“I write best when I’m inspired”

One of my friends is writing a book, but it’s taking longer than she expected. Why? “I write best when I’m inspired,” she says. So even though she’s blocked off time to write on her calendar, she often doesn’t fill it.

I pulled out the Somerset Maugham quotation:

“I write only when I’m inspired. Fortunately, inspiration arrives at 9:30 every morning.”

We all write best when we’re inspired; no surprise there. But inspiration is a lot like Godot—you never know when (or if) it will arrive.

Real writers—by which I mean the kind of writers who finish projects and ship them out into the world—write even when inspiration gets grounded by a tornado at O’Hare. Will it be our best work? Not bloody likely. But it will be something. And “something,” we can always edit that to make it better.

Write best when you edit later

write best when you edit laterMy friend took my advice to sit down and write, whether or not she felt like it. The next day, she confessed how hard it was to write without editing. She didn’t like leaving her work “imperfect.”

I guess she didn’t get the memo: Nothing is ever perfect. And, anyway, how can you know what “perfect” looks like if you’ve only written a few paragraphs. You can’t possibly know how those paragraphs will fit in the jigsaw puzzle of words you’re assembling. Besides, you need to let the writing sit before you edit it. Otherwise you’re like a car stuck in a muddy rut: you can spin your wheels but you won’t make any forward progress.

Writing engages your creativity. Editing engages your critical faculties. Nothing shuts down creativity faster than a critic, especially when the critic is in your own head.

So give yourself free rein to write when you write. And let the critic wait until you’re done—yes, with the entire piece—before you edit. In fact, finish writing the entire project and then put it away for a day, a week, a month—the longer it took you to write, the longer you should wait. And then revise. It’ll be worth it in the end, I promise.


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Oddball: one of these things is not like the others

For probably my last blog about the cemetery (for this year), I’d like to take you on a brief tour.

Meet the Putnam family headstone:

the most elegant marble gravestone

I love that font. Very elegant. And don’t worry—individual Putnams are either listed on the reverse or accorded their own tiny stones around the family one. That’s not the point of this post.

Meet the Mischitellis:

white gravestone, 19th century-style font

I don’t know what to call that font but it reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelites for some reason. And the stone is nowhere near Pre-Raphaelite-era.

And the Lipperas.

black granite gravestone; white carvingBlack granite would not be my first choice but this works very well. That’s not the point of this post, either.

Now, meet these folks:

gravestone featuring a period at the end of the family's name

And there’s the point of this post. A grave marker (pink granite obelisk atop concrete) with a punctuation mark.

As in “Period. End of sentence.”

Punctuation on a gravestone. Well, it is The End—for those Barrells, at any rate.

As I was driving out of the area, I passed a building with punctuation. I thought it was the same family, but no. Those were Bartletts. As in

restaurant logo, with a period at the end

(That’s from their website; it’s the same font that’s painted on the 1870 building, only a different color.)

With the grave marker, I’m thinking maybe the guy realized too late that he had extra room and threw in a period for balance. But I don’t think that excuse holds for whoever painted the “Bartlett House.” sign.

In any case, this concludes my series of blogs inspired by the cemetery. May all of the folks who inspired me rest in peace.

And may you enjoy finding business stories wherever you happen to be. That’s the point of these stories.

Period.

Through the back door — shame and the Hall of Fame

The National Baseball Hall of Fame held its 2018 Induction ceremony this past weekend—that’s one of the reasons I took Thursday off to visit Cooperstown; I wanted to avoid the Induction Weekend crowds.

front door to the field. Pete Rose can't slip in this back door.
Entrance to the ballpark in Cooperstown that hosts the Hall of Fame Induction. (my own photo)

Cooperstown remains a lovely New England-y village. A friend of mine, a former sportswriter, compares it to Brigadoon because “it comes alive only in the summer.” Brigadoon on the fast track, you might say.

On this lovely summer day as I walked down the main street, I passed an elderly man sitting nonchalantly on a bench opposite a memorabilia shop, periodically announcing that a ’70s-era baseball star was inside, signing autographs.

The deal was, you’d go in the shop and buy a ticket to see the player. But then you had to exit the shop and find your way to the back of the building, whereupon you could re-enter and make your way into His Presence.

Now, this arrangement probably makes sense for many perfectly non-metaphorical reasons. If the shop let the autograph-seekers line up in the front door, it might prevent other customers from coming in. Or they may have been taking a cue from Disneyland, creating the longest possible line in the smallest possible space.

