Politics: A Simplification

It seems to me that this:

 

And especially this:

 

 

Is really just like this.

 

neuman

 

This is a parody:

 

neuman

 

And to me it’s like this

 

clinton

 

And this

 

trump

Are parodies too.

Parodies of what, exactly, I don’t know, because I’m not sure there’s ever been a political system that wasn’t fucking ridiculous.

There’s a spectrum, I know, where some aren’t nearly as bad as others.

But so many start out as great ideas and end up as perversions of themselves.

orwell
A still from the 1954 film of Animal Farm

 

Most of my life, I’ve been sort of sickened by who’s in office, and by most of the stuff they do.

I’ve certainly been less nauseated in the last eight years than I was in the eight before that.

I’ve even sort of convalesced at times.

I felt remedied on election night in 2008, for example. Not just because we’ve made progress with civil rights, but because Obama seems like a human.

I still think he’s the first human president since Jimmy Carter.

I can’t say I think things have been really super great, because it seems like sometimes crazy shit is bound to go down no matter what.

But you know how all the people who run the world in The X-Files are like evil aliens or something?

That’s why this

clinton

And this

trump

Are like this

 

 

To me.

I would be an anarchist if that made any sense. But it probably doesn’t either, really.

And I do hope for this:

 

 

 

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Why Working Remotely Makes You Happier

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As a writer and editor, I’m fortunate to have a vocation that I can pursue from anywhere.

As an in-house writer and editor, I’m fortunate to have a job where I get to work remotely on Fridays every summer.

I think what I love most about working from home is saving time.

Last night I had a more unhurried evening than other weeknights. This morning I felt more refreshed than other week mornings. Today I saved 40 minutes total on a relatively short but nevertheless ordinarily existent commute.

I feel more tranquil.

But working remotely is not all about ease. You still have to work. And often you work more.

Like today, I put in an extra half an hour because I forgot to take a lunch.

But here’s the best part about today:

During a 10-minute break toward the end of the day, I got a jump on dinner by tossing wild Alaskan cod in a cast iron skillet with olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic.

When the workday was over, I took 10 minutes to make mayonnaise with dill and walnut oil. I chopped some radicchio, grated some carrots, grated some beets, and by 5:12 I was savoring a succulent dinner that I would never have the energy to make on an officenight.

Now it’s 5:56 and instead of driving home and falling down dead of exhaustion after a long week, I’m experimenting with tequila and blueberries, actually doing personal writing, and full of energy for the weekend.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m lucky enough to love my office too. I have fantastic coworkers who I enjoy “facetime” (good thing, but loathsome word) with. We have a walking trail for lunch walks. And while we have email, phone calls we can take from anywhere, and tools like Yammer, Jabber, Office 365, Trello, Wrike, and web cams, sometimes it’s helpful to have in-person meetings.

But man, the joy and utility of using your web tools in your jammie clothes.

I love and don’t love living in the 21st century. In some ways I think it’s the best time to be alive: The time and place I live in offers some of the most freedom, choice, and opportunity in history, as far as I know.

On the other hand, I think a lot of things are more fucked than ever.

On a third hand, I imagine that life has always been good and bad for most people in all places in all times.

But I think one thing is certain: If you have the kind of job that can be done from anywhere, especially if it’s web-based, now is an incredible time to achieve the nearly mythical and long-sought work-life balance.

Sangreal

 

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Book Spine Poem

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My friend Becky found this exercise via Stan Carey’s book spine poem.

“We’ve got to do this,” she said, and she did, and hers is beautiful.

Here’s mine:

Paris,
Roman fever in the house of mirth.

Lost horizon,
a backward glance among the pond people.

Midnight magic: stuff of sleep and dreams.
The wound and the bow eats, shoots,
and leaves.

Children of the new forest,
to the summit!
A rumor of angels.

. . .

Writing a book spine poem can inspire even the deadest poet. I know, as I had a certain form of writer’s block for about three years.

Writing a book spine poem is like writing any poem, but easier, because the Muse is the books you love.

The Muse is not elusive in this exercise, because your books are there. They call to you as they always do, and they come together almost on their own as you collect them based on title, emotion, and tactual feel.

It’s an architecture as you build with books like stones.

Try one and let me know how it goes!

Posted in Art, Books, Writing | Tagged | 1 Comment

Why I Pull the Logos Off My Clothes

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Last week I got a pair of TOMS and had no choice but to take a seam ripper to the ostentatious blue logo on the back of each shoe.

Here’s why:

I already have a job in marketing.

If TOMS wants me to market their brand, they can do three things:

  1. Triple my current salary
  2. Give me a mind-blowing health insurance and benefits package
  3. Not mind me working remotely from anywhere, anytime I want

I’ll add a fourth requirement: Recently I decided that my ideal schedule is one week of work, then three weeks off.

This should cycle monthly, like the rhythm and magic of the moon.

But since that’s not going to happen, I pulled the logos off the backs of my shoes.

This is because I’ve never liked to display my values through legible clothing.

Now I don’t care what other people wear. But for me, I can’t stand making public declarations about what brand I’m wearing or what I believe in.

I hate bumper stickers too, at least on my car, and I don’t stake political signs in my yard.

I don’t even like advertising my associations on my grocery bags.

