Scrolling through Twitter this morning, I found a post from a young writer, something about how her teacher had told her not to publish a book for 10 years. He called her work in progress a “burner novel”—something she needed to get off her chest, but not something anyone else needed to read. Maybe he’s right; I don’t know. But neither does he—he hasn’t even read the manuscript.
My first reaction on reading this was to call the teacher an arrogant prick.
My second reaction surprised the hell out of me: I found myself applying his arrogant, ignorant dismissal of this young writer to my own work.
Hmm, I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t be planning to publish this book I’m working on. I mean, yes, I’ve been writing for 25+ years, but this is my first actual book. Maybe I need to wait more, grow more as a writer.
Of course I know this is, to use a technical term, bullshit. But once an unwelcome voice takes up residence in your head it can be hard to evict it. Still, that’s exactly what you must do. So I did:
I reminded myself that the Twitter thread had nothing to do with me and my work.
I opened up my latest draft and saw, as the Bible said, “that it was good.”
I wrote this post for you, so you can see that anyone can be vulnerable to criticism, any of us can get that unwelcome voice stuck in our heads. And when that happens, try not to waste a second worrying about it. Just open the back door and shoo it out like an annoying summer fly.
I do a lot of work with writers who get stuck listening to those unwelcome voices. Check out ShyWriters.com for my latest programs.
I start my vacation tomorrow. Back when I was working for Other People, vacation would have started at 5:01pm Eastern, or as soon thereafter as I could slip past my boss’s door. But I’m my own boss now. I finished the last piece I needed to ship to a client about an hour ago, but I’m still here at the computer: I can’t find the Off switch.
This vacation is one of four I’ve scheduled for myself this year—one week every quarter, as I try to learn how to unwind. Last quarter, I took a day or two off and then attended a workshop in Southern California. Doesn’t sound like a vacation to you? Listen, to someone escaping a New England winter, just feeling that sweet, sweet California sun is vacation enough.
This quarter, I’m treating myself to a Staycation. (I actually wrote “challenging myself to” first—and then I realized vacations aren’t supposed to be challenging.) And I compromised on my vacation before it even began, ceding Monday and Tuesday to client work. But with next Monday being a holiday, I actually have six whole days of vacating ahead of me. Which is just about as close to a week as you can get.
But what do you do when you’re not tromping around a theme park or pulling a shawl around your body in some too-cold hotel conference room? All the ideas I come up with sound a lot like work:
I could make a to-do list for the projects I want to pursue this summer
I could read that book written by the person I’m going to interview in a couple of weeks
I could clean my house
I could clean my house? Yeah, you know things are desperate when I put cleaning my house on the to-do list. It’s not even tax time.
What will I do? I’m starting with a massage in about an hour, and we’ll see where things go from there.
But first I have to hit the Off switch. I gotta say, I’m nervous about that. What if I can’t do it? Or—maybe worse—what if I can…and I like it?
NOTE: I wrote this a few weeks ago, but I held off posting it. As a result, I held off posting anything—not good. Read on to find the headdesk worthy update that caused me to finally press Publish.
You know how that word sounds when people sincerely want the answer to that question. They ask “why?” with no guile, no defenses.
I got one of those Whys in response to an assertion I made today. And the sheer lack of comprehension in that “why?” short-circuited my brain. Seriously left me speechless. And if you know me, you know how rarely I find myself speechless.
What did I say to provoke such puzzlement?
The man I was talking to had just given a speech, a fairly good one too. He started by talking about a long-ago sketch on SNL. As an homage to the recently deceased Dr. Seuss, they had someone read Green Eggs and Ham as a serious piece of oratory.
What made the sketch indelible was the guest they asked to do the reading: the Reverend Jesse Jackson. So far so good. But instead of showing the sketch, the speaker acted out parts of it. Yes, complete with a Jesse Jackson impersonation.
Do I need to add that the speaker is white?
