Tina Kelley: A National Monument Crosses Over

Tina KelleyAward-winning poet Tina Kelley wrote this months ago, but it seems even more relevant today. She’s written three poetry collections Abloom and Awry (CavanKerry Press, 2017); Precise; and The Gospel of Galore, winner of a 2003 Washington State Book Award. She co-authored Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope and reported for The New York Times for ten years, sharing a staff Pulitzer Prize for 9/11 coverage. In 2017, she won the Jacar Press Chapbook Competition. Thanks to Tina for being our final guest blogger. I’ll be back from vacation tomorrow—Elaine

A National Monument Crosses Over

by Tina Kelley

“Fuhgeddaboutit,” mother of exiles
muttered, rolling thirty-inch eyes.
Dropped her torch, hiked her skirts,
stepped over to Jersey. With her stride,
three hours to Niagara Falls, Canadian side.

Seidu Mohammed had a rougher trip. In a ten-hour
slog north from North Dakota, in snow waist-high,
frostbite took his fingers off. He feared deportation
from Minnesota to Ghana, where, because he loves
both men and women, they’d kill him. Thin gloves.

“God blessed Canada with good people,” he said,
refugee from the land of the free, land I once loved.

So it’s no wonder “Liberty Enlightening the World” —
her full name — could no longer bear the inscription
asking for homeless and poor masses.  She turned
her francophone sneer and her back to hypocrisy,
headed up Belleville Avenue, past Parsippany,

over the Poconos, across the Southern Tier,
into the embrace of the wise Justin Trudeau,
who tweets love, and “diversity is our strength,”
hashtag WelcomeToCanada, we have more Sikhs
in our cabinet than India does. We don’t do sweeps.

An empty granite pedestal in Upper New York Bay.
Since when are we the people others must escape?

(appeared previously on PoetsSpreadingTheNews.com)

Anaik Alcasas: Eavesdropping to “wow” your reader

Anaik Alcasas
Anaik Alcasas

I met Anaik Alcasas through The Marketing Seminar, Seth Godin’s new vehicle for spreading his insights and provoking new ones. She describes her business as providing “brand strategies for remarkables.” Follow her juicy #100booksinayear journey on Instagram @anaik_ed.

Eavesdropping to “wow” your reader

by Anaik Alcasas

How in the world can this writer be connecting directly with me—my pain points, core desires, need for affirmation and inspiration, insight and encouragement?

These are the kinds of things you would have heard four years ago if you were eavesdropping on my inner dialogue in the bookshop down the road.

Three years of in-depth research later, using a unique color-coding approach, have revealed several recurring themes in the most engaging motivational and prescriptive non-fiction. In brief, the most engaging writers seem to connect consistently with their readers—or so the research has shown—by touching on elements of audacity, credibility, storification, vulnerability, affirmation, illumination, generosity and inclusion, among others.

So let’s take that step by step, testing this theory, eavesdropping on the inner dialogue of your reader—that reader you’re writing for and to. We’ll italicize these thoughts, to remind us that this is potentially the inner dialogue of that reader:

Audacity

If you’re saying what everyone else is saying, just with a few minor adjustments, I’m not interested. Challenging the status quo? Tell me more. Disrupting some big traditional gatekeepers with your proposition? Tell me more. Challenging the oppressive troll under the bridge (whatever that may be) who scares people away from crossing over into more freedom, more opportunity, more fruitfulness, more solutions, more vital growth, greater resources to make a positive dent in the universe? Yep, talk to me.

While you’re articulating your audacious proposition, don’t forget to articulate the opposition (my pain points) and the promised transformation (why I should keep reading). And feel free to cycle through those things all throughout our time together – proposition, opposition, promised transformation.

Credibility

You’re not just stringing together nice-sounding words that you think will “sell” people (we’ve all tasted the cream-puff positive-psychology bull-o). Your credibility involves having done the hard yards for yourself, demonstrating you’ve put in the years, garnered real-world experience, done the reading and the research. Show me your roots and show me your foundation.

Oh, and while you’re at it, make sure you answer my unspoken questions “Why you? Why this? Why now?”

Storification

I’m wired to read stories, so package your knowledge and wisdom into stories, anecdotes, metaphors and analogies. This is the great antidote to cut-and-dry advice. If I wanted the preachments I’d go talk to my outlaws or that know-it-all neighbour—you know the one—always ready to dole out insular “advice” with an overtone of judgmentalism and a side of “you should.”

