Category Archives: Running Commentary on whatever tickles the fancy

6 Questions for a Better 2017

calvin-hobbes-new-years-resolutionsHappy New Year! Welcome to 2017!

Coming off of the tumultuous 2016, I anticipate that many of you, like me, are spending these first January days contemplating hopes for the new year. In customary resolution fashion, we might think about the number of pounds to lose or the novel we want to write or the instrument we’ve always wanted to learn to play. These are all good thoughts, but we know resolutions can be empty words, as proven every February at the YMCA. When resolutions lack resolve, what’s the point?

Over the last few weeks, three things happened that made me rethink our normal approach to resolutions. The first involved prepping for an end-of-year meeting with my design partner. He had assembled a long list of questions to help recap our work in 2016 and plan for 2017. The questions took me by surprise; they were way harder to answer than expected, but this was great. He asked things like, “What did I learn about myself through our 2016 efforts?” and “If I had one word for 2016, it would be…”

The second was developing a similar list of queries for a 2017 strategy meeting for another client, asking questions including “What data are fascinating?” and “What will be the most fun projects for 2017?” Developing these questions meant that I needed to focus on not only what we wanted to do in the upcoming year, but why.

Following suit with this questions theme, the other day I listened to one of Todd Henry’s Accidental Creative podcasts in which he asks the following:

  1. What do I want to experience? (And how do I want to feel?)
  2. What do I want to learn? (What areas of curiosity do I want to pursue?)
  3. Where do I want to go? (Places to travel!)
  4. How do I want to change? (What do I want to be different by the end of the year?)

In all three instances, I appreciated the questions because they probe the emotional reasons lurking behind WHY we want to resolve to do X,Y, or Z. They also create boundaries to help our goal-making more intentional and systematic. This might not sound like a lot of fun, but when the choice is to say, “Losing weight would be nice,” verses “I want to improve my health so that I have more energy for work and play,” the latter intentional approach creates a powerful, tangible ‘so that’ that can motivate us beyond the first few weeks of January.

In this spirit, here are a list of questions I hope can help you effectively reflect on 2016 and plan intentionally for a thriving 2017. Enjoy!

  1. What went well for you in 2016? What do those things have in common?
  2. What are the top three things that bugged you about your work and play in 2016? Why do they continue to bother you?
  3. What took up the most time in 2016? Do you want this to change, or stay the same, and why?
  4. What did you learn about yourself in 2016? Answer for each: emotionally, spiritually, physically, professionally, relationally.
  5. What top five experiences do you want to have in 2017? What has inhibited you from doing them before? What are the intermediate steps to attaining those experiences?
  6. What top three things do I want to learn in 2017? Who, or which resources, can help me learn those things?
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More Imagination for Christmas, Please

When my oldest friend was overseas volunteering, she called me, frustrated, and said one of the most profound things she ever said to me in our long friendship: “The people we are trying to help have too little imagination. They can’t imagine life to be better than what they’ve experienced, and so they can’t understand why we want to bring change.”

I’ve thought about this often. Too little imagination seems to be at the core of many disagreements, especially these days. I thought about it again in hearing our pastor’s sermon from this past Sunday, titled ‘Prophetic Imagination,’ in which he talked about Advent as a time to employ our imaginations to better comprehend the wild and wonderful (and sometimes terrifying) possibilities of life with God. Of course, Advent is not the only time to do this; how can we muster any hope for the future unless we imagine possibilities beyond our present circumstances?

As we end this strange, tumultuous year, I thought it would be good to draw some attention to this idea. The season of perpetual hopeAs Catherine O’Hara’s character in Home Alone vociferates, “THIS IS CHRISTMAS! THE SEASON OF PERPETUAL HOPE!”

We start by imagining possibilities bigger and better than the outcomes we fear.

Sound a little naive? Like a Sesame Street dictum? Imagination gets a bad rap with grownups, as if the things we imagine have no value, or if those things can never be real because they came out of our heads. But we know this is ridiculous. Inventors imagine inventions before they become household necessities; chefs imagine tastes before serving them to guests. Imagination is the seedling of robust creative thought. If we consider imagination to be a basic life-skill, one that enables us to think beyond ourselves and the status quo, more imagination might just be the ticket to solving quite a few problems. This is true for both our personal lives and our communal lives.

Personally, as I close out this year, and reflect on what went well, what I wish went differently, and what I hope for with next year, I remember listening to a speaker at a vocational seminar ask a bold question:

If you could do anything, knowing that you couldn’t fail, what would you do?

