Month: July 2014

Reading to Write

By Patricia Skalka, originally published on Buried Under Books
 

The first time I visited the Door County peninsula, I was sure I’d followed the wrong map. This was Wisconsin? Quaint villages and cherry orchards. White sails on blue water and fishing boats dotting the far horizon. Cliffs and caves. Fudge shops and cool, quiet forests. The Wisconsin I knew was dairy country: small, family-run farms, the kind of place where you quite literally made hay while the sun shone (I drove the tractor) and arranged the daily activities around the milking schedule.

I didn’t grow up on a farm; but my mother did, and as a girl I spent many summer weeks and months helping my grandmother and uncle who ran the operation. I was one of the city cousins who counted the days to the end of the school year, eager to pack my suitcase and head north from Chicago. I thought of the farm experience as my summer vacation but in reality it was an introduction to a way of life that centered on hard work.

Patricia Skalka Beach 3This was my Wisconsin until I discovered Door County. Stepping out on the peninsula – the “Cape Cod of the Midwest” – I was transfixed. The land is stunningly beautiful; the people welcoming; the pace relaxed. The county’s tourist attractions are impressive: three hundred miles of shoreline, five state parks, eleven lighthouses, a mecca for visual artists, writers and musicians.

But for me Door County is so much more than all the statistics suggest. It is where some twenty years ago pure luck handed my family ownership of a rustic cottage filled with handmade furniture and memories passed on by the previous owner. For me, having the cottage was a dream come true. By then the old farm had been sold and while I still had my childhood farm summers to treasure, I worried about how to provide such memorable experiences for my daughters. The cottage with the beach at its doorstep and summers in Door County answered that question.

The cottage never disappointed. Here on the beach my daughters discovered the freedom of doing as much or as little as they wanted. Here there was no schedule, no planned activities ─ just the simple joy of one day after another unrolling in a seamless parade of sunny mornings and moonlit evenings. Here they learned to make their own fun.

Patricia Skalka Beach 2The cottage provided a bonus for me as well: for here I read. For hours, for days on end. Packing for a visit, no matter the duration, I crammed a canvas bag full of books, almost always fiction but sometimes poetry as well. Some were for me to read quietly, others to share with my family, reading aloud in the evening. The cottage was not insulated and the times I came up alone in the chilly spring to write, I’d drape wool blankets over the doors to keep out the drafts, build a fire and then pull up a chair as close to the flames as I dared and sit and read.

Reading did more than entertain and enlighten. Reading shaped me as a writer. As I transitioned from nonfiction to fiction, from magazine articles to the novel, I followed the prescribed steps to learn the craft. I signed up for classes and attended conferences and workshops. I joined a critique group and took in lectures and seminars. But beyond writing itself, the most important activity I embraced was the simple act of reading.

I always preferred mysteries and literary fiction, but it really didn’t matter what I read — historical fiction, thrillers, travelogues – as long as the writing had depth and feeling, the result was the same. Reading the words and sentences, the paragraphs and pages that others had composed made me a better writer. Something about the flow of words moving from the printed page into my brain vanquished doubt and set my imagination free. Reading was like eating; words became the vitamins that energized my writing and nurtured my thoughts. Reading dispensed courage; it cured writer’s block. The more I read, the more I wrote.

Patricia Skalka Beach 1My debut novel Death Stalks Door County was spawned in the cottage overlooking the inland sea we call Lake Michigan. Chapters were written sitting before the fireplace or out on the small screened porch. The second book in the series was started there. The ideas for books three and four bubbled to life as I lounged and read in an old Adirondack chair set in the sand near the water’s edge.

There’s probably a scientific explanation, something about synapses and electrical connections between brain cells to explain how reading helps me write, how the thoughts and ideas expressed by other authors spark my own thoughts and ideas and send them flying to the page.

I think of the process as magic.

I try to read every day. When life interferes and pulls me away from books, I feel drained and grow listless. My work stagnates. In my world, writing without reading is akin to breathing without air.

It simply can’t be done.