I have loads of bags that say Sendik’s (a local grocery store), CPI (a company I’m proud to work for), I’m Creating a Dementia Capable Society (an effort I believe in), Progressive (I got these when someone with Progressive auto insurance rear-ended my car and Progressive packed some shit from my trunk into their bags when they were fixing my bumper).

I actually go so far as to turn these grocery bags inside out, because I don’t want to attract attention to my affiliations. I don’t want to get into “So what is a Dementia Capable Society?” or “So Progressive, huh? I like Geico.”

Most often, these horrific small talks are averted because I pack my own groceries. No one ever sees the logos in my inside-out bags.

But occasionally I shop at places where the checkout person bags my groceries, and they invariably say, “Oh your bag is inside outdo you want me to turn it right-side out?”

My answer depends on my mood: Sometimes I say, “Oh my bag is inside out because I hate marketing.” And sometimes I say “Sure” to avoid a conversation about why I hate marketing.

So why do I hate marketing, if I work in marketing?

First, I ended up in marketing. A wonderful company was hiring a proofreader six years ago, and the position happened to be in their marketing department. Over the years I moved to copywriting, and now, to my surprise, I’m a certified content marketer. (I actually have a banner proudly proclaiming this fact on my About page. But I wouldn’t wear the banner.)

Which leads to the second reason I work in marketing despite hating marketing.

Though I despise in-your-face marketing ploys, I love creating content to attract people to services that help them solve problems. I love writing, storytelling, and giving people the resources they’re looking for to make their lives better.

But TOMS makes people’s lives better by donating a pair of shoes to someone in need every time I buy a pair of shoes. So what’s my problem?

I don’t want to advertise with my attire.

And I think of marketing as sort of nuanced.

For example, I’ll like The Corners on Facebook. But as much as I dig them, I probably wouldn’t wear a Corners T-shirt.

I’m happy to be one of 7,000 fans, but I don’t really want to have a conversation with a stranger about my interests or my clothes.

Conversely, I love having conversations with my friends about this stuff. So if a friend sees that I’ve liked Corners, I’m happy when they tell me I should check out these bands too.

There’s also the vocal communication vs. written communication factor.

I only like having extended vocal communications with people I’m crazy about. Strangers on the street, not so much.

But I can do a written conversation with anyone till the cows come home.

Which is why I love writing, so through writing I’ll market nonviolence like a house on fire.

And it’s why I wouldn’t wear a T-shirt that says I Pull the Logos Off My Clothes, but I’ll write 400,ooo words about it.

But this is odd: Logos are symbols, and I love symbols.

Symbols as letters, for example, are my bread and butter.

And I love to admire the design of a well-crafted logo.

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Yet I still can’t wear a logo, even if I love what it stands for.

Take my WMSE T-shirt, for example. WMSE is the best radio station on the planet, but if I wear my T-shirt from them, it’s to bed and no more.

There are some exceptions, however.

Apparently I’d rather advertise WMSE than Apple:

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Of course, my laptop rarely leaves my house.

And the little white label on the side of my shoes wouldn’t come off, so I left it on.

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What can you do.

It’s pretty innocuous, anyway. Not as glaring as a giant blue badge.

Badges. Maybe I was Hester Prynne in a previous life, and that A is what threw me off legible clothing.

Anyway, here’s a funny commentary on logos that speaks to my long-held abhorrence.

Logorama from Marc Altshuler on Vimeo.

With this, you’d think I’m some kind of high-and-mighty fake hippie who hates corporations, which I pretty much am.

But the truth is that I’m just as much of a corporate lover as the next guy: Target and Whole Foods sometimes have shit I need that I can’t find at my yuppie co-op.

Final thoughts

If you wear logos, I don’t have a problem with you. I’m not saying I won’t judge you, because I’m judgmental as fuck. But what you wear is your business.

And maybe Nike’s.

Or not.

Whatever. It’s up to you.

PS. Check out my socks.

socks

What can I say. I’m human and I’m full of contradictions.

I’m complicated.

Also those damn logos are stamped on. Can’t pull ’em off like a little blue badge.

I’d turn ’em inside out, but usually I just wear these socks to bed and don’t really see them in the dark.

 

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Online Journey to a Book Spine Poem

 

I’m about to share a writing exercise that has the power to inspire even the deadest poet.

But first, how I found it:

The other day a wonderful friend told me about Sam Harris’s podcast with Paul Bloom, where the two talk about Bloom being “against empathy.”

Harris and Bloom are both extraordinary humans who note that empathyfeeling another’s experience—is not particularly productive. It can be exhausting, in fact, and can lead to things like secondary trauma.

Empathy is not a synonym for compassion, they say essentially, so lots of people have it wrong: it’s a misnomer for compassion.

The conversation, as Harris and Bloom explore psychology, neuroscience, morality, meditation, psychedelic drugs, and more, is deeply stimulating, and I might write this weekend more about what I took away from their talk. Cuz I see some exceptions, I feel some affinities, and I have some experience I want to explore.

So halfway through the podcast, I sat down for dinner and found Bloom on Twitter. I came across a tweet about beautiful and strong language, a thing I love as much as an authentic philosophical discussion.

That led me to following Strong Language, which Strong Language describes as “sweary stuff about swearing from a group of linguists, lexicographers, and language lovers.”

