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.


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Writing vacation — my week with the Willits

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

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

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

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

and the worst Willit of all:

Will it sell?

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

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

Writing vacation surprise!

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

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

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

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

Will it be acceptable?

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

No harm, no foul; no Willits.

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

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

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


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

Samantha Bennett: Upside-down duck

Samantha Bennett
Samantha Bennett, photo by Erica Clendenin

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

You are an Upside-Down Duck

by Samantha Bennett

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

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

On the surface, you appear to be in chaos.

Too much clutter.

Too busy.

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

Dashing from one idea to the next.

Barely scraping by.

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

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

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

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

But I know the truth about you:

You are powerful beyond measure.

You have deep reserves of strength.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does that mean, exactly?

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

Here are a few examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Too scared to show your work? It’s pseudonym time

When and how to show your work (and to whom) are some of the toughest questions writers face.

show your work (don't be Emily Dickinson)
Emily Dickinson

On the one hand, you don’t want to be Emily Dickinson, shoving your work in the desk drawer only to have it discovered after you die.

Can you imagine what would have happened if no one had opened that drawer? The Dickinsons could have sold the desk at a yard sale and maybe the new owner would open the drawer when she was painting the thing puce, to match her living room. Look at all this junk, she’d think as she threw away the musty pages. Or worse, she might have published them under her own name and adolescent girls everywhere would now be swooning over the poetry of Gladys Kowalski. I’m sure she’s a nice lady, whoever she is, but she’s no Emily Dickinson.

So don’t be an Emily Dickinson. Except for the brilliant writing part.

But what if you really don’t want to show your work? What if the challenge is less about revealing the work than about revealing yourself?

Then, my friend, you might want to consider a pseudonym.

Don’t show your work—show someone else’s

I mean, you should be proud of your work. It’s probably a lot better than you think (a supportive teacher and/or writers’ group could help you find that out).

But if the thing that’s holding you back is “What will people think about me?” or “Is this ‘off-brand’ for me?” or pretty much any other question that ends in the word “me”—then don’t show your work. Show Gladys Kowalski’s. Or George Sands’s. Or whoever’s. Emily Dickinsdaughter has a nice ring to it. (You’re welcome.)

A pseudonym does an end-run around the obstacles your brain has been so busy creating. Of course, once you’ve cleared that set of obstacles, your brain will create some more. But let Gladys or Emily can slip your work out of the house when your brain isn’t looking. You can always reclaim ownership later, if you want to. And if you don’t, no one will ever know.


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

Bravery and thanks

I got complimented for my “bravery” yesterday. I took a deep breath and said, “Thank you.”

Of course, that was the last thing I wanted to say. That “thank you” had to bubble up from under a thick layer of denial and deflection. Do you go through the same process when you get a compliment?

I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation between the compliment I got yesterday and the action I took today but I did in fact do something brave today. I asked for a favor. Several favors. Well, one favor from several people. And not just any people; I reached out to some rockstars.

The first rockstar I asked—a very busy person—hit Reply almost immediately, and didn’t just say yes to my request, she actually thanked me. For asking her for a favor:

bravery and thanks

Go figure. Rockstar #2 wrote:

bravery and thanks

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s two rockstars and four exclamation points. Ordinarily I’d say that’s much too high a concentration of exclamation points, but—hey—they were excited. That I had asked them a favor.

The bravery in asking for help

Writers have to be brave. But our bravery often consists of just ignoring the negative voices in our heads long enough to put words to paper or bytes on disk and send them out into the world. Again, despite the negative voices—some of which will show up outside our heads once we ship. As the old saying goes, “Everyone’s a critic.”

So I may be brave in some respects, but I still feel like the Cowardly Lion in many others. Not that that’s a bad thing—he’s got some of my favorite lyrics in The Wizard of Oz. But when I step outside my comfort zone, I am rarely disappointed. One of these days maybe I’ll remember that.

Okay, dammit. I’m contacting Rockstar #3.


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.

