How to Innovate

Happy accidents can set you off into new and dynamic directions, but intentionality is also a path forward and one more in your control. Consider this example.

Music-video maker Chris Milk had begun to feel his medium, which includes YouTube, was stale, when he met up with web star Aaron Koblin who was also frustrated with the limits of his medium: digital art.

They started talking, their skills and perspectives mixed, and before they were done, created something new—a kind of storytelling that fused animated images with real-life emotion. Drawing upon audience participation (crowdsourcing), the pair combined music and visuals with startling results, such as “Sheep Market” composed of blended images of sheep from thousands of artists, and “We Used to Wait”, which allows the viewer to “drive” to his or her childhood address while the music plays.

To create something new, the collaborators—as well as any of us who seek to create— needed three things.

First: they needed an appreciation of what had come before both in the tech world and musically. Every medium at first imitates the last. Koblin notes: “The first radio is people reading books; the first photographs are similar to paintings; the first films were of the theatre.”

Second: they needed a willingness to give up the constraints of the old. Says Milk: “When cinema started, nobody saw it as ‘the Godfather’; no one saw it as closeups and music and creating shots in color and dialogue and emotion. It grew to be that. . . fooling around in the dark.”

Finally: they needed a healthy curiosity. They had tools that knew no limits, like the web and computer animation, so they went off exploring. They asked, is this good? Could it be better? The result Kolbin characterized as “experiments on what this medium will  eventually be.”

It seems to me that we writers are on the same voyage.

We seek to create, to innovate, to take an ordinary word and use it so remarkably as to make it stand for an entire world. (Vagina Monologues comes to mind.)

We start with what came before, which is where we learn, and then we leave it behind on a personal, intense, but please Lord playful journey of discovery. Is this good? Could this be better? We ask the same questions. And in the end, we hope, like the collaborators, to have to have created something compelling.


For the full story, see Tom Vanderbilt’s, “The Director and the Techie” (WSJ Magazine, May 2012).

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of the illuminated light bulb by MartinPhotoSport; shattered bulbs by nate2b (catching up).


11 Ways to Improve your Writing

1. Writers tell stories. That’s what the job requires. Self-expression, money, acceptance, fame, catharsis, purpose, might supply your inner drive, but they aren’t essential to the job of writing.

2. Don’t use twenty words when ten will do. Not sure what to take out? Ask yourself if a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter is necessary to the story. By editing what’s redundant, unclear, pedantic, or digressive, you’ll improve the work.

3. Set your insecurities aside. Personal problems, anxiety, doubt, resentment, jealousy and all the other demons that might plague you function as static. Turn them off at least during writing time—I know, not easy, but necessary—and embrace the silence.

4. Set a reasonable goal.  Stories come together scene by scene, sentence by sentence. Having a daily, tough but attainable goal will advance the story. Track your productivity and give yourself rewards.

5. Know where you’ll pick up the next day. Try to leave off a writing day with something dangling. This will ease your passage back into the work the next day.

6. If you’re struggling to get the muck out of your work, visualize a small child  in front of you and explain the story, step-by-step, scene by scene.

7. Recognize that writing is not, contrary to public impression, a glamorous undertaking. Writers (even poets) are regular people occupied with the challenging task of putting words on a page to advance a story. If some also fit the stereotype of brilliant, lonely, faintly tragic solitary, romantic, sexy people with forgivable addictions and mood swings, well, fine. But they still have to do the work.

8. It’s not enough to fill a page with vivid metaphors and figures of speech. Focus and purpose matter. Your words have to be cogent, advance the discussion, move the story along, make sense, soothe, and above all engage.

9. Work is work. The idea of writing, is not writing. Networking is not writing. Research is not writing. Excessive pondering is not writing. Posing in the café or cocktail party as a writer is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Writing is an action. It’s showing up, sitting down, establishing your focus, noting your daily goal, and cranking it out.

10. Recognize that vision rarely matches output. The idea of something is always better than its execution.  Rather than be defeated by this notion, consider it the reason to take on the next thing, and the next, each time coming closer, perhaps, to what you hope to achieve.

