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Tag Archives: writer
So a few weeks ago, I was up in Portland for meetings and received a text from my fellow writer and partner-in-office crime, Chelsi. She’s a dear friend and holds a mighty pen, and I don’t think she’ll mind me telling you that she’s also completely insane. Text reads as follows:
I’m leaving. Right now. I’m serious I can’t take this bullshit.
Hallway phone intervention. Turns out she was being pressed to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite pieces she had finished months ago, pieces that were finished, done, off of her desk and out in the world. That morning she had hit her limit.
Now from a practical perspective writers often recycle research, finished work, and text scraps for other uses, so the reworking request certainly wasn’t unreasonable, but a repeated request to do so without any end in sight will make a writer want to kick a hole through a door. But we have to do it, we know we have to do it, and we have to do it often… herein lies the tragedy of the desk writer. Writing anything worth reading requires some level of emotional investment, but conversely, professional writing requires a level of detachment. Birth a bouncing baby blob of text, drop it at the doorstep, and walk away. Then come back and look at it again. And then walk away again. Now come back. Now go. Some days it’s just not easy.
In a recent creative workshop, Eric Maisel spoke about the emotional and cognitive output required to create. The math is rough here, but it takes about twelve bazillion neurons to create meaning in any artistic endeavor. That meaning… whatever it is… is like crack to a writer. We write (or do any creative thing, really) to create meaning of some kind and when it’s fucked with we become bitter, emotionally bereft, sometimes even depressed. I felt for Chelsi—she was about to blow and not completely able to express precisely why, other than she was seriously over it.
So you might say getting upset over creative differences in the professional space is just taking things too personally, or being too sensitive about your writing and I’d say you’re probably wrong about that. If you love what you do and you’re pretty good at it, chances are you’re somewhat emotionally invested in it and getting pissed off is going to be part of that process. Now people can’t run around kicking holes in doors, but there are a few things writers can do to help things go smoothly when differences occur.
1) Be briefed. It’s tough to get a vague assignment and misinterpret the lack of direction as free reign, only to have the project plan completely change last minute. Sure, changes will happen along the way… agile business and all of that, but there’s a big difference between course correction and a total rebuild. Writers need to ask a ton of questions to be clear on project expectations and version deadlines.
2) Pick battles wisely. Collaboration is always a compromise, so know what you’re willing to change or remove and what you’re willing to fall on the sword for. If you’re going to fight for something, make sure it’s for the good of the project and not an evil match of wills.
3) Step away from the monitor. Gain clarity on your project by doing something completely different for a while. Working for too long on a piece that keeps landing back on your desk only frustrates you, so go do anything but that particular project. When I was in grad school there was a guy who’d literally put his fieldwork notes in the refrigerator to “cool off” before moving onto the next draft of his thesis (I called bullshit on this one because it sounded so lame but I’m told by reliable sources that it’s true). Whatever. Do what you gotta do…
So Chelsi didn’t leave that day, and in the end, she turned out her usual awesomeness that everyone was happy with. I think it’s always interesting when creative process and professional timelines evolve from a raging, amorphous blur into something new and hopefully unexpected. Painful, daunting, and ever so worthwhile.
It’s always interesting when my worlds collide as a writer and actor.
A while ago I auditioned for an independent film that, really, sounded like a fantastic project. The story concept was novel and sharp, the characters were relatable but not cliche, and a surfeit of zombie killing was inevitable. I was thrilled.
I went to the audition, submitted my headshot and information, and was handed sides to go over for the read. But the script I was given wasn’t full of zombie-killing awesomeness. It was a scene from “Pretty Woman”. I was confused… and slightly nauseated. When I asked the casting assistant what was up, she gave me a loaded look and shrugged.
Actor hat on. I dug in, read, and felt pretty good about it. The next day the director called me and said I was being considered for the female lead, and would I meet him for a second read. I said yes of course, and asked if he wanted to send me sides to prepare. He said no, because he trusted no one with his script, not even his sister, and that I’d be required to sign an NDA to even look at the script in person. Long story short, you won’t be seeing me killing zombies any time in the near future. Sad, but true.
Here’s the thing. As a writer, your words go out into the world, where you can’t protect them. They run around and party with bad words, misspelled words, and words that make no sense. You can’t shield them from corruption or abuse. Hollywood knows this, Silicon Valley knows this, hell, TMZ knows this. Yes you have implicit copyright, but creative control is hard to wrangle when you’re blasting buckets of text into the internets. I’d hazard to guess it’s pretty much impossible. Just like photography… (and if you know me you know why I say this), the copy/paste option can create a lot of conversation in a model’s life. At some point, you just have to stop thinking about it. It’s out there. Deal.
Writing is an art, and like many artistic endeavors, it’s highly collaborative. Yes you can create art alone… I’m not saying you can’t or that it doesn’t happen. When I start a project it’s usually when I’m alone. Most artists I personally know do start working on their own. But it can get lonely sometimes, and you can get a little bit of what scuba divers call “rapture of the deep”. You lose perspective on a piece and forget which way is up. Aside from perspective, a lot of projects simply require collaboration. Directors use actors, assistants, makeup, hair, and wardrobe people, DPs, grips. Painters use models, other painters, muses. And even the solo, curmudgeon-y writer has editors, publishing house readers, proofreaders, and yes… even a boss sometimes. We have to trust each other and work together, knowing that the end result might not match precisely what is in our minds’ eyes, but that together, for all of us, the vision should be something we’re all pretty happy with.
