2019’s word of the year is CALM. I’m ready to embrace it.
As I’m writing this post on a Sunday morning, the trees are doing a little dance outside since it’s so windy. The last of the leaves that haven’t fallen yet are barely holding on. Do we bother to rake today or wait one more week until all the trees are bare?
Fall in Chicago is my second favorite season (spring is my first love) because it represents hibernation and reflection for me. The frenetic pace of summer comes to a still. The colder weather invites warm blankets, hot tea and cuddling with a warm book. Or more intimate gatherings with friends around hot cocoa or going together to hear author readings.
It’s also a time for me to review what went well through the year, what kind of work I really enjoyed doing, what I didn’t, and what I need to do before the end of this fiscal year since I still have seven weeks. It’s also an opportunity to set up the kind of work I want to be doing in 2019.
What I’ve realized through this introspection is that I really enjoy working in the environment, sustainability and social justice space. I also love all things food and culture, including everything from architecture, design and history to museums and cultural events. Finally, I also really enjoy teaching. As this latest course I’m teaching at Johns Hopkins University nears the end, I’m reminded at how much my students are really working their butts off to complete the material in the class in addition to working full time or raising families. Next month, I’ll be teaching a new class at University of Chicago’s Graham School on how to prepare and deliver strong visual presentations.
Now my goal is to find clients and editors in those spaces. Operation 2019 has begun! Got any ideas of who to reach? Let me know. Sometimes we forget the obvious.
Podcasts I’m Enjoying Right Now
I’m a bit of a podcast junkie. I edit my podcast library pretty regularly because I want to have a tight and curated list. In addition to #AmWriting, HowSound, and GrottoPod, three podcasts I’ve been listening to for over a year, I’ve added the following to my rotation these last couple of months:
· Hurry Slowly: a podcast on the importance of thinking through what you’re doing rather than just reacting or doing something for the sake of doing it.
· WTF Just Happened: thanks for the recommendation, Shannan! If you don’t want to be sucked into the black hole that is online news, this podcast is a nice and quick overview of what’s happening around the world.
· On Background: similar to WTF Just Happened, this one is focused on the backstory of what’s making headline news in the Chicagoland area. I’d call it beyond the news behind the soundbite…
· The City by USA Today: and similar to On Background, The City is an investigative podcast on what’s behind the six stories of rubble on Chicago’s west side. Although it’s not really about the rubble. The story is about corruption, environmental racism and incompetence when it comes to our so-called elected leaders.
· Last Scene: a riveting series talking about the most valuable and puzzling art heist in history: 13 artworks stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and 28 years later, the mystery of who stole the pieces has not been solved.
· The Dream: have someone who is part of the multi-level marketing world? This podcast digs into the model and why it works for the top few at the expense of the thousands of others who almost always lose money. What’s the attraction and why do so many people fall prey, knowing the odds are stacked against them?
When I picked up Gail Sheehy’s book, Passages, Predictable Crises of Adult Life, at my neighborhood’s Little Free Library, I didn’t know what to expect. Reading the synopsis on the back of the book, I was intrigued. It almost sounded like the adult version of What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. While the book was written in 1976, only once I finished it and did some research on Sheehy and the book did I learn it was named one of the 10 most influential books of our times by the Library of Congress. I feel like I was a bit late to this party but I’m so glad I stumbled upon the book and gave it a chance. If you’ve not already read it, I highly recommend it. It’s a fascinating look at what types of experiences, or passages, we all experience at some point during each decade of our lives. Keep in mind, Sheehy wrote this book in the mid-1970s so many of the examples focus on the mores of the time.
After I read it, I wondered: who put it in our Little Free Library? What’s this neighbor of mine like? Do I know this neighbor?
This whole experience reminded me of Blockbuster Video and why I miss it. I miss stumbling upon films I might never have considered had I not read their description. Sometimes I’d ask complete strangers hanging out in the aisles, looking for their own evening entertainment, if they’d seen whatever movie I was considering and if they’d recommend it. Sure, you can read descriptions flipping through Netflix and Amazon Prime or whatever your streaming service preference, but often these are curated for you based on past viewing decisions.