Immediately I fell in love.

I landed on a Guardian article by a man who’s swearing off swearing because he doesn’t want his son “to be like the toddler at my friends’ wedding reception who ground everything to a standstill by angrily calling his mum a fuckhead.”

Love.

When I LOL I love.

I clicked back to Strong Language and found a tweet about a grammatical debate on the phrase “I agreed the fuck out of it.”

Read, LOL, love.

Cuz I agreed the fuck out of it.

The next day, Stan Carey, who writes for @stronglang, liked my tweet about why a tiny house is a magical dwelling.

I sent him to my friend Becky, who found Stan’s book spine poem.

“We’ve got to do this,” she said, and she did, and hers is beautiful.

Here’s mine:

Book Spine Poem (I had the poem right here on this post at first, but I’ve moved it to a separate post.)

Posted in Art, Books, Writing | 2 Comments

“There’s No Such Thing as Original Music Anymore.”

abbey-road

I have a friend who has a friend whose dad said this in 1989 about The Stone Roses:

“Oh they’re just ripping off The Beatles and The Byrds.”

I’ve always found that sad.

Of course that’s not an isolated opinion: music journalist Robert Christgau famously wondered,

“What do [the Stone Roses] do that the Byrds or Buffalo Springfield didn’t do better in 1967?”

Here’s my answer:

Like all great bands, The Stone Roses learned from their influencesand made their sound their own.

Though I don’t know all The Byrds’ songs, I don’t think they began an album with a noise crescendo that gives way to a bass line that opens toward a sweet, high, teasing guitar that yields to a drum beat that sets the stage for a wash of a second guitar that has, really, no particularly 60s sound about it.

True: The Stone Roses, The Verve, Oasis, and countless other bands of the 80s and 90s were influenced by 60s bands. They alluded to that fact in lyrics and arrangements. They “stood on the shoulders of giants,” as they say.

And of course the great bands of the 60s stood on the shoulders of blues giants.

That’s what people do in art. They learn from what they love, and they create.

To me, there’s derivative, which is artless, and there’s influenced, which is sagacious.

One of the things I can’t hear enough of now is neopsych and 60s revival bands like The Black Angels, The Allah-Las, Wooden Shjips, Dead Rabbits, The Spyrals, etc.

Like the greats of the 80s and 90s, these bands borrow from The 13th Floor Elevators, The Kinks, The Velvet Underground, The Stones, etc.

And like the greats of the 80s and 90s, they make their sound their own.

They evoke Dick Dale, The Ventures, The Vettes, The Byrds, The Birds, The Hollies, whatevs, but who they really sound like is themselves.

Here’s another 60s-influenced song that, like I Wanna Be Adored, begins with a bass line:

 

That badass fuzz* at 1:23 knocks my socks off. And when it comes back at 2:40 I kind of want to die cuz it sounds so good.

If there’s a dad, or anyone out there, saying “Oh they’re just ripping off The Byrds,” I feel sorry for them. They’re missing sonic transcendence.

When asked about 60s influences, the drummer for the Allah-Las, who swaps roles with the vocalist in the song above and sings “Long Journey,” said this:

“I think our generation grew up in a time where music . . . [is] just this big piece, so we grew up listening to a lot of 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s records, looking at it as just music . . . it’s just an evolution of trains of thought.”

I like the idea of a big piece and an evolution of trains of thought. I think it’s wiser than writing off stunning music as merely derivative.

That attitude is what makes this possible, where you hear surf blending like PB&J with Joy Division, Blue Oyster Cult, Iggy Pop, and 57 other varieties of brilliance:

 

[INTERLUDE] I can’t talk about psych, fuzz, “Britrock,” and having my socks knocked off without indulging in Spacemen 3, the 80s masters of 60s influences (well, they and their spinoff The Darkside), as far as I’m concerned:

 

I think about this influences stuff a lot, because just as it’s probably the best time ever in the history of the world to be a writer, it’s probably also the best time ever in the history of the world to love music.

But I started thinking about all this more yesterday when I felt an affinity with a friend who sent me the following song, which has 80s influences.

I felt the affinity because she loves what she loves. And she loves what I love. She loves doo-wop, surf, soul, disco, funk, bluegrass, big band, British Invasion, punk rock, garage rock, classic rock, new wave, electro, post-punk, ambient, rocksteady, downtempo, cheesy Top 40 80s shit, everything. She’s like most of my friends in that way, but sometimes she’s also grabbed fiercely by the rare tune that doesn’t spark much for others.

We discovered that we’re in a minority with loving this song:

 

Here’s what this song does for me:

There’s the beat, first off, which is probably the most important part of any song for meeven more important than a guitar hook, line, riff, sinker, whatever. Then there’s the keyboard “do do do DO do.” And what really gets me is the vocals, where the dude does highs and lows, and then there’s the harmonizing guy, and together they both sound like some weird amalgamation of Mark Hollis from Talk Talk and Michael McDonald.

It’s crazy. It’s hilarious. It’s wonderful.

We’re also both crazy about this song, which samples a sound from Last Tango in Paris:

 

To sum up, here’s what I have to say to someone who says “They’re just ripping off The Byrds”:

Just as you might love the one you’re with, love it if it’s good.