The audacity of this question still hits me. It requires imaginative thought I rarely allow myself to experience. So much in life feels limiting. So much seems to emphasize the many reasons why I can’t do one thing or another, whether it is lack of credentials or experience, or physical limitations, or family responsibilities, or simply a lack of self-esteem. Heaping these limitations on our psyches enforces apathetic habits, and eventually we cease to even concoct hopes and plans, let alone live them out. But so many of these obstacles are imaginary, which begs the question: If our imaginations can function so well for things we won’t do, what would happen if we reapplied our imaginations toward all of the things we could do? It’s a little scary to think about, like discovering a hidden superpower.

What will you do with this superpower? What does it mean to have it? For me, it means recognizing that, with creativity, patience, and elbow grease, I can probably do a lot more than I let myself believe. Given some time and focus to generate alternatives, I can figure out how to make money working from home with a new baby, or maybe of even start a new business, or launch new innovative initiatives to help our city, or inspire others to join a team, or produce useful, viral content, or live uninhibited by doubt…who knows! Maybe none of this will happen, but what we can know for sure is that they definitely won’t happen if I don’t imagine the possibilities in the first place. 

As a community, we likewise can employ imaginations toward building a more harmonious 2017. 2016, we can agree, has been marred by nasty and widespread divisions which, it could be argued, come down to a failure to imagine life in the shoes of another. How much effort have we put into creatively asking questions of people outside our spheres? How often, or not, have we sought common ground, rather than dismiss fellow humans for viewpoints different than our own? Again, this might sound Sesame-esque, but these fundamentals have clearly been neglected.

A friend of mine recently asked me how to fix the country. I told him it would mean a return to nuance. By this, I meant that we as a population need to rediscover habits we’ve lost, namely appreciating that most situations are more complex than surface level, recognizing that social media soundbites aren’t helping anyone, and most importantly, deferring judgment given the likelihood that we might just be wrong, or at least ill-informed. All of these habits will require sufficient imagination to see a world in the future free, or at least partially so, from the fear-mongering and hate-flinging reality in which we live.

So is this too much to ask? I don’t think so. Imagination costs nothing. We all have the resource available, whether or not we exercise it regularly. So let’s take up the challenge, and make our days a little more merry and bright.

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Fantastic Beasts! A Review!

fantastic-beasts-big-posterIt’s here! It’s here! Fantastic Beasts is here! But does it hold up to the exceptional standards of creativity Potter fans crave?

Yes and no.

As a die-hard Harry Potter Fan, my hopes were high with this prequel series. My overall takeaway is that Fantastic Beasts is a good—not great—film that sets up sequential films and plot lines nicely.

As it is difficult to speak about this film without giving away spoilers, I will share the non-spoiling bits first, and then alert those of you who haven’t seen it yet before launching into specific plot points.

NON SPOILER REVIEW

Fantastic Beasts takes place in 1920’s New York and, boy, does that come across well. I love the grunge and the cramped spaces and the hard times mingled with a sense of possibility. The look-and-feel of the film pulls you in from the start. You want to soak up the period atmosphere and all that comes with it. It really is a shame that the camera moves so quickly; you barely get to see any of the detail in each shot. For example, the opening montage of newspapers flies by so fast you can barely read the headlines—and you may even get nauseous in the attempt. Even so, my imagination was pricked by what I caught, and I grew even more curious about what the Wizarding world in America had in store.

The film follows the path of Newt Scamander, an English ex-Hogwarts student who arrives via steamship with a mysterious suitcase containing a wide collection of magical creatures. Almost immediately, chaos ensues, beginning with the escape of the wily niffler which, as we learn from Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures class in the Harry books, is attracted to shiny, valuable objects. The audience giggled along with the niffler’s antics, watching it stuff the contents of a bank safe into its little pouch. I approve of the niffler design, a distinction I take seriously being married to a character designer. I likewise approve of many of the other creatures in design, though their CG animation often seemed forced and cheap. You’d think after all of the disastrous Star Wars prequels that Hollywood would have learned not to forgo props and puppets in lieu of pure CG, but alas. Many of the interactions with the fantastic beasts looked off, lacking in texture and weight, a shiny creature juxtaposed with the gritty city background. When the actors “touched” the creatures, it simply failed to look at all real. It’s like watching TV dramas where people hand each other coffee cups that are clearly empty: we knew the Fantastic Beasts actors weren’t really holding anything, let alone funky bird snake things.

To speak generally of the story, I most appreciated the suspense created; I definitely needed to find out what and/or who the mysterious “Obscurus” was. Many of the characters, especially Newt and Graves, had a mystique that drew me in. That said, many of the other characters could have been better developed, particularly Tina, Queenie, and Jacob. Like many of the later, original Harry Potter films, subtlety of character, plot, and what I will call “world establishing” is lost to action sequences and flashy special effects. This is a shame, as anyone who enjoys the books knows that it is the characters who drive the story, not the flash-bang magic they produce. I would have liked very much to know more about all of the characters in Fantastic Beasts, find out what motivates or frightens them, see them struggle to work together, and be in on their inside jokes. These are the nuanced choices filmmakers can make (though they rarely do these days) that mean the difference between a World War II flick and Casablanca. Hopefully the next films in the series will do more to establish character motivation and stimulate audience empathy.

SPOILER CONTENT: DO NOT CONTINUE IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM OR READ THE HARRY BOOKS!

Ok, so for viewers who have already seen the film, let’s get into the nitty gritty.

My absolute favorite thing about this movie is the concept of the Obscurus. This is because, or so I deduce, it is a subtle allusion to Albus Dumbledore’s back story and the tragedy that eclipsed his childhood. As the story goes, Dumbledore’s younger sister Ariana was driven insane by muggle boys who taunted her, leaving her unable to control her immense magical power. Dumbledore’s brief friendship with Gallert Grindelwald ended in a disagreement about Ariana, and their ensuing duel resulted in Ariana’s death. Fantastic Beasts names Ariana’s condition and describes it as a kind of possession by a creature called an Obscurus, known affect children forced to subdue their magical powers instead of learn to control them. To use this source of power as a motivation for the Grindelwald character was brilliant. It ties in the Dumbledore/Grindelwald history to this budding American story with nuance and intrigue.

As strong as that plot device was, however, the film suffered from many missed opportunities. For starters, I had hoped there would be elements of the American magical world that were, well, more American. The totalitarian structure of the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA) simply mimicked the Ministry of Magic. There could have been more of an emphasis on individual liberties and identities, or even a “screw you” attitude among American wizards that, for better or worse, would make an American wizard feel like an American. There could also have been different spells used or more discussion of the American wizarding education and the way it influences the culture. In other words, an extension of the wizarding world into other other countries could be fascinating, but there just wasn’t enough to satisfy. That said, it would take a lot for that to happen with me.

Another small criticism involves the use of the memory charm at the end. It made no sense. For one thing, movie fans and book fans alike remember that the charm works on wizards just as well as muggles, so why aren’t the local wizards forgetting everything? Second, is it only working on people who get wet in the “obliviating” rain? If so, that causes many problems, as most New Yorkers would have been indoors. Third, why does Newt have this potion in his pocket and why can that bird thing release it perfectly to enchant the rain? Too deus ex machina for me. Surely we can come up with something better.

Again, overall, the film holds up well, and can entertain anyone from wizarding newbies to raving fanatics like me with its lovely visuals, suspense, and occasional jokes. That said, being entertained is not the same as being moved, and I think the film could have done the latter with a bit more polish and exposition and fewer flash-bang action sequences. Hopefully, though, this first film will serve as a platform for great things to come. Fingers crossed.

 

 

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Setting the Thanksgiving Mood

I turned to Josh the other day to see him staring into space. “What are you thinking about?” I asked.

“I’m having a hard time getting into a Thanksgiving mood.”

It’s no wonder. What with his work deadlines, the impending arrival of the Sauerpatch Kid, the painfully divided state of our nation, among other things, our minds have been stretched these last few weeks. I also just typed in “Why Be Thankful” to Google. It froze.

But come on people! Being thankful is one of the healthiest choices you can make for yourself. Yes, I said ‘choice.’ Thankfulness is a practice, an attitude to assume, to put on like clothing. In Shawn Achor‘s book, The Happiness Advantage, one of his top recommendations is to write down three things for which we are grateful every day for 21 days, the theory being that 21 days is enough to solidify a habit. The three things do not need to be profound, but the do need to be different every day. They can range from “I am thankful for my spouse” to “I am thankful for the feeling of a cup of hot tea close to my body on a chilly morning.” Whatever floats your thankful boat.

But if your health is not enough incentive to adjust your attitude this Thanksgiving, here are three other things that might help.

  1. Listen to Bing.

2. Step up your game with your Thanksgiving menu this year. Nothing like some kitchen creativity to warm the soul. These are Edible Nashville recommendations this year, but I suggest you poke around the website as there are TONS more where those came from.

