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Mount Orégano
Sue Burke
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26th-Nov-2014 12:03 pm - Individualism vs. Individualismo
Postage stamp
In English, “individualism” means self-reliance and personal independence. Its connotation can lean toward eccentricity. (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.)

But in Spanish, “individualismo” means acting in voluntary isolation, possibly working for oneself against the good of everyone else. Its connotation can lean toward egotism and selfishness. (Real Academia Española, Diccionario de la Lengua Española.)

Still, the words “individualismo” and “individual” are usually considered equivalent in meaning and translated as if they were identical, even though they’re not. (Oxford Spanish-English/English-Spanish Dictionary.)

This means that when an American talks about “rugged individualism,” what a Spaniard hears is something different. I know this because I’ve spent enough time in both countries to observe the misunderstanding.

Who knows what happens in other languages? With other words? I know that the word “multiculturalism” mean different things, even among English-speaking countries. It can mean everything from a multi-flavored melting pot to voluntary or enforced apartheid.

So be careful with words. False friends are pairs of words or phrases in two languages or dialects of the same language that look or sound similar but differ significantly in meaning. False friends can make real enemies needlessly.

— Sue Burke
24th-Nov-2014 07:36 pm - Open mic Tuesday
We had so much fun last month we’re doing it again:

The Madrid Writer’s Club will host an open mic at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, November 25, at El dinosaurio todavía estaba allí Bookstore and Café, calle Lavapiés, 8, Madrid, Spain.

I’ll be reading a piece I wrote as a Christmas gift for my nephew about his father’s first Christmas. You can come to listen and, if you want, read. Scripts, flash fiction, essays, and poetry are welcome, in English. There’s a maximum reading time of 4 minutes.

If you’re in town, drop in.

— Sue Burke

Listen to people in a mall or at an airport, for example. Take notes. Then analyze them. What is the relationship between speakers? How do you know? What information do they pass? What surprises you? What’s the rhythm? Catchphrases? Persuasion? Conflict? How does each person speak differently? With any luck, you’ll hear ways to make your dialogue more natural and productive for your writing.

You’ll probably get story ideas by eavesdropping, but if not, here are a few. Remember the dialogue.

• This is a dark fantasy story in which a husband asks a friend to seduce his wife so he can have an excuse to divorce her, and the friend suggests conjuring up an incubus instead.

• This is a technological thriller that begins when a researcher reports that a greater number than average of redheads are being born.

• This is a chronicle of the cut-throat competition in the pet business after dogs have been artificially bred to be able to speak.

— Sue Burke
12th-Nov-2014 03:35 pm - Self-publishing, 400 years ago

Self-publishing is nothing new – and neither is piracy. The first book of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes was published in Madrid and was immediately pirated in Lisbon.

Then as now, payment by publishers to authors was low, and so just like today, some authors were willing to get their book printed and sell it themselves, but it has always been a lot easier to get a book printed than to sell it. In Don Quixote, Book II, Chapter LXII, published in 1615, our mad knight-errant meets an even madder author in a printing shop in Barcelona and has this conversation:

"I would venture to swear," said Don Quixote, "that you, sir, are not known in the world, which always begrudges its reward to rare wits and praiseworthy labors. What talents lie wasted there! What genius thrust away into corners! What worth left neglected!... But tell me, sir, are you printing this book at your own risk, or have you sold the copyright to some bookseller?"

"I print at my own risk," said the author, "and I expect to make at least a thousand ducados* with this first edition, which is to be of two thousand copies that should sell in the blink of an eye at six reales** apiece."

"A fine calculation you’re making!" said Don Quixote. "It seems you don't know the ins and outs of the printers, and the false accounting that some of them use. I promise you when you find yourself weighed down with two thousand copies, you will feel so careworn that it will astonish you, particularly if the book is unusual and not at all humorous."

"Then what!" said the author. "Sir, do you wish me to give it to a bookseller who will give three maravedís*** for the copyright and think he is doing me a favor? I do not print my books to win fame in the world, for I am already well-known by my works. I want to get something out of it, otherwise fame is not worth a cuatrín****."


*1,000 ducados, in today’s prices and currencies, might equal roughly €28,125 or US$35,600. By comparison, Cervantes may have received about 100 to 125 ducados for the first book of Don Quixote. The contract has been lost, but that price is in keeping with what he made for other books.

**6 reales, in today’s equivalent currencies, might be about €15.35 or US$19.43. The first book of Don Quixote sold for 290.5 maravedís, or about €21.78 or US$27.57.

***About €0.23 or US$0.28 – we could translate it into American English as a “quarter.”

****A coin worth so little that no one recalls its value anymore. We could translate it as a “penny” or “farthing” and probably be close to the original meaning.

— Sue Burke

A more detailed analysis of how little Cervantes made from Don Quixote is available here:

5th-Nov-2014 12:42 pm - Adolescents confront history
My junior high school had a scandalous “secret” that older students would melodramatically point out to incoming seventh-graders. The hallway floors in one of the buildings was edged with decorative glazed tiles in bright colors. On the first floor near the office, amid tiles depicting geometric shapes, anchors, lions, birds, shields, and other motifs, there was a swastika!