* Apologies if some of the music terms I’ve used here like “fuzz,” “crescendo,” and “guitar line” are totally off base. I don’t know much about making musicI just know what I love.

Top image: Abbey Road, found here. I tried superimposing the dudes from this fine video onto Abbey Road, but it didn’t work out too great, as you can see in the image below.

ambling

Posted in Art, Music, Writing | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The Archetype of the Little House

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I’ve long had a love for little houses, and have always been fascinated by their appearance in books and things I admire.

Little houses are often magical dwellings, places where people, unencumbered by excess space or distraction, retreat in order to deepen their relationships with themselves or others.

My enchantment could have begun with the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, whose hard covers, thick paper, and charming line drawings I greatly reveredthough I was put off on the text for a long time because of the TV show, which creeped me out. It seemed to have a religious agenda, and I grew up with an aversion to religion, so I didn’t really read much of the books till I was in my early 20s and images of the bright but somehow dreary light of the TV show’s intro credits had faded from my impression somewhat.

Smurf houseChildhood little houses

What it began with was The Smurfs.

In a way I think of that now as a dippy cartoon about little blue people with vapid personalities and high-pitched, annoying voices, but I loved that show as a kid.

I loved the magic of the forest, the conjury of the potions, the adventure of the journeys to visit sages and healers, and the earthiness of the medieval setting.

I loved that show so much, in fact, that when I spent weekends at my grandparents’ house as a kid I would set the kitchen timer (for whatever reason in lieu of an alarm clock) for an hour every hour on Friday nights all the way till 6 a.m. on Saturdays when the show came on. I would savor The Smurfs, and then go back to bed and sleep until, say, Scooby-Doo came on at noon.

What I loved about The Smurfs was that they lived in a utopian village in the woodsand that each Smurf had his own mushroom. Or her own mushroom. Personal spaces of retreat where each Smurf worked at his own skill or nurtured his own nature.

Papa Smurf concocted magical brews in his own mushroom.

Greedy Smurf baked pies in his own mushroom.

Lazy Smurf slept and dreamed in his own mushroom.

Smurfette had a closetful of white dresses in her own mushroom.

I wished fervently for my own mushroom, because all the Smurfs lived so peacefully in those cozy self-governed cottages, but each was also a part of the greater Smurf community.

Adolescent little houses

Later on, a book that arrested my preteen attention was V.C. Andrews’ Dark Angel.

I identified with the heroine, a young girl who was sent to live in the mansion of her mysterious grandparents. My grandparents didn’t have a mansion, but their house was large to me when I was small and its size and contents were endlessly fascinating.

One day, while exploring the grounds of her forebears’ mansion, the girl discovered an English maze.

I think she spent a few breathless days being afraid to enter the labyrinth, but at last she did, and in its center she discovered a little cottage.

There lived a forbidden man who she fell in love with, and I was introduced to a contemporary take on the gothic romance.

I slight it here slightly, but it had a profound effect on my psyche. Like an enchanted mushroom, this cottage was a refuge for a character who was in the midst of growing up and developing her identity.

15famouscabins_4Speaking of which, that’s what Snow White was doing in the dwarves’ little house. In The Uses of Enchantment (sometimes now spurned as outdated but still carrying some interesting insight), child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim says that the plight of Snow White symbolizes her movement from childhood to pubescence, and eventually to love and marriage.

“The peaceful preadolescent period Snow White has while living with the dwarfs before the queen again disturbs her gives her the strength to move into adolescence,” Bettelheim wrote.

Taking refuge from the threat of having her childhood killed (symbolized by her stepmother’s orders that the hunter kill her), Snow White settles for a time in the tiny house of the dwarves. What their cozy abode offers her is a bit like her ensuing sleep in the foresta space for rest and pause. Once she leaves the dwarves’ little house, she’s more prepared to grow toward maturity.

The little house also promotes change for adults.

In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Victorian wife and mother Edna Pontellier finds that she’s stifled by a lack of personhood. What she views as a “life of caretaking” impedes her desire to feel like a whole human being, someone who can be and do what feels right for herself.

This leads her to leave her husband’s mansion and move to her “pigeon house,” a small cottage that represents independence and emancipation.

“The pigeon house pleased her,” Chopin wrote. “Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual.”

For quite a spell the little house appeared in every book I read. There was the gamekeeper’s cottage in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, where Connie, like Edna, discovers a world outside the one she had been bred for.

I think, though my memory is foggy, that there’s a little house, or maybe a gazebo, in The Age of Innocence too, where Newland Archer and the Countess Olenska meet over the years to discuss their love. Though that little house could have been in The House of Mirth.

But whateverbasically, all the characters in books with little houses fare differently as a result of their time in their little houses, but a common theme is that the little houses serve as havens where the characters experience something different from the norm of, say, the mammoth mansions they usually reside in.

This makes sense because of the expanse of space in a mansion: All those rooms are filled with distractions and psychic or familial weight and deluded, confining customs.

Of course there’s also the writer’s little house, the place where the writer finds the peace to create.

When I was in writing school (which is to say when I belatedly pursued my bachelor’s degree at a low-residency liberal arts college, which sadly no longer exists, and which truly helped me learn how to become what I always knew I was), I started my self-designed studies with a look at how other writers work.