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3. Meditate on This: 

Thanksgiving Proclamation

Issued by President George Washington, at the request of Congress, on October 3, 1789

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and—Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other trangressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go. Washington

 

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In Search of Silver Linings

I saw (and laughed and cried at) this telling “article” on election day:

sivler lining.PNG

Over a week later, the cloud of tension still looms over America. Though some are relieved, believing that this is the better outcome, others are horrified, foreseeing the doom of many freedoms. Many, if not most, have felt for a long time like they had no good option at all and little hope for the future. But for better or worse, democracy has taken its course, and we are left to pray that there is something…anything… good about it, besides the cop-out reply, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Now, over a week later, is the answer to whether there are silver linings still ‘no’?

This blog is about creativity. I firmly believe we have only scratched the creative capacity each of us house. In that spirit, I challenge us all to think creatively about our mindsets moving forward as a nation.

Kicking this off, I do see a silver lining or two. To be clear, I have neither love for Donald Trump nor defense for his demonstrated racism, sexism, or any of the other backwards and damaging rhetoric he regularly spews. I pray fervently that hands he inspired to violence are stayed and that the weight of responsibility falling on his shoulders frightens him into a more cautious approach to legislation than his campaign threatened.

Even so, looking beyond the man and the single office he will occupy, I see (at least*) two reasons to hope, and with your patience, I hope you can see them to.

  1. We have the opportunity to affirm the best things about our government structure. My brow furrowed many times this past week as I saw, via social media, people on both sides predicting what would happen with Trump as president. Many of these comments showed a profound lack of understanding of how our government works. More tragically, these comments ignored the marvelous design of our constitution to limit power of any one branch or individual. A system with checks and balances, division of powers between branches, and a bicameral legislature were built into our American experiment precisely for the purpose of preventing tyranny. Indeed, these features of our constitution continue to make me proud to be an American (even today), and are likely the primary reasons for why our experiment has lasted as long as it has. If you, therefore, are anxious about the threat of tyranny, whether you feel it with Trump or from some other source, take heart! There are, and always have been, structures in place to prevent a lot of what we fear. Is the system perfect? FAR from it. But we can take solace that our constitution has gotten us as far as it has, and we should cherish the constitutional structures that protect our inalienable rights, because we know that individuals won’t. When a president wants to bypass congressional protocol with executive orders, we should be prepared to vigorously question those decisions. When Congress wants to entrust authority to unelected bureaucrats, we should take serious issue. When the Supreme Court decides on issues constitutionally left to the states’ jurisdiction, we should object. Limiting government’s reach is the reason for our longevity and the hope for the future. As John Adams once said, we are a country of laws, not men; this should be exceedingly comforting and empowering to the average citizen, provided we can protect those laws and their authority over all Americans, especially those in power. We have an opportunity and the incentive today to reclaim and reaffirm our Constitution, and I pray we do.
  2. We have the opportunity to look beyond our institutions for our wellbeing. As painfully divided as America has become ideologically, an overarching theme to this election season has been the feeling that the institutions have failed us. Reasons for why they failed us differ greatly between left and right and everyone in between, but many of us can unite in a growing distrust of the powers at play. Ladies and Gentlemen, this crumbling institutional trust might feel like the end of all things, but it is in fact excellent news. If necessity is the mother of invention, then we can expect great things from our dire circumstances. The same nation that brought the world the airplane, the light bulb, and the M&M can certainly continue striving for new and better ideas. If we necessity calls to look outside of our institutions to solve our problems, then we can hope to find solutions to social and economic challenges within our own spheres that achieve progress beyond our greatest hopes for government. After all, why should we act like flies hitting a window, believing always that we will make it through? That is the definition of insanity, after all. If America wants change, then lets ride this wave of motivation to make it happen ourselves. We can improve our schools, our medical care, issues of social justice, our poverty levels, among any number of challenges, through our own ingenuity and scaling our solutions accordingly. We do not, and should not, wait for federal institutions to do it for us.

Again, my hope in writing this post is that it challenges our doom and gloom mindset, no matter where we fall on the political spectrum. There is still hope, and I invite you to be creative about finding it and sharing it with others.

 

*I used this space to speak of temporal reasons to hope. Ask any Sunday School student for the other, infinitely more effective answer to our problems. Ephesians 2, people.

 

 

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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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What Good Editors Do

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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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How NOT to Write an Author Bio (Friday Fun)

author-clipart-img_0699I just finished the final edit on an article for the new CT Women publication. Hooray!

I was asked to write a 2-3 sentence bio to accompany the article. Anti-hooray.

