A Little Beacon: Interview with Katie Hellmuth Martin

by Julie Chibbaro

Last month, in October, we were lucky to have two journalists join us for Get Lit Beacon. One of them, blogger, public relations expert, and owner of A Little Beacon Blog, Katie Hellmuth Martin, shares her thoughts about finding a good story:

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Katie Hellmuth Martin

GLB: How do you know when you have a story that really works, that you want to pursue?

Katie: When I hear a statement that has bigger implications, my ears perk up. For instance, during a regular yearly budget negotiation for the trash pickup contract, the attorney representing Royal Carting – the trash collector for Beacon – mentioned that Beacon is no longer getting paid for recycling, but rather is paying to have it picked up. I knew from earlier reporting two years ago that this was a big shift. It was a pretty simple statement said in an off-the-cuff way, but I decided to look into it.

If there is a mystery about who did what, or where something came from, then I know I have interest in a story. It could be anything, such as “what is the Spirit of Beacon Day?” even though by now, I myself know what it is. But as long as I remember that others don’t, then that fresh, wondering spirit will stay alive on A Little Beacon Blog.

GLB: Can you talk a little about how you put together a news story?

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Katie: I have a lot of Text Edit documents open. Either I’ll type thoughts into there, and any URLs I’ve found along the way, or I’ll put them straight into a draft at the blog. If I interview someone, they get their own Text Edit document saved into my Notes folder in my blog, called “A Little Beacon Blog” or ALBB on my computer. I only hand write notes if I’m visiting someone in person who might be put off by a laptop or if I don’t have a laptop.

As I marinate, sometimes I stall because I don’t know if it’s timely enough. Sometimes an idea will hit me for the Subject Line in the email that will go out with the article. When and if that happens, the story gets out much faster because I get that much more excited to share it with my readers.

GLB: How do you stay fresh and not get burned out on the glut of information? How do you see a story as important?

Katie: Sometimes, very often, I miss the boat with timeliness. And that makes me sad. I’ll often try hard to fit in an older story. I see a story as important if I feel that a lot of people didn’t know about it, or if they saw misinformation on social media, and if I can get the facts and the links to back something up. Then the story has stronger legs and will seem important to people’s lives.

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Katie Hellmuth Martin is a writer, blogger, designer, business owner, wife and mama. She has been working in the tech space since 2005 as a website producer, digital content strategist, blogger, and small business owner. She is the co-founder of Tin Shingle, the web-based community and resource making buzz-building affordable and accessible to all small business owners. Katie runs A Little Beacon Blog (www.alittlebeaconblog.com), a blog spotlighting her hometown of Beacon, NY and the local businesses that help it thrive.

Lee McIntyre: Post-Truth & the Perfect Fraud of Deepfake Video

By Flora Stadler

I remember once, back when I was a Very Serious Poet recently graduated from liberal arts college, I was talking to my mother about graduate school and she asked if I would consider journalism.

“That’s also writing,” she’d said.

“It’s not the same thing at all,” I replied, all righteous.

But 10 years later—after falling into a job as an editor at a local magazine and becoming a true believer in the connection between news and democracy—I did go to graduate school for journalism. There, I got an unexpected education in media literacy: I learned not only hsow to report news, but how to consume it—how to understand the sometimes subtle difference between fact and implication, the importance of source, the way language and even statistics can be manipulated.

But nothing could’ve prepared me for where we are now. News media, social media—it’s overwhelming and, honestly, discouraging.

In this bloody election cycle, I’m going to fall back on reporting and bring some nonfiction focus into the Get Lit online salon. I need truth to counter this confusing, divisive and downright Orwellian time, as we learn to consume new forms of media responsibly in the age of post-truth politics.

In my quest to separate facts from alternative facts, I found the refreshingly straightforward Lee McIntyre, Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and author of Post-Truth, a very good (and kind of scary) book examining the path that led us here, and how we can tread carefully on it.

McIntyre isn’t just a nonfiction author. He also had interesting things to say about his fiction writing, a genre he described as “ethical thriller,” and how it impacted his work on this book: “Quite a number of philosophers read mysteries, all the way back to Wittgenstein. And one day, I was reading [John] Grisham and I thought, ‘I can do this, how hard can it be?’ It’s very hard, very hard indeed. But it’s made me better at writing nonfiction because some of the techniques used in fiction, like show don’t tell, really work in nonfiction. Sometimes what’s the most persuasive is to tell somebody a story. So Post-Truth would’ve been a very different book if I hadn’t written fiction… I had to tell a story that made sense in the overall arc of the argument.”

