All fall down

I’ve been editing a video for the last three days, in between an unprecedented number of calls, interviews for pieces one of my clients wants me to write. Still, I managed to piece together the five or so hours I needed to edit the final video in myWriting Unbound program. And when I tried to upload the finished product to the internet, something crashed. You know what’s coming, right? The verb “tried” gives it away: 

the entire edit disappeared.

There’s a backup of most of it somewhere, but I can’t look for it right now, okay? I’m too busy wallowing in frustration and exhaustion and probably a handful of other -tions I’m too pissed off to identify.

Sometimes I hate technology.

I don’t, however, hate it nearly as much as the current FCC, which yesterday voted to turn the free and open internet into a playground for the haves and have-nots. 

If they truly do succeed in killing net neutrality, it might not matter if I ever get my video edited. Who will be allowed to see it? How much will my clients have to pay to access my website, my courses? How much will I have to pay to access the searching and streaming services that enable me to function as a writer working remotely with clients around the world?
The fight isn’t over. Check Battle for the Net for action steps. Call your Senators and Congressional Representatives, as they have some power here.

Killing Net Neutrality will wipe out small businesses and the growing “gig economy.” And those of us who’ve been able to do business from bases in small towns? We may have to hightail it back to the cities and stop working remotely.

But now it’s Friday night and I have another small town to consider: I’m going to decorate my first gingerbread house.

“Day of Utter Suckitude” — wisdom from composer Dale Trumbore

If you’d asked me before this morning, I would have told you that writing music and writing words don’t have much in common. For one thing, we word-writers have a whole lot more material to work with—26 letters in the Western alphabet vs. 12 tones in a Western scale. That’s 14 more things we get to play with and, well, if you want to know how many more combinations that gives us, you’ll have to ask a mathematician.

utter suckitude
Dale Trumbore, photo by Krysti Sabins (from Dale’s website)

What changed this morning? I read a piece my friend Dale Trumbore, the very talented composer, wrote about creativity. And every word in it rings true.

Before I even finished the first paragraph, I knew I wanted to write a blog post about Dale’s piece. Everyone who creates in any medium goes through what Dale calls the Day of Utter Suckitude, when everything you’ve created seems like crap. On those days, I even hate the punctuation. I’d bet Dale even finds faults with the rests.

The important thing to remember is that the Day of Utter Suckitude isn’t the entire creative journey, just like McDonald’s rest rooms aren’t your entire road trip. You get to look at prettier things along the way, too—the back roads, the quaint inns.

Can you tell I spend far too much time on Rt. 95? And, yes, sometimes it feels like my entire day is just one McDonald’s rest stop after another. I remember one quick round-trip from Massachusetts to New York when I was so sick of driving that the only thing that got me back in the car was realizing that the alternative was spending the rest of my life in a McDonald’s.

And that’s what bounces creative people out of our Days of Utter Suckitude.

“I hate speechwriters” and other true-life tales

I was a baby-speechwriter, just two or three years into the profession, when I got the chance to interview for a plum role: speechwriter for the CEO of an even bigger, older, and fancier organization than the one for which I was already working. I gussied myself up, even bought new shoes. And the interviewer’s first words to me?

“I hate speechwriters.”

Not the most auspicious of opening lines. I can’t remember what I said in response, but what I wish I’d said is:

“Then I’m glad I’m not interviewing to be your speechwriter.”

No, what I really wish I’d said would have involved a few expletives. But at the time I was still hoping to land the job.

I’ve thought about that interview a few times over the years. It’s possible he was mimicking his CEO’s demeanor to see how well I would stand up to him. Or it’s possible he was just an ass. At any rate, I got to eat lunch in the organization’s storied dining room. And new shoes.

I’ve often said that my favorite clients are smart enough to know good writing when they see it, but too busy to do it themselves. Seems simple enough. But that requires clients to recognize two things: That I’m as good as or better than they are at writing speeches. And that, no matter how much they enjoy writing, they have better uses for their time.

If you’ve been a fan of Pod Save America, the podcast fronted by several veterans of President Obama’s White House speechwriting shop, you may be surprised that President – well , then-Senator – Obama did not leap at the opportunity to hire Jon Favreau.

“I don’t think I need a speechwriter, but you seem nice enough.”

Really? Obama was one of those clients? It doesn’t completely tarnish his image in my mind; given what replaced him in the White House, I’m not sure if anything could. And he did come around later, apparently becoming very appreciative of his speechwriting team’s efforts. But, still, one wishes he’d have understood from the beginning the benefits of a hired pen.

Then again, if everybody understood the benefits of ghostwriters, there wouldn’t be so much awful writing out in the world. And so many great assignments just waiting for the right ghost to find them.

Romance novelist knows best — Nora Roberts on writing

First a confession: I have never read any of Nora Roberts’s novels. It’s not that they’re hard to find. She highlights five “New Releases” on her website. Five. Most authors struggle to turn out one book a year. But I’ve never read even one, so I am in no position to comment on her craft.

