“Not real writing”? If you really wrote it, it’s real enough.

“I’m sorry if this is not real writing…”

real writing One of my writers began her latest post with that disclaimer. What followed was not only real writing, it was spectacular writing. The best she’s done to date. Detailed, evocative. She put us right in the scene, all but allowing us to shake her subject’s hand.

So what is “real writing”?

If you pick up a pen or sit down at a keyboard and the movement of your fingers produces words, you are writing. Really.

She described her piece as more like journaling. Which—to be clear—also meets the definition of “real writing” I set out in the previous paragraph.

Journaling—I wonder if that’s why my writer decided this couldn’t be “real writing.” No one sweats over a diary entry, right? You don’t care what you write because you’re the only person reading it. (Unless you grew up with my parents, but that’s a story for another time.)

Journaling can be like morning pages—you just sit down and let the words tumble out.

And that is some of the realest “real writing” you can do.

Real writing and trust

Have you read Anne Lamott‘s book Bird by Bird? It’s one of those books that presents me with something new every time I open it. Like this—which I re-read only last night, just in time to support my “real writer.”

“You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories walking and woolgathering, tramping the hills, romping all over the place. Trust them.”

Because my writer thought she was journaling, the anxiety and self-doubt fell away. And all that was left was the story and her keyboard, with her fingers as intermediary

The ease my writer experienced—that’s the promised land for writers. We don’t get to go there every time, and sometimes our trips are maddeningly brief. But when we’re there we should celebrate. After we’re done writing, of course.


wRite. Rest. Then Revise. Learn how in my new program “The 6 Rs of Revision.” A half-day intensive on Saturday July 22nd with three private coaching sessions, scheduled at your convenience.

How do I know I’m a good writer? — Frequent Questions

Q: How do I know I’m a good writer?
A: Have you read the internet lately?

good writerI read a lot. More than the average person, though perhaps less than my most brilliant friends.

But all that time with my nose buried in a book (hmm…that metaphor doesn’t work as well in a digital world) my iPad has taught me one thing: there are all kinds of writers out there. And forget about self-published writers—some of the work being put out by major publishing houses would have barely gotten a 73 at my high school.

We fetishize published writers. But just because some company gives a writer an advance and slaps their work between hard covers before refusing to spend a dime to publicize it…Sorry, where was I? Right: Just because a writer scores a publishing contract doesn’t mean the writing is any good.

Read. Read widely. You’ll see what I mean.

Some writers encrust great ideas in so much turgid prose that you need to spend 20 minutes chipping it away before you can begin to see the dim outlines of the argument. Yet those writers get published. Others write clear, breezy, amusing prose that’s utterly devoid of ideas. They get published too.

I’m not naming names—God knows, someone could mine this blog for plenty of examples of less-than-stellar prose. But I will be using some published passages in my upcoming master class on revision. (You can get a taste of it in a free webinar on June 21st.)

A good writer ships

So if you find yourself making a distinction between yourself and “real” writers (and we both know when you say “real” you mean “published”)—stop. Just stop.

You know what the difference is between you and the “real” writers? They shipped. They shoved their work out of the nest. They shared it, opened themselves up for criticism, yes. And also for praise. Undoubtedly, they deserved some of each—most of us do.

So how do you know if you’re a good writer? You write. You revise. You ship. And then you listen—to people you trust, to people whose writing is as good as or (preferably) better than yours. And you revise again.

But put your work out in the world. Especially if one of your trusted advisors says it’s time.

You’re probably a better writer than you think you are. Better, even, than some “real” writers. So go ahead—ship it.


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Ideas and the ineffable: Fran Lebowitz on writing

ineffable
Fran Lebowitz in 2011. Photo by Christopher Macsurak, Creative Commons license

Twenty-four years ago, The Paris Review published an interview with writer Fran Lebowitz. It’s a veritable cornucopia of blog ideas.  I’ll start with this passage, a perfect example of what makes the creative process so ineffable—and also, sometimes, so infuriating to those of us who lack patience (I’ve changed the formatting to make it easier to read):

Lebowitz: …For one month I went everywhere—to map stores, bookstores, looked through catalogs. Then I went to every kind of weird library—to specialty libraries and businesses that had their own libraries.

Interviewer: What were you looking for?

I didn’t know. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been so catholic in my wanderings.

But why maps?

Maps.

You thought that the key to unlock your problem was in a map?

There’s this Rand McNally store that has every kind of map and map book. I spent an entire workday there. I went out to lunch and came back. I thought maybe a key to a map might be of use to organize the chapters. Of course that didn’t work out. After a month I couldn’t find anything. But I decided that was all right, that I had absorbed all this information, and what I needed would just come to me, pop into my mind. And it did.

