In case you didn’t know…#BlackoutTuesday

photo of James Baldwin, smiling
I keep thinking of James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.” There have been many “next times” since he wrote that essay, but perhaps we can make this time one of the last times.

I’m putting my megaphone aside today. It’s time—it’s past time—for allies to listen and learn.

So I am joining many people across the country to observe #BlackoutTuesday today.

Read a book. Engage in some activism. Donate some money if you can—or time and attention if you can’t.

Barking at the fog — lessons from Fenway

Fenway, not barking
Fenway at her workstation

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.

Keep in touch. Subscribe to Elaine’s Occasional Flashes of Brilliance.

And the shortstop? Hey, I’m past getting mad at the Mets’ defensive errors. We’re in “wait ’til next year” mode already. At this point, I’m just in it for the hot dogs.

Anyway, I’m going to be more intentional about staying in the moment and not wasting my energy on things I can’t control. How about you? Give it a try—and let me know how it works out for you.

Truth-telling, a life-changing skill

What did I do over my Labor Day break? I learned the art of truth-telling. Well, more about truth-telling than I’ve allowed myself to learn before.

Now, in business I’m scrupulously honest. But in real life, if you ask me how I’m doing, as the chipper waiter did last night, I’m likely to dazzle with you a smile and a very sincere “Great, thanks!” Why burden a stranger with whatever’s chipped my chipperness? What purpose could that serve?

It could serve to create a human connection, that’s what. And if that advice sounds familiar it may be because it’s advice I give you—oh—just about every time I talk about writing or speaking.

Taking my own truth-telling medicine

Well, I wasn’t feeling chipper Saturday night, so I decided to engage in some radical truth-telling:

“I’m not doing so well,” I said to the waiter. “I’m coming down with a cold.”

He took what he hoped would be an imperceptible step backwards (I don’t blame him) and asked what he could do for me. “There’s a chicken spaetzle soup on the room service menu, but I don’t see it here in the restaurant.”

He smiled and said, “I think I can get that for you.” And he did.

The receptionist at the hotel I landed at Sunday—Day 1 of Yep, It’s Definitely a Cold—took that to the next level. Before I’d even left his desk, he ordered up some chicken soup to my room—his gift. I’d no sooner set foot in the room when room service called to say the chef was whipping up some soup just for me and was there anything else I’d like. More blankets? Pillows? What kind? “If you need anything else, just call me direct because it’ll be faster than calling housekeeping.”

Do I feel taken care of? You bet. And would any of this have happened if I’d returned chipper with chipper? Of course not.

Truth-telling and asking, Amanda Palmer-style

Fortunately for me, I’d been passing my plane rides (5 in the last 5 days) by reading Amanda Palmer‘s wonderful book The Art of Asking. Seth Godin recommended it during his Marketing Seminar and he’s right (of course); it’s brilliant. A combination of Palmer’s autobiography and the things she’s learned as an artist and as a human about being vulnerable enough to ask for things.

I finished the book about an hour ago and I already want to re-read it. And I hardly ever re-read books—certainly not the minute I’ve finished them.

P.S. My dinner just arrived, piled with extras: ginger ale, Italian water, hot decaf tea. And no check. Extra pillows showed up shortly after that.

I’ve got one more thing to do before I crash: write a thank-you note to the hotel while I still remember my benefactors’ names.

Truth-telling won’t always get you a free grilled chicken breast. But it will get you a human connection.

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

Writing vs. crafting — “doing my autobiography”

writing vs. crafting —baseball editionSo there I am, watching a baseball game. I thought it was the Mets vs. the Nationals but the contest quickly turned into Writing vs. Crafting.

One of the announcers started talking about a long-ago incident and then explained, “It’s been on my mind because I’m doing my autobiography now.”

Anything strike you as odd about that sentence?

(I guess I gave it away in the title of the post.)

On the one hand, I’m grateful for the announcer’s honesty—as opaque as it is. Clearly he—like many a baseball player before him—has hired a ghostwriter. No shame in that. But that leaves us with this extremely odd sentence:

I’m doing my autobiography.

Stories about “doing” rather than “being” provide a much richer experience for your reader. But when I create those stories, the verb I reach for is “write.” I write blog posts, speeches, books. I don’t “do” them.

He could have said “I’m working on my autobiography.” That’s true enough, whether or not he’s writing every word.