Lessons on Tyrrany — The Art of Charm podcast

I sampled a new podcast this week, The Art of Charm. The episode I listened to fascinated me, and although the guest was certainly charming, his subject matter was anything but. What’s a discussion of tyrrany doing on a podcast about charm? I don’t know, but I’m glad I heard it.

Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale, specializes in 20th Century Russian and Eastern European history. So he knows a lot about how societies descend into totalitarianism. He said,

“Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, and communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

To help that learning process along, he’s written a book—On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It’s priced to sell—under $4 as an e-book, under $7 in print—and if the book is half as informative as his conversation on the podcast, we need to get it into the hands of as many people as possible. In fact, just stop reading right this minute and listen to the podcast. It’ll take less than an hour of your time, and it might save your life. Or our country. Or both.

Snyder not only believes the slide toward authoritarianism has already begun in this country, he’s actually surprised democracy didn’t devolve sooner. He says the Founders expected the Republic would be challenged much sooner. While we’ve been lucky to escape authoritarianism in the past, our luck seems to have run out.

“We have people in the executive branch now who are indifferent and hostile, in fact, to democracy and the rule of law.” — Timothy Snyder

Snyder argues that we are on a steady path away from political life as we knew it. If you doubt that, see Vice.com’s “Trump Tracker” offers a running list of events and behaviors that defy the norms of political and social discourse. It’s a sobering, and head-scratching, read. The president’s bewildering behavior is one thing, but how can a third of the country—and nearly 100% of the Republicans in Congress—not care that Normal is shrinking to a speck in the country’s rearview mirror?

Can we do anything to stop the slide into tyrrany?

Yes, Snyder says. But we must act quickly. Get engaged politically—turn off your Netflix binge-watch and learn about the issues. Don’t just accept what the authorities say. Make up your own minds. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

And learn about the smaller acts you can take to stave off an authoritarian mindset. Talk to someone who’s not like you. Snyder says Jews in Germany in the 1930s wrote about their neighbors who stopped talking to them, people who used to be friendly and now crossed the street. Don’t let the authorities sow mistrust of any group—as they have started to do with people from Muslim-majority countries.

When you see a swastika—and I can’t believe I just wrote that phrase, but swastika graffiti is becoming more prevalent every day—wash it off, or paint over it. Don’t let signs of hatred become normal.

And don’t “obey in advance.” Don’t make decisions based on what you believe the authorities want, or might want in the future. Hold fast to your values.

The window for positive change is closing fast. Resistance has to hit in the early months, before an authoritarian regime has had time to consolidate its power. After that window closes…I don’t even want to think about it.

Listen to the podcast. Read the book. And do something before it’s too late.


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

How do you know if something is a bad idea? — Frequent Questions

Q: How do you know if something is a bad idea?
A: Have you tried asking it?

bad ideaSome days I think the definition of a bad idea must be any idea that originated in my head. I’ll bet you’ve had days like that too. Especially if you’re a writer.

But my answer above isn’t 100% snark. If the idea that seemed so promising when you wrote it down last night (last week, last year) seems somewhere between clichéd and imbecilic today—well, it might be. You could be seeing it clearly and objectively for the first time. Or maybe the moment of clarity happened when you created the idea, and you’ve just stopped trusting yourself in the interim.

So take that idea out for a spin. Spend 15 minutes writing about it. Outfit it with the best words you know how to create. Then wait. Close the file or put the papers in a drawer overnight. Look at it again in the morning. That old idea just might surprise you.

The way-ay-ting is the hardest part

Please notice that sentence in the previous paragraph—two words right about in the middle:

Then wait.

Whether you start with a bad idea or good idea, do not judge your first draft immediately after writing it.

That’s one of the key principles I talk about when I teach revision techniques. And even though my writers have heard me say it a million times, they still succumb to temptation.

Especially if you’re the kind of person who judges your work harshly—yes, I’m talking to you, Dear Writer-Who-Thinks-All-Your-Ideas-are-Bad—you need to get some distance from your work before you make any decisions about it.

You need to trust your instincts, but if your instincts tell you to trash every idea you come up with, you might need to recalibrate. Find a trusted friend, a teacher, someone whose writing you admire, and run the idea by them. Chances are, you’ll have a glint of a good idea in there somewhere. Just keep looking for it, as objectively as possible.


