Fear & Flight—a writer’s perspective

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Many of us read his gorgeous writing as children—he wrote The Little Prince. But Wind, Sand & Stars is not a fable, it’s a 1929 memoir of his youth as an air-mail pilot, flying the mails from France to Africa, or across the sea to South America—back before radar could show you that mountain you needed to steer around, back when you had to radio an airport to flash its lights three times so you could see where to land. Not an easy job.

cover of Saint-Exupéry's Wind, Sand and Stars

I’ve seen several sources cite Wind, Sand and Stars as one of those must-read books for any writer, and not even a quarter of the way through it, I have to agree. Here he’s talking about the reactions when his colleague Mermoz radioed that he was cutting off an engine. Ten minutes went by with no contact:

“It would be ridiculous to worry over someone ten minutes late in our day-to-day existence, but in the air-mail service ten minutes can be pregnant with meaning. At the heart of this dead slice of time an unknown event is locked up. Insignificant, it may be; a mishap, possibly: whatever it is, the event has taken place. Fate has pronounced a decision from which there is no appeal. An iron hand has guided a crew into a sea-landing that may have been safe and may have been disastrous. And long hours must go by before the decision of the gods is made known to those who wait.”

English translation by Lewis Galantière

Before this passage, Saint-Exupéry treated us to detailed descriptions of the many times Mermoz had escaped certain death: he’d been captured and held for ransom by an African tribe; forced down in the Atlantic and rescued by a passing freighter; stranded for two days on a 12,000-foot high mesa in the Andes. Surely this would turn into another of those triumphant stories.

“But the hands of the clock were going round and little by little it began to grow late. Slowly the truth was borne in upon us that our comrades would never return, that they were sleeping in that South Atlantic whose skies they had so often ploughed. Mermoz had done his job and slipped away to rest, like a gleaner who, having carefully bound his sheaf, lies down in the fields to sleep.”

How can a few dozen words make you care so much about someone you’ve never met? But I feel the loss of Mermoz, don’t you?

And actually, it’s Mermoz more than Saint-Exupéry who inspired me to write today. He braved the skies and risked his life every day. On more than one occasion, he came close to death—yet he continued to fly until death overtook him. He flew because he loved it.

Fear & writing

Mermoz’s story reminded me of Agnes, a woman I worked with for a bit. Faced with an unplanned career transition, she decided she wanted to be a writer. Yet she didn’t write.

I suggested that she enroll in my writing class, but she believed she couldn’t afford it. Instead, she opted for a program that offered analyses of great pieces of writing—more an intellectual how-to than a hands-on DO IT. And even though she received a writing prompt every other week through that program, she never posted any work. Strange for someone who claims to want to write professionally, eh?

When we talked, she rationalized all the busy-ness of her life that prevented her from sitting down to write. Yet she continued to say she wanted to be a writer. Who was going to win that battle—Agnes or her fear? So I made her an offer: she should take two weeks to write something—anything—and show it to me and I would give her a free coaching session to discuss it.

Ten days later she told me she couldn’t do it. Agnes, like Mermoz, was lost.

The difference that is by facing his fears, Mermoz was able to pursue his passion. Agnes succumbed to her fear without even trying. The other difference, of course, is that writing is a much safer endeavor than flying a 1920s-era airplane. Paper cuts and maybe carpal tunnel are pretty much the worst you can do—and neither of those will force you down in the South Atlantic.

Mermoz died doing what he loved; Agnes wouldn’t even allow herself to try.

Which one are you?

“Shockingly expensive” — truth in marketing

“The Shockingly Expensive Meal Program Worth Every Penny”

That’s the headline of the ad that appeared in my Facebook feed recently. Well, actually it said “Worth Every Pe…” but we all know how it ends.

shockingly expensive food

This company knows who its target audience is—and it’s apparently not bargain-hunters.

The people who buy this stuff pride themselves on spending lots for meals. And—hey—if it’s “worth every pe…” I might not care if the food is “shockingly expensive,” though I will balk at $400 angora throws or $200 dog collars. (Sorry, Fenway.)

Everybody has a price range for everything. It just depends on what you value.

Shockingly expensive — and truthful

Still, you have to admire that marketer’s guts, right? “Shockingly expensive” are not words you often see in advertising.

In a world where you can buy an online course for $59, my writing programs may seem “shockingly expensive.” Even my self-directed revision course costs nearly $900. But, yes, I think it’s “worth every penny.” And more. Heck, it’s not just a bunch of videos—you get actual, one-on-one coaching with me. Where are you going to find that for $59?

And my 12-week writing program requires an even bigger investment—in money and in time. I want to weed out the dilettantes, the people who have a passing thought that “Gee, it might be fun to write more.” The people who start writing for fun often balk when it becomes actual work, as it sometimes must. When people invest in working with me, I want them to be committed, to do the work, and to experience real change.

If that sounds like you—and if you’re ready for a “shockingly expensive” personal growth experience that’s “worth every pe…”—check out my Draft to DONE program.

I can’t promise you a puppy in your arms as you savor your avocado toast. But I can promise to get you thinking in new ways—and to show you how transform your writing from good to great.

Are you a skater, too?

I used to be a world-class skater.

revise

Not an ice skater — I’m far too uncoordinated for that. No, I skated on my writing assignments, handing in first drafts all through college.

And I got by. People even called me a good writer. I always translated that secretly as “good enough.” Because I suspected I could do better. But what if I was wrong? Better not to waste the energy trying to revise only to find out that “good enough” was really, truly, the best I could do.

I didn’t begin revising until I became a professional writer. My clients gave me notes about things they wanted to add or change; I incorporated them and started tweaking another word here, a phrase there. Then reordering paragraphs, changing the structure—revising. And I saw that “good enough” could become “good.” And even “great”—great enough to win awards.

Find your “great”

You know it’s true: second thoughts make a better first impression. Like me, you probably suspect you can do better the second (or even third) time. And you’re right.

So how do you learn the fine art of revision?

First, find yourself some clients. Make sure they’re picky and change their minds frequently. Then spend years chasing their approval as you try to teach yourself what works and avoid what doesn’t.

Or—and maybe this is easier—invest some time with me.

I’ve put together a program to help you discover how to enjoy revising—as your work gets better, right before your eyes. If you’re interested in getting more information, sign up here and you’ll be the first to know when I release it.

Overdrawn at the word-bank

scrabble tiles - overdrawn at the word-bank

I love my job, I love my life; I love writing. When I write my daily list of things I’m grateful for, writing/creativity sometimes even bumps Fenway from the top spot. (Don’t tell her.)

But for the past six months or so, I’ve been working on a project for a client who passed the draft along to a Higher Authority. And the Higher Authority suggested rewrites. When I turned in the second draft, I thought I’d get at least a month’s respite. But Higher Authority turned around comments in two days, requesting an entirely new draft in a month—over the holidays. I limped to the finish line about 10 days ago, putting the last period on the third top-to-bottom rewrite. And I was done. Not just done with the project, but done with writing. I never wanted to see a computer—or even a crayon—again.

I knew it would pass. It had to; I’m a writer with bills to pay. But I was overdrawn at the word-bank. Nothing left to say. This wasn’t Writer’s Block—longtime readers know I’d believe in Bigfoot sooner than Writer’s Block. It was Writer’s Overload, I guess; too many words in too short a time.

A couple of days off followed by a week with the flu (apparently the Universe found my plan for two days off insufficient) and I’m almost back to normal. Well, I’m writing.

Okay, to be perfectly honest I never stopped writing. I had my daily 15 minutes to do. Usually that’s no more arduous for me than making a cup of tea, but the Project That Would Not End moved my 15 into the category of chore. Then burden—I think that’s around the time I let my 953-day writing streak slip away from me. After I turned in the last round, though, it had moved from burden to existential torture. Still I wrote (51 days as of today—I’ll be back in triple-digits before the new baseball season starts, though it’ll take several more seasons to get me back where I was).

What could I have done? I could have used my 15 to do fun writing projects—silly poems. A haiku about a ridiculous subject—pickles? It’s one of the funniest words in the English language; I should have written an Ode to a Pickle. I could have taken Fenway for a long walk and talked to her about what we were seeing—then scribbled it all down when I got back to my desk.

Many famous writers have made big bucks talking about the pain of putting words on paper. I don’t want to add to the pile of writing about how horrible Writing is—that’s as much bullshit as Bigfoot. Writing has always been a joy to me, and always given me joy. Don’t use my experience of Writers’ Overload to feed your excuses about why you Just Can’t Write. But be prepared, because it might happen to you. Even in the midst of an unforgiving project, turn to your list of reasons writing gives you joy. And write something joyful. (Then rest!)

The post I never wanted to write: RIP Writing Streak

My writing streak is dead. Long live the (new) writing streak.

953 days—that’s a long damn time. Sometime in May 2016, I believe, I committed to write for at least 15 minutes a day, every day. And I did—for 953 days. Until yesterday.

