Monday, July 23, 2018

Q & A with Lynn Downey: "Research Must Serve the Writer, Not the Other Way Around"

By C.M. Mayo

Starting this year, every fourth Monday I post a Q & A with a fellow writer. This month's Q & A is with Lynn Downey, my fellow Women Writing the West member, apropos of the news that her book Life in a Lung Resort will be published next year by University of Oklahoma Press.

Lynn Downey
Lynn Downey is a widely-published historian of the West, with degrees in history and library science from San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley. She has published books and articles on the history of jeans, the treatment of tuberculosis in California, American art pottery, and the history of Arizona. She was the Historian for Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco for twenty-five years. Her biography of the company’s founder, Levi Strauss: The Man Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2016, and won the 2017 Foreword Reviews silver INDIE award for Biography. Her next book, Life in a Lung Resort, is the history of an early 20th century women’s tuberculosis sanatorium in California where her grandmother received treatment in the 1920s.  In 2012 Lynn received a Charles Donald O’Malley Short-Term Research Fellowship from the Special Collections Division of the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studied the history of tuberculosis treatment. Lynn now works as a historical/archival consultant and exhibition writer, and is also a board member of the Frank Lloyd Wright Marin County Civic Center Conservancy. She lives in Sonoma County, California. 

C.M. MAYO: On organizing research: Any lessons learned from your previous book? And lessons learned from this one? Also, are there basic mistakes first time writers oftentimes make in organizing their research? 

LYNN DOWNEY: Organizing research materials -- whether for fiction or non-fiction -- is a very personal thing. And I think it depends on your life and educational experience. I'm 63 years old, and I loved researching and writing history from my very first term paper in the 5th grade. I'm also an archivist, so I like to keep paper files for the most part, and that has worked for me on all the books I've written. 
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My last book, Levi Strauss: The Man Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World, posed the greatest challenge because it was the longest and most detailed book I've ever written. I used to organize my research materials by chapter-- just throw all notes, copies of articles, etc. into files by chapter. But that ended up being cumbersome. So I started keeping files by subject or topic, and also kept a running list of what topics would go into each chapter. I could then put my hands on a subject easily. 
But again, when it comes to research, I don't know of anything first time writers could do that would be called a "mistake." The best way to organize research is to find what works for you. That might mean doing down a few paths that lead nowhere -- like I did -- but as long as you find a method that helps you write, that's the important thing. Research must serve the writer, not the other way around. 

C.M. MAYO: On research files: What happens to them when you are finished with the book? How do you store them? Do you give them to an archive? (Do you have any related advice for other writers with books that required significant original research?) 

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LYNN DOWNEY: I keep my research materials for quite awhile after a book is published, because I sometimes need them again: for interviews, for follow-up articles, etc. All of my files for the Levi Strauss biography will go back to the company eventually. I was the Levi Strauss & Co. Historian for 25 years and did all of my research while I was on the job. I wrote the book after I retired but the materials actually belong to the company and they will go back there once I have a moment to throw them in my car and take them to San Francisco. Once I no longer need the research files I used for my book A Short History of Sonoma I will give them to the Sonoma Valley Historical Society. My advice is to not jettison your files too quickly after you finish a book. They can still come in handy. ​ 

C.M. MAYO: What were some of the more interesting books you read in the process of writing your book? (And would you recommend them?) 

LYNN DOWNEY: My book is a history of the Arequipa tuberculosis sanatorium for women in northern California, where my grandmother was treated in the 1920s. It was in business from 1911-1957. In addition to doing a number of oral history interviews with former patients, I read a lot of books about the history of TB treatment, how a cure was finally found, and about San Francisco history. The sanatorium's founder was a male doctor named Philip King Brown but his mother was Dr. Charlotte Brown, one of San Francisco's first female surgeons. She taught him to value women's health, and most of the doctors who treated the patients at Arequipa were women. I did read some extraordinary books to prepare to write. 

