feeling lost? think back to when you were 9

When I was nine years old, I thought about what I wanted to be when I grew up. After exploring options like veterinarian, teacher and librarian, I finally settled on one thought: I want to write things that make people think.

Flash forward…a lot of years. I am now helping really smart people build compelling stories about very complex products. A big part of my job involves being a good listener. I listen to engineers talk about the fantastic, creative products they have dreamt up, designed and built, then created with the help of a team of other really smart people. I extract what I know will make a great story and help them build it with the tools and techniques I have honed through…a lot of years of studying the works of great writers and building stories for many companies.

There is nothing more satisfying to me than helping someone tell their story – whether it is a biography, a product messaging platform focused on the customer’s needs, or a white paper on the benefits of 40G or Class 4 antennas. Recently, I helped a team hone the strategic message for a new product launch. The product is cool, innovative and complex. At the end of a two-day messaging session with a team of eight, the leader of the team delivered a pitch based on the foundation we had just built that was clear, concise, and truly compelling. It truly confirmed that I am doing exactly what I set out to do: write things that make people think.

Continue reading “feeling lost? think back to when you were 9”

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the power of doing nothing

As a creative professional, I’m constantly faced with new challenges and decisions: what’s the best way to tell this brand story? What will resonate most with the audience? What will make them laugh, cry, comment on Facebook or order the product I am helping to market? What’s the best way to get all the different people on the project engaged and aligned? But the toughest challenge by far for any project I work on is this: where do I start?

This is where the power of doing nothing is absolutely critical. Everyone has a process that they use to get things done. I’m no exception. Doing nothing is a big part of my process, especially when I am faced with what seems to be an overwhelming task. I find that this has been helpful in even in my regular life. When I am most overwhelmed and uncertain where to begin, I start by doing…nothing.

I sit in my screened-in porch. I take in the swaying oak trees taller and older than I will ever be. I let the whoosh of the wind in the leaves wash over me. I watch the flash of the red cardinal darting in and out of the bushes. I listen for squirrels’ feet padding along the top of my neighbor’s falling-down wooden fence in desperate need of paint, then watch them chase each other in circles around my yard and up a tree. I watch my dopey 110-pound dog try to catch them, climbing damn near two feet up the tree with her huge claws dug into the bark as she strains every muscle in her neck to reach the squirrel chattering, taunting her from a branch one dog nostril out of her reach. I listen to music that moves me and baptizes my brain of everything but the rhythm and the pattern of the harmonies. As the lyrics wash over me, I feel the worry and the fear – Will I be able to do this? Will I find the right words? Will I ever find my way in to this story? Maybe I don’t have it anymore. Maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe this is too much. Maybe I should give up. – all of that recedes as my brain powers down, forgets, feels, senses its way to…

…the answer I have been toiling to reach for hours or days to reach. It is murky and mysterious at first, I can’t make out what it is. So I make a grilled cheese sandwich, go sit down in the family room and stare out the bay window at the trees trying to see it until I smell something burning and remember I was making a grilled cheese sandwich. I toss it in the trash and walk the dopey dog around the pond. As I watch the ducks take flight from the water, tiny droplets falling from their webbed feet as they rise into the air in perfect unison, I feel the idea growing in me as sure as I felt my first-born flutter in my belly for the first time as I sat in a poetry reading 12 years ago. (He was stirred by the words, of this I am certain.) The idea is there. But it’s not ready yet. I’m not ready yet.

At six o’clock I make dinner and as I stir a pot of rice, my idea simmers as I wait for the water to boil. I sit at the dinner table and listen to tales of best friend sacrileges, Minecraft dramas, and remind everyone to keep their elbows off the table and put their napkins in their laps. I make sure homework is done, permission slips are signed, teeth are brushed, allergy medicine is consumed, and everyone is tucked in happy with all technology devices powered off and out of reach.