In the beginning, when I was ingraining it as a habit, I wrote first thing in the morning “before you check your email” as my coach Sam Bennett instructed. (No relation, except we’re both brilliant and gorgeous—so who knows?) In heath and in sickness—I even wrote the morning I had surgery. And the next day, hopped up on painkillers. Neither snow nor rain nor 11:59 at night…

I didn’t start worrying about the streak until the last six months. Travel, divorce, more travel—even dating. No matter where I was or who I was with, I did My Fifteen. Even when I spent ten hours writing for a client. Even when writing was the last thing I wanted to do. Even when I knew I’d be proving Hemingway’s observation that everyone’s first draft is shit—I wrote.

So what happened yesterday? It was an odd day to begin with—part 2 of a whirlwind trip up and down the East Coast. I got to breathe the same air as Elizabeth Gilbert for a while yesterday evening. I did take notes while she spoke—and later I tried to make that count for my 15. But it wasn’t original writing; if you’re gonna make a commitment, ya gotta stick to it.

Usually when I’ve waited too long to write, the mental reminder pops up around 10pm as I’m doing The New York Times crossword. But I was tired by then and looking forward to listening to a guided meditation when I went to bed. About halfway through the meditation, I remembered “I haven’t done my writing!” I thought about stopping the recording to do it right then, but I didn’t. I vowed that I’d do it after the recording.

“After the recording”—I’m sure you can guess—I was asleep. But I DID wake up, miraculously (the power of commitment). I grabbed my phone, opened a Notes doc, and wrote:

“I am so confused [hand hitting forehead emoji] I want up bwrite ye book as I font [hand pointing down emoji]”

Even by Hemingway’s standards I realized it was hopeless. The 953-day Writing Streak was dead—but the next one is alive and kicking.

Writing Streak—Day 1

Paintball in the cemetery? Details matter.

details matter
Black headstone with “paintball splotch” – just to the left and behind the headstone flanked by American flags

How much do details matter? Quite a lot if you actually want your audience to understand what you’re doing.

I thought about that during this morning’s walk in the cemetery. I’ve always felt sad passing one headstone—it looks like someone hit it with paintball gun. There’s a giant blob of white on one side of the black granite stone, with white streaks running down from it.

I haven’t noticed any other acts of vandalism—unless you count family members planting tinsel whirlygigs around grandma’s grave—and I wondered why no one had bothered to clean it up. It felt disrespectful to me.

Today I took a closer look at the stone.

details matter —headstone painting of deer in a forest

It’s not vandalism; it’s art. Well, at any rate it’s not vandalism.

The splotch turns out to be sky; the drips are birch trees. The family of deer, invisible from a distance, look out at the viewer. Is it my imagination, or does Daddy Deer-est have a disgusted look on his face?

The view from afar does not match the up-close reality. Or to put it another way: details matter.

Details matter in writing, too

From time to time, I’ve written corporate applications to those “best companies in the world” surveys. Details matter there too. A lot.

My clients would ask me to write about this nifty program they have, so I’d ask them for information. I’d get PowerPoints explaining the need the program filled; I’d get one-sheets outlining the steps people needed to take to access the program. I’d get everything except the detail the contest sponsor specifically requested: how do the employees feel about it. How did it improve their lives at work, if indeed it did.

Sometimes the thousand-yard view is not the most illuminating. In the case of the contest submission, I’d always want to zoom in closer. Not to the details of how the program works—that’s important to the company, but not to the end user. No, I needed to get a microscopic view of the program. How it works at the smallest, most personal level.

If my submission were this headstone, the contest sponsor would need to see the deer. Everything else is just background noise.

Are you writing what your audience needs to know? Or are you writing what you want to tell them? Sometimes a Venn diagram of those two perspectives would completely overlap; other times, they might barely touch each other.

When in doubt, write for your readers. What do they need to know? Tell them that consistently. Show them the whole picture, because details matter.


Join me on August 22nd in Los Angeles as we look at the details of the remarkable Getty Center. We’ll spend the day finding and talking about stories—and you’ll get some one-on-one coaching time with me too. Details here.

Home runs & humor — it’s all in the perspective

Casey Stengel knew humor — and baseball
By R on en.wikipedia – From en.wikipedia; description page is (was) here, Public Domain

Humor or heartache?

“The fans love home runs,” said Casey Stengel, the first manager of the New York Mets. “And we have assembled a pitching staff to please the fans.”

Classic. It’s one of my favorite baseball quotes—I love it so much, I don’t care whether he actually said it.

