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.

What do speeches and coffee have in common?

coffeeAsk a speechwriter what speeches have in common with coffee and you’ll likely hear that they consume lots of the latter while churning out the former.

Not me. And not just because my caffeine of choice is tea.

I think we make great speeches in much the same way we make a good cup of coffee:

  • Gather the right blend of raw materials
  • Grind them to suit your needs
  • Allow creativity (or hot water, which sometimes feels like the same thing) to connect the ingredients in new ways
  • Filter the results into the vessel of your choice
  • Inhale deeply & enjoy

Gather your speaker’s ideas and do additional research as needed — every speech is a blend. Break these down into smaller components; too many complex ideas and you’ll lose your audience. Filter the materials through what you understand of the speaker’s sensibilities and experience. And add creativity to bring all the disparate inputs together into a smooth, deeply satisfying brew.

Of course, you don’t just filter the ideas through your speaker’s experience. You filter them through your own as well — you can’t help it.

As a speechwriter, I have to capture the speaker’s diction and syntax, but ultimately the words come out of my brain, through my fingers pounding my keyboard. If speeches came with credits, the byline would be Speaker/Elaine’s-Understanding-of-Speaker/Speaker-Filtered-by-Elaine.

On second thought, maybe it’s good thing speeches don’t have bylines.

Your (Coffee) Filter, Yourself

After 25 years of putting words in executives’ mouths, I’m used to writing like someone else. But the writers in my advanced writing class are becoming used to writing like themselves. Too used to it sometimes. So I thought I’d shake things up a little. At the end of one of our classes, I said, “This week, write like each other.”

Now, that’s not an assignment I would give just any group. The writers in question have been working with me in various programs for nearly a year now; they’ve developed a level of familiarity and trust you don’t usually find in online workshops.

So I knew when I said, “Write like each other” and assigned the partners, they wouldn’t run off and write parodies. I wanted them to capture the essence of the other writer’s work and filter it through their own sensibilities. I wasn’t looking for them to replicate each other’s voices, but to look at the topic through their partner’s eyes and tell us about the view.

One of my writers wondered if she’d gotten the assignment wrong. She wrote that although she’d tried to think like her partner, “it still came out through my own filters.”

Yes! And it was beautiful, too. Not her voice, and not her partner’s voice, but a lovely blend that produced something completely different. In fact, it ranks among the best work this writer has done as she shakes off the legalese she’s been speaking and writing for decades.

But of course it all got filtered through her experience. That’s part of the process.

Start with the freshest ingredients you can find, run them through your own filters, and hope for a result that opens people’s eyes. (Foam garnish optional.)

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 only six women writers. Will you be one of them?

Add a sentence — our first Community Writing Project

Last Friday, to celebrate National Day on Writing, I launched what I called “the first annual Bennett Ink Community Writing Project.”

It actually turned into projectS, as I shared the opening sentence on various Facebook pages and groups. Each share generated its own story.

Starting with the common opening sentence:

Watching an enormous sphere of chewing gum emerge from her seat-mate’s face, becoming more translucent—and less stable—by the second, Fran reconsidered her decision to take the bus.

The writers who chimed in on my Bennett Ink Facebook page continued:

Not certain whether she was running away or toward something. She opened a book to distract herself, both from her noisy surroundings and from the racing thoughts in her head. She couldn’t help but watch him, his bubble, and his bushy beard out of the corner of her eye.

“That is not a good combination,” she thought – “bubblegum and beard.”

She started to laugh, but her smile vanished instantly when she saw Rebecca walk in. She had read Rebecca’s shocking #metoo story the night before, and now had no idea what to say to her friend.

Thoughts were swirling around her head…beard, bubble, story, beard, bubble, story…but her attention was pulled back to her surroundings when the bus suddenly lurched. Her vision was suddenly a haze of pink, and a sickly odor enveloped her.