At midnight when the house is quiet and dark and no one needs me anymore, I drive to the grocery store and buy a case of Stella for me and a carton of Oreo Cookie Ice Cream for the kids and as I’m paying, the old, bored cashier with her spiky hairdo and bubblegum-pink lipstick and more gold bracelets than any human should be allowed to wear at one time surveys me in my sweats, t-shirt and converse sneakers with my beer and ice cream purchase and I know what she is thinking. This girl has just been dumped by the love of her life and is now off to drown and eat her sorrows away. I grin and shrug my shoulders in a sheepish “sorry no, these are my writing clothes” kind of way that writers learn to master over the years. And as I swipe my credit card – then dutifully swipe it again because I did it upside down the first time, the flicker of the idea flaps its tiny wings, becoming more clear, more recognizable as it slowly takes shape and floats to the surface, creating ripples of recognition.

I am ready to start. Ready to write. Ready to tackle that overwhelming challenge. I have found my way in.

I once attended a reading by David Sedaris, humorist, essayist, NPR speaker and one of my favorite authors (“Me Talk Pretty One Day,” among others). Afterwards, my friend and I waited in line for him to sign our books. After he scribbled a lewd drawing on my friend’s book for her twelve-year-old son and made a wisecrack I can’t repeat, I handed him my book and asked him what the toughest part was about writing funny. He told me about having to write a Thanksgiving dinner story for the New Yorker and how many times and ways he tried to start it. People behind me were impatient and muttering, but he took his time telling his story. I hung on every word. Finally he said, “The hardest part? Finding my way in.”

Next time you are feeling overwhelmed, unsure of where to start, try doing nothing. I hope you find your way in. Let me know how it goes.

7 comebacks for why you are not writing or finishing your book that just might trigger you to start writing again

Let’s say you are a writer and that, at some point, you have told your friends or family that you wanted to or were writing a book. Chances are pretty good that someone at some point has asked you how said book is going, if you are still writing, are you published, or another variation on, “Well, when the hell are you going to finish that thing already?!”

Now, we all assume that these kind-hearted souls are trying to be supportive. But let’s say that the moment they ask you this, your writing or otherwise so-called creative life is as off track as your exercise life, and you feel like you’ve been caught by your Weight Watchers sponsor on the couch with a box of doughnuts in one hand and a super size DQ Blizzard in the other while watching Biggest Loser.

I feel your pain.

Now pass me a Long John because I have good news. Since I am very busy not writing my book right this minute, I have concocted 7 snappy little comebacks you can whip out when people ask you if you are writing, finishing or publishing your book. And the best part is, most of them are actually writerly exercises in disguise, which may or may not prompt you to start writing again.

So the next time anyone asks why you are not writing or finishing your book, you will respond:

I am not writing or finishing my book because…

1. “I have never recovered from…” You can either finish this statement with a fictional disaster–being raised by a wild pack of roosters–or simply shake your head and wave the person away for it is simply too awful to contemplate let alone speak of it. Every time someone asks you why you haven’t finished your project, it implies that there is something wrong with you. No one likes failed expectations. So give the people what they really want: a chance to speculate on what is wrong with you. Is it a disease? Is there a cheating spouse? Is this a manifestation of something terrible that happened in childhood? (Cue the roosters.) This can lead to juicy gossip and if you’re lucky, even better fiction than you could have dreamed up alone on the couch slurping your DQ Blizzard.

2. “I’m swamped at the alpaca farm!” Sometimes, you have to lie to get people off your back. And that’s OK, because we’re writers, we make sh*t up all the time. Consider it writing practice! It’s good for you to flex your tall tale muscles as often as possible. Just make sure it’s a VERY tall tale, because if you start mumbling about being busy with work and the kids and laundry blah blah blah, people will hassle you because you have disappointed them (see failed expectations in comeback #1). If you’re a writer, you had better have a damn good excuse for not writing. So you need a distraction. You need to lie.

If you’re very good at it, they will forget about the book and become fascinated with your new life on the alpaca farm. And you just might have a new story on your hands.

3. “I can’t live without the anticipation.” You can follow this up by stating that unlike the rest of the world, you rather enjoy waiting–at the doctor’s office, at the vet, in line at the bank, and especially at  Six Flags Great America and Disneyland. On Christmas morning, you are the last one to open your gifts. Sometimes you even wait until the next Christmas to open them. Waiting is the best part and you’ve got nothin’ but time. You are one big Heinz Ketchup bottle of Anticipation, baby. Bring it!

