Category Archives: writing

Autumn Approaches

This is the time of year when the trees begin to look tired. They grow weary of holding their brave, green face. What was bright and lush in the spring is faded and washed by the end of August. They are simply done. They are ready to let go.

The leaves may yellow, but they are not fearful — not of the impending chill or their imminent descent to the earth. Soon, they turn red, a parting gift to us, flaming out as they detach and drift slowly to the ground.

They abandon the branches to face winter alone, to cope with their sudden exposure and bear the weight of snow. The leaves will nestle into the earth, becoming untethered from the backbone of xylem and phloem and liberated from the guise of cuticle, seeking safe harbor in the roots that once nourished them to life. They will come to return the favor.

In the spring, the leaves will be back, speckling the branches with a spry, verdant charm we will have almost forgotten over the ardor of winter. All will be awakened, and all will be new.

Photo by clearlyambiguous / Flickr Creative Commons

Recipe for Weak Sauce

I’ve been doing some blogger self-examination, and I’ve come to the conclusion that lately, I’ve been hawking some weak sauce. For future reference, I’ve compiled the recipe here. Appropriately, I’ve broken it out into 5 Fs…:

  • Faking it to make it. Sometimes, when you walk into the temple, it’s easy to get blinded by the idols and forget your own religion. Meaning, if you spend all day reading (and perhaps being intimidated by) the wisdom and insights of Chris Brogan and Christopher Penn, it might be easy to feel that you should be more like them. Not true. They’re them. You’re you. I’m me. And that’s all we can be. Speaking of that…
  • Forgetting your roots. At the beginning of the year, everyone was talking about their “three words” to which they would tie their goals and actions for the year. I feel like a blog should have three words, too. With what purpose did we set on this blogging course, and what are the stars that guide us? Lately, I feel like I’ve neglected some of the subjects that, when I started this blog nearly a year ago, made blogging really exciting for me. I realized, while strolling the Commonwealth Mall on Saturday, that it had been a long time since I had blogged about my own urban tourism. And while pecking away at The Project, I realized I hadn’t blogged through any of my thoughts or ideas on that topic in a while.
  • Forcing it. Per my earlier post about not publishing just because the shiny blue button lets you, only a well thought out post should see the light of day. I’m usually pretty good at this — lots of drafts never make it to prime time, some after hours of hacking away reveal the seed of an idea just can’t quite become a flowering plant — but sometimes, the shiny blueness gets the best of me.
  • Falling in love with your own words. The toughest thing about being a blogger is being your own editor. At first blush, we adore our ideas and fawn over our wordcraft. But independent bloggers have a responsibility to police and challenge themselves. Sometimes, that’s like ratting on your spouse.  When it comes to writing, though, true love is tough love.
  • Flying blind. One of the great things about blogging is the potential for spontaneous pontification or response. But that doesn’t replace the need to have a plan in place. Call it an editorial calendar, call it a half-dozen drafts in WordPress, whatever works for you. But at least having the general framework of a schedule and a structure around your blogging can help alleviate the anxiety sometimes causes by the blank editing pane or the increasingly distant date of your last post.

I don’t lay this all out by way of a giant mea culpa or as a self-flagellatory exercise. But as I was thinking through how I might improve my blogging, I thought others might find these reminders helpful.

What helps you keep your blog on track?

Photo by Creative_Tools, Flickr/Creative Commons

The Sanctity of Publication

As I write this blog post, I look to the right of the editing pane at a shiny blue button labeled Publish. When I am done writing, I can press that button and, voila, my written work is visible to the entire world.

Growing up, I fantasized about “getting published,” without really knowing what was involved. In high school or college, this meant submitting to a campus literary magazine. After college, this meant spending quality time with my copy of Poet’s Market and labeling tons of SASEs. In both cases, I had to cull my reams of poems and short stories to the ones I felt were the best and revise them to the point where I felt they had a chance to stand out amid the competition.

