Archive for the ‘#bloghop’ Tag

Dark Night of the Soul   10 comments

What was your hardest scene to write?


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I don’t write comedy (except occasionally, satire), so my characters are often struggling with damage, flirting with an abyss while struggling with the escalating tension of their unmet desires, wants and needs.

The intermediary step where they still see some light can be a challenging construction – showing Shane fighting for his community, trying to keep moving, all the while carrying around a “dead body” of guilt that seeks to drag him into the darkness. Showing him as functional but damaged is a balancing act, but not the hardest scenes to write.

The ones I hesitate over writing are the dark nights of the soul when the character reaches a place where no light can enter and they don’t even have a glimmer of hope for the future. That’s a painful place for anyone to be and conveying that strains my skills. I’ve walked through my own dark nights and come out the other side into the misty sunlight of promised redemption and therein lies the struggle for writing such fictional scenes. I know there’s light beyond the darkness. If a dark night catches up to me these days, I know there is hope on the other side. I instinctively want my characters to know it too. And, yet, they can’t know it because they’re not clairvoyant and when you’re young, you don’t have a catalog of life experiences that inform you the darkness is merely temporary.

Shane can’t feel that there is hope because he’s descending into darkness and it’s all he can see and I have to dwell with him in that terrifying place for however long it takes for him to get through it. †

As a character-driven writer, I allow my characters to tell me their story – not just the events, but their emotions and motivations. Shane is a reluctant informant. He doesn’t like talking about his damage. He doesn’t like me invading his privacy. He would rather I just hint instead of writing when he loses another piece of his soul. Readers can guess at what happened. He doesn’t need to be devoured for my art.

Of course, that’s a cop-out. I probably have some PTSD from my own dark nights. I need to walk through them with Shane so that the readers can sympathize, even empathize, with his pain. And I need to write Shane as not anticipating light, even as I know there is light just beyond what he can see.

One reason I write from multiple points-of-view is that sometimes one character will refuse to share the gory details, but another character can observe their agony and that takes away some of the sting. It also gives the reader a little buffer from the turmoil of the damaged character. There are emotions readers (and authors) don’t want to experience. Of course, we want the reader to empathize with our characters because that creates a bond between the character and the reader – a feeling that the reader is part of the story.

So what is the hardest scene I’ve written? That’s a hard question to answer because they stop being hard after I write them and I choose not to hang onto past resentments. Apparently, that personal ethic influences me as a writer as well. Writing a tough scene is like jumping into an icy Alaska river – it takes your breath away and you’re pretty sure you going to die, and then you recover and swim to the shore and it quits being a death-defying feat. It becomes a pleasant (if painful) memory where I overcame the cruel Alaska wilderness – a source for funny stories. So I frankly don’t remember the struggle because I overcame and it’s time to move on. Still, I can guess at which scenes stressed me out while writing them.

Frankly, if I’m honest, the hardest scenes for me to write are plotted, but not written yet. Shane is entering his pivotal crisis of the series. (The series has an ensemble cast, so it may not be THE pivotal crisis of the series). The book that publishes this fall will have some hard scenes in it, but the next book — that’s going to be like giving birth. I’m also working on the yet-unpublished “What If … Wasn’t.” Peter is a young man being released from prison after serving a manslaughter sentence for killing someone he loved. He’s not as dark and morose as Shane can be, but he’s got some horrible memories to live with and, it is a challenge to show that he hasn’t been defeated by his past, but that he walks a fine line between self-hate that could lead to suicide and hope for a future few people want him to have. And for me, as always, is the recognition that while I, the “deity” of this fictional world, know there’s hope — the character and the reader don’t.

Season for Plotting   1 comment

Kelly Williams’ contribution to this week’s blog hop.

Posted July 8, 2019 by aurorawatcherak in #openbook

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Let’s talk about the weather, Blog Hopping   Leave a comment

Richard Dee’s entry into the Open Book Blog Hop for this week is exciting. He’s a sci fi writer who even has weather in outer space. How cool is that?

Posted July 8, 2019 by aurorawatcherak in #openbook

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Big Bad   4 comments

Despite the recent snow in the Rocky Mountains, it’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Do your stories and worlds reference seasons and do they play into the plots of your books?


