Do you enjoy thinking deep thoughts? Do you challenge your own worldview by seeking to understand different perspectives? Do you want to expand your understanding and refine your ideas by having frank and honest discussions and gaining exposure to experiences wildly different from your own?
The Flipped Switch is a monthly email newsletter that shares films, essays, articles, podcasts, etc., that provoke thought. Sometimes, they are drawn around a theme. Sometimes, they are just what I’ve recently read/watched/listened to that stirred up interesting thoughts and insights.
You can expect to:
learn something new.
disagree with something.
be made uncomfortable, either by content or ideas.
The Flipped Switch is not about:
But you can expect politics, feminism, and religion (particularly, Christianity) to be involved, because…
The Flipped Switch is about ideas, and all of those things revolve around ideas.
There aren’t many spaces in today’s fragmented world where open and honest discussion can take place without devolving into name-calling and verbal cheap shots. The Flipped Switch is a place where we are all encouraged to listen with the aim of understanding—even if our opinions don’t change.
I bought this book after attending a reading by Rebecca Makkai and connecting with her writing. This collection of short stories marries creativity and originality with compelling characters in sometimes absurd situations. Stories vary in length and subject matter, but all connect somehow to the theme described in the title, “Music for Wartime.” I’ve read collections before where every story is melancholy and depressing; this is no such collection. Some end sadly or on bittersweet notes, but all of them challenge the reader’s narrow vision of herself and others. And several of the stories wrestle with the question of forgiveness and when it can, cannot, should, or should not be extended to: Nazis, false lovers, relatives who carried out unquestionable wrongs. Highly recommend.
Rachel. Megan. Anna. They’re three women whose lives are woven together in known and unknown ways. Rachel is the divorcee of Tom. Anna is the homewrecker now married to Tom. Megan lives down the street from Rachel’s former and Anna’s current home. The train line cuts behind both houses, and it’s from the train that Rachel watches the life she wished was hers.
Until one day, Rachel sees Megan’s face in the paper. She’s missing.
Paula Hawkins’ debut novel landed #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for good reason. With simple language that firmly grounds you in the modern British setting and carries the story without unnecessary confusion, The Girl on the Train is a story that’s too frighteningly believable — and well worth your time.
Hawkins’ words don’t paint lush portraits or jump to poetic heights. They’re too busy drawing you close to the characters, especially Rachel whose perspective begins and ends the book. As you read, you immerse into the complexity that is a human being whose past she both regrets and can’t leave behind.
You won’t want to trust Rachel’s narration — she doesn’t even trust herself — but you will hold your breath and hope for her. You’ll grimace and groan when she messes up again. You’ll yell at her not to go back. You’ll care about her in spite of yourself, in spite of her.
The Girl on the Train is about assumptions. Assumptions and speculations that people make about others, especially when they see them from a distance, literally or figuratively. It’s about how our assumptions, and the hopes behind them, blind us to reality (at best) and put us in dangerous positions (at worst). Maybe we can trust ourselves, maybe we can trust others, but we can’t trust our assumptions or speculations.
The Girl on the Train is driven by the internal monologue of the three characters. Each chapter is from another woman’s perspective, with Megan’s set several months behind (made clear by a dateline at the beginning of the chapter).
The changing perspectives didn’t jar my experience, but it took me forever to keep the men straight: is Scott the one Rachel was married to? Or was that Tom? I have a ridiculously hard time remembering character names and I blame my ongoing confusion on them both having one-syllable names with an “O” in the middle. (It’s a decent excuse.)
That’s my main complaint, though. In the future, I’d hope Hawkins would work toward more depth and complexity in her male characters and more emotional strength in her female characters, but the characters in The Girl on the Train only bothered me at the level they were supposed to. I hated who I was supposed to hate, and I liked who I was supposed to like.
The book isn’t super quotable, but I copied down these lines near the beginning. They’re both from Rachel’s perspective:
“I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts. Who was it [that] said that following your heart is a good thing? It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all.” p. 31
“I will never begrudge him happiness — I only wish it could be with me.” p. 43
Who’s this book appropriate for?
I’d set it at 17+. It’s written for adults and has some sexual content that, while not being explicit or gratuitous, I wouldn’t want my 15-year-old self (or my 15-year-old sister, for that matter) reading. I’d recommend it to both men and women, because the story itself could spark a lot of introspection in both parties, but it might be too emotionally driven for the stereotypical man to be interested.