When one of my submissions was accepted, the feeling of exaltation at knowing that my work had been assessed by the editors of these magazines and deemed worthy of inclusion was incredible. Some were more prestigious than others, but each was an honor. When I began writing freelance, my feelings upon having a pitch accepted or a piece make it through the editing process and into print were quite similar.

Either way, publication took work.

Beware the ‘Axiom’

Today, things are different. Sure, the above processes still exist, in much a similar fashion. But with the web and the wide array of accessible platforms it offers, anyone can get published. I can blog with self-proclaimed authority on any topic I choose. I can create my own online magazine and publish the works of whomever I choose. I can recruit co-authors and craft a collaborative work. I can self-publish my own novel and distribute it through a print-on-demand model. I can choose to just publish my thoughts 140 characters at a time. I live in a world where I can COPE (create once, publish everywhere).

But just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

Before clicking the shiny blue button, we should pause for a moment to consider the word “publish” as we might have when we were 18-year-olds aspiring to pen the Great American Novel. To be published was an exalted achievement, one that elevated you above your peers. But it took thought and planning. It took critical self-assessment. It took rounds of revision and editing. It took more than a good idea; it took execution. It took work. And once we learned that, if we really wanted to be published, we accepted and committed to the work. We put in the time to earn the reward.

We shouldn’t let modern convenience make us lazy. Even if the publishing mechanism is easier and quicker, we should avoid becoming the publishing equivalents of the fat, slothful humans on the airship Axiom in WALL-E, creating a world where, to our detriment, the machines are doing more of the heavy lifting than us.

It’s All About Value

Publishing without work is a disservice to your audience. Too often, we take the Narcissus approach to publication; in love with our own content (hat-tip: @LoriPA), we gaze adoringly at it and assume that everyone else will want to do the same. Hate to say it, but this is not necessarily true. The size and engagement of your audience is directly proportional to the value of your content. And the irony is that mediums with potentially unlimited audiences can encourage lazier publishing… which reduces the value of the content being published. When people complain about Foursquare spam in their Twitter feed, I want to say, “It’s not Foursquare’s fault; they allow you to opt out of pushing your check-ins to Twitter. It’s the publisher’s fault for thinking everyone wants to know they’re at the supermarket.”

Simply put, the proximity of the shiny blue button to our itchy clicker finger does not excuse us from reflection and revision, whether it’s an idle tweet or a serious blog post. It does not excuse us from asking the question, “What value do I add if I publish this?” In this increasingly noisy space, the more we can focus our efforts and refine our output, the better off everyone will be.

To that end, I think we should give the word “publish” the respect and lustre it deserves. Heck, give it starry-eyed adulation. Pretend you’re 18 again and publication is an elusive, lofty goal to work toward. Make it a reward, not an entitlement.

I’ve never heard of Jonathan Fields before today, but twice today I’ve seen this comment by him retweeted, and it really sums up the whole deal:

Don’t write because you’ve got something to say, write because you’ve got something add.

Top photo by theogeo, Flickr/Creative Commons

Laying Effective Idea Traps

I recently read two really great blog posts about writing — specifically, how to log ideas, improve concentration, maintain focus and enhance your craft. It got me thinking about the process of capturing ideas.

First, about those blog posts. One of them came from Chris Brogan. He wrote about generating ideas, spreading ideas and the process of cultivating ideas into written messages. Brogan talks about writing as not being something you sit down at the computer to do. It’s more like a habit, a reflex, an ongoing filtration of the world around you. Writing is reading. Writing is thinking about topics to write about. Writing is publishing. Writing is praying without ceasing.

The thing is, you have to practice writing when you can. I don’t think it’s good enough to say, “I’ll write every morning,” or “I’ll write after the kids go to bed.” When I say this, I understand that you have to find time where you can, but the actual practice of writing is something I want you to try doing all the time.

As someone who made a big production of finding an hour every morning to write or run, I appreciated this reality check a lot. Anyhow, go read the post. I won’t blame you if you don’t come back. It’s good stuff.