Storify your wisdom and I’ll lap it up and ask for more.

Vulnerability

If you haven’t fallen far and hard, suffered loss, run head first into severe obstacles that banged you up–if you’re too perfect and you’re hiding the real parts of your journey in the hopes I’ll trust your “perfect” image more than the next guy who’s sharing about his stomach-lurching lows and dizzying highs, think again.

I, your reader, am a deeply flawed human being with a business that might fall into dire straits without some actionable solutions, and I need to know that your teaching works for deeply flawed human beings and flailing businesses.

Affirmation

My favorite word after my personal name is “you” (copywriters know this), so what’s the “you-quotient” of what you’re trying to teach me?

I know, I know, it’s hard work to distill your training, wisdom, knowledge, and solutions into insanely useful content. But I don’t really care about what you’re saying unless you can bring it back to me through your affirmations and applications. Bring it back to those pain points you already identified. Empathize with my reader’s doubt and answer it directly, point by point.

Illumination

You’ve presented your data, stories, case studies, examples, and affirmed to me that these are written for me, right now, and can move me forward into the promised transformation I long for.

Keep on going! Your illumination provides context so you’re not just giving me a data dump, but you’re stringing it all together, giving it relevance and meaning for those pain points we talked about, and helping me to get excited.

These are the “aha moments” in your content, the tweetables. If you’d said them before the credibility and storification and all the rest, they would have merely been pontifications–unproven claims. But I’m totally on your side now, and I’m nodding along. Illuminate away.

Generosity

If I’ve read this far, it means I’ve already found a sense of tribe, a sense of belonging, within your content. You’ve already joined the ranks of one of my virtual mentors. Guess what’ll tip it into the realm of lifelong loyalty, something that really wows me, something that makes me get even more engaged and possibly make the deeper changes necessary for genuine progress? Your generosity elements – the checklists, summaries, recaps, bonus downloadables, and insider goodies designed just for those who are most on board … your ideal target audience.

Inclusion

You won me over, I voluntarily enrolled, I made the significant time investment to read your book, or watch your free webinar, or work through your ten-day-email tips course. Are you content with a one-sided conversation or do you want to move this into the realm of two-sided? If so, invite me to join your tribe, to sign up for more generous tips and insights, invite me to join a Facebook group, or to email you with questions.

Inclusion can be done many ways, but this is one of the most significant opportunities, one of the biggest differentiating factors between books and content BIE and AIE (before internet era and after the start of the Internet Era).

***

What would any of us do if we could—just for one day—read the minds of our ideal target readers? Certainly, we might change the depth with which we attempt to engage, personalize, and empathize with them.

The theory is that, what the most engaging writers have done intuitively—thanks to long-time leadership experience and high emotional-IQ (EQ)—we can learn to do intentionally, by paying attention to and “hearing” those readers we most want to serve with our writing.

So now it’s your turn to let us eavesdrop … which one of those nine elements describes your inner thought processes when you pick up a nonfiction book? And which one would you most like to nail in your next piece of writing?


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join Elaine for her popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

Sarah Cooper: Stressed about work? Quit your job, Donald.

Sarah Cooper
Sarah Cooper
Today’s guest blog comes from the brilliant satirist Sarah Cooper. If you’re still livin’ la vida corporate, her book 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings: How to Get By Without Even Trying will make you laugh at your life. If you’ve escaped from the corporate world—as Cooper did—it will make you laugh at your former colleagues’ lives. Either way: laughing.

Stressed About Work? It Might Be Time to Quit Your Job, Donald

by Sarah Cooper

Are you constantly frustrated about work?

Are you increasingly isolating yourself, yelling at your television and binging on Kentucky Fried Chicken?

Have you surrounded yourself with sycophants who support your idiotic ramblings, enable your bad behavior and lie to the American people for you?

Has your son-in-law been implicated in an ongoing FBI investigation into your collusion with the Russian government?

If so, it might be time to quit your job.

“For some Presidents, when it’s time to leave a job can be quite clear — like when their term is up — but for others, it might not be so obvious,” says Bob Johnson, a career coach and author of You Should Leave Your Job Now, Donald.