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Seasons hold incredible symbolism that sinks deep roots into literature. In our day of central heat and air-conditioning, it’s hard to remember that seasons mattered in ancient times. Agrarian societies depended on the seasons to plow, grow and harvest food. Agriculture united peoples, tribes, and groups. It was a means of achieving wealth. Food is life! So, naturally, people imbued seasons with all kinds of symbolic meanings.

Image result for image of winter
Feel the Cold

Maybe it’s because of the oft-cited stereotype of starting a book with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Or maybe it’s because we’re surrounded by supermarkets that fly in food from around the world. Maybe we’re just not as connected with nature today as our ancestors were. Maybe I’m a bit more connected with the season because we have extreme seasons here. In January-February we can have -40’F and last Friday (June 28) we had 85’F. That’s a 125′ difference. It’s hard not to notice that. Whatever the reason for the modern disconnect from the seasons, I’m amazed at how many writers overlook the weather as a useful tool in both setting and telling their story.

Idioms referencing the season or specific weather litter the English language. They don’t need explaining; we all understand exactly what people mean when they use one.

Weather conveys different moods

Spring = hope, new birth
Summer = adulthood, happiness
Autumn = preparing for old age
Winter = death
Sunshine = happiness, goodness
Storm = trouble, a change
Calm before the storm = trouble or a change ahead
Rainbow = hope, forgiveness, a link between two extremes (sun and rain)
Cloudy = confused, muddled, unclear
Clouds on horizon = trouble ahead
No wind = no change
Windy = changes or life
Rough weather = problems
Fog = confusion, unaware
Rain = depressed, badness
Snow = coldness, cleansing

I often use weather and the seasons as a setting tool to convey what’s going on in the story or in a character’s head without using a sledgehammer to convey the message.

In Daermad Cycle (The Willow Branch, Mirklin Wood and the upcoming Fount of Wraiths), my characters live in a medieval setting so they depend on the seasons to live. They use the seasons as their calendar. The magic system in that world can affect weather. For example, in The Willow Branch, the black mages cast a massive bit of sorcery to try and find and kill the One’s True King. This manifested in the physical world as storms – pounding rain and twisters. In the aftermath, the skies weep for days and reflect the depression one of the characters goes through upon realizing what his power has been used for.

In Transformation Project (an apocalyptic series four books and counting), mankind has wrought a few disasters on itself, but the ultimate “Big Bad” for my town is the changing seasons. They have to harvest the corn before the season passes and then it will be winter … on the Kansas prairie … without diesel fuel or natural gas.

Don’t worry. I spend plenty of time writing about other seasons, but I’m just going to focus on winter here. I suppose I’m more connected to winter than any other season because we have nearly six months of it here.

Winter brings long nights, when the earth sleeps and the imagination ripens visions both terrifying and sublime. It has served as literary inspiration ever since the early days of written storytelling – in the medieval saga Beowulf, the monster Grendel lays siege to the Danes for “twelve winters, seasons of woe” –  right up to present-day page-turners. It is a time of contrasts: winter’s snow conceals while its cold exposes. Perhaps it is a favorite season of writers because winter forces us indoors, carving out time for us to interact with our loved ones and become more reflective.

Certain images recur again and again throughout wintry literature. The transformation of a river in winter from a fluid pathway to a solid one can be magical or devastating, a glassy arena for figure skating or an icy grave. This shift can convey a powerful mood.

In Orlando, Virginia Woolf immortalized the Great Frost of 1608, when the Thames froze to a depth of 20 feet and birds “froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground.” She uses winter to examine the political dimensions of society, emphasizing the difference between the fantasy world of the royal court and the desperate circumstances of ordinary folk. Woolf creates a virtual snow globe of the Frost Fair, King James’ “carnival of the utmost brilliancy” on the river.