If you’re secretly attached to your files full of unfinished writing …if you enjoy collecting rejection emails…if you worry that effective marketing would generate too much income for your business DO NOT register for my VIP class on Revision.

Buddhist philosophy 2017: Plant the damn tree already

Buddhist philosophyIt’s Buddhist philosophy, right? That saying about the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, but the second best time is now?

As we might say in my ancestral homeland, New Jersey:

Plant the damn tree already.

I’ve run into it a number of times this week—people (myself including) lamenting action that we should have taken long ago. But at least we’ve taken now.

There’s my friend the networking expert Robbie Samuels:

“I still remember how stressed I was just a few years ago about writing a single blog post – after getting feedback from several people and deliberating for weeks I finally posted it. I then asked Dorie [Clark] what to do next. She said write another blog post. Ha!”

Now, with many blog posts—and even his own podcast—under his belt, Robbie is getting ready to launch his very first book into the world at the end of this month.

A book! From a guy who had to deliberate “for weeks” about one measly blog post. I mean, I’m sure it was a valuable blog post—but it’s a tiny percentage of the words he’s put out into the world since then.

Then there’s one of my own writers. She’s never had a problem producing work, and she’s shared many pieces for discussion in class and in our writers’ group. But she was 20 full weeks into her studies with me before she read her work out loud in class. Like most things we dread, it turned out to be much more rewarding and much less stressful than she’d feared.

I need that Buddhist philosophy myself

I’m not immune to this fear-crastination. (I couldn’t decide which was more appropriate—”fear” or “procrastination—so I’m going with both.) I could have planted a grove the size of the Amazon rainforest by now.

Take my email list. And it wasn’t even writing the emails: I was completely terrified of even choosing a list management service. Why? Not a freaking clue. But I researched that decision like I was choosing a neurosurgeon.

If you’re stuck in that place, I offer this loving advice:

Plant the damn tree already.

What’s the worst thing that can happen if you jump into action?

People don’t like what you have to say?

No one laughs at the funny parts?

I end up paying too much for my email service? Or too little?

Plant the damn tree. Yeah, you might not dig the hole at the exact right depth. The sapling may lean a little too far to the left despite your best efforts to straighten it.

Fuhgeddaboutit.

Your 20th blog post is always going to be way better than your first. And because Robbie finally planted that tree, he now gets to kill a bunch of them to publish his book. (But save a tree and read the e-book instead.)

I started collecting emails about 14 months ago and—hey!—they multiplied like rabbits. I’ll be moving them to a bigger digital hutch soon. And this time, I’m not sweating the decision.

I’m just gonna keep planting trees.


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If writer’s block isn’t real, why do so many writers have it? — Frequent Questions

Q: If writer’s block isn’t real, why do so many writers have it?
A: Because they think they should.

True story: I used to have a stereo whose sound cut out intermittently. Speaker wires coming loose or something. The problem persisted for a good long while. Annoying, but an easy fix: just jiggle some connections.

writer's block
Jacket design for the original London cast recording, released in the U.S. by RCA

One Saturday morning long, long ago, I was kneading bread, happily singing along to a record playing on the stereo. The original London cast album of Side by Side by Sondheim, if you must know. The first track finished and I waited for the next song to begin—”You Must Meet My Wife,” a slyly acerbic duet. Only…nothing. No sound at all.

The speakers must have cut out again, I thought. But I couldn’t do anything about it; my hands were covered in dough. So I resigned myself to kneading in silence. Then I realized that “You Must Meet My Wife” was not the second song on that side. It was another duet, “The Little Things.” And the moment I realized I’d been listening for the wrong song, I heard the music again.

It wasn’t the speakers that broke; it was my brain. Having decided which song I would hear, I became incapable of hearing the song that actually played. Once I adjusted my expectations, allowed myself to be in the moment, I heard the real song loud and clear.

I think writer’s block is like that.