I browsed a book called The Writer’s Desk with photos by Jill Krementz, Kurt Vonnegut’s wife, and became captivated by this image…

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…of E. B. White writing in his little boathouse in Maine.

That’s the little house, I thought, where the writer retreats in solitude to develop his work.

photo-383x383A couple years ago I attended a conference where writer Ann Handley talked about having built a tiny house to write in.

She also mentioned having pursued as many pen pals as possible as a child, and talked about creating different lives for herself to write to each pen pal about, so the tiny house wasn’t the only writerly parallel that caught my ear. But it certainly grabbed me.

Many writers pursue the tiny house. Thoreau, Roald Dahl, Mark Twain, Michael Pollan … it seems that at one point or another everyone whose heart is bound to words is compelled to seek a cabin or a mushroom or a boathouse or a room of their own.

Visiting little houses

For my part, I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in a little house I didn’t like.

I remember lodging in a cabin near a lake in Ontario for a week or so one summer when I was about five and feeling that it was a sanctuary.

When I was 11 and 12 I went to camp and reveled in the coziness of paneled walls and bunk beds and the surprising sanctity of vespers and the smell of sulfury well water and sweet-scented bug spray and coconuty suntan lotionin our little cabin.

I guess I went to a crappy camp when I was 10 and that cabin sucked, but when I was 23 I stayed in a cabin in Northern California that nourished me, and for a period of years I used to sojourn for a night or two in a peaceful cabin on Lake Erie on my way to school in Vermont, and when I turned 30 we spent my birthday up north in Wisconsin in a soothing cabin, watching the stars and listening to the lake water lap against the pier.

And a couple years ago I went to a writers’ retreat in the redwoods, where I felt like my tiny writer’s cabin was my own private mushroom.

2e14f5eadf5176504b1c136b000b8726Soon after that I started reading a book called At Home in France by New Yorker and New York Times editor Ann Barry.

Barry owned a little stone house in the south of France called Pech Farguet, or “the hill of the little forge.”

Composed of a living room and a kitchen on the first floor and a bedroom and bath on the second floor, it is indeed a little house. One day I’ll visit it and feel an affinity with a writer who for many years spent a week or two escaping her American life and reveling in the magic of the little house.

Dream little houses

Right now I live in an average-sized house, but I’ve always found myself craving the envelopment of a little house.

My little house doesn’t have to be in the woods per se, but it should be nestled among pine trees and willows. It should be made of wood and stone. And it should embody the repose of Owl’s little house, or Frog’s or Toad’s.

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It should, by the nature of its size and the simplicity of its nature, do what Gaston Bachelard said of dream houses in The Poetics of Space: it should “be a cottage, a dove-cote, a nest, a chrysalis.”

Because that’s what the little house is for those of us who crave one: A burrow that connects uswriters or notwith the home inside of ourselves.

Top photo taken by me of a tiny house in Tourrettes-sur-Loup. Other images borrowed from the web, and borrowed there from books like Arnold Lobel’s Owl at Home and Frog and Toad. Click images for sources.

Posted in Art, Books, Travel, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Surprising Trick to Get Your Writing Juices Flowing

why co-writing(2)I’ve had writer’s block for about 3 years.

Fiction writer’s block, to be specific. I’ve written here and there on this blog a bit, and I’m a copywriter in my day job. No problems there really.

But the ghost story that started flowing like molten lava in the fall of 2009 turned to stone in the fall of 2012. In fact, last summer I got a comment that said, “Where the heck is the rest of the story! 2012? It’s 2015!”

Good point. And soon it will be 2016.

When I got that comment, I was elated that someone read the chapters that are out there and couldn’t wait to find out what happens next. I hoped that Strangecat’s interest would fire up my creative power.

But my most creative hours have always been between 1 and 4 a.m.

But I have a 9 to 5 and I need my sleep.

And on the weekends there’s no time.

And I have many more excuses.

Then an idea came.

Last fall while I was on vacation in France, a sudden inspiration struck me. Not for The House on the Lake (which, BTW, is actually written and done…in my head, just not on paper).

The idea that came was for a comic story about a living gargoyle.

The first several paragraphs flowed effortlessly, which is common for me. Never any problem starting stories.

What happens is this crazy foot-tall gargoyle cat pops in through the narrator’s window and says he grants wishes. He’s irritated about his “tragic fate” and he’s rude, rushed, and ornery.

“What do you want, madame?” he demands, and Madame is like, “What do I want? You’re the one who popped through my window. What do YOU want?”

Then I got stuck again.

The magical creature gives the narrator the chance to have a wish fulfilled–but how does she phrase her wish so that she really gets what she wants? How does she avoid all that crap that often happens in wish-granting stories, where the wish is taken too literally, or wrongly, or it upsets fate?

So I sent the intro to some writer friends and asked them what they think happens next.

I was on to something by asking that.

But I hadn’t phrased it quite right, because I didn’t know yet exactly what I was asking for. Kind of like what I was trying to avoid for the narrator in the gargoyle story.

I got responses like “I can totally picture this” and “I love this crazy gargoyle character and want to know how he got cursed with his ‘tragic fate’ of granting wishes.”

And stuff like that.

But encouragement wasn’t what I was looking for.

Then, three months later, what I was looking for finally occurred to me.

Have THEM write the next installment. 

I asked a couple friends if they wanted to do this. Both were down.