11. If writing is what you truly love, then make it happen. No excuses. No interference. Just write.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: pens by Keith Williamson; Mac user by Failed Guide Dog Photography

The Writer and Frustration

Has it been a day for you? Banging your head against the wall?  Oh well. Take heart. It comes with the territory.  And it isn’t all bad. Here’s a plan for managing frustration:

1. Frustration can be a prelude to a creative breakthrough. There will be times when you’ll feel you’ve had enough, and so you’ll throw down your pen in disgust, and storm off—beaten, vulnerable, and open. But in this unguarded state, your mind not at all on your work, pieces of your puzzle can rearrange. Something shifts—not magic; you’ve earned it—and the possibilities that open may be startling.

2. Frustration can be an opportunity to study what holds you up as a writer, and fix it. Take a look at what triggers it. Consider your goals. Assess your expectations. Discern your patterns, how you deal, what works, what doesn’t. And then take what you learn, and like the completely neutral and emotionless GPS, recalculate.

3. No point in wasting all that angst—take some character notes. What does it feel like to try your hardest and come up empty, over and over? Does it sit in your stomach? Any dialogue bits worth noting? Any gestures, any curses?  

4. Some writers believe that the battle alone makes you the best writer you can be. And since being the best writer possible is the goal, there’s only one thing to do for it: embrace the battle.

5. Finally, if you’re frustrated enough, it’s likely that you will contemplate risk differently. Maybe, you are even willing to risk everything. Now, that’s as liberating as it is terrifying, but with nothing to lose, great things can happen.

So, grunt along, as you must. Go on, slog through oatmeal. This is not the part of the job anyone loves. But it can be managed. It can be made to work for you. And sometimes, brilliantly.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: frustrated guy by Sybren A. Stuvel ; frustrated gal source unknown.

Pick a Decent Title, and Move On

Titles are a variation on names. And names, as we all know, can set destiny.

Whether you’re naming a book, story, essay, blog, or post, you’ll find a good title. You just have to prime the pump, let the backwater gush, and wait for the clear, clean answer to emerge.

Here’s how it went, for example, in the naming of this blog.

“Denise” was taken and “Shekerjian” is too difficult to remember or spell. Besides, I’m not the point here.  So, I began by making a list of attributes that I thought described my concept. How does good writing happen? That was the main question I wanted to explore. I wanted something personal — not too stiff, cute or trendy. I wanted it to be inclusive of all kinds of writing.

After weeks of generating lists of possibilities, I finally hit on soulofaword. Then, I tested it. I looked for the light in someone’s eyes when I mentioned it. I mentioned it in the start of a conversation to see if that person remembered it by the end.

Today, 119 posts later, I still think it fits. It delivers what I want from a name:  

1. it’s memorable

2. speaks to content

3. fits the voice

4. makes a genuine promise–that is, it is suggestive of what I deliver, which makes it honest

5. has an inviting feel – a this-is-a-safe-place-to-speak-your-mind feel.

Your title should accomplish much the same, and one more thing, as well.

6. It should pop up in a search by your likely readers or no one will find the material.

Sometimes, this is sad. Sometimes, you have to square your shoulders and kill off a very good title—a perfect title, even—in favor of being found.

And once you find it, move on. You’ve got writing to do.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: Trevor Coultart.

The Writer and the Restless Mind

Which came first: the restless mind or the writing life?

For this writer anyway, it was a mind like a swollen river that cascades with a ceaseless vengeance down a steep and rocky decline.  It refused to settle down and behave already. And it remains ever so.

A romantic looks at this all-powerful surge, the sunlight refracted jewel-like in the spray, and his heart quickens. O the grandeur. An engineer, on the other hand, sees only lost opportunity. Just look at all that power going to waste.

How about you? What do make of this churning brain of yours? What can you do with this near limitless, untapped, and undisciplined foment?

Maybe . . . what would serve you, the writer, best is to play it both ways. Regard the majesty and beauty of it, as would the poet. And then lay a plan and harness it, as would the engineer. Create something beautiful and useful, and you’ve turned chaos into a kind of elegant order.

Do it enough, and who knows, it may just lead to peace of mind.

(Jury’s still out on that one. Any guesses? Anyone? Anyone?)

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: the poet Sir John Suckling by lisby 1; engineers by VaDOT.

Where’s Your Story Going?