Writing vs. crafting

I think I object to “doing” also because it somehow makes the act of writing sound like, I don’t know, building a cabinet. “I’m doing some woodworking in the basement.” “I’m doing some collaging these days.”

Is writing a craft? Well, I guess we call it that sometimes. I often craft speeches for my clients—yes, I use the verb to blur things. I don’t want to take too much credit for the words that come out of my clients’ mouths, even if I did write every one.

Playwrighting—I still remember the lecture my Playwrighting teacher gave us the first day of his class. It’s memorable not just for what he said but because it was pretty much the only thing even approaching a lecture that we heard for the rest of the semester. He very carefully explained the spelling of the thing we were about to undertake. That it’s “wrighting” not “writing” because we are crafting something.

But playwrighting is a participatory sport, at least once you get a director and a bunch of actors involved. Book-writing tends to be much more solitary. Unless, of course, you’re working with a ghost—and then the ghost puts in the bulk of the alone time.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with crafting. And nothing wrong with hiring a ghost—unless you lay all the blame on the ghost for your own mistakes. But please don’t “do” writing. Just write. Or work with a writer—either way, I’m happy.

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.

Musical gut-punch — song for a Sunday

I wrote yesterday about a piece one of my writers wrote that hit me like a gut-punch. (Okay, I wrote “punch in the gut” but SEO doesn’t like prepositions in keywords.)

gut-punchI’ve experienced many emotions in the theatre, but only one moment where I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. Seriously. When Patti LuPone sang “Rose’s Turn” in the revival of Gypsy she did—wow, was it 10 years ago?—my first reaction was a sound, maybe oof! The kind of sound I imagine you make when someone delivers a gut-punch. (I hope I never test this theory.)

I was so stunned—I think everyone in the theatre was—that it took a moment for my hands to find each other and begin clapping. This writer calls it “the greatest musical theatre moment I’ve ever experienced.”

When I left the theatre after the show, I called my partner. She asked, “How was it?”—not particularly caring one way or the other. So she was shocked when I burst into tears: “It was the most amazing performance I’ve ever seen. I could see this show every night for a week.” (This was before the production moved to Broadway; it was a very limited run at City Center.)

I came home and logged on my computer to find an email from a friend who had three tickets to Gypsy she couldn’t use and did I perhaps want to see the show?

I don’t know if you’ll experience the same gut-punch I did. But here’s your song for a Sunday.

Lessons for all of us in Ryan O’Callaghan’s retirement plan

Ryan O’Callaghan is gay. This being 2017, that sentence should hardly raise an eyebrow. But that’s not why I’m writing about him today.

Ryan O'Callghan
Ryan O’Callaghan playing for the Chiefs, photo by Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Ryan O’Callaghan used to play for the NFL—the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs. Okay, a gay man playing pro football, that’s surprising in some quarters. But that’s not why I’m writing about him either.

I’m writing about Ryan O’Callaghan because he had an unusual retirement plan.

As all of us are advised to do, he worked on this retirement plan diligently throughout his career. And so when Ryan O’Callaghan retired from football, his plan was ready to put into action: He planned to kill himself.

Because he’s gay.

And he couldn’t see how he could live as a gay man without the cover of being a macho, presumed heterosexual, football player.

It seems like a relic from some bad 1950s movie, but it’s not. A young man grew up in a small California town in the 1980s and ’90s believing that because he was gay, he had no other path than suicide:

“If you’re a gay kid and you hear someone you love say ‘fag,’ it makes you think that in their eyes you’re just a fag too,” O’Callaghan told Outsports on a recent visit to Los Angeles for his first-ever Pride celebration. “That got to me a lot.”

Ryan O’Callaghan’s pain

When injuries cut his football career short, Ryan O’Callaghan started abusing pain-killers:

“It helped with the pain of the injuries, and with the pain of being gay.”

He built a cabin in the woods and stocked it with firearms. He wrote a suicide note. And then someone with the Kansas City Chiefs suggested he see a counselor for his drug abuse. He was 27 years old and had never said the words “I’m gay” to another human being.

“All I had ever done was think how bad the reaction would be,” O’Callaghan said. “It takes a lot more strength to be honest with yourself than it does to lie. It took a while to build up that strength to even tell her [the counselor]. You have to build up trust with someone. Just telling her was like a huge weight off my shoulders.”

The counselor didn’t try to talk him out of suicide. But she did suggest an alternative:

Why would he kill himself before he knew if he had to? Why not come out to his family and friends and find out their reaction, then choose whether it meant he had to end his life?

So Ryan O’Callaghan came out.

[Excuse me, I need to get another box of Kleenex now.]

Gay…and alive

“Was it great at the beginning?” O’Callaghan remembered. “No. Did everyone totally understand what it meant to be gay? No. But they knew what my alternative was. I told people close to me that I planned on killing myself. So at that point, no one cared. They were just happy that I was alive.”

As he got more comfortable being open about his sexuality, he decided that he would have a “big coming out moment.” Inducted into the football hall of fame in the county where he grew up, he thanked his “significant other” from the stage. But this was 2014, not 1954—or even 1994. The gesture produced no outrage or surprise—in fact, it barely registered.

Lessons for all of us

Ryan O’Callaghan’s story shocked me. How can someone growing up in the the last 20 years not know about the successful and fulfilling lives so many LGBTQ people lead? How could he not know about the role models? About the support systems? But even with all the LGBTQ visibility in our world today, he didn’t. I’m equally shocked by the fact that this kind of life is possible and by the fact that I didn’t realize it’s possible—cossetted as I am in the liberal bubble of the East Coast.

When O’Callaghan came out to Scott Pioli, his former general manager on the Kansas City Chiefs, he thought the man would be shocked.

“People like me are supposed to react a certain way, I guess,” Pioli told Outsports. “I wasn’t minimizing what he was telling me, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. He built this up and built this up to the point where he said he was nearly suicidal. What Ryan didn’t know is how many gay people I’ve had in my life.”

O’Callaghan also didn’t know that, according to Pioli, he wasn’t the first gay NFL player whom his GM had counseled.”

I added the emphasis there. I mean, good for Scott Pioli for embracing O’Callaghan (literally) when he came out. But why didn’t Ryan know “how many gay people I’ve had in  my life”? Why didn’t Pioli come out publicly as an ally? Not to disclose the names of the gay men he’d counseled, but to say: There are gay players in the NFL, as in every profession. Why aren’t teams having conversations about diversity?

These conversations become even more important in the current climate, when hatred and prejudice have been unleashed across the country. And if Mike Pence and his fellow anti-LGBTQ ideologues ever get the power of the presidency, things will get much worse for us.

So if you’re an ally, speak up. Talk about the gay people in your life. And if you’re an LGBTQ person, speak up. If you don’t feel there’s a safe space to do that where you are, call a hotline and talk to someone. Get yourself out of the small-town mentality and find your place in the world.

We need you. Alive and thriving.

If you are a young LGBTQ person considering suicide, please reach out to the Trevor Project. Adults, talk to someone at LGBT National Help Center. If you’re an ally and you want to educate yourself about warning signs, see this resource page.

“Lordy!” — get sticky with colloquialisms

“Lordy,” indeed.

I didn’t have time to watch Jim Comey’s testimony live yesterday: I had to prep for the writing class I lead on Thursdays. And after that, I had to dive back into The Project That Ate My Week™, whose deadline looms tomorrow. (I’ll make it; I always do.)

But I have caught snippets of the coverage, read bits of news articles here and there. And one word sticks out for me—and apparently for many other people too:


It’s certainly not the most important thing the former FBI Director said. It won’t be a central feature of the future analyses written about this key turning point in American history. If there’s a future in which to write histories.

But it may just be the “stickiest”—most memorable—sentence to emerge from his testimony:

“Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”

Why “Lordy” matters

Think about all the ways Comey could have phrased that response:

“I certainly hope there are tapes.”

“I would welcome the release of those tapes, should they exist.”

Those are plausible examples of bureaucrat-ese. And boring as hell. Or as we can imagine Comey might say, “as heck.”

But “Lordy” takes the information out of the hearing room and puts it out in the real world. I was going to say “on the street” but that street would be somewhere in Mayberry. And that’s part of what makes it sticky. It’s somehow not of our world, so our brains hang onto it a little longer than they would a more familiar word. We turn it over, examine it from all angles. And in examining the unfamiliar word, we also hang onto the rest of the sentence: “I hope there are tapes.”

Of course, Comey was talking about the tapes that Tr*mp claimed to have of their private conversations. But when we get to thinking about those tapes, we can’t help but be reminded of those other tapes, the more salacious tapes the Russians are rumored to have. The more we think about tapes in connection with that man in the White House, the worse it is for him. And “Lordy”—lordy, lordy, we can’t let go of that word. And the tapes that follow it.

Straight from the heart

“Lordy” did not come from a lawyer or a communications consultant. It’s a colloquialism—informal language; it’s just the way people talk. Straight from the heart.

If you want people to listen to you, a communications consultant can help. But if you want people to remember you, speak straight from the heart. (And—shhh!—a great communications consultant can help there too.)

A well-placed colloquialism can have a lasting impact.

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.

TK — what to write when you don’t know what to write

Journalists have a great shorthand for “I have no idea what belongs here, but something does.” When they plan to add more information later, they type TK, a funky abbreviation for “to come.”

When my writers worry that they won’t have enough material to fill their 15 minutes a day, I tell them to sit down at the keyboard and type:

I have no idea what to write about.

And keep typing that sentence until one of two things happens:

  1. The ding on the timer signals the end of your 15 minutes, or
  2. You get an actual idea.

I’ve never had to employ this trick myself, but I suppose there’s always a first time.

Coming back from what passes for a vacation in my overworked life, I found it difficult to tap back into work mode. Perhaps because I tried to do it on a Saturday. Well, hey—I’d been away from my office for 10 days. I was supposed to stay away two more just because the neighbors call it a “weekend”?

So my mind kept saying TK.

And I couldn’t find my focus. No matter how hard I tried.

TK, transparency

Two things I refuse to do with this TK state:

  1. Call it writer’s block
  2. Hide it.

Writer’s block doesn’t exist. I’ve written about that enough already.

But not every idea is a good idea; not every piece of writing will be brilliant. Case in point, today: I’m about 80% done with this blog and a good idea is still TK.

Sometimes my writers express amazement that I  can write “so well” (their words, not mine) every day. Well, I don’t. I mean, hellloooooo.

Apologies to my readers who’ve had to wade through this. I thought about tossing this post in the digital trash, but I think we can extract some value from it.

When your idea is TK, focus on the C.

You don’t have to be perfect every time. In fact, you can’t—no one can. So just get it done. Get a C. And wake up again tomorrow and write some more.

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 can I learn critical thinking? Frequent Questions

Q: How can I learn critical thinking?
A: Don’t rely on other people for your answers. (Does that include me?)

I didn’t learn “critical thinking” when I was growing up. My high school would never have taught anything so pedestrian as that. No—but we did learn to think critically. I think the school probably saw that as its highest calling—far more important that stuffing our heads full of Shakespeare or frog-marching us through The Aeneid in Latin.

The school’s unofficial mantra, memorably drummed into us by one of our teachers, was:

“We worship at the Shrine of Text.”

Translation: Don’t believe what anyone else tells you. Go to the source—the primary source—and make up your own mind about it says.

What is a “primary source”? Thanks to the Ithaca College library for this definition:

A primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person, or work of art. Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, audio and video recordings, speeches, and art objects. Interviews, surveys, fieldwork, and Internet communications via email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups are also primary sources.

The other kind of source we rely on in forming opinions is a “secondary source”—again, from Ithaca College, and again my own emphasis added:

Secondary sources describe, discuss, interpret, comment upon, analyze, evaluate, summarize, and process primary sources. Secondary source materials can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else’s original research.

The world is full of secondary sources these days, and very many of those sources are full of—what’s that technical term? oh yeah—shit. So the first thing we need to do is figure out if the secondary source has any motivation to lie. Or, conversely, any incentive to tell the truth.

learn critical thinking

from an infographic created by

Learn critical thinking: Who said it and why?

Imagine an academic who claims he has evidence that Shakespeare was an alien from another planet. We don’t just say, “Well, he’s got a Ph.D.—he must know what he’s talking about.” No—look into his motivations.

Did he just write a book called Shakespeare, Phone Home? Do spiking his book sales and goosing interest in a movie adaptation give him motivation to lie?

Or maybe he really believes it’s the truth. That brings up another set of maybes: Maybe he’s uncovered revolutionary information; maybe he’s a nut-job. Sorry—a “Dr.” Nut Job.

How do we figure that out? We see if other credentialed Shakespeare experts will back up his story (though you have to think that’s a long shot). More likely, they’ll either expose his financial motivation or convince us that he wears tinfoil hat under his mortarboard. At that point, it’s up to you, the consumer of this news: Does his profit motive cloud the facts? Do his delusions disqualify him as an expert?

