Archive for the ‘philosophy of work’ Category
Because Isolation Won’t Cut It
There is a special frightening moment in many of my writing projects lately. I’ve had a few longish-form assignments, each with lots of moving parts. In each I’ve needed to collect first-hand information from people with diverse backgrounds and expertise, and then combine that with research from journal articles. Each interview—each assignment—was a mini-seminar where I was schooled (very quickly) on the intimate details of the situation.
Not so long ago I noted the benefits of sending work out to others and embracing deadlines. More recently I made the case for the aspirational lie, noting how one works toward telling the whole truth, mostly getting it wrong before getting it right. Both the sending out and the aspirational lie are at work in this visceral fear. There is this moment, after I’ve written my email with explanations about what my client will see, after I’ve written my caveats, after I’ve attached my rough draft, this moment where I pause.
Do I really want to send this?
Because, honestly, I could do more. It’s a visceral moment: I feel in my gut the holes in the draft. Do I really want my new client to see my argument in this shape? But budgets and timing dictate this project move forward. And the only way forward is through a reaction from someone else.
Just as I’ve noted how my dumb sketches are talking to the writing part of my life, now I see how the entrepreneurial “Just Ship It” mantra is playing into my creative side. Because there is much to be gained by getting a reaction.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Get in that job-machine, mister.
More dire news for university English departments: from the University of Maryland, English majors are bailing like mad. And faster and faster.
The humanities have been getting a bad rap for, oh, half a dozen decades or so, because they don’t lead directly to a slot in a job machine. And, as the thinking goes, without the job machine you fail at life. Or at least paying for life’s good things (like a huge TV and plenty of Lean Cuisine) (Or rent and clothing).
We’ve certainly seen this coming. We’ve wondered: Why go into college debt just to be a philosophy-talking barista? We’ve lamented the pitiful conditions of adjuncts. Colleges in my area cut budgets and then cut more, from fat to bone. And now wholesale amputation to accommodate the demands of producing souls for job machines.
True: English departments that focus solely on esoterics need to undergo change. I’ll argue that any academic program (or any institution, frankly) that promotes the inward-gaze as the end-all, top-function of the human condition is currently being rudely awakened.
Smart English departments are tuning in to this—just like businesses have been realizing people don’t really care about their product all that much. Even churches are starting to realize there is a world of people living and working just outside their doors—people not interested in joining the club but crazy-interested in the meaning of life. Speaking of churches, we used to call it “evangelism” when we invited others in. Business evangelists understand all too well the benefit of going where people are and adapting their product to current conditions.
But reaching out to the rest of humanity—that’s where the action is.
It’s because we’ll always need to reach out, to communicate something to someone else, that I’m optimistic about English, if not exactly English departments. Rather than an either-or approach (deep-thinking/creative expression or assembly line training), we need both-and: deep-thinking and creative expression that leads to more conscious assembly line work. And perhaps that thinking will help us move beyond assembly lines entirely.
As I prepare my next set of writing classes for college English majors, I am beefing up the entrepreneurial end. Because the way out of a soulless slot in a job machine is to invent your own job machine.
That’s something we should train writers to do. And some of those writers will be English majors.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Except for Bill Holm
The late poet and writer Bill Holm spent his days teaching at Southwest Minnesota State University. In the context of daily teaching, he was too busy to write his own works. But when class finished for the semester, he wrote his poems and stories and memoirs long-hand on the back of the memos he received at school. Interestingly, he was a gregarious soul who often welcomed people into his house but continued to write at the kitchen table even as he engaged in discussions with visitors.
But for many of us, writing is a solitary activity. Oh, sure: ideas pop in conversation. Careful, committed writers take note of the idea on whatever scrap they have handy. And that scrap becomes useful when the writer is, yet again, sitting before blank screen or page.
Unless you are/were Bill Holm, it is the typical writer’s fate to sit alone.
This is not to say writers must be loners or introverts. Those are not necessary conditions, although they do often fit together.