4. “I’m afraid success may change me.” Everyone already knows what it feels like to fail–personally, I have the editors’ rejection letters to prove it. But if you write a Harry Potter or Twilight and knock it out of the park, there is a 50/50 chance you might become one of those doomed “The Lottery Changed My Life” people and end up drinking yourself to death in a motel room in Vegas, broke and alone, while the few people who actually remember you say, “Wow, if only she hadn’t hit success with that big fat book, she might still be here today, giving us gambling money.”

Hopefully by the time you explain this, people will have moved on to the slot machine and you and your failed expectations will be long forgotten. If not, see “You need a distraction” in #3. I recommend yelling, “Tequila shots for everyone? Wow, thanks .” (Be sure to invite me if you’re going to use that one.)

5. “I am currently extrapolating the dilemma of good vs. evil in a postmodern yet dialectic society that is analogous to Planet of the Apes.” You will probably only have to add one more nonsensical sentence before the audience’s eyes glaze over. All they will remember is the last thing you said, Planet of the Apes, and this is good because it acts as a transitional element for them to change the conversation to anything other than your writing.

This will be good practice for you if you have not done a reading in front of a live audience. It’s important to know exactly where in your writing people tuned out. WARNING: This is probably the best way to ensure that someone NEVER asks you about your book or your writing again, so use it wisely.

6. “But sweetie, writing takes me away from you for far too long!” Add a sweet smile at the end and you might just get lucky. But if you don’t, or you’re just pissed off and sick of people asking you about your damn writing, go with #7:

7. “My book is about you.” Immediately let out a forlorn sigh and stare off in the distance as if you are struggling with a mighty dilemma. At that point, the other person will either A. slap you, B. call a lawyer, C. cry, D. slap you again, or E. all of the above. Which means–you guessed it–you need a distraction. See “tequila shots” in #4.

And that’s it my friends, seven snappy, snarky little comebacks you can whip out at a moment’s notice when you are caught red-handed, not writing. Perhaps you have been inspired by all of these exciting potential confrontations. If so, get back to your chair and start writing again. If not, I say go for the tequila. There’s always a good story after tequila. 🙂

How to avoid creative burnout

Once as a freelance marketing writer, I agreed to a ridiculously insane deadline. (As opposed to a regularly insane deadline.) At 4:36PM on a Thursday, I was asked to solve a huge creative conundrum by 8:30am the next day. I was provided with three previously failed concepts and asked to “make them all work.” Somehow, someway. And if I had time, (ha!) maybe I could also come up with “a few” concepts of my own.

This to me was akin to working with both arms tied behind my back and a coyote chewing on my foot. With a paycheck at the end if I could get my hands untied and kick the coyote to kingdom come.

I worked all night. By 8:27am, I met the parameters and the deadline. I had successfully compressed the creative process, but the results could have been so much better if I had just had more time. And sleep. This is an excellent recipe for creative burnout.

While there will always be crunch times and projects, it’s never good if your entire working life is one ridiculously insane deadline after another. If you don’t take control of your creative life and deadlines, burnout is inevitable. So to help save your sanity, here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way…the hard way:

1. Don’t be afraid to abandon ideas. You might not be burnt out; maybe you’re simply tired of beating a dead horse. Sometimes you can find a way to make an idea work–some hidden angle or connection that comes with a fresh eye. But if it takes longer than say, 15 minutes, move on. You can always come back to it later–as in, for another project with a longer deadline and a completely different strategy.

2. Don’t taint the creative process. The worst thing you can do at the beginning of a new project is to focus on previous failed attempts. It’s like saying, “Ok, so here’s what didn’t work, what failed, what sucked. Now let’s find a way to make it work!”  Uh huh.

Start with the facts–the strategy, the objective, the primary goal or message. If the old ideas still have a shot, run with it. For 15 minutes. Then move on. Later you can ask what was tried before and what sucked, especially if you’re burnt out and need a giggle.

3. Ask for more time. It never hurts to ask what’s driving the deadline or if it’s a hard deadline. More often than not, you can get extra time–but not if you don’t ask up front. Sure, some of us “need” deadlines to get things done. And you shouldn’t be a diva, constantly pushing back on deadline requests. But if you don’t give yourself enough time to think and simmer, the process will take longer, you’ll be miserable and…hello, burnout!