Johnson says some presidents know when it’s time for a change, “because they become irritable and paranoid, longing for the life they had before, and ultimately end up sabotaging the entire country.”

Sometimes, people don’t realize they’re unhappy with their job until they admit it in an interview with Reuters, or they realize they aren’t getting to do many of the things they’re really passionate about, like playing golf.

“People who are unhappy at work constantly complain that the media is unfair to them, embarrass themselves on the international stage, and get frustrated that no one will let this whole Russia investigation go,” Johnson says.

Cassie Saunders, founder of Please Quit Your Job Mr. President, Inc., says, “When some people see the signs that it’s time to leave their job, they might try to improve the situation by lying their ass off about how much they’ve accomplished, threatening to abolish the First Amendment, or going into denial by firing the FBI Director. But others are completely unaware of the signals that it’s time to get out.”

If you’re thinking about resigning but aren’t sure, here are 5 signs your job isn’t a good fit for you anymore, Donald.

1. You lack passion. Instead of waking up with a feeling of excitement toward your job, you wake up in the middle of the night and start intimidating witnesses in an ongoing FBI investigation into your ties with Russia.

2. You really dislike the people you work with. You try to work out the problems you’re having with the Media, the FBI, the Justice Department, your own lawyers, Congress, Democrats, Republicans, the American people, Mexico, Canada, North Korea, and China, but sometimes these problems have no solution.

3. Your productivity is suffering. If you used to get 5 rounds of golf done in a day and now you only get in one, or you used to watch Fox News for 14 hours a day but not it’s down to 8, you have to ask yourself: am I making the most of my time?

4. You have poor work-life balance. When you find that you’re spending less time with your family even though you’ve given them all positions in your administration, that could be a sign of poor work-life balance. This is never a sustainable situation.

5. Your ideas are not being heard. Has it gotten so bad you’ve had to hire a team of private lawyers to defend investigations into your Russian ties? When is the last time anyone took your ideas about 3–5 million people illegally voting in the election seriously? Or Obama wiretapping your phone? Or your pitch to get rid of the legislative filibuster? The truth is you’re probably being taken for granted and your skills might be useful elsewhere, like on a moderately successful reality TV show.

Once you realize it might be time to leave your job, just leave. Quit. Life is short. Do some traveling. Do it for yourself. Do it for America. Do it for all of us, Donald. Please.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join Elaine Bennett’s popular Writing Unbound program. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

My racist coworker: a true story

not a picture of my racist coworkerYes, I’m supposed to be on vacation. But I have something to say about Charlottesville, so I’m “reclaiming my time,” in the words of the inimitable Maxine Waters. I have a story you might need to hear, a true story about my racist coworker.

For about six months in 1985, I lived in Jacksonville, Florida. I hadn’t yet discovered my calling as a speechwriter, so I worked at a place that churned out forms for retirement plans. People elsewhere in the building plugged paragraphs into documents; I made small, predetermined adjustments and sent the documents to the printer, then collected the printouts and shuffled them off to the next stage.

The system had been designed for two people to do what I did, but the company had a hard time keeping anyone else in the job. Because the work was too boring? Nope. Because the work was too hard.

So I was thrilled when they finally found someone who could handle it. We’ll call her “Misti”—with an i instead of a y at the end because giving her two i’s allows the Misti of our imagination to dot the first i with a star, maybe, and the second with a heart. That was just the kind of ray of sunshine Misti was: perky and petite, always smiling. If you imagine she’s also white and blonde, you’ve got the picture. A high-school cheerleader straight out of central casting.

Misti proved quite capable at her job, so she stuck around awhile, and I was glad to have someone to chat with. I don’t remember what we were talking about that day, only that her next sentence came completely out of the blue. With all the authority an 18-year-old can muster, she announced: “You know, Elaine, the n*****s are trying to take over the world.”

My racist coworker

I don’t know whether I was more shocked by her statement or by the fact that she’d just used the N-word, right there in the office—with our black colleagues working just a few desks away.

“What…?” It was less a word than a strangled, shocked sound.

“Oh, it’s true,” she replied, in the same chirpy tone she used to describe what she’d brought for lunch. “You always hear them complaining about discrimination. You never hear white folks complaining about discrimination. Do you?”

