Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Words have power

“I love you” are powerful words. So are “once upon a time” and “the end.” If you were to change just one word in those phrases, the meaning can shift dramatically. “I hate you” means something quite different than “I love you.”

The meaning of a singular word can be very powerful. Take for example when I worked in banking. Our leaders would call us each day and we, as managers, would have to “commit” to a certain number of items sold that day—like checking accounts, savings accounts, loans, and so on. Seriously.

I really struggled with this approach because I have always tried to be the type of person who does what he says he will do. The word “commitment” can be defined as “a promise to do or give something.” To me, I can commit to do things which I can control—like washing my hands after using the bathroom. But how could I honestly promise to open a checking account for someone I had yet to meet? I couldn’t. What I could do is promise to talk to everyone about checking account options and invite them to open an account. But could I force them to do it? No. Pressure them? Yes.

At the end of the day, we would have to report on how we did. If I said we didn’t open the amount of checking accounts I “committed” to in the morning, my boss would then phrase it as, “But you committed to opening more! Why didn’t you?”

See where this is headed? It became an ethical issue—all because of a singular word.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with another word. This one? “Assignment.”

As a college English teacher, I have a goal each semester: To give meaningful assignments which help the students learn and discover. I am not a fan of “busy work.” Because I’m the teacher, I have the authority to give assignments which the students need to fulfill to earn credit for the class.

Some students complain about the work load. My response? “You signed up for this class, and these assignments are part of the class.”

However, just because I have a position of authority does not give me the right to assign whatever I want. I can’t assign students to wash my car, or bring me lunch each day. In the end, each student has the right to choose which assignments to do. The tough part for a student is standing up and saying, “I’m not doing that assignment because I didn’t agree to do that. Just because you are the teacher, and have authority, doesn’t mean you have the right to make any assignments you want.”

To be fair to teachers, many of them have good intentions, but overreach with their authority. I understand that. We’re all human. We make mistakes. Sometimes we can really want to do something good, and still make mistakes.

For example, my students are required to write four major papers over the course of the semester. The hardest of the papers (in my opinion) is the argumentative paper because it requires at least three credible sources and needs to be at least three pages long.

I could, instead, give them the assignment to write a 30 page paper with at least 50 credible sources. After all, more is better, right? But that wouldn’t be effective to freshmen taking their first college English class.

My issue with the word “assignment” comes from one of its definitions: “a specified task or amount of work assigned or undertaken as if assigned by authority.”

In other aspects of my life, I’ve been receiving more “assignments” from those in a position of authority. While I have no doubt that their intentions are good, the challenge comes from the fact that the nature of the context in which these assignments are given can be somewhat at odds with free will.

Let me use a metaphor: I agree to work for a company where I am allowed to work from home. I agree to perform certain tasks within a certain time, yet I have the freedom of completing these tasks when and where I choose. 

Now, let’s say someone in authority somewhere up the chain of command decides something specific needs to be done at a certain time and at a certain place. Because they have authority, they give me an “assignment” to do it as they want it done.

Perhaps the work is something I would be doing anyway, and most likely willingly, because I agreed to work for that company—with the understanding the job let me choose. If that choice is taken away, then part of the fundamental aspect of the job has changed.

Maybe it is human nature, or maybe it is just me, but being forced to do something, even if that something is good, isn’t nearly as rewarding as deciding as an individual to perform an action on their own because it is the right thing to do.

I’m sure in a few years I’ll find another word with which I’ll take an issue. Perhaps it is an occupational hazard of being a writer and an English teacher.  

Friday, December 26, 2014

One author, different audiences

I’ve come to something of a dilemma when it comes to my writing. I’m keenly aware of my intended audience with each work I compose. In doing so, I’ve come to realize that my audience is different for each book. The problem this creates is that not everyone who reads one of my books may enjoy all of them.

Let me explain.

I am of the firm belief that if a writer is bored when they are writing, the work will be boring to read. At different points in my life, what interests me (as a writer) changes. For better or worse, I don’t believe I could churn out book after book that would fit in my Bariwon series. That’s one reason I wrote The Mirror of the Soul between books two and three of that series. At the time, I was more interested in that story than any others.

And then I went down a completely different path and wrote two books in first person. These books (Wall of Faith and Bring Down the Rain) were more simplistic in approach, both in the language used as well as the method in storytelling.

Whereas my other books used third person, and the stories unfolded through various points of view, my last two were more linear in nature—things happened in a specific order as told by one character.

This is perhaps over generalizing, but reading a book with multiple characters and told from more than one point of view requires more from the reader. They actually have to pay attention.

In a recent review of one of my books, the reader wrote, “I could not wrap my mind around what was happening.” Keep in mind that a different review of the same book stated, “This is a great allegorical tale of depth and a critical understanding of the human condition that transcends time and space.”

I could become discouraged and elect to keep my writing more simplistic so that I don’t confuse people who aren’t willing to invest the time or energy in understanding what is going on. This is what I’m struggling with at the moment. One of the books I’m working on uses more complex language and concepts. While I’m writing, a little voice inside my head keeps telling me, “The people who liked Wall of Faith and Bring Down the Rain won’t get this.”

And then I remind myself, “I’m not writing it for them. I’m writing it for the people who enjoy this kind of story.”

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Content of their character

One of my heroes is Martin Luther King, Jr. Here is a person who saw an injustice, and acted. It wasn’t easy for him or his family, and in the end he lost his life for what he believed in. I think one of the best ways to sum up what he fought for is reflected in this quote from his famous, “I have a dream” speech:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Though much has changed since he spoke those words, we, in America, are not living in that nation—and it isn’t only one group’s fault.

During recent events, I’ve been dismayed time and time again when news reports open with “a person with a certain colored skin did this to a person with different colored skin.” To me, that’s in direct conflict to what Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted. By including race as part of the act, I believe this actually propagates racism.

To be clear, I think there is a difference between being proud of one’s culture and showing honor to one’s ancestors, and racism.

Here’s a definition of racism that helps prove this point (notice the part I put in italics): “Racism: the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”

I’ve had the chance to meet and work with people from all sorts of different cultural backgrounds and beliefs, including those who are similar to my own. Without question, many of the people I’ve met were awesome. They were good people who acted nicely towards others. And then, there were those who were jerks. Interestingly enough, I’ve never found the jerks to be isolated to a certain race or belief system.

Yet there are those who identify themselves as members of a certain race who feel like they are being treated unjustly, and often for good reason.

However, what would Martin Luther King, Jr. say to those who react to perceived injustice with violence and hatred? What does it say about a person’s character when they burn down businesses because they feel their race has been slighted? What does it say about a person who doesn’t promote an individual because of the color of their skin?

What does it say about you?