Community writing project, from many communities

As I said, I shared the opening sentence widely. Another writer contributed this second sentence:

Inching away from the protruding orb, she turned toward the window just as the bus lurched forward and back, snapping her hand into the teetering globe: “Yowza! You burst my bubble,” squealed the young woman with the pink goo on her face.

My high school friends have never been big on following instructions. One of them contributed not a second sentence but a rewrite of the first:

Preface: I am sitting on a bus of 30 women traveling to Pennsylvania, from Vermont. “Fran stared out the window at the fast-moving landscape, and by reflection, continued to watch the pale-pink, elastic bubble now looming ever-so-close to her head!”


Some of my writers missed the date—I didn’t publicize it very widely. Others felt that the project deserved more than one day.

So I’m pleased to announce the Community Writing Project of the Month. We’ll start November 1st. I believe if I share the opening sentence as an image, that wherever I post it, people’s comments will all go into one thread. Watch this space for details.

And keep up the good writing.

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. Enrollment limited to six writers. Will you be one of them?

The hardest time to find: playtime

I made a new commitment at the beginning of this quarter: I would spend at least 20 hours a week NOT working. Sleeping wouldn’t count (thankfully I get much more than 20 hours of that). Nor would errand-running. Just 20 hours a week for myself to do whatever I like. Three weeks in and I am failing miserably. It turns out that playtime is the hardest time to find.

As I write this at 5:30 on Sunday night, I’m still seven hours short. Even if I were to stop writing and lunge for my TV remote and knitting needles RIGHT NOW, there aren’t seven more hours left in the week.

And, anyway, so much of my to-do list is still not to-done.

Schedule playtime

Once upon a time, playtime came so easily to me. I could spend all weekend curled up with needlepoint and Law & Order reruns. When I felt over-worked, I’d declare an imaginary snow day—with imaginary snow so deep that I couldn’t even make it from the bedroom to my office down the hall. (Climate change is a bitch.)

But since I started building my webinar/writing coach brand extension, my work has definitely expanded to fill the time allotted. And since the time allotted is, with the exception of sleep, fairly infinite…playtime has taken a backseat.

I’m not burned out—been there once and did not enjoy the trip. I love what I do. I just do too much of it.

Every once in a while I remember that relaxation is good for business. (Ironically, that’s one of the topics I write about a lot for my clients.) And here, this article in Inc. backs it up with actual science: “Relaxing Makes You More Creative.” And  smarter, too. Who wouldn’t want that?

So playtime goes in my book this week. Meditation in the morning; relaxation at night. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even finish that shawl I’ve been knitting since July.

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?

How will you celebrate October 20th, National Day on Writing?

Q: How will you celebrate National Day on Writing on October 20th?
A: National say what now?

This Friday—October 20th—is National Day on Writing. Of course every day here at Bennett Ink is a writing day, as I blogged this summer. Still, I’ll take any excuse for a party, so I’ve been trying to figure out just how to celebrate with you.

Another writing challenge? Been there, done that. Will do it again in our regularly scheduled slot at the end of the quarter. But no, I wanted something different for us to mark the holiday.

I thought about sending you all out into the world with the same writing prompt, for the fun of seeing how differently each writer interprets it. But that didn’t feel quite right either.

Finally it came to me: A community writing project. Simple. Minimal time commitment. But potentially tons of fun. So announcing…

October 20th — the first annual Bennett Ink Community Writing Project

  • “Like” my Bennett Ink Facebook page
  • On the morning of October 20th I will post the beginning of a story on the Bennett Ink page
  • Click the comments to add your own sentence to the sentences that came before.
  • Visit the page as often as you like during the day to add to the story.
  • I’ll collect all the comments and publish our community story on the Facebook page on Saturday.
  • (I’ll also be monitoring the comments, so please flag anything you feel is inappropriate.)

When I was a kid, we used to take loooong car rides. Eventually the sun would go down and I’d have to stop reading. Occasionally, we’d play the group storytelling game. But with only my mother and I participating (my father focused on the road), surprises remained minimal.