The second post was on 10,000 Words, a great blog that explores the intersection between journalism and technology.  The post in question listed five ways to improve your writing and concentration. The two that resonated with me the most were 2) Write down ideas when you have them and 4) Tame the web.

With regard to #4, the post quotes the anonymous truism, “Being a good writer is 3% talent and 97% not being distracted by the internet.” How true is this? How many times do we shut down Tweetdeck or e-mail to get anything done? Probably not as often as we should.

With regard to #2, back in college, I made the new year’s resolution one year to always carry a pen and notepad with me. For me, such resolutions were usually fleeting affairs, but this one I kept for years. I didn’t carry a bag then, so my notepad was perpetually in my back pocket, pen in my front pocket. I was writing more poetry then than anything else, so most of what I captured were ideas for poems, lines or verse fragments.

Now, I carry a bag and it always has a notebook in it. A lot of my ideas also come to me as I am lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep. It generally does not take me long to fall asleep, so there is a preciously small window of time when these ideas will come to me.  For this reason, keeping a bedside notepad within easy reach is critical. I love waking up the next morning to find some scrawled insight perched atop my alarm clock.

And of course, nowadays I have technology I couldn’t even have conceived of back in college. With my Blackberry, I am always e-mailing myself ideas that comes to me when I am out and about, whether it’s a blog topic or a point to make in The Project — not to mention ideas for work. I’ve also used Evernote a little bit, usually for more extensive writing I am doing on the go.

We often conceive of emerging technologies as facilitating new ways of broadcasting out, but what about broadcasting in? With technology, we are tremendously more empowered to talk to ourselves, and we can take advantage of much-needed system redundancy and backup. (More on this in a bit.) A tweet this morning by Brian Kenyon was particularly timely:

(I hadn’t heard heard of reQall before. Kinda neat.)

Memory: The Unreliable Narrator

What is the common denominator to all of this advice? It’s all about creating systems and habits that are more reliable than our weakest link: our memory. If we were computers, we would need to have a program running in the background all the time that captured critical bits of sound, image and text for later reference. All of these tips and strategies are akin to coding that program for ourselves.

We cannot trust ourselves to remember. It’s sad but true. The human memory is a strange and glorious function, but I wouldn’t trust it with an important new thought farther than I can throw it. When that thought arrives, you have to put on the brakes and make a note of it. Your memory is too busy remembering the lyrics to En Vogue songs you haven’t heard in 10 years to make lasting note of your epiphany. The other morning, as I was doing dishes and a Mountain Goats lyrics triggered an idea for The Project, I ran, wet hands dripping, back to my desk to write it down. I had no choice. I had to snare the idea while it was still alive.

The gap between having an idea and communicating it is wide and precipitous. We need to set up our own safety nets, to rescue our insights and ideas when they fall off the tips of our tongues or the forefront of our minds. That is writing.

I wondered why I happened to read those two blog posts so quick on the heels of one another, and then I looked at a calendar. January is almost over. The freshness of a new year and all the good intentions that come with it have been kicked to the curb, into the crust of a two week-old snow. People are losing sight of the focus with which they seized the new calendar. We need to be reminded of this stuff, our backpocket promises. We need to make it not a resolution, but habit. We need to always set our idea traps — and never let a good catch get away.

Photo by somegeekintn / Flickr Creative Commons

The Lament of Punxsutawney Phil

In a past life, I was a poet. And at one point, I wrote a terza rima about Groundhog’s Day. Enjoy.

The Lament of Punxsutawney Phil

I will not be your sundial this year.
I hear you clamor
across TV truck wires in the square,

waiting, but still I must put a damper
on your gathering.
See, I know I am just a paramour,

an annual fling. So cease bothering
me in my warm hole
with your boorish, portentous nattering;

I know the truth. I am not the first fool
you’ve tricked to go
into this prognosticative cesspool,

to be exalted on the Today Show
and kissed by Katie,
to be targeted, marketed, and sold

like a Tickle Me Elmer Fudd. Maybe
it would suffice to
confess: I’m afraid — of light, of Katie,

even of myself. (If only you knew –
my Peter Pan fights
with my shadow are quite angry to-dos.

