Monthly Archives: October 2016

Photo Friday: Why we can still feel good about the world

Election blues got you down? Fear of hurricanes and terrorism and Zika and economic collapse occupying too much space in your psyche?

The world may be going down the tubes, but there are still so many things to cheer our souls. For today’s Photo Friday, I dug up a bunch of images from the past year that remind me to be hardy, to laugh, and not to take life too seriously.

We can still feel good about the world…

  1. Because, as an adult, you can have cupcakes for breakfast.
    cupcake

    Yes, that is kale on the side of my cupcake.

     

  2. Because of dogs who think they are people

    archie-sitting

    Whatchoo lookin’ at?

  3. Because Deloreans are real. 

    delorian

    Alas, no flux capacitor. yet. 

  4. Because sometimes younger cousins make some rad pizza.

    pizza

    Well done, young grasshopper. 

  5. Because good friends aren’t afraid to go all out to dress up for a Renaissance murder mystery dinner party. 

    ren-party

    I’m wearing a thrift store.

  6. Because of Chicken Parm 

    chicken-parm

    I really, really miss New York sometimes. 

  7. Because sometimes it snows in the South. 
    snow

    Archie’s favorite day ever.

    The best day of my dog’s life.

  8. Because, Star Wars. 

    star-wars

    DIY Star Wars New Years Party

  9. Because Christmas. And people who go crazy with lights. 

    xmas

    Crown Point, IN

  10. Because sometimes you get to give your Swedish friends their first Christmas Scavenger Hunt. Also dogs in Christmas Sweaters.

    scav-hunt

    They eventually found the ukulele.

  11. Because sometimes ordinary scenes become extraordinary.

    gas-sunset

    Sometimes, Nashville really shines.


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Filed under Inspiration and Creativity, Running Commentary on whatever tickles the fancy, True Stories

What Good Editors Do

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There isn’t a writer in the world who hasn’t felt the pang of poorly edited work.

Whether it is a student paper declaring nebulously in red ink, “Be Clearer” (big help, thanks), or an essay that reads like someone else wrote it entirely, all writers endure unhelpful feedback from time to time.

The irony is that most writers are also guilty of dishing out unhelpful feedback. When we edit someone else’s work, the temptation is to see it through the lens of how we would do it, and this creates a hindrance to editing well. This is not to say that the writers are not talented; they might be able to turn a phrase prettier than a pansy, but that means very little when tasked with editing someone else’s product. It comes down to this:

WRITER MINDSETS ≠ EDITOR MINDSETS

Obviously, there is overlap between writers and editors. Many writers can be great editors and editors can be great because they understand the experience of writing. But we are talking about a Venn diagram here–two separate categories of thinkers who only occasionally overlap.

Why so little overlap? Let’s turn back time to two courses I took in college, the worst and the best. The worst class was taught by a professional writer-in-residence. I had read her books and they were awesome, so I arrived to the first class eager to learn. Twenty minutes in it was obvious she had no idea why she was an accomplished writer. She had very little to say about style, technique, research strategies, or successfully engaging an audience. What she achieved had been through blind instinct, and she therefore had little instruction to endow in spite of her considerable experience.

By contrast, the best course began its first day by illustrating how readers and writers think differently. Writers set out to organize ideas and get them down on paper in pretty arrangements. The difficulty is that ideas are nouns…things…stuff. Readers read for meaning; they want to know what’s happening, what’s moving, what’s changing. Readers watch for verbs. Given this, we were told that the key to great writing lies in the writer’s ability to write the way readers read best, i.e. through action and change.

Extrapolating from both of these experiences, I see two pillars of great editing: first, great editors understand why a piece of writing works or doesn’t work, and second, they successfully bridge the gap between how writers write and readers read.

For this first pillar, editors need to be aware simultaneously of the big picture points, the minutia, and the relationship between the two. It is this balance that allows them to make wise decisions about any changes they make to someone else’s work. It serves no purpose to change something at the sentence level unless it serves the paragraph’s aims. It makes no sense to delete or move a paragraph unless there are demonstrable reasons to do so. Good editing points to concrete reasons for why changes A, B, and C achieve the writer’s goals.

Notice: the writer’s goals. The writer most likely had good purpose in setting out to write, whether or not he executed his goals well. This brings me to the second pillar of good editing: the editor is the writer’s advocate, not his competitor. The editor stewards the writer’s voice. She is an ambassador of the writer’s words, making sure they resonate with the audience. Ambassadors say things their country’s president would say, not what they would say if they were president. They only tailor the message if and only if the audience will struggle to understand.

So how to become a good editor? There are several practical steps to take.