Shame & the back door

But the afternoon I was there, I saw no line. Didn’t seem to be much of a rush to buy tickets, either. Maybe things would change once the crowds appeared over the weekend, but on Thursday the old baseball player could have been sitting next to guy touting his presence on the sidewalk and he wouldn’t have stopped any traffic.

Still, I found it appropriate that fans wanting to see him had to sneak in the back door. Because the player sitting somewhere in the recesses of that musty memorabilia shop, earning a living by wielding a Sharpie, was Pete Rose.

The greatest baseball commissioner of the modern age, A. Bartlett Giamatti, banned Rose from baseball for life. Rose had developed a gambling addiction and bet on baseball games—a major no-no. He’d even bet on some games he managed, though he swore he never bet against his own team. Later, when he had a book to sell, I think he abandoned even that excuse.

I know, I know, betting on baseball hardly merits an “oopsie” in the current age—when ethical violations at the highest levels seem to occur about as often as Starbucks sells lattes. While our government holds tiny children in cages after ripping them from their families, outrage about betting on a baseball game seems almost quaint.

But for those of us who love the game—and ethics—nothing short of Giamatti’s lifetime ban would do. Today’s commissioners, drawn from the ranks of baseball team owners, seem to care less about ethics than about cash and star-power. The “lifetime ban” on one steroid-using pitcher will last about three years. And not because the guy has died.

Maybe the shop owners hid Rose inside because if he’d been out on the sidewalk, people would have told him what they thought of him. And it wouldn’t have all been polite, believe me.

Rose is tip-toeing back toward baseball now, hoping a commissioner with less spine than Bart Giamatti will let him back in the front door. So far, no; I hope that holds.

He’s a color commentator for one of the networks that broadcasts games nationally (maybe Fox?). But notwithstanding his prowess as a baseball player, the back of a memorabilia shop should be as close as Pete Rose will ever get to a Hall of Fame induction.


Funny thing about writing: it’s one creative skill you can actually learn—and improve—by doing it every day. Get the skills and support you need to get your writing out in the world. A new Writing Unbound class begins this fall.

Paintball in the cemetery? Details matter.

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

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

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

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

Today I took a closer look at the stone.

details matter —headstone painting of deer in a forest

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

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

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

Details matter in writing, too

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Bats & gloves galore — a day at the Baseball Hall of Fame

Last time I went to the Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown, NY—nearly 30 years ago—I loved it so much I spent two straight days there. This time: about four hours. As I toured its three floors, I realized that the exhibits mostly consisted of about five things: bats, balls, gloves, caps, and jerseys. It’s like the Metropolitan Museum of Arts’s Costume Institute, minus the sequins.

Three greats greet you at the Hall of Fame entrance: Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente

But even though so many of the artifacts on exhibit may belong to the same genus—baseballs, for instance—they tell remarkably nuanced stories if you care to look. There’s the baseball (could it really have been black? I think it was) that one young man hit for a home run in his very first at-bat as a major leaguer. Astonishing. What’s even more astonishing, he’s only the most recent player to achieve that feat; three others did it ahead of him.

And jerseys. Most come from players’ high points. There’s Daniel Murphy’s Mets jersey from the 2015 post-season, when he briefly lifted himself from mediocrity. Two jerseys side by side commemorate Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s race to break the single-season home run record. Sadly, those jerseys hang in an exhibit about performance-enhancing drugs, which both athletes were later found to have taken. A stain on the game.

Baseball brings people together

Then there’s the Hall itself, a light, airy space lined with bronze plaques featuring bas-relief likenesses of some of the heroes of the game. Upstairs, in the Museum wing, you’ll find a fairly thorough and honest exhibit about the old Negro Leagues and another one on the impact Latino players have had on the game. But down in the Hall of Fame, everyone is the same color: bronze.

Baseball team owner & civil rights activist, Effa Manley

I don’t wish for a color-blind society; we need to appreciate, not erase, our differences. But in the Hall of Fame, everyone is equal. You can’t see who speaks English and who doesn’t (something a few baseball fans I know care about, though I wish they didn’t). All you can see is greatness. Hundreds of men—and at least one woman!—who all love this game.

My Mets have been playing poorly this year. Many fans wonder if the owners care about winning anymore. But my day in Cooperstown reminded me why I love the game so much.