I told him that in 2019 it is not appropriate for a white person to impersonate a person of another race. I was prepared for a lot of responses—I’d already collared the conference organizer to express my displeasure. The organizer also seemed flummoxed by my passion, but he reacted more defensively—wondered if perhaps I just didn’t see much comedy, didn’t understand comic impressions.
But the sincere, utter cluelessness of the speaker just floored me.
As we continued our conversation, it seemed that he did have some understanding that what he did was inappropriate. He had always read Green Eggs & Ham to his daughters in his Jackson voice, and they thought he was the best storyteller on the planet. So when the Dr. Seuss centennial came around, they volunteered him to read it at the school.
“All the kids were sitting on the floor,” he said, “and I was about to start when I noticed this little African American girl sitting in front of me. And I thought, ‘Should I do this?’ And I decided not to.”
I told him he’d made the right decision that time. And that perhaps if there were more people of color at this conference he would have thought twice about it. (For the record, I raised the lack of diversity with the conference organizer too.) I also suggested that he didn’t need to impersonate the Reverend to make his point. He said he’d looked for a clip to play but couldn’t find one. Perhaps he’s forgotten how to Google. I found one—admittedly grainy—in about 30 seconds.
I’m not sure my conversations with the organizer and speaker accomplished much, though the speaker promised he’d watch the replay and see what he thought. I hope I opened up at least a tiny crack in their worldviews.
As for me…it showed me I don’t get out in the world nearly enough. I live in my little bubble, working with people who understand that diversity means more than having 50% of the speakers be women. I write about diversity and inclusion for clients who have a sophisticated understanding of the issues, so I guess I’ve assumed that people across the business world understand internalized racism and seek to eradicate it.
Oops, the business world tries not to use the R-word. They call it “unconscious bias.” The bias I encountered today was so unconscious it was practically comatose. Whoo boy. We have a lot of work to do.
And then I was watching TV one night and saw an ad for an actual movie that will be released into theatres shortly. “Shortly” as in soon and also, I hope, as in it will disappear almost as soon as it arrives. (I refuse to link to it; you can find it on your own if you wish.)
It appears to be a comedy…about a white man who becomes famous by imitating a black woman on the radio. Think Tootsie as a voice actor—which at least relieves him of the need to don blackface, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see that plot twist before the credits roll.
What about this mess seems like a good idea?
So much for the impassioned conversations I had with the clueless conference organizer and speaker. Thanks for nothing, Hollywoodland.
That’s exactly what I went through. I wrote—I mean, writing’s what pays the mortgage around here; I had to write. Also, my writing streak: 15 minutes every day for over 950 days. That’s at least 237.5 hours of writing, just for myself. Clearly I loved writing.
But then I didn’t. I still wrote well enough, but it brought my zero joy. I resented every word I wrote—for my clients and for myself.
And when your main source of joy morphs into an ocean of resentment—well, it’s scary.
I realized I was burned out. It’s happened once before, over 10 years ago, and I swore I’d never let it happen again. But I had no idea until I read this blog that I wasn’t just burned out as a worker, I was burned out as a writer.
Writer’s burnout is looking at the page, hating the page, and questioning your entire identity as a writer, all for an extended period of time.—Kellie McGann
Perhaps it’s not surprising that my long writing streak ended during my burnout. Fortunately, I picked it back up the next day—and that’s one of McGann’s prescriptions: Whatever you do, keep writing. The voices in your head may tell you you need a break from the keyboard. But step away and you might never return. Find something light to write about, something silly that will make you laugh. Write limericks or doggerel—intentionally bad verse.
Like any burnout, Writer’s Burnout sucks. But keep writing and eventually you’ll remember how writing feeds you. And not just literally.
Now through April 16th, 2019 I’m offering “Practically Free Writing Coaching.” Feeling burned out? Let’s talk about it. Feeling stuck? Need some objective feedback? Book your time now; use it through May 31st.
Q: How do you deal with an idea drought—when you just don’t know what to write?
A: The same way you deal with a real drought: stock up your resources in advance.
