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Find Work Where You Can Draw Your Own Lines (Shop Talk #10)

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Color inside your own lines

I’ve had several conversations lately with people looking for ways to bring writing into the rest of their lives. Some want to make a living as writers. Others want to flesh out a particular passion that been dormant behind the demands of their day job.


In each case I suggest drawing their own lines.

What I mean is to look for opportunities where you can define the problem yourself (or in collaboration with a few). When you define a problem yourself, you set the focus and you begin to take ownership. Then your brainpan starts spinning in a fresh orbit that lets you locate resources to help solve that problem. Defining the problem is a way of looking at the topic of your passion and finding what about it that excites you and where that might be a problem/solution for others. Inevitably you want to send your topic out so others can begin to care as well—or perhaps you send it out to find those other few who care.

Writing something is a way of drawing your own lines.

I know this from (literally) drawing lines of definition: over at Dumb Sketch Daily (currently at dumb sketch #152) I’ve been trying to learn to draw. I’ve found that an ink pen does a kind of definition work that my eye longs for. Sometimes I wonder if ink is a crutch: outlining before filling in detail with color or graphite. Do I really need those lines? But then I think

I don’t care.


I’ve got your precious Brussels Sprouts right here.

Because there is something about the crisp line that yields a bit of loony joy. Yes, it is true, that line does not exist on the edge of my Brussels Sprouts. Not really.


Seeing something clearly feels worth that particular fiction.

What definition work will you do today?

Where will you draw lines?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston

See also: “Can 78 bad sketches change your life?”

Written by kirkistan

June 1, 2015 at 9:41 am

DBT: When Does Talk Become Therapy? (Shop Talk #9)

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Can a conversation save your life?

I recently met a therapist who practices dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).  She and her team work with clients who may struggle with a number of issues including borderline personality disorders and thoughts of suicide, among other things. As we talked it seemed to me that her practice was very much focused on, well, talking. Her practice of therapeutic talk has a pretty good track record of helping people find ways through each scary personal wilderness.

In Doing Dialectical Behavior Therapy: A Practical Guide (NY: The Guilford Press, 2012), Kelly Koerner describes some pieces of how this therapy works:

Emotion dysregulation is the inability, despite one’s best efforts, to change or regulate emotional cues, experiences, actions, verbal responses, and/or nonverbal expression under normative conditions.

Gaining control is a matter of recognizing biologically-based contributing characteristics, focused regular therapeutic conversations, skills training, self-monitoring and a host of other strategies and tactics.


As a non-therapist outsider, I am simply curious as to how far conversation can go to help people become well again. And I am very curious as to what a therapeutic conversation looks like. While we may or may not suffer the particular illnesses that Koerner notes, I am reasonably certain anyone reading this can testify to the clarifying power of a conversation with a good friend and the long-term impact conversations have on keeping us…sane.

In ListenTalk: Is conversation an Act of God? I try to show what happens in our simple and ordinary conversations. I found a few philosophers to talk with some ancient texts (pre-order ListenTalk here), and what they ended up saying together continues to surprise me. It’s a book that will be interesting to people of faith, but the big idea is that since people matter, our talk together matters. And more than that, we actually come alive in tiny ways when in conversation.

I’ve begun tracing the different paths where conversation is truly an engine for some particular outcome. I’ve noted the product place of conversation in many business settings. I’ve wondered about the role of conversation in connecting any/all of us to God. And now here is another example of using the ordinary tool of talk to uncover and possibly address deep-seated need.

Talk. It’s a marvel.

Other Shop Talks you may find interesting:


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Power Distance Vs. Skunkworks (Shop Talk #8)

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Don’t Fax Me In

I’m anticipating a Social Media Breakfast Friday morning that promises dialogue about dialogue: how companies can get better at engaging employees for collaboration. Collaboration intrigues me because it forces this question:

How is it our organizations gather all these smart people and yet routinely fail to get them working together on big ideas? Why is true collaboration still a distant dream rather than today’s pressing reality?

Anyone can see we’re well beyond the “You talk. I Listen.” model of management relations. In my class we’ve been tracing the opportunity of social technologies backwards to where conversation bumps against command and control personalities and cultures. I’ve been coming to the conclusion that conversation is inevitable: with customers, with your own workforce. Especially with your own workforce. This is good news for anyone who works. To expect anything less than people talking back (where you can hear it or where you cannot hear it) is to settle comfortably into the pace and ethos of 1980 or 1990. Back when we might just fax in our order.