And it reminded me how many stories you can find, even if you’re only looking at hundreds of balls, bats, gloves, caps, and jerseys.


If I could find so many stories in a museum devoted to one thing, how many stories can we find in the marvelously diverse setting of the Getty Center? Architecture, gardens, art, people-watching. Join us for the Story Safari™ Field Trip.

“I just didn’t get the potatoes” — metaphors that work

“I just didn’t get the potatoes.”

potatoes and metaphorsNo, my friend wasn’t talking about an unexpectedly starch-free dinner. She was talking about a metaphor. Or, I suppose since they were literal potatoes rather than descriptions of potatoes, we should properly call them a symbol.

We had gone, separately, to see the production of Leonard Bernstein’s rarely seen musicalization of the Peter Pan story. At the opening of said production, a group of young people in yellow hazard suits wheeled a metal shopping cart full of potatoes onstage. They then spent several minutes scurrying back and forth, lining the potatoes up at the front edge of the stage. I think this action took place instead of a traditional overture. And if you’re wondering what potatoes have to do with Peter Pan, you are clearly not alone.

One of the primary rules of good directing is if you put something onstage, you have to use it. If the set has a balcony, you can expect someone will appear on it before the final curtain. If there’s a door, it will get slammed. If there’s a row of potatoes…well, Wendy affixed one around her neck (she told Peter it was a kiss) and it later saved her from being killed by an arrow. And Captain Hook’s crew speared them and cooked them like marshmallows over their campfire. That was enough to justify their existence for me.

Oh, and the shopping cart in which the potatoes made their original entrance! We saw that again, put to delightful use when it ferried a mermaid with a lovely voice across the stage at key moments. Well, you wouldn’t expect a mermaid to walk. She sat on top of the cart, waving her fin seductively.

Perhaps you can tell, this Peter Pan was a very fanciful production. Quirky and weird, and for the most part charming.

Use your potatoes—er, metaphors—wisely

But the potatoes.

My friend who didn’t “get” them is no rube. She’s a longtime theater reviewer around these parts; she’s seen it all. But I have to agree with her. The potatoes did seem rather random. Although the director made an effort to incorporate them in the stage business, there’s no real reason the items in question had to be tubers. They could as easily have been stuffed animals, or marshmallows, or pool noodles, or…

You might easily run into the same problem with your writing. Tell stories, use metaphors — by all means! But whatever you use must tie in with the theme of your work.

That’s not to say you need to address it in every paragraph. No faster way to bore a reader.

But if you start the piece with it, find a way to bring it back at the end. That will deliver a very satisfying experience for your reader. Bonus points if you can mention it lightly somewhere in the middle, but circling back to it at the end will tie up your writing in a neat little bow.

Oh, and this may go without saying, but don’t use potatoes. I mean, you can if they tie into your subject clearly. But don’t leave your audience scratching their heads—they might spend so much time trying to figure out your metaphor that they completely forget the important ideas you’re delivering.

Or they’ll find themselves craving French fries by the end of your speech.


Discover how to find unique metaphors and use them to make your work unforgettable. Join me on a field trip to the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Details here.

Don’t bury the lede – lessons from the cemetery

You may not know how to spell it, but you’ve all heard the word lede. As in

“Don’t bury the lede.”

The lede (not “lead”) is the most important piece of information in a piece of journalism. Wiktionary adds an important piece of information about the spelling—intended to avoid confusion with the lead (metal) used in setting newspaper type.

Everyone cites Nora Ephron’s example—from her high school journalism teacher—who spun out a long story about the teachers taking a day off the following Thursday to go to some state-wide conference with the Governor (or something). He asked the students to imagine they were writing that story for the school newspaper: what’s the lede?

Surely the “most important” information in that story is that their teachers would be meeting with the Governor, no?

Not for a student audience: the most important detail is “No school on Thursday.” If that’s not the first sentence of the school newspaper’s story, the writer has buried the lede.

gravestones. hopefully no buried ledesBut on my stroll through the cemetery yesterday, I came across a literal case of burying the lede.

There’s a gravestone for a woman named Anne. I’ll call her Anne Surname #1.

What does the stone tell us about Anne?

She’s identified as wife of Peter Surname #1, who died in the 1930s and of Samuel Surname #2, who died in the 1950s.

When did Anne die?