Nora Roberts New Releases

Her dedication, on the other hand, well that impressed the hell out of me. Roberts managed to dispense some excellent advice in between quips on the NPR show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me. Host Peter Sagal asked her if she ever suffered from writer’s block.

Roberts replied:

“I don’t let myself believe in it. I feel very strongly writing is a habit as much as an art or a craft.”

She continued—and I would paint this over the threshold of my classroom, if I had anything more than a virtual classroom:

“If you write crap, you’re still writing—and you can fix that. But if you walk away, then you’ve broken the habit.”

You can fix bad writing. You can’t fix no writing. So get in the habit of writing—she didn’t say daily, but surely you can’t churn out five novels a year by only writing on Saturdays. Get in the habit of writing daily—and stay there.

 


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

Thanks, writers.

thanksYes I love my friends and family (and my canine assistant Fenway, too). But when I look through my daily lists of gratitudes, one word pops up more than any other: Writing.

I’m grateful that I get to do it—and for a living, even. So thanks to my clients, and to those of you who read what I write under my own name, here and elsewhere.

I’m grateful that I get to read it—so many writers doing beautiful, important, moving work.

  • If you haven’t discovered Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, you have two seasons’ worth of glorious binge-listening ahead of you. Today would be a fine time to start.
  • And while I’ve always found Masha Gessen’s work fascinating, it’s become even more urgent (if depressing) as the country I love slides toward authoritarianism.
  • David Litt, a fellow speechwriter, made me laugh out loud with his White House memoir.
  • And Elizabeth Gilbert gives me hope. I don’t have a satisfying link for that; guess I’ll have to write about her soon.

And I’m grateful that I get to teach it. It’s a cliché that you learn from your students. But clichés become clichés because they’re true. My writers inspire me with their questions, their insights, their excellent work in a jaw-dropping number of genres. And their courage.

I’m grateful to everyone who writes and pushes their work out of the nest. Thank you for letting the rest of us share your ideas and wonder at your creativity.

So here’s a Thanksgiving blessing for you, my fellow writers:

May your desk chairs be comfy and your WiFi be strong.

I look forward to seeing what we all come up with next.


Need a jumpstart to get yourself writing? Mark your calendars for my next quarterly 5×15 Writing Challenge—December 26th-30th.

Too meta for words: a blog about why I’m not blogging

Today’s post brings my daily writing streak to 570 words. Not letting go of that, even as I try to wean myself off publishing something original in this space every day. Is this post feeling too meta already?

Well, it’s about to get even meta-er: Yesterday I wrote on Medium about my blogging hiatus. The piece got picked up by one of the more popular publications on the site, so that could be a nice visibility boost. (Another boost: if you read and enjoy the post, could you “clap” for it? Apparently that matters.)

It occurred to me even as I wrote the piece that writing about not-writing still counts as—well—as writing. So perhaps I can scratch my ideation itch every day anyway, even as I seek World Domination Through Marketing a wider audience.

metaAnd speaking of audiences: I’ve got a free webinar coming up on Monday, November 20th: “Say What You Want to Say”—a webinar for women who are ready to lead. I’ve got some stories to tell, some advice to share (expect that Seth Godin’s name will come up), and we can talk through some solutions. I’ll be leading the webinar live in the morning and evening, Eastern time, so the far-flung folks in my tribe don’t have to stay up to the wee hours to participate. Click on the link or the photo to register; I’d love to see you.

What’s in your story vault?

What's in your story vault?The women at my table went wild, which surprised me. All I’d done was answer the ice-breaker question “What’s the most fun you’ve ever had at a business event?” For some reason, a 30-year-old story bubbled up in my mind. I’d locked it away in my story vault — probably haven’t told it more than twice since it happened.

But I told it that night.

And when I saw how my listeners reacted to it, I realized it’s not just an amusing story; it’s an important story. It says something about me and about how my clients value me. It points to possibilities—if that can happen to me, it can happen to you, too, when you own your expertise.

I had locked the story away for decades because it felt like bragging. I’ll bet you have a story vault of your own.

Isn’t it time to let those stories out?

Join me for my free webinar next Monday, “Say What You Want to Say: for women leaders who are ready to be heard.”

I designed this webinar to help you get past the stories you always tell and find the stories you should be telling. And I’ll give you some tips on how to tell them memorably.

Join me on November 20th at 10a.m. or 7p.m. Eastern. I run a very interactive webinar, so I’ll be leading it live in both time slots.

It’s priceless advice from an award-winning speechwriter. And on November 20th, it’s free.

What happened? — Frequent Questions

Q: What happened?
A: Glad you missed me.

I took Sunday off from blogging. I think some people thought I’d fallen in a sinkhole.

Nope. I’m fine. And my writing streak remains intact—567 days in a row as of yesterday.