But creating is only one part of writing. Yes, it seems like the biggest part of writing, doesn’t it? Creating and the aura around creating are certainly the most celebrated bits of writing.
But another part of writing is reading. Specifically, getting read. And that requires publishing, in one form or another. At its essence publishing is getting read by someone else. And for all the (quite true) advice about “just sitting down and writing” and “writing = butt-time-in-chair,” it seems to me there is still a missing piece: the reader at the other end of the writing. Written words need to find and land on their audience.
Here is a place where writers might learn something from copywriters. Copywriters have deadlines. They have people who expect copy at a certain time and quite often that copy is delivered verbally—often read aloud by the copywriter to the client.
Something happens when writing is read aloud to an audience. The text itself tends to shape and reshape and the writer hears it differently because of the people listening. The writer cannot help but see things differently when another person is also hearing the copy.
Many will say that some of their best writing happens during revising. I agree. Especially after having read something aloud to someone else and seen their reaction. It can be thrilling. Or depressing.
Butt-in-chair time is essential for writing. But sending your writing out—scary though it might be—is equally essential to hear how the ideas land and to revise with creativity and gusto and possibly increased motivation.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston, Brian Peterson/StarTribune
Seeing Need and the Power of Imagination
The leader’s peculiar gift is to help followers imagine how their work makes meaning. The leader makes personal how the organization’s work helps others, solves a human problem, makes the world better/more beautiful/safer, for starters. From that position of ownership (note that leaders may appear anywhere in an organization, position does not equal leadership) the leader imagines the next steps needed to move the organization forward. The leader acts on that vision and invites others in.
If you accept that the writer’s art is at least partly a reimagining or reordering of life, then you may be willing to consider the work of writing in business. Can writers in business look forward to how next steps unfold and then follow that thread backward to make those steps happen?
I say, “Yes.”
But not just because I do this for a living. [Full disclosure: I do this for a living]
It’s because writers in training are blind to this side of the life/work/art equation.
That’s a premise I’m toying with as I consider how entrepreneurship and professional writing fit together. I’m working through an entrepreneurial focus to the next Freelance Copywriting class at the University of Northwestern—Saint Paul, and I want to help English students see beyond self-focused essays and creative writing. A necessary starting point is inviting them to use their writerly tools to imagine life from that leadership/ownership/need perspective. I believe this can shift ownership to the writer and provide useful insight for right now.
Julian Sanchez’s tweet as the Senate report on CIA torture was released gets at this very concept:
Imagine forward and trace backward to locate solid actions. That is the leader’s gift—and possibly the writer’s.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
The Shroud of Tuesday
What if your work stopped—on purpose?
We celebrate and expect constant productivity gains in our culture. Wall Street rewards those gains as they decrease the expense line of any business. We congratulate those people in constant motion who have momentum and trajectory.
But is constant forward motion sustainable?
Sure: looking back over the arc of our life we can cobble together a story about how we were always moving toward this invention or position or conclusion or achievement. That bit of personal cinema we learned from the biographer’s art.
In the moment, however, there are dormant times: work goes south, dries up, gets boring. There are times when it is not at all clear what to do next, which way to go, or even if this work will succeed at all. Doubts interfere. Even if you have a boss telling you what to do, there can be internal fallow times where you silently rethink your commitment to this job or that project or that leader.
We hate those times when work goes dormant.
We love movement and purpose, followed by lots more movement.
But dormant is not the same as death, despite how being laid-off feels like a mini-death. And when a work-stoppage happens it is hard to believe the rejuvenating effects of a release from movement. And yet, most of us do make it out the other side. And typically we have a new grasp of where we need to go and what we need to do.
I’ve always wondered how any living thing survives the bitter cold of the northern United States. Every winter I am amazed that cars start and water flows and life continues at 20 degrees below zero (F). Then March and April bring thaws and by May that dead-looking Maple blooms all over again.
Maybe the cycles outside my window are a better analogy for work: there are ebbs and flows. And maybe it is worth building up a bit of patience with slower times, and even to embrace them and allow them to do their hidden work.
Even on a Tuesday.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston