Born in 1969, Stuart Rachels grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and began playing chess when he was 8. At 11 he became a chess master and was the US Junior Champion in 1988 and the US co-champion in 1989. At the age of 23, he retired from competitive chess.
A former Marshall Scholar, he has a PhD in Philosophy from Syracuse University and teaches at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. This year he published The Best I Saw in Chess (New in Chess, 2020).
Ed Battistella: When you were not quite 12, you became the youngest chess master in US history. How did you learn to play and how did you get so good so fast?
Stuart Rachels: My brother David taught me the rules. I have no idea how I got good. It was just something my brain took to. It was also my most enjoyable period as a player. Getting good is more fun than being good.
EB: Reading The Best I Saw in Chess, it occurred to me that good chess books are equal parts narrative and analysis. Did you think about this balance as you were writing the book? Or think about the memoir genre more generally?
SR: Yes and yes. Here are some tips I gave myself. (i) In telling stories, just say what happened. Don’t give commentary. Commentary is boring, and anyway your readers will prefer their own interpretations, so don’t waste their time giving them yours. (ii) In writing your life story, don’t start with your birth and end with you sitting there writing your life story. Skip around in time. (iii) Autobiographical writing is about taming one’s ego. Write a lot of drafts; take a lot of time to gain perspective. (iv) Chessplayers don’t want to hear your life story. They want to see cool moves. Make it less about you. Every story you tell, you must earn with cool chess moves. (v) Don’t make yourself look good; let yourself look human. Aside from Bobby Fischer, Mikhail Tal was the best blitz player in the world during the 1960’s. Yet when Tal recounts a blitz tournament in his autobiography, the only position he gives is one in which he made a silly blunder. Does this make you think less of Tal? Not at all; just the opposite. (vi) Your main obligation is to your reader, not to yourself. Don’t suppress uncomfortable truths. They’re uncomfortable for you, not for your reader. And though you hate it, include games that you lost. Guess what? Some of the coolest moves you’ve ever seen were ones that kicked your butt.
EB: What was the toughest part of writing The Best I Saw in Chess?
SR: Finding the right title. Stuart Rachels’ Chess Career is too conceited. Also, the book is primarily about chess, not about me; it is a book of instruction, where the lessons come from my games. So the title should not cry out “autobiography.” Yet it shouldn’t ignore that element; How to Think about Chess Positions isn’t right, either. And the title should contain the word ‘chess.’ Also, it should say something about me, because, who am I?—I haven’t played chess in 25 years. (I covered that desideratum with a self-promoting subtitle.) It took me months to find a title I was happy with.
EB: This is one of the few chess books I’ve seen that has footnotes, which I think is great. What does your chess library look like?
SR: Disorganized. I’ve acquired so many chess books in the last few years that they’ve outgrown their bookshelf, and now that I’m writing another book (about fortresses), my books tend to wind up in stacks, relating to some theme. Footnotes are important. I use them for references and for jokes.
EB: Who are some of the best chess writers out there? Do they have anything in common?
SR: I was trying to combine the virtues of John Nunn and Mikhail Tal. Nunn explains chess ideas perfectly (accurately, succinctly, insightfully), but he displays no personality—no humor and nothing too personal. Meanwhile, Tal has never edited a sentence in his life (he dictated his books, and it shows), but his wit, affable nature and lack of pretension are manifested on every page.
EB: You mention that you don’t always calculate a lot of variations, but also that you sometimes run into time trouble. Can you say anything about your thought process during a game?
SR: My trainer once told me that I would get into time trouble even if I began the game with five hours on my clock. There’s always lots to think about, but my time mismanagement probably derived from my neuroses—a useful neurosis. I was always motivated by the fear that I was about to make a bad move. This anxiety helped me focus, but it also slowed me down. … As for my thought process, I’ll just mention the only thing which (I think) was unusual. Often, there would be the move I wanted to play (the move I was most comfortable with) and then this different move, which I didn’t want to play, but it might be best. At those moments, I would silently give myself a speech, arguing that the move I wanted to play was best—and then I’d see whether I found the speech convincing.
EB: You’ve played several former world champions—Kasparov, Anand, and Spassky. Who was the toughest?
SR: Kasparov is the greatest player ever, in my opinion. However, I can’t say who was toughest for me, because I played these players at different strengths, under different conditions. When I played Anand, we were both 14; when I played Spassky, I was 16 and was too nervous and starstruck to think clearly; and then I played Kasparov in two clock simuls. I will say that my most awesome experience was playing blitz with Anand. He thinks several times faster than most GMs. “Touched by God” is an apt phrase.
EB: You have a day job, as a professor of philosophy. Do you still find time to play chess?
SR: I play a little on the internet, but not much. It isn’t about time. I prefer in-person play, and the nearest grandmaster is 150 miles away—my friend Ben Finegold, who runs a great club in Atlanta.
EB: Thanks for talking. Good luck with The Best I Saw in Chess.
SR: Thank you!
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Neil Nakadate is a graduate of Stanford and earned his M.A. and Ph.D. at Indiana University. He is University Professor Emeritus from Iowa State University, where he received the Iowa State Foundation Award for Career Achievement in Teaching. He is a past president of the Board of Directors of Humanities Iowa. His writing has appeared in various publications, including Aethlon, Cottonwood, ISLE, and Annals of Internal Medicine; he has co-authored two books on rhetoric and writing and has written a critical study of novelist Jane Smiley (2010). His most recent book is Looking After Minidoka: An American Memoir (Indiana University Press, 2013), which links his Portland family and Japanese American experience from immigration through the 20th century.
Ed Battistella: Tell us a little about yourself and your career.
Neil Nakadate: I went to high school in Portland, then to Stanford. After that it was Indiana University for my M.A. and Ph.D. I taught American literature, courses on fiction, and various nonfiction writing courses, first at Texas and then at Iowa State.
EB: Your father was a doctor. I’m curious how you chose to become an English professor.
NN: My father wanted me to follow him into medicine, but in high school my affinity was for English and history—an inclination that was reinforced by some excellent teachers. In college I was pre-med until the second quarter of my sophomore year, when I gave up lab reports for writing papers on poetry and fiction. I eventually concluded that my family’s economic stability, established by two preceding generations, enabled me to make that choice.
EB: What prompted you to write Looking After Minidoka?
NN: I had been trying for years to write about my family, with a focus on the World War II years. But it became clear to me that my family embodied many of the key aspects of the larger Japanese American story—and that explaining “internment” would require discussing what preceded it and what came after. Meanwhile, I had become impatient with superficial historical accounts of the incarceration that reduced the experience to dates and statistics. I knew that the stories of individuals could provide texture and depth for the collective story. So I interviewed family members, engaged in research, read new material as it became available, and wrote and otherwise contributed in support of Redress. I organized my files. I wrote a few of the poems that would appear in the book. But I was preoccupied with teaching and writing about American literature—including multicultural American literature(s)—and rhetoric and writing. So my progress on Looking After Minidoka was fitful; more than half of it was written in the two years after I retired.
EB: What was the process of research like for a memoir spanning three generations?
NN: It was challenging but rewarding. For example, the family record included anecdotes, letters, memorabilia, interviews, ephemera, and photographs. The public record included census data and immigration records, maps, city directories, military history, and so on. I had to figure out how to sort through, organize, and present what was most valuable in all this without getting distracted and sidetracked. This was a challenge because I would periodically encounter a subtopic or detail that required me to modify my initial understanding.
EB: You were born in the Midwest and your family returned to Oregon after World War II. What are your recollections of growing up in Portland? Was the racism different than in the Midwest?
NN: When I was a boy growing up in Northwest Indiana, it was ethnically diverse and the fathers typically worked in the refineries, steel mill, or shipyard. My father had gone there because that’s where he was offered an internship upon completing medical school in Portland. The diversity of East Chicago was largely Central and Eastern European in origin. Ours was one of the few Asian families, but (according to my parents) we were accepted as part of the general mix. My memory of elementary school in Hammond is of a brief race-related incident but no ongoing problems. This was in the decade after World War II. On the post-war West Coast the “unwelcome mat” had been put out for Japanese Americans returning from the camps, and that made returning to Oregon a challenge for many, even by 1956. My parents were able to buy a house in Southwest Portland, but only after having some offers wither under the objections of potential neighbors and vacillation on the part of realtors.
