I’m working to shove self-consciousness into an ever-shrinking corner of my life. At the moment, it’s living in an AirBnB room in the Willits’ garage. Bathroom’s in the main house; not a fun place to be when it snows. Self-awareness, on the other hand, knocks on my front door at the oddest times. I’m always glad to see it, but usually surprised, too.
“Apparently,” I said to the VA candidate during our Zoom interview, “I do more than the average person.” She looked down and tried to suppress a laugh. Gee, I found myself thinking, maybe I really do.
Running two writing courses simultaneously while planning two others—and an end-of-year retreat; feeding the last five pieces of content into a 52-week curriculum; working with my corporate writing clients.
Oh, right—and writing for at least 15 minutes every day. (Today’s day 555!) Oops—yep, and keeping in touch with the folks on my mailing list four or five times a quarter. While always looking for ways to find more folks to keep in touch with.
Surely someone like Sir Richard Branson does all this before breakfast. While kite-surfing around his island.
Well, okay. I’m not going to stop doing what I do, but I will give myself credit for being more active than the average bear. That’s self-awareness.
Self-awareness requires company
Self-awareness doesn’t develop in isolation. You need people around you (or streaming to you over your WiFi) to hear your stories and mirror them back to you.
I went out to dinner with a randomly selected group at a retreat I attended last month. One of the icebreaker questions was something about “the most fun business event you’d ever attended.” I knew my story was cool—maybe I’ll write about it one of these days—but in telling it and seeing my dinner companions react, I realized for the first time that there was some “extraordinary” mixed in with the cool. I saw that it was a story about me as much as it was about the actual events. That’s self-awareness.
I can pick out a great story at 500 yards. With one arm tied behind my back. If it’s a story about someone else. Stories about me? I mean, I have a collection of client success stories, of course. But stories that demonstrate my own successes? The ways in which I shine? Oh hell no. I don’t tell those stories.
The event I talked about at dinner happened over 25 years ago; I think I’ve told it maybe once since then. And never to people I’d just met.
What’s your story?
That’s why I’ve created my end-of-year retreat, Write & Shine. We’ll spend a lot of time looking for those kinds of stories in ourselves. Everyone has them. And we’ll also look at telling other stories—because you can’t talk about yourself all the time. We don’t want self-awareness to morph into self-involvement, after all.
What stories are you not telling that you should be? Maybe it’s time to shine. And see your light reflected back through other people’s eyes.
Hallowe’en is (at least partially) about Fear, right? Good-natured fear. You know the toddler in the Dracula getup isn’t going to puncture anything more serious than the wrapped candy you distribute.
The fear that hits writers sometimes is like that, too. It’s not gonna kill you, so as the cliché has it that must mean it’ll make you stronger. But it’s so, so hard to remember that. To remember that all you need to do is keep putting one word in front of another. You may not be able to outrun your fear, but you can write yourself a path through it.
So I asked my writers this week to write about their fear. We looked at the conversation Elizabeth Gilbert shared in her essential book Big Magic; I couldn’t wait to see what this creative group came up with.
Gilbert sets boundaries with her fear: you can do this, but not that. I am in charge. One of my writers took a similar approach, but added a trio of enforcers named after personal growth qualities we all need. At the end of her piece, the enforcers escorted Fear outside “to have a talk.” Tony Soprano would have been proud.
Another writer could have been writing a movie script called Fear Takes a Holiday. Instead of calling in the goons to beat up Fear, she showed Fear what a good time looks like. Encouraged it to take a load off and hang out in the sunshine. You could almost see the piña colada in Fear’s hand, see the smile slowly dawning on Fear’s face.
Smiling Fear? Well, that’s no real fear at all. So whatever you fear, hand it an umbrella drink and show it a grand old time. It’ll never want to go home again.
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.
Today may look like just another Thursday to you, but to a handful of writers it’s a big freaking deal. They’ve been writing 90 days in a row (why not “writing for 90 days”? You know the answer: SEO). Yes, they have completed my second 90-Day Writing Challenge.
Ninety days in a row can be a pretty daunting commitment. I started my streak accidentally, but I still remember where I was when I hit 90 days, and how proudly I proclaimed it to the people I was with.
A dozen writers plunked down their money to join the challenge. As I write this on Wednesday night, it looks like only three will complete the full 90 days, with another two fulfilling their commitment of writing Monday through Friday for the 13 weeks.
The rest? Some of them never even started. One missed the full 90 by a single day—but to his credit, he picked back up and started writing the very next day. I have enormous respect for that. One of the reasons I’ve continued to write daily—even when I need to drag myself out of a sickbed to do it—is that I’m afraid once I break my streak, I’ll never recreate it. He’s well on his way, though.
What does writing 90 days get you?