It’s raining right now in the Northeast, with more rain in the forecast every day for the next two weeks. Diagnosis: It’s April; happens once a year whether we want it to or not.
But people in desert climates treat rain as a much more precious resource. My rain falls off the roof and disappears into the land. In a desert, residents capture rain in barrels and cisterns and recycle every ounce of it for another use. They save their water because they know it won’t always be so plentiful.
Same with writers and our ideas.
Get an idea? Write that sucker down. Keep a small notebook or a couple of index cards in your back pocket. Or rely on that never-ending “notebook” on your phone. (But don’t rely on Siri to transcribe for you—not if you want to be able to decipher what you wrote.)
Ideas—maybe you’ve noticed this already—don’t grow on trees. It’s easy to sit down and write if you’ve snagged an idea. But what if you happen to feel idea-free—and you’re supposed to write anyway. Because that’s what writers do, right? Write every day. Keep those writing muscles well-oiled.
So pay attention to the ideas that honor you with their presence. Stop what you’re doing and write them down. Save them for a rainy day—or an idea drought.
Q: How can I get the new editor to stop crapping up my work?
My friend Abe has been writing blog posts for their tech startup—very successfully. But as the company has grown, it’s added a marketing person. And that marketing person believes the intentionally informal tone Abe has cultivated for the blog doesn’t represent the company in its best light. He’s taken Abe’s work and sanded all of the personality out of it. “I don’t even want to write blogs for this company anymore,” Abe said.
While the question above isn’t quite verbatim, it’s certainly what Abe meant. My answer, however, is verbatim. Many business writers have asked me similar questions over the years, and they all get the same response: a long, deep sigh.
As I ghostwriter, I don’t face this kind of challenge often. If I feel my client is making a grave mistake—taking out a key story at the beginning of a speech, because they’re too eager to get to “the facts”—I will tell them. But if they insist—hey, it’s their speech. My name isn’t on it, so it’s easy for me to release any pride of authorship.
Which is not to say I love it when clients crap up my work. I remember arriving to see a presentation I’d spent weeks putting together. As soon as my foot hit the pavement, the presenter rushed over to me crowing, “I was up all night rearranging the slides!” And of course he’d rearranged all the sense out of it. But I knew that as the presenter, he’d take the heat. And indeed he did—with the audience calling out the lapses in reasoning he’d created. In retrospect, I guess the hardest part of that experience was hiding my grin from the rest of the people in the room.
But Abe doesn’t have the luxury of anonymity. They’d cultivated a particular style and voice and it was being chopped to shreds, turned into something more appropriate for an SEC filing than a blog post.
The bad news, Abe, is that as long as the editor has license to crap up your work, that’s not something you can control. If the company hired the marketing guy because they wanted a change of voice in their blog, then you need to defer to his style. But you can ask for future blog posts to be unsigned. You may have to learn to write in the marketing guy’s preferred style, but no one can force you to put your name to something that doesn’t represent you.
One final piece of good news for Abe: the CEO looked at the marketing guy’s rewrite and bellowed, “This sounds so bureaucratic!” So at least someone over there has a sense of what their readers want. Abe should probably practice some grin-hiding techniques.
When the young man asked the famous investor the best way to increase his net worth, I imagine he expected to hear something about identifying undervalued assets and holding onto them until the tide turned.
“The one easy way to become worth 50 percent more than you are now at least is to hone your communication skills—both written and verbal.”
He’s right—I’ve increased my own net worth far more than 50% since I focused full-time on writing. (How many full-time writers can say that?) That was more than 25 years ago—back when I was lucky enough to work directly with Warren, who told me “You have a terrific ear and you turn straight thinking into straight writing.”
So many of us think the road to success is paved with hard work. Yes, but that’s not all—you also have to be willing to grow. Warren didn’t make his fortune by shouting “Buy! Sell!” into a telephone all day like some cartoon fat-cat. He does the inner work, too—what some might think of as “soft skills.” He analyzes and thinks, he doesn’t just react. I cannot tell you (I literally cannot tell you; I believe in confidentality) the brilliant, counter-intuitive ideas he came up with for positioning (not “spinning”) the business to showcase unexpected truths. You need to be both authentic and comfortable with creativity to come up with stuff like that.
