“Tender age children”: don’t tolerate evil word-smithing

tender age children just like this one are crying in prisons thanks to the American governmentLast night, I turned on MSNBC just in time to hear Chris Hayes ask an interviewee if he’d heard about the whereabouts of the “tender age children.” I’d never heard that phrase before.

An hour later, I saw Rachel Maddow try mightily not to break down on camera while reading (mostly to herself) a breaking news alert that some of the “tender age children” had been located, although they’re still no closer to being freed.

As I watched the usually unflappable Maddow’s distress, I realized what “tender age children” means. It means:

Babies and Toddlers.

Of course, the administration wants to do all it can to avoid implanting in people’s minds the surely indelible image of

Babies and Toddlers

behind yards of chain-link fencing. Honestly, even if we were putting them up in a 5-star hotel with all the ice cream they could eat it would still be an abomination. These

Babies and Toddlers

need to be with their parents. The trauma of forced separation will scar them for life.

But just because the administration has come up with a vague-sounding phrase doesn’t mean any of us have to use it. The news media may have the biggest bullhorn when it comes to spreading the euphemism—but even if you don’t have a cable TV show, be careful of what you say.

Plain-language: more important than ever

I’ve been talking for years, maybe decades, about the importance of speaking and writing in plain language. Not gussying up your work with jargon or $500 words to make yourself sound like you belong. Whether you’re obfuscating to seem more sophisticated or obfuscating to hide your evil, shriveled soul, muddying up the truth is still muddying up the truth.

I don’t believe any of my readers have evil, shriveled souls. So please do not adopt the language of those who do.

Today it’s

Babies and Toddlers;

tomorrow it might be LGBT people. Or non-Christians (though surely if they rounded up those, Jeff Sessions should be first in line). Really any damn group they choose.

Only they won’t say they’re throwing us into camps because we’re gay. They’ll find some other excuse, obfuscate their true intentions with a phrase like “tender age children.”

The first time you hear it, they know you’ll think, “Wha?” The second time you hear it, they expect you’ll think, “Oh, okay.”

It’s not okay. Please don’t perpetuate language that makes it sound like it is.

Babies and Toddlers.
Locked up in cages.

If we as human beings can tolerate that, we can tolerate anything. God help us all.

Goldie-Writer & the Three Fears

I’ve been reading a lot about fears lately. Not intentionally. But the subject keeps coming up, so clearly it wants to be written about. I guess by me.

Fear #1

I wanted to give myself a break and read something funny, so I chose Paula Poundstone’s book The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness. I enjoyed her writing so much, I even stuck around for the Acknowledgments. And there it was, staring back at me from the page: fear.

I don’t know how anyone writes for a living. Every writing session is a deep dive into a sea of self-doubt.

If that’s the kind of fear that keeps you from writing, change the subject. Write about something you don’t care quite so much about. Or if you can’t change the subject, change the style: write it from the perspective of a five-year-old. Write it in poetry—in limericks.

Write something that makes you laugh. How can you doubt yourself when you’re laughing?

I do, however, have personal experience with Poundstone’s next observation:

“Once I get going, it can feel exciting and rewarding, but I often have to lure myself with the promise of Butterfingers or raisin toast as a reward for writing progress. It’s a really hard job and can cause weight gain.”

My toaster gets quite a workout when I’m writing for some clients. I think there’s an inverse relationship between carbs and confidence. The more I have of the former, the more I lack the latter.

I need to work on that.

Fear #2

After the Poundstone book, I turned to a book on writing, one I’ve been looking forward to: Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir.

I hadn’t even finished the first chapter when…

“As with everything I’ve ever written, I start out paralyzed by fear and frustration.”

Many people mistake fears for writers’ block. But you see? Paralysis is just a natural part of the process. Karr continues:

“The tarantula ego – starving to be shored up by praise – tries to scare me away from saying simply whatever small, true things standing in line for me to say.

Ts’ok. That’s why God gave us delete keys.”

I think you can definitely expect a separate blog post about Karr’s use of language. She’s a poet as well as a noted memoirist. And apparently she fights fears as well.

