How much of my story matters? — Frequent Questions

Q: How much of my story matters?
A: All of it to you, but maybe not to your readers.

Everyone has a story. One of the most wonderful facets of life is getting to discover the unique or quirky or just plain different stories of our fellow human beings.

But unless you’re writing a memoir, you don’t need to tell your entire story.

Have you ever been at a networking event and had a simple question like “And what you do?” explode into a half-hour disquisition about every single facet of the other person’s job.

You hate those conversations, right? You’d welcome anything that would interrupt them—a colleague rushing over to say hello, a tray of hors d’oeuvres overturning, a small earthquake nearby.

When you’re leveraging your story to introduce yourself to an audience or to make a point about your subject, you don’t need to tell the whole story. Find the part of it that connects specifically to the readers’ interest. And tell that.

my story matters
Danica Roem, photo by Ted Eytan from Washington, DC, USA – 2017.07.26 Protest Trans Military Ban, White House, Washington DC USA 7684, CC BY-SA 2.0

When Danica Roem campaigned for the Virginia House of Delegates, she based her campaign on transportation issues. She and her future constituents spent way too much of their time stuck in traffic; she thought the House of Delegates should address the issue.

Oh—and Danica Roem isn’t just a commuter. She’s also a transgender woman.

In another context—say, if she were writing a memoir—I’m sure Roem could tell a fascinating story about how she discovered her gender identity and what challenges and triumphs she’s encountered along the way. But telling that story in the context of a campaign would siphon attention away from her key campaign issue. Instead, she focused on what her constituents could expect her to do rather than on who she is.

As she said in a recent article in InStyle magazine:

“Even through the Democratic primary, when talking about red-meat issues, I said, ‘Well, Democrats get stuck in traffic too. Transgender people get caught in traffic too.’ LGBT people don’t just get to jump on the back of a unicorn and fly over traffic. We get stuck in it like anybody else.”

After she won the primary, her Republican challenger—whose seat she was trying to win—introduced a “bathroom bill” aimed at transgender people. Roem used that as an opportunity to remind voters about the issue she was campaigning on:

“I came up with the phrase ‘Delegate Marshall’s legislative priorities are more focused on where I go to the bathroom than on how you get to work.'”

Brilliant. She didn’t shy away from her transgender status—I would never advise you to try to bury an essential part of your story. But she reminded voters that she cares about the thing they care about. She focused on the concerns they have in common and her gender identity became just one piece of who she is, not the whole story.

By the way, she won the election.


Do you have a story to tell? Start telling it—join my 5-day writing challenge, starting January 22nd.

Dr. King and the speechwriters

Everyone’s publishing pieces about Dr. King today—of course, it’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. But I found some new things in this long piece Vanity Fair republished today. Okay, “new” only because I clearly missed it three years ago when it was originally published.

It focuses on one Clarence Jones, who was Dr. King’s lawyer and—the word appears just once—speechwriter. Nelson Rockefeller’s speechwriter pops in at a pivotal point in history, too. He connected with his fellow scribe Jones after King and dozens of young people had been jailed in Birmingham. And because of that connection, Jones met Rockefeller at a Chase Manhattan Bank branch one Saturday morning and emerged with a valise full of bail money—$100,000 in cash.

Dr. King
Meme created by Daniel Rarela (@DJRarela) using text from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Like his contemporary Ted Sorensen, who never until the day he died confirmed that he had written President John F. Kennedy’s speeches, Jones remains mum on his contributions to Dr. King’s writing. But he did smuggle the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” out of said jail, after smuggling in the pages of legal paper on which Dr. King wrote it.

Clearly, these days it’s more important than ever for us to remember Dr. King, all that he fought and died for. We must also recognize all the injustices we still perpetrate (knowingly and unknowingly) and still need to correct.

But let’s also remember the people behind the legendary leader—especially those who’ve stood in history’s shadows for so long. Including Clarence Jones, Dr. King’s lawyer and speechwriter.