But let’s get to the juicy nonfiction, and to the root of my question:

Since you’ve written the book Post-Truth, what’s the one thing you’re seeing now that worries you most, and what should we be doing as news/social media producers and consumers to mitigate it?

“The most common question I get is, ‘Where do we go now? What can we do next?’ In order to answer the question, you have to play the ball where it lies, and it’s a slightly different place right now than it was when I turned in the manuscript for the book [in May 2017].

By far, the thing that I’m the most worried about is the extent to which post-truth is a precursor for an authoritarian government. We’re seeing more and more that lying by public officials—not just in the U.S., but in other countries—is a precursor for oppression and silencing of journalists and, in some cases, violence against journalists. Political leaders do that when they’re getting ready to take over, getting ready to accrete more power, and they want to shut up the truth-tellers.

The reason I’m more worried about this than I was a year-and-a-half ago is not only that political events have changed, but fake news has changed. At the time I wrote Post-Truth, the main kind of fake news we were concerned with was the type that was being produced in Russian troll farms and other places, that were these naked attempts to try to insert false stories into the news stream and get us to believe them. That still exists, but now Trump is making false accusations of fake news against legitimate news organizations, which can have a kind of ricochet effect.

And with the technological advances, it’s now possible to produce audio and audiovisual fake news. There’s a company called Lyrebird that has a very legitimate business: What they try to do is take a one-minute audio sample and use that to create a vocal dictionary. So they put it through a speech synthesizer and get you to say anything you need to say. Now, if you’re Stephen Hawking, that’s a good thing. But if you’re someone trying to produce fake news, that’s a terrible thing, because you can use someone’s voice to try to get them to say whatever you need to say.

There’s another project out of Stanford, a video project called Face2Face. What they can do, which is straight out of Orwell, is take a person who’s being videotaped on a screen, put a mask on a person who’s standing just offstage, and through a technology called ‘face capture’ make the image that’s being projected on the screen conform to the facial expressions of the person wearing the face mask, rather than the person in the screen. In real time, they’ll be able to digitally alter the facial expression of the person who is giving the speech. When that happens, I don’t know what happens next. At that point, it may be that people are so cynical and demoralized that they think everything is fake. And that puts us at enormous risk for authoritarian rule.

I think the only thing that we can do is be aware that it exists. We were enormously behind the curve on text- and picture-based fake news, and it’s taken us two years to get to the level of public education and literacy where people are beginning to be skeptical about news. I think it will take that long or longer for people to get to a similar level of skepticism about the new technology, which is called Deepfake tech. It is so compelling that even if you know it’s fake, it appeals to a certain cognitive bias that we have in our brain, where we might enjoy watching it. I remember after the Parkland tragedy, there was a fake photo that went around of Emma González ripping the Constitution in half. It was completely Photoshopped and fake. The sad part of it is that even people who knew it was fake shared it and loved it. So just imagine what will happen when we can share audio and video. Even if it’s fake, it’s still going to appeal to that cognitive bias that we have.”

Lee McIntyre is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and ethics instructor at Harvard Extension School. His many wonderful books on truth, science and philosophy can be ordered at Binnacle Books in Beacon.

Empathy for the Reader

by Kristen Holt Browning

I’ve never been a fan of the “books are good for you” school of thought. Books are not broccoli, and poems won’t make you virtuous.

Plenty of social scientists disagree with me. Recent studies found that readers of literary fiction do better at recognizing, understanding, and inferring others’ feelings and emotions, while children who read a lot display higher levels of emotional intelligence, and increased empathy (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/377; https://readingpartners.org/blog/reading-improves-kids-emotional-intelligence-increases-empathy/).

This is all good news, but literature shouldn’t be the vegetable of the arts. Must everything improve us? Can’t a novel, or a short story, or a poem simply be enjoyed, absorbed, and lingered over? Isn’t it enough to notice and admire the suspenseful plot, the gorgeous language, the finely depicted protagonist?

Then I read Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, and it convinced me that there might be something to this books-make-you-a-better-person thing.