That’s not to say I didn’t choose some bad films, but the whole experience of going to the video shop, perusing the selections, talking with others in the store, choosing one and watching it was still fun. It’s like the experience of going to an independent bookstore and reading the backs of books you’ve not heard of because they’re not on any sort of bestseller list but they’re still outstanding books. Or asking the bookshop owner for a recommendation based on a book you enjoyed.
I’m all for advancements and technology and all that. But I feel as though we’re losing some real tangible opportunities to strengthen our communities when businesses close their brick and mortar businesses for the more efficient and cost-effective online presence.
I miss my local Blockbuster Video and the opportunities to choose a movie based on a random person’s recommendation. At least I have our Little Free Libraries and the opportunity to chat up with neighbors about the books they’re dropping off and recommending.
Happy Friday, everyone!
Before you think my diet involves limiting my food intake or increasing my workouts and I’m going to try and sell you something, it’s not that kind of diet. The diet I’ve been trying these past couple of months is a social media diet.
Which is ironic, perhaps, since the class I’m teaching this summer at Johns Hopkins University is on Using Social & Digital Media. But there is a method to the madness and I’m planning on discussing my challenge with my students.
Here’s the thing: I’m drowning in emails and I’m getting frustrated that I’m not as productive as I know I can be. What should be taking me 30 minutes, maybe an hour, is taking me hours. I created this problem by being accessible. Sources reach out to me via Facebook messenger, readers comment on articles I’ve written via Twitter, clients text me when they need to get in touch quickly…the madness needs to stop because I’m not getting any actual work done.
I Like To Be In Control So I Put Myself on a Social Media Diet
This constant being “on” is making me feel out of control. I need to re-gain my time. I took off Facebook from my phone. I only log onto Twitter a few times a day rather than have it open all day on my desktop. I check my email only once an hour unless I’m in pitching mode or working on breaking news, like I was late last week, and I needed to be on email all day on Friday.
I Vow To Go Out More
Because I’m an extrovert and I feed off other people’s energy, I need to be social. Working for yourself and not being in an office can seem isolating for some but I’ve worked it out where I see people all the time so that’s not a problem for me. The picture on this email is of a painting by French painter Jean-Siméon Chardin called The House of Cards that I took when I was in DC a couple of months. Nestled among Renoir, Monet and Degas paintings, I couldn’t take my eyes off this painting. How calm. How quiet. I needed to reclaim my time. I needed to remind myself to take more trips to the museums, walk or take my bike to run errands so I can enjoy the outdoors, block time to talk and see my friends rather than text them that I missed them.
Podcast & Book Love
Perhaps at the right time, my brother texted me about a new book recommendation: Deep Work by Cal Newport. Not 30 minutes later, I was listening to one of my favorite podcast, #AmWriting with Jess & KJ, and KJ mentions it on their episode! I texted my brother that I think it’s a sign I need to read it. He orders it from Amazon to have it delivered to my house and 48 hours later.
If you love podcasts as much as I do, listen to this great interview with Cal Lampert on NPR. You can also watch his TedTalk on why you should quit social media. I should note that I have no intention of quitting social media. Honestly, I can’t. As a marketer and writer, it’s part of my daily work. But I can control how much I consume it, and that’s where my diet is working, albeit slowly.
I mentioned I’m teaching a class about using social and digital media and it might seem out of line to be teaching this class if I’m intentionally trying to limit my intake of social media. And, let’s be honest, sending an email like this one is using digital media. I’m not going off social media, I’m just taking control of how I access it and I don’t think I’m alone. As marketing and communication professionals, we need to understand how to best reach our audiences; how they consume social and digital media is crucial to developing effective marketing plans.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find a Twitter party. My students and I will be participating in Twitter chats all summer. Have any good ones for us to join? If so, email me and let me know. I may not respond until Monday, but I’ll definitely respond! ;-)
Until next month, my friends…
In Draft No. 4, author John McPhee writes, “what to include, what to leave out. Those thoughts are with you from the start.”
