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Start at the Top. Again. (Copywriting Tip #10)

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Tell Yourself the Story

Imagine holding a long piece of tangled fabric. You hold it high above your head because you want gravity to gradually unravel the twists and tangles. Maybe you shake it. Probably you smooth it out: starting at the top again and again and work your way down the length to get the fabric straight or flat.

Many threads to unravel.

Many threads to unravel.

What works for fabric also works for a complicated idea. Sometimes the only way to unravel a complicated topic is go back again and again to the beginning, flattening and shaking out the twists and turns as you retell the story.

I’ve recently finished up a complicated article about our changing health care system. The article had lots of moving parts. It was not a long article, just dense and in need of translation: from jargon-filled, industry-speak to human.

Time and again I found myself stuck in the middle and staring at the screen: so many bits and pieces to fit. Absolutely stuck and wondering how to line these parts up so they make sense (and so they are sorta interesting for the target audience). Because in the end we read one word after another. We read in a linear way, even though the story may compose itself in our brainpan in non-linear chunks.

The only way I could get myself unstuck was to start at the beginning again. Back to that very first paragraph, and work my way through. Sometimes I would modify that paragraph to fit what was next. Sometimes I would modify what was next to fit the lede. But the only way forward was through the beginning.

During National Novel Writing Month I found myself doing this, mostly as a way to find out where the story was going and how it could possibly move forward. It was a way of telling myself the story hidden in the words already written. There are one thousand ways to write the story and some will present as we retell it to ourselves. And so we pick one.

Sometimes retelling the story again and again is the only way forward, because it leads to understanding:

By the way, a wonderful book about locating the story of your own life is Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak. Check it out.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

January 13, 2015 at 9:27 am

Listen to Your Story

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What I Learned from NaNoWriMo 2015

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Just do this to write a novel.

How much different is writing from life?

In both we make decisions that carry us forward. Sometimes those choices work out well. Sometimes they drop us in a dead end. Mostly it is not clear where the choice leads, and so we carry on.

Writing 1667 words a day through November’s National Novel Writing Month forced me to look at every scene and imagine how it might move the story forward. Within the first few days, every scene, every action, nearly every word seemed full of, well, pivot. The story could turn 180 degrees—except the commitments my characters held worked time and again as a rudder, pulling their choices along a true direction.

Choice after choice makes the story. Along the way we interact with characters who enter the story because of our choices. And these characters bring with them yet more choices. Our commitments impact how we choose, drawing us like a lodestar consistently one way or another. But even those long-term commitments enter the choice-making machinery of writing and life.

Do you agree that writing and life move forward in a similar way? One difference is that with writing you get to go back and change the story.

You can’t do that with life.

Or can you?

Producing my story brought to mind Parker Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak, a book I’ve recommended to many friends. Palmer’s advice gets at the nub of both writing and living: peering into the facts so far and taking a courageous view on where those facts could lead. Palmer realized, in looking back over his life, that a particular commitment had been leading him in ways that did not fit with what was happening and where he was meant to be.

In writing you lop off a sentence (or paragraph or chapter) to move the story forward. In life you make tough but wise choices that put you on a better trajectory.

 

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

December 1, 2015 at 8:55 am

The Naked Copywriter (NaNoWriMo)

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I’ll be absent for a month or so.

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November is National Novel Writing Month. Last year I wrote the 50,000 word Fresh Water Fetish. This year’s 50,000 words are dedicated to story and explication around what it means to live a creative life. This may be a novel. It may be creative non-fiction. But in 30 days and 50,000 words I’ll have a better idea.

If, in my absence, you wonder what “conversation is an engine” might say about any particular topic, just type your term in the search bar. There are more than 1130 posts here–feel free to browse.

Alternatively: write your own novel for NaNoWriMo!

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Written by kirkistan

November 1, 2015 at 5:00 am

Not Resolutions: New Year’s Experiments

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What will you try next?

Another way to approach the beginning of the year.

Science constantly tries to rid experiments of bias and prejudice. Medical researchers set up double-blind, randomized studies in an attempt to remove personal bias and to avoid the temptation to game the results according to how we want to see them. Bias always and forever creeps in—it is part and parcel of the human condition.

But what if, instead of looking for work-arounds for our basic subjectivity, we embraced our very human bias and used it to move forward? Not so much in science experiments and medical trials, but in our personal lives?

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A theologian tweeted the other day about the lack of research and experiments in theological studies. He was right, in theological research you do not see big multi-center clinical trials running across the country. Partly because pharmaceutical companies are not lining up to fund such studies. And when they do, we’ll have an entirely new class of worries about drug-induced faith.

But, in fact, we each experiment constantly. Each of us in our own way. We experiment with ways of living. We experiment with belief systems: trying this or that to solve those deep questions. We allow ourselves to be deeply affected by what our friends, family, colleagues and neighbors believe. These experiments are a simple fact of how the human condition works. We game the system all the time and it works.

Or not (and even then, we know something new).

Some of us make resolutions this time of year. Others of us try to set direction (versus resolutions) for the year in an attempt to avoid the dismal reality of resolutions quickly broken.

But how about running your own set of experiments this year?