It’s not easy to render me speechless, but that bit of twisted logic did. Of course, it’s hard to complain about something you never experience. But I didn’t say that. In fact, I don’t think I said anything to Misti. Ever again.

I left town in pretty short order. Hightailed it back to New York, to Brooklyn, where I could imagine that people never thought those kinds of things. Because they certainly never said those kinds of things. Not in polite company. Not around me.

It’s a privilege to walk away

Racism is like that if you’re a white person. It’s a casual remark you can ignore. Change the conversation, leave the room, move out of town and you can believe you’ve left it behind.

I don’t know if I could have changed Misti’s mind back there in Jacksonville in 1985. But I could have given my racist coworker something to think about. I could have introduced her to a different worldview. Instead I left her with her hateful beliefs intact, ready to pass on to any kids she might have in the future. Or, by now, grandkids. That’s three generations of racists I might have prevented. Or maybe not. But the point is I didn’t even try.

White Christmas 

Thirty-something years later: Christmas with my relatives, one of whom started a conversation that veered dangerously close to racism. Did I say something? Reader, I did not. I walked out of the room. I felt guilty about it at the time, but a few weeks later I would feel even worse.

My partner was talking to some black friends of ours, telling them about the experience. I tried to head her off, but she plowed on. I left that room, too. Couldn’t bear to see my black friends’ faces when my partner reached what seemed to her like a triumphant conclusion, “…and Elaine just left the room!”

Later I said, “I wish you hadn’t told them that story.”

“Why?”

“Because,” I said, “if I found out they’d heard someone saying disparaging things about LGBT people and all they did was walk away, I would have ripped them a new one.”

Forgive my salty language, but I feel strongly about people who ignore their responsibility as allies. Of course, I have no standing to criticize. As you now know, I’ve walked away too.

I wasn’t actually in Charlottesville

I left Misti behind when I moved out of Jacksonville. But her illogical argument, her strange racist reading of social interactions—those things pop up everywhere. And they’ll persist and spread until we can educate the people who believe them. And, worse, who act on their beliefs.

So no, I wasn’t part of the angry white mob in Charlottesville last weekend. But who knows how many people have crossed paths with my racist coworker in the 30 years since I declined to talk some sense into her? I stood by as she threw a pebble into a dark and ugly lake; the ripples of her hatred have had a long damn time to expand.

Let one racist continue in their ignorant thinking and that thinking will spread exponentially. But engage in thoughtful conversation with a racist—tell a story, speak about your own experience or the experiences of others—and you have a chance to stop the spread of hate. A slim chance, maybe. But that’s still a chance.

We can’t afford to be silent any more. To paraphrase the Buddhist teaching about planting a tree: The best time to have a conversation about racism is 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.

Yes, I’m looking at myself when I say that. And I invite you to look at yourselves, too.


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.

Samantha Bennett: Upside-down duck

Samantha Bennett
Samantha Bennett, photo by Erica Clendenin

As far as we know, Samantha Bennett and I are not related, but we’re both smart, funny, (and humble—can’t forget humble), and Steve Goodman fans, so I’m not ruling anything out. Originally from Chicago, Sam is a writer, speaker, actor, teacher and creativity/productivity specialist. She created The Organized Artist Company to help creative people get unstuck so they can focus and move forward on their goals. And she is the beloved author of two lavishly subtitled books: Get It Done: From Procrastination to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes a Day and Start Right Where You Are: How Little Changes Can Make a Big Difference for Overwhelmed Procrastinators, Frustrated Overachievers and Recovering Perfectionists (New World Library). —Elaine

You are an Upside-Down Duck

by Samantha Bennett

You know how ducks look so calm gliding along the surface, but underneath they are paddling like mad?

Sometimes I think you are the upside-down of that.

On the surface, you appear to be in chaos.

Too much clutter.

Too busy.

Can’t focus and don’t want to be hemmed in.

Dashing from one idea to the next.

Barely scraping by.

The people around you must feel like they are watching a high-wire act.

“Why doesn’t she just get a real job?” they wonder.

“Does everything have to be so emotional?” they sigh.

And you feel criticized and misunderstood and lonely and like you were born into a world that doesn’t have a place for you.

But I know the truth about you:

You are powerful beyond measure.

You have deep reserves of strength.