The first to write the next installment laid down 9 short paragraphs that paved the way for exactly where the story needed to go.

When it was my turn again, I was on fire: My shit was funny, it was propelling, some of it was moving and beautiful.

Same with my friend’s.

We went back and forth I think three times each, and within two days we’d finished a story I probably never would have wrapped up otherwise.

Why this is weird, but cool

Writing is a solitary activity for most of us. Writers are generally introverts. Not all, but many. We’re not all shy per se, but we tend to restore ourselves by thinking and writing alone.

So working together is almost counterintuitive.

But there are a lot of writers who find it natural to do. Only screenwriters are occurring to me right now–the Coen Brothers, for example. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck that one time. Francois Truffaut and Suzanne Schiffman a lot of times.

Etc.

But there are great children’s books, cookbooks, travel books, and all kinds of books and stories that are the products of two or more people.

OK, here’s a fiction example, sort of: Grimms’ fairy tales.

And some Wikipedia information on collaborative fiction.

Basically, great stories can be born from collaboration.

Why it worked for me

1. It’s easy.

I’m busy, and I’m lazy.

I’m not really lazy, but you know what I mean.

When you’re working off a cue someone gives you, then doing your part is almost like filling in the blanks.

I do this a lot with nonfiction too, when I’m ghostwriting at work. I’ll write a friendly intro, pop in some bones and as much meat as I can, write the call to action, and then send the draft to the person whose name is going on the finished piece and ask them to add or change anything they think is necessary, since they have more details than me–because they went to the conference or they’re teaching the course or whatever. Then I edit their additions and boom–within a day we have a helpful piece of SME content for our audience.

The same seems to go for fiction:

It’s just easy to take something where you want it to go when someone gives you prompts.

2. It’s convivial.

I remember being at lunch at Vermont College, which used to have a very untraditional and incredibly awesome low-residency undergraduate degree program, where you designed your own study around your passions and did most of the semester’s work from wherever you happened to be.

I was eating with a writer friend and one of our advisors, and they were talking about a spontaneous jam that had occurred during a previous residency, where everyone was gathered around a campfire and there were guitar players and singers and people with flutes and tambourines, and the advisor, at lunch, commented on how much he had enjoyed the unifying spirit of making music that night–how collaboration takes things where you don’t expect, and creates a sound and a mood that feeds your soul.

I admired what he was talking about, and totally regretted that I wasn’t a musician.

But when you write with someone, you sort of are.

Your intro paragraphs are like the guitar line (if that’s the term) and the drumbeat, and your writing pal brings in the bass, and then you start singing, and then your writing pal harmonizes with your vocals.

How this worked with the gargoyle story is that my friend’s first installment inspired me to go into the gargoyle’s history in my second installment, and then everything just flowed. I’d been avoiding the gargoyle’s history when I was writing the story on my own because I was set on getting straight to the narrator’s wish.

But this song benefited from the bass and the harmony that took it in a direction I hadn’t intended, but ended up enjoying.

3. It’s fun if you’re competitive too.

We didn’t try to kick each other’s asses, but we upped each other’s games.

4. It’s motivating.

I’ve written about this before: Once you’ve got your springboard, it’s actually hard not to dive into the lake of your work because the momentum is finally there.

Exceptions, and avoiding pitfalls

I wouldn’t try this for every story. For example, The House on the Lake is completely my own. Collaborating happened to work for The Magician of St. Pierre because I’m not married to the story.

Being flexible is essential.

Want to try collaborative writing?

Try it with a story where you know you’re not going to read your friend’s installment and be like, “THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Try it with a story you feel open about, where you know you’ll read your friend’s installment and be like, “Huh. YES. I wouldn’t have thought of that. But I can go with it.”

Choosing the right writer is key.

I knew this story would work with Josh because we once co-wrote an absurd and affectionate parody of Nancy Drew stories.

The Magician of St. Pierre was perfect for this because it too is comic and absurd.

I’m lucky to have a few fellow writers who I write or tell stories with. But I wouldn’t co-write with a writer who doesn’t share my style of humor or my love of certain genres.

What’s next

I’m going to edit our collaboration and maybe enter it in some short story competitions.

If anything comes of it, I’ll let you know.

I’ll also be working on a different treatment of the story with another friend who wants to work in longhand via US Mail. We both feel like sometimes all this instantaneous blue light crap can be too much.

On the other hand, it’s pretty cool to open the Google Docs app and see what your friend is typing, live as they’re typing it.

If you do collaborative writing, let me know what you think and how it goes!

Photo by Flickr user Kit Dunsmore.

Posted in Writing | Tagged , | 1 Comment

How to Not Get Published in the Huffington Post (or Anywhere)

How to Not Get Published in the Huffington Post

Want to get published? Don’t read this expert advice from a professional writer with 20 years of success with rejection. 

When I was starting out as a writer, I studied publications like The Writer and Writer’s Digest for tips on getting published. I read books like Formatting and Submitting Your Manuscript and articles like “What Do Editors Want?”, which were packed with do’s and don’ts for writing query letters and standing out in the slush pile.

Do’s included:

  1. Do address a specific person.
  2. Do tease the article/book/story succinctly.
  3. Do mention any previous publishing credits.
  4. Do demonstrate that you’re familiar with the publication you’re submitting t0.
  5. Do include a self-addressed stamped envelope (and do party like it’s 1996).

Don’ts included:

  1. Don’t overpromise on a delivery date.
  2. Don’t write back asking why if you’ve been rejected.
  3. If you don’t hear back, send a follow-up letter, but don’t include guesses about what happened.
  4. If you get rejected, don’t write back with guesses about what happened.
  5. Don’t resubmit unless revisions are requested.

I spent years applying these and many more tips to my submissions—pretty much all to no avail. In one case, I learned the true meaning of “demonstrate that you’re familiar with the publication you’re submitting to″ when I submitted some Halloween cookie recipes to a Christian magazine for children.

I had studied the magazine and knew they printed seasonal cookie recipes, so I figured I’d done my research. But I think it was the editor herself who elucidated the rejection with a note that the magazine didn’t touch on Halloween.

Or maybe my gentleman friend figured out that Vile Vampire and Ghastly Ghoul cookies were shunned by religious folk.

Whatever the case, now that I think about it, I guess the title “Heavenly Halloween Cookies” probably seemed like an irreverent turnoff too.

So I kept trying, and I kept studying publications, and I kept learning. I went to writers’ workshops and conferences. I got my bachelor’s degree at what was essentially a writing school, which sadly no longer exists. Then I dabbled in that school’s MFA in Writing, which does still exist. And then I ended up copyediting Writer’s Digest books as a freelancer, getting paid to line edit how-to guides like the ones I had cut my teeth on.

Long story short, over the years I learned what to do and what not to do to get published.

And I threw that all out the window recently with a submission to Huff Post.***

Here’s what I did. Do this, and you won’t get published. Or don’t do this, and maybe you will.

It actually started off well.

I had heard at last year’s Content Marketing World that if you email Arianna Huffington directly, you will be published in the Huffington Post. So I wrote to her, mentioning that I’d heard this, and doing all the do’s mentioned above.

Well, all but one. I left out the SASE.

Arianna responded the next day saying that they would love to feature my voice on Huff Post about inner city students. She cced one of the blog editors so I could send that editor my first post, photo, and bio directly.

My coworkers and I were thrilled, not only because this was going to be big for my career, but because this was going to take our work to a new level. We have a blog that thrives by our standards, but this post was all about expanding our reach, potentially to millions, and sharing tips educators can use to handle aggressive student behavior.

So I built the post around what I’ve learned in copywriting and content marketing:

  • Use storytelling to humanize your points.
  • Write the way people talk.
  • Tap into emotion.
  • Demand a click by asking a question.
  • Keep paragraphs short.
  • Break tips into bold subheads for scan-ability.
  • Offer, essentially, a free mini course of your product or service.
  • Write to YOU the reader.

We thought this was all perfect for Huff Post’s Education section. Acknowledging reality, addressing something teachers deal with, and giving strategies to make their jobs better.

Plus, Arianna was down with the concept.

So how could I go wrong?

I received a form rejection letter from the editor. That old familiar “bugger off” that every writer knows all too well:

“We appreciate you taking the time to send this our way. Unfortunately, we are going to pass on it at this time and wish you the best of luck in placing it elsewhere!”

Wait, what?

What happened?

Arianna was down!

And that’s actually the worst kind of rejection note you can get because it doesn’t leave room for follow-up. Though it’s pretty standard for busy editors who don’t have time to tell you why your piece doesn’t fit or what you can do to make it fit.

But here’s the thing.

I’m busy too.

So I broke Cardinal Don’t #2 and #4 above, and offered to break Cardinal Don’t #5.

I had to know why the post was rejected, because, frankly, it rocked. Not because I’m an amazing writer, but because it’s based on an amazing true story told by an amazing educator.

The only thing I could think of was that it was too promotional—maybe my mention of the educator using my company’s training came off as too self-serving. So I wrote to the editor thanking her for considering my post, and saying

(This is humiliating to share, but I’m doing it anyway, just as I knew it was humiliating to send, but I did that anyway. That said, it’s also one of the keys to not getting published, so if you don’t want to get published, do this):

As I read it again I wonder if it wasn’t a good fit because it felt too promotional. I’d be happy to revise it to focus only on how Maria talked the boy down from violence. I think the takeaways will really help anyone who works in education, so I’m willing to make any changes it would take [oh God!] to give your education readers a step-by-step how-to.

Never do this.

Why?

Because it’s desperate, stupid, and it elicited no response.

Naturally. All the tips tell you that if the door is closed, don’t try to open it. But I kept wondering:

Did Arianna accidentally send me the address of an editor who doesn’t deal with education? Or was my post too promotional? Or did it take too long for me to send it?

I have to admit—it took a month, because I’m a busy editor too. (Tip: if you do want to get published in the Huffington Post or anywhere, don’t let work or life get in the way for more than a week after your query is accepted.)

I knew the value of that tip I just provided, but I figured that they weren’t waiting on the edge of their seats for my post. They didn’t mention a deadline, they have content coming out of their ears, and I have 126 more excuses I could list that could aid your efforts toward not getting published.

So then we considered other content channels, and I submitted to a different blog for educators, but received no response. That made a bit more sense, as that blog is more politically oriented than strategies oriented. So I could live with that.

