleans) addresses the old academic chestnut of “publish or perish” in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education:

In graduate school, when I first heard the saying “publish or perish,” I remember it uttered as a dire warning: If you want to make it as a professor, you have to publish, publish, publish — and never stop, no matter what. It made publishing sound awful (at best, a miserable fate to be endured) and necessary.

Now, as an associate professor, it recently occurred to me that I don’t think that way anymore, and haven’t in a long while. I have come to think about “publish or perish” in an entirely new light. It doesn’t have to be a threat or a gloomy mandate to live or die under. It can actually be a spirited affirmation of a certain kind of academic life.

I’m delighted to read someone turning that famous phrase on its head! 

Many years ago, when I began what has turned out to be an academic career, I was more attracted to teaching than to scholarship. In fact, I regarded the writing of law review articles — a law professor’s typical scholarly currency — as more of an obligatory burden in order to earn tenure than a core point of my engagement.

However, within a few years of embarking upon a tenure-track appointment, I began to see how scholarship allowed me to write about compelling issues of law and public policy, sometimes even breaking new ground. Two of the subjects addressed in my earlier law review articles — workplace bullying and unpaid internships — have become focal points of my academic career. This work has led to further academic publications, legal and legislative advocacy, speaking engagements and public education programs, blogging and other less formal writings, and media interviews.

In other words, my early scholarship has opened the door to potentially difference-making opportunities. Now, with the gifts of hindsight, I have used the term “intellectual activist” to characterize my approach to scholarly work. So when I hear the words “publish or perish” today, I think of them differently. If I don’t publish, then I will surely perish as an academician. Scholarship joins with teaching as the two most important tasks of my work as a professor.

I have written two law review articles setting out my practice and philosophy of scholarly work, and those who want to dive further into those weeds are invited to check them out by clicking the titles:

“Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (forthcoming, Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice) — I recently posted a revised draft, and here’s a snippet from the article abstract:

How can law professors, lawyers, and law students use legal scholarship to inform and inspire law reform initiatives that advance the public interest? How can we bridge the gaps between academic analyses that sharpen our understanding of important legal and policy issues and practical proposals that bring these insights into the light of day and test their application? How can we bring an integrated blend of scholarship, social action, and evaluation into our professional practices?

I explore these and related questions by invoking a simple framework that I call intellectual activism, which serves as both a philosophy and a practice for engaging in scholarship relevant to real-world problems and challenges, putting its prescriptions into action, and learning from the process and results of implementation.

. . . This is a very personal piece, grounded in extensive scholarly, public education, and advocacy work that I have done in two areas: (1) researching and authoring proposed workplace anti-bullying legislation and building public awareness of the phenomenon of bullying at work; and (2) playing a visible role in an emerging legal and social movement to challenge the widespread, exploitative practice of unpaid internships.

. . . The article closes with an Appendix containing a short annotated bibliography of books related to intellectual activism, public intellectualism, and the uses of scholarship to advance social change.

“Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (University of Memphis Law Review, 2010) — Here’s the article abstract:

The culture of legal scholarship has become preoccupied with article placement, citations, and download numbers, thus obscuring a deeper appreciation for the contributions of scholarly work. This article proposes that therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a theoretical framework that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of the law and legal practice, provides us with tools for understanding and changing that culture.

More prescriptively, the article applies a TJ lens to: (1) identify a set of good practices for legal scholarship; (2) examine the TJ movement as an example of healthy scholarly practice; (3) consider the role of law professors as intellectual activists; and, (4) propose that law schools nurture a scholar-practitioner orientation in their students to help them become more engaged members of the legal profession.

 

Storytelling for social change

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The best stories, including those intended to drive positive social change, are natural and authentic, not contrived and formulaic. That said, stories need planning, shaping, and editing in order to connect with others. After all, raw, scrambled recitations of events, experiences, impressions, and facts are much less likely to hold someone’s attention in any medium.

That’s why I was pleased to stumble upon A Changemaker’s Eight-Step Guide to Storytelling: How to Engage Heads, Hearts and Hands to Drive Change (2013), published by Ashoka Changemakers. It’s freely accessible as a 14-page pdf booklet.

A Changemaker’s Guide is full of advice and resources on how to use storytelling as a change making tool. Here are the eight steps of social change storytelling detailed in the guide:

Step 1. Reflect and build your narrative arc.
Step 2. Identify your key audience (i.e. the general public, social innovators, thought leaders, funders)
Step 3. Select your core message.
Step 4. Choose your story type (i.e. challenge story, big idea, how-to, impact).
Step 5. Create your call to action.
Step 6. Select your story medium (i.e. written, video, audio, spoken).
Step 7. Create an authentic and concrete story.
Step 8. Optimize channels for sharing your story.

A lot of people discover this blog because of their own not-so-great work experiences. Some may be considering ways to tell their stories. This resource will provide ideas, guidance, and inspiration. 

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Related posts

A book list for intellectual activists and difference makers (2015)

What’s the plot line of your work life story? (2011)

 

Working Notes: Publications update

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Dear readers, this blog serves as a more informal medium for my commentary on workplace bullying, employee relations, workers’ rights, and the like. As I periodically mention here, most of my in-depth, scholarly writings on these topics are in the form of law review and journal articles.

