Brain Pickings

The Psychology of Writing and the Cognitive Science of the Perfect Daily Routine

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How to sculpt an environment that optimizes creative flow and summons relevant knowledge from your long-term memory through the right retrieval cues.

Reflecting on the ritualization of creativity, Bukowski famously scoffed that “air and light and time and space have nothing to do with.” Samuel Johnson similarly contended that “a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.” And yet some of history’s most successful and prolific writers were women and men of religious daily routines and odd creative rituals. (Even Buk himself ended up sticking to a peculiar daily routine.)

Such strategies, it turns out, may be psychologically sound and cognitively fruitful. In the altogether illuminating 1994 volume The Psychology of Writing (public library), cognitive psychologist Ronald T. Kellogg explores how work schedules, behavioral rituals, and writing environments affect the amount of time invested in trying to write and the degree to which that time is spent in a state of boredom, anxiety, or creative flow. Kellogg writes:

[There is] evidence that environments, schedules, and rituals restructure the writing process and amplify performance… The principles of memory retrieval suggest that certain practices should amplify performance. These practices encourage a state of flow rather than one of anxiety or boredom. Like strategies, these other aspects of a writer’s method may alleviate the difficulty of attentional overload. The room, time of day, or ritual selected for working may enable or even induce intense concentration or a favorable motivational or emotional state. Moreover, in accordance with encoding specificity, each of these aspects of method may trigger retrieval of ideas, facts, plans, and other relevant knowledge associated with the place, time, or frame of mind selected by the writer for work.

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Kellogg reviews a vast body of research to extract a few notable findings. Among them is the role of background noise, which seems to fall on a bell curve of fecundity: High-intensity noise that exceeds 95 decibels disrupts performance on complex tasks but improves it on simple, boring tasks — noise tends to raise arousal level, which can be useful when trying to stay alert during mindless and monotonous work, but can agitate you out of creative flow when immersed in the kind of work that requires deliberate, reflective thought. (The psychology of writing, after all, as Kellogg notes in the introduction, is a proxy for the psychology of thinking.) The correlation between skill level and task difficulty also plays a role — feeling like your skills are not up to par raises your level of anxiety, which in turn makes noise more bothersome.

These effects, of course, are relative to one’s psychological constitution — Kellogg surmises that writers more afflicted with the modern epidemic of anxiety tend to be more disconcerted by noisy environments. Proust and Carlyle appear to have been among those writers — the former wrote in a cork-lined room to eliminate obtrusive sounds and the latter in a noiseproof chamber to ensure absolute silence — whereas Allen Ginsberg was known for being able to write anywhere, from trains to planes to parks. What matters, Kellogg points out, are each writer’s highly subjective requirements for preserving the state of flow:

The lack of interruption in trains of thought may be the critical ingredient in an environment that enables creative flow. As long as a writer can tune out background noise, the decibel level per se may be unimportant. For some writers, the dripping of a faucet may be more disruptive than the bustle of a cafe in the heart of a city.

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Turning an eye to research on the specific timing and duration of writing sessions, Kellogg points to several studies indicating that working for 1 to 3 hours at a time, then taking a break before resuming, is most conducive to productivity, not only for writers but also for athletes and professional musicians — a finding since repeated in more recent research. He also cites a 1985 study of circadian rhythms — something scientists have since explored with swelling rigor — which found that performance on intellectual tasks peaks during morning hours, whereas perceptual-motor tasks fare better in the afternoon and evening. Hemingway, in fact, intuited this from his own experience, telling George Plimpton in a rare 1958 interview:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until morning when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.

Location and physical environment also play a role in maintaining a sustained and productive workflow. Bob Dylan, for instance, extolled the virtues of being able to “put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind.” Reviewing the research, Kellogg echoes Faulkner’s memorable assertion that “the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost” and notes that writers’ dedicated workspaces tend to involve solitude and quiet, although “during the apprenticeship phase of a writer’s career, almost any environment is workable” — most likely a hybrid function of youth’s high tolerance for distraction and the necessity of sharing space earlier in life when the luxury of privacy is unaffordable.