EB: In your book, you include a lot of your own poetry. What’s the role of poetry in a memoir like this one?
NN: The poems convey my personal connection to and feelings about elements of the larger story, and they help explain what inspired me to juxtapose my family’s story and the larger Japanese American story. Early on I knew I wanted to include the poetry, but I was also aware that publishers were resistant to mixed-genre books. Interestingly enough, by the time I finished writing, that resistance had diminished.
EB: What did you learn about yourself while writing the book?
NN: Who I am in relation to other Japanese Americans who are strangers, yet related.
EB: Today, as in the 1960’s, we are seeing a surge of civil rights protests and anti-racism. Do you see current controversies and struggles as coming out of 1960s activism or was something else at work. Or both? Are there lessons for today’s struggles against racism?
NN: What’s happening today seems in part a legacy of 1960’s protests and activism against war in Southeast Asia, for civil rights, in support of women’s rights. And both then and now what we see and say is amplified by mass media. During the 1968 Democratic Convention one salient chant heard on TV was, “The whole world is watching!” Today we have social media as part of the mix. At the core of Japanese American experience, 1960’s civil rights unrest and activism, and current issues and protests (regarding immigration, displacement and dispossession, citizenship, voting rights. . .) are some basic, ongoing questions: “Who gets to be an American?” and “Does everyone here have an opportunity to pursue the American Dream?” and “Who gets to decide, and on what grounds?”
EB: Thanks for talking with us.
NN: Thanks for asking.
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Despite its proliferation in modern texts, the em dash is not present in the majority of early writing curricula. It is one of the most versatile punctuation marks in the English language, with many different functions and the ability to act as an alternative to a number of other marks, but, though most can likely recognize it on sight, few English readers would be able to identify it by name. Its absence in education is likely due, in part, to its rocky past, as well as to the unflattering whims of public opinion, which now seem to be shifting. As the em dash returns to favor, it is worth exploring the history and merits of this valuable punctuation mark.
The Chicago Manual of Style describes the em dash as “the most commonly used and most versatile of the dashes” (333). It is most often used to “set off an amplifying or explanatory element,” and, in this way, can take the place of a comma, a semicolon, a colon, a pair of commas, or a pair of parentheses (333–334). Though the em dash can be mechanically interchangeably with these other marks, it carries a different tone. For example, it tends to be read as less formal, particularly compared to the colon and semicolon (Norris 145–146); when it comes to paired punctuation used to set off an interruption, em dashes emphasize the contained information, while parentheses deemphasize it, and commas, read as neutral, do not act on it at all (Einsohn 89). Because the em dash is effective in so many contexts, it is prone to overuse; it should be employed carefully and sparingly. Einsohn states that, especially when taking the place of a semicolon in joining independent clauses, it “is best reserved for special effects” such as “prepar[ing] readers for a punchline or a U-turn” (81).
The em dash has other purposes, as well, including some that only it can fulfill. It is commonly used to indicate an interruption or other sudden break, particularly in dialogue; in this role, it can be placed at either the end or the beginning of a thought, to indicate that the thought is being either cut off or picked up partway through (Norris 135). It is used to lend a sort of breathless urgency to writing (136) and to represent stream-of-consciousness thinking (Truss 158); it is effective in setting certain tones, and has, thus, been a popular punctuation choice for poets, including Emily Dickinson (Norris 137–138). In playwriting, the em dash is also employed to “secure suspense” and emphasize a word or phrase at the end of a sentence (Smiley and Bert 206–207). More technical uses include the replacement of bullet points in lists and the replacement of quotation marks in dialogue, particularly dialogue translated from a language that prefers guillemets over quotation marks (The Chicago 335).
In order to fully understand the em dash, one must first understand the em. The Chicago Manual of Style defines the em as a “unit of type measurement equal to the point size of the type in question” (895), meaning that, in a twelve-point font, the em—and, therefore, the em dash—will be twelve points wide. It is largely accepted that the em is so titled because it is the width of a capital letter M (“Glossary of Typographic”); while this may have been true at one time, it is not reliably true now, as the M in most modern typefaces is narrower than the em. In fact, the length of the em cannot be measured by any text seen in print or on screen: It is the height of the type, which comprises the character and a small space used as a buffer between lines of text—the leading. In the days of metal type, each piece of type would include a narrow piece of lead at the bottom of the letter or mark; the height—and, therefore, the em—includes this leading and the negative space created by it (Phinney).
The etymology of the em dash, though not relevant to its proper usage, is interesting. It is named for the em, of course, because it is the length of one em; the word dash, though, is more intriguing: Dashes, as a group, were likely given this title because of the action used to create them. “Dash” comes from the Middle English verb dasshen—to knock, to hurl, to break (Truss 159)—and means “to strike violently”; dashes were used in handwritten text even before the age of metal type, and were produced with a sharp dash of a pen on paper. Though usage of the dashes as punctuation marks has evolved over time, this definition has been in evidence since the middle of the sixteenth century (Houston 150).
Variations on the em dash exist in certain contexts. In the past, the em dash was often paired with other punctuation marks, forming such creations as the comma-dash or “commash”; though these “dashtards” were, at one time, employed by writers as venerated as Shakespeare, they have been considered nonstandard for over half a century (151–153). In British writing, the em dash is itself nonstandard; in its place, a spaced en dash is used (145). There are also 2-em and 3-em dashes, which have their own purposes and are, respectively, two and three ems long. The 2-em dash is used to omit words or parts of words, such as names or expletives, or to represent missing or illegible information in quoted text (The Chicago 335–336). It was regularly employed to censor names of politicians in mid–eighteenth century England, in order to circumvent a ban on parliamentary reporting (Houston 158–160), but has since fallen out of style; at that time, it was also so commonly used to censor expletives that the word “dash” itself became a mild epithet (158). The 3-em dash, meanwhile, is used in scholarly bibliographies, to indicate that the author or editor of an entry is the same as that of the previous entry (The Chicago 336).
Since the days of metal type, the em dash has had a rocky history. Though it was common enough during and prior to that era, it saw a decline when Christopher Latham Sholes patented the first typewriter in the 1860s. Due to spatial limitations and the lack of a shift mechanism, Sholes’s QWERTY keyboard had to prioritize certain characters over others; there was only room for one dash, and Sholes chose a version of the hyphen (Houston 160–161). The hyphen, then, had to act for all dashes—it entirely took the place of the en dash, and in order to create the em dash, typists would have to type two hyphens in a row. Modern word processors now have helpful shortcuts for typing the em dash, and will even autocorrect a double hyphen into an em dash, but the remnants of this reliance on hyphens can be seen in comic books, where it is still lettering practice to use the double hyphen instead of the em dash (Klein).
The em dash has also experienced shifts in attitude; as with all aspects of the English language, it has both its proponents and its detractors, but there have been clear trends in its popularity. Its informality and versatility were, at one time, viewed as drawbacks; as Norris explains, “[t]he sheer range of its use suggests that it’s a lazy, all-purpose substitute for more disciplined forms of punctuation” (136). Truss similarly describes how it was “seen as the enemy of grammar” because it is so prevalent in email and texting communication, which are often characterized by “overtly disorganized thought” (157). Norris also notes that women often use em dashes (136), which is, in itself, an explanation for the contempt it has faced, since things used and enjoyed by women tend to be derided in modern society.
