Why do I have to do it if it’s hard? — Frequent Questions

Q: Why do I have to do it if it’s hard?
A: You don’t. It’s a choice you make.

I call this feature “Frequent Questions” rather than Frequently Asked Questions. But I don’t see this question all that often. And I’ll be honest, I’m glad about that.

creating can be hardCreating is hard. You bare your soul and sometimes all you get in return is a yawn. You spend months preparing—whether you’re sweating over your computer while everyone you know is off partying, or scraping the dried paint off your skin after a day of Jackson Pollock-ing in your studio, or rehearsing your cabaret show until you can sing it in your sleep. Then the big reveal and…

[crickets]

No one reads your book. No gallery even hangs your painting. People stay away from your lovingly crafted cabaret show in droves. I’ve got lots of personal experience with that last one.

Yeah, it’s hard. So?

Of course it hurts. When you’ve got six people in a room that seats 100 and three of them talk through the whole show—not fun. Once I was in a musical at a tiny, non-air-conditioned theatre during a heatwave. One night, two-thirds of the audience left at intermission; we played the second act to one person. Got a standing ovation, though. Or maybe he was just trying to beat the rush to the taxis (in New York City, you never know.)

The musical thing didn’t really bother me (except for the heat). It wasn’t my show; it wasn’t my story. My cabaret shows, on the other hand, each new show was better than the one before. I won awards, I got a review in The New York Times. And I was still scrounging for audiences.

But I had something to say, so I said it. I chose to say it. I made the decision to put myself out there, whether or not an audience came along for the ride.

You write (or paint, or sing) because you have to on some level. But creating is also a choice. If you make that choice, embrace it. Do the thing you love because you love it. If the hard part feels too hard, then by all means stop doing it. What you don’t get to do is complain.

Next question?


Write better when you write more often. My next 5-day writing challenge starts September 18th: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Writing vacation — my week with the Willits

I met some new people on my writing vacation, the Willits. I didn’t much care for them.

I’d set myself up to have five glorious days unencumbered by client responsibilities. Time to make some serious headway on a personal project. And then I met the Willits. Annoying as all get-out.

Every time I sat down to write, one or more of them would appear:

Will it be any good?
Will it make you a laughingstock?

and the worst Willit of all:

Will it sell?

Plenty of time to answer all of those questions after the first draft. Yes, I knew enough to remind myself of that every time they popped in. Still, having to swat away “will it” questions every time you write a sentence…it’s hard to keep your focus. And the last question—I mean, any rational analysis of the publishing industry would tell you the answer to that is no. But I’m still gonna write, dammit.

I told each Willit in the strongest possible terms that none of them mattered right now. Right now, my job is just to write. They still came back. And brought their relatives.

Writing vacation surprise!

writing vacation
No Willits (2017), fine-line marker on hotel note pad

If you haven’t already met the Willits, I hope you never do. They’re a bunch of nosy bastards. But they surprised me when they showed up, because my writing life is mostly Willit-free.

When I blog every day, I open up my browser, find the appropriate web page, and most often words fall out of my fingers. Occasionally they’re good words, more often they’re merely acceptable. But I write them anyway. If people get some value out of the blog, that’s great. Will it move people?…Actually, I don’t worry a whole lot about that.

You might imagine the Willits would show up when I write for my clients:

Will it be acceptable?

But I don’t worry about that either. Because I know—and, most importantly, my clients know—that it’s a first draft. And first drafts are for experimenting, for pushing the proverbial envelope. For failing, even.

No harm, no foul; no Willits.

Of course, the writing I do for my clients isn’t personal, not to me. My blogging gets personal occasionally and, now that I think of it, I have seen a few Willits in my peripheral vision when I write pieces like this.

But I wasn’t prepared to host the Willit Family Reunion during my writing vacation this week—four generations, setting up picnic tables and volleyball nets all over my lawn. They had a blast. Me, not so much.

Next time I’ll be prepared. I’m making some lawn signs.


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Tina Kelley: A National Monument Crosses Over

Tina KelleyAward-winning poet Tina Kelley wrote this months ago, but it seems even more relevant today. She’s written three poetry collections Abloom and Awry (CavanKerry Press, 2017); Precise; and The Gospel of Galore, winner of a 2003 Washington State Book Award. She co-authored Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope and reported for The New York Times for ten years, sharing a staff Pulitzer Prize for 9/11 coverage. In 2017, she won the Jacar Press Chapbook Competition. Thanks to Tina for being our final guest blogger. I’ll be back from vacation tomorrow—Elaine

A National Monument Crosses Over

by Tina Kelley

“Fuhgeddaboutit,” mother of exiles
muttered, rolling thirty-inch eyes.
Dropped her torch, hiked her skirts,
stepped over to Jersey. With her stride,
three hours to Niagara Falls, Canadian side.