A few pages later, she clarifies: this paralyzing fear isn’t about writing, per se—it’s about how readers will perceive her writing. She gets the Willits, in other words. But not about whether she’s writing well; about whether she’s fairly representing the other people who appear in her life story:

“The thought of misrepresenting someone or burning down his house with shitty recall wakes me up at night. I always tell my students that doubt runs through me every day I work, like the subway’s third rail.”

Okay, let’s cut Paula Poundstone a small break here. After all, her “search for human happiness” is part-memoir. Maybe she’s deep-diving in the same part of the ocean as Mary Karr.

Fear #3

Okay, I don’t really have a third writer to quote here; I just thought “Goldie-Writer & the Three Fears” sounded like a nice title.

I could throw in something from the always inspirational Elizabeth Gilbert, but I’ve written about her work before. If you deal with fear and you haven’t read her book Big Magic, don’t even talk to me.

Well, I have read Big Magic. Several times. But I still get scared. And sometimes I feel paralyzed—not generally about writing. About marketing.

And I’ve heard all the stuff. How it’s just an exchange of information. How you can’t make anyone buy something they don’t want to buy. My latest coach just reminded me it’s just another form of storytelling. And Lord knows I know how to do that.

Doesn’t matter. Every time I run a marketing campaign, I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a very narrow diving board—the highest one they have at the Olympics. Maybe even higher. And I’m diving into a pool the size of a teacup. Is it any wonder I get scared?

Liz Gilbert says to talk to your fear-monster. Mine even has a name: MarProk—Marketing Procrastination. But if I forget to give him an alternate assignment before I start marketing, there he is all up in my face talking about the joys of toast and sleep (sequentially, not together) and how little the world needs whatever I’m selling.

Just right

So here’s a reminder to you—and to me—that Goldilocks did eventually find a bowl of porridge, a chair, and a bed that were Just Right for her.

Damn! I just remembered how the story ends. The three bears return home and scare her off. Hmm. Not the metaphor I was looking for.

Time for a quick rewrite:

Keep going and you will find writing work that sustains and feeds you (porridge rather than Butterfingers).

You will find the support you need to do that writing. And comfort in the work, too (the chair and the bed).

And when the bears show up, don’t try to change their nature. It’s their job to be bears; find a way to peacefully coexist with them. And get on with your job:

Write.

What’s the difference between a speech and a salad bar?

I’m a big fan of Dorie Clark’s. I’ve worked with her, I’ve recommended her to clients. A more brilliant marketing and business strategist you could not find. And she gives a good speech, which may explain why she gives so many of them.

But…

I’ve got to disagree with her recent Harvard Business Review piece, “How to Give the Same Talk to Different Audiences.”

She advises speakers:

…it can be helpful to envision the sections of your speech as “modules” that you can shift and reshuffle as needed.

That advice needs to come with a warning label. Because you can’t just rearrange a speech, not without making other adjustments.

You can’t order a speech à la carte

A great speech hangs together from beginning to end – like a tasting menu at a three-star Michelin restaurant. Ask for the asparagus after dessert and you ruin the flow of the meal.

I’m not saying you can’t rearrange the elements of your speech. But if it’s a well-constructed speech, A transitions to B, which builds to C.

In other words, you’re telling a story—that’s what people will remember from your speech, the story you tell. And of course that story needs to contain these “modules” of ideas you want to convey. And you can’t just reshuffle parts of a story like it’s a deck of cards.

Avoid the word-salad bar

I once wrote for an executive – and seriously, once was more than enough for me – who treated his speeches like a salad bar. He wasn’t looking for a speech so much as a mise en place, the chopped-up veggies and other ingredients a chef has handy before the restaurant opens for the day so she has everything she needs to assemble a dish.

This executive expected the “writer” to present him not with a well thought-out speech, not with a story that built to a crescendo of anticipation, with the audience hanging on his every word.

a speech is not a saladNope, this executive wanted four buckets of words: one with options for his opening, one containing several stories he enjoyed telling, a third with assorted facts, and a final bucket with an array of inspirational quotes for the closing.