What do my writers get out of the experience? Well, here’s what Harold Waisel told me today:
“I’ve learned a lot in the 90-Day Challenge. More story, less passive voice, trying to use more active verbs. And the more you practice, the better at it you get.”
“The more you practice, the better at it you get.” Exactly.
That’s one reason my Writing Unbound program lasts for 10 weeks. That’s more than enough time to solidify new habits, like writing every day. Yes, I ask participants to commit to 15 minutes a day, just like my Challenge writers. And just like me. (Day 520 on Wednesday Sept. 27th.)
I probably won’t run another 90-Day Challenge until sometime next year. It’s quite a—well—a challenge for me too, keeping track of who’s written, reading all the marvelous and inventive things they come up with.
But I will be running another 5-Day Writing Challenge December 26th-30th. That’s when all this craziness started last year, with the Jumpstart 2017 5×15 Writing Challenge, so it’ll be an anniversary. And I’m planning a great celebration.
I worked for 12 hours on Wednesday and 11 the day before. So Thursday rolls around and 6:30 looks a lot like quitting time.
C’mon, it’s quitting time. Quit! says the little entrepreneur on my shoulder. Which shoulder? The left one. Nope, that’s where the bad advice comes from.
Stop with the computer already, says my Canine Assistant, Fenway, jumping into my lap.
This is not a problem I’d encounter with a human assistant, I think. Okay, I’ll walk the dog. But then…
Seriously, Elaine, you need to rest sometimes. Ah, the reasonable voice. My coach, reminding me that I need a balanced life. And she’s right.
But am I quitting?
No. I’m not longing to quit because I deserve a rest. I want to quit because the next item on my to-do list scares me. And if I turn on the baseball game and grab my knitting, I can avoid pushing past my comfort zone for one more night.
So there I was yesterday morning slaving over a hot keyboard, when my CA (Canine Assistant), Fenway, started barking. Her workstation faces the big picture window, so I looked outside. Not a creature was stirring, to paraphrase Clement Clarke Moore, not even a chipmunk. But something seemed different, and then I noticed that the air seemed whiter.
Yep. Fenway was barking at fog.
She calmed down after a bit. And about half an hour later, the fog lifted. Cause and effect? Maybe to her.
To me it’s just wasted energy. And it reminds me of how often I do that. Traffic jams. Unsubscribes. Shortstops missing an easy double play. None of these things lies within my control. Yet I bark at them. Of course—it makes me feel better. Or does it?
Do you ever find yourself barking at the fog?
I’m going to try an experiment this week and not get angry about things I can’t control. A Buddhist would probably tell me that category should include everything. But I’m not that enlightened yet.
So if I get stuck in traffic—I’ll be grateful for GPS and podcasts.
If I some people opt out of my mailing list—I’ll…well, maybe focus on the growing number of people who do find value from it. If you might be one of them, click the button and I’ll send you a free gift.
“Quantity is how you get to quality.” I heard someone say that on a podcast recently—I’ll tell you more about that in a minute. But the quotation resonated with me because that’s the whole point of this blog. I was going to save this rumination for a milestone—maybe Day 500, which is tantalizingly close. But let’s eat dessert first, shall we?
I sell the daily practice to my writers by telling them that when you write every day, you increase your skills. And that’s true. But no one can turn out brilliant work every day. So in addition to teaching you to write better, a daily practice also teaches you to accept imperfection.
And—and forgive me if the point seems obvious at first—it forces you to write every day. Even when you think you haven’t got a single idea in your head.
If I weren’t committed to write every day, I might skip those uninspired days. But many of those “idea-free” days have produced some of my best work.
If I wrote, say, three days a week, those posts might be more narrowly confined to my so-called field of expertise—business writing. It’s much easier to turn out three posts a week on business writing than it is to turn out seven. But because I write every day, I wander out of my field and digress sometimes.
This—my most-shared post to date—began as a digression.
My “uncomfortable conversations” posts—part one and part two—those are personal stories. If I didn’t have the space to fill, you might not have gotten to hear them.
Write every day—quantity matters
I promised to get back to you about the quotation that set me off here—”quantity is how you get to quality.” That’s not an quote from the podcast guest, or from the original coiner of the phrase. It’s from prolific director and guy-who’s-made-my-skin-crawl-for-decades, Woody Allen. Increasing the skin-crawling factor, at first the only similar quotation I could find was about sex, from his movie Love and Death:
“It’s not the quantity of your sexual relations that count. It’s the quality. On the other hand, if the quantity drops below once every eight months, I would definitely look into it.”
“I’ve been working on the quantity theory. I feel if I keep making films, every once in a while I’ll get lucky and one will come out OK. And that’s exactly what happens.
That “quantity theory” is exactly what’s at work when you write every day. So write. Every day. You’ll be amazed at what happens.
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.