4. Say no. I still remember my grandmother, who grew up during the Great Depression, chiding me as a child for not eating my bread crusts, saying, “You never know when you might wish you had them.” This attitude permeates my work life, where I hate to say no to projects. But there are only so many things you can do at once before you lose your mind and your motivation.

It helps to “qualify your leads” ahead of time. Determine what your ideal sweet spot is for clients or projects–what’s most profitable for you? What’s your niche? Who is your ideal client? Define it all. Once you have these rules in place, it’s much easier to say no up front, before you overcommit or regret committing altogether.

5. Keep your creative warehouse full. All work and no play is the fastest way to drain your creativity. Read a little bit of everything you can get your hands on–blogs, magazines, newspapers, books, articles, white papers. Watch a little bit of everything you have time for–videos, vlogs, TV, movies. And most of all, be sure to get out from behind your desk and experience life. Live a little. It’s one of the best way to banish the creative burnout blues.

6. Identify your role in the insanity. I’ve already told you mine–I hate to turn down work, so I take on too much or too much of the wrong kinds of projects. It might be your fear of asking more questions or pushing back on direction that’s not clear. Analyze your last few crazy projects–what could you have done differently to make things less crazy?

7. Laugh. If you don’t, you’ll be crabby and crazy from your deadline. Boo hoo. So turn that frown upside down, call a funny friend, make fun of your worst concepts, crack a joke at your own expense. Creative relief, or at the very least, a little fun, is sure to follow.

How do you handle creative burnout when it happens? How do you prevent it? Enquiring minds want to know!

What you really mean when you say “I’m not creative”

Over the years, I’ve heard countless people tell me that they are not creative. This always surprises and amuses me. What I’ve found is that this phrase is often used for other purposes. For example:

As a disclaimer: “I’m not creative, okay, but here’s my idea…”.

To soften a request: “I think we should use my headline instead of yours. I mean, I’m not creative, but I think it works better.”

To avoid work: “I can’t help you with this. I’m not creative.”

To sum up a vague objection: “I don’t like the bird graphic/the color purple/this story…but well, maybe it’s because I’m not creative.”

As a sarcastic jibe: “Yes, I saw your artwork/design/story. I’m not creative though, so maybe that’s why I don’t get it/like it/care.

To mask anxiety: “I’m a logistical person. I’m not creative. What do I know?”

So what does “being creative” really mean?
Everyone is creative. But “to be creative” means different things to different people. At its heart, creativity is about:

  • Curiosity: you want to know about people, places and things
  • Risk: you are willing to take a chance on things and ideas that are important to you; that includes speaking up and taking action when it matters
  • Reflection: thinking feeds ideas which feeds creativity
  • Patience: sometimes you have to wait for ideas to come and trust that they will come
  • Listening: sharing ideas requires a willingness to hear what someone else has to say without judgment
  • Passion: passion fuels inspiration which fuels creativity

Notice how I didn’t mention anything related to writing, artwork, painting, sculpture, design…all of those activities that are typically labeled as “creative.” Just because I’m a writer does that make me any more creative than a software developer who creates a cool app? Or a scientist who makes a major breakthrough in cancer research? Or a mom who finds a way to get her kids in the car without tantrums?

Exactly. Creativity is not something you either have or don’t have. We are all creative. Take a look at your own work and life and see all the ways, big and small, that you are creative. Use the six qualities above as a check list. You might be surprised at how creative you really are.

What does “being creative” mean to you?

Are you writing about things that matter? 5 questions to ask yourself

The first time I read my writing in front of an audience–not just my class, but a venue full of strangers–I was 26 years old and I was terrified. I was in my first graduate course of my first semester at Columbia College Chicago, and it was required that all students read from their work at open mic readings sponsored by the department. Our professor said only this: If you’re not scared before the reading, then you haven’t picked the right material.