But the key psychological function of such dedicated environments isn’t so much superstitious ritualization — an effort to summon the muse through the elaborate juju of putting everything in its right place — as cognitive cueing. Kellogg considers the usefulness of a special space used solely for writing, which cultivates an “environment that cues the desired behavior”:

This phenomenon can be reinterpreted in terms of the cognitive concept of encoding specificity. The abstract ideas, images, plans, tentative sentences, feelings, and other personal symbols that represent the knowledge needed to construct a text are associated with the place and time of the writing environment. These associations are strongest when the writer engages in few if any extraneous activities in the selected environment. Entering the environment serves as a retrieval cue for the relevant knowledge to enter the writer’s awareness. Once the writer’s attention turns to the ideas that pop into consciousness, the composing process flows again. Particular features of the environment may serve as specific prompts for retrieving, creating, and thinking.

For instance, a scene outside an office window, a painting hanging on the wall, or a plant sitting in the corner may become associated with thinking deeply about a particular text under development. Staring at the feature elicits knowledge representations bearing on the problem at hand.

This strategy is rather similar to the one most often recommended for treating insomnia — instituting a regular bedtime and using the bedroom as a space dedicated solely to sleep, in order to optimize the brain’s ability to enter rest mode upon going to bed and cue that behavior each night just by entering that environment. (Perhaps not coincidentally, many of the most successful writers are also zealous in their sleep habits.)

The sleep habits vs. creative output of famous writers. Click image for details.

In fact, Kellogg cites a 1990 treatment program, developed by research psychologist Bob Boice developed for educators and other professionals who must write for a living and who were struggling with writer’s block, which uses a similar approach:

A key component of [Boice’s] program is the rearranging of the writing environment. He recommends that the writer “establish one or a few regular places in which you do all serious writing” and “nothing but serious writing; other writing (e.g., correspondence) would be carried out elsewhere.” Boice insists that magazines, novels, and other nonessential reading material be banned, social interactions minimized or eliminated, and cleaning and straightening up of the place delayed until a writing session is completed. By following these recommendations, the writer creates a space solely to think and write, avoiding extraneous activities. This space, therefore, becomes associated with all the mental products of creating meaning and can then serve as a unique retrieval cue for those products.

Note that these strategies were developed more than a decade before modern smartphones existed and long before social networks like Facebook and Twitter were moaning their constant 95-decibel siren calls for our attention. Today, Boice’s treatment program would no doubt also require the elimination of smartphones and any medium of social networking from the dedicated writing environment, among countless other “nonessential” forms of communication that the past, as is usually the case, could not have envisioned of the future.

Thomas Mann seems to have captured many of the principles Kellogg unveils in a single exquisite letter to the Austrian writer and journalist Viktor Polzer:

For writing I must have a roof over my head, and since I enjoy working by the sea better than anywhere else, I need a tent or a wicker beach chair. Much of my composition, as I have said, has been conceived on walks; I also regard movement in the open air as the best means of reviving my energy for work. For a longer book I usually have a heap of preliminary papers close at hand during the writing; scribbled notes, memory props, in part purely objective — external details, colorful odds and ends — or else psychological formulations, fragmentary inspirations, which I use in their proper place.

In the closing of the chapter, Kellogg considers what the wide variation of such routines and rituals reveals:

The diversity in environments chosen by writers, from Proust’s cork-lined room to Sarraute’s Parisian cafe, suggests the flexibility of human thought. A person can think in any environment, though some locations become habitual for certain individuals. The key is to find an environment that allows concentrated absorption in the task and maximum exposure to retrieval cues that release relevant knowledge from long-term memory.

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Indeed, despite all these fruitful strategies for optimizing creative flow, the bigger truth — something I wholeheartedly believe — remains: There is no ideal rotation of the chair or perfect position of the desk clock that guarantees a Pulitzer. What counts, ultimately, is putting your backside in the chair — or, if you happen to be Ernest Hemingway or Virginia Woolf, dragging your feet to your standing desk — and clocking in the hours, psychoemotional rain or shine. Showing up day in and day out, without fail, is the surest way to achieve lasting success.

