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ONLY LEFT HANDED PEOPLE ARE IN THEIR RIGHT MIND (words on my lefty son’s favorite tee-shirt)

So, why, since I am right-handed, did I choose to name my book: WHAT MY LEFT HAND WAS DOING: Lessons from a Grassroots Activist?

You can attribute it to the anthropologist in me. Or you can attribute it to a brainstorming session with my editors in a search for a unique book title. In either case, you would be correct. And it fits, you see, because during that period I was a foot soldier using my left hand to advance social justice and my right hand to love and sustain my family.

Throughout our known history, cultures have ascribed meaning to the symbolism of right and left handedness. These distinctions about right and left appear in science, nature, the writing of our various languages, and in our politics.  Chris McManus has written a fascinating book titled: Right Hand, Left Hand: The Origins of Asymmetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms and Cultures (Harvard University Press, 2002) and suggests “that our asymmetric bodies, which emerged from 550 million years of asymmetric vertebrate evolution, may be linked to the asymmetric structure of matter.” The book is a bit of a heavy read but engaging throughout for all you science junkies.

We know that the majority of people are right handed but evolutionary studies cannot yet tell us why. We do know from the study of medicine that the left side of our bodies is controlled by the right side of our brains. This brings me back to my son’s favorite shirt; his right brain controls his left handed function.

Right and left hand are deeply embedded in nature as well as  our cultural and sociopolitical structures. We know from the study of physics that tornadoes spin counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. We know that European writing goes from left to right, while Arabic and Hebrew go from right to left.

The meaning of right and left was formalized in western politics as early as 1789. In France, radicals pressing for change were seated on the left hand side of the legislative chamber where they could be ignored, and conservative nobles were seated to the favored right of the presiding officer. This historical practice contributed to the evolution of the terms we use today to identify the political progressive left and the conservative right in western politics.

Today, we are facing a leadership crisis in our country. It is time to resist. The political left needs to arm ourselves for the emerging social justice struggle with knowledge of our history and lessons learned from the past. My book contains lessons learned in 50 years of struggle and an “Activist Survival Guide.”

“These are days when no one should rely unduly on his “competence.’’ Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed.”

–Walter Benjamin, German philosopher, 1882-1940

WHAT MY LEFT HAND WAS DOING: LESSONS FROM A GRASSROOTS ACTIVIST

By Joann Castle   Coming soon…

Please click “follow” at the top right of this document and keep up-to-date on my publication time-line. You won’t want to miss this.

REVISIONS! REVISIONS! #%!!@

I felt my manuscript was finished. I had been searching for an editor for months. Suddenly and unexpectedly things fell my way. A friend in New York contacted me. “It’s possible, but not certain,” she said, “that I can connect you with an esteemed editor. Cross your fingers.” A week later, she called back. “I think we’re good!” My stress factor went from zero to ten in a nanosecond. I needed to have everything in order.

The editor was coming to Detroit on business and we arranged to meet. I frantically prepared. I had a full manuscript, a cover and a title: Between Two Worlds: A Mother’s Battle Against Injustice. All I was looking for was a professional finishing touch but I wanted it to be perfect and I was willing to work for it. I felt that I had drafted the perfect query letter, through-line and book description, and I had worked on my chapter summaries for months. We sat at a Detroit restaurant. I was nervous as she looked me over. My right leg was going numb.

“I brought,..” I began, pulling out my folder of perfect documents. “I don’t want to see those today,” she responded. “I want to talk about you.” Well, the “talking about me” was extensive. We chattered at dinner and followed up by phone. She would be sending me a personality test and wanted to know about my writing habits. I literally was applying for the privilege of working with her.

Once my tests were analyzed, we discussed the results. “Joann,” she said, “I will agree to work with you on two conditions: that your story be brought up-to-date pertinent to the times we live in, and drop the Catholic guilt thread about being too busy for your children that runs through the pages.” This was just the beginning.

One day, she asked me to read my manuscript again and tell her what I thought. I perceived it in a totally new light. “It’s like a sailboat, skimming across the water.” “Exactly,” she said. Now, let’s fix it.” Since that moment, I have spent almost two years revising, deepening, and using closed eye voice-recordings to assist in documenting events that I found difficult to write about. Then I transcribed and boldly placed these in my story. Throughout this period, my editor requested essays about pertinent topics to better convey the depth of my personal journey.  I’ve worked intensely, writing and rewriting.  In the process, I have grown as a writer and as a person.

My story was almost ready last fall, totally reworked and redirected and then, Donald Trump was elected. I was flailing around in disbelief and dismay that my work had become outdated, that I had missed my opportunity. I was too late. My editor responded: “This is a gift to your writing. Teach people how to resist, and so I revised again working over these additional ten months and through the horrific loss of my husband. I persisted; I revised and revised again. When it was all said and done, I chose a new title consistent with my reworked manuscript.