McPhee is a master on the writer’s craft. In his latest book, he lets us peek into his writing process. “Writing is selection, and the selection starts right at Square 1. When I am making notes, I throw in a lot of things indiscriminately, much more than I’ll ever use, but even so I am selecting. Later, in the writing itself, things get down to the narrowed choices. It’s an utterly objective situation.”
His approach is similar to mine, whether I’m tackling a writing assignment or client’s project. I gather everything I feel makes sense and treat the task at hand like a puzzle. What fits in where, does it make sense to include this or not, is this detail gratuitous or necessary? The gathering process isn’t hard. What’s hard is figuring out how to make sense of it all.
“The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from the grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner,” he explains in his book. “You set them on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with. If something is red and globular, you don’t call it a tomato if it’s a bell pepper. To some extent, the structure of the composition dictates itself, and to some extent it does not.”
What I’ve learned over the years is the first draft is rarely good. Then again, it isn’t meant to be. The first draft is more about seeing what you brought home from the grocery store and figuring out what you can make of it.
It requires us to focus.
What are you focusing on this month? I have two long-term client projects that will require some attention this month to move forward, several writing assignments to file, and a few client prospects in the hopper.
Let’s do this, March!
Entrepreneurs are a self-motivated bunch. To be sure, without self-motivation, we wouldn’t be entrepreneurs for long. One of the things I love about late December is the opportunity to reflect on the past year’s successes and review how well I did with hitting the goals I set out for myself at the beginning of the year. It also allows me the time and space to be mindful of what I want to work on in the coming year.
Before my self-reflection time, I jotted down some questions I wanted to consider and then used uninterrupted time to reflect and answer the questions honestly. When I was ready to work on my plans for 2018, I used those answers to help inform my goals and focus them a bit.
In case you might find them helpful, here they are:
Who do you surround yourself with? * Where do you get your inspiration? * What sorts of things do you like to do (and not like to do)? * What kinds of thoughts fill your head? * What do you like to read? * What do you subscribe to? * What are you a member of and what do get out of your membership? * What sites do you visits on the Internet? * What music do you listen to? * What kind of art are you drawn to? What movies do you watch? * What do you collect? * What goes on your board or on your refrigerator door? * Whose work do you admire? * Who are your heroes? * Who do you follow online? * What excites you? * What’s the one thing you want to see happen in 2018? *
Reviewing how my current landscape looks and how (and if) I want to change the answers for 2018, I’m making adjustments to my daily habits. For example, this exercise reminded me how much I enjoy the arts so I’m going to seek out more opportunities to experience them, whether it’s attending more performance-based arts, visiting a new exhibit, or trying to secure a new arts-based client.
Also, not necessarily part of my business plan but definitely part of my personal plan:
1) Spend less time on social media and nurture my friendships in real life.
2) Clean my office, including my email in-box, files and desktop. Since my office is in my home, this is important to me on several levels.
3) Ask for and encourage feedback ~ professionally and personally.
4) Commit to attending more meaningful events. I’m writing this in the dead of winter and it’s so hard to motivate me to leave my house unless it’s necessary but I have included a few events on my calendar!
5) Schedule one day each month for myself. If nothing else, just to be able to clear my head.
6) Say thank you more often. More than just thank you, truly show appreciation to people who are kind.
7) Get out into nature. Despite Chicago’s reputation of being a concrete jungle, there are a lot of places where it’s easy to enjoy nature.
8) Change one habit. Just one. For me, it’s making sure I drink 8 glasses of water a day.
9) Surround myself with people I love, support and admire. We all have 24 hours a day and I think most of us would prefer to spend it with those who bring out the best in us.
10) Finally, commit to a healthier me. This means everything from eating healthier, working out at least twice a week and surrounding myself with people who push me to be better.
This is my manifesto for 2018.
What I’ve been listening to: Methods Podcast
There’s been a lot of talk about facts this past year, thanks to the current administration. Who are these fact-checkers? And how do we know what we’re consuming is accurate?
