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Posts Tagged ‘writing

Josephine Humphreys: When writing from the center of things

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The world keeps aligning with what I just wrote.

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Interviewer: When you’re writing, is it that you notice things more acutely?

Humphreys: Yes. You notice everything, and everything seems to be full of meaning and directly centered on the thing you’re writing about. I heard E.L. Doctorow say something like that—that when you’re writing, all experience seems to organize itself around your themes, which can give you some really strange feelings of coincidence and ESP. You start to think you’re onto the secrets of life.

–Josephine Humphreys, quote by Dannye Romine Powell, Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1994) 192

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Pat Conroy: How to tell when the story has started

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Sometimes Mr. Subconscious arrives at the work site before Mr. Conscious

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I think dreams are very important. I think dream journals are important. Extremely important. I have dreamed the ends of books. When I start dreaming about the book, I know it’s now starting.

–Pat Conroy, quoted by Dannye Romine Powell, Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1994) 51

 

I can’t vouch for dreams, but I cannot help but notice how Mr. Conroy’s stories seem to start without him. Writing is hard work, but there’s no denying these bits where the subconscious fills in gaps at the work site before you even arrive.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

 

Hit Send & Live With The Results

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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.

Ship it, already.

Ship it, already.

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.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

February 13, 2015 at 9:03 am

When Truth Sounds Like a Lie

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And the lie that turns out true

Let’s make up a new term: the “aspirational lie.”

The aspirational lie is that thing that falls from your mouth before you can stop it.

  • It is not quite true—that’s why you almost didn’t say it.
  • But it is not quite false—something about it is true. Which is why you did say it.

That happened to me when talking to a writing class of business students. My professor friend let me come in and chat about freelance copywriting. She wanted her MBA students to see some different shades to how work gets done. In the course of our discussion we talked about how one prepares to write and about how one does the work.

I told one truth that sounded like a lie.

And I told a lie that turned out to be true.

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The Truth That Sounded Like a Lie

The truth that sounded like a lie was that I make a bunch of stuff up for my clients. “How so?” wondered the class. It’s like this: the writer’s work is to think forward and then tell the story of how all the parts fit together. Whether writing a white paper, a journal article, an advertising campaign or refreshing a brand, writers do what writers have always done: make stuff up. They grab bits and pieces of facts and directions and fit them into a coherent whole. As they move forward, they gradually replace false with true and so learn as they go.

That is the creative process.

You fill up your head with facts and premonitions and assumptions. Many are true, some are false. But the process itself—and the subsequent reviews reveal what it is true. Writing is very much a process of trying things on for size and then using them or discarding them. And sometimes we used facts “for position only,” as a stand-in for the real, true fact on our way to building the honest, coherent whole.

 

The Aspirational Lie

We also talked about backgrounds and how one prepares to write. I explained how degrees in philosophy and theology are an asset to business writing. Yes: I was making that up on the spot. But not really, because I have believed that for some time, though had never quite put it in those words. Pulling from disparate backgrounds is a way out of the narrow ruts we find ourselves in. Those divergent backgrounds help to connect the dots in new and occasionally excellent ways. Which is also why we do ourselves a favor when we break from our homogeneous clubs from time to time.

Comedy writers do this all the time. I just finished Mike Sacks excellent Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers (NY: Penguin Books, 2014), and was amazed all over again at the widely different life experiences comedy writers bought to their work.

The more I’ve thought about the aspirational lie that philosophy and theology contribute to story-telling, the more convinced I am it is true. That’s because I find myself lining up facts and story bits and characters and timelines according the rhythms and disciplines I was steeped in during school. In philosophy it was the standing back and observing with a disinterested eye. In theology it was the finding and unraveling and rethreading of complicated arguments—plus a “this-is-part-of-a-much-larger-story” component.

Our studies, our reading, our life experience—all these help line up the ways we hear things and the ways we connect the dots. Our best stories are unified and coherent because of this.

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Write Alone And Send To Collect. (Copywriting Tip #11)

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Except for Bill Holm

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Bill Holm, by Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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.

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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.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston, Brian Peterson/StarTribune

What Freelance Knows that You Don’t

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For starters: Work is permanent while jobs come and go.

When I first considered life as a freelance copywriter, a friend said,

 

Welcome to the wonderful world of floating icebergs.

 

And it was so: projects fall off (the glacier of corporate planning) and float off to sea (so to speak, to the market) and you stand on them for a time, work on them, even as they melt under you. And then you step to the next iceberg. Or you tread water while another iceberg comes into view.

It’s a refreshing cycle—in a painful, polar-dip, take-this-horrid-medicine-it’s-good-for-you—kind of way.

Ice sheet, not iceberg. Don't step on it.

Ice sheet, not iceberg. Don’t step on it.

I like to tell my copywriting students that the freelancer goes into it knowing this is how the game works. Then I tell them this knowing is in sharp contrast to nine-to-fiver’s who instinctually trust their jobs will remain, and are too often deeply surprised to find themselves waiting for the bus one day at 11am holding a cardboard box containing their office posters and mug.

But students typically have no mortgage or kids to feed or insurance to buy. So I’m pretty sure the comment doesn’t register until five years later, when all those conditions are true.

Recognizing the impermanence of today’s job is a great benefit, because it means one must always—always—be thinking about what’s next. The freelancer understands this in her bones. The smart nine-to-fiver rehearses this bit of knowledge every time she crosses the corporate threshold and enters the air-locked doors.

One thing that happens while I tread water is I make contact with dozens of old colleagues. I am no longer surprised by how often people change jobs, get laid off, start their own business or agency. Not to sound like an old guy, but way back when, people expected to stay at a single company for an entire career. Today I could count on one hand the number friends who have done that.

Friends often ask about work. I typically say, I’m busy and I’m looking. Always looking. In fact, this way of working has two benefits I cherish:

  1. Vision is no esoteric word for me. It is a hard-edge guide to what’s next. And I can never not pursue it. If I neglect to think ahead, those icebergs will float by without me ever noticing.
  2. The work itself become the focus. I get to burrow down into communication and copy and the telling of stories. The craft itself is a never-ending wonderland that shape-shifts as it leaps between clients and industries. The work, and the process toward the work, become the marathoner’s stroke for swimming toward the next iceberg.

In fact, faith, hope, and love remain as essential ingredients to this way of working. There is no space for taking-for-granted.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Writers at Work: “How do you imagine that will unfold?”

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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.

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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.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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