Jan Maher

Fiction and plays about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people

An intermittent blog

What Makes Us Human Is Our Questions

January 20, 2018

Tags: future, AI, education

Robots in Rebellion in R.U.R.
In 1921, almost a hundred years ago, two Czech brothers wrote a play that introduced a new word to the world and with it, questions of what the world might be like by the turn of the 21st century. The word was “robot,” and the questions are ones that have populated speculative fiction, drama, and film ever since: will there come a time when humans and the machines they create can no longer be distinguished one from another? Will our machines someday outpace us, become smarter than we are? And will they then prefer to be the dominant form, rather than servant to a human master? Will they develop that element in Rossum’s Universal Robots, the play by the Capek brothers, evidenced by irritability? A soul? (more…)

Oh My Stars

May 8, 2017

Tags: book reviews, review standards, manifesto, ratings, 5 star, 4 star, stars

From now on, I'm going to append this statement to every review I write in a forum (such as Amazon or Goodreads) that requires me to select a number of stars.

***A word about stars***
I can't tell you how much I dislike stars. Like the grades I hated to give when I taught (more…)

Julie Weston's Moonshadows

August 17, 2015

Tags: Julie Weston, mystery, Moonshadows, Idaho, photography


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story,” said Anton Chekhov. “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.”
Julie Weston’s MOONSHADOWS rises to Chekhov’s standards. Packed with rich details of history, geography, and character, MOONSHADOWS is a delightful and absorbing mystery. Nellie Burns is the perfect imperfect first-wave feminist heroine: determined to negotiate her own way—sometimes with nearly fatal results—as she faces the raw power of nature and the rough realities of frontier life in 1920s Idaho. Nellie is determined, too, to make sure the things she learns about tolerance and trust in a town that has plenty of ethnic tensions are passed on to others. Her stubborn insistence on testing her talents and courage leads her to err at times, but it is this same trait that sees her through solving the puzzle of what appears to be a double murder before she herself can be counted among the corpses.
And in the process, she establishes herself not only as an emerging detective, but as a gifted photographer.

View all my reviews

Writing What You Want to Read

June 27, 2015

Tags: writing, writing instruction, Burlington College, Open Spaces

Originally published on Burlington College's blog, Mar 6, 2015 9:00:00 AM

“If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” —Toni Morrison

With few exceptions, I’ve found that students in my classes—whether at Burlington College or the previous institutions where I’ve taught — have not felt that their K-12 writing instruction encouraged them to write what they wanted to read. More often, they’ve learned to master a five-paragraph essay structure filled with content they know will fit what their teachers, or more distantly, the people who sit in cubicles scoring their writing samples, will want and expect to see.

That’s why I believe my first task as a teacher of writing, whether it is in the context of a first-year seminar such as Your Brain: An Owner’s Manual or What Is an Artist? or a dedicated writing course such as Creative Writing, is to coax my students away from the formulaic writing that has served primarily to help them pass standardized tests. I want them to relearn, or learn for the first time if they’ve never known it before, the simple joy of communicating on paper. This is the basis for writing well, even in the academic writing that will play an increasing role in a student’s life.

One strategy for breaking out of the five-paragraph essay straight-jacket goes by the acronym RAFTS. RAFTS (Role/Audience/Format/Topic/Strong Intention) asks us to think about the various roles we assume as writers, the various audiences for whom we write, the formats available to us, the topics about which we can choose to write, and the strong purpose behind our efforts. Breaking open the “rules” about what a paper should look like means I have to, as the instructor, create a rubric that is clear and concise, but allows writers to experiment. Fortunately, this isn’t hard to do, and the results are that I look forward to reading a stack of papers because I know each one will have something truly unique to offer: a zombie comic book on brain nourishment, for example, or a short story that incorporates research on depression, a personal reflection on the creative process, or an artist’s manifesto.

This does not necessarily make writing easier. In fact, students sometimes say it is more difficult to have the freedom to make choices about what and how to communicate. Writing and reading require work. These are not skills that come “naturally,” having been programmed into our DNA by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. We don’t learn to read or write the way we learn to walk, impelled by the developmental programs tucked into our genes. It is something humans have figured out how to do by deliberately re-purposing those ancient circuits. To read and write, we have to abstract, to move from actual experience to represented, symbolized experience.

Writing is first a process of discovery, then of organization, of constructing coherence. Unless we are writing entirely for ourselves, as we do in journaling, writing demands that we consider the intended audience for our communication. The entire process takes time, which is one reason those of us who planned our Open Spaces first-year seminars together agreed that we would include at least one writing assignment that we would expect to be revised. We don’t arrive at our best writing by pulling an all-nighter hours before the due date. We need to mull. We need, literally, to sleep on it. We need to keep posing the question to ourselves: How can we refine our writing to maximize its effectiveness? We re-vision (see again) and re-organize. Sometimes, we start over at the beginning and try an entirely new direction. We tweak, we polish, we proofread.

Through all those stages, all that effort is transformative. Ultimately, writing is a process of change. When we have completed a writing task, there is something in the world that never existed before, and it has both enlarged and become part of us. And it has also enhanced the world for those who read our words.

My goal as a teacher of writing, then, is to help my students discover their own stories, explore their own creativity, identify their own purposes, set their own priorities, find their audiences, learn the skills and metacognitive strategies that serve them in all these regards, and grow as a result.

I want them to be able to write the stories they want to read. When they do that, they create stories I want to read, too.

Selected Works

Charlie/Charlene Bader is a heterosexual cross-dresser who struggles through the humiliating break-up of a marriage, migrates to Chicago during the Depression where s/he discovers a supportive community of cross-dressers, serves as a dentist in World War II, and ultimately ends up in a small town in Indiana, living as a woman and working as a hairdresser. Her life becomes complicated when she realizes she has fallen in love with a customer who does not know of her male identity. "Transportive" - Publishers Weekly "Deserves a place on library shelves." - Booklist
One hot week in August 1954, in Heaven, Indiana, a baby is delivered twice: once in a barn by her grandfather, the second time to the tent door of a carnival fortune-teller by her grandmother Helen... "Once I started reading Heaven I couldn't stop reading and thinking about it…Maher's work is…richly evocative, both rooted and visionary." - Susan Koppelman "This little bit of Heaven…leaves us wanting more." - Wendy Fawthrop, Seattle Union Record
"The woman he is looking for now is the one who can call him Bob, or even Baby, without offending him. Where is she? He opens the refrigerator. Not in there. He closes the refrigerator. It’s the refrigerator they bought the day that plane blew up over Scotland. That was on the news when we brought it in and…there’s something else he is trying to remember." - See more at: http://www.persimmontree.org/v2/fall-2010/turn-turn-turn/#sthash.F1ECMbi5.dpuf
"An extraordinary assemblage of women speak about war and peace. They speak in clear and compelling language, often with song and poetry, and what they tell their audience both educates and inspires. If Most Dangerous Women were performed in schools across the country, we might well see a new generation of young people dedicated to ending the scourge of war." - Howard Zinn, Author of A People's History of the United States
MYRNA: I'll admit the knife seems real. But many dreams have a quality of intense reality about them. INTRUDER: So how do you know whether you're alone dreaming I'm holding a knife to your throat or whether I'm holding a knife to your throat while you dream of the possibility of being alone? MYRNA: The old butterfly/man dilemma. INTRUDER: The very one. MYRNA: What if we are both alone dreaming each other?

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