Complement The Psychology of Writing — which goes on to explore such cognitive crannies as the intricacies of symbol-creation, the role of personality in writing, and the impact of drugs and daydreams on the creative process — with Anna Deavere Smith on discipline, a guided tour of the daily rituals of famous writers, and some pointers on how to hone your creative routine.

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My Teacher Is a Monster: A Sweet Modern Fable About Seeing Through the Otherness of Others

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A gentle illustrated reminder that we can’t love what we don’t know.

“Love,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in his poignant letters to Gandhi on why we hurt one another, “represents the highest and indeed the only law of life, as every man knows and feels in the depths of his heart (and as we see most clearly in children)…” Tolstoy believed that if only we managed to see through our superficial differences and our fear of the other’s otherness, we’d recognize instantly the universe’s basic “law of love” — something to which we are born attuned, only to forget as we enter adulthood. Kids, of course, can often be especially cruel in their inability to accept otherness — but that’s why it’s especially enchanting to witness, let alone spark, the precise moment in which a child lets go of some learned bias and sees in another person his or her intrinsic goodness, a return to innocence and Tolstoy’s “law of love.”

From children’s book author and illustrator Peter Brown comes My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.) (public library | IndieBound) — a sweet contemporary fable about one such moment of seeing through the mask of terrifying otherness the soft heart of our shared humanity.

In vibrant, textured illustrations and simple words, Brown tells the story of little Bobby, who sees his stern teacher, Ms. Kirby, as a scary green ogre — until, one weekend, the two unexpectedly bump into each other at the park.

Suddenly, the leisurely environment strips them of their weekday roles. After the inevitable awkwardness and disorientation — in one particularly sweet exchange, Bobby, who resists his initial instinct to just run away, raises his hand while sitting next to Ms. Kirby on the bench; she gently reminds him that, outside the classroom, he can just ask his question — they have no choice but to first reluctantly, then tacitly, then gladly get to know each other.

Just as Bobby makes the first move with a compliment on Ms. Kirby’s enormous hat, the wind takes over.

The hat, it turns out, is Ms. Kirby’s favorite, so she runs after it distraught as the wind sweeps it toward peril. Right before it drops into the duck pond, Bobby leaps and saves the day. Ms. Kirby, ecstatic, proclaims him her hero and the two set out to feed the ducks side by side. Meanwhile, strangely, some of Ms. Kirby’s greenness seems to have faded and her boar-like nostrils have shrunk ever so slightly.

Bobby decides to show Ms. Kirby his favorite spot in the park and they climb up some big boulders, atop which Ms. Kirby — now with an almost neutral complexion and a hint of rosiness — gets an idea.

She hands Bobby a sheet of paper, which he gleefully folds into a paper plane and releases into the sky — the very act for which the monstrous teacher had scolded the kids in the classroom.

“I think that was the single greatest paper airplane flight in history!” Bobby exclaims. “I think you’re right,” Ms. Kirby — now having lost almost all of her monster teeth — agrees.

By the time they return to the bench at lunchtime, both are glad they had run into each other.

Miraculously, Ms. Kirby has transmogrified from a monster into an ordinary woman. With each shared moment and each small kindness exchanged, her monsterness had dissolved into her simple humanity — a sweet reminder that however much people may be the product of their culture and surrounding context, when one learns to see with “the eye of the heart,” their basic goodness will eventually emanate.

In a way, the story shines a compassionate light on a different facet of the same broader issue Brown explored in his previous book, the equally wonderful Mr. Tiger Goes Wild — a tender tale about authenticity and acceptance. The challenge of understanding others despite their differences and that of feeling accepted ourselves despite our quirks are two sides of the same coin — a coin that is undoubtedly our most valuable currency for human bonds.

In a recent conversation, I asked Brown about his thinking behind My Teacher Is a Monster and his broader philosophy of writing and illustrating for young minds:

MP: All of your work emanates such a sense of optimism. Do you feel that it is our responsibility to cultivate this in children or is it, rather, the other way around — our responsibility to ourselves is to bear witness to this natural human capacity in kids, which we unlearn as we grow up, and to perhaps reawaken it in our grown selves?

PB: The further I get in my career, the more I think about my readers. I see it as my responsibility to create books that will make kids laugh and think and want to pick up another book. The hope is that I might, in some small way, help to grow the number of readers in the world. And the best way to make more readers is to help people fall in love with reading at an early age. So I try to make stories and characters and art that appeal to the excitement and curiosity that occurs naturally in children.

The optimism in my stories is no accident. But I think you’ll find that in addition to positivity there’s always a dose of reality in my stories. Each of my characters face real disappointment, and their story is about them overcoming their disappointment. That’s real, and kids get it.

MP: This particular book explores the rather common experience of seeing someone as both frightening and repulsive until we get to know them — one manifestation of our broader, fundamental fear of the unfamiliar. Did you have such an experience yourself, either with a teacher or with another figure in your life, that inspired the book?

PB: When I was a kid I had several grumpy adults in my life. There were the old neighbors who would actually yell at me to get off their lawn. There was the mysterious family of five who all seemed to be mean and miserable, even the kids. And yes, I did have a few grumpy teachers, too. I was confused and concerned by all of those people, but the grumpy teachers were especially distressing because I had to be in close quarters with them for a whole school year.

To make matters worse, I had a big, uncontrollable imagination, and there was a time when I actually thought those teachers were monsters in disguise. But over time, most of those teachers gradually revealed their softer side — they’d share a personal story, or share my excitement about some little thing — and I’d gradually realize that they weren’t so bad… in fact, they were actually pretty cool.

That seemed like a pretty good premise for a children’s book.

And indeed it is — My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.) is an absolute delight. Complement it with The Book of Mean People, Toni Morrison’s similarly-spirited collaboration with her son.

Images courtesy of Peter Brown / Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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A Brief History of Romantic Friendship

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“Smashes,” “crushes,” “spoons,” and other curious nineteenth-century relationship varieties.

Thoreau used to lie awake at night and “think of friendship and its possibilities,” while his dear friend Emerson, in contemplating the secret of friendship, marveled, “What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?” — language strikingly similar to that of all the great Romantic poets in extolling the union of love. It’s been argued that friendship is a greater gift than romantic love, but what about that strange, wonderful, and often messy neverland between the two and the inevitable discombobulation of our neatly organized relationship structures that happens when romantic love and friendship converge?

In Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (public library), historian Lilian Faderman chronicles the extraordinary, era-defining rise and fall of precisely that phenomenon — romantic friendship — as an agent of cultural change:

While romantic friendship had had a long history in Western civilization, it took on particular significance in nineteenth-century America, where men’s spheres and women’s spheres became so divided through the task of nation-building. Men saw themselves as needing the assistance of other men to realize their great material passions, and they fostered “muscle values” and “rational values,” to the exclusion of women. Women, left to themselves outside of their household duties, found kindred spirits primarily in each other. They banded together and fostered “heart values.”

Still, given the economic and social demands of life at the time, most of these female bonds were necessarily secondary to women’s familial obligations, whether in a father’s house or a husband’s. But college, Faderman argues, changed all that — access to education swung open the gates to a new world for women and, as pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell memorably marveled in her diary, it allowed women to set their sights much higher than pervious generations had imagined possible.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Click image for more.

What amplified the impact of that progress, beyond the raw material of academia, were young women’s relationships with each other and the ecosystem of those relationships, which created “a healthy and productive separatism.” This allowed them to explore their own boundaries, to build their own hierarchy of values, to try on the roles of leaders in a self-contained universe free from the traditional yardsticks of society and from the pressure of male demands. But there was one especially potent driver of this empowerment — romantic friendships, which were referred to in college slang as “smashes,” “crushes,” or “spoons.”