Winter settings add elements of claustrophobia and danger to a story. The snowbound landscape of an off-season resort hotel in the Rocky Mountains creates a terrifying backdrop for Stephen King’s masterpiece of horror, The Shining. King has said his inspiration was a late autumn visit to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, in the Colorado Rockies, in 1974. In the novel, Jack Torrance is a writer hired to be the hotel’s winter caretaker. He settles in with his wife Wendy and their five-year-old son Danny. The child has “the shine”, the ability “to understand things, to know things” that others cannot. Danny worries that his father is losing his marbles. King uses the isolation that begins with the first snowfall to emphasize the precarious mental states of the family and how little help is available.

“Flakes of snow swirled and danced across the porch. The Overlook faced it as it had for nearly three-quarters of a century, its darkened windows now bearded with snow, indifferent to the fact it was now cut off from the world… Inside its shell the three of them went about their early evening routine, like microbes trapped in the intestine of a monster.”

As the novel progresses, King brilliantly uses winter weather to ratchet up the tension: “It snowed every day now, sometimes only brief flurries that powdered the glittering snow crust, sometimes for real, the low whistle of the wind cranking up to a womanish shriek that made the old hotel rock and groan alarmingly even in its deep cradle of snow.”

Beyond the season’s capacity to represent emotional and political turmoil and expose class differences, winter can simply be fatal. George RR Martin exploits winter’s symbolic power fully in A Game of Thrones, the first novel in his A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series. The book opens with a warning: “A cold wind was blowing out of the north….”

“Everyone talks of snow forty feet deep, and how the ice wind comes howling out of the north,” Martin writes, “but the real enemy is the cold… It steals up on you and at first your teeth chatter and you stamp your feet and you dream of mulled wine and nice hot fires. It burns, it does. Nothing burns like the cold. But only for awhile. Then it gets inside you and starts to fill you up, and after awhile you don’t have the strength to fight it. It’s easier to just sit down or go to sleep. They say you don’t feel any pain toward the end… ”

Equally powerful is Jack London’s 1908 realistic classic “To Build a Fire”. The story is set in the Yukon territory, a place of extremes. London’s dramatic pivot is simple: he pits man against nature when London’s protagonist breaks through a crust of ice:

“At the instant he broke through he felt the cold water strike his feet and ankles, and with half a dozen lunges he made the bank. He was quite cool and collected. The thing to do, and the only thing to do, was to build a fire. For another precept of the north runs: travel with wet socks down to twenty below zero; after that build a fire. And it was three times twenty below and colder, and he knew it.”

Survival in winter is a matter of skill and instinct. London’s hapless Tom Vincent is lacking in both. And the frozen land itself is indifferent to his struggles. If only we could be as indifferent to winter as it is to us.

When I write winter, the reader feels the cold because, as they say, write what you know and Alaskans know cold.

Beware the Pitfalls   9 comments

July 1, 2019

What are common traps for aspiring writers?


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There’s an old Alaskan saying “He has a mind like a steel trap … rusted shut.” Another saying is “His mind is so open, his brains feel out.”

Keep both of those in mind as I run down what I think are some of the traps aspiring novelists fall into.

I guess I’m no longer “aspiring”. I mean, I’ve published eight books and been in several anthologies and at some point that made me an “expert” looking back at my aspirational days and hoping I can be an inspiration to those who follow me. So, for what it’s worth, here’s what I think.

Trap #1 – Not actually writing the story

I get so frustrated at the local writer’s guild because there are wonderful writers there with some great fictional ideas and they talk about their writing A LOT, but they don’t seem to be finishing any of it or publishing. And, they say things like “Oh, you’re so brave and adventurous.” No, I just got tired of making excuses for not writing.

Social media is a wonderful way to promote writing and is essential in today’s book marketing world, but if you spend all of your time on social media talking about the book you want to write, you don’t actually write the book. You need to bang out some words on a keyboard pretty much everyday if you ever hope to make progress on your masterpiece, pot-boiler or whatever. I do take occasional down days because all work and no play makes Lela a crabby harridan, but I write even when I’m chasing my husband down a mountain bike trail. It’s always going on in my head. And then I spend a few hours over the next few days writing it down so that I’m making progress toward my goal of publishing one book every year.