If these kinds of questions fascinate you, too, you might enjoy listening to METHODS, a podcast about how we know what we know. Brooke Borel, author of The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking, interviews people who examine facts for a living, whether it’s a journalist or a historian.
I especially loved Episode 8 on Gun Country, which discussed the research lining guns and crime, and last week’s Episode 12: Bad Algorithms, which explored the dark side of big data.
Every now and then a friend will ask how they can break into freelance writing and quit their job. Or the person is a writer and wants to step up their game and make a living from their craft. I’ve been invited to present and be part of panels on how to success as a freelance writer, some with titles such as “How To Become a Six-Figure Freelance Writer” or “How To Quit Your Job and Freelance Write”. Tonight, I’m on a panel with other freelance writers talking about successful freelance strategies to Columbia College Chicago students and alumni.
As I was preparing my material for the panel discussion, I wanted to share seven things I did (and continue to do) that have helped me get better at this freelance writing game over the past decade.
1) Join & Be Active. It’s not enough to pay your dues. If you’re going to be part of an organization or association, be active. That’s how you’ll meet others and learn from them. If you can’t attend the conferences, be active on the forums. This is often where you can meet with editors, content managers, etc. In many of these conferences, you’ll have time to pitch them directly, too. There are associations for almost any niche you’re interested in, from health to science writers, writers who write for online news outlets to travel-focused writers.
- American Society of Journalists and Authors
- ASJA Chicago event in November (including info on freelancing and ghostwriting)
- Association for Women Journalists – Chicago
- Association of Writers and Writing Programs
- UPOD Academy
- Freelance Success
Start your own Writers Accountability Group and commit to meeting regularly or connecting regularly online
2) Continue to Learn & Improve Your Craft.
a. Read books.
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- Six-Figure Freelancing by Kelly James
- Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writer’s Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books by Kelly James
- On Writing by Stephen King
- The Art of the Book Proposal by Eric Maisel (if you’re working on a book)
b. Listen to podcasts
c. Take classes.
- StoryStudio Chicago
- Writer’s Studio at University of Chicago Graham School
- The Fifth Semester (if you’re working on a book)
3) Get Out There.
- Let everyone you know you’re a writer. Not an “aspiring” writer. You’re a writer. Own it. Assume your place at the table. You’ll never know who might need content for their blog, help writing their bio page on their website, or a profile piece for a local print magazine.
- Also, talking with others helps you discover stories to pitch. Your neighbor might have a scoop, your dry cleaner might have heard something, your local public school might be doing some neat things and the teacher might be happy to share details. Letting people know what you’re doing will help you in the short and long-run because people will keep you posted of news they hear!
4) Become Friends with Writers.
- One of the biggest myths in this business is that you need to pitch editors in order to get stories assigned. While technically that’s true, editors (or clients) are the ones who assign the business, it’s often through your network of friends/colleagues that you FIND the business to be had.
- Friends writing for editors and clients sometimes get asked if they have any other friends interested in picking up new work. If they know you’re looking and feel you have the skill sets, they’ll recommend you. Ninety percent of my work has been secured through networking and/or referrals. And the ten percent I cold pitched, I ended up referring others to those editors so they got work out of my cold pitch, too.
- Sometimes my editors are looking for writers with a specific type of expertise or I can’t write about something because it poses a conflict of interest to me. For example, an editor asked me to write about clean energy for a print magazine but one of my clients is active in this space. I ended up referring a friend who I knew was well-versed in the subject and she wrote about the topic. Happy editor because I referred someone to her + happy friend because she’s now working with a new editor = win for everyone.
5) Know Your Worth & Treat It Like a Business.
- Track your time (see 6e for recommendations)
- Set up a spreadsheet or some other system to track your clients/editors/work by client and month. Track your expenses like a hawk. Track your revenue by month.
- Set aside money for taxes.
- Set aside money for retirement.
- Set weekly/monthly/quarterly/annual goals and review them weekly/monthly/quarterly/annually.