Seidu Mohammed had a rougher trip. In a ten-hour
slog north from North Dakota, in snow waist-high,
frostbite took his fingers off. He feared deportation
from Minnesota to Ghana, where, because he loves
both men and women, they’d kill him. Thin gloves.

“God blessed Canada with good people,” he said,
refugee from the land of the free, land I once loved.

So it’s no wonder “Liberty Enlightening the World” —
her full name — could no longer bear the inscription
asking for homeless and poor masses.  She turned
her francophone sneer and her back to hypocrisy,
headed up Belleville Avenue, past Parsippany,

over the Poconos, across the Southern Tier,
into the embrace of the wise Justin Trudeau,
who tweets love, and “diversity is our strength,”
hashtag WelcomeToCanada, we have more Sikhs
in our cabinet than India does. We don’t do sweeps.

An empty granite pedestal in Upper New York Bay.
Since when are we the people others must escape?

(appeared previously on PoetsSpreadingTheNews.com)

Samantha Bennett: Upside-down duck

Samantha Bennett
Samantha Bennett, photo by Erica Clendenin

As far as we know, Samantha Bennett and I are not related, but we’re both smart, funny, (and humble—can’t forget humble), and Steve Goodman fans, so I’m not ruling anything out. Originally from Chicago, Sam is a writer, speaker, actor, teacher and creativity/productivity specialist. She created The Organized Artist Company to help creative people get unstuck so they can focus and move forward on their goals. And she is the beloved author of two lavishly subtitled books: Get It Done: From Procrastination to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes a Day and Start Right Where You Are: How Little Changes Can Make a Big Difference for Overwhelmed Procrastinators, Frustrated Overachievers and Recovering Perfectionists (New World Library). —Elaine

You are an Upside-Down Duck

by Samantha Bennett

You know how ducks look so calm gliding along the surface, but underneath they are paddling like mad?

Sometimes I think you are the upside-down of that.

On the surface, you appear to be in chaos.

Too much clutter.

Too busy.

Can’t focus and don’t want to be hemmed in.

Dashing from one idea to the next.

Barely scraping by.

The people around you must feel like they are watching a high-wire act.

“Why doesn’t she just get a real job?” they wonder.

“Does everything have to be so emotional?” they sigh.

And you feel criticized and misunderstood and lonely and like you were born into a world that doesn’t have a place for you.

But I know the truth about you:

You are powerful beyond measure.

You have deep reserves of strength.

(After all, look at all you’ve survived…)

You have a light that is so bright—beyond the sun bright—you probably even got told to turn it down a bit.

(“You’re too dramatic, too loud, too big, too needy, too serious, too dreamy….”)

But just because you put your light under that bushel doesn’t mean it went away.

And as soon as you decide that it’s OK with you if your light shines into the world, you have some terrific opportunities. (Don’t skip over the significance of that decision: is it really OK with you if you get famous? Are you willing to lose a bit of privacy? Is it OK with you if you become more visible in the world?)

I’m here to tell you—there has never been a better time to be a teller of stories and a maker of things.

If you can wrap your head around the idea that the way you create is the way you succeed, you will become unstoppable. That is to say, you can create success in the exact same way that you create any other project. It can come from the same place inside of you. And it can feel as delicious as anything else you’ve ever made.

So what does that mean, exactly?

It means you can build a fan base by sending them love letters. Or by talking to them about Moroccan cooking. You can collect emails in exchange for a daily musing on reality television, or the work of Edward Albee. You can combine your talents and skills and put them on display to the world in a way that feels fun for you.

Here are a few examples:

A client of mine with a full-time corporate job was dreaming of starring in her own Oprah-style talk show. I told her to go outside right this moment and make a one-minute video about something inspiring and post it, and then do that every day. She took me at my word, and a year later she had several hundred short inspirational videos and a growing tribe of loyal followers.