The em dash is, however, seeing a return to popularity, and an increase in respect. As Gopen describes, beginning in the 1960s—when using the em dash would have gotten him “sent straightaway to the headmaster’s office to be reprimanded for [his] act of moral turpitude”—first fiction writers, and then journalists, began employing the em dash (13). As the em dash became useful to writers, it “slowly assumed a rightful place in writing,” and eventually even grammar books began to accept it (13). It is no longer disparaged—except, perhaps, by the stuffiest of grammar snobs—and this is a victory for writers, as it presents them with “better ways to send interpretive signals to their readers” (13), as has been demonstrated by the earlier comparison of different tones expressed by various punctuation marks.
The em dash is, once again, a staple of English punctuation. It is found in many genres of modern writing, and whole sections of grammar and editing texts are devoted to it. It is a valuable mark to study: Its wide variety of uses and ability to shape a text’s tone endow it with great potential when used effectively, and an exploration of its fascinating history provides insight into a range of topics, including typographic origins and political censorship. Like other punctuation marks, the em dash has endured the changeability of popular opinion, but it is currently on the rise, and perhaps, someday, this wonderfully versatile character will be considered acceptable and useful enough to be taught in middle and high school English classes.
The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed., Chicago, U of Chicago P, 2010.
Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications. 3rd ed., Berkeley, U of California P, 2011.
“Glossary of Typographic Terms.” Adobe, www.adobe.com/products/type/adobe-type-references-tips/glossary.html. Accessed 5 June 2020.
Gopen, George D. “A Once Rogue Punctuation Mark Gains Respectability: What You Can Now Accomplish with an Em Dash.” Litigation; Chicago, vol. 46, no. 1, Fall 2019, pp. 13–14.
Houston, Keith. Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, & Other Typographical Marks. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.
Klein, Todd. “Punctuating Comics: Dots and Dashes.” Todd’s Blog, 23 Sept. 2008, kleinletters.com/Blog/punctuating-comics-dots-and-dashes/. Accessed 5 June 2020.
Norris, Mary. Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.
Phinney, Thomas. “Point Size and the Em Square: Not What People Think.” Phinney on Fonts, 18 Mar. 2011, www.thomasphinney.com/2011/03/point-size/. Accessed 5 June 2020.
Smiley, Sam, and Norman A. Bert. Playwriting: The Structure of Action. Rev. and expanded ed., New Haven, Yale UP, 2005.
Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York, Gotham Books, 2004.
Drawn from journals kept through his career, The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler contains some of Chandler’s descriptions and ideas that would later appear in his classics novels. Included are observations on slang and more. Enjoy.
Alissa Lukara is the author of the novel Secrets of the Trees, set in Latvia. Her memoir, Riding Grace: A Triumph of the Soul (Silver Light Publications), was called by the Midwest Book Review “a transcendental story about the immeasurable powers of redemption and compassion.”
Alissa Lukara has been a professional writer and writing coach for more than thirty years and founded Transformational Writers. She teaches workshops and speaks on writing as a transformational journey. She is also co-author of NightDancin’ (Ballantine Books).
She grew up near Cleveland, Ohio, and has lived in Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. She now makes her home in Ashland.
Ed Battistella: Your book Secrets of the Trees struck me as an engaging hero’s quest combined with recent history. How did the book come about?
Alissa Lukara: After completing a memoir, I knew I wanted next to write a novel. One day I was hiking in Lithia Park when a young boy ran up to me, asked me if my name was Nikkie and if I was lost in the woods. Nikkie had carved her name into a tree, he said, and he was looking for her with his father and sister. They had made a game of it, the boy’s father explained. I went along with the fantasy and that encounter sparked the idea for the novel with a main character named Nikkie, who had been lost in a forest as a child once and now had also lost her way in her life. The first scenes I wrote were set in a forest in Oregon.
But a year into the writing of the book, scenes set in Latvia emerged. As long as I had written, I had known I would one day write a novel that included Latvia’s recent history and my own family’s history. Their life in Latvia, their uprooting during WWII and their own hero’s quest to escape the Soviet takeover had shaped my life and perspectives on the world growing up. It was then I knew Secrets of the Trees would be that book about Latvia. And while the novel is set in 2003, my family’s life and quest were fictionalized as part of the backstory.
EB: Tell us about the protagonist Nikkie, who is a dancer with visions. How did you conceive of her?
AL: The day after my encounter with the boy in the park, I did a free write asking Nikkie to tell me about herself and a spontaneous piece emerged about her that started with her whirling and dancing. It ended up with her pretending to be lost in the forest with her brother.
Then when I was a couple years into writing the novel, her visions in Latvia started to appear in scenes of the book. At that moment, I knew the main action of this novel about Nikkie’s hero’s quest would take place in Latvia and include pieces of my family’s history. I made her ancestry Latvian, like mine. I knew her transformational journey to re-inspire herself as a dancer and solve the mystery of her vision would now also involve an exploration of her Latvian roots and a deepening of her recognition of the divine in all creation, most notably nature and trees, a concept central to Latvian spirituality, and to the Latvian goddesses Māra and Laima, who guide her.
EB: And Nikkie has a twin, Tom. Why a twin?
AL: After the boy asked me if I was Nikkie, I continued my hikes in the same park to think about the novel. I carried a notebook and pen to jot down ideas. Several days in a row, I saw twins of various ages. It happened so often, I commented to a friend that there must be a twin convention in town. Then, I realized that Nikkie had a brother who was a fraternal twin.
Some years into the writing, I also discovered that twins had run in my maternal family. One great grandmother had been a fraternal twin whose brother drowned when he was a teenager. She had also given birth to fraternal twins, who had died as toddlers from a flu.
EB: What is your connection to Latvia, Latvians spirituality, and Latvian history?
AL: I am a first generation American with several generations of Latvian ancestry. My parents and grandparents and other members of my maternal family escaped Latvia in 1944 during WWII when the Soviets took it over. They walked across Latvia, were refugees and lived in a Displaced Persons camp in Würzburg, Bavaria, Germany for five years before emigrating to the U.S. Some remaining family members were arrested and sent to Siberia, where most died. I still have relatives in Latvia who lived through the Soviet Occupation and remain there now that it is free. This family history has struck a deep chord throughout my life. Growing up, I was active in the Latvian culture and community in Cleveland, Ohio, learning to speak, read and write Latvian, speaking it at home, attending Latvian events and camps. Since the Soviet Union was trying to destroy the culture in Latvia itself, many Latvian parents, mine included, taught their children that it was up to the Latvian diaspora to carry forth the culture so it would not die. I participated in Latvian Song and Dance festivals in the U.S., Canada and Latvia, and as a young adult was part of the Latvian community in New York City. A few years ago, I became a dual citizen.
My mother was active in the Chicago Latvian community for decades, studied Latvian politics and arts, was part of a Latvian literary group, talked to me often – always in Latvian – about Latvian current events and culture. I was fortunate to travel to Latvia with her three times before she died last year and gain her insights there. Through her connections, I met not only my family there but her friends including many well-known Latvians in the arts and culture. In researching Secrets of the Trees, I realized that much of what was important to me in fact had its roots in my Latvian heritage: my love of the arts and nature, spirituality that sees the divine in nature, poetry, dance, music, a longing for freedom, my resilience.
EB: What should readers understand about Latvia?
AL: Latvia is a country most people know little about. Yet its culture is rich. It’s been said that every Latvian is a poet, and a Latvian without a song is a Latvian without a soul. I love that and can so relate.
Too often, our world seems to value only the accomplishments of the superpowers while ignoring or discounting what smaller countries have to teach us. The novel offers a look at what Latvians have to share globally through the filter of what has most touched me about it. They value and support the arts. For instance, they have managed to create and preserve their cultural identity and identification as a singing nation despite living through centuries of oppression and serfdom.
During Glasnost and Atmoda, Latvians’ conscious decision to stage a nonviolent Singing Revolution led to the dissolution of fifty years of Soviet Oppression. They continue to hold a Latvian song and dance festival every five years, as they have since 1873, that is on the UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity list. It involves mass choir and dance events of forty thousand plus participants (fifteen thousand singers, fifteen thousand dancers) from a country with a population of two million. Numerous Latvian classical music and opera stars grace the top opera houses and symphony halls in the world and the country’s choirs repeatedly win gold medals in world competitions. Latvians, even those who live in the city, also maintain a deep soul connection to and respect for nature, the land and its forests.
