Fear & Flight—a writer’s perspective

EDIT: I wrote this post before I finished the book. I won’t do that again! Halfway through, I ran into some racist language. Yes, perhaps it’s standard for the period in which he wrote, but there’s no reason to recommend it today. Still, this piece makes some good points for writers, so I’m not going to take it down.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Many of us read his gorgeous writing as children—he wrote The Little Prince. But Wind, Sand & Stars is not a fable, it’s a 1929 memoir of his youth as an air-mail pilot, flying the mails from France to Africa, or across the sea to South America—back before radar could show you that mountain you needed to steer around, back when you had to radio an airport to flash its lights three times so you could see where to land. Not an easy job.

cover of Saint-Exupéry's Wind, Sand and Stars

I’ve seen several sources cite Wind, Sand and Stars as one of those must-read books for any writer, and not even a quarter of the way through it, I have to agree. Here he’s talking about the reactions when his colleague Mermoz radioed that he was cutting off an engine. Ten minutes went by with no contact:

“It would be ridiculous to worry over someone ten minutes late in our day-to-day existence, but in the air-mail service ten minutes can be pregnant with meaning. At the heart of this dead slice of time an unknown event is locked up. Insignificant, it may be; a mishap, possibly: whatever it is, the event has taken place. Fate has pronounced a decision from which there is no appeal. An iron hand has guided a crew into a sea-landing that may have been safe and may have been disastrous. And long hours must go by before the decision of the gods is made known to those who wait.”

English translation by Lewis Galantière

Before this passage, Saint-Exupéry treated us to detailed descriptions of the many times Mermoz had escaped certain death: he’d been captured and held for ransom by an African tribe; forced down in the Atlantic and rescued by a passing freighter; stranded for two days on a 12,000-foot high mesa in the Andes. Surely this would turn into another of those triumphant stories.

“But the hands of the clock were going round and little by little it began to grow late. Slowly the truth was borne in upon us that our comrades would never return, that they were sleeping in that South Atlantic whose skies they had so often ploughed. Mermoz had done his job and slipped away to rest, like a gleaner who, having carefully bound his sheaf, lies down in the fields to sleep.”

How can a few dozen words make you care so much about someone you’ve never met? But I feel the loss of Mermoz, don’t you?

And actually, it’s Mermoz more than Saint-Exupéry who inspired me to write today. He braved the skies and risked his life every day. On more than one occasion, he came close to death—yet he continued to fly until death overtook him. He flew because he loved it.

Fear & writing

Mermoz’s story reminded me of Agnes, a woman I worked with for a bit. Faced with an unplanned career transition, she decided she wanted to be a writer. Yet she didn’t write.

I suggested that she enroll in my writing class, but she believed she couldn’t afford it. Instead, she opted for a program that offered analyses of great pieces of writing—more an intellectual how-to than a hands-on DO IT. And even though she received a writing prompt every other week through that program, she never posted any work. Strange for someone who claims to want to write professionally, eh?

When we talked, she rationalized all the busy-ness of her life that prevented her from sitting down to write. Yet she continued to say she wanted to be a writer. Who was going to win that battle—Agnes or her fear? So I made her an offer: she should take two weeks to write something—anything—and show it to me and I would give her a free coaching session to discuss it.

Ten days later she told me she couldn’t do it. Agnes, like Mermoz, was lost.

The difference that is by facing his fears, Mermoz was able to pursue his passion. Agnes succumbed to her fear without even trying. The other difference, of course, is that writing is a much safer endeavor than flying a 1920s-era airplane. Paper cuts and maybe carpal tunnel are pretty much the worst you can do—and neither of those will force you down in the South Atlantic.

Mermoz died doing what he loved; Agnes wouldn’t even allow herself to try.

Which one are you?

DIY Writing — How’s that going for you?

DIY — do-it-yourself. Is that the way you learn best? Me too.

I’ve been a DIY learner pretty much my whole life. One day when I was a toddler, I heard one of my mother’s teacher friends talking about my education. She mentioned the time—still some years off—when I would learn to count by twos.

“I can already count by twos!” I announced indignantly. And indeed I could. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing, but once she named the skill I recognized the game I’d made up with my grandmother’s playing cards.

DIY
Hardanger altar cloth by me, photo by Nina Nicholson

Many years later, I bought something that looked like a counted cross-stitch pattern book and was working through one of the pieces when I encountered a stitch I couldn’t figure out. I went back to the store for advice and the proprietor said, “Oh, that’s probably in the beginners’ book.”

There’s a beginners’ book? I’d done it again—taken a skill that some people find impenetrable and taught it to myself.

For the record, it wasn’t counted cross-stitch; it’s a Norwegian craft called Hardanger. I made this altar cloth for my old church using the technique, which turns ordinary linen into something resembling lace. And, yep, I’ve still never had a lesson in my life.

DIY writing?

If you’re a DIY learner like I am, you may think that what you already know about writing is sufficient.

Well, is it?

Are you satisfied with the work you turn out, or do you secretly wish you could be a stronger, more consistent writer?

You don’t need the “beginners’ book.” You just need a nudge in the right direction. And maybe a dose or two of real-life inspiration from writers further along the path than you.

And because writing can so often slip to the bottom of the to-do list, maybe you’d like a reminder every now and then, a writing prompt to kickstart your creativity.

A DIY writing program

That’s exactly why I created Write Now—a 13-week-long DIY writing program. Every week you get a writing prompt. Use it or save it for the proverbial rainy day. Post your work to my private Facebook group—if you ask for feedback, you’ll get some thoughtful comments. If you don’t want feedback, say that and we’ll respect it. My group attracts some amazing people—whether they’ve worked with me through a course or three or a 5×15 writing challenge, they’ve all been where you are.

If you’re nervous about calling yourself a writer, there’s only one thing to do: Write. And if the “I’ll do it someday” approach hasn’t worked for you yet, Write Now may just be the extra (pardon the expression) prompt you need.

Register here and get your first prompt in minutes.

“Shockingly expensive” — truth in marketing

“The Shockingly Expensive Meal Program Worth Every Penny”

That’s the headline of the ad that appeared in my Facebook feed recently. Well, actually it said “Worth Every Pe…” but we all know how it ends.

shockingly expensive food

This company knows who its target audience is—and it’s apparently not bargain-hunters.

The people who buy this stuff pride themselves on spending lots for meals. And—hey—if it’s “worth every pe…” I might not care if the food is “shockingly expensive,” though I will balk at $400 angora throws or $200 dog collars. (Sorry, Fenway.)

Everybody has a price range for everything. It just depends on what you value.

Shockingly expensive — and truthful

Still, you have to admire that marketer’s guts, right? “Shockingly expensive” are not words you often see in advertising.

In a world where you can buy an online course for $59, my writing programs may seem “shockingly expensive.” Even my self-directed revision course costs nearly $900. But, yes, I think it’s “worth every penny.” And more. Heck, it’s not just a bunch of videos—you get actual, one-on-one coaching with me. Where are you going to find that for $59?

And my 12-week writing program requires an even bigger investment—in money and in time. I want to weed out the dilettantes, the people who have a passing thought that “Gee, it might be fun to write more.” The people who start writing for fun often balk when it becomes actual work, as it sometimes must. When people invest in working with me, I want them to be committed, to do the work, and to experience real change.

If that sounds like you—and if you’re ready for a “shockingly expensive” personal growth experience that’s “worth every pe…”—check out my Draft to DONE program.

I can’t promise you a puppy in your arms as you savor your avocado toast. But I can promise to get you thinking in new ways—and to show you how transform your writing from good to great.

Are you a skater, too?

I used to be a world-class skater.

revise

Not an ice skater — I’m far too uncoordinated for that. No, I skated on my writing assignments, handing in first drafts all through college.

And I got by. People even called me a good writer. I always translated that secretly as “good enough.” Because I suspected I could do better. But what if I was wrong? Better not to waste the energy trying to revise only to find out that “good enough” was really, truly, the best I could do.

I didn’t begin revising until I became a professional writer. My clients gave me notes about things they wanted to add or change; I incorporated them and started tweaking another word here, a phrase there. Then reordering paragraphs, changing the structure—revising. And I saw that “good enough” could become “good.” And even “great”—great enough to win awards.

Find your “great”

You know it’s true: second thoughts make a better first impression. Like me, you probably suspect you can do better the second (or even third) time. And you’re right.

So how do you learn the fine art of revision?

First, find yourself some clients. Make sure they’re picky and change their minds frequently. Then spend years chasing their approval as you try to teach yourself what works and avoid what doesn’t.

Or—and maybe this is easier—invest some time with me.

I’ve put together a program to help you discover how to enjoy revising—as your work gets better, right before your eyes. If you’re interested in getting more information, sign up here and you’ll be the first to know when I release it.

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.