For those of you who don’t follow baseball closely, Stengel knows that the fans prefer home runs when their team hits them, not when their team’s pitchers give them up. So is this humor or tragedy? It’s all in your perspective.

Even today, more than half a century after Stengel’s time, the Mets remain a team that lives and dies by the home run. More the latter than the former, this season. Once again, the Mets have “assembled a pitching staff to please the fans.”

This almost total reliance on home runs infuriates me. I’d much prefer to see my team advance around the diamond one or two bases at a time. It’s not about one person shining; it’s about the entire team pulling together to succeed.

Humor, the “home run” of writing

You have a brilliant sentence. I mean, so witty and concise it makes Oscar Wilde look like a second-grader. The problem is, it doesn’t quiiiiite fit the rest of your piece.

What do you do?

There’s only one thing to do. Move your “home run” to the Outtakes file. Maybe it’ll make a great tweet someday, but right now it’s derailing your piece.

Now, I’m not saying you can never use humor. But your wit must serve the interest of your reader, first and foremost. That’s true of every word you write, by the way—you must always focus on adding value for the reader.

If your humorous remark fits the theme and advances the story you’re telling, by all means leave it in. But if it only serves to make you look clever…you’ve got to take one of the team. Hit a single instead. Don’t interrupt the flow of your prose, not even for a laugh. Unless you’re writing a standup comedy set, your audience expects—and deserves—something seamless.

Allow your sentences to work together like a great baseball team. The “fans” may cheer less, but your readers will appreciate you more.


I wrote this piece while watching the Home Run Derby, perhaps my favorite event of the festivities surrounding the All-Star Game. Would you like to discover how to find stories in the wild like this and use them in your writing? Join me on a field trip to the Getty Center in LA this August.

Goats 4 Sale—sometimes you need more words

a goat pausing in mid-mealThe other morning I passed one of those signboards with changeable plastic letters. It read:

Goats 4 Sale

Not surprising. There are as many farms around here as there are Dunkin’ Donuts in Boston or Starbucks in New York City. Which is to say, one on every corner and a couple in between.

What stopped me was the fixed part of the sign. Atop the wooden frame that held it in place the business owner had painted the word

Taxidermist

Which made me reconsider just what kind of goats they had “4 Sale.”

How low can you go?

I wrote last week about Stanley, who captured my attention with just one word. But conciseness may not always be the best option.

I have no doubt some would-be goat owners will pass right by the taxidermist’s For Sale sign. They want a goat to milk; not one to dust. I mean, I imagine taxidermied goats need the occasional dusting. The 19th century owl we had as a class mascot through my middle- and high-school years definitely collected his share of airborne detritus. Fun fact: how do you dust a taxidermied owl? With a feather duster, of course.

Anyway, half the people who venture in to buy a goat are bound to be disappointed in the merchandise. And there’s no telling how many potential sales the shop loses to its confusing sign.*

*Okay, it’s possible it’s only confusing to me. I cannot think of a single reason to buy a taxidermied goat. Unless a local high school needs a mascot.)

Are you confusing your audience?

To haul us all back on point: What does this have to do with business writing?

You may be perfectly clear on the benefits of your company’s nifty new program. But you’ve been working on it for six months before it rolled out. You know it backwards and forwards; you’re used to it.

Think about your communications from the point of view of someone coming to it fresh: Have you explained all of the nuances, translated all the jargon? Have you made it as easy as possible for them to figure out exactly what kind of goat you’re trying to sell them? If not, they won’t buy. And that would be baaaaaaaad.

(Sorry.)


Want to learn how to find stories like this in the wild and use them to make your work more unique? Join me in LA on August 22nd for my Story Safari™ Field Trip to the one and only Getty Center.

Who’s it for? A Story Safari™ from the cemetery

I’m writing this in the midst of a cemetery. Well, in a house in the midst of a cemetery—a quirky and wonderful AirBnB space. And, yes, the neighbors are quiet.

And every time Fenway and I walk through the neighbors’ yard, if you will, we find a new story. So you can expect a fair number of tales from the grave in the next few weeks.

So what’s a Story Safari™ from the cemetery about? You might expect I’ll be writing about the lives these people lived—and there are apparently some famous folks buried here, though I haven’t found them yet. But the more I walk around, the more I think that cemeteries aren’t about the dead people.

The grave sites closest to my building host more recent guests, and the simplicity of their headstones stands in marked contrast to the decorations surrounding them. American flags, of course—some of these graves also have brass military placques, like the ones you’ll find in a military cemetery. But also seasonal decorations. Pinwheels and butterflies and…well, see for yourself:

a decorated gravesite in the local cemetery
I blurred out the names to protect the family’s privacy.