(After all, look at all you’ve survived…)

You have a light that is so bright—beyond the sun bright—you probably even got told to turn it down a bit.

(“You’re too dramatic, too loud, too big, too needy, too serious, too dreamy….”)

But just because you put your light under that bushel doesn’t mean it went away.

And as soon as you decide that it’s OK with you if your light shines into the world, you have some terrific opportunities. (Don’t skip over the significance of that decision: is it really OK with you if you get famous? Are you willing to lose a bit of privacy? Is it OK with you if you become more visible in the world?)

I’m here to tell you—there has never been a better time to be a teller of stories and a maker of things.

If you can wrap your head around the idea that the way you create is the way you succeed, you will become unstoppable. That is to say, you can create success in the exact same way that you create any other project. It can come from the same place inside of you. And it can feel as delicious as anything else you’ve ever made.

So what does that mean, exactly?

It means you can build a fan base by sending them love letters. Or by talking to them about Moroccan cooking. You can collect emails in exchange for a daily musing on reality television, or the work of Edward Albee. You can combine your talents and skills and put them on display to the world in a way that feels fun for you.

Here are a few examples:

A client of mine with a full-time corporate job was dreaming of starring in her own Oprah-style talk show. I told her to go outside right this moment and make a one-minute video about something inspiring and post it, and then do that every day. She took me at my word, and a year later she had several hundred short inspirational videos and a growing tribe of loyal followers.

Another client was a photographer who loved working in film (old-school film) and further, she realized that everything having to do with computers both annoyed her and aggravated her auto-immune disorder. So she began communicating with her clients and galleries strictly by mail, sending hand-written notes on lovely, creamy stationery. She became known as an exclusive, high-end, “artisanal” photographer, and now she keeps having to raise her rates because her schedule is always full.

I also had a client who simply could not get her marketing act together. She couldn’t finish her website, she didn’t like Facebook, she halfway started a podcast but then gave up….I was becoming concerned that her dream of empowering women and girls was going to end up in a dust heap of almosts-but-not-quites.

Finally I asked her, “What do you LIKE to do?” She said, “I like talking to people.” And it was true—she could strike up a conversation with a brick wall. So I said, “Fine. Do that. Spend at least one hour each day walking around places where people are gathered and have at least two conversations with strangers. Just see where it takes you.” Three days later she had talked herself into a meeting with the head of the local girls’ school to discuss adding her entire curriculum to their after-school program.

You are allowed to market your work your way. It almost doesn’t matter what you do—as long as you are doing something that lights you up and getting it out there.

Underneath your surface feelings of confusion, overwhelm, self-doubt and “sparkly thing” distractability, there is a calm, powerful knowing. Once you allow yourself to lean in to your strengths, your idiosyncrasies, and your desire to serve the world, you will get the opportunity to share your gifts in a bigger way.

You know that you have some very special skills that can really help people.

But you need to start making choices from your center of power and your inner wisdom. You need to lean in to your weirdness, your excitement and your nerdy-ness. Then you can stop relying on crappy part-time jobs and erratic windfalls. You can take control.

You can choose to live from your power, not from your chaos.

So quit thinking that you need to get all your ducks in a row, and instead embrace the odd duck that is so delightfully and unmistakably YOU.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join Elaine for her popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about growth.

Marlena Corcoran: “It wasn’t like that”

Dr. Marlena Corcoran, today’s guest blogger, is the author of The Athena Mentor College Application Workbook and Passport to College: The International Student’s Guide to the Best Education in the World (see her website, athenamentor.com, for more information). While participating in some of my daily writing challenges earlier this year, Marlena returned to her passion—stories inspired by her childhood in Brooklyn. I’m delighted that she’s chosen to share a story based on that work with you today.—Elaine

It wasn’t like that

by Marlena Corcoran

“It wasn’t like that,” says my sister.

She says it every time. Every time I publish something, the phone rings, and it’s my sister.

“It wasn’t like that.”

I listen to the list of factual errors, misrepresentations and misremembrances. Unlikelihoods. Conjectures.

I recognize transitions, metonymy, interior monologue. That’s what this is to me. Words on the page.

And then there are the plain old unattractive details that happen to be true, but did I really have to mention that.