- Negotiate rates. Ask if there is any wiggle room with the rate/fee you’re offered. Often editors and clients have the ability to increase their rate. You won’t get a higher rate/fee if you don’t ask. Sometimes they don’t, and then you can decide whether the rate is worth your time and investment or to walk away.
- Write a Letter of Introduction (LOI) and have it handy to send to potential editors and/or clients with whom you’d like to work.
6) Get a Handle on Your Time Management.
- How much time does it take for you to write an 800-word article with sources and without?
- How much time does it take for you to interview a source?
- How much time are you on social media?
- How often do you invoice and how long does it take you to get paid?
- Use resources like RescueTime and Toggl to track your time.
7) Learn New Tools To Help You Improve.
What book changed your worldview?
For me, it was Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. It wasn’t long book since it was really written as a long essay, but the message hit home, nonetheless. It was what I needed to hear at that time.
Later in life, Jane Goodall’s Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating changed how I viewed the food I consumed. It helped me make the decision to become a vegetarian for the following seven years.
Why are we drawn to certain books, I wonder? I can’t even remember when or why I picked up Goodall’s book at the time. English novelist E.M. Forster has an idea.
"I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves," said E.M. Forster.
“I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves,” said Forster.
There are books that have life-changing impact when read at one age than they do when read at another, wrote Nick Rennison, in the introduction of his book 100 Must-read Life-changing Books.“Some novels read in adolescence (Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, for example, or Kerouac’s On the Road), can fundamentally alter the way in which the reader views the world,” he added.
I’d go as far as to say we write books when we’re ready.
Although I’ve been wanting to write about my family’s experience as refugees in the United States, I wasn’t ready. I was busy putting the pieces of the puzzle together, trying to understand that experience myself over the past four decades.
Have I put those pieces together yet? Not at all. But I’m ready to write the book.
Now, more than ever, is the time for me to work on it.
To use Forster’s quote as inspiration, I wrote my own: “I suggest that the only books we write are those we are ready to write, and for which we’re willing to go a little farther down the particular path than we are comfortable.”
So what book changed your worldview and why?
In an old interview with The Paris Review, John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, shared how he focused on writing for one individual person instead of addressing a large audience. According to the article, it provided Steinbeck with a sense of freedom when beginning a new project. The idea to focus on one person has been key for me throughout the process of drafting my book proposal for my memoir. I have another man to thank for pushing me to start when I didn’t know where to begin.
He won’t remember this exchange but I asked Robert Elder at the Chicago Writers Conference last fall his advice on how to start a book when so much of the information I felt I needed to access was still filed as classified by various governments. He’d just finished discussing how he approached the puzzle of writing Hidden Hemingway and I thought he might have some idea on how to begin writing something when I didn’t have all of the answers. His advice? “Just start writing. See where it goes.”
Then a friend of mine referenced Steinbeck and I came across this interview on how to get started and between Elder’s prompt and Steinbeck’s comment to write for one individual person, it clicked for me.
And then, of course, you are faced with the blank page once you’re ready to start. For this, too, Steinbeck has some advice and it’s similar to Elder’s: just start.
I share this because now that the proposal is complete and I’m in the process of researching agents, several people have asked me about my process. Several things worked for me, including developing a consistent writing practice where I tackled specific parts of my proposal at any given time and blocking out hours at a time on a weekend morning at the library where there were few distractions. I also took to heart both Elder and Steinbeck’s recommendations: start writing and consider your audience of one.
From The Paris Review, here are more of Steinbeck’s recommendation in the form of a letter to Robert Wallsten in February of 1962:
“Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.
1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day; it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theatre, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”
Steinbeck’s thoughts are meant for a writer but they needn't to be limited to that demographic.
When I’m pitching a story to a reporter on behalf of a client or marketing a product, it helps to think of that one person who is receiving your message. It makes your message that much stronger and authentic.
Right now, I’m thinking of someone very important to me as I continue this process. Who knew Steinbeck would play such a pivotal role in my work and life.
While I can’t raise a glass and enjoy a nice cold cocktail with Steinbeck right now, I hope he’ll accept a virtual cheers, wherever he may be.