That last part bears repeating:

I decided that … I had absorbed all this information, and what I needed would just come to me, pop into my mind. And it did.

Fran Lebowitz and the ineffable

That’s the ineffable thing about writing. Maybe about all types of creating, but I can only attest to the writing part. Ineffable—Dictonary.com describes it as more than indescribable; the second definition is “not to be spoken of because of its sacredness.” And that’s about right.

When you leave yourself open to ideas, ideas will find you. Maybe even the right idea.

So Lebowitz did her research, trekked from library to library, spend a month in a map store and “decided that was all right” (I would have decided it was “alright,” but I don’t edit The Paris Review). She trusted that the idea she needed would show up. And it did.

Well, sort of. To be continued…


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.

How does a writers’ group work? — Frequent Questions

Q: How does a writers’ group work?
A: With or without wine?

When the folks in one of my writing programs asked for a writers’ group, I happily obliged. But with participants scattered from Paris to Vancouver, the drinks and snacks are strictly BYO.

Still, it worked so well that after the first meeting—which I’d imagined happening monthly—they determined to meet every week, alternating weekdays and Saturdays to accommodate people’s schedules.

So what makes a writers’ group tick?

The first three things you need to create and sustain a successful writers’ group:

  1. Community
  2. Contributions
  3. Respect

You need people to show up regularly so you can establish a community.

You need those people to show up prepared to share their own work.

You need those people to show up prepared to respect their fellow writers’ processes.

Community

Some people think you can’t have a successful writers’ group online. I think that depends on how you create it.

Take a dozen random people from a Facebook group and ask, “Hey! Do you want to start a writers’ group?” and you’re likely to have a lot of attrition.

But my writers aren’t a random collection of people. They’ve worked together, through five-day writing challenges; through my 12-week writing program; through the first third of my 90-day writing challenge, which started April 1st; and—for a select few—into a second 12-week writing program, a master seminar that kicks off tomorrow.

Contributions

The daily writing challenges have their own accountability system built in: Finish the challenge and your registration fee goes to a worthy nonprofit. Don’t finish the challenge and I keep your registration fee.

And when people apply for my writing programs, I ask them to commit to writing for 15 minutes a day, every day.

So I’m confident in my tribe: they’re not just “writers”—they write. So I knew I could count on them to contribute to the writers’ group. Besides, they asked me to create it. I don’t think you can find a better indicator of commitment.

Respect

During the first 5-day challenge, at the end of 2016, I was amazed at how quickly this group of writers on four continents coalesced into a supportive community. Part of it may have been my decision to have them make only positive comments when people posted their work in our Facebook group. I didn’t want any drive-by criticism—trash somebody’s work and disappear in a cloud of smoke. But I think the bulk of it is that they’re just good people. Open-hearted, creative people who recognize that it’s a privilege to write within a community of other open-hearted, creative people.

With the 90-day Challenge and the 12-week programs, I opened the door to constructive criticism. Three months is long enough to get to know someone—to know whether to accept their comments, think about them for a bit, or disregard them.

So, yes, I think it is possible to run a successful writers’ group virtually. We use Zoom, so we can see each others’ faces, and I think the writers feel connected to each other. I know they value the feedback they’ve been getting.

One rule to, um, rule them all

(Sorry about the attempted Lord of the Rings pun. Okay—obviously not sorry enough to delete it.)

Whatever kind of writers’ group you create—whether you’re slouching on a sofa in someone’s living room or sitting at your desk with the webcam on—the most important thing to remember is to respect each others’ process. I learned this back in college, when I took the inimitable Len Berkman‘s Playwrighting class.

Pretty much the only instruction Len gave us was this:

Talk about the play the writer wrote, not the play that you think they should have written. Not the play you would have written. Just talk about on the work they’ve done.

I think if you get a roomful of people who can do that for each other, you’re golden. And it doesn’t matter where they are or how they come together. It only matters that they’re working, helping each other grow.

And that’s a beautiful thing.


Follow Every Damn Day on Medium to see some of my writers’ best work from the challenges and classes. Leave your email here if you’re interested in joining the next 5-day writing challenge, starting June 19th.

Talking blue (and red) – practical advice in Robb Willer’s TED Talk

“Blue language” usually means swearing. Why? Not even Slate knows, though this article “Sacré bleu! Why is blue the most profane color?” offers some historical tidbits. But these days “talking blue” might describe a liberal’s inability to communicate with a conservative. You can articulate the liberal worldview until you’re blue in the face, but if the person on the other side of the conversation holds a conservative worldview, you will never understand each other.