I do not want to squint in the bright light
to see that sad thing.
I live in the dark for a reason.) Might

I read a note from Phil the First, whose things
still litter this den?
“A word to the next: You’d best see nothing.”

I know now what he meant; despite your yen
for this burly shrew,
my shadow’s the last thing you want seen then,

lest I be the scapegoat, the damned hog who
summoned another
cockeyed winter. So, when you give that cue,

my dark reflection will hide from cold earth
and still colder air.
And also, my name isn’t Phil; it’s Earl.

Unreasonably Vigilant: Goodbye, J.D. Salinger

This is what Seymour Glass wrote to his brother, Buddy, who had sent him a new story to read:

When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished…I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined. Oh, dare to do it, Buddy! Trust your heart. (From “Seymour: An Introduction”)

Today, J.D. Salinger died. Was he busy writing his heart out? One can only assume that yes, he was. Even if the pen was set down and the body was still, he was writing, writing, writing. Much like Franny’s Jesus Prayer, after a time, you are praying without ceasing. Writing becomes an unconscious act, like a heartbeat, internalized in our very being. Salinger may have withdrawn from public life and ceased publishing, but as the accounts go, he never stopped writing. He called publication “a damned interruption.” For him, writing was holy. A prayer to be uttered without ceasing. It was so holy, in fact, that he built his own monastery and shut himself inside.

I forget exactly how I became such a huge fan of Salinger’s work, but I know it wasn’t due to “The Catcher in the Rye,” which has had to grow on me over the years. Rather, it was his short stories, especially the works about the Glass family. What J.D. Salinger did so well was create compelling characters — flawed, complex, at times annoying, but always mesmerizing. It was as if they spoke in their own voice, not a voice an author assigned to them — that is how real they are. They pop off the page. I’ve read “Franny and Zooey” so many times and have such clear pictures of those two main characters in my mind, I could swear up and down I’ve seen them in a movie, or shared an Upper East Side walk-up with them for a year.

In truth, I’m grateful to Salinger for creating not just characters, but people. In the people he introduced to us, and that we got to know, so many readers found sides of themselves. Whether it was Franny’s religious crisis, Holden’s struggle to understand why people were the way they were or Buddy’s insecurity as a writer, I know I did. As Lee Anne said, he wrote “in a way that made sense and [told] stories that people are still afraid to tell, but can almost always relate to.” What Salinger did was write them them real — perhaps outlandishly so, but real nonetheless. And being real is scary. Salinger, thankfully, was unafraid.

In the same letter, Seymour offered Buddy this advice:

Give me a story that just makes me unreasonably vigilant. Keep me up till five only because all your stars are out, and for no other reason.

Tonight, all of Salinger’s stars are out. And we are standing vigil.

Drunk on Epiphanies

I wanted my vacation to be focused on leisure, but me being me, I had to slip a couple of projects in there — in particular, working on an outline for The Project. On Tuesday, the day of 40 mile per hour wind gusts and frigid temps, I trekked to the campus library, which was delightfully quiet thanks to intersession. I found a secluded table, took out my legal pad, and began what I thought would be an extensive process.

But as I began, the outline seemed to write itself, like a fully-formed creature just now emerging from the shadows. I was pleased, but confused. This isn’t supposed to be easy, I thought. I had blocked out two full days of time for this, but there I was, nearly done.

The next morning, after the BuzzUp, I holed up at a downtown coffee shop to revisit the outline draft, and it still looked good. I made some additional notes and fleshed some ideas out, but the basic structure remained. It had survived the “sleep on it” test.

That morning, I tweeted: “I love when ideas strike me as if my brain has been quietly nurturing them for months and just now decided to let me in on the secret.” My friend Andrew responded: “Ideas can be like wine: the best of them ferment for months, even years, before emerging as a delicious elixir. Congrats.”