The 24/7 news cycle has sparked an explosion of secondary sources. As my Texan granddaddy used to say, “There’s more shit in the air these days than a cow pasture in a tornado.”

Well…My granddaddies were both New Yorkers. One never traveled west of Ohio, as far as I know; the other never made it past Brooklyn. And they would never in a million years have said “shit.” But it’s a good line, isn’t it?—as long as you don’t look too closely into the backstory.

And that pretty much sums up the state of much of the “news” we receive these days.

Keep asking questions

We must all learn critical thinking. And that means we must all become experts at asking questions.

Question the information you receive until you find media outlets you trust: media outlets that rely, to the greatest extent possible, on primary sources.

Look at whether the outlet has a vested interest in the outcome of the story, whether it relies on credible, credentialed experts. Whether its journalists—and their experts—back up assertions with actual facts. And in case you’ve forgotten:

“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.”—Merriam-Webster

After the November election, U.S. News & World Report published a story headlined “Avoid These Fake News Sites at All Costs.” The first six on the list are satire-based sites—as I pointed out months ago, the absurdities being committed by our leaders do make it harder to tell satire from facts. But U.S. News & World Report labels the majority of the other outlets on the list as “propaganda”—including InfoWars, a site that our current Republican president is known to rely on.

It’s probably too late for him to learn critical thinking, but there’s still hope for the rest of us.

The Global Digital Citizen Foundation put together a handy infographic of questions to help us learn critical thinking skills. You can download it here. And if you want to teach critical thinking skills to your children—that seems to be the sweet spot of the Global Digital Citizen Foundation—check out their simplified infographic. It ends with a reminder that applies to people of any age:

Knowledge is a journey you do over and over again.

The need for critical thinking never ends. Bon voyage!

Beef up your writing skills by writing every day. My next 5×15 Writing Challenge starts March 13th. Join us.

“Be in love with the process” — thanks, Barry Jenkins

Barry Jenkins
By AkaiAkai – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Picking up his Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for Moonlight, Barry Jenkins exclaimed:

“Be in love with the process, not the result.”

I’ve been catching up with the Oscars on my DVR (I was too sore to get out of bed last night to watch them live). It’s nearly 6:30 on Monday night and I didn’t have a blog written for—well, when you’re reading this it will be “today,” so—today. But a commitment is a commitment, so here I am at the old laptop.

I am definitely not in love with the process of healing from this operation I had five days ago. But like Mr. Jenkins, I am in love with the process of writing. And with the result, too: my 308-day writing streak (I’ll hit 308 as soon as I’m finished writing this). Sense of accomplishment, blah, blah. I’ve written about all of that before.

But I know that’s not the kind of result Barry Jenkins was talking about. He meant, don’t sweat over your laptops trying to write an award-winning screenplay: just write your truth.

“Just trying to drill down and get that right…If you create something that’s distinct and unique, you get a genuine, visceral reaction out of the person receiving it.”

Barry Jenkins offers great advice for filmmakers…and speakers

Even if you never write a movie—heck, even if you never see a movie—you’d do well to take Barry Jenkins’s advice seriously. Create something original. Create something true and your audience cannot help but feel and respond to your truth. Not with polite applause, but with a “genuine, visceral reaction.”

Visceral reactions stay with people—I still remember the visceral reaction I had to James Baldwin, the first time I encountered his words. I’d never heard anyone speak so bravely.

I’d seen the musical Gypsy at least five times before I saw Patti LuPone take on the role, and when she finished her big number in the second act, I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. Visceral reactions don’t get much more literal than that; I even emitted a small “oof” in the stunned silence after she finished.

I digress…or do I?

I saw the LuPone Gypsy nearly a decade ago; my James Baldwin memory is about three times as old. But both made an impact on me; both remain fresh. When you speak your truth, when you convey honest emotion, you give people the most precious gift possible.

Would you like to write like that? Would you like to leave that kind of emotional legacy when you speak?

Just listen to Barry Jenkins: Love the process. Drill down as deeply as you need to do to get it right. Not because you’re aiming for any accolades; just because you honor yourself and your audience enough to do the best damn work you can, every damn time.

Start your own process—or get some support for an ongoing writing streak. My next 5×15 Writing Challenge starts March 13th.