And everyone knows Warren has cornered the market on folksy metaphors. It’s a way of showcasing his personality, but those metaphors also get his ideas past the intellectual barriers of our brains and into our hearts, where they stick. And what good is an idea if no one remembers it? Warren is a true communicator because he’s worked at it, and he’s worked at it because he values it. Do you?
If it’s time to invest in yourself, if you’re ready to find your own unique communication style, shoot me a note and let’s talk.
EDIT: I wrote this post before I finished the book. I won’t do that again! Halfway through, I ran into some racist language. Yes, perhaps it’s standard for the period in which he wrote, but there’s no reason to recommend it today. Still, this piece makes some good points for writers, so I’m not going to take it down.
I’ve finally gotten around to reading Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Many of us read his gorgeous writing as children—he wrote The Little Prince. But Wind, Sand & Stars is not a fable, it’s a 1929 memoir of his youth as an air-mail pilot, flying the mails from France to Africa, or across the sea to South America—back before radar could show you that mountain you needed to steer around, back when you had to radio an airport to flash its lights three times so you could see where to land. Not an easy job.
I’ve seen several sources cite Wind, Sand and Stars as one of those must-read books for any writer, and not even a quarter of the way through it, I have to agree. Here he’s talking about the reactions when his colleague Mermoz radioed that he was cutting off an engine. Ten minutes went by with no contact:
“It would be ridiculous to worry over someone ten minutes late in our day-to-day existence, but in the air-mail service ten minutes can be pregnant with meaning. At the heart of this dead slice of time an unknown event is locked up. Insignificant, it may be; a mishap, possibly: whatever it is, the event has taken place. Fate has pronounced a decision from which there is no appeal. An iron hand has guided a crew into a sea-landing that may have been safe and may have been disastrous. And long hours must go by before the decision of the gods is made known to those who wait.”
English translation by Lewis Galantière
Before this passage, Saint-Exupéry treated us to detailed descriptions of the many times Mermoz had escaped certain death: he’d been captured and held for ransom by an African tribe; forced down in the Atlantic and rescued by a passing freighter; stranded for two days on a 12,000-foot high mesa in the Andes. Surely this would turn into another of those triumphant stories.
“But the hands of the clock were going round and little by little it began to grow late. Slowly the truth was borne in upon us that our comrades would never return, that they were sleeping in that South Atlantic whose skies they had so often ploughed. Mermoz had done his job and slipped away to rest, like a gleaner who, having carefully bound his sheaf, lies down in the fields to sleep.”
How can a few dozen words make you care so much about someone you’ve never met? But I feel the loss of Mermoz, don’t you?
And actually, it’s Mermoz more than Saint-Exupéry who inspired me to write today. He braved the skies and risked his life every day. On more than one occasion, he came close to death—yet he continued to fly until death overtook him. He flew because he loved it.
Fear & writing
Mermoz’s story reminded me of Agnes, a woman I worked with for a bit. Faced with an unplanned career transition, she decided she wanted to be a writer. Yet she didn’t write.
I suggested that she enroll in my writing class, but she believed she couldn’t afford it. Instead, she opted for a program that offered analyses of great pieces of writing—more an intellectual how-to than a hands-on DO IT. And even though she received a writing prompt every other week through that program, she never posted any work. Strange for someone who claims to want to write professionally, eh?
When we talked, she rationalized all the busy-ness of her life that prevented her from sitting down to write. Yet she continued to say she wanted to be a writer. Who was going to win that battle—Agnes or her fear? So I made her an offer: she should take two weeks to write something—anything—and show it to me and I would give her a free coaching session to discuss it.
Ten days later she told me she couldn’t do it. Agnes, like Mermoz, was lost.