“Your Words Matter”

I’ve been feeling kind of grumpy and hopeless the last few days – being sick sometimes does that to me. But something caught my eye this afternoon, and I think I may just have enough brain function to write about it. It’s a note my friend Melissa enclosed in a gift: “Your Words Matter.”

Your words matterI’ve said that a lot to my writers last year. And, whaddaya know, they listened.

They’ve written things they never imagined – my lawyerly writer has become a poet; my scientist and academic have written children’s stories.

And they’ve written things they have imagined – reanimating long-dormant stories, turning memories into memoirs. Best of all, they’ve pushed their writing out of the nest for others to read. And it’s good! Better than they think it is, in many cases – which is how we can tell they’re really writers.

One of my writers lost her father in 2017, but during the last six months of his life, she was able to read him stories. Stories she had written, stories she said would not have been written if she hadn’t joined one of my writing challenges.

“Your words matter.” Sometimes more than you know.

Still, Melissa’s note said MY words matter. At first I assumed she meant the blogging I’ve done over the last 18 months (even though I’ve stopped posting daily). Or my writing streak – 615 days as of yesterday. But all of that is just writing. Writing has paid my mortgage for a long time; I don’t think about my words as having any particular value beyond that.

But last year, I pushed some words of my own out of the nest. I opened up my work beyond corporate clients and started working with individuals for the first time, teaching, guiding. Turns out it’s the best job I’ve ever had.

Looking back over the past year I think the words that have mattered the most, the words I’m most proud of, are the words of encouragement I offered my writers. When I’ve been able to reassure them that no one writes beautifully every day, that the crap they wrote today means they’ll write something better down the road…when my words have created a safe space for them to create…and they’ve created – that’s the most meaningful work I’ve ever done. And I can’t wait to do more of it.

You out there, reading this: your words matter, too. So go use them. Write. Revise. And then push your work out of the nest and watch as your words matter to someone else.


Resolving to write more in 2018? Join my 5×15 Writing Challenge. Write for 15 minutes a day for five days in a row and support a great global literacy nonprofit. More information and registration link here.

Barking mad — American life at the end of 2017

barking madI had some structural work done on my house last week—several men beneath my kitchen floor made scary noises for a day or two, while upstairs the dogs went barking mad.

They heard strange men’s voices, but they couldn’t figure out where those voices were coming from. They ran from the front to the back of the house, looking out the windows. Not a creature was stirring, not even a squirrel. But the noise—it was definitely real, definitely a threat. So: WOOF! WOOF! They ran in circles in the kitchen, barking at the air until a friend mercifully took them to her house.

I know how they feel.

Barking mad. Aren’t we all?

A threat you can’t put your finger on? A sense of real danger with little tangible public evidence? So many possible sources of danger you can’t keep track of them all? (And that’s probably a blessing, because if you could it would surely drive you crazy.)

Welcome to the United States of America in the first almost-full year of the current presidency.

California’s burning—but, hey, North Korea could nuke it tomorrow. Losing net neutrality could make it impossible for me to do business online—but, hey, the tax bill signed yesterday ensures that the entire economy will implode. Party at the protest or on the breadline—your choice.

Robert Mueller’s investigation continues to be one bright light at the end of the endless tunnel we’re slogging through. But he could get fired any day now. My guess is Christmas Eve for maximal Scrooge-factor and minimal news coverage. And then it’s goodbye turkey dinner and hello protest march. God bless us, every one.

Stock up on the comfortable shoes and warm outdoor clothing, folks. And don’t let them make you feel crazy. Stay barking mad.


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

1,000 words — what story does a picture tell?

Last night, I went looking for a picture of a black child to illustrate a piece I wanted to submit.

I went to Stencil, my usual royalty-free photo source, but no matter what I typed in the search bar—”black boys,” “black children,” “black children playing”—I got something like this:

Let’s leave aside the ones that are not obviously black, like the guitar-playing dude in the upper left corner. The search results look like the casting call for a “Save the Children” ad: Angry black children. Sad black children. Scroll down and you’ll find unkempt black children playing in what looks like an abandoned yard. What kind of twisted message do these photos send?

So I tried to be more specific. I searched for “happy black children” and got…

Yep. A bunch of white kids. But in BLACK-and-white photos.

Hey, Stencil, I’ve loved using your service. But—newsflash—happy children come in all skin colors. And black children do more than glower.

They say a picture tells 1,000 words. These photos tell a pretty damning story about how stock photographers look at the world. And how at least one purchaser of stock photos perpetuates that worldview.

All fall down

I’ve been editing a video for the last three days, in between an unprecedented number of calls, interviews for pieces one of my clients wants me to write. Still, I managed to piece together the five or so hours I needed to edit the final video in myWriting Unbound program. And when I tried to upload the finished product to the internet, something crashed. You know what’s coming, right? The verb “tried” gives it away: 

the entire edit disappeared.

There’s a backup of most of it somewhere, but I can’t look for it right now, okay? I’m too busy wallowing in frustration and exhaustion and probably a handful of other -tions I’m too pissed off to identify.

Sometimes I hate technology.

I don’t, however, hate it nearly as much as the current FCC, which yesterday voted to turn the free and open internet into a playground for the haves and have-nots. 

If they truly do succeed in killing net neutrality, it might not matter if I ever get my video edited. Who will be allowed to see it? How much will my clients have to pay to access my website, my courses? How much will I have to pay to access the searching and streaming services that enable me to function as a writer working remotely with clients around the world?
The fight isn’t over. Check Battle for the Net for action steps. Call your Senators and Congressional Representatives, as they have some power here.

Killing Net Neutrality will wipe out small businesses and the growing “gig economy.” And those of us who’ve been able to do business from bases in small towns? We may have to hightail it back to the cities and stop working remotely.

But now it’s Friday night and I have another small town to consider: I’m going to decorate my first gingerbread house.

“Day of Utter Suckitude” — wisdom from composer Dale Trumbore

If you’d asked me before this morning, I would have told you that writing music and writing words don’t have much in common. For one thing, we word-writers have a whole lot more material to work with—26 letters in the Western alphabet vs. 12 tones in a Western scale. That’s 14 more things we get to play with and, well, if you want to know how many more combinations that gives us, you’ll have to ask a mathematician.

utter suckitude
Dale Trumbore, photo by Krysti Sabins (from Dale’s website)

What changed this morning? I read a piece my friend Dale Trumbore, the very talented composer, wrote about creativity. And every word in it rings true.

Before I even finished the first paragraph, I knew I wanted to write a blog post about Dale’s piece. Everyone who creates in any medium goes through what Dale calls the Day of Utter Suckitude, when everything you’ve created seems like crap. On those days, I even hate the punctuation. I’d bet Dale even finds faults with the rests.

The important thing to remember is that the Day of Utter Suckitude isn’t the entire creative journey, just like McDonald’s rest rooms aren’t your entire road trip. You get to look at prettier things along the way, too—the back roads, the quaint inns.

Can you tell I spend far too much time on Rt. 95? And, yes, sometimes it feels like my entire day is just one McDonald’s rest stop after another. I remember one quick round-trip from Massachusetts to New York when I was so sick of driving that the only thing that got me back in the car was realizing that the alternative was spending the rest of my life in a McDonald’s.

And that’s what bounces creative people out of our Days of Utter Suckitude.

“I hate speechwriters” and other true-life tales

I was a baby-speechwriter, just two or three years into the profession, when I got the chance to interview for a plum role: speechwriter for the CEO of an even bigger, older, and fancier organization than the one for which I was already working. I gussied myself up, even bought new shoes. And the interviewer’s first words to me?

“I hate speechwriters.”

Not the most auspicious of opening lines. I can’t remember what I said in response, but what I wish I’d said is:

“Then I’m glad I’m not interviewing to be your speechwriter.”