And errors. If this were a quiz in a history class, I would fail. Even if every iota is, shall we say, correct, it just doesn’t add up for me in quite the same way it added up for everybody else. Each fact becomes a piece in a very wrong puzzle.

And then there are the things that only I would know. I get no phone calls there. Continued radio silence would have been so preferable.

***

Marlena Corcoran
Photo by Rachel Viader Knowles

So one day I joined an art action called “The Former Resident Project.” It was for people who used to live in Brooklyn. No current inhabitants allowed. This ensured we all were writing from memory. Our memories. Not a fact-checker in sight.

We were all invited to submit a story. I sent in eighteen. I’m sorry, but once I got going, I was on a roll. Decades of zip code 11209 got sent back to Rewrite.

The organizing artist printed out the stories on sheets of refrigerator magnet, and cut the stories to size. She traveled to the location of each story.

Did I mention they were site-specific.

She slapped each story on any metal thing that would anchor the magnet. Her idea was that people would take the stories home.

I don’t think anybody wanted my stories on their refrigerator. None of these stories was the King James Version of what went down in that particular neighborhood. But I was gratified to see the lamppost outside my childhood home covered with refrigerator magnets telling story after story of what went on behind those walls.

At least, as I saw it.

One of the magnets was set up far away, in an empty field. An airplane in the distance. Weeds. At the time, I couldn’t talk about it. The sign said only, “This was Barren Island.”

***

“Please return the family photos.”

You have to be kidding me. Return them to whom?

For once in my life, I did not ask myself what I had done wrong. I didn’t even reply to my cousin’s mail. I figured some day she might even think what a miracle it is, that someone twisted our lives into little pipe cleaner figures on a stage, that maybe might mean something to somebody else, or maybe might mean something all by themselves.

I thought back to my mother’s friend Audrey, talking to my mother about a movie that had just come out. It was set in our neighborhood: Saturday Night Fever.

“It wasn’t anything like that,” she hissed. “How could they say those things?” My mother nodded in agreement. “It’s nothing like that.” They turned to me. “Is it.”

I turned away. Maybe the miracle is that we agree on anything at all. How things are. The way they were.

Wie es eigentlich gewesen: how it really was.


Write better when you write more often. Join Elaine Bennett’s 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and we’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Elaine St. George: Happy birthday, Arlo

Our first guest blog post comes from…me, the singing side of me. I don’t blog often as Elaine St. George—come to think of it, I don’t sing often as her these days, either. But I’ll take any opportunity to remind the world about the underappreciated singer-songwriter Steve Goodman. So enjoy this post from July 10th, 2015:

Happy birthday, Arlo

by Elaine St. George

Arlo Guthrie
Arlo in 1979, publicity photo from Warner Bros.

It’s Arlo Guthrie’s birthday today. Obviously Arlo holds a special place in the hearts of Steve Goodman fans. His cover of “City of New Orleans” gave Steve his first visibility. Well, as much visibility as a songwriter ever gets when he’s not singing his own song. Even if it’s a hit.

When I bought my first Steve Goodman album in the late ’70s and found “City of New Orleans” on it, I’ll admit I checked the credits twice. Like most of the rest of America, I assumed Steve was covering Arlo’s song. A few years later, of course, that perception changed. When Willie Nelson sang “City of New Orleans” in the mid-’80s, presumed authorship of the song transferred to him. Steve got his first Grammy when Willie’s cover won “Best Country Song.” But by then Steve was no longer around to receive it. He’d died a few months earlier.

And that brings me back to Arlo Guthrie, because in a way it was through him that I rediscovered Steve. Well, not “rediscovered”—I’d never forgotten about him. But that was when I decided to put together a whole show of Steve’s songs. And that show has now turned into an album. But I digress…

(Cue the harp and the wavy focus to signify a flashback…)

Five or six years ago, I did a show in Boston. The venue wanted a longer set than I’d planned so I had to add some material and I thought, “Why not do some songs written by people who live in Massachusetts?” First person who came to mind was James Taylor, but I had trouble finding a second. Then I remembered Arlo Guthrie had written “Alice’s Restaurant” about a place in the Berkshires so I decided he’d be perfect. I couldn’t cover “Alice’s Restaurant”—I didn’t have that much time to fill! But I thought I’d sing “City of New Orleans” and tell a story about how Arlo hadn’t written it, Steve Goodman had.