Those look like solar-powered lights on either side of the headstone. So the deceased doesn’t stub a toe on the way to the bathroom?

But I don’t mean to be snarky. We all express our grief differently and we should be free to do so without being judged.

What makes this a Story Safari™?

What I’ve written above is a story.

What alchemy turns it into a Story Safari™?

First, lift it out of its actual context. I mean, unless you work for a funeral home or a headstone carver you probably don’t have a lot of occasion to write about cemeteries.

But what do you write about?

I write about writing, most often business writing. So I ask myself, do I ever come across things in the world of business writing that seem more embellished than they need to be? Things that are more about the person doing the writing than about the people who’ll be reading or hearing it?

Do I? Only about every day. Full disclosure: Sometimes I even do it myself.

The family that puts frogs and tinsel and solar powered lights on grandma and grandpa’s grave—they’re the real audience for all of that frou-frou. They’re doing it for themselves. And if it makes them feel better, that’s what matters.

But when you’re writing for an audience, you have an obligation to write for them. It’s not about you, not if you want to connect with the audience, not if you want them to remember and act on your words.

So what frou-frou do you add to your speech? Where’s your tinsel, your frogs? Do you ever go out of your way to drop a name? Will you take time to tell a story that boosts your ego, even if it has no real connection to the topic? Do you spend too much time talking about you—or your company—instead of focusing on the audience’s needs? Are you onstage to solve a problem for them, to fire them up to action? Or just to collect another venue to add to your speaker’s bio.

Every word you write must add value for your reader or listener. So leave tinsel and the frogs at home—this is not about you. Tell them the story they need to hear, drive them to the action they need to take, and they’ll remember and appreciate you for it.


Interested in learning more about how to find and tell stories? Join my one-day Story Safari™ Field Trip to the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Pop culture references: they need to make sense

I love pop culture references. Especially in unexpected places, like business speeches or otherwise serious-minded articles.

I’ve written before about my favorite pop culture reference, courtesy of the brilliant Adam Gopnik. He begins this New Yorker piece:

“Falling, yes, I am falling, and she keeps calling me back again,” Paul McCartney sang on June 14, 1965, a memorable high-water mark in musical history, when, on a single day, he recorded that first bluegrass-rock standard, “I’ve Just Seen a Face”; the throat-shredding early-metal model “I’m Down”; and then, in dulcet tones, the most covered song ever written, the ballad “Yesterday”—all within a few hours, with a little help from his friends. Some of us think there hasn’t been as good a musical day since.

It’s a fascinating bit of pop culture history; new to me. And engaging enough that I kept reading the piece even as the very next paragraph revealed that this was not going to be a piece about the Beatles—far from it. (I won’t give it away here.)

So please use a pop culture reference when it makes sense for your topic. That doesn’t mean it has to have an obvious relationship to your subject: Gopnik’s Beatles history does not and that’s part of what makes it so delightful. But it does mean that before you’re done, it has to make sense to the reader.

Pop Culture Beauty Salon

pop culture, kryptonite
Kryptonite: Art by Gary Frank. Fair use,

That’s easier to do when you put words around your pop culture reference—or, better yet, sentences. And if that seems obvious to you, it did not to the proprietor of a beauty salon I passed the other day in Connecticut:

Kryptonnite Beauty Salon

What message were they trying to send?

Women, be so alluring that your man will be powerless before you!

What kind of fun is that? And then I saw further down on the storefront the words “Unisex Salon.” So:

Men, we’ll render you completely useless!

I don’t know about you, but that’s not the message I’d want my hairdo to send.

Story Safari

The salon misspelled the name of the substance, but in double-checking that I discovered that kryptonite takes many forms. Pink kryptonite can even turn you gay (later adjusted to “change your gender” which is not nearly the same thing. But I don’t expect political correctness from an action comic book).

And while it debilitates people from Superman’s planet, Krypton, when we Earthfolk encounter it, it can give us superpowers. It can even supercharge our pets, albeit for only a day. (Don’t tell Fenway.)

Perhaps that’s what the salon owners were thinking. Kryptonite connoisseurs, they expect their idea clients to be similarly conversant with the many uses of the imaginary mineral.

Probably not the best business plan. Unless their ideal client is super-villains, in which case they’ve probably cornered the market.


Join us on a Field Trip to the very appropriately named Getty Center in Los Angeles, August 22nd—we’ll spend the day looking for stories in its gardens, architecture, and art. More information here.