One celebrated model for collaboration is that of Lockheed Martin’s Skunkworks: smart people hiding from bosses (or some bosses) to work together on a particular passion. It was a skunkworks setup that allowed Steve Jobs to make his radical break that resulted in the Macintosh. The absence of bureaucracy and the concentrated abundance of resources contributed to innovation.

And this: slightly naughty has its own peculiar draw. If skunkworks promises to disrupt the social order, I’m in. So are a lot of other seemingly ordinary citizens.

Cubicle-dwelling life is often more about receiving messages rather than dialoguing. In my own life it was the rare boss (I count three) who was able to deeply engage teams and bring out the very best—the brand new stuff that would happen only when everyone talked.

My fear is that internal communication is mostly just another flavor-of-the-month HR stunt, only using new tools. Just another command and control technique that only climbers are interested in.

My hope is that leaders take their top positions and use them to demonstrate dialogue and make themselves vulnerable.

My observation is that a generation of Anti-Vladimir Putins and Anti-Kim Jong-uns is already emerging.



Glen Stubbe: “I did this thing. Let me show you.” (Shop Talk #7)

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When Photojournalists Gather: MNPA Shop Talk

I’d like to see more. And better.

Photography, like sketching, is another way of interacting with what is right before us. Both photography and sketching present opportunities to see differently—both are a kind of active seeing. As a writer, I have an ongoing project of learning to see more and better and differently. Seeing better helps me write better.


Glen Stubbe Photography [@gspphoto]

That desire prompted me to show up at the Minnesota News Photographers Association last Saturday at Murphy Hall at the University of Minnesota. I wanted to hear how news photographers talked about—and thought about—their work.

What I heard was talk of technique: details about exposure and how to layer different exposures in a single photo, when to wait and when to move when stalking the photo they have already seen in their mind. Several times I heard how photographs were once merely an accompaniment to the article and how that is quickly changing. Glen Stubbe cited an example of his photo of Michelle Bachman escaping a pointed question went on to start a national story thread.

The photographers were exactly right about this last point: as we move to a post-literate culture, visual content moves to the primary spot. How long do stories stick around in any media you consume without some compelling visual anchor? Not long. I’ve often thought readers either fear blocks of copy or simply find them off-putting. But this is nothing new, we’ve know this for some time. As a writer, visual storytelling is a must.

The photojournalists talked about the increasing role of social media and the blurred lines between reporter and photographer. But three things stood out from the panel between Ben Garvin (Pioneer Press), Glen Stubbe (StarTribune) and Jeffrey Thompson (MPR):

  1. “Tweet Every Assignment.” Ben Garvin said this and I think it could be true for anyone finding their way into social media. Whatever your work (or vocation or avocation), those things that are top of mind are the very things of (potential) interest to others. The premium here is on immediacy.
  2. Develop and Feed a Personal Vision. There are some things (photos, thoughts, words, quotes) that land outside of our daily work. There is a place for that top-of-mind content—a public place. Ben Garvin feeds that vision at his blog. For Glen Stubbe , it’s his Instagram account. I believe this personal vision is the necessary counterweight to daily work. My respect for the people I work with and read grows as I see the parameters of their thinking outside their primary work.
  3. Share what is remarkable. It was Glen Stubbe’s quote that helped me see the emotive content that makes something remarkable—a question I’ve wondered for some time. Something is remarkable when it makes us step out of our routine and remark, out loud, to someone else. To Mr. Stubbe, it was photographs he just had to share. The making and sharing of the photos remains a prime driver for him. What amazes us is the very stuff we share with our spouse, our kids, our friends, total strangers. It is good when we can capture what amazes us.


Ben Garvin [@bengarvin]

Seeing is no simple thing. I’m grateful for the chance to listen in on the shop talk of this visual and thoughtful group of communicators.


Image credit: Glen Stubbe, Ben Garvin

Written by kirkistan

April 23, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Why I Want To Do What Others Don’t (Shop Talk #6)

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Guest Post from Kayla Schwartz

From The conchological illustrations, by George Brettingham Sowerby, London, 1832.

From The conchological illustrations, by George Brettingham Sowerby, London, 1832.