EB: Can you tell our readers a bit more about the title—Secrets of the Trees?
AL: From the first pages I wrote, scenes were set in forests, and the trees became like characters themselves. And when the visions in Latvian forests appeared to Nikkie, their role stood out even more. The forests draw Nikkie, are central to solving the mystery behind the recurring visions, hence the title, which came to me spontaneously a few years ago.
Also interwoven in the novel and inspiring the title are the ways Latvia’s forests play a key role in its collective history and culture, in Latvian’s day to day lives and specifically in the lives of my novel’s characters. Forests still cover 42 percent of Latvia. Trees are key images in many of Latvia’s folk songs and folklore. Over the centuries that Latvia was oppressed by one nation after another, Latvians in peril escaped and hid in the country’s dense forests. During WWII, resistance fighters, known as the Forest Brothers, lived and operated out of the woods. But over the years Latvians have also gone to the forest to find solace. My grandmother, like many Latvians, learned to give her pain to the trees and ask them to heal her. When Latvians were not free to speak out in real life, they could speak out to the trees and rocks and plants of the woods. Several Latvian deities are associated with trees. There are even lists of sacred trees to visit in Latvia.
EB: What are you working on currently? Will there be a sequel?
AL: I’ve been getting the word out about Secrets of the Trees and taking a much-needed break. But I am planning to start a new writing project soon. I might write a screenplay of the novel. I have always envisioned it as a film and have had several other people tell me they see it that way as well. Also, the first draft of Secrets of the Trees included several chapters of Nikkie in Egypt that I cut out but am now considering turning into a sequel. At present, though, I’m being called simply to do some free writing to explore what wants to be expressed in what is a whole new chapter of my life. I am excited to see what comes from that.
EB: Thanks for talking with us.
AL: You’re welcome, Ed. I’m grateful for the opportunity.
Bethroot Gwynn graduated from Duke University and Union Theological Seminary. She lives on women’s land in the forests of Southern Oregon, where she has been writing, growing food, making theater and ritual since 1976. She has taught, directed, and performed Personal Theater for Women, crafting experience into physical symbol and personal myth. Her first theater production was Feathers in My Mind, an autobiographical play. She created several one-woman performance pieces, including Theaterwoman, Immaculate Decision, and A Mind Play — celebrating lesbian-feminism and Goddess spirituality at conferences, festivals and other venues. She directed some of her students in two performance pieces —Pieces of Truth, and Childtracks and Amazon Wings, and created an ensemble piece called Women: The Longest Revolution — A Performance Documentary.
Her poetry and essays have been published in WomanSpirit, Manzanita Quarterly, MoonSeed, Sinister Wisdom, The Poetry of Sex, and other publications. Bethroot is a longtime editor of We’Moon: Gaia Rhythms for Womyn, and her writing is featured regularly in the We’Moon datebook. She published a chapbook in 1990 — Under the Heartstone: Poems from a Lesbian Love Spell. In 2018, We’Moon published a collection of her work — PreacherWoman for the Goddess: Poems, Invocations, Plays and Other Holy Writ.
For those readers who may be unfamiliar, what is We’Moon?
We’Moon is a unique datebook, graced with art and writing submitted from women all over the world. It reflects a spirituality that honors Earth/Moon/Sun/Stars — and Woman. Gaia, the primal mother earth Goddess in Greco-Roman mythology, interacts with her celestial neighbors every day, and We’Moon keeps track of those actual rhythms. It is a daily/weekly calendar and appointment book packed with astrological, lunar and Sun-seasonal information. It’s also a book of devotions: sacred space where women share written and artistic inspirations from their life-experiences, their love and concern for the world, their delight at saying Goddess! out loud as a name for divine energy. “We’Moon” = we of the moon, we whose bodies cycle in Moon rhythm.
We like to say that “If Mother Earth needed a datebook, She would choose We’Moon.” There is really nothing quite like it. I’m thinking of it as a spiritual Rorschach: there is something for you to be gifted by, depending on what you are looking for. Thousands of folks rely on We’Moon for its detailed astrological and lunar data. Every day’s calendar space includes lunar phases and detailed astrological entries (the movement of the Sun through the signs of the Zodiac, planetary travels through those signs: aspects, transits, ingresses, etc.). This information is important for people who take sky activities into account as they make plans and write in their appointments and seek to understand unseen multiplicities in their lives. Insightful articles by women in the Introduction and Appendix serve as a primer for deeper explorations of astrology, eclipses, Tarot, herbs, and the solar cycle of seasons.
Others are more drawn to We’Moon’s poetic and artistic qualities. For some it’s like a spirit-filled coffee table book; opening to any week may reveal an oracle of color and verse that offers guidance and wisdom. I’ll say more about We’Moon magic shortly.
The We’Moon calendar honors eight Holy Days: the two solstices and two equinoxes marked by how the Sun and Earth play with each other and create seasons — and the four in-between, cross-quarter days from the Celtic calendar: Imbolc (Candlemas), Beltane (May Day), Lammas, Samhain (Hallowmas). Each holyday receives a double page spread of art and writing, and each year a gifted writer accents our travel through this Wheel of the Year.
Every year the datebook has a theme, a touchstone to inspire our contributors and our organizing of the material we receive. For the past 21 years, our annual theme has been drawn from a card in Tarot’s Major Arcana. We’Moon 2020 spins off from the Judgment card, #20, and proclaims Wake Up Call as the thematic clarion. And within the datebook there are always 13 Moons or chapters, from one New Moon to the next, with art and writing threaded through the daily/weekly pages, following a sub-theme of that year’s wider focus.
In order to give readers a bit of a sample of what one would find in the We’Moon datebook, would you share a few favorite pieces?
Enough talking about the book already!
Let’s look at a couple of actual pages from We’Moon 2020.
Here is a poem by Lorraine Schein, companioned by an art piece from Sudie Raskusin. It is on page 77 and is part of Moon IV Awakened Woman.
From Moon VI Earth Answers, we are sharing here a poem from Cindy Ruda, and art by Rachel Houseman. You can see that this page has no daily calendar space. It is part of the Moon Page VI spread, accompanying the title page for that Moon chapter.
I chose these selections as examples of the now provocative, now reverent material that We’Moon publishes. There are clearly political stirrings among We’Moon writers and artists. We hear impassioned alarm about the state of the world, offerings of hope about building global community. Sometimes there is quirky relief, wit to shake us up. And we also get to bow in gratitude for the prayers and paens that remind us of benevolence at the heart of reality.
How do these contributions of art and writing come about? How are they gathered and chosen?
This part of the story is quite remarkable. There are other astrological moon calendars, a few dedicated to women. What makes W’e’Moon so unusual, I believe, is this wave of art and writing submissions every year — more than 3000, from 400-500 women around the world. From that treasure trove, approximately 150 pieces of art, and 150 writings, wind up in the datebook. The wave comes in response to the Call for Contributions that we send out in the spring, spinning an invitation based on our chosen theme and a bevy of questions to spark creative impulses: what imaginative uplift, visions of truth might women create from their pens and paintbrushes, keyboards and cameras?
“We” who gather this rich material together are a staff of 7 women, most based in Southern Oregon, a mix of full- and part-time employees with years of longevity among us. We’Moon staff are sometimes a little bonkers about what year we are in. Calendar-makers have to be far ahead of the game. Right now in mid-March we are selling/using We’Moon 2020; We’Moon 2021 was sent to the printer last week, and we’ve just completed and released the Call for We’Moon 2022.
