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Louis L’Amour and Writing for Life from Life

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My new dead friend teaches on knowing

I do not read westerns, typically.

But Mrs. Kirkistan, with her eclectic tastes, put L’Amour’s autobiography into my [sweaty] hand. Education of a Wandering Man is a revelation.

Two things right away:

  1. L’Amour was an autodidact like few others. He had little formal education—he quit school at 15 to travel. His real education started with knocking about as merchant marine, going to war, wrangling cattle, going hungry between jobs, boxing—and reading. Especially reading. L’Amour’s hunger to know is infectious.
  2. L’Amour’s hard-knocks education contributed to his readable writing. That’s my hypothesis: life experience makes for more readable writing. And vice versa.

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L’Amour’s life (1908-1988) seems a rebuke to the supposed schism between “academic” and “practical.” If you read Education of a Wandering Man (and I hope you will) you will find an articulate man who read widely and used very approachable language to package his thoughts. But it wasn’t just easy-to-read language that was his genius; it was the layering of language into a story. L’Amour is a storyteller who is hard to resist.

His is not academic writing, of course. But it is thoughtful writing—especially when you find out what he was reading when he wrote. His simple stories start to go deep.

In his autobiography L’Amour named the books that had been influential for him. There are scores of them—73-120 books per year, from 1930 to 1937—and he named them one by one. But these are not the books listed on a college syllabus (though some are, to be sure). From Voltaire to Nietzsche to Schopenhauer to Mann to O’Neill to Joseph Conrad And lots and lots of fiction These are the books that piqued his interest as he lived his life. And that is how his autobiography is organized: the books he read while he was living this or that particular chapter. Reading about the West as he worked on cattle ranches Reading Nietzsche and Schopenhauer as he boxed. Reading ancient myths and stories as he sailed. Reading about the West later as he wrote frontier stories. (I may be off in the details about when he read what—there were so many mentions and so many chapters in the guy’s life).

 

Education Not a Given

One thing that stands out is the focus of his education. It was not to acquire a degree. It was to move forward with what he was intended to do—as best he understood.

Stay with me here: L’Amour read to see how stories worked.

Yes, he got lost in books. Yes, he loved learning. But his learning was always aimed at assembling an image of how the world worked. He was of a time when many readers were doing the same thing, because education was not as available as it is today. But there were books.

Here’s the point: L’Amour told stories, and all his philosophical thinking about life is bound up in the stories. He is not pedantic (at least in this book), but thoughts about life roll out of the characters in the stories. This is a revelation because much of our education (and my education) are all about pedantics: laying lesson out in neat arguments. One could memorize these arguments. In fact, you have to memorize them because they slip away the moment you turn your eyes. That’s because they are not moored in the emotion of real life.

L’Amour, on the other hand, had stories pop out of him of all sort of real (ish) people doing real things in life because of their underlying beliefs.

 

Oral and Writing Should Talk

The big revelation that L’Amour gave me was that precisely because he was educated by stories and for stories (he had to captivate audiences again and again in the different chapters of his life), his writing fit quite naturally into an oral rhythm. No big words. No long sentences. Ideas were easy to remember because he wrote them with stories, and we remember what that philosophy looks like without the pedantics.

Because of L’Amour’s example, and because of my own failures (plus a few minor successes) with communicating and expressing detail, I’m starting to move toward copy that can be said. I’ve always advised copywriting students to read their sentences aloud to see if they make sense. In the end, it’s quite possible that what we hear and what we gather from what we hear, is the standard for engaging another person, as well as the standard for knowing anything.

Knowing seems to pass through our mouths, in particular.

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You and Joe and Industry 4.0

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Can we grow the ways we talk together?

Some say Industry 4.0 will be about Cyber-Physical systems, the Internet of Things and the Internet of Services. But I cannot help but wonder if, along the way, some genius with a high EQ will also find ways to bring out the best in people and unearth fresh ways for us to work together.

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As hierarchy gives way to connecting mission with ideas and tasks, as people learn to bring their whole selves to work (emotion + logic + ethics + spirit—because they are rewarded for it), as people exercise agency and autonomy and ownership at work—things will look different.

Buber: Come on, folks: It’s “I/Thou” not “You are my tool.”

Buber: Come on, folks: It’s “I/Thou” not “You are my tool.”

Maybe these geniuses, with the ginormous EQs, will help us understand what happens as we form ever more confining boxes around employees. Maybe they’ll show us that using metrics that note every eyebrow twitch and hand movement, metrics that reward those movements that fit the company goals, those metrics actually measure the wrong things and defeat innovation before it is even begun. Maybe these geniuses will notice that our levers of control over employees also inhibit the very thing we most need to move forward.

I imagine stepping into the office of one of these high EQ geniuses and glancing at the portrait of Martin Buber on the wall—their patron saint of collaboration. I imagine being lectured by these geniuses on strategies around deep listening and meetings that matter and how to disagree with each other productively and how they aggressively eradicate authority-rhetoric & boss speak because it is so demotivating to be reminded that someone owns you. And it is also, by the way, not true.