A Rare Romance in Medicine: The Life and Legacy of Edward Livingston Trudeau, by Mary Hotaling, is a great biography of the man who pioneered sanatorium treatment for tuberculosis. Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine by Regina Morantz-Sanchez is a fascinating look at how hard it was for women to break into medicine. Sheila M. Rothman's Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History was a true grounding in the topic. I recommend all of these books to anyone interested in the history of medicine.​ 

C.M. MAYO: Can you talk about your working library? 

LYNN DOWNEY:​ I have a bookcase in my office where I keep all the books needed for my current project. Sometimes I have to pile them on the floor too, but at least they are all in one place! When I finish a project they get moved to one of the five other bookcases I have in my house, and the books for the next project go into my office. I also have filing cabinets in my office for my working files: the subject files I mentioned earlier. Sometimes I have more than will fit in the cabinet and that means I have banker's boxes on the floor, too.​ 

C.M. MAYO: You have been a consistently productive writer for many years. How has the digital revolution affected your writing? Specifically, has it become more challenging to stay focused with the siren calls of email, texting, blogs, online newspapers and magazines, Facebook, Twitter, and such? If so, do you have some tips and tricks you might be able to share? 

LYNN DOWNEY: ​The best thing about the digital revolution for a historian like me is the availability of historic newspapers online. Sites like,, and the Library of Congress Chronicling America site have fully searchable databases. These are the only places that have a "siren call" for me. I have spent many hours in my pajamas in front of my computer following a research rabbit hole on these sites! 
The other digital distractions really don't get to me. Maybe it's because I'm older and did not grow up with the instant availability of communication and information that we have now. After years of doing research and writing I am able to focus easily and not get distracted. I really don't know how to advise someone how to do that, though. Like research, finding a method to stay on track is very personal. Some people I know keep a timer by their computer, and they can't check email or social media until they hear the bell after an hour is up. 
There's no single fix for what society throws at us, and what society expects us to do. Which I think is part of the problem. We're supposed to be constantly checking up on everyone who wants to communicate with us. But my work and my time are important. I'll check email now and then while I'm working, and if there are no emergencies I go back to what I've been working on. 

The joy of research, of writing, of getting the best words on the page far outweighs the need to have a constant connection in cyberspace. ​ 

C.M. MAYO: Did you experience any blocks while writing this book, and if so, how did you break through them? 

LYNN DOWNEY: Honestly, I don't really get blocks. That was especially true with Life in a Lung Resort because it's a personal and family story as well as a work of history. I spent decades working full-time and commuting and only had weekends to do my writing. Blocks were not an option, and they also just didn't arise. I was so happy to be at my desk working on projects I loved.​ 

C.M. MAYO: Back to a digital question. At what point, if any, were you working on paper? Was working on paper necessary for you, or problematic? 

LYNN DOWNEY: Do you mean writing longhand instead of on the computer? I did both with this book as well as all my others. Sometimes when I couldn't get a topic to gel while writing on my laptop, I would switch to a pen and paper. This uses a completely different part of the brain and it always works. Once I was really stuck trying to get a difficult chapter started. I live 20 minutes from the ranch where writer Jack London lived (it's now a State Park). So I went to the ranch, sat on a picnic table near London's house, took out a pad of paper and a pen and started to write. Forty-five minutes later I had my chapter opening and a good start on the rest of it. 

I also collect vintage typewriters and I have one that I use now and then; again, to work another part of my brain to keep my writing from going stale.​ 

C.M. MAYO: Do you keep in active touch with your readers? If so, do you prefer hearing from them by email, sending a newsletter, a conversation via social media, some combination, or snail mail? 
LYNN DOWNEY: I haven't yet found a good way to keep in touch with readers, but I give a lot of lectures about my books and often keep in touch with people who have come to hear me speak. I am working with my website designer to make it easier for people to communicate with me, and I hope to do more when Life in a Lung Resort comes out. I am happy to hear from readers any way they like: email, social media, whatever. ​

C.M. MAYO: What enticed you to join Women Writing the West?
LYNN DOWNEY: ​Women are often seen as the second-class-citizens of western writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. The West is so often portrayed as a male domain but women have so much to say about this region! When I heard about Women Writing the West I joined up right away. We have to stake our claim here, girls.​ 

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> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Cyberflanerie: Literal, Shoshana Zuboff, Marc Demarest, Andrea Jones, Neil Postman, Colette Fu, Ollie

My review of Claudio Saunt's splendid West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, originally posted here, is now live on Literal.