So hop in the car and join us anytime at all on October 20th. And bring your friends. Let’s see what we can create together. And thanks to the preposition-happy National Council of Teachers of English for creating National Day on Writing and the glorious hashtag #WhyIWrite.

Let’s tell a story together on Friday!

Any good writing warm-ups? — Frequent Questions

Q: How can I get ready to write? Do you know any good writing warm-ups?
A: You mean like cracking your knuckles? I hear it’s really bad for you.

writing warm-upsSome writers sit down at a keyboard and start pounding out words like they’ve never stopped.

Others need some sort of ritual to get them in the right mood. Like runners, they want to warm up before they get to writing.

I’ll tell you what doesn’t work as a writing warm-up—reading Twitter. That’s what I did just before writing this blog post and of course I found something that disturbed my mental equilibrium. Don’t disturb your mental equilibrium before writing. Or ever, if you can manage it.

Writing warm-ups and rituals

I start and end my day by writing gratitudes. If you’re looking for something to write to warm you up for the “real” writing on your plate, you can’t beat gratitudes.

Or grab a writing prompt (or make one up yourself) and set a timer. It can be fun to write in a totally different genre than your “real” writing. Or write in the same style you’re warming up to write in, but write about an incredibly small detail.

For instance, if you’re writing about an IPO you might focus on the kinds of briefcases folks in the financial services industry carry. Or on the ritual of ringing the bell to open the New York Stock Exchange on the day the IPO goes live. Imagine it in super slow motion. The sound of the bell ringing. The bustle on the floor beginning. The celebration of the company’s representatives in the balcony overlooking the floor.

For an added twist, write up your business story in crayon. It’s hard to be serious and formal—the things people believe business writing requires—when you’re doing it with a magenta Crayola.

Have fun with your writing warm-ups. There’s plenty of time to get serious later.

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.

“…until it starts writing itself”—the mystery of creativity

“You never know what you’ll want to write until it starts writing itself in your head.”

"you never know what you'll write until it starts writing itself"Today’s wisdom comes from erstwhile sheep farmer and president of my alma mater, the elegant writer Jill Ker Conway. If you have not read her memoir The Road from Coorain, rocket it to the top of your reading list right this very minute. As a matter of fact, I think it’s time to buy the iBooks edition for myself and read it again.

“You never know what you’ll want to write until it starts writing itself…” This may sound like balderdash, especially to Type A types who never write a word until you’ve got an outline almost as detailed as a finished book. And it’s true, many successful writers make rigorous outlines. I’ll be blogging later this week about novelist Ken Follett, an inveterate outliner.

There’s nothing wrong with being prepared, but suppose the passage you’ve planned for Section 10 really wants to be the opening of the piece?

Leave some room for inspiration so when you get the idea, you can run with it. At least for a while. Unless you’re writing on a very tight deadline, what could it hurt?

“Writing itself” works in all genres

I heard writer MB Caschetta read from her short story collection a couple of days ago. She said that as she was writing one story she noticed that all of the female characters were named after her brothers. That’s what she said, they “were named”—not “I named them.” Even though she did—I mean, she wrote them into existence; who else would have named them?

Caschetta said she had no idea why the characters were named after her brothers,

“But I knew enough not to change it.”

She just kept writing and eventually she recognized what her subconscious had been doing.

Trust your instinct—whether you’re writing fiction like MB Caschetta or nonfiction like Jill Ker Conway. If it doesn’t work—so what else is new? Not everything we write works; that’s part of the drill. But if it does work, well, your work may be writing itself something magical. Something you wouldn’t have had if you stuck to the plan.

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.

Unexpected choices – Nancy Cartwright, actor

unexpected choices
Nancy Cartwright, photo by Ray Kachatorian CC BY-SA 3.0,

How do you get to be a creative person? You live in the moment, follow your instincts. Make unexpected choices. That’s how Nancy Cartwright, a fully grown female adult, ended up playing the role of a 10-year-old boy. A role she is still playing, 29 years later.