  1. When sitting down to edit someone else’s work, remember that you are not rewriting it, you are editing it. This is an entirely separate skill from writing, a completely different hat to wear. You will be using many of the similar tools of a writer, but you will NOT apply your own voice and you will NOT change things just because that is how you would do it. Instead, you will focus on strategy, reason, and resonance with the audience on the writers’ behalf. Make sure you know the reasons behind everything you change. If you don’t have a reason, don’t change it. 
  2. When you get a new piece to edit, refrain from making any changes until you’ve read the entire piece. Sit on your hands if you need to. But don’t touch it until you’ve read it as a reader would read it. Imagine it were already published, in a newspaper or magazine or book. Imagine you were simply consuming it…how would you take it? What confuses you? What made you slow down? Keep a mental–or physical–note of difficulties you experienced as a reader. Then on your second go through, return to these areas and ask yourself, “What might make it smoother or more persuasive?” Stick to Occam’s Razor as much as you can, as often times a simple move like cutting a word or rearranging some sentences will solve the problem much better than trying to rewrite it without the writer’s notes in front of you. 
  3. Ask the writer questions. Don’t think you need to solve his problems blindly. If you are having difficulty divining the writer’s intention with a sentence or concept, just ask him about it. You are partners, after all. Ask him to rephrase things, or to explain it as if to a novice. Often both you and the writer will stumble across simpler ways of communicating ideas than either of you thought of in the first place. 

 

To sum up, editing is not about passing the torch to another writer. It is an entirely different skillset. If you have a good editor in your life, go and give them a hug. And a cookie.

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Top Takeaways from STORY 2016!

cjz7l7guuaal6r1The STORY 2016 conference has come and gone! Those of us who attended the two-day gathering are now left to stew in the myriad of motivational messaging.

What is STORY? I’m actually still trying to figure it out. I suppose it is like Ted Talks aimed at creatives/artistically-minded folks, presenting them with an extensive lineup of speakers from various creative bents who share about their experiences and lessons they’ve learned so far in their work. The talks ranged from 10 minutes to 30 minutes or so, and were tightly packed with anecdotes to uphold the conference’s name. All told, the conference amounted to a serious pep talk for people doing creative work. Creatives sometimes (all the time) need that.

As I am constantly on a quest to learn more about story and storytelling, and because the conference this year was 15 minutes from my house, I made sure to attend. I collected many takeaways from the 20 different presentations and wanted to share them with you.

TOP TAKEAWAYS…

…on Motivation and Validation.
The first speaker, Brad Montague, filmmaker behind the Kid President sensation, really stole the show (almost too bad he went first). He talked about a line from one of the videos where Kid President asks, “What if Michael Jordan had quit? He never would have made Space Jam!” For Brad, this line started funny, but took on an insidious flavor when the video’s sensational popularity prompted Brad to ask, “Was this my Space Jam?” The idea haunted him. He knew he would crave more validation for his work to feel good. What he discovered, though, was that this was true of anyone…anyone…even Beyoncé…even Obama…both of whom finished their interviews with Kid President and asked, “Was that ok? I can do it again…” Brad is motivated by the idea that we each don’t just have one Space Jam, but can focus on our entire body of work over the course of our life. We can approach life with child-like wonder and enthusiasm and be better off for it. He asked, “Why does a child pick up a box of crayons? Because they like it. They want to make a present for their mom. They want to see what happens when they blend colors.” They create out of joy, and so should we. As Fred Rogers said, “We were all children once.”

…on Empathy and Experience.
Two ideas emerged from many of the speakers in what makes for better stories: the need for empathy and the need for personal experience. As Rick Rekedal, creative guru at Dreamworks, said, “The best stories are not just stories I like, but stories that are like me.” Hannah Brencher, a writer, put it this way:”Loneliness is at large today—we all need ‘me, too’ moments.” Stories work wonders for creating empathetic connections with audiences, but empathy requires personal knowledge of the experience being shared. Therefore, storytellers need to live life and not just talk about life. Casey Neistat brought this idea home with his story about getting fined $50 for riding his bike outside of the bike lane in New York City. The subsequent viral video resonated so deeply with so many people it even led to city-wide policy changes regarding bike use. Casey found an audience for this story because it was based on a real experience and created those “me, too!” moments.

…on Process and Getting Out of Our Own Way. 
Writer Hannah Brencher has no illusions regarding romance in being a writer. Her message was clear: creative work is a fight. It’s not personal, it’s business. “Your voice,” she says, “is not something that you find; it is something that is birthed.” This means that there is struggle involved, and that it will take time. I appreciate it when people acknowledge this, instead of glossing over the tough parts of creating to glory in the final product. Of course, it is easy to understand why they do that. They do not want to remember how much of a struggle it was, how much they got in their own way. Jason Jaggard, an executive coach, talked about the dark side of imagination, or the ways in which our mind can become extremely imaginative devising ways to tell us that we can’t do things. We have, as he described, somatic markers or instincts that protect us from the unknown. These keep us safe from danger, but they also keep us safe from opportunity. He suggested that we need to address these instincts and counteract them purposefully:
 a) We all long to look good. We overcome this by being willing to look foolish. 
     b) We all want to feel good. We overcome this by accepting pain as inevitable, and focusing on making something useful with those experiences. 
     c) We all want to be right, even when it means being right about our own perceived lack of abilities. We need to realize it might be good to be wrong about this. 

Overall, I can say I’ve come away from this conference motivated to work harder and strive for better focus. I will also say though that the conference content ended up being different than I had hoped it would be. Like I said, I am constantly on a quest to learn more about story and storytelling. Very little of the conference actually focused on narrative craft. How to become a better storyteller, and why the great stories we know and love are the great stories we know and love…this is what I crave. Please, readers, let me know if you have resources for me in my continued quest.

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Filed under Inspiration and Creativity, Running Commentary on whatever tickles the fancy, True Stories