P.S. Check out Liz Covart's interview with the author for Ben Franklin's World Podcast here.

Global Warming Ate My Life by Shoshana Zuboff
The pivot as antidote to the error of predictability.

Andrea Jones' poetic, charming and informative Between Urban and Wild blog covers bluejays

Marc Demarest on how to know when the computer is coming for you: "The biolectric union between man and silicon"-- as seen in 1997.
> And see the Chasing Emma blog. (I was intrigued to find this since Emma was the editor of Art Magic, a book I found in Francisco I. Madero's personal library. You can view a first edition of Art Magic on High octane stuff in there.) Be sure to click the tab to view the blog in "magazine" format, not "classic." In an earlier post he writes, "Why bother with another thesis on George Eliot, or another humdrum book on Aleister Crowley, when virtually the whole of Victorian occultism lies fallow in the noonday sun?" I say, here, here.
> And his page on Richard Dadd.

Ye Prophet of Yore Neil Postman on "The Surrender of Culture to Technology":

The Sociological Eye on Shutting Down the Internet in Time of War
"The core problem is communication overload; the presence of information technology everywhere results in a situation that one general described as 'we’ve gone from network-enabled, to network-enamoured, to network-encumbered.'"

Soothingly beautiful popups by artist Colette Fu:


> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Sunday, July 08, 2018


As of this year, the second Monday of the month is dedicated to my workshop students and anyone else interested in creative writing. 

Jaron Lanier's 
Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.
If you know who Jaron Lanier is you will understand why he, and probably only he, can get away with such a title for a commercially published book, a title that most people today, and that would include writers with books to promote, would consider hoot-out-loud humbug.

But perhaps they would not if they more fully understood the perverse and toxic nature of the machine Lanier terms BUMMER.

BUMMER = Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made Into an Empire for Rent

Writes Lanier:
"BUMMER is a machine, a statistical machine that lives in the computing clouds. To review, phenomena that are statistical and fuzzy are nevertheless real."
And more:
"The more specifically we can draw a line around a problem, the more solvable that problem becomes. Here I have put forward a hypothesis that our problem is not the Internet, smartphones, smart speakers, or the art of algorithms. Instead, the problem that has made the world so dark and crazy lately is the BUMMER machine, and the core of the BUMMER machine is not a technology, exactly, but a style of business plan that spews out perverse incentives and corrupts people."


BUMMER sounds like science fiction. But alas, as Lanier explains, the business plan behind social media, and the use of proprietary algorithms to hook users into addiction and subtly distort and shape interactions among users, is both real and seriously icky. You've probably read or heard something about FaceBook's shenanigans, but in Lanier's Ten Arguments you're getting a far broader, more detailed analysis and argument, in a wierdly charming package, and not from some random TED pundit, but from one of the fathers of the industrial-cultural complex now known as Silicon Valley.

As Jaron Lanier states in his acknowledgements, the title Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is inspired by Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. I, too, consider Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television a personal inspiration and a masterpiece. Call me a pessimist: I doubt that Lanier's book will have any more influence on the general public's social media habits than did Mander's on television watching, which came out in the late 1970s. But perhaps such works may assist you in marshaling your attentional power for your creative endeavors, as they did for me, and for this reason I enthusiastically recommend them to you, dear writerly readers.

Carpe diem.