That’s not a speech; it’s a word-salad bar. When he stepped onstage to deliver his remarks, he would choose one piece from each bucket—whichever piece struck his fancy.

Now, I’m sure that’s not the kind of modular construction Dorie had in mind when she wrote the HBR piece. Dorie is a fine writer. When she moves chunks of a speech around, I’m sure she ties them together thematically; I’m sure she’s careful to make sure she’s still telling a coherent story.

But I worry that her readers might not understand the importance of the connective tissue that holds a speech together.


Want to improve your writing? Register for my 5×15 Writing Challenge. Write for 15 minutes a day between June 4th and 8th and I’ll donate $15 to Room to Read, a global literacy nonprofit.

Reading about Writing: “Just the Funny Parts”

The only word-related thing I like better than writing is reading—especially reading about writing.

Nell Scovell has written a brilliant, moving, and inspiring book about the writing she’s done, for TV mostly. Just the Funny Parts also offers some advice about writing that happens to agree with things I tell my writers all the time. So don’t take my word for it—listen to Nell Scovell:

“Writing is not what you start. It’s not even what you finish. It’s what you start, finish, and put out there for the world to see.”

“There’s an old saying that ‘a writer writes.’ but that’s just the start. A writer writes…a lot…and then shares that work with others.”

Or, as Austin Kleon says—right in the title another book you should read if you haven’t already—Show Your Work!

As a writer, Scovell also apparently loves reading about writing. She quotes John Irving: “Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.”

Irving writes novels, but that’s true for us in the nonfiction world as well. “Noticing”—which I call going on Story Safari™—enlivens our writing, takes us beyond the spreadsheet the client handed us and opens up the possibility of metaphor.

The final bit of wisdom I’ll share today comes from Barry Kemp, who was Scovell’s boss when she wrote for the sitcom Coach.

“Writing,” Barry said, “is not an act of creation. It’s an act of choice.”

She means that you choose what your characters do and say. And that’s true. But you also choose to sit there and make words come out of your fingers. You choose to create.

Read Nell Scovell’s book. And then write…write a lot…and push your work out of the nest so people can enjoy it.

First draft – sometimes Hemingway is wrong

Ernest Hemingway famously said, “Everyone’s first draft is sh*t.”

Or perhaps someone else said it and it just sounded so much like Hemingway that the attribution stuck. In any case, it’s mostly true.

Except for when it isn’t. Sometimes a first draft can be brilliant.

The secret to first drafts—well you can find it right in that adjective: they’re first. Which automatically implies that there could well be a second, or third. Or, if you’re like one old client I miss not one bit, a 27th.

If everybody agrees that the first draft can (and likely will) change, then you get to throw all sorts of outlandish ideas into it. Make it the first draft of your dreams.

With new clients, I always send the draft with a note, something like:

I threw some unexpected stuff in here, but if it seems like too much—hey, it’s a first draft.

With older clients, I often skip the caveat. And mostly they’ll play with me. Being bold on the first draft—and the client’s complete buy-in on the idea—won me my Cicero Award for best speech on diversity. You can read the story here.

First draft, second draft

Sometimes, though, even a longstanding client will push back. Not ten minutes ago, I opened an email expecting it to be full of praise for my brilliant, hysterical, and admittedly unconventional approach to a standard business topic.

Oh the client loved it, alright. But they don’t feel they can publish it.

Sucks? Sure.

But I still remember how elated I felt when I finished writing it and hit send. I felt creative; I felt free.

And, you know what? I still do.

Let your creativity loose on the first draft—it may be your only opportunity. And if the client pushes back, well, it’s their work in the end. And they’re paying you to be creative, whether they realize it or not.

If your first draft doesn’t fly, put your fabulous idea in your Outtakes folder and move on. That’s what I’m going to do. I’ll let this sit over the weekend and then rewrite on Monday.

And who knows? Maybe Hemingway will be right about my second draft.