Those thousands of submissions will come in over the summer. And here is Part 2 of We’Moon’s unlike-any-other-datebook story: a democratic layer of women’s community participation in the process of selecting art and writing. In September, women are invited to join us to review the material, at about a dozen Selection Circles held in different parts of the region. Each piece of art/writing has an easy rating code on the back, and women come together in these small “study halls” to register their druthers about the material — about 200 participants in all. The final circle, held in Ashland, also includes feedback about possible covers, and Moon theme subjects. We’Moon staff spend months in fall and winter reviewing the materials, firming up Moon theme clusters, choosing and placing art and writing on calendar pages of the next We’Moon, changing our minds 300 times. We consult the circle druthers for advice as we go along. We also go searching for additional pieces if crucial topics need more focus than we find in the mix of submissions.
And women’s community participation comes full circle in the fall when we hold an Unveiling in Ashland of the new We’Moon. This is a public-invited event where local area contributors of art & writing in the brand-new datebook share their work. The Unveilings are vibrant with creativity, resonant with appreciation and celebration.
What are the origins of We’Moon? How did it begin?
The story of how We’Moon came about is a fascinating tale. You can read about it in detail in an exquisite book: In the Spirit of We’Moon. It’s a 30 Year Anthology of Art and Writing from We’Moon 1981-2011. The anthology is narrated by Musawa, co-founder of the datebook and owner of We’Moon Company. She was there from the beginning!
We’Moon began as part of the late 20th century feminist revolution, the lesbian back-to-the-land movement, the emergence of eco-feminism, and the rebirth of Goddess spirituality. The datebook’s actual birth began on women’s land in Denmark, where 50-60 lesbians were living close to the earth, creating community, and exploring spiritual connections with each other and with natural earth-sky cycles. Astrology became a common language among these women from different countries, speaking different native languages. I’ve heard it said that, for instance, the Libras might cook dinner together, or the Pisces women do a harvest day. Their natal astrological charts hung in the living room and deepened their fun and wonder with each other and the cosmos.
Suddenly, the land was commandeered by a corporation, and this nurturing experimental community had to disband and separate. Musawa and Nada, her then-partner, in diaspora, took on creating a novel way for these women to stay connected: We’Moon! “Faced with loss of our home base, we turned to the Moon, Sun and stars to keep us in touch with ourselves, each other and the Earth’s cycles” (Musawa, In the Spirit of We’Moon, p. 24).
The first We’Moon was wee: a pocket-sized astrological moon calendar for 1981-82, hand-written in five languages. Copies traveled around Europe in backpacks and travel bags, creating a new kind of community, one in which women could turn the page and know that other women, wherever located, were greeting the same sun, dancing under the same full moon, in the same cyclic rhythm. The Libras and Pisces and other signs could continue to be in cosmic communion. And women could sense their dreams and struggles connected even at a distance.
Musawa brought We’Moon back to the US in the late 1980s when she returned to the women’s land she had founded in Oregon, and after some bumps on the publishing road, production of the annual We’Moon datebook grew in the 1990s to become a cottage industry for the residents of We’Moon Land. Over time, the datebook flourished as a channel for women’s creativity, an everyday anchor for connection with earth rhythms, and a touchstone for Goddess celebration. New technologies made it possible to expand circulation and develop new products: greeting cards and a wall calendar; the In the Spirit of We’Moon Anthology; The Last Wild Witch, a children’s book authored by Starhawk & illustrated by Lindy Kehoe; and in more recent years, my own book of poems,PreacherWoman for the Goddess; a Spanish language edition of the datebook; and — coming out in fall 2020, A We’Moon Tarot!
Production shifted to Southern Oregon in 2007, and We’Moon made itself at home again in the hands of countrywomen, several of us living on lands in the area, working at We’Moon’s hub.
What challenges has We’Moon faced in its 40 years of publication? What challenges does it face currently?
Challenges? For sure! Small independent publishers don’t have an easy time of it, and the ups and downs of business cycles always involve taking risks.
A dramatic setback occurred in 2001 when the Main House at We’Moon Land burned down, taking with it the We’Moon offices with reams of records and documents, art and archives, production capacity. A magical story emerged from the ashes. Four of us had just completed choosing the art and writing for the 2002 datebook. The notebook where we had recorded our choices was destroyed, as was every piece of writing submitted for the 2002 datebook. How could we make a new We’Moon? We sat together for hours and days, and we entered into the sacred realm of collective Memory. A scrap of phrase would come to someone, a fleeting image would partner it in someone else’s mind, and Voila! we would restore the visual, the verbal, page by page. We wound up recalling art and writing for all but about 3 out of 153 pages; charred release forms helped us re-find our contributors. That We’Moon of 2002, Priestessing the Planet, remains one of my favorites.
Not every challenge has an inner magical story. But We’Moon continues to defy the odds. Think of it: here is a hard copy daily planner made of paper — how quaint! — in an age when digital information and interaction are the yardsticks by which millions of people measure, record, plan their every day. We’Moon swims upstream in the roiling river of electronic media. And our natural home among other feminist publishers and booksellers has shrunk drastically. 13 feminist bookstores remain in the US and Canada. In the 1980s, there were as many as 350; by 1992, less than 100. The same sharp decline has affected feminist presses and publishers. The big fish have eaten the small fry; Amazon and the big box stores have snapped up the alternative books market. Even the big publishing houses have had to scramble to stay viable in an age when print media has become archaic in many quarters. And feminism has become backlashed into disfavor, as though misogyny and abuse of women had been vanquished, as though women’s empowerment had been fully achieved.
We’Moon has continued to offer itself as a Challenge: to a mainstream clogged with sexist, racist detritus from an imperial and patriarchal system of control by white, Western, male power. Yes, an astrological lunar calendar can do this! And women have continued to discover and adore this publication. Hard copy or not, We’Moon has 50,000 customers buying products, 80,000 followers on facebook. We know that there are thousands of women hungry for an electronic version of the datebook. We’ll get there, when the budget can support such an enormous expense. But meantime, what a hoot that we are thriving! For that matter, thousands know that there is nothing like running your hands over the smooth full color pages of exquisitely designed artistry that Says Something!
That print vs. digital edge nudges a generational challenge. We’Moon came of age among women like myself now in our elder years. It will survive only if younger generations of women reach out and claim it. That is happening to some extent. Our staff group has some mixed generations, and that makes for vigorous instruction for us all. We see women of different ages at Selection Circles, and at the annual Unveiling. But there are a great many grey-haired crones at these gatherings. We’Moon has outreach work to do among the mothers and maidens. We know that some younger women are submitting their art. Edgy images are arriving, a modern flair that takes risk. Reflection of risky times, an edgy world.
The challenge for We’Moon about racial and cultural diversity is acute and rich with opportunity. We’Moon was born into a multicultural and international cradle and had especially strong and enduring connections with women in the UK and Germany (a German language datebook was published for many years until 2016). Although there are Women of Color who have been We’Moon devotees and contributors all along, We’Moon’s cultural bases have for the most part been Euro-centric. That we use the Celtic Holy Day calendar reflects our kinship with Dianic Wicca and European pagan traditions.
We’Moon culture has always been eagerly open to participation from Women of Color, but the demographics and the geographies of unconscious racism have surely been a part of We’Moon’s history. We are actively committed to interrupt these patterns, working with some Women of Color to reach out in their communities and among indigenous women, seeking contributions of art and writing, and participants in Selection Circles. We particularly seek art that represents people of color created by women artists of color. The pages of We’Moon 2020 and 2021 reflect this work: a new harvest of multicultural offerings, and a more comprehensive weave of the We’Moon web.
The international story shifted enormously in 2018 with the publication of a Spanish edition of We’Moon, involving a far-flung multi-national team of translators. We hope that new marketing alliances can support this more global outreach. And: of the 150 contributors in We’Moon 2020, 35 are from countries outside the US. Yes, most are English-speaking. But the web does reach wider and wider. My favorite proofing task is to take a careful spin through the biographic notes in the We’Moon Appendix. It is fascinating to read about the varieties of women world-wide who are practicing their creativity, healing arts, Goddess devotions, earth-tending.
We’Moon has clearly meant a great deal to a great many women. What need does We’Moon fill? How does We’Moon impact women’s lives?