Meanwhile, I pop into social media, post a conversation teaser and try to spend only a few minutes a day maintaining that web presence, while noting so many aspiring authors planning their promotional campaign before they’ve even finished chapter one of their book. I also see a lot of aspiring writers talking about writing, posting on social media about writing, but rarely sitting their butt in the chair and writing their story. It doesn’t matter if it’s magazine articles, screenplays, novels, or non-fiction, I see so many people talking about writing more than they write.

It takes discipline to turn off social media and write. It also takes discipline to stop “researching” on the Internet and start writing. Yes, you need to do research to not have huge mistakes in your writing, but I’ve had colleagues who’ve spent six months trolling the web for a bunch of nonsense notes they will never use. Meanwhile, I write the first draft filled with parenthetical statements like “research”. I come back to these on rewrite and do my research then, when I’m under deadline to finish and I have a definable goal.

Slow down and focus on the work. You can’t sell a book until it is written. You’re going to spend the rest of your life promoting your books, so you want to make sure your first one is the best book you could have written. I took a lot of writing classes back in the days before you could self-publish. I have done my time in writing groups. I run my books by multiple beta readers and I hire an editor. I do some pre-promotion of upcoming books and I’m running ads on Amazon for my catalog, but 90% of my attention is on creating an original, well-written, compelling book.

Trap #2 – Thinking Your Story is Great

Yes, the bones of your story may be wonderful, but is it interesting and well-written? Will a reader actually care about your characters? Will they remember a single line from your book? Or will they yawn and forget they ever read it? Have you asked someone else who isn’t your mom, best friend or the man you’re sleeping with, what they think?

Especially if you write series like I do, you want readers not only to have enjoyed reading a book, but to want to revisit the setting and characters at a later time because something in the way you use language or the characters you’ve developed makes them want to come back for a second-helping.

The first draft needs to be written. That’s it. If you spend too much time polishing the first three chapters, you’ll never get to “the end.” It’s not easy to stop yourself from going back and making changes. I make notes along the way and keep moving forward. When I get to “the end” I go back and polish to my heart’s content. I call it the “pioneer draft” (reutilizing an Alaska Department of Transportation term for a glorified trail euphemistically called a “pioneer road”) Some authors call it the “vomit draft”. Get the words on the page, so there’s something to fix. Good writing always involves rewriting.

Trap #3 – Not waiting for life experience

I know, I just told you to get starting writing, but some stories can’t truly be written until you’ve lived a little. Synchronicity plays a major role in the creation and publishing process. Sometimes the inspiration to write a book comes to us long before we are ready to write that story. It’s  not a matter of talent or skill. Even the best steaks can be improved with marination. There are defining experiences, conversations, chance encounters,  and epiphanies that we need in order to best tell our story.

Don’t expect to publish the best book you can if you haven’t earned a litlte scar tissue as a human. Don’t publish that book before its time. That said, you don’t want to wait too long. You have to rely on instinct to know the difference. I first wrote the draft for “What If … Wasn’t” 20 years ago and it’s still not ready, but I know it’s getting near. It was a great story based on someone’s true life experiences, but I needed time for my own life experiences and thought-processes to do it justice. The result, I think, will be a far more nuanced and mature commentary on self-destruction, redemption and the prison-industrial complex than I ever could have completed prior to this point. In the grand scheme of things, trust the timing of your life and quality of your craft.

Trap #4 – Craft Matters

There are all kinds of reasons writers fail and sometimes even best-selling authors fall into traps.

I recently beta read a story that had a great plot and one character with 15 names. Really! The writer’s personality shown through at every level, in every scene. Often the only way I could tell that the characters weren’t all the same person was through carefully following the dialogue tags. Voice needs to vary from POV character to POV character, but also within dialogue. In Transformation Project, I’ve got a 96-year-old man from rural Kansas. The way he talks should be different from the way the 28-year-old Egyptian-American virologist speaks. And if you can’t tell the difference when they are talking to one another, I haven’t done my job as a writer.