No, what I really wish I’d said would have involved a few expletives. But at the time I was still hoping to land the job.

I’ve thought about that interview a few times over the years. It’s possible he was mimicking his CEO’s demeanor to see how well I would stand up to him. Or it’s possible he was just an ass. At any rate, I got to eat lunch in the organization’s storied dining room. And new shoes.

I’ve often said that my favorite clients are smart enough to know good writing when they see it, but too busy to do it themselves. Seems simple enough. But that requires clients to recognize two things: That I’m as good as or better than they are at writing speeches. And that, no matter how much they enjoy writing, they have better uses for their time.

If you’ve been a fan of Pod Save America, the podcast fronted by several veterans of President Obama’s White House speechwriting shop, you may be surprised that President – well , then-Senator – Obama did not leap at the opportunity to hire Jon Favreau.

“I don’t think I need a speechwriter, but you seem nice enough.”

Really? Obama was one of those clients? It doesn’t completely tarnish his image in my mind; given what replaced him in the White House, I’m not sure if anything could. And he did come around later, apparently becoming very appreciative of his speechwriting team’s efforts. But, still, one wishes he’d have understood from the beginning the benefits of a hired pen.

Then again, if everybody understood the benefits of ghostwriters, there wouldn’t be so much awful writing out in the world. And so many great assignments just waiting for the right ghost to find them.

Romance novelist knows best — Nora Roberts on writing

First a confession: I have never read any of Nora Roberts’s novels. It’s not that they’re hard to find. She highlights five “New Releases” on her website. Five. Most authors struggle to turn out one book a year. But I’ve never read even one, so I am in no position to comment on her craft.

Nora Roberts New Releases

Her dedication, on the other hand, well that impressed the hell out of me. Roberts managed to dispense some excellent advice in between quips on the NPR show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me. Host Peter Sagal asked her if she ever suffered from writer’s block.

Roberts replied:

“I don’t let myself believe in it. I feel very strongly writing is a habit as much as an art or a craft.”

She continued—and I would paint this over the threshold of my classroom, if I had anything more than a virtual classroom:

“If you write crap, you’re still writing—and you can fix that. But if you walk away, then you’ve broken the habit.”

You can fix bad writing. You can’t fix no writing. So get in the habit of writing—she didn’t say daily, but surely you can’t churn out five novels a year by only writing on Saturdays. Get in the habit of writing daily—and stay there.

 


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

Thanks, writers.

thanksYes I love my friends and family (and my canine assistant Fenway, too). But when I look through my daily lists of gratitudes, one word pops up more than any other: Writing.

I’m grateful that I get to do it—and for a living, even. So thanks to my clients, and to those of you who read what I write under my own name, here and elsewhere.

I’m grateful that I get to read it—so many writers doing beautiful, important, moving work.

  • If you haven’t discovered Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, you have two seasons’ worth of glorious binge-listening ahead of you. Today would be a fine time to start.
  • And while I’ve always found Masha Gessen’s work fascinating, it’s become even more urgent (if depressing) as the country I love slides toward authoritarianism.
  • David Litt, a fellow speechwriter, made me laugh out loud with his White House memoir.
  • And Elizabeth Gilbert gives me hope. I don’t have a satisfying link for that; guess I’ll have to write about her soon.

And I’m grateful that I get to teach it. It’s a cliché that you learn from your students. But clichés become clichés because they’re true. My writers inspire me with their questions, their insights, their excellent work in a jaw-dropping number of genres. And their courage.

I’m grateful to everyone who writes and pushes their work out of the nest. Thank you for letting the rest of us share your ideas and wonder at your creativity.

So here’s a Thanksgiving blessing for you, my fellow writers:

May your desk chairs be comfy and your WiFi be strong.

I look forward to seeing what we all come up with next.


Need a jumpstart to get yourself writing? Mark your calendars for my next quarterly 5×15 Writing Challenge—December 26th-30th.