I spent the majority of this week and last wrangling a story. The first 1,600-word draft — written to follow an outline I thought was solid and completed at approximately 6:30 p.m. last Friday (that’s 1.5 hours late to the weekend) — read like a list of events. No emotion, no thought progression. Just, this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this, and then they got a cool letter. The end.
I’m not sure if the three-day weekend (Happy belated Memorial Day!) helped or hindered the revision process. I returned to the office on Tuesday, looked over Friday’s draft, heard Peter Parker’s editor in my head:
And decided to trash it. Back to the drawing boards.
(Almost literally, actually, since my first outline evolved out of a color-coded mess of whiteboard notes.)
Here’s what I (re)learned through this particularly frustrating revision process:
1. If you begin in the wrong place, nothing about the draft will seem right.
When I sat down to write from my new outline, I realized my planned beginning was still wrong (cue fists slamming on the desk) and I couldn’t write anything else until I got that right.
One of my most-used pieces of writing advice (courtesy of Sarah Dessen) is:
When you’re stuck on a story, go back to the last place things were going well and take a different course.
I apply this to nonfiction on a regular basis and, when I can identify the stuck spot and devise an alternate route, it works like a charm. With this piece, devising an alternate route took more effort than usual, but once I figured it out, the wheels on the bus went round and round and the story got moving.
2. Be willing to go back to square one.
I was annoyed that I’d written nearly 2,000 words of what I thought was unusable draft, and I was immensely frustrated that I had to outline all over again.
Once I have an outline, I’m usually convinced I have the story figured out. In this case, I was wrong and I was convinced I’d have to trash the entire draft.
But when I re-outlined and started writing, I found that I was wrong again: a lot of what I’d already written was usable — it just needed more narrative around it, more actual storytelling instead of just rehashing events.
Embrace the process. Go back to square one.
3. Get up close with your notes.
If you don’t know which page to flip to for that one quote or anecdote, you haven’t studied your notes enough.
I have this tendency — when a story involves talking to a lot of people at different times about the same thing — to think I know the material inside-out after I transcribe the interviews and read through, highlight, color-code my notes once. This tendency, I’m learning, is actually laziness I have to fight for the quality and integrity of my work.
I need to be as familiar with those notes as I am with my Bible.
When a quote comes to mind that could fit in this section about people’s perceptions of prison inmates, I need to know exactly where in my notes I can find it. If no quotes are coming to mind, I have a lot more studying to do.
4. Take the time to narrow your notes down, so you have a more concise reference that is tightly focused around the same things your story is focused on.
When you’re working with pages and pages of notes, it’s easy to get so overwhelmed by the information, you lose sight of the story.
When I sat down on Tuesday, I opened my notes — on paper and the same document on my computer — and, as I read through them, I copied and pasted what related to my story into a new document. This cut my active notes in half.
Doing this for investigative journalism will be more complicated, of course, but the principle holds regardless of what type of story you’re writing:
Cut your notes down to what is related to the story.
Remove anything you know you won’t use. If you’re so overwhelmed that you have no idea what you will or will not use, keep studying your notes and question whether or not you’ve done enough research.
5. Be patient, but keep pushing.
It’s okay to show signs of exasperation.
Slamming your hands on your desk
Muttering, You have got to be kidding me!
Crumbling every sheet of paper you’ve written on in pursuit of this story. Okay. Maybe don’t do that.
But whatever you do — unless you happen to be a verbal processor, which is rare for writers — don’t vent to people.
Venting turns into talking as if you hate the work. You don’t hate the work. You’re just frustrated that it’s not going smoothly. Channel your frustration into the work, and eventually things will move the way they should, even if the movement is slow and clumsy.
6. Kill your darlings. Or at least be willing to.
If you’re a writer, you’ve heard this advice countless times. Like most cliches, it’s been repeated over and over because it’s right.
When a draft is under revision, everything’s on the chopping block. In order to stay, it has to prove it belongs. If a beautiful line, scene, description, word, gets in the way of the story, the only choice is to cut it.
If it’s any comfort, remember this: being willing to cut something — laying that beautiful line on the chopping block — doesn’t mean it will actually be cut in the end. When my new draft started flowing, I was thrilled to discover that a scene I thought I’d lose actually got to stay (points if you can correctly identify it).
7. Keep pushing.
I repeat myself, because the push is a necessary part of the struggle. Without it, you’re not struggling, you’re accepting defeat.
If writing is your job (like it is for me — one post-college life win!), accepting defeat makes you a bad employee. If writing’s not your job, it just makes you a bad writer. Which if you’re actually a writer, you are not okay with. So push on.