Oh, no! Why?

The answer involved a history lesson. The swastika symbol was old, older than Nazis and World War II. Nazis didn’t invent it, they only used it. Our building was older than the Nazis, so when it was built, the ancient symbol had seemed innocent, just like the lions and anchors.

We learned a lot in those buildings. In my case, classes included Spanish, algebra, geometry, civics, literature, art, home economics, and gym. But in the hallways, thanks to that scandalous tile, we also learned a lesson about the world, an idea some adults still don’t quite get. Things change over time, and the past holds surprises.

We also wondered why we were attending such old, decrepit buildings. This wasn’t just us kids whining, since teachers and parents had the same question. At some point – I can’t find out exactly when – the buildings were torn down and replaced by a new middle school elsewhere in the city.

My old junior high school was so unloved that I cannot find a single photo of the buildings on the Internet. All I could find were tiles in the Men’s Gymnasium, built in 1917, at Indiana University. They seem to have come from the same manufacturer as the ones at my junior high school.

The tiled floor at my school with the swastika has disappeared. It became history, a memory with a lesson.

And the world keeps changing.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website,
29th-Oct-2014 12:08 pm - Birds on Earth

I am a total Earthling. By that I mean I am entirely used to this planet’s environment.

Here’s a small example:

One day I was out on my morning walk, and up ahead a wood pigeon sprang into the air and started flying toward me. With a 30-inch wingspan, it’s a fairly big bird. But I didn’t flinch. I knew that the bird, very common in my neighborhood, had no interest in messing with me. It would swerve with plenty of time.

Think of all the other potentially scary if not genuinely dangerous natural wonders we encounter on a normal day, such as a bee, dog, or cactus – to say nothing of technology.

Right now I’m writing a novel about Earthlings on another planet. How can they know if what looks like a bird or a mere stick of wood is really harmless? Well, they can’t, and not all of them are as brave as they need to be.

— Sue Burke

In the third and final discussion of change, what stories involve change? There are three main kinds.

1. Many stories, especially television series, movies, and adventure novels, involve situational change: James Bond has a new adventure, or Bart Simpson overcomes a school bully.

2. In most novels and stories, characters change in small or large ways (or stalwartly resist change), such as Scrooge’s transformation in A Christmas Carol. This change must be permanent, and it must be dramatized.

3. Fiction sometimes tries to change the reader, the way Uncle Tom’s Cabin galvanized anti-slavery sentiment. Today, literary fiction often attempts this, usually a bit more subtly and directed at individuals rather than at society as a whole.

If you want to write about change, here are a few story ideas:

• This is an ecological thriller about a university microbiology student who decides to poke around the local Superfund pollution site to see what’s there – and gets lucky, if you could call it that.

• This a story about someone who seems to develop multiple personality disorder but in fact the new personality is a refugee from another space, time, and reality.

• This picaresque novel follows a young man who moves from job to job, such as Walmart clerking, Amazon warehouse order preparation, interstellar passenger ship cleaning, and zombie reburial, illustrating the brutal life of service workers.

— Sue Burke

Although my name isn't on the cover, I'm in there on pages 66 to 67: a very short story called "Summer Home."
18th-Oct-2014 12:01 pm - Ortega y Gasset and his circumstances

“I am myself and my circumstances...”

If you know nothing else about José Ortega y Gasset, remember that phrase, his most famous, written in 1914. The Spanish philosopher died in Madrid on October 18, 1955, at age 72. He was active in the Second Republic and went into self-exile at the outbreak of the Civil War, although after 1945 he returned frequently to Spain.

For him, “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia” expressed the constant conflict between every person and the time and place where he or she is born: the drama or tragedy between necessity and freedom, of living with a reality that “forms the other half of myself.”

For him, freedom meant “being free inside of a given fate,” with a necessity to act. “I am myself and my circumstances, and if I do not rescue my circumstances, I do not rescue myself,” he wrote. “Life is what we do and what happens to us.”

Within fate, we can choose our destiny and create “a project of life.”

Some may find their philosophy of life in religion, existentialism, or nihilism. He created a philosophy based on pragmatism.

“Living is a constant process of deciding what we are going to do.”

What are you going to do?

— Sue Burke

13th-Oct-2014 10:41 am - Open mic Tuesday

I’ll be at an open mic Tuesday, October 14, at 8:00 p.m. at El dinosaurio todavía estaba allí Bookstore and Café, calle Lavapiés, 8. Madrid.

I’ll be reading about what would happen if I were a plant. If you want to read, you can. Scripts, fiction, short stories, flash fiction, literary essays, poetry are welcome... in English, of course. There is a maximum reading time of 4 minutes.

It’s organized by the Madrid Writers Club. If you’re in town, I hope you can come!

— Sue Burke

Poster by Lance Tooks.
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