[A few of us have been discussing what fulfillment looks like for a professional writer. The entire discussion was in a response to a question from Kayla Schwartz, a professional writing student at Northwestern College. Check out these six essays filed under Shop Talk: The Collision of Craft, Faith and Service for more on that. Kayla’s back with this guest post that contains a few of her thoughts and conclusions.]

“Technical writing? That’s so…interesting.”

This is the response I usually get when I tell people what I’m studying. As a professional writing major, I’ve done journalism and PR writing, but I’ve been most drawn to technical writing.

Why? I had not given it much thought. Most people think of technical writing as boring or tedious. So why pursue it? What really drives technical writers?

As I’ve thought about these questions and talked to technical and other professional writers who’ve been at it much longer than I, I’ve gleaned a few potential answers.

  1. It’s useful. Some people find a lot of satisfaction in their ability to help others understand things. They feel they are making a difference.
  2. It’s necessary. Technical manuals may not always be read by customers, but they are a necessary step in the process of distributing the product. There is satisfaction in contributing to a company’s success.
  3. It’s interesting. For people who are naturally curious, technical writing offers an ideal situation: learn about new ideas and products, and get paid for writing about them.
  4. It’s lucrative. Yes, some people are just looking for something that pays the bills.

All of these are valid reasons to do technical writing. However, none of them really expresses my motivation (although the last one is starting to look pretty good when I think about my student loans).

I’m pursuing technical writing because I genuinely enjoy it. I like creating an organized, easy-to-follow document. I like figuring out how to use words effectively and concisely. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and don’t mind spending time on “minor” details. I suppose I enjoy learning about new things or knowing that I’m helping others, but ultimately, it’s a way to do what I love.

Maybe this makes me the exception among technical writers, but I hope not. Technical writing isn’t for everyone, but for those of us who enjoy it, it can be just as satisfying as any other career.


Image credit: George Brettingham Sowerby via OBI Scrapbook Blog

Written by kirkistan

March 20, 2013 at 8:31 am

Taking Technical Communication Personally (Shop Talk #5)

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Guest Post from Rich Bosshardt

[I invited Rich Bosshardt to respond to the question of what fulfillment looks like for a professional writer. Rich has talked about technical writing in a few of my classes and intrigued us with a note about the psychology of technical writing. He’s writing from the perspective of a working technical writer, and this is his second response.]

People who aren’t familiar with technical communication may be surprised to learn what it really takes to be a good technical writer. Having product knowledge, authoring and illustration skills, some mechanical and/or technical inclination, and a command of (simplified and instructional) language are all necessary. But there is one key ingredient without which one cannot experience ongoing motivation, success, and fulfillment in this field: the personal touch.

There is a psychology to technical writing. Anticipating and appropriately responding to the (rational and irrational) thoughts and behaviors of people is a vital skill in the toolkit of a good technical writer. One might initially think that the technical writer spends hour upon hour in isolation while hunched over a computer monitor in a corporate cubicle farm or a spare bedroom (i. e., the home office). But in reality, a technical writer must keep in mind those who use the product or service (external customers) and regularly interact with those who help create the product (internal customers).

My external customers are the end users who purchase, assemble, operate, maintain, and store the products about which I write. My internal customers are team members, including subject matter experts, who are typically engineers and designers; and reviewers, who represent the engineering, customer service, legal, safety, test, and marketing departments.

External Customers

As an advocate for my external customer, I try to keep these two primary questions in mind as I go about my work: (1) How will the reader use (or misuse) the product about which I am writing? (2) How will the reader interact with the instructions and illustrations that I create?

But there are more questions that help put me in the position of my readers: What educational background and reading ability do my readers have? Are they mechanical? Do they have the proper tools to perform the procedure? When do they do the work themselves and when do they call a dealer for help?

To answer these questions, we rely in part on user testing and feedback from our end users. In user testing, we have had fellow employees from other departments who are unfamiliar with a product perform procedures by following a set of instructions that I prepared. The results of those tests have led to new insights as to how one might approach and engage the product, which enables me to write a more effective set of instructions. But busy schedules and workloads often prohibit us from conducting more than an occasional user test. Feedback from real end users is valuable, but it is rare as well.