But the Huff Post thing still didn’t make sense to me.

So I did some research and learned that the editor who was my contact was likely not (if my research was accurate), in fact, the education editor. So I found the education editor and followed her on Twitter. I retweeted her articles. I retweeted other Huff P articles that were related to my topic. I demonstrated that I love reading, writing, and sharing quality content on education.

And then I sent her a revision.

Never do this.

Why?

Because they had already rejected the post, they didn’t ask for revisions, and they weren’t interested.

But I had little to lose. And though I don’t know exactly what Huff Post wants and doesn’t want in posts about education, I have a strong editorial sense about what works and what doesn’t and where. I’m an editor for God’s sake.

Never think this.

Because no matter what your own experience is, you don’t have the full picture about a publication that its editors do.

But even knowing this, I resubmitted anyway.

The body stayed the same, but I changed the intro a little. I removed the possibly-too-promotional mention of the fact that the educator uses our training.

And I changed the title. I put “How to” in there, because you learn how to handle difficult behavior.

And then I didn’t mention that I had submitted the article before. I did this even though I pictured the two editorsthe one who wasn’t the ED editor and the one who wasreviewing submissions in a morning meeting with the rest of the editorial team and saying, “Wait, we already decided that this doesn’t fit, right?”

But I did this because a wise friend said, “You don’t know if they review stuff like that, so why hurt your chances. Assume they don’t know each other, and let her consider your post on its merit.”

This didn’t seem likelythe not-knowing-each-other thing–because I work on the CPI blog closely with a colleague, and we often bounce submissions back and forth. But our operation is much smaller.

And I thought “funk it” anywayif anything, not mentioning to the ED editor that she might have seen a previous draft of my post would save me space in my email and her time in her reading.

And I never heard back, probably because I broke about 50 of the rules of getting published.

BUT!

My post has since gotten picked up by an education publication with thousands of followers, and it’s gotten some decent engagement.

Stay tuned and I’ll share how that happened and howdespite the hilarious title of this postyou CAN get published somewhere, even if it isn’t the Huffington Post.

Because even with all the rejection we writers get, this is the best time in the history of the written word ever in the universe to be a writer.

 ***By the way, the reasons I’m giving here for not getting published are total assumptions and are exaggerated for humor .  . .  I was never told that the reason I got nowhere with my HuffPo submissions was that I was breaking 1990s rules for submitting work.

Image: Thinkstock – zakkum5

Posted in Content writing, Editing, Writing | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

How Margaret Atwood Helps Me Write

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The Captain once sat on my head.

It’s April in Wisconsin, so it’s like it’s still winter. Well, it’s been raining a lot, so maybe it really is spring. But it’s been cold, so before the rain started it felt like nothing was moving.

Last night before I fell asleep my cat stepped on my head to get to the other side of the bed. It reminded me of another time a different cat sat on my head, and how happy it made me because he was basically saying “We’re such good friends that I can sit on your head and you don’t even care–in fact, you think it’s funny, and so do I.”

The Captain had a wonderful sense of humor.

There’s a neighborhood tom who swings by a lot to come and sit on the other side of the window and stare at my current cat. They howl at each other and Henry can’t stand it; the tom is basically saying “I have my balls, so I’m big enough of a cocky bastard to strut by and whiz on your bushes to let you know that I want your territory.”

He does that year round; he even traversed the tundra of my yard on stormy days in January, crossing the frozen bank like a road, or ear-deep in fresh snow and a commitment to showing us that he wants to be boss.

Last night I woke up because there was howling. When I turned on the light, Henry was in the hall with another tom who had followed him through the catflap and was now like “What the fuck am I doing in this foreign house at 2 in the morning?”

What ensued was like something out of a cartoon. The tom tried to scramble the hell out of the hall, but he just ran in place for a while. When he finally gained some ground he slid on the tiles and took a tumble into a bookshelf. Then he tore ass toward the catflap and slammed into it but didn’t pass through–he was a pretty fat cat, and a big fluffy fucker too.

This went on and on with repeated scrambling and repeated attempts at getting out through the flap, and the flap always slamming a second before the sound of claws sliding on the floor precipitated a new crash into a box or a chair. At some point he ended up flying into one of the bedrooms, and I thought “Maybe I’ll close the door and open the window and he can jump out that way,” but just then he shot past me, clambered down the hall, and finally bulleted through the catflap with a bang and a slam.

When I was a teen trying to teach myself how to write, I used to type up pages from Margaret Atwood books–not to a T, but emulating her style. If she had a young female narrator arriving in an unfamiliar town, I had a young female narrator arriving in a cafe. It was pretty fun practice.

This afternoon I read a poem by Margaret Atwood that a friend sent me in a Facebook message a few days ago. I think it’s interesting that I didn’t read the poem till after I had had the two recent cat experiences.

There was no cosmic need to wait to arrive at a similar perspective on the desolation of humanity and our desperation for hope–I have long felt that.

I have no permission to reprint the poem here, but I’m doing it anyway in the spirit of felicitiousness. Felicity? I’ve always loved the word “felicitous” because it means both “marked by general happiness or good fortune” and “very well suited or expressed.”

Actually, please step over to the Poetry Foundation to read Margaret Atwood’s “February.” I’ve never read a more amusing or timely poem that so completely embodies my current existence.

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