In 1873, a Yale student newspaper described the phenomenon in terms that bespeak either utter obliviousness to the sexual undertones of these relationships or nonchalant acceptance of them:

When a Vassar girl takes a shine to another, she straightway enters upon a regular course of bouquet sendings, interspersed with tinted notes, mysterious packages of “Ridley’s Mixed Candies,” locks of hair perhaps, and many other tender tokens, until at last the object of her attentions is captured, the two women become inseparable, and the aggressor is considered by her circle of acquaintances as — smashed.

Vassar, as it happens, was not only the university where Maria Mitchell had begun teaching as the only woman on the faculty, paving the way for women in science, but also where Edna St. Vincent Millay became “smashed” with another woman and penned for her some of the most enchanting queer love letters of all time.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Click image for more.

The romantic friendship, also well-documented among men, was not only culturally condoned — in fact, William Alger wrote in 1868 that it brought to women “freshness, stimulant charm, noble truths and aspirations” — but also deeply woven into the fabric of college life. Institutions like Vassar and Smith regularly held all-female dances in the early twentieth century. A Cosmopolitan magazine article from 1901 on life in women’s colleges describes Smith’s Freshman Frolic, in which a sophomore girl played “the cavalier” for the freshman girl she escorted:

She sends her flowers, calls for her, fills her order of dance, fetches ices and frappes between dances and takes her to supper… Every “soph” sees her partner home, begs for a flower … and if the freshman has taken advantage of the opportunity and made the desired hit, there are dates for future meetings and jollifications and a good night over the balusters, as lingering and cordial as any the “freshie” has left behind. And if the gallant soph who lives in another hall runs away from her shadow on the way back to her dormitory, it’s nobody’s business but her own.

Despite the reluctance of the era’s writers to detail that aspect, Faderman notes that such courtship rituals often led to “lovemaking,” both in the 19th-century sentimental sense and in the modern meaning of sexual intimacy. She marvels at the fault line between the oblivious and the obvious:

How could such excitements not lead to passionate loves at a time when there was not yet widespread stigma against intense female same-sex relationships?

What’s more, young college women’s romantic friendships were modeled heavily after the relationships between their female professors, who resided on campus, usually in pairs, often forming lifelong love relationships — “marriages,” like that of Charity and Sylvia. They also provided a new model of economic independence — wholly self-supporting, they didn’t need to marry in order to survive.

Once college-educated women began entering the workforce, the romantic friendship took place against a new backdrop, which Katherine Anne Porter once described as “a company of Amazons” — those early professional women, the first generations of female doctors, professors, ministers, union organizers, and social workers. Faderman cites the case of two Englishwomen from the 1890s, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, a pair of “romantic friends” who penned some 25 plays and eight books of poetry together under the pseudonym Michael Field, vowing to each other to be “poets and lovers evermore.”

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Click image for more.

But it didn’t take long for the cultural establishment to begin fearing romantic friendships as a threat to the traditional institution of marriage, which was still a pivotal part of society’s economic model. By the early 1900s, Faderman notes, sexologists and other newly anointed “experts” in the social sciences began condemning these relationships, which only a decade earlier had been universally accepted as innocuous and even ennobling. An 1895 book titled Side Talks with Girls cautioned that it was dangerous for a woman to have “a girl-sweetheart” because wasting her love on another woman would leave nothing for “Prince Charming when he comes to claim his bride.” One pseudo-medical text from the beginning of the century admonished against women’s “increasing affection” for one another:

They kiss each other fondly on every occasion. They embrace each other with mutual satisfaction. It is most natural, in the interchange of visits, for them to sleep together. They learn the pleasure of direct contact, and in the course of them fondling they resort to cunni-linguistic practices… After this the normal sex act fails to satisfy [them].