Talking blue to your mirror

Or as social psychologist Robb Willer says,

“…when we go to persuade somebody on a political issue, we talk like we’re speaking into a mirror. We don’t persuade so much as we rehearse our own reasons for why we believe some sort of political position.”

That’s from his TED Talk “How to have better political conversations.” Have a listen and learn how to use “moral reframing” to step away from the mirror and begin the process of connecting with people more challenging than your reflection.

Like George Lakoff, Willer sees partisan messaging as rooted in different core values:

“…liberals tend to endorse values like equality and fairness and care and protection from harm more than conservatives do. And conservatives tend to endorse values like loyalty, patriotism, respect for authority and moral purity more than liberals do.”

You may recall the line in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings. Well, every time we frame an issue in terms of “fairness and equality”—talking blue—a liberal angel loses its wings.

If we want to reach conservatives, we have to stop talking blue
A screenshot from Robb Willer’s TED Talk

I get it: To me issues like LGBT rights are unquestionably about fairness and equality. And I don’t have to abandon that belief—but if I want a Conservative to hear me, I’d do better to talk about how it’s also an issue of patriotism. “We don’t treat people differently in this country; we don’t interfere in people’s bedrooms; that’s not what Americans do.”

I don’t know. I haven’t got all the answers. But Willer’s argument made me shout “D’oh!” and hit my forehead. We need to replace shouts with conversations; we need to replace contempt with empathy; we need to replace disdain with respect. And yes, both sides need to do this. But the more we embrace empathy and respect, the more the other side will as well.

So how do you do that?

Notice the way Willer combines liberal and conservative language at the end of his TED Talk:

“So this is my call to you: let’s put this country back together. Let’s do it despite the politicians and the media and Facebook and Twitter and Congressional redistricting and all of it, all the things that divide us. Let’s do it because it’s right. And let’s do it because this hate and contempt that flows through all of us every day makes us ugly and it corrupts us, and it threatens the very fabric of our society. We owe it to one another and our country to reach out and try to connect. We can’t afford to hate them any longer, and we can’t afford to let them hate us either. Empathy and respect. Empathy and respect. If you think about it, it’s the very least that we owe our fellow citizens.”


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Trust yourself, trust your ideas: How to move forward

“What advice would you give your teenage self, as you were about to graduate from high school?”

I’m used to hearing this question asked of “your 30-year-old self,” trust is the only way to move forwardbut in this case my questioner was only 16. She was looking for advice she could use now. So I told her:

“Trust yourself.”

That’s actually the same advice I would give myself today. (I’m working on being smart enough to take it.)

Master speaking coach Victoria Labalme offers much the same advice in her TEDx talk:

“Trust the idea that leads to the idea.”

I love this. It acknowledges that not every idea we have will end up being worth pursuing. But every idea has the potential to lead us to another idea, and another, and eventually we’ll hit on one that resonates. All we need to do is trust in the process.

Trust -> Risk -> Move (Repeat)

Just about everything we do involves risk. But if we thought about it that way, we’d probably never get out of bed. (That has risks too, especially if you have a dog waiting for you to open the front door.)

Labalme encourages us to recognize that although we may feel unsteady, we have the capacity to move into the world “heart open” and do something we cannot do with the covers pulled over our heads: Live full and fulfilling lives. All we have to do (No, that really deserves quotation marks.) “All” we have to do is trust that the choices we make in the course of that living will lead us to wherever we need to go.

Simple.

No, of course it’s not simple. Not when every moment, every thought, every action provides an opportunity to second-guess ourselves.

So as new year approaches, I’m working to embrace the choices I’ve made. You might like to try that too; you never know where it will lead.

And since I’m a writer, I invite you to celebrate and embrace the writing you do. It may only be 15 minutes a day—as the folks working with me in Jumpstart 2017: The 5×15 Writing Challenge have committed to. (Today’s their first day; give them a virtual high five.)

The first draft might be rough, but that’s the job of a first draft. The idea might not be exactly right, maybe the perspective is off. Maybe all it needs is a little adjustment. Or maybe—and you can decide this after you set it aside for a day or two and return with fresh eyes—maybe it really isn’t a great idea. But maybe, as Victoria Labalme suggests, this idea will lead you to a great idea. All you need to do is keep following the breadcrumbs. Whether you like what you write or you hate it: Keep doing it.

And enjoy the journey. At least you’re moving. Which is, my scientist friends will confirm, the only way to go forward.

Word power – What we say really does matter

Horsepower drives our engines; word power drives our minds.

