Discouraged or encouraged — “This thing’s got to be done”

“What does it matter if I’ve been discouraged or encouraged over the years?” she said, brusquely. “This thing’s got to be done. It’s not a question of how I feel from moment to moment.”

discouraged or encouraged, Marjory Stoneman Douglas pressed on
By Friends of the Everglades – Friends of the Everglades, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The “she” in that quote is none other than Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Sadly, if her name rings a bell it’s likely not because of her career as a journalist or her work to save the Everglades. It’s because a mentally ill teenager used the high school named after her in Parkland, Florida, as a shooting range this week. (I’m sorry; I just can’t bring myself to link to an article about it. The shooter has gotten enough ink.)

Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune actually met and interviewed Stoneman Douglas, and in this article she takes us on a great Story Safari™ to paint a portrait of a formidable lady. Stoneman Douglas died in 1998 (age 108), but she still has a lot to teach us. Schmich writes:

One Florida environmentalist described her to me as “that tiny, slim, perfectly dressed, utterly ferocious grande dame who can make a redneck shake in his boots.”

“When Marjory bites you,” he added, “you bleed.”

May we all develop into such effective advocates.

Don’t be discouraged. Be inspired.

As a writer, I appreciate her story-driven approach to advocacy, summed up in this quote from then-Florida governor Bob Graham:

“She deals in very tangible action, whether environmental, scientific or political,” he said, “but she also understands that there has to be a sense of magic, that people have to be inspired to what is bigger than themselves, longer than their lifetime.”

People need “a sense of magic” to inspire them to action. It’s never just about facts and figures—whether you’re trying to change a state’s environmental policy or a company’s human resources policy. Change requires inspiration. Inspiration requires story.

Schmich positions Stoneman Douglas as an icon for our time:

Arguing for better gun laws — say, making it way harder to get a semiautomatic rifle — may feel like a futile exercise, but when it does, just say to yourself: Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics,” she’s quoted as once saying, “but never give up.'”

This thing’s got to be done.

Yes it does. Go do it.


Do you have ideas that need to be shared? Discover how in my free 5-day writing adventure, Anchor Your Story.

Rachel Dratch is a reluctant writer. Sound familiar?

Rachel Dratch is a reluctant writer
By David Shankbone – Own work, CC BY 3.0

Listening to Rachel Dratch on the podcast Conversations with Funny Feminists, I had one of those “Stars! They’re just like us!” moments. You know, when the tabloids run photos of a famous actor buying groceries or walking their dog or toting their yoga mat into a gym. Rachel Dratch is just like us! (At least some of us.) She’s a reluctant writer.

Or as she put it:

“I don’t really enjoy writing. I think it’s very difficult.”

Later she explains it’s not the writing that’s hard, it’s not stringing together words. It’s, well…

“I think most of writing is just making yourself do it—the act of it, without worrying about the result.”

“Without worrying about the result.” Yeah—easy, right?

A reluctant writer on writing

While writing her 2012 a book, A Girl Walks into a Bar…: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Mid-Life Miracle, Dratch found herself paralyzed.

I set this bar for myself: This has to be this literary—I can’t even write a word because it has to be this work of art, kind of thing.

Yep, that kind of thinking would definitely turn you into a reluctant writer. So she started reading memoirs by other writers—

Just random memoirs. And what I realized is like—nobody’s memoir is like, “They were like Mark Twain.” They were them and everyone had their own style. And that totally took away the standard I set for myself. Just write this how you would tell the story. And then that’s how you do it instead of sitting, prejudging yourself.

“Just write this how you would tell the story.” Or, as I tell my writers, do what Seth Godin does: Start by telling the story. Talk it out loud and write what you say. No one can tell the story exactly the way you can. Because, as Dratch reminds us,

Only you have your voice, and your experiences and personality. So whatever you’re bringing to a sketch or improvising—just trust….Bringing your experiences and who you are is all you can do.”

Of course, I’d add “or writing” to that list. Write who you are—whether you’re telling your own story or someone else’s, or reporting to the board about the third quarter sales figures, do it as yourself. Let your personality shine through. And you’ll shine.

Have a listen to the podcast for yourself—and let me know what you think of it.


Are you ready to discover how to find and tell stories that only you can tell? Use my Story Safari™ technique and you’ll amaze and delight your audiences—whether you’re blogging, writing newsletters, or delivering business presentations. Join a select group of writers on Cape Cod for my Story Safari™ Retreat.

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.

Speaking up — a hairy story

The universe has a wacky sense of humor. No sooner do I start writing about the importance of brave communication than I’m thrown into a situation that requires speaking up for myself.

Was it scary? Yes, sadly. And that’s all the more ridiculous because the incident involved would barely register on the scale of all of the #metoo outrages we’ve been reading about in the last month or so.

I could have walked away. Perhaps in the past I would have walked away. No, no–if I’m going to be honest here, I’m going to be 100% honest: I have walked away in the past. Hasn’t every woman? (And apparently every man who’s been within an arm’s length of Kevin Spacey.)

But then I thought about all I’ve been writing lately about speaking up, communicating like a leader. And so I spoke up. Here’s the story.

The 12-year-old boy inside the grown-ass man

Sunday morning, heading down the hall to the choir room to don my robe, this older dude from the choir is walking behind me. As we pass the church’s thrift store holding room, he says, “You need a hair dryer.”

speaking upI thought perhaps someone had donated an ancient hair dryer and he was making a joke about it. I said, “What?”

He repeats, “You need a hair dryer,” and then flips the back of my hair.

For the record, my hair was perfectly dry–and awesomely shiny thanks to my new shampoo. But even if I’d just climbed out of Cape Cod Bay, the dude–I didn’t even know his name (it’s New England; I haven’t been introduced to half the people in the choir)–had no standing to comment on my appearance. And even less standing to touch me.

This is the second time an old man at this church has touched me and spoken to me as if I were his child. 

I hadn’t visited the church more than a handful of times, but after one service I took out my phone to note an upcoming church event in my calendar. Dude sweeps by and slaps me on the shoulder, saying, “Put that thing away!” He may have thought his avuncular smile would mitigate his intrusiveness. It didn’t. But it did delay my reaction–took me maybe a week to figure out that he was treating me like his child.

So when this second dude touched me on Sunday, I recognized the gesture for what it was. My friend Angie described it best: “rude, impulsive, and thoughtless.” And while part of me wished fervently that I could just walk away, the rest of me realized I’d never forgive myself if I did.

I spent the entire service considering my response. The more I thought about it, the more juvenile his behavior seemed. Like a 12-year-old boy insulting a girl and then pushing her just so he could touch her–because that’s the only way he can think of to get her to notice him.

This dude hasn’t been a 12-year-old boy since before I was born. And I wondered how his wife (also in the choir) would feel about his juvenile need to get other women to “notice him.” Yep, I needed to speak to both of them together. Or at least make sure she heard whatever I said to him.

Speaking up — scary but satisfying

Back in the choir room after the service, I waited until the wife showed up and then I walked over to the dude and said, “Sir”–that was probably the hardest word to get out of my mouth, since I felt zero respect for him. But I wanted to get his attention. I said, “Sir, I don’t know your name.”

He told me his name and stuck out his hand, which I shook. Perhaps he’d been expecting pleasantries. This is what he got:

“I just wanted to tell you that I don’t appreciate you insulting my hair. And you do not have permission to touch me. What in the world would make you think that you could touch a woman you don’t even know?”

About halfway through my little speech, his head dropped.

“I’m sorry,” he said to his shoes.

As I turned to walk away he told his toes, “I meant no offense.”

I drove out of the church parking lot, my heart pounding, and stopped in the nearest safe place to calm down and regroup.

“Just” and justice

It would have been so easy to walk away. After all, he “just” touched my hair, he didn’t shove his fist in my crotch like the giant assh*le who tried to rape me in college. But it’s all on the same continuum:

Your body doesn’t belong to you; as a man, I can touch or grope or worse. If I don’t choose to acknowledge your agency as an adult human being, then you have none. Tough titties. (Oooh, titties!)

So I set aside the “just” (he just touched my hair) in favor of justice. It’s my own variation of the old Broken Windows policing theory–serve notice about every personal intrusion, every boundary crossed without permission, no matter how small. Because if you don’t tell the perpetrators you care about the small transgressions, they have no incentive to stop. And some of them will escalate to even larger transgressions.

I’m sure I bewildered the old dude by getting angry about something he’s done hundreds of times in his life. But I guarantee you his shoes were more confused than he was: You’re sorry? What, for not using the shoehorn this morning?

Still, you know, I’m okay with leaving a string of bewildered, handsy dudes in my wake. We need to tell them this is not normal or acceptable behavior. For sure someone should have done that before. But now it’s our turn; we need to take it.


Do you need some practice speaking up at work? Join me for “Say What You Want to Say”–a webinar for women who are ready to lead. Priceless advice from an award-winning business speechwriter: On November 20th, it’s free.