Originality matters. Writing is not only about what’s written but also about the impact it brings. Fancy words mean nothing if authenticity is lacking. The comedian Christopher Titus says his career was going nowhere until he started being honest about his life in his sketches. You wouldn’t think a schizophrenic-bipolar mom who killed her last husband, a womanizing, child-beating alcoholic dad, and the damaged offspring they produced would be comedic fodder, but I’ve wet my pants laughing while watching Titus prove that contention wrong. As authors, we don’t to lay our lives raw that a comedian does, but the reader senses authenticity when we’re writing with passion and having our characters claim our own truths.

There’s a temptation that many authors run up against. I call it the Stephen King Syndrome. I can’t stand Stephen King’s horror novels. Yeah, I don’t really like to read horror, but it’s also that he writes to a formula so that I can pretty much guess what’s going to happen within a few pages. I get it. He had a publishing deadline and formulaic writing goes down faster than discovery writing. And King proves that to me in his non-horror writing, which I quite enjoy.

Yeah, I’m a writer, so maybe I’m just more aware of the “best-seller plot line”, but I’m willing to bet that any aspiring author reading my blog doesn’t have a following like King’s and so can’t afford to give their readers the blue-plate special of novels. Yeah, yeah, yeah – I know — all the writing gurus say to structure your plot this. It’s good to know the rules and it’s better to break them, bend them, twist them into a pretzel and keep your readers guessing — unless you’re writing a mystery and even then, you don’t want the reader to guess whodunit before the end of the first chapter.

Trap #5 – Not managing expectations

You are an aspiring author and you’ve written a great book. Now the hard work starts. You aren’t James Patterson or Nora Roberts. Even if you sell your book to a publishing house, you’ll be doing all of your own marketing and publicity and spending your own money to do it. Welcome to modern-day publishing. It’s easier than ever to get published, but publishers don’t help you unless you’re already famous.

Stop crying, put on your big girl panties and get back to work. You will spend more time working to get your name and books out to readers than it took to write the book. I’m not all that friendly. I live in Alaska for a reason. I like writing stories, but I’m not all that fond of finding the next way to get my books in front of readers. Learning Photoshop for making images, learning to write ad copy, finding placed to put the ad copy and images, tweaking online advertisements, posting on social media — these all take an extraordinary amount of time that takes away from being able to write the next story. If you want to be an “inspiring author” instead of just an aspiring one, these are a part of your life now. Nobody will read your book if they don’t know it’s there.

Learn to meter your time and focus on what is important – writing the next book — but be aware that you do actually need to pay attention to all the window-dressing. And, who knows – maybe you’ll never make more than a few dollars selling that wonderful novel you wrote … or maybe you’re the next JRR Tolkien or Ray Bradbury. They had to do a lot of work to before they became household names.

So my oil for the traps is ….

Just write! Enjoy it. Strive for authenticity. Write the very best book you can and don’t be afraid to let it rest for a few years or a decade until you’ve matured enough to tackle the meat of it. In the meantime, write other books. Be yourself. Be aware of the rules, but don’t try to slavishly follow a strict plot structure or character map. Make sure your characters are entertaining and walk, talk and fart like real people. Let them run through your setting creating their own plot. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and get a little messy for your craft, like I did with Hullabaloo on Main Street. And above all, plan to publish because nobody can read your book if it stays on your hard drive.

And because I do have to market my own books, maybe you could help an indie author out and check them out. I promise, you will enjoy them.

Did you know you can join the Open Book Blog Hop? All authors are welcome to post on the topic of the week.

Posted July 1, 2019 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Selecting Roses   19 comments

How do you select the names of your characters?


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I admit I’m a name geek. I’ve always loved looking up the meaning of names. There’s an old Celtic tradition that your name gives power to those who know it. That might actually be the origin of nicknames – a name you use every day that doesn’t have the power of your true name.

I chose names depending on the setting of the book. So, for example, Transformation Project series is set in rural Kansas. I chose a town that really exists as my exemplar so I could research utilities, civic buildings and history. Although I renamed the streets, I use the map of the existing town for the most part. Emmaus is not that town, but it seemed smart to have a real-life research focus.