“Don’t look back. (You’re not going that way.)” Or, to translate into the preferred language of the SEO gods: “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
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.
Well, yes. And…? As your reader, why should I care about that? How does it relate to me?
“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.
As far as we know, Samantha Bennett and I are not related, but we’re both smart, funny, (and humble—can’t forget humble), and Steve Goodman fans, so I’m not ruling anything out. Originally from Chicago, Sam is a writer, speaker, actor, teacher and creativity/productivity specialist. She created The Organized Artist Company to help creative people get unstuck so they can focus and move forward on their goals. And she is the beloved author of two lavishly subtitled books: Get It Done: From Procrastination to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes a Day and Start Right Where You Are: How Little Changes Can Make a Big Difference for Overwhelmed Procrastinators, Frustrated Overachievers and Recovering Perfectionists (New World Library). —Elaine
You are an Upside-Down Duck
by Samantha Bennett
You know how ducks look so calm gliding along the surface, but underneath they are paddling like mad?
Sometimes I think you are the upside-down of that.
On the surface, you appear to be in chaos.
Too much clutter.
Can’t focus and don’t want to be hemmed in.
Dashing from one idea to the next.
Barely scraping by.
The people around you must feel like they are watching a high-wire act.
“Why doesn’t she just get a real job?” they wonder.
“Does everything have to be so emotional?” they sigh.
And you feel criticized and misunderstood and lonely and like you were born into a world that doesn’t have a place for you.
But I know the truth about you:
You are powerful beyond measure.
You have deep reserves of strength.
(After all, look at all you’ve survived…)
You have a light that is so bright—beyond the sun bright—you probably even got told to turn it down a bit.
(“You’re too dramatic, too loud, too big, too needy, too serious, too dreamy….”)
But just because you put your light under that bushel doesn’t mean it went away.
And as soon as you decide that it’s OK with you if your light shines into the world, you have some terrific opportunities. (Don’t skip over the significance of that decision: is it really OK with you if you get famous? Are you willing to lose a bit of privacy? Is it OK with you if you become more visible in the world?)
I’m here to tell you—there has never been a better time to be a teller of stories and a maker of things.
If you can wrap your head around the idea that the way you create is the way you succeed, you will become unstoppable. That is to say, you can create success in the exact same way that you create any other project. It can come from the same place inside of you. And it can feel as delicious as anything else you’ve ever made.
So what does that mean, exactly?
It means you can build a fan base by sending them love letters. Or by talking to them about Moroccan cooking. You can collect emails in exchange for a daily musing on reality television, or the work of Edward Albee. You can combine your talents and skills and put them on display to the world in a way that feels fun for you.
Here are a few examples:
A client of mine with a full-time corporate job was dreaming of starring in her own Oprah-style talk show. I told her to go outside right this moment and make a one-minute video about something inspiring and post it, and then do that every day. She took me at my word, and a year later she had several hundred short inspirational videos and a growing tribe of loyal followers.
Another client was a photographer who loved working in film (old-school film) and further, she realized that everything having to do with computers both annoyed her and aggravated her auto-immune disorder. So she began communicating with her clients and galleries strictly by mail, sending hand-written notes on lovely, creamy stationery. She became known as an exclusive, high-end, “artisanal” photographer, and now she keeps having to raise her rates because her schedule is always full.
I also had a client who simply could not get her marketing act together. She couldn’t finish her website, she didn’t like Facebook, she halfway started a podcast but then gave up….I was becoming concerned that her dream of empowering women and girls was going to end up in a dust heap of almosts-but-not-quites.
Finally I asked her, “What do you LIKE to do?” She said, “I like talking to people.” And it was true—she could strike up a conversation with a brick wall. So I said, “Fine. Do that. Spend at least one hour each day walking around places where people are gathered and have at least two conversations with strangers. Just see where it takes you.” Three days later she had talked herself into a meeting with the head of the local girls’ school to discuss adding her entire curriculum to their after-school program.
You are allowed to market your work your way. It almost doesn’t matter what you do—as long as you are doing something that lights you up and getting it out there.
Underneath your surface feelings of confusion, overwhelm, self-doubt and “sparkly thing” distractability, there is a calm, powerful knowing. Once you allow yourself to lean in to your strengths, your idiosyncrasies, and your desire to serve the world, you will get the opportunity to share your gifts in a bigger way.
You know that you have some very special skills that can really help people.
But you need to start making choices from your center of power and your inner wisdom. You need to lean in to your weirdness, your excitement and your nerdy-ness. Then you can stop relying on crappy part-time jobs and erratic windfalls. You can take control.
You can choose to live from your power, not from your chaos.
So quit thinking that you need to get all your ducks in a row, and instead embrace the odd duck that is so delightfully and unmistakably YOU.
Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join Elaine for her popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about growth.