IMing with a writerly friend of mine that evening, I asked, “So is it normal to sit down and in an hour bang out an outline for a book?”

“If you have been thinking about it for TWO YEARS, then yes,” she said. “One should not be concerned with normalcy.”

The brain is a mysterious organ. Could it be that all this time I’ve been hand-wringing over my stasis on The Project that some inaccessible, complex part of my brain has been working through the pieces, waiting for me to finally sit my butt down at a table so it could tap me on the shoulder and say, “Oh, BTW, I’ve got something for you”? It certainly felt like that.

But I know in the end that it’s not magic. I won’t wake up one day to find a manuscript sitting on my desk. It takes writing, revision, writing, revision, revision, revision, writing and revision. Not to mention editing. Perspiration, inspiration, the whole shebang. It takes work. Now, though, at least I have a blueprint.

That said, I suffer no delusions that this outline remotely reflects how The Project will ultimately look. But for now, it provides structure and a direction, which is what I desperately needed. I am energized to move forward with the project, and while I don’t expect lightning to strike twice, I can’t help but wonder what brainstorms might be just beyond the horizon. Perhaps some part of me already knows how the story ends.

Photo by basheertome/Flickr Creative Commons

Incremental Redesign For Your Life

I was talking to a friend today about all the things we want to do and the people we want to be, but we don’t and we aren’t.

It always amazes me how difficult it is to do the things that you truly want to do. We put so many obstacles between ourselves and the things we want. But a routine, however distasteful, is comfortable, easier and “better” than change. Change is hard. Change is also scary. The fear of failure — whatever definition of it we have imprinted in our brains — is a powerful counter to our great desire for change. The result is paralysis.

Doing anything in life takes discipline. When it comes to upending the status quo, you might as well be talking about shifting tectonic plates with your pinky finger.

The thing that’s easy to forget, though, is that we’ve all done this before. We’ve all accomplished things that, at one point, we believed were impossible, whether it’s a marathon or a New York Times crossword. We’ve all overcome those moments of conviction in our own limitations, leaving accomplishments in their place. If we could only bottle that understanding and recall it when our doubt returns.

Just after parting ways with my friend, I read this blog post by Chris Brogan on tiny revolutions. It seemed impeccably timed. “Every step towards success requires a tiny revolution,” he says:

Planning for “someday” is ineffective. You have to decide what your revolution looks like on the day-to-day scale. Have a vision and keep it far out in front of you, but give yourself daily tasks that will accomplish it. … The American Revolution had several events that brought everything forward. It didn’t just start with the “shot heard round the world” and then we all sat down and wrote the Constitution. The same is true of your own tiny revolutions. … The KEY difference between your revolution and letting life live you is that YOU start making these events happen, instead of just letting them happen to you.

I was saying earlier today that to make major changes in your life, it takes a giant, bold action. That’s not really accurate. To the outside observer, the difference between today and six months ago may look dramatic. But packed into those 180 days were 180 small but significant changes that all added up.

This seems simple, but it’s really important. Success is about 90% planning. Fulfilling your innermost desires to be the person you want to be has little to do with wanting, and almost everything to do with doing. How do you “do” to the level required to effect real change? How do you self-sustain? You plan. You start an incremental revolution. You set up a schedule and a to-do list of manageable tasks that build toward the ultimate goal.

(At the Stamats higher ed web conference I went to last week, I attended a session by Edustyle’s Stewart Foss on incremental redesign, which has planted that phrase in my head. I think the same premise can apply here — use an informed plan to architect gradual change.)

Thinking about all of this stuff is all-too familiar territory. Last month, I posted about overcoming the fear of failure by remaining childlike (adaptable and curious) and accepting the need to make mistakes in order to learn. Back in August, I wrote about the need to own your own life and not just be a self-starter, but a self-sustainer.

I could write on and on, that doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing. This is all an open exercise in trying to understand how to make my life what I want it to be.