While I was at it, I took advantage of the local online telephone book to pick a lot of the last names. Often the cultural background of that last name dictated the first name of the character. It made sense that the Delaneys – Jill Faraday married to an Irish-American with an American Indian ancestor — would favor Celtic names – thus Shane and Keri. I researched for Celtic names and I just liked those. Shane’s character predated the book and the name. I didn’t like the name my daughter gave him on our road trip where the character was created, so I found one I liked better. Keri is the name of a daughter of a friend of mine. I liked the Celtic origin, but I changed the spelling. Cai is a nickname for Malacai – a Biblical name meaning “message bearer”. I was scanning through the baby name book and saw that, thought it was perfect for a lawyer who is also a faithful evangelical Christian, but then the full name just felt too heavy and Cai goes back into Celtic traditional names.

I decided the Lufgrens would favor Biblical names. Why? It was just a decision. I could have chosen Swedish names, but the family is Deaf, so I posited they weren’t attached to their Swedish heritage. But I decided Alex’s mother was an outlander – Dad brought her home from Deaf school and so she named her children differently from the other Lufgrens. Poppy because I found it in that telephone book and because you have to be an awesome young person to carry a flower name and I gave it a backstory of a famous Deaf woman in the town’s history – I might use that someday – and Alex because it sounds heroic and I envision Alex as being a sleeping hero who will one day show Shane what a true hero is.

A nearby town had a lot of Polish names and so I picked first names that came from Polish heritage for a lot of the people living in Mara Wells, also loosely based on a real town.

I have some Hispanic characters and their names also come from the baby name book – except Javier (Javi) whose name was borrowed from one of my son’s friends. I just like the nick-name, so I used it.

On the other hand, it is sometimes fun to play with names. For example, I know a real life person who was born in Columbia whose name is Kenji. Yeah, that’s a Japanese name. Put a name on a character that doesn’t match their ethnicity and you can add immediate mystery and hint at a back story. In Transformation Project there is a character who seems to have three names — different people call her two different names and she calls herself another. Why? Ooo, yes, there’s a back story. She’s not a major character so I may never get to it, but it’s there for exploitation if I ever want to use it.

People always ask me where I got the name Jazz for Jessica Tully. I worked with a Jessica who was called Jazz because her older brother couldn’t say Jess right. I liked the sound of the name and I liked the spirit of its bearer, so I borrowed it for the character who is not based on this woman I know, but who has a similar gutsy style. I even borrowed the mispronunciation as the back story on her nickname.

In my fantasy series Daermad Cycle, the names of the Celdryans also come from a Celtic region of Europe, and so I get the names from a baby name book, but then I tweak them slightly to meet the naming conventions I made up for Daermad. The Kin have very long complicated names (based on Asian naming conventions), but I try to keep their first names in view to cut down on reader headaches.

In other genres, I mainly just select names I like, often names I would have used if I’d had a dozen kids. I still go back to the baby name books occasionally for inspiration and to wonder if the name I want to use suits the character.

After all, if names have power over us, it probably matters what you name a fictional character you actually do have power over.

Posted June 24, 2019 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Mightier than Swords   6 comments

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?


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Words have incredible power in the hands of good communicators. They can raise you to the highest heavens or drop you from 30,000 feet without a net. They can make you feel wonderfully competent or grossly inadequate. However, the power of words is not in the words themselves as in the power the listeners invest in them.

My first experience with the power of language was in realizing that language could be distorted so as to wield power over others.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was – maybe 10 or 12 – when my father began to have trouble calling himself a “liberal”.

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I grew up in Alaska where the discussion of politics is an indoor participation sport. The adults loved to argue politics and they thought it was their responsibility to teach the youngsters, so we were expected to pay attention and formulate our own opinions. Alaskans are and were actually really well-read. Long, dark, cold winters mean we have a lot of time for intellectual pursuits. We have great public and university libraries and they are well-used. This meant that much of what the adults were talking about was backed up by study.

My mom was a conservative non-partisan old-style feminist (she liked men, definitely wanted them in her life, but she didn’t think she should bow to them). My dad was a lifelong Democrat union organizer who would not recognize the Democratic Party of 2019. I knew my parents didn’t agree politically, but they weren’t at each other’s throats. When I stand back and look at it with a long lens, I think they really didn’t disagree on any of the big issues. Mom thought her money did her more good in her purse than in the pocket of some government official and Dad trusted the government a bit more than she did. Dad could call himself a Democrat and feel just fine with that. Mom felt she was lying if she promised fidelity to a single political party, so she was a registered non-partisan so she could vote for whichever party she preferred that election. That was about the extent of their political differences.