How would we know how to answer this question? The anecdotes give us some information, the stories that filter in through love notes, phone order conversations, appreciative emails. I was near the shipping office a few weeks ago and heard about this plea: “Please rush my order. I can’t live without you!”
I know a woman who gathers all her many years of We’Moons around her every Holy Day and makes it part of her ritual to call in We’Moon wisdom and inspiration from the Equinoxes and Solstices of the past.
Often women call or write looking for a particular piece of art or poem that touched them years ago. They remember and hold onto those deeply meaningful inspirations long after the year has closed. One woman spoke of saving an old We’Moon for years; there was a specific poem that moved her, and she wound up reading it aloud as she spread her mother’s ashes. And then there is the classic remark from a reader who called We’Moon “Church in a purse.” That one says it all.
Stepping back, I see that We’Moon gives women a chance to speak and listen to one another. There is a community of discourse, a town hall of spiritual conversation as women reflect, write, paint, unload, share at deeply personal levels. In a time of social dislocation, vitriol on the digital airwaves, planetary degradation, unabated violence — and now pestilence! — it is comforting to turn the page and be bathed by another woman’s wisdom in these unnerving times. Maybe she helps me sleep; maybe she inspires me to plan a march of resistance. We don’t know precisely how women respond to each other’s work. We know there is a world wide web that pulses among women as we share the common ground of Earth rhythm and the blanket of sky.
For decades you have been involved in artistic and creative endeavours in the Oregon women’s community. How did you come to be involved with We’Moonand how have you contributed to We’Moon over the years?
I don’t remember when I first encountered We’Moon, but it was definitely on my Goddess-loving path. I was on land in Southern Oregon in the late ’80s, creating ceremony and feminist theater, when Musawa was introducing We’Moon to women’s land communities and inviting participation in the annual datebook project. I attended and hosted some Selection Circles (we called them Weaving Circles in those days, a more imaginative title but baffling to literalists).
My more formal, staff relationship with We’Moon began in the winter of 1996-97. Women at We’Moon Land were beginning work on the 1998 datebook. The Tarot card offering theme guidance was The Crone; Wise We’Moon Ways was to be the theme of We’Moon 1998. Those in the staff group looked around at each other and decided they needed a woman older than they were to be working on the datebook and its invocation of Crone magic. They asked me to be the honorary Crone that year — I was only 55! — and to be a Special Editor for that issue. That was 24 years ago, and I am still called Special Editor for We’Moon.
Some of my tasks remain the same: I work with the submitted art and writing after “the cream has risen to the top” in the Selection Circles process. We call this my “broody hen” stage: I go through the material, sometimes diving into the “reject” boxes to see what jewels may be hiding there. Often they do sparkle. I let art and writing find each other and can frequently suggest pairings of words and images. Some other staff women are beginning to take on some of the broody hen work. I am Really a Crone now, and we want to be realistic about generational succession for We’Moon’s long term future.
A big part of my work is refining the 13 Moon themes and clustering the art and writing thematically. When our “Creatrix” group meetings begin, I’m bringing rough draft possibilities for how this voluminous amount of material can be organized. We meet in the fall making tentative art and writing placements, and then refine our choices weeks later during another stretch of meetings.
Meantime, feature articles from astrologers, the Holy Day writer and others who write for the Introduction to the datebook are coming in. My inner grammarian is joyfully released into this job. I get to be precise about semi-colons and commas, except for the exceptions.
A particular gift has evolved in my work with We’Moon which I both offer and am blessed by. Each year, I create the Invocation for next year’s We’Moon: a poem/prayer that summons Goddess energies specific to the datebook’s guiding theme. I get to prowl around online discovering arcane Goddesses from many parts of the world, Goddesses rarely known of outside the culture in which they are or were honored. And then, it turns out, I know how to pray out loud. My priestess vocation speaks up. My sister editors help burnish the language; we word-wrestle with sacred expression. The Summons resounds — printed in the Call for Contributions and in the Datebook, read aloud at Selection Circles and the Unveiling. Those Goddesses show up! They serve as Muses for the work that fills We’Moon. They travel the world and touch women with power, love, magic, compassion, imperatives, hope.
Would you describe your journey toward earth-based/goddess spirituality? Where does your spiritual vision come from and what does it mean to you?
I don’t think I can speak to these questions any more clearly than I did in the Introduction to the PreacherWoman for the Goddess book. So here are some excerpts from that writing:
“I come from a long line of back-country Protestant ministers, and something in the inheritance must have stuck because I wound up in theological seminary in the mid-1960s — drawn to passionate conversations about the great Life/Death questions and the socio-political revolutions at hand. But when my revolution came — the Lesbian-Feminist one — I was done with patriarchal religions. I was on fire with female-centered spirituality and joined other women to create women’s lands as Sanctuary for empowerment and imagination; to make art, culture and community devoted to a spirited embrace of earth-life and celebrating the Female as Holy. The domination of divine metaphor by male deity was Over!
There is no simple switch here from patriarchal God to a matriarchal version of Chief Deity … In theological terms, we veer toward immanence: divine spirit infuses all existence — the far reaches of cosmos, the inner quantum depths, the immaterial mysteries of consciousness, time, energy. And when we reach for imagery to reflect the Inexpressible, it is high time we look into the mirror. There you are. There I am. All the varieties of us. Woman. Holy.”
And from my apologia for the Spirit that inhabits my work as a creator/performer of Personal Theater: “The Spirit of Theater/The Theater of Spirit”
“Theater is a way of Opening. Ritual is a way of Opening …
We Beat the Drums.
We Call In the Gods and Goddesses. Make a Joyful Noise in the House of the Lord …
In Theater, as in expressive worship,
We imagine. And most important: we embody what we imagine …
We pretend that we can even speak about the Ineffable. — God? …
We can really only point to The Divine.
All we have is metaphor. And that is Perfect for Theater! …
My calling is to redress the balance of the last 5000-50,000 years, when divine metaphor has been occupied by male deity. It is long past time for Her to take focus. I am Her Priestess.
Theaterwoman, serving the Goddess MetaPhora.
I have enactments for you–In Her Honor.”
I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions taken directly from the We’Moon website. “Where and how are womyn transforming the dominant world order, and reclaiming Herstory? What is happening as more womyn move into power? What is the priority work on your To-Do list as an empowered woman?”
We are at the cusp of extraordinary change in the world as more and more women take power in their lives, in their communities, on the world stage. Sexual abuse and violence are called out as never before. Powerful male predators are brought down. Women fly airplanes, repair space stations, push research at the edges of scientific inquiry, govern (some) countries.
Because misogyny still survives, the glass is both half empty and half full. There are women murdered in the Amazon precisely because they have taken leadership in the environmental movement to protect the forest. (A special feature in We’Moon 2017 honored a number of these women.) Feminists in Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries have been killed because they insisted on women’s rights. Femicide — of all archaic brutalities! — is on the rise in Mexico! Thank goodness that the women of Mexico en masse are refusing to tolerate it. Pictures of their marches are on my mental screen as soon as we enter the empowerment discussion. Half empty, Half full. Women marching on International Women’s Day in other countries were attacked — generally by Islamists — for celebrating female power. How can this be? The entrenchment of hatred for women should they defy servitude as sexual and reproductive objects continues to be rigid and virulent, even in the 21st century.
And yet . . . Women Are taking power in public life all over the world. Many parliaments and city councils look different now, with female decision makers actively visible, even and most especially in some third-tier countries. Hospitals, clinics, labs, courtrooms, graduate faculties are staffed by women who did the training and secured their expertise. I’m amazed to see group photographs of US Congresspeople: look at all those women! There were so many articulate women at the microphone during the presidential impeachment hearings.
Ahem . . . . There’s that pesky glass. 75% of the US Congress is still male. 76% is white. We have come so far, and we have so far to go.
Yes, the campaigns to empower women as voters and officeholders, professionals, athletes, scientists are vigorous and successful. And No: girls are still refused education in die hard Islamist regions. Sexual slavery and trafficking of women have not diminished one whit. I believe it is imperative to keep naming the inequities and abuses that women face, to shout them, cry them out.
Feminism in America took a back seat not only because of male backlash, not only because uppity women are maligned, and many women are afraid to be uppity. Feminism faded also because of a classist narcissism: many women who progressed into some semblance of personal power and responsibility forgot their impoverished and mistreated sisters. Careerism and focus on Me inoculated a couple of generations of young women against commitment to collective wellbeing. The early Women’s Liberation Movement insisted: There are No Personal Solutions. Women’s liberation is about collective empowerment. So long as there are women anywhere in the world who are denied liberty, we cannot rest.
We’Moon is part of the Yes — celebrating women’s empowerment — and part of the No — calling out female oppression. How wonderful to affirm women’s rise to power and responsibility for shaping the world we live in! How fiercely we must insist that All of Gaia’s daughters must be free!
Finally, what do you foresee in We’Moon’s future? Any final parting thoughts?
And now, in these very days of March 2020, the global human community shivers with fear. A new biocide targets our species. Pandemic. The Cassandras have long been saying that this day would come. Some dreadful planetary spasm would end life as we know it; we would join the polar bears and snow leopards and tigers and honeybees whom we press toward extinction in a mighty struggle to survive.
What can a lunar astrological calendar do? What can We’Moon offer in such drastic times?
I open the spiral datebook for today, March 17, and this Spring Equinox week. An elegant poem excerpt reads:
” I come up for air
whipping my hair
in an arch of splintered light
and I am humming
raw and incandescent”
(by Meredith Heller)
No matter what, the Sun will arch her light to give us Equal Day, Equal Night on Thursday, Equinox. “The return of spring, time of holy equality,” writes Oak Chezar, our Holy Day writer for 2020. “Walking in the woods, see that trees aren’t isolated individuals. Each one is Forest, Forest, Forest. I walk in the world, and I’m not even me: I am World. Gaze through the mirror. World. World. World.”
We may not be able to gather in person this Equinox. But we are gathered, held in mysterious Balance. And like the women who founded We’Moon, we turn “to the Moon, Sun and stars to keep us in touch with each other and the Earth’s cycles.”
Mary Gently is an aspiring historian based in the Rogue Valley. She recently graduated from Southern Oregon University with a Bachelor’s degree in History and a minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with Departmental Honors and is the recipient of the Arthur S. Taylor Award for Outstanding Student in History 2018-2019. She will begin a Ph.D. program in History at Rutgers University in the fall of 2020. Mary enjoys traveling, watching classic movies, and drinking beer.
This blog post was made possible in part by a grant from the Oregon Heritage Commission to Southern Oregon University, to document the Rogue Valley Women’s Movement, 1970-1990.
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I don’t enjoy most social media, but I will admit to spending time on Tumblr, a social media platform with a penchant for encouraging tight-knit communities based around books, television shows, hobbies, and other special interests. My time on Tumblr has allowed me to become fluent in a new form of language, a type of English that exists only in digital spaces. Without access to facial gestures or vocal tonal shifts, written language has needed to evolve for a setting as informal as ordinary speech. Internet users have created a grammar out of misspellings, carefully placed punctuation, capitalization, and emoji. It is not limited to Tumblr; my time on other social media platforms, communicating with people through online messaging systems, and interacting with friends through texting all use the language of the internet. In spite of its prevalence, I rarely see people older than myself recognizing the ability of language to communicate casually through texts, emails, or posts on social media. The internet represents a new frontier in language, a wild west of communication that needs a dedicated linguist to categorize, analyze, and understand.
Gretchen McCulloch is one such linguist. Her book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, takes the internet’s ways of communicating as its subject. McCulloch, a self-described “internet linguist,” is a millennial fluent in internet-speak. She also has the resources, education, and grit to attempt to capture the internet into a single compact volume. Having encountered attempts to analyze internet communication in the past, I was hesitant, but McCulloch won me over in about eleven pages. During the first chapter, McCulloch discusses social, as opposed to formal, acronyms, including omg (oh my god), btw (by the way), and lol (laughing out loud). When I use these acronyms, I never capitalize them. Capitalization in internet communication is already a tricky thing, with some people I know going out of their way to write all in lowercase, but traditional acronyms like NASA, DNA, and AIDS are displayed in all caps. Some publications consider it proper to capitalize all acronyms in this style, regardless of how they are actually used. To me, this is an immediate giveaway that the writers, editors, and publishers behind articles about newfangled acronyms never use the acronyms in their daily lives and have no actual understanding about their use. When McCulloch writes that she “made the stylistic decision to write social, internet acronyms in all-lowercase,” I know that this was the book for me. Because Internet is not a discussion of internet language from the perspective of an outsider, but rather from someone who is not only fluent in internet-speak but also passionate about it.
I am an outsider to the field of linguistics, but McCulloch made me feel welcome. Part of this is the subject matter, which I know well, but much of it comes from her informal tone and willingness to explain specialized concepts. She discusses every idea in just enough detail for me to understand without drying up the subject matter. She also contextualizes the terminology that she uses, framing it in such a way that I felt connected to her ideas. For example, McCulloch divides internet users into five categories. She starts with the Old Internet People, who got involved with the internet in the earliest years, when a person needed programming skills to do anything online. She continues on to the Full Internet People, the group that she includes herself in, who got involved with the internet as a way to engage with new communities. In the same wave as the Full Internet People are the Semi Internet People like my parents, who treat internet culture as an extension of their real-world personal or work lives. Finally, the last wave of internet people includes the Pre Internet People like my grandparents, who have as little interaction with the internet as physically possible, and the Post Internet People such as myself. Initially, I resisted her classification, but she explained that Post Internet People are internet users who “don’t remember the first time they used a computer or did something online” much in the same way that previous generations don’t remember the first time they watched television or used a phone. I found that her classification made sense and helped me to understand how people interact with the internet. I feel comfortable communicating on the internet, but McCulloch reminded me that there is still a lot I can learn.
Because Internet covers a wide range of topics, from internet people and tone of voice to emoji and memes, because the internet is a complex place with a specialized and challenging language. Without that language, navigating the internet is difficult. Because Internet is both a key to that language and a celebration of it. It takes a little-understood topic that I see almost no love for in the world at large and elevates it to something worth studying. It acknowledges and embraces the internet as the future of language. Above all, it is a testament to the idea that in order to understand something, one must first appreciate it.
Levi Coren is a Post Internet Person. He spends objectively too much time mired in a small variety of toxic social media cesspools. In spite of his passion for the growing legitimacy of internet culture, he is completely out of touch with the internet lingo of people only a few years younger than him.
Connecticut-born Morgan Pielli has a BFA from BARD COLLEGE and an MFA from THE CENTER FOR CARTOON STUDIES. He works as a Graphic Designer with KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP and his comics have appeared in The New York Times Online. He is also a voice-over actor and storyteller who has performed on RISK! LIVE, WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF?, and TALES FROM THE COSMOS. He co-hosts the monthly show storytelling and live therapy show RELATIONSHiT.
You can find more of his work at MorganPielli.com. If you’re in the NYC area, come see him perform at QED in Queens every third Friday of the month at 7:30.
Ed Battistella: Welcome, Morgan. How did you get interested in art and in the arts?
Morgan Pielli: In kindergarten I watched in awe as a classmate drew a house. When I tried to draw a house, all my brain could make my hands do was scribble squiggles everywhere. I became obsessed with cracking the mystery of how making art works and started drawing constantly, wherever I went.
EB: I love the caricatures you’ve done for Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels, in the New York Times, and elsewhere. What goes into a good caricature?
MP: Thanks! I think one key element is posture. Everything comes from a person’s posture; it magnifies their mood, tugs or pushes at their facial features, it dictates the hang of their clothes, which in turn creates the illusion of motion(or lack thereof). So much of a person’s personality can be conveyed by the way they carry themselves.
EB: You also write and publish comics. Can you tell us about that? Where can readers can find them?
MP: I used to self-publish a quarterly minicomic called “Indestructible Universe,” that featured short science fiction and horror stories. I’ve also had my political cartoons published on The Nib and through Joyce Brabner’s Comixcast. More recently I’ve been focusing on my first graphic novel. Right now people can find my work on my website: MorganPielli.com.
EB: Who are some of the influences or inspirations for your work are an artist?
MP: Lately my big influences have been cartoonists Paul Grist and Phil Hester. Beyond them: illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, abstract painter Ad Reinhardt, writer Kurt Vonnegut, and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. And like a billion others that I’ll remember tomorrow morning.
EB: Beside storytelling through comics, you are also a story teller vocally. What’s the relationship between story telling with pictures and with words?
MP: Telling stories on stage forces you to be looser and to find the story in the moment. There’s a great expression that cartoonist Nate Powell (another influence!) either said or quoted: “Think with the ink!” The idea being that the decisions you make on the fly are often better than those you labor over. I’ve also heard this called “first thought, best thought.” It’s the very basis of improv comedy, and live storytelling isn’t much different. I walk on stage with a loose outline of what I want to say, and I often find myself making connections and forming the shape of the story once I start talking. This has inspired me to take a more loose and expressionistic approach to my comics.
EB: What’s your superpower?
MP: I can wiggle my ears back and forth and up and down. Because as a kid I spent every night for a year in front of the mirror trying to figure out how, for reasons only a kid would understand. This is how I will rid the world of crime.
EB: Thanks for talking with us.
MP: My pleasure! Thanks for writing the book I got to illustrate; it was a blast!
Dennis Baron is an emeritus professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and the author of eight books, including Grammar and Good Taste: Reforming the American Language (Yale University Press, 1982); Grammar and Gender (Yale University Press, 1986); The English-Only Question: An Official Language for Americans? (Yale University Press, 1990); and A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2009).
His most recent book is What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond He and She (Liveright, 2020), which Publishers Weekly called “entertaining and thoroughly documented.”
A former Guggenheim Fellow, Baron, who tweets as @DrGrammar, is a regular media commentator on the English language.
Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed reading What’s Your Pronoun?—and several of my students are reading it as well. Tell us about the “missing word” of the English pronoun system. What’s missing?
Dennis Baron: What’s missing is a third-person singular pronoun that is gender-neutral and nonbinary. The pronoun it is neuter, to be sure, but it typically refers to things, or maybe also animals. We used to use it for babies, but I think that’s not very common any more. In 1808, Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested it as a common-gender pronoun (today we’d call it ‘gender neutral’), but using it for people is generally insulting—both desexing and dehumanizing. In the 19th century, American politicians sometimes called their opponents it. And it’s still common for political rivals to insult one another’s sexuality.
EB: I was fascinated to read about the legal wrangling surrounding women’s rights and the selectivity of the law when it came to rights versus responsibilities. Can you tell our readers a bit about that?
DB: The masculine pronoun could be ambiguous when it appeared in statutes: does he mean ‘he or she’ or ‘only men’? To try to clarify the law, England (1850), Canada (1867) and the US (1871) passed statutes which declared that in any law, a masculine word (words like he and man) referred to women as well. Suffragists seized on that inclusivity, arguing that if he in penal statutes meant that women could be punished for a crime, then he in the voting law meant women could vote. Unfortunately, judges and legislators—at the time, all of them men—disagreed. In their view, he included ‘she’ when it came to penalties like going to jail or obligations like paying taxes, but when it came to privileges like voting or becoming a doctor or lawyer, each right had to be conferred specifically to women or they were excluded.
EB: You note that top-down directives about language invariable fail in the face of usefulness. Why has singular they proved so useful?
DB: Singular they works because it is not a top-down regulation. The form has been acceptable in English speech and writing since the 14th century, appearing regularly and without comment in the works of well-respected writers like Shakespeare and Austen. It wasn’t till the 18th century that grammarians and usage critics began labeling singular they as ungrammatical. But even then, most people, including well-educated, careful writers, used the form. Today most of the major language “authorities”—dictionaries, grammars, usage guides, and publishers’ style books, accept singular they for an indefinite: Everybody forgets their passwords. Or for a member of a class: The writer should always revise their work. And more and more of them accept nonbinary they as well: Alex likes their burger medium well. Singular they is used by people who don’t give the current debates over gender any thought at all. It’s used by people deeply concerned with gender rights and inclusivity. And even people who still object to singular they use it when they’re not paying attention. Singular they comes close to being the one-size-fits-all pronoun, and it arose naturally, in popular usage, rather than being imposed by a grammarian, a law-giver, or a well-intentioned person in HR.
EB: Has there been a turning point in public acceptance of singular their?
DB: The public has accepted singular they for centuries—probably ever since English borrowed th- pronouns from Old Norse, a borrowing that occurred because the Old English third person pronouns, which began with h-, had all started to sound alike. It’s the “experts” who are now accepting it as well.
EB: I was fascinated by the number of gender-neutral pronouns you have documented, which must have taken years of research. Why do people feel compelled to invent new pronoun?
DB: People are constantly coining words and expressions. It’s part of the creativeness of language. The fact that so many people over the past couple of centuries, whether amateurs and crackpots or well-educated writers and public figures, tried their hand at inventing pronouns, suggests that there is a serious need for such a word. Only singular they has been successful, overall, but there are still a significant number of people using one or more of the coined pronouns like ze and hir, which suggests that at least in the near term, we will be dealing with multiple answers to the question, what’s your pronoun? And that’s great, since English has many ways of saying the same thing.
Remember too, though, that some people don’t want to be asked their pronouns, and others prefer no pronoun at all—just say their name.
EB: What’s been the response to your study? Have you heard from prescriptivists?
DB: Response has been favorable. Yes, a couple of prescriptivists/purists remind me that singular they is wrong, even though it’s not wrong. Others object that their freedom of speech is at stake. Both of these objections are easily answered.
Singular they no less grammatical than singular you. In fact, singular they is actually much older than singular you. Starting in the 17th century, plural you began to appear as a singular as well, pushing out the long-established singular thou, thee, and thy. When that started to happen, purists objected to singular you, calling it ungrammatical, illiterate, and ambiguous. And grammar books through the 19th century insisted that thou is singular, you, plural, long after standard English speakers and writers had abandoned thou. (Though not considered standard, the th- second person and h- third person forms persist in some British varieties of English.)Today, just as no one wants to revive thou, no one wants to go back to the days of generic he.
As for the free-speech issue, in terms of personal interactions you are free to say whatever you like, but the First Amendment does not protect you from the consequences of your speech. As for official requirements to use inclusive language, they are designed to create a non-hostile environment in classrooms, offices, and places of public accommodation, where the regulation of behavior, including language, has long been accepted as legal and useful to ensure effective human interaction. More and more businesses have discovered that pronouns are good business, and that kind of public acceptance goes a long way toward making singular they and coined pronouns a part of everyday English.
EB: What advice have you got for writers and students about using singular they?
DB: Use singular they if you feel it sounds right, and be prepared to explain it if you are questioned. Editors will accept singular they iftheir style guides do (the new edition of the American Psychological Association Publication Manual is the latest of the major publication guides to approve singular they both for gender-nonspecific and nonbinary referents in both scholarly writing and when dealing with clients and patients).
If your pronoun is they, your employer or your teacher should respect that. As for general “tips for writers,” many teachers may still reject singular they, though they themselves use the form all the time. Students generally give the teacher what they want (see what I did there?). They is not a hill to die on—and of course not every sentence can be recast in the plural to avoid the singular they problem. But even if a teacher suggests it, don’t go with he or she, which is a form that everybody always hated for being too long, too awkward, too repetitive, and today, too binary.
EB: What other things are you working on?
DB: I am going back to “Unprotected Speech,” a project on language and law that I interrupted to write the pronoun book.
EB: Thanks for talking with us. Best of luck with What’s Your Pronoun?