It’s really not a big deal, but when I get asked this I start wondering…

…How do I avoid screwing this up?
…How do I avoid sounding pretentious, presumptuous, or pompous? 
…Simultaneously, how do I avoid undermining the authority of my argument or the value of my broader body of work?
…What would be helpful for people to know? 

Problem was that last night I had just finished a whole day sitting in a conference and my brain was too fried to answer these questions, or at least answer them with any modicum of seriousness. So I let my creativity flow, and thought you might enjoy seeing some first drafts.

Emily Capo Sauerman is a person. Sometimes she does stuff.

Emily Capo Sauerman is a writer, editor, photographer, videographer, designer, globe trekker, amateur chef, pumpkin carver, TV binger, tea snob, and a wannabe success story.

Emily Capo Sauerman is a writer and designer who lives in Nashville, TN and does not know why.

Emily Capo Sauerman saved her family from the wreckage of a sinking battleship. (Royal Tenenbaum, anyone?)

Emily Capo Sauerman is a work in progress. It’s bad form to judge works in progress.

Emily Capo Sauerman does not know who she is so stop asking.

Emily Capo Sauerman spends her time avoiding bananas, looking for freelance gigs, and planning world domination.

Emily Capo Sauerman hopes one day to feel comfortable in her own skin.

Emily Capo Sauerman would like to know who let the dogs out woof woof woof woof

Emily Capo Sauerman has written the definitive work on…oh wait, that’s the future and I’m not allowed to tell you.

 

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How to Facilitate Epiphanies

Over the weekend my friend and I facilitated two, back-to-back, day-long design workshops (yes, I am still recovering, thanks). We worked with two nonprofits, one on Saturday and the other Sunday, and coached them through their respective complex design challenges using Design Thinking methodology. As grueling as it was to push through the mental blocks and exhaustion that comes with day-long brainstorming sessions, both groups came away jazzed and thinking totally differently about their respective problems than when they walked in that morning. So, SUCCESS!

design-thinking_1-flare

Design Thinking Phases

So what went right? We’ve been trying to figure it out. Replicating an epiphany-inducing process would be awesome, but were we just lucky? Not sure yet, but I can say that both days we saw a confluence of factors that led to brainwave breakthroughs:

  1. lit_match_by_blackhiveA Controlled Flare. At the beginning of each day, I made sure to emphasize that when Design Thinkers say, “Trust the Process,” what they want is to let the ideas flow, no matter how erratic, tangential, or numerous. If you look at the Design Thinking diagram above, you can see that some stages flare while others focus. The flare portion can make people nervous, especially people who like control and orderly meeting styles. But the trick is to welcome ideas, however radical or impractical. Only when you have a complete collection of all of the factors at play or all of the ideas in peoples’ heads can you make educated decisions about the best direction to pursue. For the facilitator in this process, think of a controlled forest fire; firemen stand by to ensure that the burning process does what it needs to do in order to cultivate the healthiest results.
  2. Creative Boundaries Make the Difference. Each sprint generated dozens and dozens of post-it note ideas. With each new wave of post-it tsunamis, we asked group members to categorize the post-its, summarize their categories, and prioritize their top ideas. It was fascinating as a facilitator to step back and watch brains work. Every time we asked this, the group would fall silent in extreme focus, and begin rearranging the post-its in trance-like movements. Within minutes they would generate categories out of chaos and, what’s more, could explain their new world order with confidence. By what power did they achieve this? I believe it has to do with setting creative boundaries. They say that limitations are the essence of art, and broadening this to any creative task, boundaries are the essence of creative work. The alternative, like saying “Anything is Possible,” can often leave us feeling paralyzed by the options. But just as rules make a game, boundaries work on our brains to shape our ideas into something real. As a facilitator, therefore, crafting questions that set creative boundaries becomes one of the most important tasks you have.
  3. diagramImagery and Metaphors Bring Cohesion. One of our groups was having trouble. They had so much they wanted to accomplish and had identified half a dozen audiences they wanted to help. At the same time, the collective gut feeling in the room was that their goals, as different as they appeared on paper, had something in common. Suddenly, someone suggested that what we wanted to provide was the “connective tissue” between the disparate audiences, like ligaments between muscles, and the group burst into smiles. We finally had an image to work from, and you could feel the tension in the room relax into pleasant excitement. We drew a couple of quick diagrams, and it sealed cohesion among the group members. As a facilitator, then, it is critical to try to help these images take shape. The whole process will benefit with better visuals.

 

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