Being a thorough kind of gal, I researched the backstory and I discovered two things:

  1. Arlo first heard “City of New Orleans” when Steve had the guts to walk up to him out of the blue in a crowded bar, introduce himself, and ask Arlo to listen to the song. The rest, as they say, is history.
  2. Steve had the guts to do that because he knew he didn’t have any time to waste. He was dying of leukemia. In fact, he had died in 1984 at the age of 36. And I’d had no idea.

A little more research confirmed that #1 wasn’t exactly the truth. But #2 absolutely was. This guy whose work I loved—whose songs were so full of life and heart—was gone. And I’d missed it completely.

How had I remained so clueless? I’d moved on, listening more to showtunes, the Great American Songbook, and jazz than to the folk music that had sustained me in my teen years. But now that I knew the real story—or something closer to the real story—of Steve’s big break as a songwriter, I thought more people deserved to hear it. And I decided I needed to tell it.

For the record, the real story—as recounted in Clay Eals’s incredibly thorough book Steve Goodman: Facing the Music—is that the meeting was no accident. It was set up by a Chicago club owner who knew Steve had a great song on his hands and wanted to get him a break. The other part of the real story is that Steve only became a songwriter after doctors told him he had leukemia, and maybe only a year more to live. With typical Steve guts, he managed to stretch that one year out to 16.

That resonated with me. No one would have blamed Steve if he’d spent the rest of his life on a beach somewhere. But he insisted on living. And creating. That’s when he turned himself into a songwriter. And that’s how he had the guts to sing his song for Arlo Guthrie. Yes, the meeting was prearranged. But Steve showed up for it. And he kept showing up, until the leukemia finally claimed him.

I don’t know if you’ve ever done anything creative—art, singing, whatever—but it takes courage to stand up there on stage or hang your picture on a wall and say, “This is who I am. This is what I care about.” Steve did that. He seized every opportunity he could to share his work with people. He inspires me as an artist every day. And I hope that by telling his story and singing his songs, I can inspire other people to do whatever seems hardest for them.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying: Thank you, Arlo Guthrie. You have no idea who I am, but you’ve had an impact on my life. Happy birthday.


 

“Everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes”

I’m going on vacation. My first honest-to-God, gonna-unplug-from-my-clients vacation in about 10 years. Yes, and I’m taking a vacation from this blog too.

The invaluable Anne Lamott says

“Everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes.”

And that’s not just toasters and modems—writers, too. I’ll let you know if she’s right. But stay tuned: I’ve lined up an all-star cast of fascinating people to guest-blog in my absence.

Enjoy them. And enjoy this lovely summer we’re having.

xo

Elaine

Cinematic politics, 1987 — from David Sedaris’s diary

The political situation is far too fraught these days. I’ll leave analysis to the professionals (if you’re worried about North Korea, check out this special emergency episode of Tommy Vietor’s Pod Save the World). So I thought it might be fun—fun! not a word you hear in connection with politics these days—to check out a little cinematic politics circa 1987.

Our guide is David Sedaris. Please forgive him for using the term “hermaphrodite”—that was what we called Intersex people back in the day. If you’ve had a classical education you’ll appreciate the word’s deft combination of the deities Hermes and Aphrodite—but today the people in the community prefer Intersex. That term was not in wide use when Sedaris wrote this diary entry, 30 years ago.

Ah, the diary. I should probably mention that Sedaris has published excerpts from 25 years of his diaries under the title Theft by Finding. I’ve only made my way through 1991 so far, but it’s full of quirky observations like this one.

Cinematic politics, Sedaris-style

cinematic politicsAnd so to the passage in question:

January 18, 1987
Chicago

In the mail we received a video guide of new releases. One movie is called Never Too Young to Die. The copy reads, “A vicious hermaphrodite wants to control the country, and only two people stand in his way. [Only two?] The resulting ‘battle of the sexes’ will blow your mind with a heady mixture of powerful heavy-metal music, state-of-the-art weaponry, martial arts, and espionage that makes this exciting action flick a winner.”

Note: that “Only two?” editorial comment is Sedaris’s. Of course. He continues:

“Times have changed when a hermaphrodite wants to control the country and only two people stand in his way. If he were a black or Hispanic hermaphrodite, he’d probably have a harder time of it.”

You’ve probably noticed that both writers—the anonymous copywriter and Sedaris—assign the “hermaphrodite” a male pronoun. That’s probably because the actor playing “Velvet Von Ragner” was himself a man. And not just any man: Gene Simmons of the band Kiss. I’m surprised Sedaris didn’t mention the other star of the movie—John Stamos. Then again, he may have missed the debut that year of Stamos’s sitcom Full House.

But I promised you sexual politics: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say in Sedaris’s adopted homeland, France. Sedaris’s observation that “a black or Hispanic [would] probably have a harder time of it” is a classic example of “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Anyway, as we contemplate the potential destruction of our country if not our world, I thought it might be refreshing to time-travel back to 1987, when the person wreaking the havoc at least had the decency to do it intentionally, with a heavy-metal soundtrack. Stay safe, everyone.


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

Are longer lists better? — Frequent Questions

Q: Are longer lists are better than short ones?
A: [steam coming out of ears] I. Hate. Lists.

longer listsElmore Leonard said writers should always “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

If only we could identify those parts in advance, eh?

Well, some of them we can.

Like lists.

I hate lists.

They’re just plain lazy. And did someone say boring? Oh, you bet.

Bullet-pointed lists are meant to impress the reader, I suppose. Ooh—look at all the things! But to me bullet-pointing lists is like going to a networking event and throwing a big stack of business cards at a table full of strangers.

Would you ever be impressed by that? Ooh—hasn’t she been busy collecting cards!

Reader, I’m going to answer this one for you, because I know you’re not idiots. You would not be impressed by that. Not ever. Not only is it unhelpful—just like lists—it’s also downright rude. So don’t give your reader a bunch of things—tell them what’s special about each one.

Lists disguised as sentences at least show a bit more effort on the writer’s part. But they still lump everything together in an undifferentiated mass. If something is important enough for you to mention, it’s important enough for you to tell me why you’re mentioning it.

Longer lists are not better than short

If you insist on making a list, keep it short. And use what writers call The Rule of Three:

Wikipedia very appropriately offers three reasons this rule works. And they’re not presented as a list, either, so 10 points for Wikipedia:

The reader or audience of this form of text is…more likely to remember the information conveyed. This is because having three entities combines both brevity and rhythm with having the smallest amount of information to create a pattern.[2][3] It makes the author or speaker appear knowledgeable while being both simple and catchy.

I added the emphasis there. Now let me translate it into a more readable form: Your list will be more memorable, being shorter. Three is the fastest pattern you can create, and patterns are always more memorable. Plus, you seem smart—while being memorable.

I’d add a fourth use for the Rule of Three, because establishing and quickly breaking a pattern is not only memorable, it can also be damn funny. Breaking the pattern with the third item in the list gets a laugh because the listener recognizes the pattern with the second item and before they even realize they’ve recognized the pattern, you go and break it. For instance, you might imagine a flight attendant going through the airplane asking:

“Would you like coffee, tea, or Xanax?”

I didn’t expect that. Funny!

Breaking the pattern on the fourth or fifth item will only get you a confused stare.

“Would you like coffee, tea, soda, juice, or Xanax?”

What?

The list that ate my headline

Back in the day, I sometimes wrote press releases for a—well, let’s be nice here—an extraordinarily picky client. For a press release about a famous artist, I wrote a headline that mentioned three of this person’s most iconic works. The client added a fourth. And a fifth. Still not enough variety. Pretty soon the headline was a laundry list—one of the longer lists you’ll ever encounter. (Pro Tip: Headlines are not supposed to take up half the page.)

“I don’t like the headline,” the client whined. “It’s too clunky.”

[headdesk]

“That’s because you keep adding things to it,” I said. “Keep it to three things and it’ll be snappier”—and I named the artist’s three most iconic pieces.

I don’t remember how many pieces we ended up listing in the final headline, but I think only one of my suggestions made the cut. When the media wrote about the release, though, guess how many pieces they cited? Yes, three. Because journalists know what they’re doing. They also know an iconic image when they see it; all three were the pieces I’d suggested to begin with.

Don’t mess with the rule of three, folks. It’s smart, efficient, and journalist-approved. Tempted to publish longer lists? Don’t say Elmore Leonard and I didn’t warn you.


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