8. When you finish the piece to satisfaction (which you will), celebrate the way writers do.
Read. Subscribe to another magazine. Buy a load of books off Amazon. Search for your next story.
And if you need some weekend reading, check out the piece that in some backhanded way inspired this blog post:
Mental illness and airline pilots. I recently wrote a story about Taylor University’s Ethics Bowl team, and this was one of the ethics bowl cases. You see, if a pilot is honest about his struggles with mental illness, he’s likely to lose his job. But if he’s silent about it and goes untreated, he could go the way of Andreas Günter Lubitz, the young pilot who crashed Germanwings Flight 9525 into the Alps on March 24, 2015. This piece traces the story of the crash and introduces you to the other individuals impacted by the tragedy.
The first of a three-part series, this piece introduces the main characters in the real life setting of high school football in a diverse — racially and economically — southern town. I’m a big fan of football movies. I just rewatched We are Marshall, and I practically have Remember the Titans memorized. The best football (and just sport) movies aren’t really about the sport — they’re about the characters. The sport is just a vehicle to get those characters moving. It’s a lot easier to write a story about events than it is to write one about characters and the depth of their emotions and struggles. It’s clear in this first part of the series, though, that the characters are what Graff is focusing on. Part Two builds on Part One.
Will Gladd is an adventurer, a climber, a risk taker. He thrives on challenges, both physical and mental. Now, he’s staring a new one: age. It’s not common for individuals his age to still carry sponsorships up the side of cliffs. But he is. And he’s not planning on stopping anytime soon.
This post is part of a series recommending writing you should read — especially nonfiction.
Good writing can transport you to any time or place so seamlessly that you feel like you were actually there, actually experiencing those things. Since I learned to read at five years old, doing phonetic worksheets to a cassette tape in the kitchen and watching countless episodes of Come Read with Me, I’ve marveled at the ability of compiled shapes on a page to take me places I’ve never been.
Places like the high seas.
For some reason, I’ve always been drawn to nautical tales like Moby Dick and Treasure Island. Ten Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was one of my favorite books in ninth grade and then, of course, there are the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, among various other seafaring films.
So when I found out about Nathaniel Philbrick’s book about the historical events that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick, In the Heart of the Sea quickly rose to the top of my reading list.
I would not classifyIn the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex as narrative nonfiction — though the book is written well and it does follow the basic arc of a story. In the Heart of the Sea is very much a historical account. Philbrick goes into detail about the whaling industry, the growth of Nantucket, and various scientific and historical realities that relate to what the men of the Essex experienced before and after the whale plowed into their ship. It’s a dense book — there’s a lot of information to digest — but it’s not a long, slogging read. Philbrick’s writing keeps things pacing ahead.
Where In the Heart of the Sea falters are the places Philbrick takes editorial tangents. He at times overplays the contrast of Nantucketers as peace-loving Quakers on land and bloodthirsty killers at sea. He projects a twenty-first century sensibility on an island’s historical means of economic survival, which to me undercuts his credibility as a historian. (This treatment of cultures that kill animals to survive is, of course, nothing new.) This also doesn’t give the readers enough credit — we would make the connection ourselves as long as the contrast was demonstrated clearly enough. Part of the joy of reading is making connections the author intended you to make without the author telling you to make them.
On a five-star scale, I’d give In the Heart of the Sea three and a half stars, because the writing is solid and the subject matter is interesting. But if you’re looking for a book to send you on a journey, I’m not sure this one will do the trick. It’s more history than human narrative.
This piece tells the true story of the Bounty, a real ship modeled after an 18th century ship by the same name (Mutiny on the Bountyring any bells?), which sunk in the Atlantic during Hurricane Sandy. Tracing the steps and missteps of captain and crew, Shaer paints a vivid account of what happened bolstered by the backstory of ship and shipmates.
This post is part of a series recommending longform, narrative nonfiction (as well as other worthwhile writings).
I know it’s already February and there are plenty of pieces with a 2016 timestamp to read and recommend, but here are a few pieces I read toward the end of last year that are each significant or touching in their own ways:
Megan Phelps-Roper used to man Westboro Baptist Church’s Twitter account. She was the teenager at the helm of the hate-spewing, so-called congregation’s online megaphone to the rest of the world. That’s where she began questioning what she’d been taught.