But in 1970, maybe 72, Dad foresaw where the Democratic party was headed and he started having trouble calling himself a “liberal”. He’d been struggling with this idea for a while when I overheard the conversation. How long is a mystery to me as Dad died before I was old enough to really pursue the topic, but he and my mom were talking about the McGovern campaign for President (1972) and Dad said he didn’t think the Democratic Party was still the party of liberals. He found the newest crop to be intolerant, abusive children who wanted a lot of stuff for nothing. Sound familiar? Yeah. He foresaw that. He didn’t know what to do about it and it bothered him, a lifelong committed Democrat, that he was expected to vote for policies and politicians who did not represent what he thought of as “liberal values.” (see the image above for the traditional definition of “liberal” and the image below for the modern progressive-liberal.

Mom hit it on the head that day when she said “They sound a lot more like the progressives from back when we were kids.” The conversation then moved onto whether the progressives were Republican (Teddy Roosevelt was) or Democratic (Woodrow Wilson was) and I don’t recall my parents exploring the change in the word “liberal” at the time. It stuck with me because I was already developing into a language geek and here was a word my dad had been using for 50 years that no longer had the meaning he associated with it.

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I know from my adult studies in history that the American progressives got their political and philosophical hats handed to them. They were completely discredited when they were infiltrated by the socialists and so, they spent a few decades in obscurity. They then came back in the 1960s, relabeled themselves “liberals” and took over the Democratic Party. They took advantage of the growing post-modern sentiments to claim “language has no meaning and we can define these historical words to mean anything we want.” Dad was sensing that change. Without the internet at the time, he couldn’t locate cogent arguments for why it was happening, but he knew it was.

When Hillary Clinton ran in 2012 and again in 2016, she used the more-correct term of “progressive” to describe herself, perhaps sensing that the term “liberal” had been flogged to death by the illiberal Democrats. That still doesn’t really solve the dilemma of people like me who subscribe the traditional liberal principles like freedom and self-sufficiency, but can’t use that term without invoking the warped definition of the word.

Dad’s lost word isn’t the only word that has been warped into a new meaning in the intervening years. My parents, who were young adults in World War 2, wouldn’t recognize how some people in our era define “fascism”, just as I now am perplexed by how some people define “racism” and “sexism”. This could be a much longer article if I focused on all of the word games post-moderns use to change the tenor of conversations. Dad’s struggle with the word “liberal” was my first recognition that how we use words can damage our relationships and ability to dialogue with one another. It stuck with me going forward because it’s always in the news and it involved some of my dad’s most fundamental beliefs and relationships. I’ve often wondered where Dad would stand politically today and I suspect he’d join Mom and me in the non-partisan camp, suspicious of political parties in general.

Words have meaning, which in the hands of good communicators comes with power, and in order for us to communicate, the meanings need to be understood by all. Unfortunately, the post-modern belief that words are malleable and the meaning can be changed whenever and however the user of the moment likes is harmful to meaningful communication. It’s one of the reasons Western society is tearing itself apart today. Some of us have redefined words to meanings that the users of those words never agreed to. Further, we misapply these redefined words to others without even bothering to find out if the words actually apply to them. Then some in society repeat those redefined words over and over in order to denigrate those they disagree with.

There’s a famous saying – the pen is mightier than the sword, meaning that the minds of people are won by persuasive arguments and not brute force. Words have power. The American revolution, according to John Adams, was wrought in the minds of the people (via the words of pamphleteers like Thomas Paine) a long time before the shot heard round the world on Lexington Green. I want to believe that we can make changes in society through reasoned debate on topics that affect all of us, but when we change the meanings of words without telling our rhetorical opponents, we game the debate process to our own benefit. It’s time we stopped that and agreed on a common vocabulary, so we can talk, know when to agree or disagree, and not have to make enemies of people whose words we redefined to mean something they didn’t mean.

Just a thought.

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