Internal Customers

Though the technical writer is an advocate for the end user, the final product serves many more masters than merely the end user. The publication that results is a compromise of multiple interests. The subject matter expert wants to showcase the product  features or have the writer  insert an instruction to cover for a minor design flaw that is otherwise too costly to change; the market manager wants to sell the reader accessories for the product; the legal and safety representatives want to protect the company from liability by inserting page after page of safety admonitions; and the customer care representative wants a rewritten procedure because his or her department has received more than the usual number of customer complaints.

Being the writer but not the owner of the publication, how do I then chart a course for completing the project through the cacophony of the differing requirements of my external customers? And how do I produce an intelligible and helpful work that ultimately meets the needs of my internal customers?

Satisfaction by Means of Service

Serving my internal and external customers well brings satisfaction, and serving both types of customers simultaneously requires that I keep both my goal and the manner in which I achieve that goal in mind. The goal of my work requires that I continually keep my external customers in mind; it guides me in what I should be doing in my work: to serve valued end users by helping them understand the product and have a safe and positive experience whenever they interact with it. The manner by which I achieve that goal requires that I continually keep my internal customers in mind; it guides me in how I should be doing my work: to serve and show respect to valued team members who create the product (the subject of my writing). It may include serving and showing respect to those who may neither respect me nor my profession.

I serve my external customers best by making their needs the goal of my work; I serve my internal customers best by addressing their needs in the manner in which I work to achieve my goal. How I perform my work, no matter what it is, makes all the difference. It is when I serve in the spirit of Christ, the Servant of Servants, that I find satisfaction in my work, whatever and wherever that may be.


Written by kirkistan

February 12, 2013 at 11:50 am

Ten Ways Fulfillment Mingles with Professional Writing (Shop Talk #4)

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Life’s not about poetry. Or is it?

tumblr_mhisadhVp21r7m9kyo1_1280-02052013I’ve been posting in response to a query from an English student who wondered about finding fulfillment as a professional writer. How can we compare writing poems and short stories and novels to writing for companies or ad agencies or other firms or organizations seeking help to communicate? She asks a good question which we all struggle to answer all our lives. See a few responses here: Shop Talk: The Collision of Craft, Faith and Service

When I teach professional writing classes at Northwestern College, I like to invite Rich Bosshardt, who writes for a well-known local manufacturer, to talk with the class. Like many of us, Rich’s route to writing was circuitous: from mover of boxes to telemarketer to carpenter to chemical compounder to university research lab technician—plus about ten other jobs. Along the way he earned a Master’s in New Testament, so his thoughts about work and writing have a theological bent, which I appreciate. In response to my request, Rich rattled off ten things about writing for a living and offered to explicate one more:

  1. We could learn a lesson on career fulfillment from Joseph, the son of Jacob and the great administrator in Genesis.
  2. How do you work through when the honeymoon of being hired is over and passion for the work is long gone, but the bills keep coming?
  3. My career has been an unintentional path; I didn’t enjoy writing and knew nothing about technical writing until I was over 30 years old.
  4. Why shouldn’t we be passionate about what we do for a living? Whom would you rather hire—the passionate worker or the dispassionate one? You can raise the competence of a mediocre worker who is passionate about the work and therefore wants to improve, but the dispassionate worker? Let him or her go; you’re doing both of you a favor.
  5. Luther had great insights about one’s vocation, raising the legitimacy and importance of “common” work and sparking the Protestant work ethic.
  6. There is joy in doing work of the best quality that you can and in a manner that marks you as a person who has character, thereby earning the respect and admiration (stated or unstated) by others. Good (both competent and ethical) workers do eventually get noticed by those who work with them, and these good workers will find themselves happily employed.
  7. I thank God for the “little things” at work, e. g., that I’m working inside in a temperature-controlled environment on a frigid winter day or a hot, humid summer day.
  8. Relationships can make all the difference; being part of a caring and talented team can turn drudgery into joy because you enjoy the relationship regardless of the circumstances.
  9. There is a psychology to technical writing; good writers should think about at least two things: (1) how people will use the product that they are writing about; and (2) how people will interact with the instructions and illustrations that you create.
  10. And God saw that it was very good.” There is a satisfaction (and fulfillment) in a job well done, no matter what job it is, great or small.

I like Rich’s list and think it gets at the tensions of creating versus making a living versus making meaning every day. Rich’s vocational path also reminds me of Parker Palmer’s wonderful “Let Your Life Speak,” which is all about taking the time to notice what you enjoy. Palmer’s book is one to own and read annually.19385135-02052013

I’d like to hear more from Rich on Number 9: the psychology of technical writing.