730 — yes, every damn day

I had not intended to blog again today. I wrote a post yesterday and I’m trying to get away from posting daily—although I still write for 15 minutes every day. Yep, every damn day.

Anyway, I hadn’t intended to blog today. Yesterday’s post—weighing in at a hefty 900+ words—took me far longer than my 15 minutes to write. Ate a good chunk of my morning, in fact.

But when I woke up today, Facebook reminded me that last year on this date, I had dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant with some friends—celebrating the one-year anniversary of my writing streak.

“That can’t be right,” I said to myself. “If it was a year ago today, then that must mean today is…”

Yes indeed.

every damn day
I’ve written for 2 full years—730 days!

The anniversary sneaked up on me, which might make you think my writing habit is pretty well integrated into my life.

You’d be—well, not exactly wrong, but it’s not quite as easy as the graphic makes it look. Especially the last couple of months, when I’ve been writing a big project for a client. I get to the end of a day of writing, grateful to power down the old laptop, only to realize that I haven’t done my 15. The commitment I made two years ago was 15 minutes of writing for myself, not for a client. Those days, when there’s not much left in my brain, I just journal. I figure it counts.

So what have I gotten out of this?

I moved forward with some aspects of my business I’d been putting off. Honestly, I think they scared me. But if I only had to write for 15 minutes…okay. That’s how the streak started.

I blogged every damn day for well over a year—maybe 18 months. (I’m on hiatus at the moment, but I may return.) Sometimes I had so many ideas that I could bank a week’s worth of blogs in advance; other times I just sat down at the keyboard and started typing, hoping that whatever came out would be at least semi-lucid. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Eventually I even dethroned the woman who’d always taken first place in a Google search of my name—”Elaine Benes.” She’s now a sidebar. Whoo hoo!

Elaine Bennett, not Elaine Benes

What can writing every damn day get you?

Well, what do you want?

Do you want to become a better writer?
I can almost guarantee it. In fact, many published writers swear that writing every day is essential to growing your skills.

Do you have an idea pinging around your head that wants to get out?
It’s scary to say you want to write a book. I know. When I decided to write one, for months I couldn’t say the b-word without air quotes. If you think “writing a book” has to mean shutting yourself a way for days on end—well, how attractive is that? If it means writing for 15 minutes a day, well, after a week you’ll have written for nearly two hours. After a month (one of those 30-day months, not freaking February), you’ll have written for seven and a half hours! And lived your life, too.

Do you want to get your work out in the world?
You may wonder what that has to do with writing every damn day. I’ll tell you: if you’re holding back because you’re afraid your writing is somehow flawed…honey, you don’t know “flawed” until you’ve written every day. Some days it’s golden, other days it’s, to put it politely, a pile of manure. But the Dutch have an old saying I love:

“Shit is not a holy thing, but from where it lies there come miracles.

Every bit of bad writing you produce gets you that much closer to producing good writing.

I’m on a mission this year. I want to help more people start and maintain their writing streaks. It’s more fun when we do it together. Fill in the Contact form and let me know how I can support you.

Tom T. Hall — “The Storyteller” of country music

The Storyteller, Tom T. Hall
Tom T. Hall, photo by Mercury Records – Billboard, 12 August 1967, Public Domain

I’ve been binge-listening a new podcast with the unforgettable name Cocaine & Rhinestones. If you guessed it’s about country music, you win. Now, you may not be a fan of the genre, but if you’re reading this blog I’m pretty sure you’re a writer. Or you’d like to be. So allow me to introduce you to “The Storyteller”—that’s the industry’s nickname for songwriter Tom T. Hall. (You can listen to the podcast episode here, or just read the handy transcript.)

The writer and host of Cocaine & Rhinestones, Tyler Mahan Coe, tells us:

“One word often used to describe Tom’s writing is ‘literary.’ Similar to Bobbie Gentry’s best work, there’s a quality to Tom’s narratives reminiscent of the great American short story writers in the 20th century. Sinclair Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway – these are Tom’s influences.”

As a songwriter, Hall writes poetry. But he finds inspiration in short stories. How does that affect his writing?