My manuscript is more pertinent, more focused and deeper, due to those REVISIONS. #%!!@

WHAT MY LEFT HAND WAS DOING: LESSONS FROM A GRASSROOTS ACTIVIST

By Joann Castle   Coming soon…

Please click “follow” at the top right of this document and keep up-to-date on my publication time-line. You won’t want to miss this.

WHAT MY WRITING ROOM LOOKS LIKE

Last week, I wrote about plotting my story at the beginning of my book effort.  Today, more years later than I like to admit, I am assessing what has survived to the end. As I await the  final draft of my manuscript for the approval that will send it to the publisher, I have time to look about me and consider a question from a curious reader, “What does your writing room look like?”

Usually, I try to avoid this topic because my answer may be a bit depressing to an aspiring writer. There’s no beauty in my writing room, no scents, no music, no comfy writing chair. My my writing room looks like me: serious, hard-working, no frills, no comforts. But I am possessed with a dogged-determination to succeed. We feel it here: Detroiters never quit.

In front of my computer is a black, hard-backed, folding chair that I like better than those soft office types. I’m sitting there now and I invite you to look around with me. I will begin our tour to the left of my desk. At the far left, on the floor, are three large plastic tubs containing reference materials. Many of them are copies from Mike’s and my papers that are on file at the Walter Reuther Library Archives at WSU. Along with these essentials are stacks of journal articles, book reviews, and a file box of contacts and contracts. Books are scattered about.

Moving clockwise around the room one will notice that on the wall, I’ve taken down my plotting paper and stickies, which were the topic of my last blog, and replaced them with a piece I wrote on becoming an activist. It is pasted on the wall in a plastic sleeve, and begins: “How My Story Will Contribute to Understanding…what an activist is, how an activist operates, makes decisions, and pays the price,” followed by ten bullet points. And ultimately, “What I have learned in the process.” These were always on my mind, and in front of my face, as I wrote.

In a pile to the left of my computer are major documents that I consistently refer to. These include my book description, the table of contents and a copy of the vows I wrote for Mike’s and my re-commitment ceremony on our 35th wedding anniversary. My book is, after all, also a love story. Finally, there is a copy of a poem my editor sent me, titled: “There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk” by Portia Nelson. It reminds me that I’m not the only one who keeps making the same mistakes over and over.

To the right of my computer are folders holding consent forms signed by those who graciously permitted me to cite their pertinent written work or photos. Somewhere buried in this pile of papers are copies of difficult sections that I tried so hard to get right, a book listing my computer passwords that I can never remember, and a fat folder, marked “expenses.” At the far right, forcing me to stand up to retrieve documents, is my printer. My phone is also placed across the room. Without these mandates to move, I would turn to stone.

My attention moves again clockwise to the couch, where my corrections and proof-reading notes, all coded by color, are filling my husband’s empty seat. This is where he watched TV and listened to me banter and rave when I couldn’t get things right. He also functioned as my first-line proof-reader, and he could spell any word in the dictionary. Mike was my most ardent supporter in getting this book done. I’m trying to refocus after losing him.

After staring at the computer screen, I pause to blink and look out the window. There I see Detroit’s aging main post office, the undeveloped West Riverfront Park, the Salvation Army, the Sixth Street ramp, the infamous train station and several boarded up buildings. In the distance are the spires of St Anne’s historic church and the entrance lanes to the Ambassador Bridge. That’s it, that’s Detroit, and that’s me. And that’s what my writing room looks like.

I would love to know what YOUR writing room looks like. Please “leave a reply” at the top of this page and share your experience.  

MY NEW BOOK IS COMING SOON                            

What My Left Hand Was Doing: Lessons from a Grassroots Activist.

Click “follow” at the top right of this page for updates on publication.

MARTHA ALDERSON PUT STORY STRUCTURE ON MY DINING ROOM TABLE

I didn’t begin my life thinking that I would be a writer. I was always much too busy for that. But after my kids left home, I began to write some small articles for newsletters and I found myself keeping a journal. I felt empty with everyone gone and it gave me comfort to commit my thoughts to paper. Over the years, my urge to write kept growing. I started writing stories for my friends and they encouraged me to write more. The idea of writing a book seemingly started without my consent but the words kept waking me up at night. Writing was taking hold of me.

As I struggled to make sense of my bedside notes, I learned of a writers’ group at Wayne State University’s Institute of Gerontology, called “Adventurous Writers.” It was there that I began to learn the trade: developing a theme, learning how to plot a story, the elements of the hero’s journey, and the importance of through-lines. After the basics are in place, you top it off with a “hook,” a cherry on top of an ice cream sunday, something to immediately capture the readers’ interest so they can’t put it down.