I have not deleted my social media accounts. What I have done is deactivate Facebook (back in 2015) and now only very rarely use others (Twitter, LinkedIn, While I agree with Lanier's argument that social media is BUMMER, and I sincerely wish that I had never signed up for FB and Twitter in the first place, the fact is, I did, and because of that existing online record and username, I am not ready to hit the delete button. Moreover, I am still digesting some parts of his argument (in particular, I do not accept his hypothesis that the problem is merely what he terms BUMMER).

And by the way, yes, I know, this blog, on the Google platform, blogger, belongs to BUMMER. A better and paid platform is on my to-do list. [UPDATE 2019: Now on self-hosted WordPress at]

As for using Google search-- definitively BUMMER-- I switched to Duckduckgo as my go-to search engine a good while ago.

What's the specific strategy that would be right for you? I would not presume to say.

But what is clear-- and we don't need Mr Lanier to inform us on this simple point-- is that if you want to write anything substantive, and you don't have the abracadabradocity to summon up more than 24 hours in each day, social media can be a lethal time-suck. The years will scroll by, as it were... and funny how that is, though you Tweet #amwriting often enough, you never wrote what you planned to write... What's more, the visibility you can achieve with social media, and the sense of "community," albeit intermediated by proprietary algorithms of a corportation, are Faustian bargains: you will pay in the end, and on many levels.

I always welcome your comments by email. You can write to me here.

P.S. For those who have the inclination and/or sufficient cootie-proofing to handle esoterica, I can also recommend philosopher Jeremy Naydler's splendidly researched and elegantly argued In the Shadow of the Machine: The Prehistory of the Computer and the Evolution of Consciousness-- also just published. You might find it worthwhile to keep in mind, if you read In the Shadow of the Machine, that in his Ten Arguments Jaron Lanier mentions (oh so briefly, blink and you'll miss it) Waldorf schools. (More about that connection here.)

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980): Some Notes by Way of a List of Books, Videos, and More

As I mosey along with my book about borderlands Far West Texas I have become increasingly fascinated by the interweavings of the imaginal realm and the real, that is, how novels, television shows and movies are inspired by and in turn shape our ideas about this place, its people, and its history. (See my previous post, "Thirteen Trailers for Movies with Extra-Astral Texiness.") I have also been pondering the ways in which the digital revolution has transformed the experience of travel itself, conflating, multilayering, and pretzeling time and space. (See my post on "Literary Travel Writing: Notes on Process and the Digital Revolution.") And I've been noodling on technology (see "Notes on Wolfgang Schivelbusch's The Railway Journey.")

So no surprise, I have ended up, willy by nilly, crunching through the ouevre of Marshall McLuhan.


For anything to do with media, Marshall McLuhan is your superstar go-to guy. He's wild, brilliant, cryptic until you realize just how very brilliantly inside-out brilliant, and spookily prophetic. His famous saying was, "the medium is the message." His arguably most famous book, however, is titled The Medium is the Massage.

An excellent introduction to his work is this video on the Marshall McLuhan Speaks website. It opens with his cameo in the Woody Allen film, "Annie Hall," then goes to an approximately 20 minute introduction by Tom Wolf.

> Listen in to Terrance McKenna on Marshall McLuhan for another richly interesting, yea verily, psychedelic introduction.

> For an official biography see the  Marshall McLuhan official website. This official webpage includes the head-shaking "McLuhanisms."

Selected works by Marshall McLuhan:

The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man

The Gutenberg Galaxy

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews (with an introduction by Tom Wolf)

by Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers
The Global Village: Transformations in World Media in the 21st Century

by Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan
Laws of Media and the New Science
Media and Formal Cause

by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore
The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects


Lectures and Panels


On the Global Village and the Tetrad
Lecture at Johns Hopkins University, 1977

This is Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Message


On the last lecture by Marshall McLuhan's son and collaborator, Eric McLuhan: Media Ecology and the 21st Century

@mmreadsbooks is of notes by McLuhan found by grandson
Andrew as he took inventory of McLuhan's working library
(Hmmm this note reminds me of reading Thundersticks...)

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.