But it surprised me to see them Friday night because I wasn’t writing. Still, they were waiting for me the minute I got out of the theater.
I’d just seen one of my favorite nonfiction writers read from his work. Or, well, not really “read.” Adam Gopnik crafted a one-person show out of various memoir-ish essays he’s written over the years, stringing them together thematically. They did indeed take the audience from Point A to Point B gently, subtly. In some cases brilliantly.
And they delivered me straight into the waiting arms of the Willits as I decided I would never be able to write as brilliantly as Gopnik, so why was I even trying?
Will it be a complete waste of time?
I headed to my car, Willits chattering all around me, and then I called time out and sat myself down in the nearest Starbucks to get rid of them the only way I knew how: I wrote.
My Willits, and yours
Everyone gets the Willits. I’ve been writing professionally for 25 years and they still show up—not when I’m writing for my clients, but when I’m writing for myself.
I’m doing more of that these days, writing some memoir-ish pieces of my own. So it’s easy for me to draw comparisons between myself and Gopnik. Comparisons in which, the Willits are quick to remind me, I invariably come up short.
If you have your own version of this routine, it’s important to remember one thing:
The Willits are full of shit.
The minute you hear their whiny little voices in your ear, grab a pen or the nearest laptop and start writing. Write about how you hear them (they hate that) and then remind yourself of all the reasons they’re wrong about you.
Here’s what I wrote last night:
Just out of Adam Gopnik’s show at The Public and I need some time to myself before I head back.
It was the kind of evening where you sit there thinking, “This is what I want to do.” And then, 10 seconds later, “How can I think I could possibly do anything as brilliant as this?”
He built his show around some dichotomies—individualism and plurality, for instance. I took away inspiration and defeatism. How can I snatch victory from its jaws?
First by realizing that Gopnik’s brilliance didn’t just show up one day. This show aggregated work he’s been doing since at least 2002, when Mr. Ravioli made his debut in the pages of The New Yorker. That’s 16 years ago. Who knows how long some of the other pieces have been marinating?
So I think: I’m writing memoir-ish pieces like this. But I don’t see a more universal significance in them. Does that make me a failure? No, it makes me a writer. A writer-in-progress. Once I’ve got all the material out of me and onto paper, then I can start looking for universal meanings, for strands that tie the pieces together, for something—anything—that someone who’s not me would find valuable in my work.
In the meantime, my job is not to judge. My job is to write.
And that’s your job, too. Don’t let the Willits tell you otherwise.
Join my 5×15 Writing Challenge! Write for 15 minutes a day for 5 days in a row beginning January 22nd and I’ll donate $15 to a global literacy nonprofit. Registration open now.
The sermon at church yesterday was part Art History, part theology, and part—although the rector didn’t realize this—part Story Safari.
What’s a Story Safari? I haven’t written about them recently, so let’s recap. It’s the name I’ve given to analogies and metaphors found in the wild. Sometimes we hunt them down, sometimes they just wander into church while we’re listening to the sermon. But always these metaphors or stories help elucidate a larger point.
After the Old Testament lesson about Moses on the mountaintop surveying the Promised Land, the Rev. Dr. Judith Davis pointed out a reproduction of a painting that she’d pinned to a wall: Frederic Edwin Church’s Moses Viewing the Promised Land.
Does it remind you of anything?
A murmur went through the choir the moment we saw the photograph. Because of course, Church’s painting is the direct antecedent of…
An artist might call the Church painting a “reference”—and it is. But it’s more than just a similar arrangement of rocks and figures. It’s a visual analogy. (Click on the Lion King photo, by the way, if you’d like to see the whole video.)
How is this a Story Safari?
Maybe you’ve never seen the Church painting before. Or maybe you saw it once, flipping through your Art History book, and it’s been lodged somewhere in the furthest recesses of your brain. When you see The Lion King, the connection might not register consciously. But it’s there.
So practically the moment that scene from the movie hits your retina, you’ve already “read” it. Add some words and you’ve got yourself a Story Safari. This is how I might do it:
Simba the lion cub is a younger, furrier version of Moses. Like Moses, he will lead his people—er, lions. And, if I remember the plot correctly, an assortment of other animals too.
I witnessed a surprising Lion King moment at both Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds games this summer. As “The Circle of Life” played on the speakers, the cameras swept the stands. One after another, parents stood up and hoisted their infants aloft, just like in the picture.
Are they saying, “Behold my child, who will rule all of the land between the foul lines”? Or “Behold my child, a baseball fan”? That may be in the backs of some people’s minds, but I think it’s just about the 15 seconds of fame on the big Diamondvision scoreboard.
And that might launch us into a discussion of the kinds of things people will do to get attention.
The power of visual analogies
Visual analogies work fast. That’s one of the reasons one picture is worth 1,000 words. And they can trigger our emotions. But they’re also complex, and complexity makes them memorable. I’m not likely to forget the tiny baseball fans, legs and arms waving, as their fathers held them as high as possible. The Cubs and the Reds now have some real estate in my brain. (Probably other teams do this too, but the feature hasn’t made it to New York yet.)
Using visuals can be tricky. I’m not a big fan of slides accompanying a speech—I’d rather have the audience focus on my speaker. But if a visual analogy can help move your story along or make it memorable in a way that words cannot, then go for it.
Retreat? Did somebody say “retreat”? Yes indeed. Check out my year-end retreat—two and a half days to focus on your story, improve your writing, and enjoy the community of a select group of women writers. Enrollment limited to six writers. Will you be one of them?
Here’s a public service announcement: the national tour of Fun Home is touching down in Boston later this month. Prepare to laugh, and cry. Some people will cry buckets. I did—both times I saw the show in New York. Because Fun Home is about identity and discovery. And seeing a lesbian discover and claim her identity in a mainstream Broadway musical…well, I never dreamed of that. Not in my lifetime.
Fortunately, Tony Award-winning writers Lisa Kron (book & lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music) did dream it. And MacArthur “genius” grant-winner Alison Bechdel lived it—and wrote the graphic memoir the show brings to life. To be clear that’s “graphic” in the sense that it’s what some people might call a “comic book.” And while there are laughs in Fun Home, it’s not anyone’s idea of comic.
So here’s your song for this Sunday, as performed by Tony nominee Sydney Lucas at the 2015 Tony Awards: “Young Alison” beginning to discover her identity. And there’s a lot more where this came from. See the show if you haven’t. It will open your eyes—when they’re not brimming with tears.
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 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…
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 TheNew 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.
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!
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.
Award-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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.” 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.
What 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.