Fortunately, most of these longer writings are freely accessible via my Social Science Research Network (SSRN) page, where you can read short abstracts of my scholarly articles and download full pdf texts of each. I’m happy to invite you to take a look at them, as I strive to write academic pieces that can be read and understood by those who are not necessarily trained in law. To date I have posted 19 articles to my SSRN page, including:

  • The first U.S. law review article to comprehensively assess the legal and policy implications of workplace bullying (“The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection,” Georgetown Law Journal, 2000);
  • A more recent piece on legal developments concerning workplace bullying that contains the full text of the current template version of the Healthy Workplace Bill and an explanation of its major provisions (“Emerging American Legal Responses to Workplace Bullying,” Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review, 2013);
  • A theoretical and public policy exploration of how U.S. employment law can better affirm and protect human dignity at work (“Human Dignity and American Employment Law,” University of Richmond Law Review, 2009);
  • One of the first law review articles to examine legal issues relevant to the intern economy, which, in turn, helped to inform eventual litigation challenges to the widespread practice of unpaid internships (“The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns,” Connecticut Law Review, 2002);
  • An article that posits how therapeutic jurisprudence both exemplifies good legal scholarship and inspires a healthier culture of scholarly activity (“Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship,” University of Memphis Law Review, 2010); and,
  • The closest thing I have to an academic and social activist autobiography, a piece exploring how we can use  legal scholarship to inform and inspire law reform initiatives that advance the public interest, drawing heavily on my involvement in the workplace anti-bullying movement and the intern rights movement, as well as interdisciplinary initiatives committed to advancing human dignity (“Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law,” Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice, forthcoming).

To access these articles, it may be necessary to complete a free registration, but there’s a big advantage to doing so. SSRN is one of the world’s largest repositories of research and scholarship, containing over a half million freely downloadable papers and articles, including many on legal and employee relations topics. It’s a searchable treasure trove of scholarly research and commentary.

On perseverance

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Novelist Marlon James has been awarded the prestigious Man Booker prize for his latest novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), a story about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. What caught my eye in the media coverage, however, was not his current success, but rather repeated mentions that his first novel was rejected almost 80 times before a publisher finally picked it up. Matthew Weaver and Mark Brown report for The Guardian:

He recalled that his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected 78 times by publishers, before it was eventually published in 2005. “I had to sit down and add it up one day and I had no idea it was that much,” he said.

Despite the success of his latest novel, which the Man booker judges described as “an extraordinary book” after a unanimous decision, James said he thought the publishing industry had not changed that much since his first book was repeatedly turned down.

“There was a time I actually thought I was writing the kind of stories people didn’t want to read,” he told Today. Asked if he had considered giving up writing, the 44-year-old writer said: “I did give it up. I actually destroyed the manuscript, I even went on my friends computers and erased it.” He said he retrieved the text by searching in the email outbox of an old iMac computer.

Marlon James’s story is one of both perseverance and a bit of good fortune, the latter being how he was able to rescue his discarded book manuscript after he had given up after all of those rejections. Many of us would have thrown in the towel a lot earlier.

Is it possible to think about this decision making process more systematically? In The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) (2007), Seth Godin identifies three common stay vs. go scenarios regarding projects, jobs, and affiliations:

  • The Dip “is the long slog between starting and mastery” of something achievable and worthwhile. After an optimistic start, you encounter resistances, but they are surmountable, and the ends justify your perseverance.
  • The Cul-de-Sac is “a situation where you work and you work and you work and nothing much changes.” You invest tons of time, energy, intellect, and emotion into trying to change a status quo that is determined not to budge.
  • The Cliff is a thankfully rare, but addictive situation that can end badly, the work equivalent of taking drugs. Examples are folks who get caught up in Ponzi schemes and subprime housing deals.

Dips, says Godin, are worth fighting through. Cul-de-Sacs and Cliffs, however, call for escape.

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But here’s a big challenge: It’s a lot easier to identify a Dip or a Cul-de-Sac after the fact. (Most Cliffs send out earlier warning signs.) But how do you tell the difference when you’re in the thick of things? There’s no easy answer to that!

If you’re encountering resistances toward something that really means a lot to you — a matter that goes to your core — maybe you simply keep trying. If your efforts are part of a broader cause, then you also may have to accept that the change you want to see will not occur in your lifetime.

Perhaps you hedge your bets, putting your project on the shelf for now, but staying ready for a more opportune moment. Then you seize an opening that either arrives or you created.

Or maybe you say enough is enough. This decision, for example, confronts talented athletes, performers, and creative people over and again. There’s nothing wrong about stepping away when you know the time has come.  

Which brings us back to Marlon James and his first novel. At some point, he gave up, having concluded that becoming a published novelist was not meant to be. From a distance, at least, we might’ve regarded him as being unrealistically obsessive after even 15 or 33 or 50 rejections, much less the 78th one that caused him to destroy his manuscript. In considering his story, we may hear echoes of references to fine lines between genius and madness.

But then a window of opportunity opened, and he found a way to retrieve his discarded novel. Talent once rejected and abandoned is now being recognized in big venues. Hmm…..this is vexing stuff. When do we keep at it, and when do we let it go? James’s tale yields no answers.

Sometimes followed by bright sunlight ((photo: DY)

Sometimes followed by bright sunlight (photo: DY)

Related post

“Should I stay or should I go?” Career insights from Seth Godin and The Clash (2011)

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