Another client was a photographer who loved working in film (old-school film) and further, she realized that everything having to do with computers both annoyed her and aggravated her auto-immune disorder. So she began communicating with her clients and galleries strictly by mail, sending hand-written notes on lovely, creamy stationery. She became known as an exclusive, high-end, “artisanal” photographer, and now she keeps having to raise her rates because her schedule is always full.

I also had a client who simply could not get her marketing act together. She couldn’t finish her website, she didn’t like Facebook, she halfway started a podcast but then gave up….I was becoming concerned that her dream of empowering women and girls was going to end up in a dust heap of almosts-but-not-quites.

Finally I asked her, “What do you LIKE to do?” She said, “I like talking to people.” And it was true—she could strike up a conversation with a brick wall. So I said, “Fine. Do that. Spend at least one hour each day walking around places where people are gathered and have at least two conversations with strangers. Just see where it takes you.” Three days later she had talked herself into a meeting with the head of the local girls’ school to discuss adding her entire curriculum to their after-school program.

You are allowed to market your work your way. It almost doesn’t matter what you do—as long as you are doing something that lights you up and getting it out there.

Underneath your surface feelings of confusion, overwhelm, self-doubt and “sparkly thing” distractability, there is a calm, powerful knowing. Once you allow yourself to lean in to your strengths, your idiosyncrasies, and your desire to serve the world, you will get the opportunity to share your gifts in a bigger way.

You know that you have some very special skills that can really help people.

But you need to start making choices from your center of power and your inner wisdom. You need to lean in to your weirdness, your excitement and your nerdy-ness. Then you can stop relying on crappy part-time jobs and erratic windfalls. You can take control.

You can choose to live from your power, not from your chaos.

So quit thinking that you need to get all your ducks in a row, and instead embrace the odd duck that is so delightfully and unmistakably YOU.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join Elaine for her popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about growth.

Marlena Corcoran: “It wasn’t like that”

Dr. Marlena Corcoran, today’s guest blogger, is the author of The Athena Mentor College Application Workbook and Passport to College: The International Student’s Guide to the Best Education in the World (see her website, athenamentor.com, for more information). While participating in some of my daily writing challenges earlier this year, Marlena returned to her passion—stories inspired by her childhood in Brooklyn. I’m delighted that she’s chosen to share a story based on that work with you today.—Elaine

It wasn’t like that

by Marlena Corcoran

“It wasn’t like that,” says my sister.

She says it every time. Every time I publish something, the phone rings, and it’s my sister.

“It wasn’t like that.”

I listen to the list of factual errors, misrepresentations and misremembrances. Unlikelihoods. Conjectures.

I recognize transitions, metonymy, interior monologue. That’s what this is to me. Words on the page.

And then there are the plain old unattractive details that happen to be true, but did I really have to mention that.

And errors. If this were a quiz in a history class, I would fail. Even if every iota is, shall we say, correct, it just doesn’t add up for me in quite the same way it added up for everybody else. Each fact becomes a piece in a very wrong puzzle.

And then there are the things that only I would know. I get no phone calls there. Continued radio silence would have been so preferable.

***

Marlena Corcoran
Photo by Rachel Viader Knowles

So one day I joined an art action called “The Former Resident Project.” It was for people who used to live in Brooklyn. No current inhabitants allowed. This ensured we all were writing from memory. Our memories. Not a fact-checker in sight.

We were all invited to submit a story. I sent in eighteen. I’m sorry, but once I got going, I was on a roll. Decades of zip code 11209 got sent back to Rewrite.

The organizing artist printed out the stories on sheets of refrigerator magnet, and cut the stories to size. She traveled to the location of each story.

Did I mention they were site-specific.

She slapped each story on any metal thing that would anchor the magnet. Her idea was that people would take the stories home.

I don’t think anybody wanted my stories on their refrigerator. None of these stories was the King James Version of what went down in that particular neighborhood. But I was gratified to see the lamppost outside my childhood home covered with refrigerator magnets telling story after story of what went on behind those walls.

At least, as I saw it.

One of the magnets was set up far away, in an empty field. An airplane in the distance. Weeds. At the time, I couldn’t talk about it. The sign said only, “This was Barren Island.”

***

“Please return the family photos.”

You have to be kidding me. Return them to whom?

For once in my life, I did not ask myself what I had done wrong. I didn’t even reply to my cousin’s mail. I figured some day she might even think what a miracle it is, that someone twisted our lives into little pipe cleaner figures on a stage, that maybe might mean something to somebody else, or maybe might mean something all by themselves.

