I got drunk yesterday. On creativity—it would have to be creativity since I don’t drink alcohol. (Well, the occasional sip of a fine Champagne if it’s on offer. I mean, you’d have to be crazy to pass that up. But anyway, the creativity. It wasn’t mine—not yesterday. It was my writers’. And that was even better than Veuve Cliquot.
I spent yesterday morning in two private coaching sessions, working with writers on pieces so beautiful they brought me to tears. One was literally gut-wrenching, a powerfully emotional experience for both writer and reader. And then I went right into a webinar to celebrate the 5×15 Writing Challenge that ended yesterday. That session turned into an impromptu writers’ group—a taste of some of what we’ll be up to in the 90-Day Writing Challenge beginning July 1st.
And after two hours of emotions seesawing between the sadness and anger provoked by one writer’s piece and the joy of seeing the creativity unleashed by this group of writers—after two hours of that…what can you do?
What I was supposed to do was dive into my corporate speechwriting; I had a ton of work on my plate. But much as I love my clients, their content can’t compare with an emotional punch in the gut. Clearly I needed to sober up before I could work.
In a perfect world, I would have been able to take the rest of the day off. Sit with some of the emotions my writers stirred up. Celebrate their accomplishments. Savor the small role I played in facilitating them.
But the “perfect world”—at least my perfect world—bans all deadlines. And, alas, the world I currently live in does not.
So I took the dog for a walk and I took myself out to lunch. I drank lots of strong, hot tea.
But great writing doesn’t just vanish because you’ve upped your caffeine intake. It hangs around. Hangs…yes, I suppose I had a creativity hangover.
I did eventually get my writing done and delivered. I’d promised it to my client by close of business—and warned her that it might mean close of business in California. Or someplace in the Pacific. I got it to her before 5pm in L.A. Not ideal, since my client is on the East Coast. But if she’d heard the things I heard yesterday, she would have been drunk, too.
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’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.]
“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 1990s and 2000s 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 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.
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.
Q: Will I ever write well?
A: Yes—probably more often than you recognize.
All writers have moments when they hate their writing. That’s why you should never edit your work right away. Give it some space and come back to it.
When you do come back to it, you might be absolutely correct—it may be terrible. But look more closely. You may find a word that delights you, a combination of words that feels utterly fresh.
When you do find these things, cut yourself a break and admit you can write well. In fact, you just have. Copy those good words or phrases into a new document and see what you can build from there.
Don’t expect to write well in the first draft
Ernest Hemingway said, “All first drafts are shit.”
Well, okay, that may be apocryphal. But it’s also true.
Nobody—not Hemingway, not me, not you—nobody should expect to write well in a first drafts. First drafts aren’t for polishing, they’re for collecting raw material. Ideas. Some of them will be good ideas and some will make you laugh so hard you’ll print them out and stick them on the bulletin board behind your computer so you can remind yourself of how ridiculously you can write and still survive. Not that that’s ever happened to me. (Well, not daily.)
That’s the thing about first drafts: terrible-ness is not fatal. No one cares how badly you write because no one but you ever sees it. (You’re not still submitting first drafts as final products, right?)
But how do you turn a first draft into a second draft, and a second draft into something you’re ready to send into the world with something resembling pride?
It’s a skill you can learn. And if you want to write well, it’s a skill you must learn.
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
Certainly both of those are important outcomes. But my favorite parts of the 5-day-long challenge are the discoveries people make along the way.
Challenge writers push through their fears and discover that when you push through your fears often enough, they go away. Or at least subside long enough for you to write.
People who haven’t written for pleasure in years—or perhaps ever—discover the joy of being creative. Being silly, even. And people who write for a living use the challenge to dig into those memoirs they’ve been meaning to write.
Entrepreneurs who know they should be blogging bank some blog posts. One participant this time has committed to writing that five-email sequence she’s been meaning to create for her new followers.
Challengers have written satire, fiction, odes to their pet gerbils. I’m inspired by their creativity. And humbled by the care and generosity they demonstrate in our Facebook group.