Don’t pathologize writer’s block

I suppose I could have reacted differently to the blip in my hearing. If the internet had been around back then, I might have Googled “sudden hearing loss” and gone down a rabbit hole of diagnoses, each scarier than the one before. But I didn’t have the internet (or health insurance, for that matter), so I just chalked it up to a strange case of mind over matter. And filed it away as a metaphor that would surely come in handy some day.

Like today.

Maybe you have something think you should write—like the thank-you note to Grandma. Or something you’re scared of writing—like that semi-autobiographical novel. Or something you have to write—that unaccountably boring assignment from your client. I should state for the record that my clients’ assignments never bore me, but I can imagine that such things make the Muse run screaming in the opposite direction. And who can blame her?

Does that mean there’s something wrong with you? No, it means you’re a human being. A creative one. And there’s a reason Henry Ford didn’t put writers on his assembly line: we can’t turn out an unbroken stream of quality words every time the factory whistle blows.

Thinking, not knowing exactly what to write every time you look at your keyboard—they’re perfectly normal processes. Don’t pathologize a perfectly normal process. Because once you allow yourself to believe that “writer’s block” is real, it’ll come back again and again. And writing will become progressively more difficult.

Hear the music that’s playing

Maybe you’re listening for the wrong tune. So be present and try writing to the tune that is playing.

Set yourself a writing exercise. Write something irredeemably silly. Write something serious—but write it in crayon. And not the staid black crayon, either. I’m talking neon green.

Allow your pet rabbit to take over as guest author and write the next chapter from her perspective. Get out of your lane, get out of your head. And stop thinking it’s writer’s block. Because writer’s block doesn’t exist.


If you’re secretly attached to your files full of unfinished writing …if you enjoy collecting rejection emails…if you worry that effective marketing would generate too much income for your business DO NOT register for my VIP class on Revision.

Lawyers and letters, a writer’s tale of frustration

I don’t hate lawyers. Let’s be clear on that, okay?

But I do—well, not hate—feel really super-annoyed by anyone who’s afraid to say anything controversial. Anything.  It’s hard to write with a constraint like that.

Sometimes I’m blessed to write for someone with actual opinions about the way the world should work, and I write those opinions, and we’re both pleased with the results. This might change the world, we think foolishly.

And then it goes to—you guessed it—the lawyers.

And it comes back stripped of pretty much everything resembling an idea. Seriously. Sometimes I think if I wrote

“Moms like apple pie.”

The lawyers’ note would be:

“Don’t offend by leaving out the dads; also people who aren’t parents. Also, other fruits.”

lawyersA few good lawyers

Only once in all of my years of writing have I encountered a lawyer who understood what I was trying to do. He wasn’t a corporate lawyer, though—maybe that’s the difference. He wasn’t trying to imagine what the higher-ups might think; he was a higher-up—he  had the autonomy to make his own decisions.

I had drafted a white paper for my client. We wanted to reach journalists, to convince them of the merits of our client’s argument. And journalists, even more than regular human beings, appreciate good writing. Since, even more than regular human beings, they have to read so much that isn’t. But the client had also hired a lawyer; he needed to vet the draft.

Most of the revisions were fine—factual corrections, a couple of helpful word changes. The lawyer hadn’t messed with my argument too much. But he’d de-fanged my opening sentence. And I just couldn’t let that pass.

We all know how important first impressions are when we meet people. They’re even more important in writing.

In person if the first thing out of your mouth doesn’t grab someone, you may have a chance to redeem yourself with a witty second remark. But in writing, if the first sentence sucks, a reader doesn’t have to be polite and stick around for the second.

The lawyer and I traded a few emails, revising and re-revising that opening line. We even got on the phone together. I explained my reasoning, he explained his, and we arrived at a solution that suited us both.

That’s the way the process should work.

Sadly, it doesn’t often work that way. When the people vetting your draft are more interested in covering their asses than in communicating—I was going to write “chaos ensues.” But chaos at least has the benefit of being interesting. And most documents that survive risk review are not.


Writing is just the first part of the process. Revising—that’s the secret sauce that gives your writing zing. Join my free webinar on revising.