My friend suffers acute anxiety. It’s not a clinical condition, just solid worry as a way of life. She would like to not be such a worrier. My suggestion was an experiment in trust. Pick up nearly any of the poems by the poet-king and simply do what he did. In plain, persistent, passionate language, exclaim and define with agonizing precision the current situation and ask for release. Or help. Or mercy. The poet-king talked frankly to God—which seems like a solid experimental idea for any of us.

Experimenting with our dissatisfactions is not that bad an idea. Last year I tried to write a novel in a month (National Novel Writing Month) and I tried to make a sketch a day. Both attempts were wildly unsuccessful. But as experiments they announced solid directions by the end: write more fiction and keep practicing drawing. Last year I also experimented with following the poet-king’s example. My subjective results were mixed and positive and pointed in a direction: more trust. And more gratitude.

What subjective experiments will you run this year on your guinea-pig self?

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

January 2, 2015 at 10:45 am

#NaNoWriMo Update: Twin Cities—15 Million+ Words in 15 days

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24449 are mine

Nobody claims their words are any good—just to be clear. It’s all quantity over quality—so take that, Mr. Internal Editor. Anyway, that is the whole point of National Novel Writing Month.

I will say an unexpected suicide started the whole thing and now I think I see resurrection on the horizon. Loyalty and romance have turned up, plush a flash of skin and a skinny guy unafraid to take two jelly-filled donuts even with everyone watching. My main character is a strong, passionate woman who can make a CEO bite his lower lip–oh, and she’s been dead for at least a week. Did I mention the oracle named Franklin Delano Sjogren? I’d like to get a coffee with this guy and ask him my most vexing questions. My hometown of Stoughton, Wisconsin took a hit sadly. City fathers will not be pleased.

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As always, I have no clue how (if?) this will all wrap up. But for now I’m rooting for a couple characters as I move toward 25000 before midnight. But I sense danger.

Does this count as working out loud?

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Image credit: National Novel Writing Month

Written by kirkistan

November 15, 2014 at 2:23 pm

Five days ago I killed someone. I had to.

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Lessons Learned: 9000 Words into NaNoWriMoStreetLamp-2-11062014

  1. She took her own life, which shocked me. Maybe it was the best thing to generate all sorts of electricity in the people around her. For instance, I’m learning Irvina was fierce, respected and disciplined. She was a steady, planful presence. She was empathetic, maybe because of her failed first marriage and potential underworld connections. And now my characters are starting to wonder: is she really dead?
  2. Dialogue makes stuff happen. It also uses a lot of words, which is perfect for keeping up with the 1667 word daily goal. As Tim and Philip talk, I’m seeing the fierce loyalty they have to each other, their business, and to the woman who (potentially? maybe?) died. I was surprised to find out that Philip was an entitled SOB, but still likable. Who knew?
  3. The way forward is already present. Even with only 9000 words on the page, potential story arcs are presenting themselves. I’m seeing the whole thing laid out, and it remains interesting.
  4. Someone stuck an oracle into a fold of my story. Franklin Delano Sjogren showed up as a calm, deep presence. Where did this guy come from? I really want to sit at his feet and learn from him. I sure hope he circles back into the narrative.

Most of my usual writing is essay: persuasive, informative, educational. My work writing for clients is generally marketing copy for ad agencies, the medical device industry and other industrial clients, along with thought pieces and book chapters.

So writing a story for National Novel Writing Month is a new thing for me. So far so fun—but I hope Irvina survived.

Where can I find 1000 words before midnight?

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

November 6, 2014 at 9:59 am

Making It Up Daily: 1667 Words at a Time

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Do You NaNoWriMo?

It’s funny that those stories we’ve lived in since childhood were written by someone. Made up, one word at a time.

Books. Movies. Plays.

All made up.

By someone.

Writing.

Game of Thrones. Lord of the Rings. The Great Gatsby. Even Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man. All made up. Maybe they carried pieces of older stories, but someone composed them. We know the names of the authors.

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At some point in life I realized these very complete little worlds that seemed so alive were actually fiction. Funny that something made up could prove so real for so long. So concrete. But I had to pull back the curtain to realize this.

At some point—a bit later—I realized there was actually quite a lot made up: much of human interaction is made up (we call it “culture”). Oh sure, it presents as concrete reality, but behind the scenes people were literally making things up every day.

Business is a great example. Walk into a brick and mortar superstore and it seems like it’s been there forever. But we know they huge multi-million dollar inventories come and go. Same with banks. Same with restaurants—especially restaurants. Even the big institutions that are the pillars of our communities are making it up as they go. Sure, the rules of the game are there and seem to be unchanging as if handed down on stone tablets. But nothing is certain about business.

If you’ve ever been in a start-up company you’ll know that making it up as you go is expected. We need more folks willing to leap into the void of making it up. I believe making it up on paper translates to words which translates to action.

National Novel Writing Month is upon us again. And I’m joining in. It’s likely this blog will suffer inattention. But the challenge of creating a story from nothing (or more likely, from the disjointed and broken story-bits laying about in my mind and yours) is too great to resist.

National Novel Writing Month is a relatively painless way to try to produce a coherent story. Or, if not coherent, than at least something that has 50,000 words.

Where are you exercising your make-it-up muscle these days?

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Image credit: Alli Livingston. Photo: Kirk Livingston

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