Monthly Archives: September 2015

Stop Telling Me to Follow My Dreams: 3 pitfalls of life advice

#BillWatersonisagenius

If you have ever sought out career advice, you were probably told one or more of the following:

  1. Follow your dreams
  2. Live out your passions
  3. Do what you love
  4. Work where your greatest passion meets the greatest need
  5. Find your inner voice
  6. Perseverance is key
  7. Embrace your unique story

During my time of soul searching for my own professional next steps I heard these platitudes over, and over, and over again. In short, these statements are all true. The problem is that they lack context. In search of this context, I attended many networking events for creative professionals like myself. Many of them feature speakers sharing about their experience in their creative fields. Like a fly bumping into the glass and believing the next time will be different, I come to these events anticipating, if not something life-changing, then at least something useful. Alas, I often leave heaving a sigh.

Put another way, these speakers fall into one or more of the following traps:

  1. The speaker forgets he/she is making an argument. 
    Any communication you create–article, letter, lecture, film, etc.–in which you want your audience to think differently by the end is an argument. In the case of these network lectures, the speaker’s goal is, or should be, to empower their audience, and make them believe that they have the capacity to do great work. Most of the time, the speakers forget that they need to persuade. They cover the WHATs of the conclusions they’ve drawn, but neglect the HOWs and WHYs. You can tell me THAT your string of accomplishments was hard to come by, but I won’t care and I certainly won’t be helped until you tell me WHY it was hard, WHY you were driven to persevere, and HOW you solved the problems that hindered you. Without these critical elements, it would be faster if you just sent me your resume.
  2. The speaker fails to tell a story. 
    These days it feels cliche to say that the best way connect with an audience is through story. I couldn’t agree more, but like Inigo in The Princess Bride, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.” Stories require conflict. Think about it–all stories recount something that went wrong: Nemo gets stolen, Dorothy and Toto are stuck in Oz, Bernie is dead. Stories involve pivotal moments, dealing with change, and the decisions that make or break the protagonist(s). At the last networking event I sat through, the speaker told the “story” of how he really wanted to join this band so he worked really hard and practiced all the time and beat out 99 people to get the one spot. Face:palm. Story:fail. There is no conflict in this anecdote, and therefore it is not a story. Life, and the pursuit of creative success, is full of conflict, and if you are going to tell me about your experience I want to hear the juicy details of the obstacles in your way and how you made the decisions that shaped your path.
  3. The speaker edits his/her story and loses his credibility. 
    There are (at least) two ways in which speakers edit their stories and, in so doing, ruin their credibility. The first is similar to my point about conflict, in that the speaker leaves out the parts they’d probably wish to forget, i.e. how hard something was, how long something took, or how they never really knew what they were doing. These details about doubts, fears, and failures create an empathetic connection with the audience. After all, most of the audience is there to be comforted and encouraged. We need to know we are not alone. If the speaker glosses over the harder times, I begin to doubt their story altogether. This leads me to the second way speakers edit their experience: they are not forthcoming about when they were lucky. Being in the “right place at the right time” is not a skill, it is an accident. Knowing the “right people” is not only a function of diligent networking, but it is also luck of the draw. Access to the right tools–education, technology, an uncle in high places– can make all the difference, but access is rarely something we gain by merit. As Malcolm Gladwell tells us in Outliers, both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs gained access to computers way earlier than other mortals, and at a time when they were both unhindered by restrictions or responsibilities and allowed to experiment. While extraordinary innovators in their own right, the argument stands that Gates and Jobs owe much if not most of their success to this unusual good fortune. Likewise, if you are going to preach platitudes with your advice, you should have the humility to point out that you were blessed with great business partner, or with a professor who gave you a job recommendation, or with a pile of gold you found in a ditch, or whatever else helped you leapfrog towards your goals.

My goal with this post is twofold: first, I hope this encouraged other soul-seekers like myself in their quest for thorough advice, and second, I hope anyone who is giving advice can adjust the content and delivery of their thoughts to be most advantageous for their audiences. Please comment below and keep the conversation going!

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Filed under Life, Questions, Running Commentary on whatever tickles the fancy

3 Lessons in Food Photography

Recently I’ve been on a quest to learn more about food photography. Unlike most travel photography, which by nature depends on serendipity, food photography involves more staging and premeditation. Food photographers must ask themselves, “What can I do to this food to make it look irresistibly delicious?” They then use their mysterious powers of manipulation to make me salivate.

But really, what do food photographers do? I spent some time looking at a slew of food photos and made some observations which I would like to share with you. (The photos below come from the magazine, Edible Nashville, for which I have so far written two articles and am working on a third. Check it out!)

  1. White outs.
    I’ve noticed many food photos that overexpose backgrounds purposefully so as to pull all attention onto the food. In the photo below, the pork seems almost haloed by light, making us feel like this glowing scene really does have touches of the divine. It also looks nice and sanitary and safe.

    2a. Color Matters: Complementary Color Pairing 

    I am ashamed I never noticed how critical color is to food photography. On the one hand, the need for color is obvious; we all want our food to look fresh and colorful, so food photography naturally would enhance these characteristics. But my epiphany goes deeper than this. Food photographers make use of color theory, and often pair together sets of complementary colors, meaning colors that sit on the opposite ends of a color wheel (purple and yellow, red and green, blue and orange). These contrasts really make the image pop and prick our curiosity for how those colors must taste.