Half of the chapters take place in Chicago in 1985, and feature Yale, Nico, Richard, and the rest of their group of friends, all young gay men, as well as Fiona, Nico’s sister. Nearly all of these men are struggling with or affected by HIV/AIDS in some way. It was a sad shock to read The Great Believers and be reminded of how common, and commonly devastating, death was for this cohort just a few decades ago.

downloadFiona plays the central role in the alternating chapters. She is searching for her estranged daughter, Claire, in Paris in 2015. As we flash back and forth between young Fiona in the 80s—standing by her dying brother even as their family disowns him, nursing her friends throughout their illnesses—and contemporary Fiona, we gradually understand  the trauma of being the one left alive, and left behind. How do you live in a world populated by ghosts?

Makkai’s language isn’t particularly elevated or notable. It’s a fairly long book, and at first I didn’t want to read it: another overstuffed, earnest, well-meaning novel.

But as I read over the course of several days, I felt myself expanding, in my pity and despair and tenderness for these people. I  started to open to the terrible possibility of living during a plague, of dying pointlessly—or, of trying to make a life in the aftermath of devastation. I slid into the lives of these suffering, loving, laughing, crying people. In other words, I empathized with them.

So, while I distrust empathy as a reason to read, I value it as a side effect of reading. If a book can entertain us and bring us into the world of another, that’s only all to the good. At a time like this, marked by so much rage and distrust, anything that grows empathy is necessary, and welcome. We could all use a little more broccoli on our plates.

Brain in a Basket: Interview with Sarah Herrington

by Julie Chibbaro

A few months ago, I crashed physically: I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t look at my phone or computer, couldn’t be near electronics of any kind, couldn’t even wear my step counter. I had been working hard—clearly, too hard—on my novel for months and months. I had forced myself to sit at my desk for 6 to 8 hours a day, crouched over my computer, churning out pages, even when I didn’t feel like it. I was angry that the book wasn’t coming as fast or as well as I wanted it to. And, maybe I was somehow punishing myself for not being the writer I’d imagined I would, and should be.

Later, huddled in bed with my physical pain, I realized I’d suffered a disconnect between my brain and my body. It wasn’t the first time that had happened to me. So I decided to talk to friend, yogi and author Sarah Herrington about how to approach the relationship between my writing and my physical body.

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Sarah is a yoga teacher and author of Wanderlust: A Modern Yogi’s Guide to Discovering Your Best Self; Om Schooled: A Teacher’s Guide to Yoga in Schools; and Essential Yoga. She is also a poet, and a fabulous journalist whose work has appeared in the LA Times, the New York Times, Interview magazine, Tin House, and Writer’s Digest, among many other publications.

Here are her thoughts on writing and the body, and other topics:

GLB: As a writer, I often feel like a brain in a basket, at times completely forgetting I have a body. You’ve written a number of essays on writing and the body. What does my body have to do with my writing?

Sarah: I have felt that way a lot! As a teen I had my nose in books and often forgot I had a body at all. When I discovered yoga it not only helped heal that split (the word “yoga” means “union,” after all), my writing practice changed. In fact, one of the reasons I started exploring yoga is that, after my first class, I felt a surge of creative energy and went home and wrote all night.

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In my experience it’s helpful to get out of my head and into my heart and body, where I believe the origins of stories live. The body records stories in the form of sensations, and to tap into their power before approaching the realm of language, to me, makes the words more true. And I want my words to be as true as possible. I often practice meditation or yoga before going to my computer. They both quiet my mind, so I can hear my spirit and gut, and hopefully write from there. Getting in touch with my body helps me sense my way into the subconscious as well, which has a lot of interesting writing material. I think writers’ minds are often on fire with ideas and to settle the mind through a body-centered practice helps you focus and follow through.

I’ll also say writing can be quite physically rigorous—think wrists and back. Dance, yoga, walking, taking a nap—something to get into the body—creates a sense of ease which then will hopefully let me write longer.

GLB: Your topics are wide-ranging. For example, you’ve written about ethics in yoga practice. That’s a fascinating subject! Why is this an important issue to write about?

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Sarah: Because there are questionable things—and worse—happening! And I believe in the power of talking, and writing, about what is in the shadows. As a woman in yoga and meditation spaces I’ve both experienced and been witness to other practitioners—mostly women—being touched inappropriately, complicated student/ teacher relationships, disrespectful language, and other potentially shady behavior.

I wrote about ethics in student/teacher relationships in particular for the New York Times and Yoga Journal before the #metoo movement hit, and I’m very thankful to see conversations expanding, and communities more consciously addressing this. All seekers, regardless of gender expression, have the right to learn and explore. Of course I feel the same about literary spaces, as well.

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GLB: Can you talk a little about what other writers have influenced you? What has led you on this particular writing path that you’re on?