“Say what you want to say” — brave communications

What do you think about when you think about courage, bravery? We don’t often think about brave communications — but that’s exactly what singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles and her co-writer Jack Antonoff had in mind when they wrote “Brave.” (See yesterday’s blog post for a link to the song’s video.)

Bareilles wanted to support a good friend who was struggling to come out as gay. Maybe that’s not your exact story. But the message about brave communications can apply to anyone—even in the business world. Especially in the business world.

“Say what you want to say.” Do you have an idea to share? An opinion? Someone out there needs to hear it.

brave communicationsIf you’re like many people—and especially many women—you probably feel unprepared. So prepare.

If you struggle to make yourself heard, discover how to speak and write memorably.

If you find your ideas being co-opted by others just seconds after you’ve voiced them, discover how to leverage your own story to make those ideas uniquely yours.

If you secretly wonder why anyone should listen to you, uncover the power of your voice. And use it!

Brave communications, the key to success

When you write something so engaging that people can’t help sharing it, no one can deny your expertise.

When you connect to your listeners or readers with emotion and heart, your ideas become memorable. They become yours. And no one can take them away from you.

So whether you’re looking to build a platform externally—to become recognized as an expert—or you’re looking to boost your credibility inside your own organization, communication skills can help.

When you write better than your peers, tell stories more powerfully than your peers, you will separate yourself from your peers. You will stand out. You will shine.

Saying “what you want to say” is only the first part of the challenge. You need your audience to hear you. And I can help you there.

Join me on Monday November 20th and explore how you can

“Say What You Want to Say”

This webinar is for women only? Yes. Some of my best clients have been men—and of course I’ll continue to work with men. But I’m reserving this training just for people who identify as women. (What can I say? Ten years of single-sex education leaves a mark.)

Brave communication is easier than you think—if you have the right tools and know how to use them. So join us. Like Sara Bareilles,

“I want to see you be brave.”


Say when you want to join us in “Say What You Want to Say.” I’ll be leading the program live on November 20th at 10am and 7pm Eastern. Click here to register.

“I want to see you be brave” — Song for a, well, Any Day

brave
By Source, Fair use

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about women in the business world. Especially the many talented women stuck in mid-level corporate jobs when they’re clearly capable of so much more. I can give these talented women the tools they need to share their ideas and get noticed, but before I can empower them, I have to reach them. And then Sara Bareilles’ song “Brave” floated into my head:

“Say what you want to say
And let the words fall out.
Honestly, I want to see you be brave.”

I woke Fenway from a sound sleep when I shouted “That’s it! That’s exactly the message I’ve been looking for.”

Let your ideas out—even if it feels scary to do it. You’ve got this.

(More tomorrow. In the meantime, turn up your speakers and dance along with Sara.)

Nothing to fear but fear itself?

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

fear itself
By USCapitol – Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Inauguration, Public Domain

Like most things in life, the truth of FDR’s famous quote turns out to be not quite as attractive as the words burned into our brains by decades of misquoting: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Ah…I wish this post were about President Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. But it’s not. It’s about me. Because I’m always telling you how important authenticity and transparency are, I have to be authentic and transparent with you now.

Fear itself

I talk a lot about fear. So much, in fact, that some of you may believe I’ve conquered it.

Um…no.

Fear is quite the shape-shifter. You beat it back in one form and it comes back in another; you learn to use one set of tools against it and it learns to work around those tools. Or worse, to use them against you.

I once had such a strong fight-or-flight reaction that the only way I could stay put (and I needed to stay put) was to imagine that my feet were encased in a bucket of cement.

I stayed put. And I got the job, too. Needless to say, that wouldn’t have happened if I’d let Fear win that round.

So I’ve adapted to some of the tactics Fear uses to stop me from creating, but I can still find myself reduced to tears by fear of doing something new.

Do I keep doing new things? You betcha.

And so should you.

My most recent fear—a fear that reduced me to tears only a few days ago—was, at bottom, fear of not doing something well. Of getting a C on the great pop quiz of life.

Of course, I’m not going to be perfect all the time. Or maybe even ever. And especially not the first time I do something.

So when Fear perches on the corner of your desk, looks deeply into your eyes and suggests that you Stop—take a deep breath and tell Fear to take a hike. Keep your fingers hovering over the keyboard, pressing down one by one. Make words appear where there were no words before.

Because you’re not alone. Ever. Anyone who’s ever created has been there. And have you read a book lately? A magazine article or blog post? Words on a screen or words on paper—those are proof. Proof that we can beat Fear Itself. And be imperfect. And go through the cycle again.


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

A hard time to be a white person…and what to do about it

white person
Miss Texas 2017, Margana Wood, from her Instagram account

It’s a hard time to be a white person. Not hard as in we’re liable to get shot just for walking down the street—no, people of color definitely have us beat there. And not hard as in we’ll be ostracized—and maybe lose our jobs—if we express our opinion. Again, that’s much more likely to happen to a person of color (see Miss Texas as exhibit 1 and ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, exhibit 2.)

No, I think it’s a hard time to be a white person because there are a bunch of white people out there who make no sense at all. And to the rest of the world, I look just like them.

No! I want to shout, It wasn’t me! I’m not one of those white Baby Boomer women who voted for him! But there I am, guilty by association.

The Survey Says…

And so we come to the Reuters/Ipsos survey released a couple of weeks ago, in which our fellow citizens had a chance to say just what they think of white supremacy and white supremacists.

The good news: We don’t like ’em. Only 4% supported neo-Nazism; 8% supported “white nationalism.” Now, extrapolated across the whole country even 4% is a pretty huge number. But I’m gonna take comfort in it right now, because I need some comfort, okay?

Nearly 90% of our fellow citizens did us proud, agreeing that “all races should be treated equally.” But that’s a softball question, right? I mean, even the Nazis know what the politically correct answer is.

So the researchers, as good researchers do, asked the question again in slightly different forms: Do you agree or disagree with the statement “white people are currently under attack in this country.”

Who could look at what’s going on in the country—what went on in Charlottesville just weeks before they fielded the survey—who can look at this and say, “Yep. White people are definitely under attack in the United States.” Four out of ten people, that’s who. Okay, 39%—so just a shade under four in ten. But that’s a lot of damn people. A lot of damn people who are maybe just a few Fox “News” reports away from becoming neo-Nazis or white supremacists themselves.

Only 29% of my fellow white people disagreed with that statement. And while that’s nearly three in ten, it should be a no-brainer.

If you can get pulled over for a routine traffic stop and not worry that you’ll leave in handcuffs or a body bag, you’re a white person. If you’re a straight, cisgender white person, you haven’t got a clue about what it feels like to be “under attack” in your own country.

And if you’re a white person who understands this, you have a responsibility to speak up. Don’t make the black and brown people do all the work of dismantling racism—they didn’t create it. It’s our mess; we need to clean it up. Together.


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

Look ahead — “old sayings” vs. clichés

“Don’t look back. (You’re not going that way.)” Or, to translate into the preferred language of the SEO gods: “look ahead.”

look ahead

Do you read that as wise counsel? As a New Age-y cliché? Or as the worst driving advice ever?

It’s undoubtedly the last. My father the insurance man always instructed us to check the rear view mirrors before turning on the ignition. To be fair, he’d be perfectly fine with “Look ahead” too. He spent his days looking at wrecked cars and deciding how little—er, how much his company ought to pay for them. He knew everything that could happen to you in a car. So look back, look forward, look to your left, to your right—he insisted on all of it.

But in a metaphorical sense, “Don’t look back”—is it wise or trite?

I think the answer is

Yes.

If all you do is toss it into your writing, then it has all the weight of a fortune cookie saying.

But if you use it to make a larger point, if you can connect it to emotion and story—then you’ve got the making of something powerful.

It’s like anything, right? You don’t just drop a quotation into the middle of your work and then never mention it again.

“No man is an island entire of itself.”—John Donne

Well, yes. And…? As your reader, why should I care about that? How does it relate to me?

Look ahead

“Don’t look back” resonates for me now because I’m packing. (Argh.) And looking back is pretty much 90% of the packing game, right?

Do I really need to keep my 1980s edition of Trivial Pursuit? What was trivial then is now, like, super-obscure and useless information now. But I remember buying it, carrying it home, being one of my first friends to own it. Nope, Goodwill that sucker.

The handmade ceramic tile with my two-week-old footprints on it—even more trivial than the Trivial Pursuit. Completely useless to every conceivable Goodwill shopper. But my baby footprints! Jury’s still out on that. Oh, I would drive Marie Kondo crazy.

“Don’t Look Back” could make a fine Story Safari for a company in the throes of change. (And when is a company not in the throes of change?) When do you honor the legacy processes? How do you implement new ones without alienating half your workforce? Well, don’t look back; you’re not going that way. So what’s next.