I guess in a sense, my life starts with a single shot. The space between when it begins and what it becomes is up to me. Tiny revolutions.

Photo by Marxchivist via Flickr/Creative  2.0

When Your Faith in Life is Gone, Come and Speak to Me

IMG00058-20091113-1908On Friday, my friend Chris and I saw Mike Doughty live at Regattabar in Cambridge. After many missed opportunities, this was my first time seeing Mr. Doughty live, either solo or as Soul Coughing. He did not disappoint, filling the (somewhat sterile) cabaret with good vibes and amazing music. It helped, of course, that Chris and I were seated in the very front, to Doughty’s left.

Many of Mike Doughty’s shows feature the Question Jar, where people can submit questions that Mike will answer throughout the course of a show. My question was what his favorite toy was as a kid (Death Star playset), while Chris asked what was the deal with Miley Cyrus (Mike said he knew, but he could not tell). Two of the questions, though, particularly stuck out in my mind.

“What do you say to writer’s block?” one question asked. Mike Doughty’s response? “Fuck it.”

“What’s a girl to do?” asked another. Doughty: “Party!”

A wise man, that Mike Doughty. And as a bonus, he even played one of my favorites from his solo work, “Your Misfortune,” quoted in the title of this blog post. All in all, a stellar evening.

Running Down a Dream

IMG00481-20091101-1123

This past weekend, I went down to New York to visit my brother. I hadn’t seen him since our roadtrip in July, and I wanted to see him at least once before the holidays. It was a really good trip, and not just for some of the peripheral benefits — much needed zone-out time on the bus, a change of scenery and some fun meals. It was a good opportunity to get perspective. I chatted with him about The Project, and just talking over the issues I’m having moving forward helped me sort out a possible plan (or two) of attack. We had a few other conversations that were really, really good to have, some more meaningful than others. For instance, I chatted with him a little bit (though, in retrospect, not enough) about writing process. I sometimes forget that we are both writers, albeit in different forms and styles, and it’s something I should take advantage more often. Especially when, like lately, I’m at a bit of a fork in the road with my writing. It’s in my blood; it’s just a matter of keeping the blood flowing.

One of the more interesting moments of the weekend came toward the end of the run we went on Sunday morning. The New York City Marathon heads right down 4th Avenue in Brooklyn, right past where his apartment is. When we set out, the stream of runners had not yet hit 4th Avenue, but as we looped back, we saw that they had arrived. Thousands of marathoners stood between us and my brother’s apartment, hot showers and a trip out to breakfast.

s_Frogger_2I had no idea how we were going to get across the street. But my brother knew exactly what we were going to do: we were going to Frogger our way across.

Here’s where the arteries of that shared blood split off: I’m a goody-goody, and he’s a rule-breaker. I saw cops posted on every corner and median in sight (heck, his apartment is around the corner from a substation), and I saw no way of stepping into the thick of the NEW YORK CITY MARATHON without getting collared. But for Andrew, it was no bigs. He stood poised on a cop-free corner, while I stood nearby wringing my hands. Before I knew it, he had burst off the sidewalk, keeping pace with the runners while sidling his way across the southbound lane. Upon hitting the median, he did it again, crossing the stream in the northbound lane while maneuvering toward the opposite curb.

Dumbfounded, I had no choice but to follow. I felt much like I did the time we broke into the abandoned Rhode Island School for the Feeble Minded, half-expecting a cop to jump out of the shadows and slap cuffs around my wrists.

But, much as I did in that abandoned school, I soon realized there was nothing to fear. I simply minded how I navigated myself through the crowded field of runners, and before I knew it I was across the avenue, standing next to Andrew. And hey, maybe now I can say I’ve run in the New York City Marathon (twice — we had to do this a second time to get to breakfast).

If you’re careful, my brother has taught me more than once, you can break a rule or two every now and then and it’s more than worth it — whether the reward is a hot shower, a good meal, or just the reminder that the world is more flexible than you may think.