More evidence from social psychologist Robert Cialdini’s invaluable book Pre-Suasion that the words we use have power to shape other people’s thoughts and actions. We can use that power, as the saying goes, for good or for evil and I hope my readers always choose the former.

Early in the book, Cialdini describes research that discovered a woman will more likely give her phone number to a stranger on the street if a different person approaches her first to ask directions. When the direction-seeker asked to find “Valentine Street,” it seeded the idea of romance in the woman’s mind. The “Valentine Street” women proved much more likely to give out their phone numbers than women asked directions to another street.

I’m used to writing persuasively; that’s my job. But Cialidini shows us that persuasion doesn’t require an entire paragraph. Not even a whole sentence. We can begin the process of persuasion—subliminal persuasion—with just one word.

Word power & electricity

Skeptical? Cialdini was too. So much so that when he encountered a client who asked him not to talk about “bullet points” or “attacking” problems in a speech he was preparing, he thought the client supremely silly.

But the client explained:

“As a health care organization, we’re devoted to acts of healing, so we never use language associated with violence. We don’t have bullet points; we have information points. We don’t attack a problem, we approach it.”

Cialdini complied with the request to modify his language. And then he took a deeper dive into the research.

One study he found asked participants to unscramble words to make simple sentences. One group’s sentences were geared toward helping: “Fix the door.” Another group’s revolved around aggression: “He hit them.” Later, each participant was asked to deliver electric shocks—whose intensity they controlled—to a fellow study subject. Cialdini reports:

“The results are alarming: prior exposure to the violence-linked words led to a 48 percent jump in selected shock intensity.”

How powerful are words? Ask the guy on the receiving end of those shocks.

Speak responsibly

We can’t stop using words, but we can stop using words that inflame the audience—consciously or subconsciously. The words we use can unite or divide. They can foster respect or destroy it. Be aware of what you say, what you write. Use your power for good.

Trust. Essential for clients…& citizens

Trust, like DNA, is an integral part of our lives. We trust that the little green piece of paper with Alexander Hamilton’s face on it will actually buy us $10 worth of goods. We trust that citizens will obey the law—and that the people who make those laws have our collective best interest at heart.

Trust also plays an essential role in creativity. When I write a speech for a CEO comparing careers to aerosol cans (“contents under pressure” in both cases), I trust that he’ll at least consider the idea. And if he doesn’t like it, he’ll give me another crack at the speech—Draft Two.

But if he does like it (and he did), then maybe somewhere down the road, I’ll come up with an even crazier idea. And he’ll find himself giving a speech that opens with a business school-type case study—taken right from the plot of The Sound of Music.

Without faith in your writers? That’s a recipe for boring communications. You rehash the same old talking points in the same ways. Zzzzzz.

Now, I’m not saying to trust anyone with a laptop and a dream to write you a speech. Ronald Reagan used to love quoting an old Russian proverb: “Trust, but verify.” (Remember when Republicans mistrusted Russia?)

Trust and Alice Cooper

And that brings me to “the godfather of shock rock,” Alice Cooper. He gained fame in the 1970s for his outrageous persona; this year, though you may have missed it (I did), he mounted a presidential campaign.

Tim Ferriss interviewed Cooper’s manager Shep Gordon recently. Gordon told some entertaining stories of trying to drum up publicity for Cooper in the early days. At one point, he convinced his client to enter a stadium concert by being shot out of a cannon. Gordon alerted the media and the concert sold out.

Only problem: every rehearsal of the stunt flopped spectacularly,

This man understands trust. (But don't vote for him)
graphic from alicecooper.com

and they were running out of time. The press would be covering the final dress rehearsal, the night before the concert.

Gordon says, “Now this is a time when most managers and artists would be choking each other to death.” But Cooper just asked, “Can you cover it?” And the manager stayed up all night thinking.

At the dress rehearsal, Alice Cooper climbed into the cannon as scheduled. But the cannon exploded, so instead of filming him flying across the stadium, the TV cameras showed him being loaded into an ambulance and sped to the nearest hospital.

A while later they announced that Cooper insisted on doing the concert the next night. Gordon says:

“We did the show with him in a wheelchair. And nurses, doctors, giving him plasma. Nothing happened to him; it was all a setup. But the front page of the paper was how great Alice Cooper was. What other artist in the world would come and do a show for his audience in a wheelchair?”

Gordon concludes: “So out of that failure came even a stronger bond.”

“Failures are almost more important than the successes.”

Failure and success “are tied so closely together in the creative world,” Gordon says. “You need to allow [people] to fail or they’ll never really win.”


Do you have the courage to fail? Don’t worry—not many people do. But you can discover more about it during my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate.” Wednesday November 30th at 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific.