Memorable ideas: the microwave

“Of course I remember you!” the PR executive exclaimed. “You wrote the piece about the microwave.”

It’s true; I did—hundreds of thousands of words and probably a dozen years ago. And, to be clear, it wasn’t about a microwave; it was about the culture of fast-action, fast-answers, and how that related to certain business problems.

I don’t even remember the piece, to tell you the truth. I mean, I remember the ideas; I could reconstruct it for you if I needed to. But it doesn’t matter if I remember it—my reader did. And that’s the whole point of imagery. It makes ideas stick.

Especially when you’re writing about a business issue—or, really, any topic your audience may have heard about before—you need to give them a way to form a new impression. So find a novel way of discussing the subject. A metaphor, an allusion, a pop-culture reference—anything surprising can activate the “what did she say?” response in your readers. And once you’ve got them listening in new ways, they’re ripe to receive your message

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Overdrawn at the word-bank

scrabble tiles - overdrawn at the word-bank

I love my job, I love my life; I love writing. When I write my daily list of things I’m grateful for, writing/creativity sometimes even bumps Fenway from the top spot. (Don’t tell her.)

But for the past six months or so, I’ve been working on a project for a client who passed the draft along to a Higher Authority. And the Higher Authority suggested rewrites. When I turned in the second draft, I thought I’d get at least a month’s respite. But Higher Authority turned around comments in two days, requesting an entirely new draft in a month—over the holidays. I limped to the finish line about 10 days ago, putting the last period on the third top-to-bottom rewrite. And I was done. Not just done with the project, but done with writing. I never wanted to see a computer—or even a crayon—again.

I knew it would pass. It had to; I’m a writer with bills to pay. But I was overdrawn at the word-bank. Nothing left to say. This wasn’t Writer’s Block—longtime readers know I’d believe in Bigfoot sooner than Writer’s Block. It was Writer’s Overload, I guess; too many words in too short a time.

A couple of days off followed by a week with the flu (apparently the Universe found my plan for two days off insufficient) and I’m almost back to normal. Well, I’m writing.

Okay, to be perfectly honest I never stopped writing. I had my daily 15 minutes to do. Usually that’s no more arduous for me than making a cup of tea, but the Project That Would Not End moved my 15 into the category of chore. Then burden—I think that’s around the time I let my 953-day writing streak slip away from me. After I turned in the last round, though, it had moved from burden to existential torture. Still I wrote (51 days as of today—I’ll be back in triple-digits before the new baseball season starts, though it’ll take several more seasons to get me back where I was).

What could I have done? I could have used my 15 to do fun writing projects—silly poems. A haiku about a ridiculous subject—pickles? It’s one of the funniest words in the English language; I should have written an Ode to a Pickle. I could have taken Fenway for a long walk and talked to her about what we were seeing—then scribbled it all down when I got back to my desk.

Many famous writers have made big bucks talking about the pain of putting words on paper. I don’t want to add to the pile of writing about how horrible Writing is—that’s as much bullshit as Bigfoot. Writing has always been a joy to me, and always given me joy. Don’t use my experience of Writers’ Overload to feed your excuses about why you Just Can’t Write. But be prepared, because it might happen to you. Even in the midst of an unforgiving project, turn to your list of reasons writing gives you joy. And write something joyful. (Then rest!)

Thank You

“But Thanksgiving is over,” you say. Indeed it is.

What better time to express one’s gratitude than in the early December lull between holidays?

If you’d asked me a day ago, I would have told you 2018 was a sh*tshow. But this afternoon, I spent just 15 minutes writing out my accomplishments during the year and it turns out that the majority of the sh*t happened in someone else’s show. So I’m grateful for the 953 days of my old writing streak, and the five days of my new one. I’m grateful for the smart, creative people who’ve chosen to work with me. And I’m grateful for the beautiful writing I’ve had the good fortune to read.

In no particular order:

  • The Clancys of Queens by Tara Clancy
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Shrill by Lindy West
  • The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
  • Maeve in America by Maeve Higgins
  • Okay Fine Whatever by Courtenay Hameister
  • Just the Funny Parts by Nell Scovell
  • Baseball Life Advice by Stacey May Fowles
  • Also—not a book but certainly as well-written as any on this list—Rachel Maddow’s podcast Bagman

Watch for the Alanis Morissette musical Jagged Little Pill, coming to a Broadway stage near you. I saw it in Cambridge and really liked it, despite knowing next to nothing about Ms. Morissette’s music.

And I’m grateful to have seen The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, in his Broadway engagement. The densely evocative language of the spoken bits elevated it far above the average “here’s a story about a song/now here’s the song” show. I don’t know why that surprised me, since Springsteen has built his career as much on his poetry as on his music. I splurged on a ticket as a birthday present for myself and it may be the best present I’ve ever received.

I’m also truly thankful for the millions of people across the U.S. who got out and voted this fall; and for the hundreds of thousands who worked for their candidates, knocking on doors, making phone calls, sending postcards or texts. And I’m grateful for the Parkland kids (we’ll have to stop calling them that soon) who turned anguish into action so effectively. Although I wish they hadn’t gone through the anguish—and I’m sure they do too.

Finally, thanks to everyone who creates, even for only 15 minutes a day. Your work may not change the world (or, who knows? it may), but it can change the way you view the world. So, er, “write on.”

The post I never wanted to write: RIP Writing Streak

My writing streak is dead. Long live the (new) writing streak.

953 days—that’s a long damn time. Sometime in May 2016, I believe, I committed to write for at least 15 minutes a day, every day. And I did—for 953 days. Until yesterday.

In the beginning, when I was ingraining it as a habit, I wrote first thing in the morning “before you check your email” as my coach Sam Bennett instructed. (No relation, except we’re both brilliant and gorgeous—so who knows?) In heath and in sickness—I even wrote the morning I had surgery. And the next day, hopped up on painkillers. Neither snow nor rain nor 11:59 at night…

I didn’t start worrying about the streak until the last six months. Travel, divorce, more travel—even dating. No matter where I was or who I was with, I did My Fifteen. Even when I spent ten hours writing for a client. Even when writing was the last thing I wanted to do. Even when I knew I’d be proving Hemingway’s observation that everyone’s first draft is shit—I wrote.

So what happened yesterday? It was an odd day to begin with—part 2 of a whirlwind trip up and down the East Coast. I got to breathe the same air as Elizabeth Gilbert for a while yesterday evening. I did take notes while she spoke—and later I tried to make that count for my 15. But it wasn’t original writing; if you’re gonna make a commitment, ya gotta stick to it.

Usually when I’ve waited too long to write, the mental reminder pops up around 10pm as I’m doing The New York Times crossword. But I was tired by then and looking forward to listening to a guided meditation when I went to bed. About halfway through the meditation, I remembered “I haven’t done my writing!” I thought about stopping the recording to do it right then, but I didn’t. I vowed that I’d do it after the recording.

“After the recording”—I’m sure you can guess—I was asleep. But I DID wake up, miraculously (the power of commitment). I grabbed my phone, opened a Notes doc, and wrote:

“I am so confused [hand hitting forehead emoji] I want up bwrite ye book as I font [hand pointing down emoji]”

Even by Hemingway’s standards I realized it was hopeless. The 953-day Writing Streak was dead—but the next one is alive and kicking.

Writing Streak—Day 1

Don’t alienate your audience

I shouldn’t even have to say it, really. I mean it’s like Speech-Giving 101: Don’t alienate your audience.

Today’s story stems from a comedy show I saw this weekend, one star comedian doing his thing at 10:15 on a Saturday night in the middle of the Connecticut woods. Now, granted, it ain’t Broadway. But nobody forced him to book the show. He chose to be there.

And we, the audience, also chose to be there. We knew it was a 10:15 show on a Saturday night in the middle of the woods. We bought the tickets; we wanted to be there, to hear him.

Well, apparently not enough of us wanted that—the gig was far from sold out. But the people he was complaining to—we had bought the damn tickets. All he had to do was

bring us the funny.

Yet he started his set by complaining about being there. I don’t think I was the only person in the audience who felt put off by that. I’ve seen him three times now, so I know how good he can be. But this set—not so funny.

Don’t bring your bad mood to the mic

Now, you may be thinking this advice will never apply to you, since you have no desire to do an hour-long stand-up comedy set. Heck, you even wince when people ask you do deliver a 10-minute speech. But I’ve seen plenty of business speakers alienate their audience.

Stomp onstage, papers flying in your wake, and start reading your speech for the first time. That’s another pro tip: Don’t read your speech out loud for the first time during the event. Have a little more respect for the audience than that.

Don’t begin your speech by ad libbing—as I swear one of my speakers once did—”I’d rather be talking to you about a business topic, but this is what they gave me to say.” (P.S. it was a business topic—and one that would bite him in the butt less than two years later.)

Even if you’re speaking about something you have less than zero passion for (I once wrote a speech about the chemical composition of makeup), your audience is excited to hear your thoughts. Reflect some of that excitement back; be happy to be there. And—as one speaker I know added silently—happy to leave. And in between those two points? You guessed it: happy.

Grumble all you want on your own time. But while you’re at an event, give the people what they want: You and your wisdom.

Same speech, different sponsor. Zzz…

I arrived early for the first session of the conference. I didn’t want to miss a word of the fascinating and potentially provocative panel discussion they’d scheduled to kick things off. But before the panel began, the organizers introduced and thanked the conference sponsors. Fabulous! The sponsors’ contributions made the conference possible, so I was happy to give them my attention and my applause.

Until they started speaking. And they all gave the same speech.

Three of them—back to back to back.

Not fascinating. And certainly not provocative. Boring for the audience and—how could it not be?—embarrassing for the speakers.

How not to give the same speech as everyone else

don't give the same speech as everyone elseWhen you’re asked to speak at an event, find out how you fit into the program. If you’re in a lineup of sponsors like that, recognize that you’re all there for the same basic reason—to support the organization and its goals. But you don’t have to give the same speech. In fact, please please please don’t. Please?

I mean, mention your company’s support if you feel you must. But we get it: they made a big donation. So did the other companies whose reps are speaking before and after you.

So how can you make your speech different?

Tell a story. A story about how your company supports the kinds of people in the audience. Show is always more powerful than tell.

Talk about how the conference’s goals intersect with your own life. You can bet the guy from Universal Widgets & Pizza won’t be saying the same thing right after you.

To be fair, the last of the three sponsors did tell a story. In fact, his story woke me from my torpor and reminded me that this was the first unique thing I’d heard all morning. I started taking notes.

While the previous two speakers had started by blathering on about how their companies love the conference organizers and issues, Guy #3 started out by talking to us—his audience. No, it’s not a mind-blowing revolution in speechifying, but the previous speakers didn’t manage to do it.

He focused on what we could get out of the experience of being at the conference. He told stories about his personal journey with some of the issues we address. He connected with us on a human level. And then he launched into the usual blather, which—except for his company’s name—was practically indistinguishable from what the other sponsors had said.

Moral of the story

Even when you’re speaking as a representative from your organization, be more than a body holding a larger-than-life-size check. Be a person. Share your story with the audience and we will remember you. Yes, and your company’s sponsorship, too.

Rachel & Me—and unconscious bias

On the final day of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce convention, I ran into a woman spoken to quite a bit during the previous few days—a straight woman there on behalf of her company, founded and run by two gay men.

“So how was your night last night?” she asked. “Did you go out after the reception?”

“Last night?” I said, “I went to bed with Rachel [pause] Maddow.”

It’s a pretty reliable joke. But on this occasion, it went somewhere completely unexpected.

“Oh,” she said, sort of laughing. “But she’s married to a man, isn’t she?”

[GIANT PAUSE] And then I set her, you’ll pardon the expression, straight.

I know what happened. At least I’m pretty sure—I was too stunned at the time to ask. But I did the important thing: I corrected the record.

I think at some point she heard that Maddow is married and then unconscious bias kicked in. Married woman = woman with husband, right?

Sheesh.

Marriage has been legal for same-sex couples everywhere in the country for several years now. It’s past time to drop the assumption that a married person must have an opposite-sex partner.

And this from a woman who works for gay men, who chose to attend an NGLCC conference, who self-identifies as an ally.

Unconscious bias can happen to everyone

woman with hands over her face- unconscious biasDo you have unconscious bias? If you’re a human being, the answer is yes. I mean, maybe the Dalai Lama has escaped it, but the rest of us all form opinions about things. And sometimes we base those opinions not on facts but on stories we tell ourselves.

Regular readers know I’m a great advocate of story-telling, but only the conscious kind. When we tell ourselves stories about people without having any facts to back them up, that’s called stereotyping. Or, if it’s done by law enforcement-types, profiling.

Now this particular instance of unconscious bias didn’t cost anyone their job—although if the woman’s gay bosses found out she thought Rachel Maddow was straight…well, who knows what would have happened?

But her unconscious bias gave me the perfect opening story for the panel I participated in less than an hour later. I used it to illustrate the idea that we LGBT people must continue to be visible, because some people will unconsciously “straighten us out,” as the woman did to Rachel Maddow.

LGBT people can have unconscious bias, too—like when we hear someone’s a Christian and automatically assume that means they think we’re going to hell. Hey—I’ve been an Episcopalian for nearly 30 years; I know not all Christians hate us. And I still get wary when I meet someone who identifies as a Christian.

We’ve got our work cut out for us—all of us. But we can’t eliminate the evils of racism, homophobia, and all the other -phobias and -isms out in the world until we tackle the -isms and -phobias that live in our own heads.

“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.


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