“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.


Do you struggle with revision? I’m putting together a program for you. Sign up here and I’ll let you know the moment it launches.

“Write everything” — Lin-Manuel Miranda on inspiration

“Write everything.”

I found this screen-capture from an Ask Me Anything Lin-Manuel Miranda held on his Twitter feed awhile back.

Mr. Miranda and I don’t write the same things; we don’t have a common style. But we do share an attitude toward writing, which only makes me love him more.

He doesn’t believe in writer’s block any more than I do.

So what do you do when you don’t know what to write? You write. Anything and everything. Just cover the page. “Bytes on disk” as a friend of mine used to say.

Sometimes the writers in my 90-day writing challenge tell me they can’t think of anything to write about. I tell them to write, “I can’t think of anything to write about” over and over again—like Bart at the blackboard in the opening credits of The Simpsons—until they’re so tired of writing that sentence, or sentences like it, that they finally let an idea break through.

Notice I didn’t say “…that an idea breaks through.” No, no—your inability to write is not the ideas’ fault. It’s your brain’s. It’s telling you a story about how you’ve gotten blocked. Or you don’t have any inspiration. And you—you’re accepting that story as true.

Well, stop it!

Write everything — it’s about to get meta in here

Yes—full disclosure—it’s past 7pm on Sunday, a day I was supposed to take off. Remember the “day of rest” concept? Yeah, me neither.

And yet dinnertime found me still at my desk, dealing with a balky computer and an as-yet-unwritten blog. Inspiration? You think I have inspiration?

But I do have a folder called:

blog ideas —for when you need to write everything

I said a little prayer to the blog-idea gods and clicked it open: Voilà! Lin-Manuel Miranda to the rescue.

So I’m writing, bytes on disk, and hoping you find some valuable advice in here. If not from me, then for Pulitzer Prize-winning, MacArthur Grant-certified Genius Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Write everything. You’ll find something.

Simple words

Insecure writers often fall into the complexity trap. If I use complex words and syntax, they think, then people will think I’m saying profound things.

No. Generally what happens when you use complex words and syntax is that you lose your reader’s attention.

You’ll lose that attention even faster if you’re using complex language in a speech. At least when it’s in print, people have the option to go back and re-read. Although you shouldn’t count on it, what with shortening attention spans and increasing demands on our time. In a world where people practice “one and done” when reading and processing emails, how much time do you think they’ll make to re-read and decode your Joycean business prose?

But don’t people equate simple words with simple thoughts?

Try this speech on for size—this video links to the closing five minutes or so. Dean James Ryan of the Harvard Graduate School of Education uses the simplest of words—a two-syllable, two-word question fragment—to hook his listeners. He follows up with several other simply worded questions. But he uses those questions to build a though-provoking and even profound message.

I’ll admit the setting does help. Few people will accuse you of being simple-minded if you’re speaking in front of a backdrop that has HARVARD written all over it.

But, really, who wouldn’t be proud to give this speech, or one like it? James Ryan connects with his audience—he got your attention, right? (And you’re just watching on video.) He takes us into unexpected territory. He makes us think. He moves us.

And this part of his text never rises above a 9th Grade level. Ninth grade! The kinds of students Harvard accepts could probably understand that before they get out of elementary school—and here he is speaking to graduate students. Here’s the full text of his speech, if you’re interested.

Dean Ryan asks five excellent questions (and a bonus sixth at the end). I have one more for you: Do you want your audience to focus on your ideas or do you want them to focus on  decoding your language?

 

 

 

The love of bad ideas

Good ideas don’t spring to life fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. They slip into the world incognito, often disguised as bad ideas.

Being afraid of having a bad idea is the surest way to shut off the flow of ideas altogether. So I welcome them.

I learned this lesson very early in my career. The Berlin Wall had fallen, Eastern European countries were exploring democracy and capitalism, and my guy had to speak about it. Every day, it seemed, saw the birth of a new nation. Aha!

“Birth is messy and bloody,” I wrote. Then my fingers froze in midair. What are you thinking? (I thought.) This guy is a big, macho Wall Street exec. You’re going to give him a placenta metaphor?

Ixnay on the placenta metaphor. But then what?

I stared at my computer. I stared at the walls of my cubicle. I squeezed my eyes shut real hard and snapped them open again. Nothing. Every thought in my head—every thought I would ever think for the rest of my life, apparently—was just a variation on that one, highly inappropriate, placenta metaphor.