Many pop or country songwriters will state a theme—like the ubiquitous, “I love you”—and then spin out a series of variations on the theme in discrete, often interchangeable verses or even just lists. In fact, Hall did that on occasion too—listen to his hit song “I Love.” That’s what I call short-arc thinking.

More often, Hall thinks in longer arcs than a 12-syllable line of poetry, or even a verse. That allows him to tell a story, and as my regular readers know, storytelling is one of the best ways to hook an audience on your idea. Even better if your stories spark emotions in the reader or listener. And when you combine a good story and a singer who can really connect emotionally to her material, well, that there is gold.

In an earlier episode of the podcast, Coe reveals that singer/songwriter Bobbie Gentry’s biggest hits—”Ode to Billy Joe” and “Fancy”—both started out as short stories. Tom T. Hall’s most recognizable song, “Harper Valley PTA,” also tells a story that stretches out for the full length of the song. (And, if you’re really interested, for a full three episodes of Coe’s podcast.)

The Storyteller as songwriter

Here’s Coe again:

“Ask [Hall] what one of his songs is about and more often than not he’ll tell you a story about something he saw or did or something he heard someone talking about somewhere. The story that ends up in his song almost always starts with a story outside his song.”

I added the bold there. I talk a lot about Story Safari™—training yourself to see stories in the world that other people might not see. What I haven’t talked enough about is that those stories may not turn into the actual end product—they might just inspire the end product. And that’s perfect too, because you’re still writing from a unique perspective, your perspective.

Now, Tom T. Hall didn’t just sit around reading Hemingway. He had a lot of odd jobs (Coe adds, “and I do mean odd.”), like working in a funeral home. Among the less odd were his stints as a radio disk jockey:

“It’s probably worth noting that most of these gigs require Tom to write his own copy for the commercials he reads on-air. These are not songs, just tiny little scripts to read – again, like you hear in a lot of podcasts these days. But being forced to churn out disposable content like that can really make a writer out of someone. (If it seems funny that writing commercials could make you a better songwriter, well, try thinking about songs as little commercials for life.)”

It’s not just that songs are “little commercials for life”—though I love that idea. It’s “being forced to churn out disposable content” that made Hall a better writer.

When you write on deadline, you can’t be all precious and wait for the Muse to descend from on high and bless your typing fingers. You write. And you get used to writing badly sometimes, as we all do (even with the Muse). But it’s easier not to care about quality if your work goes out into the world anonymously. And if the script sucks the first time, you can always rewrite it the next time the commercial comes around. Plus, when you’re less attached to your writing, you rarely get a visit from the Willits. It’s a great way to experiment and grow.

Commit to creativity

Another thing you need to know about Tom T. Hall the writer:

“Before he was rich, Tom started his days with coffee and writing, believing the best stuff came when he was fresh from sleeping. After he got rich, Tom started his days with coffee and writing. The only thing that changed is where he was doing the writing.”

Write every day. If you’ve heard me say that once, you’ve heard me say it six hundred times.

And his definition of a songwriter tracks completely with my definition of a writer:

“In 2016, he told Peter Cooper that ‘songwriters aren’t good songwriters. People are good songwriters […] You sit down as a person and write a song. If you’ve written a song by the time you stand back up, you’re a songwriter. But the person comes first.'”

If you make words appear where there are no words before, you’re a writer. So stop waiting and start doing. The world is full of stories ready for you to find and tell.

Want more? I love coaching writers, individually and in groups. Click here for paid, low-cost (my e-book on storytelling is only $4.95), and free resources. Now get writing!

On retreat: lessons from fire and “Fuego”

retreat bonfireThey set a tall bonfire the last night of the retreat I attended this weekend. The wood must have been stacked three feet high Jenga-style, which left a ton of room for airflow. That fire burned. But just after they lit it, a small movement caught their attention. Attention turned to horror as they realized what was going on:

A frog had hopped into the firepit.

Kimmi, one of the retreat leaders, dove in to rescue it—a frantic 90 seconds that must have felt like an hour inside the sun. But she coaxed the creature away from the fire and the frog hopped off with a new name—Fuego—apparently none the worse for the experience.