A willingness to share is risky, no doubt, but in the end, it’s part of why you’re making art in the first place. To share.
1) The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
So well written and perfectly researched is this book. It’s been my favorite non-fiction for years. Sagan is a masterful storyteller and he connects the dots between belief, the scientific method, propaganda, and human emotion. This book will knock your socks off. Just thinking about it makes me want to read it again.
2) Beloved by Toni Morrison
On many readers’ lists of favorites, to be sure. Her words make you gasp for air, both familiar and new at the same time. One of the few books that has made me bawl like a baby.
3) “The River” by Flannery O’Connor (from her Collected Works)
Another tear jerker, but in short-story form, Flannery paints a heartbreaking scene of dysfunctional American life and connects it to religious transformation.
4) The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
I saw this movie on the other night and it reminded me how much I adore this book. It’s a beautifully written mystery set in 1930’s San Francisco. Murder, glamorous women, exotic theft in exotic ports… what’s not to love? A great escape book that makes me want to take the Maltese Falcon Tour here in SF. In fact, I’ll do it, and tell you how it goes, because it’s going to be awesome.
5) Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov
Deliciously disturbing, if this is a book you’ve always heard of but never read, I urge you to pick it up. Reading inside the mind of a lunatic is always a fun experience (probably why I love Poe so much) but with Humbert Humbert the subtle progression of perversion is especially wrong. I put the two-part interview with Nabokov on my page if you want to check out the early reception and thoughts on this classic read.
So you need to write better copy, right this minute? Here are five writer basics to pretty up your business writing today.
1) Just Say It
You don’t have to get fancy with diction to sound smart. A reader becomes suspicious of an idea or message if the word choice seems out of context, especially in product descriptions or sales correspondence. Use words you know. If it makes sense to up the lexical ante, let an editor or at least another set of eyes take a pass at it.
2) Stop Clearing Your Throat
Writing means rewriting. It means cutting out redundant sentences, excess phrases,and wordy descriptions. Industry letters don’t need to begin with “from the dawn of civilization” introductions. If your audience speaks your lingo, these kinds of openings will fatigue your reader. It’s okay (and welcome!) to just get to your point. Do you really need to say “due to the fact that” when “that” or “because” usually mean the same thing? And in most cases, double descriptors are usually unnecessary: people understand that ice is cold, night is dark, and clowns are scary.
3) Less is Still More
Getting your message out is the easy part; social media outlets mean you can tweet, post, blog, and e-blast everyone, all the time, telling all how great your product is and why they must have it. Don’t.
Users fatigue quickly, and if the message even whiffs of self-serving, sales-y woo ha, you’ll lose credibility faster than you can say “woo ha”. Keep your message subdued, talk about the other benefits your company offers (charities, global partnerships, your employees’ stories, your vendors’ missions) to engage your readership in an oblique way. Bludgeoning people with offers and urgency is not marketing, it’s spamming.
4) Cross and Dot
Grammar and punctuation matter—there’s no getting around it. Readers will trip over Fake Proper Nouns You’ve Made Up & ampersands when you should use the word “and” instead. Tripping means readers lose interest and you lose credibility. Also: spell-check doesn’t catch everything; “too bee ore knot two bee” is perfectly spelled and completely nonsensical. If you’re sending an important piece of news out to press or to the masses online, have a proofreader take a gander.
5) George is Right
Number six on George Orwell’s “Five Rules for Effective Writing” reads: “Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.” Kind of a non-rule rule (probably why it’s named number six out of five), but you get the point. If it sounds ridiculous then don’t write it. Despite what old-school grammar guides say, it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition. I’d never say “Please hand me something with which to write,” but “Please give me a pen to write with.” Really… it’s cool. So are contractions.
Bottom line: reading is about the reader, not the writer. Keeping audience comfort at the forefront of your message will always produce better writing.
I’m not sure why certain things inspire me to write. Often it seems the things that inspire me the most haven’t much to do with writing, or anything else really. Client work is one thing— as a hired pen working on someone else’s movement, I’ve been known to get more fired up than the client. But when it’s my own stuff, my creative work, well, it’s a different story. Kind of like giving great advice to your friend about her love life, while wondering why you’re still single. So, on those days when the words just won’t come out, I usually just get outside and look around.
Some days it might be walking through Chinatown, passing all the colorful tourist shops and little alleyway tea houses…
… other days it could be seeing a new statue,
… and still others, it could be something totally off-kilter, like shopping at Daiso. Have I mentioned how much I love Daiso? I love Daiso. All the colorful notebooks and bizarre beauty products and seemingly silly but somehow useful products (all less than three bucks, mind you—danger!). I know it’s weird, but Daiso makes me want to write.
(These are banana holders.)
The one common thread I find in the things, or places, or moments that make me hit the keyboard is usually aesthetic. Color, paper, texture, nature… they all nudge me in some direction. And roaming around the city in places I don’t normally go does the trick too, when I’m especially fidgety.
It’s funny, because when I teach, I tell my students—exhort them—to just write, write about anything. Write about the boy who broke your heart last week, write about how you’re the only twelve-year-old who knows how to jailbreak an Iphone, write about how much you love to play violin, hate your P.E. class, enjoy playing chess even though you know it makes you, in certain high school circles, a nerd. Just write. And yet when I sit down to do the very thing I insist my kids do, I go crazy. I can’t insist myself into writing creatively… try to make something happen when it clearly doesn’t want to. So, usually, I’ll find something to do until the words decide to line up and situate themselves onto a page. It can take a while, but somehow, they always seem to find their way.