That’s an excellent question—in fact, it’s not a stretch to call it the lede in the story the gravestone tells. But apparently no one thought to answer it.

Yep, the only info we have on Anne is her name—no, not even that—her first married name and her two husbands’ names.

Everybody knows the lede?

Do you find it hard to believe that no one—not the family, not the gravestone-carver—noticed the missing information? I don’t.

How many emails have you received inviting you to events or webinars…but neglecting to tell you when those events might be happening?

When you’re writing for an internal audience at your company, it’s easy to forget details. Maybe not the lede—hopefully not the lede—but many times internal communications tell you what a new program is, but not why it matters to the reader.

Don’t assume that everyone knows. Within your team, maybe. But if you’re trying to reach a wider audience, make sure to get an extra set of eyes on your draft. Have someone who’s not involved in the program give it the once-over. And then answer any questions they have.

I only wish we could do that for Anne.


Unbury your ledes and discover the keys to writing great business writing. No, that’s not an oxymoron. Register for my Writing Unbound program; next class begins in Fall 2018.

Can you be over-prepared?

over-prepared listmakingNo one will ever mistake me for the most organized person in the world. I strive to be prepared, but I doubt I’ll ever make it to “over-prepared.”

Certainly not to the degree of one couple around here. (And yes, “around here” means the cemetery in the midst of which I’m living this month.)

I’ve grown used to seeing gravestones with room for another name or two. Sometimes, for instance, they’ll go ahead and engrave the wife’s name when only the husband has died. I guess they figure it’s a pretty good bet she’ll end up there eventually. On those stones, you’ll see hubby’s name with dates of birth and death and the wife’s name and birth date. That’s preparation.

And then there’s over-preparation. One gravestone here features husband’s and wife’s names and dates of birth. But no second dates.

In the immortal words of Monty Python, they’re

Not Dead Yet.

The plan ahead-stone

Now, I know people pre-plan their funerals. They pre-pay for the services, pick out their burial plot. It takes some of the responsibility off the shoulders of their grieving families. Nice.

I can see picking out a gravestone—voicing your opinions on material, design, font. Surely someone has come up with the wedding registry equivalent for funerals. (If not, a free business idea for you, readers.)

But erecting and engraving your own headstone seems a tad much to me. Are they over-prepared or just overly controlling?

Then again, with some of the gravestones I’ve seen around here, folks might be wise to take things into their own hands…while they still have hands.

I’ve written about graveside decor (soon to be a Martha Stewart magazine, no doubt)—but that’s stuff added to the plot. Some of the more modern stones carry their own decorations. Supposed to be whimsical, I guess.

One features a traditional front—name, dates, etc. But the back of the stone shows  a kitten pawing a ball of yarn on the left corner facing off against…Snoopy as the World War I flying ace on the right corner. The sizes are way off: Kitty looks like Godzilla compared to poor Snoopy. If someone slapped “art” like that on my gravestone, I’d haunt them forever. And report them to the copyright office, too.

Is there a Story Safari™ in this?

Probably. It could be about taking too much control vs. letting things take their course. It could be a about the dangers of giving the wrong people room to exercise their own creativity. It could be about having so many different points of view that none of them makes sense—Godzilla Kitty about to defeat Snoopy’s flying doghouse by rolling a giant ball of yarn into it.

Bonus Story

I saw a pizza stone today.

No, not a stone you put in your oven to make the crust turn crispy. A gravestone with the family name on it: Pizza. It was rectangular, not round; I guess they’re Sicilian.

I can only wonder what travails Mr. & Mrs. P. endured. For instance, imagine this conversation:

“I’d like to order a large pepperoni pie to go.”

“Sure, sir. What’s the name?”

“Pizza.”

“Yes, a pepperoni pizza. What name should I put that under?”

[and…you get the idea]


Whatsamattafayou? You haven’t registered for my Story Safari™ Field Trip to the Getty Center yet? My neighbors here are dying to go—but they can’t. Take advantage of your time aboveground and learn how to spice up your writing as only you can.

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

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

Humor or heartache?

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

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

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

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

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

Humor, the “home run” of writing

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

What do you do?

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

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

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

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


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

Goats 4 Sale—sometimes you need more words

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

Goats 4 Sale

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

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

Taxidermist

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

How low can you go?

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

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

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

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

Are you confusing your audience?

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

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

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

(Sorry.)


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