I can’t help but think that Fuego’s journey mirrors the journey I found myself on this weekend. Spending three days with a dozen women all doing our best to be present and open to one another—that’s a marvelous experience. I highly recommend it to everyone.

Of course it wasn’t all sunshine and s’mores. (The aforementioned Kimmi leaned into the fire once more to toast the marshmallows for my very first s’more. And may I say, Yum!) No, we worked those three days. Each of us spent time contemplating the fire of our own truth. And if things got too hot, we trusted that someone would always be there to keep us safe.

Like Fuego, I willingly joined the experience; like Fuego I emerged unscathed. But not unchanged.

Retreat – it’s not about work

I’ve been in a very work-centric place for the last year or so. And I marketed my Story Safari Retreat from that space: “You’ll learn skills, you’ll do work.”
But that’s not what a retreat is about. You can work at home, after all. One thing you can’t do at home, often, is grow.
The main thing a retreat gives you is the courage to face the fire—whatever that fire represents to you—and a safe space in which to emerge transformed. And so I am transforming my Story Safari program into a program. You’ll learn skills, you’ll do work—you’ll even have some fun. Stay tuned for details on that.
And do look for retreats from me in the future featuring as much space for heart work as head work. Maybe even more. We’ll jump into the fire together (not literally—goodness, I’m an insurance man’s daughter!) and see how we all get transformed.
In the meantime, my friend the talented branding and design expert Veronica Wirth will be using my gorgeous 5-star venue on Cape Cod to lead a retreat in Soulful Branding. I have no doubt you’ll find her work transformative—for yourself and for your business.
She’s given me permission to offer you the program for half price—that’s less than $1K for two and a half days of transformation and some yummy meals as well. I’ll be there; maybe you should be, too.

“The most ordinary circumstances”

It snowed yesterday—April 2nd. At least three inches, enough to leave a thick coating on my car. I am officially sick of winter.

It snowed until early afternoon but when I looked out my window during my 3pm call, every drop of snow had disappeared. In its place, I saw dozens of tiny birds darting around my backyard. I started to think about writing a Story Safari™ piece about disappointment (snow—in April!) and optimism: birds mean spring!

ordinary circumstances
Detail from a photo by Allison Miller – CC BY-SA 3.0 Own work,

Then a hawk swooped past my windows. Magnificent, powerful. And on a mission—a mission I knew would involve having one of those little optimism-inducing birdies over for lunch. No RSVP required.

 

By then I was on another call, a coaching session to help me refine my marketing. I made a note to incorporate more of the courage and freedom of the hawk into my work. And fun—it sure looked like fun, swooping around the sky. Though I would definitely want my clients to have a more mutually beneficial experience than those little birds did.

That hawk had come far closer to my house than it needed to, showing off its wingspan as it turned the corner from one set of windows into another. Perhaps it was doing more than grocery shopping? I’m not sure how much I believe in spirit animals, but I definitely do not believe in coincidences. So I decided to look it up.

Ordinary circumstances

According to WhatIsMySpiritAnimal.com, a hawk “teaches awareness. The universe is trying to send you a message.”

And the blurb in Google added this:

“…you are now on notice that even the most ordinary of circumstances could have deeper meanings.”

If that isn’t the definition of a Story Safari,™ I don’t know what is.

“Even the most ordinary circumstances”—birds on a lawn, something people see every day and attach no significance to—”could have deeper meanings.”

Birds as a harbinger of spring, that’s a nice story anyone can tell. But what if we turned that into a story about complacency, about being ready for the unexpected? That story could fit in well in almost any business context.

And that’s a story no one else will tell—not in quite the same way. Because no one else saw the hawk swoop around the corner of my house. Well, no one but Fenway, who delivered a startled “Woof.”

Learn to see the world through the lens of a Story Safari™ and you’ll always have a unique story to tell. Except if you’re Fenway. She said the same thing about the skunk who visited later that afternoon. Fortunately, the skunk didn’t hear her.