What would you like to hear more about? What would you add or subtract?


Image credit: 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

February 5, 2013 at 10:21 am

Bottledworder: Writing in spite of the daily (Shop Talk 3.1)

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Words Create Something In the World

93a27b5a03ea73d11e2eb796bca379a6--01252013May I steer you toward a blogger I’ve recently discovered? This generous writer visited a number of obscure blogs (including Conversation is an Engine) and commented. Many of us followed back to her blog (lesson learned on growing an audience).

Bottledworder wrote Writing in spite of the daily on January 20. It’s a post that points out the concentration and isolation needed for creative writing. She also writes of how much a privilege writing is—with which I agree. Down in the meat of her essay she disparages making a living through “useful” writing:

“useful” varieties of writing where writing is the medium to achieve something else, not the end-goal.

I use “disparage” lightly and with affection, because it is clear writers of all sorts are heroes in Bottledworder’s world—and I could not agree more. Still, her comment hits at this notion I’ve been thinking and writing about: does writing/creative fulfillment come only from digging down in the isolated depths of one’s own psyche?

tumblr_mg4rgl7i3d1qa1cogo1_500-01252013That still seems to me only part of the story.

And for proof I continue to point to the exercises in creativity my writing has contributed to with companies and agencies, in places where we’ve joined as a team. Maybe those team/financed experiences don’t exactly duplicate the joy of writing something pulled from the depths of my soul (and that is a primary joy of writing, no question), but a true phrase that helps a company move forward is also a beautiful thing. Plus, it helps create something real in the world.

Again—there’s so much more to say about this. Here are a few early related posts:


Image credit: bottledworder, confuse-a-cat via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

January 25, 2013 at 9:59 am

Is Your Job Fulfilling? (Shop Talk #3)

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Depends: what do you mean by fulfilling?

IsYourJobFulfilling-03312014An art director and I were talking once about the different jobs we had done over the years. Al said he did some work as a freelancer he was not particularly proud of: wasn’t bad work, just didn’t highlight the creative style he had become known for. Why did he do it? “Well, I had a family and a mortgage and…you do what you gotta do.”

This is my story, too. It is everyone’s story.

An English student asked me how someone writing for an agency or corporation can find fulfillment when the writing is essentially voiceless. By that I understood she meant that the writing was not coming out of some personal deep need to communicate. I get what she means and I think this is an important question. But I also think we romanticize the production of art, novels and poems.

I’ve been arguing that work and art sometimes fit hand in glove and sometimes stay at opposite ends of our daily teeter totter. I’ve been arguing you need both to make either work. If you just have paying work, you are not exercising your creative self. If you just are creating, you’re broke and maybe you don’t have a place among real people in real life. Here are a few things that happen when work and art find a way to live together:

  • Workmanlike attention: Our work with its deadlines and status updates helps us (sometimes forces us) to be productive. This is useful when it comes to delivering on our art or craft. Just getting to it—every day—is the way we produce anything. None of this waiting for enlightenment stuff.
  • Having a place among people: isolation is not good. Those colleagues and bosses and clients who critique our work help shape it (no matter how painful). In the same way as we try to explain our craft or art to others, it gets shaped as well.
  • It is your job to develop a voice. It may not be your voice, but it must be a believable voice. And to run that voice through the gauntlet of critics and peevish managers and lawyers and regulators is no small feat. The voice you produce can become a team or corporate asset. That is something to be proud of.
  • Now is not forever. If you are not producing the art/poems/novels you intended, find a way to get to it. This usually involves owning up to the myriad excuses we present for not doing it. And if today’s work is less than fulfilling: start looking. It’s the steely beauty of the free market system that you can change. Recognize that this job is for now and not forever (more and more I’m convinced different seasons in life hold different tasks and levels of fulfillment. Plus, we are personally changing all the time, which means fulfillment is a moving target.)

Several of the hard-bitten copywriters I know would say “Who has time for writing outside the office?” To these I would say your own art and copy is a gift to yourself that pays back in meaning and insight.

There’s more to say about this. What would you add or subtract or say to my student?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

January 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Shop Talk: The Collision of Craft, Faith and Service

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Written by kirkistan

January 16, 2013 at 9:48 am

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