I thought back to my mother’s friend Audrey, talking to my mother about a movie that had just come out. It was set in our neighborhood: Saturday Night Fever.

“It wasn’t anything like that,” she hissed. “How could they say those things?” My mother nodded in agreement. “It’s nothing like that.” They turned to me. “Is it.”

I turned away. Maybe the miracle is that we agree on anything at all. How things are. The way they were.

Wie es eigentlich gewesen: how it really was.


Write better when you write more often. Join Elaine Bennett’s 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and we’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Stories shape perspective — whatever you create

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”—Anaïs Nin

Whenever we create—whether in paint or stone or words—we edit what we see. Our perspective unconsciously creates stories from the information we take in. And those stories shape perspective in our art. And in our lives.

It’s the creative equivalent of the old adage attributed to Henry Ford:

“Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you’re right.”

stories shape perspective
Virgil’s story: Aeneas Flees Burning Troy, painting by Federico Barocci, 1598

Or as the poet Virgil put it in The Aeneid some 1,900 years earlier,

Possunt quia posse videntur.

In the 17th century, the English poet John Dryden translated that as,

“For they can conquer who believe they can.”

Note the absence of the pessimist’s perspective. Virgil had no time for losers.

Stories shape perspective
Homer’s focus: Achilles bandages his wounded lover, Patroclus By Sosias (potter, signed), 500 BCE

The Aeneid is itself an example of perspective shaping a story. Virgil revisits the story of the Trojan War, a mythological decade-long siege of Troy by Greek forces.

It’s the same general story the Greek poet Homer told so memorably a millennium earlier in his epic The Iliad. While both poems share some characters, Homer and Virgil focus on different aspects of the war and highlight its stories from different perspectives.

Eight million stories

One of the first police procedural dramas on American television always ended with the voiceover:

“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This was one of them.”

Homer and Virgil might have said the same thing about the city they chronicled. So can you—whatever story you’re telling. Start with your own perspective, your own feelings and observations, and you’re much more likely to create something original.

Proof that stories shape perspective

In the Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words Department, I give you this video from Canon. Six photographers take pictures of the same man. Each hears a different story about him, and those stories shape the portraits they produce.

Have a look. And think about how the stories you tell yourself shape your perspective.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

“Reverse direction”—painting advice works for writing too

“Reverse direction.” Okay, that’s not what my friend’s painting teacher told her. He told her to turn her painting upside down, but the SEO gods only know one direction: up.

reverse direction to get another perspectiveWhat happens when you turn your painting upside down? Well that still-life you’re drawing stops being a bowl of fruit and a bottle of wine. Instead, it becomes a collection of shapes, of light and shadows. Draw that and when you turn the canvas rightside-up again, you’re likely to have the best wine bottle and fruit bowl you’ve ever drawn. Because you were thinking about it from a different perspective.

Of course, that advice works for writers too. Tell the story backwards. Bring a seemingly minor detail to the forefront. Take a different approach.

Change your perspective. It might turn an ordinary message into something memorable.

Reverse direction — platitudes become profound

One of my clients gave me permission to share some of my work for her in my class last week. I wanted to show them how the right story can elevate an ordinary message.

“Take care of yourself,” “unplug,” “focus on the task at hand”—these are not messages likely to stir anyone’s soul. But find the emotional center and weave a story around that, and what might seem to be platitudes turn into memorable advice. These true stories resonate with her audience; they write back and share their own experiences. They are engaged, finding the truth of the message in their own lives. And the more an audience engages with you, the longer they will remember what you have to say.

And the truth shall make you unique

There’s another benefit to this storytelling. Because we’re using true stories and talking about my client’s honest reaction to them, we know her message will be unique. Anyone can say, “I taught my daughter to ride a bicycle this weekend. It taught me the value of persistence. You can do anything you put your mind to!” Only my client can say,

“Letting go was the hardest part. For me, not for my daughter. She kept shouting, ‘I’ve got this, mom! Let go!’ And I did. And she did.”

And then we weave in the business part. For the record, I made that stuff up about the bicycle. To paraphrase what they used to say on TV, the anecdotes have been changed to protect the innocent.

But coming at your message sideways instead of head on, that’s the key to it all. Reverse direction and see what happens.


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A toe-tapping hymn—Song for a Sunday

A James Baldwin essay I read this morning began with quotations from two bits of poetry. Rudyard Kipling’s paean to colonialism, “The White Man’s Burden,” and a stanza from a gospel hymn called “Down at the Cross.” I’d never heard the hymn before, so I went looking for it. Following the disturbing casual racism of the Kipling poem (and Baldwin didn’t even quote the worst part of it!), I certainly wasn’t expecting such joyful, toe-tapping music.

toe-tapping beat care of Doris Akers
Doris Akers by Source (WP:NFCC#4), fair use

It took a while to search out the right rendition. I found choirs full of white people bluegrassing it up all over YouTube. But I wanted to give you something closer to the hymn as Baldwin would have known it, and I think I did, in a lovely late-1940s recording of three black women singing close harmonies with a brisk, positively toe-tapping rhythm. They called themselves the Simmons-Aker trio: Dorothy Simmons, Hattie Hawkins, and Doris Akers at the piano. I wonder why Hattie Hawkins got left out of the billing?

Turns out Doris Akers not only played religious music, she also composed it. One song she wrote with gospel diva Mahalia Jackson sold more than a million records. Near the end of her life, in 1992, the Smithsonian Institution dubbed her “the foremost black gospel songwriter in the United States. The Gospel Music Hall of Fame inducted her posthumously, six years after her death.

And so today’s song is “Down at the Cross.” Toe-tapping gospel: I dare you to listen and keep still.

Hope and these United States — Song for a Sunday

Springsteen sings about hope
Springsteen in 2012. Photo by Bill Ebbesen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Who else can I turn to on this long 4th of July weekend but Bruce Springsteen? I’ve heard this song about hope, dreams, and this country he loves many times. But it’s never made me cry before.

Springsteen first sang “Land of Hope and Dreams” publicly in 1999, during his reunion tour with the E Street Band. Remember 1999? Bill Clinton was president—though the Senate would try to impeach him. The Twin Towers still stood watch over lower Manhattan. Most people’s biggest worry was a massive technological failure. Tech folks thought that computers programmed to look only at the last two digits of the year might roll us back to 1900 when the new year hit. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t.)

But life was pretty good, at least if you weren’t a person of color. Or an immigrant. Or—God forbid—both. (Springsteen would later write a song about the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo.) Or LGBT. A Gallup poll found that while half of the country thought “gay or lesbian relationships between consenting adults should be legal”—thanks ever so much—only 35% of our neighbors thought we should be able to legalize those relationships in marriage.

So when Springsteen sang “Land of Hope & Dreams,” he was singing about an imperfect country full of imperfect people. But imperfect people striving to be their best selves, and to make their nation its best self.

Well, this train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls

I said, this train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train, faith will be rewarded
This train, hear the steel wheels singing
This train, bells of freedom ringing

Wikipedia reports that at a live performance earlier this year, Springsteen added the line “This train carries immigrants.” Indeed it does.

When hope seems in short supply

But only six months into the new presidential administration, hope seems harder than ever to hold onto. And dreams? As they sometimes say in New Jersey, Fuhgeddaboutit.

So when I heard Springsteen’s song this morning, it made me cry.

Can we ever return to the imperfect but optimistic land Springsteen sings about? I hope so. Right now, it’s hard even to dream.


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

Unleashing creativity — song for a Sunday

unleashing creativityI was going to write about this song about unleashing creativity. It’s called “A Wizard Every Day.” And I will.

But as I was searching the YouTube for the best rendition of it, I got to thinking about the creative people who wrote the song, composer Nikko Benson (you’ll hear him singing on the video I chose) and lyricist Liz Suggs. And about all of us who make art come out of our minds and our fingertips. Maybe not every time we try. But enough times that we’ve made people go “ooh” in appreciation. If it happens even once, that’s magical.

I’ve heard Benson and Suggs’s song twice now, both times sung by my favorite male singer, Brian Stokes Mitchell. And I can’t believe I didn’t blog about it the first time. But I didn’t, so here we are.

Anyway, I don’t want to spoil the song by writing too much about it. You should listen for yourself. All the way through.

I say “all the way through” because at first you’re going to think it’s just a silly song about a man’s encounter with a trick-or-treater. It is that, but it’s not just that.

So thank you to Nikko Benson and Liz Suggs, wherever you are, for unleashing creativity in the form of your song “A Wizard Every Day.” The world could use more wizards. Who knows—maybe one of my readers…

I’d love to know what you think of the song. What’s your favorite line or moment? Let me know in the comments.


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