I’ve said often that the 5×15 Writing Challenge may be the best idea I had in all of 2016. I’m excited to see how it’s flourished—this round has the highest enrollment yet. And I can’t wait to see what’s next for these writers.
Of all the stupid communications decisions I’ve heard people make, probably the stupidest is
“I’d do it [that ‘communications’ thing] if I had the money.”
As if every time you open your mouth—or one of your staffers sends an email to a client—or you release a newsletter or put up a job posting—you aren’t already “communicating”?
Seriously, even if no one ever hears your actual voice, even if you hire an ASL interpreter for your board meetings or galas—I’ve got news for you:
So let’s revise that sentence, shall we? Because what you’re really saying when you say “I’d do it if I had the money” is:
“I’d do it well if I had the money.”
You’re okay with doing something poorly? Wow. Does your boss know that?
Or maybe what you’re really saying when you say “I’d do it if I had the money” is:
“I’d do it to make an impact if I had the money.”
So you’re okay putting out communications that no one reads or remembers? Again, does your boss know that?
Yes, communications costs money. It also brings in money—whether in the form of clients or, if you’re a nonprofit, donations. Communications can also save you money—wouldn’t you rather communicate clearly and retain your employees than replace them?
Stupid communications decisions make me mad
Sorry if that sounded like a bit of a rant. But stupid communications decisions really fry me. You can tell that because I call them “stupid”—and that’s not a word I use lightly.
Nonprofit guru Joan Garry knows exactly what I’m talking about. Because she devotes at least some of her podcast this week to talking about the stupid communications organizations in her field (nonprofits) have made. Her guest, communications consultant Sarah Durham, notes that instead of thinking of communications as a frill, nonprofits should think of it as a utility.
A utility? You mean like electricity? She means exactly like electricity. If you wouldn’t set up shop without a way to power your computer and internet, you shouldn’t try to run your organization without a communications expert. (And if you would set up shop without electricity, well, it doesn’t matter because you’re probably not reading this.)
Durham says it’s not just a matter of money and other resources being in scarce supply. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what communications does and can do for an organization. And, of course, it’s hard to communicate—even if you do have an expert dedicated to the task—if your organization hasn’t developed a strong strategic vision.
You think you can’t afford to have a communications expert on staff. I hope by now you’ve figured out you really can’t afford not to.
But what if you could turn one of your staffers into a crack communications person? What if you invested a little in yourself to learn how to shape your thoughts? To focus on what’s important to your audience?
I’ve got a suite of live, interactive webinars geared specifically to professionals who need to communicate as well as they do whatever they actually got hired to do. The next round of writing classes kicks off in the fall. But if you want to start right away, I’ve got a class in revising coming up in July. And a free webinar this week to get you started thinking about this essential skill.
I was going to write about this song about unleashing creativity. It’s called “A Wizard Every Day.” And I will.
But as I was searching the YouTube for the best rendition of it, I got to thinking about the creative people who wrote the song, composer Nikko Benson (you’ll hear him singing on the video I chose) and lyricist Liz Suggs. And about all of us who make art come out of our minds and our fingertips. Maybe not every time we try. But enough times that we’ve made people go “ooh” in appreciation. If it happens even once, that’s magical.
I’ve heard Benson and Suggs’s song twice now, both times sung by my favorite male singer, Brian Stokes Mitchell. And I can’t believe I didn’t blog about it the first time. But I didn’t, so here we are.
Anyway, I don’t want to spoil the song by writing too much about it. You should listen for yourself. All the way through.
I say “all the way through” because at first you’re going to think it’s just a silly song about a man’s encounter with a trick-or-treater. It is that, but it’s not just that.
So thank you to Nikko Benson and Liz Suggs, wherever you are, for unleashing creativity in the form of your song “A Wizard Every Day.” The world could use more wizards. Who knows—maybe one of my readers…
I’d love to know what you think of the song. What’s your favorite line or moment? Let me know in the comments.
I don’t hate lawyers. Let’s be clear on that, okay?
But I do—well, not hate—feel really super-annoyed by anyone who’s afraid to say anything controversial. Anything. It’s hard to write with a constraint like that.