Let industry 4.0 grow to include people.

Please.

 

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Dumb sketches: Kirk Livingston

On Kathleen Norris and White Space

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Rethinking your mundane

[No, this is not a racist rant about white anything.]

My client frequently talks about “white space.” What they mean is that extra computing capacity available with many of their industrial tools. The tools are designed to accomplish some process over and over again, but it turns out there is a mini-computer buried in each tool that can do other things as well. I’ve been writing about the other things those mini-computers can do—they bring a sort of intelligence to ordinary tasks.

The whole discussion has me thinking about Kathleen Norris and her defense of the time we spend doing dishes or laundry or brushing our teeth. She claims those are more like sacred moments than they are boring time wasters. That’s because in those moments where we go on auto-pilot as we do that same old thing yet again, our minds are actually free to play or to make connections between the bits of life we’ve been experiencing. To Ms. Norris’ way of thinking, that daily floss may well lead to epiphanies—even connecting with God—if approached with openness.

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As a writer, Ms. Norris depends on those automatic moments as well as the fallow moments:

“But I do detect in the quotidian…[meaning daily or ordinary], rhythms of writing, a stage that might be described as parturient, or in labor, about to produce or seems almost unbearable, stretching out  before me like a prison sentence, when I seem most dead inside, reduced to mindlessness, bitter tears or both, that what is inmost breaks forth.”

If there is a birthing process for thoughts (full disclosure: as a male my closest experience with birthing is watching our kids get born), I’m pretty sure it has something to do with staying open during our mundane boring moments. If we fill up our mundane moments with entertainment and Facebook and Twitter, we risk staying in that fallow place.

In the delightfully-readable book A Philosophy of Walking, (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2014) Frederic Gros writes short essays about writers and thinkers who wrote while walking. Like that great dark cloud Nietzsche, who scrambled up mountain trails and paused to scribble his gloomy reveries. Or Thoreau or Rimbaud or Kant—writers and thinkers accustomed to spooling out the thorny stuff while ambling about. These writers made a habit of using the mundane to tease out the thoughts they were working on. Because when you are walking, you really can’t do anything but put one foot in front of another foot. And your own personal white space (in your own personal brain pan) is free to think thoughts and connect dots.

As we move deeper into this constantly-connected age, I wonder if the wise among us will learn how to preserve their mundane tasks precisely because that’s where meaning keeps coming from.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

On Creating: “Hello Problem, Please Sit with Me”

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From Distraction to Focus

We stare at the problem until we can’t think straight. And when blood runs from our ears, then we have just begun.

This quote from a Minneapolis copywriter describes the creative process that drives his role in the industry. What does it take to come up with a creative solution that is beyond the first 5, 10 or 20 thoughts that pop into anyone’s head? What is creativity, anyway, and why should I care?

  • First the bad news: creativity requires deep focus.
  • And now the good news: you are capable of deep focus.
"Look Again: Expanding Feminist Possibilities," Groot Gallery, St. Olaf College

“Look Again: Expanding Feminist Possibilities,” Groot Gallery, St. Olaf College

In our age of near constant distraction, how does anyone slip into the focus-cave? How does anyone keep distraction at bay, apply sustained attention, and lose track of time in the process? It turns out there are solid answers to those questions. Those answers arrive from a mix of personal experience from people who create regularly, from a bit of theory, and then from experimentation with what works for you.

One thing is certain about focus: it can bring a healing wholeness with it. Just ask any person who regularly creates, and hear them talk about “flow” or the zone or getting into that space of just doing it.

Creating is not for the faint of heart. Because to create is to dwell with ambiguity: could be this. Could be that. If you change this piece—or flip the entire story or image—everything looks different and maybe even makes more sense. Very little is defined when creating and, in fact, you are doing your own defining

A group of students and I have turned a corner this week. We’ve gone from feeding the internet with content that builds communities to feeding creativity that can solve real-world problems. And just like when we work different muscles with cardiovascular versus weight training, this move from rapid creation to deep problem-solving wants a different set of brainwaves. We’re moving from intense listening and rapid creation to sitting with a problem and iterating our way out.

One of our bigger tasks is to train ourselves not be satisfied with the first, easy solution. We’ll learn how to bend time and write fast while you still know nothing, and how to lift and separate and how to map your way around a problem and how to start at the top again and again. And how to grind through to get to a better solution.

But all that needs focus.

And focus means not picking your phone up for 60 minutes.

And that is a struggle.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Why Honesty is Catnip for Collaboration

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In Class Today: Here’s Where I Failed

I first encountered “fail faster” in Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody. In that book it started to make sense to me that getting something right was a goal, but perhaps not the first goal. Maybe I saw traces of “fail faster” in The Cluetrain Manifesto. As a writer I knew I had to write many (verily: many, many) drafts before I started to approach the thing I really wanted to say. I also knew that the work of moving toward that thing I wanted to say was built on failure after failure, and that each failure left me with something closer to what I intended. Each step in the work shaped the next step in the work And each step in the work also shaped the one doing the work.