Yes, Nancy Cartwright is the voice behind Bart Simpson.

The producers had called her in to read for the role of Lisa, Bart’s younger sister. But the audition materials for Bart sat on the stand right next to Lisa’s. Cartwright read them and they resonated with her. The unexpected choice paid off.

I spent 90 minutes with Cartwright today, listening to her interview on James Altucher’s podcast, She told Altucher story after story about her career as an actress. Practically every one featured an unexpected choice that led to success.

Unexpected choices strike gold

And she’s a writer, too. The screenplay she and a writing partner worked on for something like 20 years has finally become a movie, In Search of Fellini. The New York Times called it “a charming drama”—but of course the first sentence of the review identified Cartwright as the voice of Bart Simpson. It’s loosely based on a real-life quest Cartwright engaged in, traveling to Italy to meet filmmaker Federico Fellini and convince him to sell her the rights to one of his movies. She wanted to adapt it for the stage.

I can’t tell you whether she succeeded in her quest—I haven’t seen the movie yet. But I can tell you that the stories she told revealed that making unexpected choices can yield gold. Like the first person she met in Italy—a homeless man feeding pigeons in a park. Cartwright chose to engage him in conversation (fortunately he spoke five languages, since she knew no Italian). And he turned out to have acted in one of Fellini’s films.

I think Cartwright’s stories struck a nerve for me today because I’ve been thinking about creativity and the courage it takes to follow through on it. I’ll be leading a free seminar on the subject at noon Eastern time today. Nancy Cartwright is a great example of someone who seems to embrace creativity at every turn. Even when she’s scared. Even when she’s doing something she’s never done before.

I’ll be recommending that my writers listen to the interview. Maybe you’d like to do the same. Oh, and join us at the webinar: Confidence & Creativity for writers & other human beings.

Living (and creating) while imperfect

Raise your hand if you’re imperfect.

Okay, put it down; you’re gonna need it to scroll through this post.

Most of us accept imperfections in our life:

  • The eyeliner on your left eye that never quite matches the line on your right.
  • The burned roast—but it’s only burned on one side; you can slice that right off. Or—hey!—become a vegan.
  • The attempt at parallel parking that…Well, do I really need to detail all the ways that can go wrong?

imperfectionWe park the car imperfectly and move on. Because we have to. Because if we futzed around until it was perfect we’d miss our lunch appointment…and probably dinner too.

Why can’t we do the same thing when our writing is imperfect?

So your writing’s imperfect? Join the club

No one writes well all the time. No one. I’ve said it before—many people have said it before, but none as eloquently as Ernest Hemingway, who opined:

Everyone’s first draft is shit.

And of course he was right. I mean, maybe one in a million people writes brilliantly right out of the gate. More likely that one in a million just thinks that—and they’re wrong.

So what do you do with imperfect writing?

You figure out how much time you can spend parallel parking it, and then you get out of the car—step away from the computer—and make it to your appointment on time.

Your appointment, in this case, is not lunch but your writer’s group, or your class, or your blog, or your supportive best friend who’s been writing for longer than you.

Get out of the car, no matter how badly you’ve parked it, and let another human being read your work. Yes, your imperfect, human work.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking

But maybe they’ll hate it.

And indeed, maybe they will. But did you ever consider this? Maybe they won’t.

You can try all the confidence-boosting tricks in the book—and I’ll be sharing some tomorrow on my free webinar “Confidence & Creativity for writers and other humans.”

But nothing—No. Thing.—can replace feedback from an actual reader.

I mean, that’s what you’re writing for, right? To be read.

Don’t be shy about it. It’s a perfectly fine goal, even for an imperfect writer like you. And me.

So make a commitment:

  • When you will share.
  • How you will share.
  • With whom you will share.
  • What you will share.

And then make like Nike: Just do it.

(And join us at the Confidence & Creativity webinar tomorrow.)