It’s easy for me to talk to you here about whatever’s on my mind. And it’s fun, too. But if it was supposed to be fun all the time, they wouldn’t call it “work,” would they?

I need to spend more time wrasslin’ with Marketing Block. And less time writing blog posts.

For now.


Do you need some practice speaking up at work? Join me for “Say What You Want to Say”—a webinar for women who are ready to lead. Priceless advice from an award-winning business speechwriter: On November 20th, it’s free.

What do speeches and coffee have in common?

coffeeAsk a speechwriter what speeches have in common with coffee and you’ll likely hear that they consume lots of the latter while churning out the former.

Not me. And not just because my caffeine of choice is tea.

I think we make great speeches in much the same way we make a good cup of coffee:

  • Gather the right blend of raw materials
  • Grind them to suit your needs
  • Allow creativity (or hot water, which sometimes feels like the same thing) to connect the ingredients in new ways
  • Filter the results into the vessel of your choice
  • Inhale deeply & enjoy

Gather your speaker’s ideas and do additional research as needed — every speech is a blend. Break these down into smaller components; too many complex ideas and you’ll lose your audience. Filter the materials through what you understand of the speaker’s sensibilities and experience. And add creativity to bring all the disparate inputs together into a smooth, deeply satisfying brew.

Of course, you don’t just filter the ideas through your speaker’s experience. You filter them through your own as well — you can’t help it.

As a speechwriter, I have to capture the speaker’s diction and syntax, but ultimately the words come out of my brain, through my fingers pounding my keyboard. If speeches came with credits, the byline would be Speaker/Elaine’s-Understanding-of-Speaker/Speaker-Filtered-by-Elaine.

On second thought, maybe it’s good thing speeches don’t have bylines.

Your (Coffee) Filter, Yourself

After 25 years of putting words in executives’ mouths, I’m used to writing like someone else. But the writers in my advanced writing class are becoming used to writing like themselves. Too used to it sometimes. So I thought I’d shake things up a little. At the end of one of our classes, I said, “This week, write like each other.”

Now, that’s not an assignment I would give just any group. The writers in question have been working with me in various programs for nearly a year now; they’ve developed a level of familiarity and trust you don’t usually find in online workshops.

So I knew when I said, “Write like each other” and assigned the partners, they wouldn’t run off and write parodies. I wanted them to capture the essence of the other writer’s work and filter it through their own sensibilities. I wasn’t looking for them to replicate each other’s voices, but to look at the topic through their partner’s eyes and tell us about the view.

One of my writers wondered if she’d gotten the assignment wrong. She wrote that although she’d tried to think like her partner, “it still came out through my own filters.”

Yes! And it was beautiful, too. Not her voice, and not her partner’s voice, but a lovely blend that produced something completely different. In fact, it ranks among the best work this writer has done as she shakes off the legalese she’s been speaking and writing for decades.

But of course it all got filtered through her experience. That’s part of the process.

Start with the freshest ingredients you can find, run them through your own filters, and hope for a result that opens people’s eyes. (Foam garnish optional.)


Retreat? Did somebody say “retreat”? Yes indeed. Check out my year-end retreat — two and a half days to focus on your story, improve your writing, and enjoy the community of a select group of only six women writers. Will you be one of them?

Marketing Block — Writer’s Block’s evil twin

marketing blockI don’t believe in writer’s block. I’ve written about that dozens of times, including this post about Fran Lebowitz’s decades-long block. But when I came across that post the other day, I had a new appreciation for what Lebowitz has gone through. Writer’s block may not be real, but I’ve been locked in mortal combat with its evil twin for a couple of weeks now. Marketing Block. It’s a bitch.

Interviewed in 1993 for The Paris Review, Lebowitz talked about the pain of not writing:

“Not writing is probably the most exhausting profession I’ve ever encountered. It takes it out of you. It’s very psychically wearing not to write—I mean if you’re supposed to be writing.”

Replace “writing” with “marketing” and you have a snapshot of my life the past month. “Exhausting,” “psychically wearing”—Fran, I see those adjectives and I’ll raise you “painful.”

Of course, if writer’s block isn’t real…

Damn. Really?

I’ve been suffering for a month from something that doesn’t exist?

Marketing Block and the F-Word

In my blog post last spring, I wrote:

If you invent an external reason for your inaction, you don’t have to face the (probable) internal reason—a reason Lebowitz identifies as fear.

At this point, I gotta tell you, “fear” isn’t the only F-word floating around in my head. Perhaps I’ve been too smug about people who fear writing so much they pathologize not doing it. They may be inventing the condition, but they’re not inventing the pain they experience from it. Neither am I.

Okay, time to pick myself up and deploy some well-placed F-words in the direction of my fear. Maybe if I tell Marketing Block I’ve decided it’s not real, it will get the hell out of town.



Do you need some practice speaking up at work? Join me for “Say What You Want to Say”—a webinar for women who are ready to lead. Priceless advice from an award-winning business speechwriter: On November 20th, it’s free.