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motivational pictures

In our Social Media Marketing class last week students presented their critique of their community-building activities (we publish content to define and attract the student’s desired target audience). Midway through these presentations I remembered why I love this day so much. There is an honesty to it. Students describe what they’ve used blogs and Twitter and Facebook (and Instagram and Pinterest and Reddit) and other tools to create for the past six weeks. They show successes. They describe failures. They talk about what they would do differently. In some cases they reimagine the entire exercise for themselves and their team. And sometimes I can see the seeds of a much larger purpose. Sometimes it is quite clear that this person’s passion will push them toward building this community for a long, long time.

And then we discuss failure. Truly, these are fascinating moments in the Q&A that follows each presentation. The great news: everyone fails. Not the course, but in building the grand vision they set out to build. Six weeks in they realize how they could have adjusted their purpose, how they could have set more clearly defined metrics to reach very specific goals. Some realize they did not give it their best shot but instead rushed through and sort of wasted their moments of contact with their target audience. Some realized they could make a solid point with 350 words when they came into the class needing at least 1000 words. Some realized their target audience lived over in an odd unlit corner of the Interweb and this other particular tool would have faithfully delivered them to this audience.

The Big Reveal: It isn’t until you try to actually build something real, with real people  and real purposes toward a real end, that you realize life doesn’t not just coalesce around your pet purpose. In fact, this shouting into a crowded, noisy concert hall that is social media must be very deliberate for even the smallest thing to happen. And I mean even the tiniest purpose to move forward.

And as we detail our failures together (I have my own dozens of examples to share), new ideas pop to the surface and classmates who had not talked with each other are now offering ideas and are engaged in the purposes of this other community.

It’s the honesty bit that pulls in collaboration—the telling it like it is. The missing the high mark in a major way that when shared, evokes collaboration rather than pity.

That seems like a solid life lesson to me.

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On Writing: Is This Where The Magic Happens?

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“…and then a cascade of miracles occurs…”

Yesterday I heard myself spinning a tall-tale to a quiet cluster of skeptical students.

as if

as if

I told them of a magical place they can go were writing connects the dots in a mysterious and inexplicable fashion. It is a place you arrive mostly clueless about what will happen next. But then you begin marking a blank page and words form into sentences and dots arrive and connect. The not-knowing of this place takes a bit of courage to sit with, but the payoff of processing your not-knowing is immense.

These were writing students, so many regularly visit this place. Some nodded in agreement. Some stared back blankly, though I suspect this tall-tale was their own experience as well. Some stared blankly refusing to participate no matter what—which is, of course, that great student default-setting.

John Cleese spends his retirement talking about this place (try here or here. And especially here). He characterizes it as more of a time than a place—which I completely agree with. A time away, which becomes a space bordered by time limits. I use timers to get to that place. This place where the magic happens is also called “flow” or “in the zone.” I’m certain you’ve experienced it as well.

For the working writer, I’m convinced that this place is bordered on one side by strategy and analysis and research.  And on the other side is marketing or talking to an editor or pushing “Send.” But in between: this magic layer where creation happens. It’s a place equally daunting and exhilarating.

Is there really such a place?

I believe so—see for yourself.

 

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Is it Better to Sound Smart or to Communicate?

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Please stop me before I commit an act of literature.

We had this discussion in class. A literature student was talking about how writing for social media was different than, say, literature. Popular writing—so our discussion went—is aimed at a different audience (here we picked our way around classist terms), and is not as, well, interesting, as literature. All her other classes required a compacting of ideas into sentences that grew rather long. Sentences that required a fair amount of attention. Sentences that required grappling with theologically heavy terms, or the whimsy of philosophers who felt compelled to make up words for their new ideas. Or writers who committed acts of literature in the most tortured fashion.

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I maintain that writing for social media requires that we let go of jargon and the complex sentences that shout “College!” or “Graduate School!” At our best, our writing is nearly transparent: leading right into the topic without stopping to say “Look at me.” Does that mean we use dumbed down ideas and language? I’ve said no to this several times. Erasing our jargon so smart people from different disciplines can understand us is not the same as dumbing down. And, in fact, when we do the work of translating our tribe’s jargon into regular English, we are poised to find a certain elegance and cadence that sounds more human, more fresh and less like the forced and predictable tribal language.

Respecting the reader is central to this project of communication—this bridge-building activity. If you think the reader is an arse, that comes through in your word choice. If you think the reader cannot be trusted, that shows. If you think the reader is intelligent and can handle the topic in words any human would understand, your reader will know.

One irony of the discussion is that many of the writers we celebrate as having written literature were themselves seeking for the simplest way to say things. Countless writers talk about kill your darlings and omit needless words and how nearly anyone can write to confuse. But the real artist takes a meaningful notion and makes it clear to someone else. And this: we are more likely to say something memorable and possibly even elegant the farther we get from our tribe’s insider language.

Will you commit an act of communication today?

 

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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