I was just starting my MFA studies, so I was confused. The right material? I was lucky I had any material. But after I read my work in public a few times, I began to understand. When I chose material that I felt was a “sure thing,” the audience response was…polite. When I chose material I felt uncertain about–maybe I had gone somewhere deep, taken a risk, hit a truth on the head–the audience response was immediate. Electric. People sat up straighter. Leaned in. The applause was genuine. People sought me out afterward, asked questions, shared their stories. That was the right material.

So how do you know whether you’re working on the right material, or merely skimming the surface? If you really want to know, ask yourself:

Are you scared? If you feel a tingle of fear, anger, resistance or any other strong emotion, you’re on the right track. Be brave. Go for it. You can do this.

Will someone be mad at you? Good. That means you’re not playing the people-pleaser, you’re digging into hard truths and reality. When I was 12 and going through my existentialist phase of writing, my mom used to wail, “Why can’t you ever write about happy things?” You can write happy stories about unicorns and rainbows. But if you want to write real, deep, authentic work…you have to take a chance that not everyone is going to love what you have to say.

Is it forbidden? Explore it creatively. Secrets and lies fester in the dark. Shine a light on those negative spots so we can see what you see.

Are you terrified you’ll fail? Clearly you have something at stake that’s worth exploring. Ask yourself what “failure” looks like. What’s the worst that can happen? Write it down. Read it. Now burn it and get to work. You have to be willing to make a mess if you want to get to the good stuff. Creativity is a messy business. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

Is the universe dropping hints? An old friend mentions a topic that you’ve been thinking about writing about. You see a newspaper article with a different angle on the same topic a few days later. Then you meet someone new who happens to be dealing with the same issue. If you find yourself toying with an idea and it keeps popping up all around you in unexpected places, your creative work is calling you.

If you find yourself distracted and avoiding your creative work, ask yourself: am I working on what really matters?

Be your own muse: one secret to being more productive in your creative work

In my MFA program, there was one phrase that came up over and over: “Go with whatever is most taking your attention right now.” This was usually said in a serious Obi Wan Kenobe-voice to us just before we began an in-class writing assignment or when being coached through an impromptu verbal narrative in front of the class.

At first, it’s strange to be told this let alone think this way. But the up side to this creative directive was that it helped me generate lots of story starts and ideas. My brain never shuts up so there is ALWAYS something taking my attention.

The challenge became, how do I tune out the other distractions and focus on the one, most pressing scene or moment that was most strongly taking my attention right NOW? This directive helped me train my brain to focus with laser precision on the moment or scene that I needed to tell right now.

While having many story starts and ideas is great, the down side was that I rarely finished any of my story starts because something else is ALWAYS taking my attention. How to finish a piece of writing…that’s the bane of my existence when it comes to my own personal creative work and another blog post for another day.

As a writer and someone who always has multiple projects going on at once both at home and at work, I’ve found that going with what takes my attention helps me instinctively, intuitively juggle my priorities better. It’s an exercise in active listening. I ask myself (either in my journal or literally), what is taking my attention right now? And then I listen to what my mind says, what it pushes forth. It requires patience. It requires quiet. It requires honesty.

The payoff is that the priority or project I need to focus on first or that I am most enthusiastic about at that moment bubbles up, drowning out everything else. I am much more productive this way. As a professional writer, my ability to juggle many different projects hinges upon my ability to quickly and easily switch back and forth between clients, dipping in and out of different brands, voices and subject matters. I work faster when I focus on the project that I am most excited about at the moment–the one most strongly taking my attention.

This helps me get down to business quickly and manage my time so much more efficiently. But this doesn’t just pertain to writing. It pertains to life.

Don’t wait for the muse to find you. Try it now.
Ask yourself, what is taking my attention right now? Then listen to what your intuition says. At first, this may be uncomfortable. Your brain might get snarky and say stuff like, “Piles of laundry! Bills! The bathtub grout is moldy!” Let the snark come out, then push it aside. Listen again.

In the beginning, this may feel like listening for a pin to drop in a crowded football stadium. Wait for it. Eventually you will push everything else aside and focus your mind’s eye on one thing, the important thing, that you need to get to right now. You will hear the pin drop. You will see it. Write it. Paint it. Design it. You will work despite the laundry, the bills, the grout.

Be your own muse. Go with what’s taking your attention right now.