Sarah: I think of the word “lineage” a lot, because it’s important in yoga and Buddhism, but also art and writing. I feel I’m part of a lineage of both women writers who I admire for using their voice in societies that tried to silence them, and of writers who practiced both Eastern contemplative practices and creative ones. For example, poets and writers like Anne Waldman, Jane Hirshfield, and Allen Ginsberg both meditated and wrote. These people moved between silence and language, and that’s my jam. Then there’s Walt Whitman- great yogi poet who explored the interconnectedness of things. Emerson and Thoreau, whose Transcendentalist work drips with yogic philosophy. There’s also my mentors: Francesca Lia Block, who encouraged heart-centered creativity, and Susan Shapiro, who fired me up and helped me fall in love with essays and being more honest in my work.

There are so many writers, dead and alive, who feel like family, and depending on what’s going on in my life, different ones speak to me in different ways. In this way I’m never alone.

BIO: Sarah Herrington’s essays have appeared in the New York Times LATimes,  Poets and Writers Magazine,  Tin House, Interview Magazine, Slice, San Francisco Chronicle, Writer’s Digest, Yoga Journal and other outlets, and she was selected as one of eight emerging women poets by Oprah Magazine. She is the author of a collection of poetry, Always Moving (Bowery Books, 2011) and several nonfiction books, including Om Schooled (Addriya Press, 2012), Essential Yoga (Fair Winds Press, 2013). She worked as editor/co-author on Wanderlust: Find Your True North (Rodale, 2015).  She has worked with Girls Write Now mentoring teen girl writers, Gotham Writers Workshop offering student support and coordinating events, and found family at the Bowery Poetry Club. She has been a visiting writer at UCLA, The New School, University of Central Florida and other institutions. She currently works at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

 

Tony Earley: Writing Past the Sucker Punch

By Flora Stadler


Most writers I know would say their relationship to writing is complicated. Periods of inspiration make the world feel as if it’s unfolding just for you. But inspiration comes when it wants, a lot like sadness. Tony Earley, author of the beautiful novel Jim the Boy, and its equally dazzling sequel The Blue Star, spoke with me about his own relationship to inspiration and sadness. Our conversation was more than a single question-and-answer, but the fundamental question was:

How does depression affect your writing process?

“What it’s turning out to be, if you look at my work, there’s usually a big gap in books and that’s due primarily to depressive episodes. So I’ll go through two to three years at a time and write very little. My writing is through windows of lucidity between bouts of depression. It feels exhilarating—’Wow, I’ve forgotten how much fun this is!’—and I remember why I started doing it.

My stories tend to be about wistful, sad people… I guess my characters are often kind of emotionally me, if not recognizably autobiographically me. I think when I first started writing about Jim, I just killed the father off—because my father wasn’t a great father and it wasn’t easy growing up in his house. But I replaced the father with the three really kind uncles. What I think I did was I wrote the childhood that I wished I’d had.

[The depression] always kind of sucker punches me, because when I come out of it and I’m writing and the writing’s going so well, I think, ‘OK, this time it’s going to last.’ It’s kind of sudden, but also it’s not something I realized that happened until I looked back at it in retrospect and thought, ‘Oh I’m starting to feel better.’ Until suddenly one day, I’m starting to write and my head is filled with ideas.

There’s this sort of narrow band of good level-ness, and whenever I can get into that band, that’s when I write. I tend not to write after I’ve published because I’m just so giddy, and I tend not to write when I’m depressed. I’ve come to accept that that’s just part of the deal, and at this point I don’t see any new deal coming, so I’m learning to accept that this is just the process. And if it means publishing a book every eight years instead of every three or four years, that’s just how it’s going to be. I wrote a story in July and it was the first fiction I’d written at all in two years. And during that two years, I still teach and I’m still a husband and a father, but I’m not an artist.

I sort of like talking about this in that if there’s a possibility that hearing my story might help somebody else—if there is a benefit to this, that’s the benefit. If there’s anyone who, for whatever ungodly reason, romanticizes depression in artists—that really hits me wrong. But I have good radar for fellow travelers, particularly students, and I’ll pull them aside and initiate a conversation and maybe help somebody else get farther down the road.”

Tony Earley is the Samuel Milton Professor of English at Vanderbilt University and the author of several books, including the story collections, Here We Are in Paradise and Mr. Tall, as well as the novels Jim the Boy and The Blue Star. His books can be ordered from Binnacle Books in Beacon.