 

Patricia Skalka Beach 4

 

A lifelong Chicagoan, Patricia Skalka is a former Reader’s Digest Staff Writer and award-winning freelancer, as well as one-time magazine editor, ghost writer and writing instructor. Her nonfiction book credits include Nurses On Our Own, the true-story of two pioneering, local nurse practitioners. Death Stalks Door County, released in  May 2014, marks her fiction debut.
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A Stronger Presidency Is Not The Solution

By Chris Edelson

When op-ed writers take on the problem of dysfunction in Washington by asking the hackneyed “why is Washington broken?” question, they run the risk of offering a “solution” that merely creates new problems. David Brooks’ recent op-ed, “Strengthen the Presidency, is a case in point. Brooks overlooks the root causes of political dysfunction in the U.S. and prescribes a dangerous remedy.

Brooks argues that the solution to legislative gridlock is simple: “[m]ake the executive branch more powerful.” Brooks’ argument depends on generalizations and overlooks the historical record, as well as the foundational principles of American constitutional democracy. The drafters of the Constitution created a document with many flaws, but their work also reflected important pieces of wisdom. Among their most central insights, they rightly understood that concentrating power in any one branch of government was, in James Madison’s words, “the very definition of tyranny.”

By contrast, Brooks cheerfully embraces the idea of concentrating power in a president-led executive branch, declaring that “[w]e need more unified authority” and advising Americans to “be tolerant of executive branch power grabs” (what does that mean–more Watergates, please?). His remedy seems to imagine an empowered executive branch that could take unilateral action on domestic policy matters like “immigration reform, tax reform, entitlement reform, and gun legislation” (though he is not very specific about precisely what actions he’d like to see a more powerful president take, or how this would be done).

There are at least two problems here. First, one person’s energized executive is another’s dangerous autocrat. How can something as vague as “entitlement reform” be an unalloyed good? It depends, of course, on how a president capable of acting unilaterally would change Social Security or the tax code. Second — and for me, this is an even greater concern — Brooks completely ignores what expanded executive power means, and has meant, in the context of national security.

History teaches us (as the framers themselves well understood) that it is often dangerous when presidents act unilaterally — unchecked by other branches of government, the press, or the public. As I have discussed in my new book, Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, the historical record offers numerous cautionary tales: Roosevelt and the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (Congress and the Supreme Court acted essentially as rubber stamps), Truman’s unilateral decision to make war in Korea, Johnson’s deceptions in Vietnam, Nixon’s nearly successful attempt to turn the presidency into a criminal enterprise operating above the law and Reagan’s involvement in the Iran-Contra affair.

Presidential action since 9/11 should make us even more wary. The Bush-Cheney years brought us the unholy flowering of the “unitary executive theory,” which was relied on to claim essentially unchecked executive power over anything related to national security (this was the justification for the detention system at Guantanamo, torture and warrantless surveillance). In many ways, the Obama administration has followed the Bush approach — though without relying on the extreme rhetoric associated with the unitary executive theory. The Obama administration has brought us a targeted killing program for U.S. citizens suspected — but not proven — to be senior terrorist leaders planning attacks against the United States, as well as a rationale for unilateral presidential war power that disdains constitutional and statutory checks.

The lesson to be taken from history, especially the incipient history of this century, is that there are compelling reasons to set meaningful limits on executive power. None of this means presidents can never act alone — when faced with a real emergency that does not allow time for consultation with Congress (like the secession crisis that Lincoln confronted when he took office in 1861), presidents can act unilaterally, seeking congressional approval after the fact, as Lincoln did. The framers understood that presidents would need the authority to “repel sudden attacks” without waiting for congressional authorization. But, when there is time to consult Congress, unilateral presidential action in much harder to justify.

Recently, there has been at least one hopeful sign for critics of unrestrained presidential power: the Obama administration’s decision to forego unilateral military action in Syria. That decision is evidence that it can often be better for presidents to wait and consult Congress before acting on their own. In this case, putting off unilateral action allowed time for diplomacy to work instead of a military strike.

Brooks’ piece, of course, considers none of this. He argues as a general proposition for increasing executive power without considering the possible dangers of doing so—without even considering, in fact, what the implications are, in the national security context, for concentrating power in the hands of the executive. There is a case to be made for limited unilateral presidential action in the context of a genuine emergency, subject to retroactive congressional approval. But, if we follow Brooks’s advice to “energize the executive,” history warns us that the results may be far from benign.

Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs, where he teaches classes on the Constitution and presidential power. He is the author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, which was published in fall 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Press.