By 1906, one Swiss psychiatrist issued the alarmist statement that “the excess of female inverts exceeds those of the male” and that for female lovers, sexual lust “is their one thought, night and day, almost without interruption.” (That gentleman had clearly missed the memo on lesbian bed death.) And yet through the 1920s, college women were able to enjoy their romantic friendships with varying degrees of freedom and self-consciousness. Faderman cites one particularly amusing 1921 satirical essay from the Oberlin College yearbook, titled “My Heart Leaps Up,” in which the writers deploy delightful irony at the admonitions against romantic friendship:

Crushes are bad and happen only to the very young and very foolish. Once upon a time we were very young, and the bushes on the campus were hung with our bleeding hearts. Cecil’s heart bled indiscriminately. The rest of us specialized more, and the paths of Gertie Hearne, Dosia, Eleanor Marquand, Adelaide, Tip, and others would have been strewn with roses if public opinion had permitted flowers during the War.

The type of person smitten was one of the striking things about the epidemic. For instance, our emotional Betty Mills spent many stolen hours gazing up at Phoebe’s window. The excitable Copey was enamoured successively of all presidents of the Athletic Association, and has had a hard time this year deciding where to bestow her affections.

But there were some cases that were different from these common crushes. We know they were different, because the victims told us so. Only the most jaundiced mind could call by any other name than friendship Nora’s tender feeling toward Gertie Steele, which led her to keep Gertie’s room overflowing with flowers, fruit, candy, pictures, books, and other indispensable articles. (I always thought rather pathetic the story that once Gertie had been exposed to the measles and for a whole week could not be kissed good-night.) We will all admit that only the purest friendship caused Marjorie to knit the shell-pink sweater and gallantly rescue V.K.’s gown from the waste basket…

Of course, all these things happened in our extreme youth.

Willa Cather (right) with Louise Pound, University of Nebraska, early 1890s

(Image: Willa Cather Archive)

While some early-twentieth-century women saw no need to hide their same-sex relationships, Faderman points out that many were already bending down to the culture’s budding pressures against “romantic friendship.” She points to celebrated writer Willa Cather as one particularly appropriate example — early in her college career at the University of Nebraska in the late 19th century, she called herself Dr. William and practically dressed in male drag, but by graduation, despite continuing her romantic relationships with women (one of whom would eventually become the love of her life), she had conformed to a much more feminine presentation.

Willa Cather as a freshman (left) and upon graduation

(Images: Willa Cather Archive)

Indeed, the turn of the twentieth century did eventually beget the death knell of romantic friendship — a phenomenon that, as Faderman notes, “might have been too simple to survive in our complex times anyway.” She writes:

It was also the beginning of a lengthy period of general closing off of most affectional possibilities between women. The precious intimacies that adult females had been allowed to enjoy with each other earlier — sleeping in the same bed, holding hands, exchanging vows of eternal love, writing letters in the language of romance — became increasingly self-conscious and then rare.

Thanks to the influence of Freud and “all his spiritual offspring,” Faderman argues, the late twentieth century became “hyper-sophisticated” about matters of sexuality and love between women was stripped of that older veneer of sexual innocence:

Whether or not two women who find themselves passionately attached choose to identify themselves as lesbian today, they must at least examine the possibility of sexual attraction between them and decide whether or not to act upon it. Such sexual self-consciousness could easily have been avoided in earlier eras.

Of course, Faderman was writing more than two decades before the triumph of marriage equality and its political leap in eliminating an enormous part of that “self-consciousness,” which we owe largely to one particular woman: Edith Windsor, the courageous patron saint of modern love, who fought for the sanctity of the love she shared with her spouse of 42 years, Thea Spier, and for its rightful status as a marriage in the eyes of the law, fighting her case all the way up to the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in Windsor’s favor and deemed DOMA unconstitutional.

Still, it pays to remember that any landmark cultural shift is the product of decades, and often centuries, of incremental strides and cumulative efforts. The remainder of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers chronicles precisely those ordinary stories and imperceptible victories that, together, laid the groundwork for one of the greatest triumphs of human rights and dignity in the past century. Complement it with the sweet story of how two women married each other in early America.

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