We studied many different approaches for mastering story structure. My favorite book that taught me how to write was The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master by Martha Alderson (Adams Media, 2011).  In the text were diagrams of plots illustrating elements of the universal story, prescribing how many pages should be devoted to the beginning of the story, exactly what page should end the beginning and when to move the story upwards in intensity towards the crisis. Once your hero is over the hump and just when you thought everything was going well, she is thwarted by another barrier, the climax, which quickly unfolds into the resolution. All stories follow this same plot structure. Think about it when you are watching a movie or your favorite TV show.

As I took hold of the ideas in Anderson’s text, I dutifully made a trip to the butcher at Eastern Market and tried to explain why I needed a long piece of butcher paper. The butcher looked puzzled but he gave me the paper. I started my plot-planning on the dining room table, minimizing our eating space to my husband’s chagrin. I used red sticky notes for hot emotional scenes, blue for the cooler transitions, and yellow for the lessons I was learning. As the story grew more involved, i needed more space and I moved to the to the living room floor, blocking access to our front windows and my husband’s favorite easy chair. After a spousal chat, I withdrew to the wall next to my computer but the story moved on.

My confrontation with the archbishop was my first chosen hook, but as my story evolved and I worked to get its elements in the proper places, the archbishop got replaced with J. Edgar Hoover’s counter-intelligence program, COINTELPRO. You will want to meet the characters in my upcoming book:

What My Left Hand Was Doing:

Lessons from a Grassroots Activist

by Joann Castle

Coming soon: Click “follow” at the top of this page for updates on publication.

PEOPLE ASK ME WHY I WRITE IN MY GENRE

#Sylvia Hubbard always asks her new Motown Writers, “What is your genre?” As a novice writer, when I first heard her say that, I didn’t know what she meant. But I soon learned that books are divided into categories called genres. You may notice this when you visit your library or your favorite book store. My genre is called “historical narrative.” This simply means that I write about history in a story form.

“You tell good stories,” a friend commented. “Why don’t you write fiction?” Because I’m an activist and I can’t stop feeling that every moment of my life should matter in the quest for a better world. I write in my genre because I want my work to contribute in some small way to inspiring others to think about the world in new ways.

I am also an anthropologist, trained to see that we are all products of our cultural outlooks, our belief systems, our social structures, our rulers, the trappings of our times and our access to resources. I see the world in broad strokes encompassing many cultures, societies and nations. This is where I draw my outlook on life. This is work I love.

This is the perspective I use in my new book: WHAT MY LEFT HAND WAS DOING: Lessons from a Grassroots Activist, (a Detroit Memoir). We all start our lives viewing ourselves through a certain lens, usually stemming from our family and our childhood experiences. Yet as we grow and learn, we begin to expand our vision and open our view to understanding the experiences of others. We are fortunate today, to be living in a time that is forcing us to come to grips with reality of life in the United States, the challenges to our democracy and our relations with the outside world.

We must not allow ourselves to become isolated at a time when we need community more than ever before. I hope you will find pivotal intergenerational lessons learned in my story that can be applied to the new historical struggle emerging from our young and spirited upcoming social activists. Listen to their narrative. They hold our future in their hands.

Coming soon: What My Left Hand Was Doing: Lessons from a Grassroots Activist. Then start your own discussions.

Click “follow” at the top of this page for updates on publication.

WHAT HAPPENED TO COLLABORATION AND COALITION BUILDING?

Control, Conflict and Change Book Club Discussion. Photo by Ken Castle, 1971. Copyright 2017.

I’m an activist, I can’t stop. I’ve been pursuing social justice issues for fifty years. I’ve been an organizer as well as a foot soldier in many stages of the social justice movement and feeling good about my skills. But over the last few years as I’ve begun to write about my experiences, I’ve faced a new problem in my life, a wall of anguish about my ability to master the challenges of social media, when all I want to do is communicate with my readers.

I  can see the good in social media. Activists all over the country have harnessed its power to spontaneously express outrage and get people on the streets to protest our social ills. It has changed our social conversation and has clearly brought issues of race and white supremacy in our country into timely focus for broader discussion. But where is that discussion occurring?

There is a quote from Alan Kay that resonates with me, “The best way to protect the future is to invent it. 

If we want social change, we need to create the educational opportunities, the collaboration and coalition building necessary for a better tomorrow.

Here are my problems with social media as a foundation:

  1. Social media encourages isolation.
  2. Social media has reduced our social interactions to like, comment, share, tweets and retweets or simply post a photo. Living life in the social media fast-lane robs us of the poetry and warmth of human communication. To solve our social issues, we need to talk.
  3. Social media can speak falsehood or truth. Our right to know the truth is one of our most precious democratic values.
  4. My friends and cohorts text often. Yes, we accomplish a lot of work but I regret the loss of the sound of their voices.
  5. The depth of post-9/11 surveillance may never be totally known to us but anyone who uses a credit card, a smart phone or signs-on to social media is already under surveillance.

It’s time to get together and talk.

Check out my new book: What My Left Hand Was Doing: Lessons from a Grassroots Activist and start your own discussions.

Click “follow” at the top of this page for updates on publication.