Sometimes I’m blessed to write for someone with actual opinions about the way the world should work, and I write those opinions, and we’re both pleased with the results. This might change the world, we think foolishly.
“Don’t offend by leaving out the dads; also people who aren’t parents. Also, other fruits.”
A few good lawyers
Only once in all of my years of writing have I encountered a lawyer who understood what I was trying to do. He wasn’t a corporate lawyer, though—maybe that’s the difference. He wasn’t trying to imagine what the higher-ups might think; he was a higher-up—he had the autonomy to make his own decisions.
I had drafted a white paper for my client. We wanted to reach journalists, to convince them of the merits of our client’s argument. And journalists, even more than regular human beings, appreciate good writing. Since, even more than regular human beings, they have to read so much that isn’t. But the client had also hired a lawyer; he needed to vet the draft.
Most of the revisions were fine—factual corrections, a couple of helpful word changes. The lawyer hadn’t messed with my argument too much. But he’d de-fanged my opening sentence. And I just couldn’t let that pass.
We all know how important first impressions are when we meet people. They’re even more important in writing.
In person if the first thing out of your mouth doesn’t grab someone, you may have a chance to redeem yourself with a witty second remark. But in writing, if the first sentence sucks, a reader doesn’t have to be polite and stick around for the second.
The lawyer and I traded a few emails, revising and re-revising that opening line. We even got on the phone together. I explained my reasoning, he explained his, and we arrived at a solution that suited us both.
That’s the way the process should work.
Sadly, it doesn’t often work that way. When the people vetting your draft are more interested in covering their asses than in communicating—I was going to write “chaos ensues.” But chaos at least has the benefit of being interesting. And most documents that survive risk review are not.
Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast returned yesterday. Shorter than I remembered it (just over half an hour) but still packed with smarts and attitude and surprise. Season 2’s first episode takes its title from Winston Churchill’s remark that golf is a great way to spoil a good walk.
Some of his friends have been trying to induce him to play golf, but he refused. He makes the following unique definition of golf: “Golf has too much walking to be a good game, and just enough game to spoil a good walk.”
But I digress.
My point is that Gladwell uses this very famous description of golf as the title of the podcast. But unless I missed it, he never mentions Churchill, or Gladstone—or even the famous quote itself. That’s not exactly a “best practice” in writing. If you use a quote like that, you want to reference it.
But when I got to the end of the podcast, I realized where he’d been going with it. It’s sly commentary, so clever it made me grin. I won’t give it away, but my hat’s off to Malcolm Gladwell.
Like Gladstone and Gladwell, I hate golf. But I treasure great writing. And whether he’s writing for the page or for the podcast, Malcolm Gladwell delivers some of the best writing around. If you missed the first season of Revisionist History, catch up with it here. And enjoy.
Seth Godin was with me at the Mets game on Monday night. Not in person—in my head. When the beer vendor made his first appearance, Seth leaned over and whispered, “People like us do things like this.”
Now, I don’t drink beer—or any alcohol, really—but this beer vendor caught my attention. Every other beer vendor I’ve encountered, in ballparks across this great land shouts, “Beer!” Or if they’re waxing poetic,
It’s a great phrase. The long E vowel sounds cut across the chatter of thousands of people. When the beer guy cometh, he doesn’t take you by surprise.
Monday was hot and sticky in the city. After weeks of early spring-like weather, summer came crashing down on us with two days of 90-plus temperatures. By game time, we were probably down to the high-80s. It was hot.
So the beer guy comes strolling down the stairs, shouting,
“Who needs a cold beer, besides me?”
Yes, that’s many more syllables than “Beer here!” but worth the investment of time and voice. In those few words he exhibited empathy for our plight—told us that he’s in the same position. He reminded us of the perfect solution to our shared problem. And that he, in fact, can provide it by selling us a cold beer.
People like us (hot, sticky people) do things like this (drink ice-cold beers).
I thought about getting out of my seat and talking to the vendor, asking if his spiel increased his sales. But the game was just too good. We beat the Cubs 6-1, with Jacob deGrom pitching a complete game. It’s been a while since people like him did things like that.
I’m heading back to the park this weekend. Hope I see some more great baseball, and more great marketing too.