2b. Color Matters: Analogous color pairings 

Continuing with this color theory epiphany, food photography often exhibits ranges of similar colors, or analogous colors, meaning colors that sit next to each other on a color wheel. In the photo below, see how nicely the frame pulls you in with the color progression from cream to yellow to orange to red.

Photography by Mark Boughton


3. The Power of a Neutral Background 

Another pattern I saw across many food photos is the use of neutral colored backgrounds: creams, browns, and steely grays. These backgrounds make an excellent stage upon which the colors of the food can dance freely.

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The Hellish Life of a Writer, according to Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl

From a very young age I adored Roald Dahl. I devoured all of his books, several of them many times over. I befriended the BFG and Willy Wonka and abhorred the Trunchbull and the Twits. I loved the whimsey of all of the books (except The Witches…never read it…too scary) and appreciated how tangibly, and sometimes grotesquely, Dahl could describe a scene.

I recently reread Boy, Dahl’s childhood memoirs, remembering that I liked it when I was young. I wondered how I differently I would view it as an adult. My first impression was one of shock; most of the book describes in gruesome detail the school whippings Dahl and his friends endured. I had no memory of so much child abuse in that book. Dahl seems to be part of a club of authors, along with Lewis, Orwell and, I’m sure, many others, who never forgot the injustices of boarding school discipline. Apart from the descriptions of little boys’ striped bottoms, I am glad to have read Boy again. My second impression affirmed my liking of Roald Dahl in the first place. His pacing of storytelling is excellent. I got swept up in the flow and dearly wanted to hear the end of each of his anecdotes. His details are wonderful; I can see the whole scene in front of me from the twitching orange mustaches to the gnarled cracked knuckles of the dirty hand reaching into the candy jar. There is so much to emulate in Roald Dahl’s style.

But the most impactful take-away from this second reading comes from a passage at the end of Boy in which Dahl takes a sudden tangent from his story to bemoan the life of a writer:

“The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze… a person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.” (BOY, 171-172)

According to Dahl, the writer lifestyle does not sound very nice. As with any creative profession, the task of creating on cue weighs very heavily on the writer. It demands focus and drive and persistence. There is no structure, as with other professions, on which a writer can rely. He or she must create it alone. They risk the alienating consequences of going to imaginary places during the work day. But, is it just me, or is there an undertone of grim satisfaction? There is something enticing about this description. At least for me, he fails to warn me away from writing as a profession. I feel, instead, a (masochistic?) attraction to what he says. Being drained doesn’t scare me if it means I created a new world or lived through the lens of a new character. As a creative, I already live in a world of fear–fear of disappointing myself and others, fear of coming up short–this is nothing new to me. Am I such a fool? Absolute freedom. I’ll take that. Thank you, Mr. Dahl.

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I’m in Edible! (and I’m INedible!)

I’m published in Edible Nashville Magazine! The September/October issue, now sweeping the city off its culinary feet, has TWO articles by yours truly. I’m so pleased!

Edible, a national magazine, is published locally in more than 80 different cities around the country. While each city follows a similar focus on its respective local food scene, each publication has its own flavor, and I am very pleased to be a part of the Nashville team. The editor regularly shares a goal for the magazine which I fully support: Get more people cooking. The magazine seeks to increase curiosity about food and where it comes from, and not just among the elites and the foodies, but for anyone who wants to try something new. The magazine strikes a balance between trendy and accessible, high quality and affordable, and does so while always looking beautiful. Since last January when it started, each issue has enticed readers with stories about farmers, chefs, and events, along with intriguing recipes and delectable photography. If you are local, go find a copy! If you live elsewhere, here is a digital version for you to peruse.

As to my articles, I could not have been happier with the subject matter. The first, titled The Home Cook, is a new column in Edible that features a Nashvillian in his or her own kitchen perfecting his or her own recipe of a favorite dish. My assignment for this issue was to divine the ultimate zucchini bread recipe. To do this, I researched many different recipes and baked three very different samples for friends and family to try. From these guinea pigs I collected feedback on what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what they expect out of their zucchini bread. Read the article to see what I learned and to get the recipe for Emily’s Ultimate Zucchini bread.

In some ways, I am even more pleased with my second second article. I was assigned to cover a local farmers market to give it some hype. The story that I got was more than I could have hoped for. I learned that this farmers market got started by just three people wanting to help their community back in 2009. Their group, Hip Donelson, is now going on 20,000 followers and their market welcomes more than 3,500 people a week. As if this story wasn’t nifty enough, one of the gentlemen I interviewed stopped short and ran off to go join a flashmob in the middle of the market. I called the article Radishes and Renaissance. Enjoy!

cherry tomatoes 3

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Filed under Food!, True Stories

Photo Friday: Along the Coast of Maine, Part III

This is Part III of a series. See Part I. Part II.

Our last twenty hours in Maine were the most photogenic. As we completed our last hike, the sun returned in full glamour, and we soaked in the colors and warmth of Maine’s natural beauty from the edge of the sea to the top of Cadillac Mountain.

I did not want to leave.

Evening Light in Maine. Glorious.

Summer speckled light.

Tidepools!

A brilliantly clear day from the top of Cadillac Mountain

View of the Porcupine Islands.

In the distance, off to the right, you can see Katahdin, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

Colors of Portland

Keep Portland Weird.

Victory is M(a)ine!

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