In that context, “Don’t look back”—or, pace, gods of SEO—”look ahead” isn’t a cliché at all. It’s a great hook for a story.

Now, excuse me. I’ve got more packing to do.


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.

Elaine St. George: Happy birthday, Arlo

Our first guest blog post comes from…me, the singing side of me. I don’t blog often as Elaine St. George—come to think of it, I don’t sing often as her these days, either. But I’ll take any opportunity to remind the world about the underappreciated singer-songwriter Steve Goodman. So enjoy this post from July 10th, 2015:

Happy birthday, Arlo

by Elaine St. George

Arlo Guthrie
Arlo in 1979, publicity photo from Warner Bros.

It’s Arlo Guthrie’s birthday today. Obviously Arlo holds a special place in the hearts of Steve Goodman fans. His cover of “City of New Orleans” gave Steve his first visibility. Well, as much visibility as a songwriter ever gets when he’s not singing his own song. Even if it’s a hit.

When I bought my first Steve Goodman album in the late ’70s and found “City of New Orleans” on it, I’ll admit I checked the credits twice. Like most of the rest of America, I assumed Steve was covering Arlo’s song. A few years later, of course, that perception changed. When Willie Nelson sang “City of New Orleans” in the mid-’80s, presumed authorship of the song transferred to him. Steve got his first Grammy when Willie’s cover won “Best Country Song.” But by then Steve was no longer around to receive it. He’d died a few months earlier.

And that brings me back to Arlo Guthrie, because in a way it was through him that I rediscovered Steve. Well, not “rediscovered”—I’d never forgotten about him. But that was when I decided to put together a whole show of Steve’s songs. And that show has now turned into an album. But I digress…

(Cue the harp and the wavy focus to signify a flashback…)

Five or six years ago, I did a show in Boston. The venue wanted a longer set than I’d planned so I had to add some material and I thought, “Why not do some songs written by people who live in Massachusetts?” First person who came to mind was James Taylor, but I had trouble finding a second. Then I remembered Arlo Guthrie had written “Alice’s Restaurant” about a place in the Berkshires so I decided he’d be perfect. I couldn’t cover “Alice’s Restaurant”—I didn’t have that much time to fill! But I thought I’d sing “City of New Orleans” and tell a story about how Arlo hadn’t written it, Steve Goodman had.

Being a thorough kind of gal, I researched the backstory and I discovered two things:

  1. Arlo first heard “City of New Orleans” when Steve had the guts to walk up to him out of the blue in a crowded bar, introduce himself, and ask Arlo to listen to the song. The rest, as they say, is history.
  2. Steve had the guts to do that because he knew he didn’t have any time to waste. He was dying of leukemia. In fact, he had died in 1984 at the age of 36. And I’d had no idea.

A little more research confirmed that #1 wasn’t exactly the truth. But #2 absolutely was. This guy whose work I loved—whose songs were so full of life and heart—was gone. And I’d missed it completely.

How had I remained so clueless? I’d moved on, listening more to showtunes, the Great American Songbook, and jazz than to the folk music that had sustained me in my teen years. But now that I knew the real story—or something closer to the real story—of Steve’s big break as a songwriter, I thought more people deserved to hear it. And I decided I needed to tell it.

For the record, the real story—as recounted in Clay Eals’s incredibly thorough book Steve Goodman: Facing the Music—is that the meeting was no accident. It was set up by a Chicago club owner who knew Steve had a great song on his hands and wanted to get him a break. The other part of the real story is that Steve only became a songwriter after doctors told him he had leukemia, and maybe only a year more to live. With typical Steve guts, he managed to stretch that one year out to 16.

That resonated with me. No one would have blamed Steve if he’d spent the rest of his life on a beach somewhere. But he insisted on living. And creating. That’s when he turned himself into a songwriter. And that’s how he had the guts to sing his song for Arlo Guthrie. Yes, the meeting was prearranged. But Steve showed up for it. And he kept showing up, until the leukemia finally claimed him.

I don’t know if you’ve ever done anything creative—art, singing, whatever—but it takes courage to stand up there on stage or hang your picture on a wall and say, “This is who I am. This is what I care about.” Steve did that. He seized every opportunity he could to share his work with people. He inspires me as an artist every day. And I hope that by telling his story and singing his songs, I can inspire other people to do whatever seems hardest for them.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying: Thank you, Arlo Guthrie. You have no idea who I am, but you’ve had an impact on my life. Happy birthday.