So I gave in. I wrote the thing. I embellished it, added some (you should pardon the expression) color. I made it the placenta-iest paragraph anyone could ever imagine. Even a midwife would have said, “Enough, already!”

I printed out what I wrote and hung in on the wall in front of me. Having captured it for posterity (and my own continuing amusement in the months ahead), I deleted it from my computer.

And, whaddaya know? Getting the bad idea out of my head made room for good ones. The speech turned out just fine.

So if you can’t get something out of your mind…get it out of your head. Post it or stash it in an “I Can’t Believe I Tried to Write That” file. Share it with your friends over drinks. Just don’t share it with your boss.

Speaking of bad ideas, here’s the first title I came up with for this post:

You can learn a lot from a placenta

Creativity travels faster

One of the wonderful things about creativity is the way it pings around the world, each reader or listener finding some new angle of inspiration.

I am amused and humbled to be the object of such a “ping.” Yesterday I received an email from Deborah Claire Procter, a Welsh artist and arts promoter I met through an online coaching group. She posted an amusing image on Facebook last week and I picked it up in this blog post. My blog post has now become the subject of Deborah’s most recent newsletter.

In the pre-Internet days they used to say “Good news travels fast.” Creativity travels faster. Where will yours go today?

Occasional Flashes of Brilliance

I’ve been in business for myself a long time. And maybe two or three times a year, a thought crosses my mind: “I really should start a newsletter.”

Yep, I agree with myself, I really should.

And then I don’t.

Today I finally realized why: I don’t want to.

And why would I? “Newsletters” are boring; I am (mostly, I hope) not. I rarely read the newsletters that do make it into my in-box. It feels like a chore, and the last thing any of us need is another chore.

But I do have value I can add for people who want to know more about the creative process or improve their own writing. Ideas, tips, a good article or interesting blog post. So I will be sending out “Occasional Flashes of Brilliance.” If you’d like to receive them, fill out the sign-up form on the left.

And if you have something in particular you’d like me to talk about, let me know.

Let’s be occasionally brilliant together.

Of baseball and business (diversity edition)

Baseball Hall-of-Famer Monte Irvin just died. Never heard of him? He not only helped the New York Giants get to two World Series, he also mentored one of their up-and-coming players, an outfielder you may recall named Willie Mays. But Mr. Irvin played for nearly a dozen years before joining the Giants. Before that, he had been relegated to the “Negro Leagues.”

A couple of decades ago, I had a client named Irvin. He happened to be an African American and I knew he’d been raised in the same town as Monte Irvin, so I asked if they were related. Yes, indeed. He was surprised I recognized the name, but I’m a big baseball fan. So the elder Mr. Irvin made a guest appearance in a speech I wrote for his nephew. Here’s an excerpt; you can read more of it on my website:

Cultures change slowly. Let me remind you that nearly 50 years after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, there’s still not a single African American running a baseball team. And African American executives have been in the financial industry a lot shorter time than that.

My uncle was a major league baseball player—he played in the old Negro Leagues and later for the New York Giants. He could tell you that lots of African American players got hit by pitches—“accidentally,” of course—after the leagues were integrated. But it happened a lot less when a team had an African American pitcher on the mound.

It works the same way in the business world. The progress we make against racism in the workplace has a direct relationship to the positions that African Americans play on the team. As more African Americans take leadership positions and sit on Boards of Directors, more companies will stop throwing pitches at their African American employees.

Yes, it’s an old speech: the corporate world doesn’t throw pitches at its diverse employees anymore, not so blatantly. And it recognizes many forms of diversity, including LGBT people. But when it comes to leadership roles, are diverse professional relegated to the “farm team” longer than the majority folks in the pipeline? For some organizations, in some industries, the answer may still be yes.

Major League Baseball signed Mr. Irvin at the ripe old age of 30; the man considered perhaps the greatest pitcher in the Negro Leagues, Satchel Paige, was 42 when he joined the majors. Mr. Paige pitched for nearly a dozen more years, but his best games were far behind him. So much talent, consigned to relative obscurity. And how many more potential baseball stars aged out of the game before the Major Leagues opened their doors to players of color?

There’s a lesson there, and not just for baseball fans. Talent deserves to shine. And it’s not an unlimited resource—businesses can’t afford to waste the talents of their people, no matter who they are. We’ve made progress since I wrote that speech. But I can’t help wondering how many Monte Irvins and Satchel Paiges the business world has lost: how many talented women and people of color never got the opportunities they deserved, the opportunities to shine—and to lead.

Words of Thanks

Words shape my life—whether I’m writing them or reading them. So in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I thought I’d offer a list of some of the writers I’m grateful for this year.

Roger Angell: If you’re a baseball fan you probably already know he’s one of the most colorful and insightful chroniclers of the sport there is. And if you’re not a baseball fan, his essays will turn you into one—or at least teach you how the game works. Although my Mets lost the World Series this year, I’m grateful that The New Yorker gave Angell some of its digital real estate to write about it.

MB Caschetta: I spend most of my recreational reading time in periodicals (The New Yorker, Vanity Fair) or nonfiction. But when I had a few days to myself this summer, I plopped myself in a comfy corner and read Caschetta’s multiple award-winning first novel, Miracle Girls. Funny, evocative, and moving.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: I saw Hamilton at the Public Theater in February, having bought the last two tickets to that performance about four months earlier. Here’s a link to the video that convinced me I had to see it, Lin-Manuel Miranda performing the opening number solo at the White House. Amazing, right? But the fully staged production blew me away. At the end of the performance I attended—three days before the reviews came out—the entire audience leapt to its feet simultaneously. This was not one of those typical New Yorker “let me be the first to get to a taxi” standing O’s. It was not a “the people in front of me stood up and now I can’t see anything unless I stand too” ovation. It was—for me at least—an acknowledgement that everyone from the writer (Miranda, now a MacArthur-certified “genius”) to the performers (Miranda again, alongside a diverse cast of first-rate actor/singer/dancers) had conjured brilliance on that stage. And I would never be able to look at a musical the same way again.

Ron Chernow: I read his House of Morgan decades ago, so already I knew about his amazing power to bring the past to life. But after I saw Hamilton the musical, I had to read the book that started it all.

Lisa Kron: She’s made me laugh since I first saw her maybe 30 years ago in her one-woman show 101 Most Humiliating Stories. She’s made me cry plenty, too. And laugh-cry at the same time. What would that be, craugh? As hard and as lonely as it is to be a writer sometimes, Kron has kept telling her stories and this year her story-telling won her two Tony Awards—one for writing the book of the remarkable, ground-breaking musical Fun Home and the other for the score, for which she wrote the lyrics with Jeanine Tesori supplying the music. If you were one of the dozen people watching the Tony telecast, you didn’t see these awards—they were presented during the commercials. So here’s a video of her first acceptance speech. Press on past the obligatory thank-yous to the “I have had a dream” section.

If I may put on my speechwriter hat for a moment, that’s how you write an acceptance speech: tell a story, make a point. Change the world. Words can do that. It’s one reason I love them—and Kron—so much.

Whose work are you thankful for? Hit up the comment section below.

The Most Important F-Word

Speechwriters make our living with words, so we’re not usually at a loss for them. But recently I turned a group of speechwriters into a slack-jawed, inarticulate mess when I threw the F-word into a conversation.

No, not that F-word.
 
I asked them how they have Fun. “What do you do when you’re not working?” Four in a row had the same response: Startled silence, nervous laughter.
 
Finally one brave soul said he enjoys fly-fishing, “…though I haven’t had time to do it lately.”
 
Now, I know our clients are Important People who deserve our best work. But I also know that I cannot deliver my best work if work is all I do. So for me, Fun is not optional; it’s an essential part of my schedule. Just as I boot up my computer every morning, I need to boot up my psyche regularly.
 
It’s great to have a big hobby like fly-fishing (N.B.: the fish may disagree). But we can find plenty of joy in the smaller, less time-consuming things we do. My own list includes: Playing with the dog. Reading The New Yorker. Singing. Doing needlepoint. Going to the theatre. Watching a baseball game (preferably one my team wins). Hanging out with my sweetheart. Writing something just for myself, not my clients. Laughing.
 
Incorporating these simple joys into my life makes me a happier, more creative person. And ultimately a much better writer.

Where’s the fun in your life? And how does it feed you?

Speech!

We always spend Thanksgiving in Northampton, Massachusetts – a quintessential college town. And I always check out the latest offerings in the store that sells dorm room kitsch, funky T-shirts and stationery, and – my new favorite item – fingerless gloves (great for writers too cheap to turn up the heat).

This trip, I found a new item in stock: a poster, probably four feet long and maybe a foot wide, bearing the text of the speech Barack Obama gave in Grant Park on Election Night.

Imagine that – a speech so inspirational that it’s inspired a poster. It’s been a long time since we’ve had one of those. What a wonderful time to be an American. And a speechwriter.