Empty Shelf Book 14: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author: Rebecca Skloot

What’s it about: This book is about the immortal life of the HeLa cell line, grown  from an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in the fifties. Henrietta Lacks cells were the first human cells to be immortal. When Lacks was operated on at John Hopkins hospital, her cancerous cell tissue was taken without her consent.

Why did I read it: This book was part required reading material for my Women’s Studies class I’m taking this quarter. I don’t like the class so much, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning about  Lack’s story and her incredible contribution to science.

Favorite idea: In the book, Skloot writes about two of Henrietta’s adult children seeing their mother’s cells for the first time. When discussing genetics and DNA, a researcher at Hopkins explained  “They [the HeLa cells] all look the same–they’re just clear until we put color on them with a dye. You can’t tell what color a person is from their cells.”

Where you can buy it: here.

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What to Write When You Can’t Write

I’m going to cut straight to the chase. I hate writing prompts. “What is your earliest childhood memory?” or, my personal favorite,“Write about a memory associated with a certain smell.”Um, what?!With all the books and websites out there dedicated to overcoming writer’s block, I’ve found very few helpful.  Not only are these prompts unhelpful, they’re also constricting. Instead of using the bank loaded with our own ideas, prompts tend to produce cookie cutter results. Where does all the extra dough go?! With roughly 15,700,000 search results for “writing prompts” on Google alone, I expect more original and fresh ideas. Writing often feels more complicated than it actually is. Depending on who you’re writing for–yourself, an audience, or both– you shouldn’t feel the constant need to crank out a novel every time you sit down with a piece of paper. Every bestseller, freelancer, blogger, and journal-keeper had to start somewhere. So, instead of suggesting cliche writing prompts, I’m going to take you on a trip back to the basics. 

I’ve come a long way in my writing–at least I’d like to think so–but one thing I know for sure is that I still have an incredibly long way to go. My starting point included lists of my favorite foods and games of MASH from long, hot, and non-air conditioned bus rides to camp.  My journalism journey–if you even consider lists and games of MASH journalism–moved from the Little League team to the All Star team. I waved goodbye to “listography,” and in ninth grade  I committed to being more consistent. I wrote down as many details, big and small, that I could remember from each day. Although I was fairly consistent, the amount of content in my entries varied. I found that when I attempted to write lengthy and wordy entries, I ended up writing LESS. I had to face the fact that some days, my most exciting activity might very well be having a dissection in science class.

Moral of the story? There is no shame in lists and “Dear Diary” entries. Trust me, inspiration doesn’t fall from the sky the way rain falls in Seattle. That would be waaaay to easy.

What to Write When You Can’t Write

1. Lists– lists and sub-lists are great ways to brainstorm.

2. Thought bubbles.

3. One line a day. This can be useful if you feel you don’t have time to keep a journal. I often leave space in mine to go back and expand on entries. Record something such as a Facebook status or something that will trigger your memory when you go back. Try and be specific. Just writing “I ate Cheerios for breakfast today” isn’t going to be of much assistance to you if you plan on going back and expanding.

4. The Method (Writing Analytically by David Rosenwasser). This is an exercise my English 101 teacher in college had us do often. This really helps turn gears. I don’t read poetry, but we had an in class essay where we read a poem and analyzed what we read. The Method asks four questions. 1) What repeats? 2) What goes with what? (strands) 3) What is opposed to what? (binaries/opposites) 4) What doesn’t fit? (anomalies). For all of these questions, ask the “SO WHAT?” question. It sounds like homework, but trust me, it is a really helpful tool.

5. Your mom’s grocery list.

6. Book reviews/reports/summaries.

7. Letters. There is nothing I love more than receiving a handwritten letter. I’m sure you know someone who would love to receive one.

8. Stories. If you want to make yourself known, sign up for a free account at cowbird.com, it’s a pretty awesome website.

9. Your school schedule.

10. Take notes in class. This is just a good habit. It doesn’t necessarily spark creativity, but repetitive learning skills improve memory.

What to Read When You Can’t Write

1. Garner’s Modern American Usage. The title is sounds big and scary, but it is a WONDERFUL reference. If you’re experiencing writer’s block, you might as well take the time you’re not using to write to improve your grammar.

2. Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis. Etymology at it’s best. Great for advancing vocabulary.

3. Books, books, and more books. If you don’t read, you’re writing is lacking its full potential.

4. The Newspaper. If I were you, I would choose something more wholesome than the Seattle Times. But, that’s just me. Flipboard is a great FREE app if you’re on the go often.

5. Word Dynamo (dynamo.dictionary.com). This is what nerds like me do over Christmas Break: expand their vocabulary count to and estimated +30,000 words.

6. Magazines. Try out Relevant: Faith, Culture & Intentional Living

7. Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty. This is a great book and very easy to read. I have yet to finish it!

8. Read a picture. I bet you didn’t know you could do that! “A picture is worth a thousand words”~Napolean Bonaparte.

Where to Go When You Can’t Write

(Breaks in recurring schedules are very relieving)

1. NOT Facebook.

For those in the greater Seattle area:

2. Green Lake Park. I went here just the other day. It had been forever since I’d been there. Which is a shame considering it is only about a fifteen minute drive from my house.

3. Alki Beach. If you have a lot of time on your hands, this place is awesome.

4. St. Edwards Park

5. Bothell Landing

6. Seward Park

7. A coffee shop. I find inspiration in listening, talking, and observing. The Aloha Cafe in Edmonds or The Lyon’s Den in Bothell are ideal–unfortunately for me only one of these two is convenient. Because Starbucks is overrated, just more convenient.

I don’t splurge very often, but when I do, I consider the small indulgences as money well spent. If you’ve never owned a Moleskine notebook, I highly recommend investing in one. I usually use college ruled spiral notebooks, but these often give me motivation, especially if I’m close to wrapping up a notebook. I’m sort of obsessed with gel pens as well. They bring a whole new meaning to “color the rainbow.” (I especially enjoy using them for my school planner). They add some excitement. My #1 tip is to keep a notepad with you at all times. There is nothing worse than letting a great idea slip through your finger tips. My #2 Tip is to share your writing–whatever type of writing it may be– with other people. Tip #3 Not everyone scrapbooks. I am one of those who does not. instead, I tape memorabilia into my journals with photo adhesives and/or scotch tape. You’ll be glad you did! Last, but certainly not least, Tip #4! If you’re writing for an audience, big or small, DO NOT cater your words solely to their tastes. Many people try so hard to keep up with the newest trends in the media and whatnot that their writing loses its passion. Especially non-writers. Your writing probably has a bigger effect on people than you think. We are often our biggest critics. Every expert in any field of work began with the basics. Don’t forget to review them!

P.S. I need to take my own advice more often.

I hope this inspires you!

Kayla

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