The difference that is by facing his fears, Mermoz was able to pursue his passion. Agnes succumbed to her fear without even trying. The other difference, of course, is that writing is a much safer endeavor than flying a 1920s-era airplane. Paper cuts and maybe carpal tunnel are pretty much the worst you can do—and neither of those will force you down in the South Atlantic.
Mermoz died doing what he loved; Agnes wouldn’t even allow herself to try.
DIY — do-it-yourself. Is that the way you learn best? Me too.
I’ve been a DIY learner pretty much my whole life. One day when I was a toddler, I heard one of my mother’s teacher friends talking about my education. She mentioned the time—still some years off—when I would learn to count by twos.
“I can already count by twos!” I announced indignantly. And indeed I could. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing, but once she named the skill I recognized the game I’d made up with my grandmother’s playing cards.
Many years later, I bought something that looked like a counted cross-stitch pattern book and was working through one of the pieces when I encountered a stitch I couldn’t figure out. I went back to the store for advice and the proprietor said, “Oh, that’s probably in the beginners’ book.”
There’s a beginners’ book? I’d done it again—taken a skill that some people find impenetrable and taught it to myself.
For the record, it wasn’t counted cross-stitch; it’s a Norwegian craft called Hardanger. I made this altar cloth for my old church using the technique, which turns ordinary linen into something resembling lace. And, yep, I’ve still never had a lesson in my life.
If you’re a DIY learner like I am, you may think that what you already know about writing is sufficient.
Well, is it?
Are you satisfied with the work you turn out, or do you secretly wish you could be a stronger, more consistent writer?
You don’t need the “beginners’ book.” You just need a nudge in the right direction. And maybe a dose or two of real-life inspiration from writers further along the path than you.
And because writing can so often slip to the bottom of the to-do list, maybe you’d like a reminder every now and then, a writing prompt to kickstart your creativity.
A DIY writing program
That’s exactly why I created Write Now—a 13-week-long DIY writing program. Every week you get a writing prompt. Use it or save it for the proverbial rainy day. Post your work to my private Facebook group—if you ask for feedback, you’ll get some thoughtful comments. If you don’t want feedback, say that and we’ll respect it. My group attracts some amazing people—whether they’ve worked with me through a course or three or a 5×15 writing challenge, they’ve all been where you are.
If you’re nervous about calling yourself a writer, there’s only one thing to do: Write. And if the “I’ll do it someday” approach hasn’t worked for you yet, Write Now may just be the extra (pardon the expression) prompt you need.
“The Shockingly Expensive Meal Program Worth Every Penny”
That’s the headline of the ad that appeared in my Facebook feed recently. Well, actually it said “Worth Every Pe…” but we all know how it ends.
This company knows who its target audience is—and it’s apparently not bargain-hunters.
The people who buy this stuff pride themselves on spending lots for meals. And—hey—if it’s “worth every pe…” I might not care if the food is “shockingly expensive,” though I will balk at $400 angora throws or $200 dog collars. (Sorry, Fenway.)
Everybody has a price range for everything. It just depends on what you value.
Shockingly expensive — and truthful
Still, you have to admire that marketer’s guts, right? “Shockingly expensive” are not words you often see in advertising.
In a world where you can buy an online course for $59, my writing programs may seem “shockingly expensive.” Even my self-directed revision course costs nearly $900. But, yes, I think it’s “worth every penny.” And more. Heck, it’s not just a bunch of videos—you get actual, one-on-one coaching with me. Where are you going to find that for $59?
And my 12-week writing program requires an even bigger investment—in money and in time. I want to weed out the dilettantes, the people who have a passing thought that “Gee, it might be fun to write more.” The people who start writing for fun often balk when it becomes actual work, as it sometimes must. When people invest in working with me, I want them to be committed, to do the work, and to experience real change.
If that sounds like you—and if you’re ready for a “shockingly expensive” personal growth experience that’s “worth every pe…”—check out my Draft to DONE program.
I can’t promise you a puppy in your arms as you savor your avocado toast. But I can promise to get you thinking in new ways—and to show you how transform your writing from good to great.