As a Christian who does not believe Westboro preaches the truth of the Gospel, it was hard for me to read this piece and see that Megan’s understanding of Scripture is still the twisted interpretation she was taught growing up — she no longer believes that interpretation is right, but that’s still what she thinks the Bible teaches. Still, reading about how she ended up leaving Westboro is powerful. It makes you wonder, if I were in a similar situation, would I have the courage to jump off the bandwagon?
This piece is an upclose look at Hillsong NYC, the church whose pastor Justin Bieber spent several weeks with. The church known for its Millennial crowd of “hipster Christians”. It’s an upclose look, but it’s an outsider’s perspective. The author is a non-practicing Jew who doesn’t really claim any religion. Through the piece, the reader gets a peek at not only Hillsong, its pastor, and its mission, but also a peek into the author’s life, as her process of uncovering the story forces her to reflect on her own beliefs.
The title of this piece really sells it short — but pay attention while you read, because the title is more profound than you might assume. This piece is beautifully written in the first person and it’s about (basically) the author handling her mother’s dementia. There’s a lot more going on, but I don’t want to spoil it. Just read it. It’s worth your time.
One brief tangent: I keep track of what I’m reading (and liking) with the Pocket app. I have the app on my phone and the plugin attached to my computer browser. When I find something I want to read, but don’t have enough time to read it now, I save it to my Pocket for later. And then I read it later.
A Catholic doctor in Southern Sudan is the only surgeon for thousands of miles. Every day, he rises for mass and then works for hours upon hours, treating patients whose bodies have been torn apart, limbs blown off. The doctor could leave, he could go anywhere else to treat patients, but he stays. This piece answers the question of why.
If you’ve heard of the Frontline documentary series, My Brother’s Bomber, you’re probably familiar with the story line of this multi-media piece. This piece uses audio recordings, music, video, photography, and the written word to tell Ken Dornstein’s story of wrestling with the loss of his older brother in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing of December 1988.
Don’t be distracted by the somewhat clickbait-y title. This piece is a work of literary reported art, rich with detail and fact. All about the hidden population that have made New York’s underground their home, this piece takes the reader into the world beneath, introducing the young mother who’s trying to get her feet under her so she can get her own place and get her daughter back, the woman in her 50s whose underground lair is piled with bags full of recyclables — her livelihood — the father who, when his child comes to visit, rents an apartment for the week so he won’t look like a bum.
What have you read lately that moved or inspired you?
In 2004, David Sneddon, 24, was capping off a summer studying in China by hiking western China near the Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Mandarin-speaking American was excited to return to the States and finish his college studies, according to emails he’d sent his family, but he never got to his brother’s place in Seoul. Ten years later, he still hasn’t been found, and most evidence points to a kidnapping by North Korea.
A collection of stories profiling various New Jersey towns that Hurricane Sandy hit hard in 2012. Each piece gives a taste of local flavor (like Giesela Smith’s crumb cake) and shares the stories and perspectives of residents, what they’ve been through and what they anticipate for the summer.
Unsung heroes who are flung in danger’s way unknowingly, war dogs are adopted and trained by the U.S. military for three purposes: patrol, detecting, or tracking. In this piece, Paterniti follows Marine Corporal Jose Armenta and his dog Zenit, as they searched ground in Afghanistan for IEDs, improvised explosive devices, in 2011. The bond between man and dog.
Artfully written, this piece introduces North Camden, New Jersey, a city known for drugs and violence, and Bryan Morton, a North Camden native who decided to combat decay by starting a baseball little league for the kids of North Camden. A community-building effort driven by kids, parents, and a few bats and balls. Jam-packed with imagery, this piece reads like fiction, bringing you up close and personal with the major players. Strong narrative, priceless story.
A glorified obituary, semi-biography, this piece is about the late Dickie Small, a horse trainer from a long line of horse trainers who saw tremendous success on the racetrack. Fueled by interviews with Dickie (pre-passing) and his assistants and colleagues, this piece is a project to read. Those who aren’t horse fans may not make it to the end, but I encourage you to read the whole thing. And watch the videos and read the biographical sections (Early Years, Vietnam, and Making of a Master), as well. The life of this man was remarkable — determined, for sure.
Paul House has MS. It’s tied him to a wheelchair, stuck him in adult diapers, and somewhat addled his brain. If he’d been treated in time, all of this could have been avoided, but when House’s MS began ravaging his body, House was sitting on death row in a Tennessee prison on wrongful charges. He was rescued from electrocution, but today, he still pays the price for his 20-plus years waiting for the chair he didn’t deserve.
What do you think of this week’s picks? Any other suggestions?