As I’ve written before in this blog, a pair of magnificent ospreys took up an unlikely residence on the power pole at a key intersection in my town, built a huge stick nest, and then another when the power people took the first one down.

The ospreys set up housekeeping, one bird keeping a vigil over the nest while the other foraged for food.

Something smoldered atop the pole and when the firemen came to remove the nest, they saw eggs, so they insulated the wires instead, and left the birds in peace.

Motorists began stopping, taking pictures. The local newswoman was there with a big, fat camera lens, pursuing the rumor that the babies were flying. But it wasn’t true.

Day after day, those of us who passed through this area took pleasure in their progress. Look, one is flying. Look, a bit of grass in its mouth. Look, the osprey is fishing in the cove nearby.

There was something cheerful about the birds, something encouraging and affirming. If the ospreys can build in this awkward location, raise a family, and perform all the duties of living, strong wings spread in flight, tufted little head lifted to greet the world—so, too, possibly, could any of us.

And then one day, a breaker blew and a serious fire broke out. The baby, just one as it turned out, fluttered to the ground. The parents circled in frantic distress. Power trucks, fire trucks, and raptor rescue arrived within minutes. A fireman cradled the baby in his big, padded gloves. A new pole, a new home, was erected licketedy-split, no one calling the Dig Safe people and sure enough, they hit a line and took out phone service, but they got the job done. The baby was returned to the new nest with a supply of fish and the parents followed not long after.

And now?

The baby has not yet flown, still too young. The parents, one standing vigil, the other in search of sustenance, continue their routine.

Meanwhile, I came across some lore about these birds from Shakespeare’s time, the idea that the ospreys are such magnificent birds, the fish go belly up in surrender to them. It serves to underscore the point to this story: in the face of something magnificent, something worth preservation—the idea of freedom, let’s call it, the idea of flight, the idea of survival against the odds—everything and everyone must capitulate.

If I know that this is where I’m headed in telling this story, it will determine all that came before: what I choose to tell you and what I leave out.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credit: ospreys by Mr. T. in D.C., roap map by Pigsaw.

Why Do We Write?

Why do we write? Respect, income, and the desire for perpetuity come to mind. One of the most prevalent answers is likely: because we must. We are writers. It’s more than what we do. It’s who we are. But there are reasons within the reasons, and these can be as individual as each of us.

Me? I want to be heard. I come from a family where “just don’t say anything” would be stitched in a sampler hanging above the hearth, if anyone knew how to stitch and were willing to adopt Yankee ways of decorating, which is never going to happen.

I write to have a clear record of what’s what, with none of the messiness. Tint it, smash it, turn it inside out—it doesn’t matter. Say it the way you want. Story is how we know ourselves, how we reconcile with the past, stand in the moment, and usher in the future. What matters is that order seems to prevail.

So, why do you write?

Answer this and your writing life becomes a lot easier. Needs defined, your target square in your cross hairs, the bones of your writing life are in place. After that, it’s just a matter of giving flesh to the form.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credit: dancers by James William Dawson

Long Live . . . Our Work

I have a thing for the royals, an interest my British friends find despicable, but I like the fairy tale elements. It’s not just the wash of beauty and glitter that draws me but the instructive parts.

Here’s a recent example:

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, nee Middleton, known as Kate, walked down the aisle of Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011 wearing a smashing dress, the specifics of which were flogged around the tabloids for weeks, a dress made by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen.

Alexander McQueen, the driven, dark, openly gay, provocative, inventive, wunderkind designer known for his ability to shock and surprise, killed himself a year earlier. He was, at age 40, found by the housekeeper, hanging by his favorite brown belt in his wardrobe on Green St, London W1. He left behind a note. Take care of the dogs, sorry.

And yet, there’s a dress going down the aisle that bears his name on a young woman whose smile has been seared into the public consciousness like a cattle brand. One look at that smile, that poise, that dress, that workmanship, that mix of timelessness and modernity in the best Alexander McQueen tradition, an adherence on good construction and simplicity—and know that all will be right with the empire; just give it time.  

And McQueen? Once living high, living wild, living at the edge of what-the-fuck-mate-let’s-try-it thinking, didn’t live to see where his talents got him.

So, what can a writer learn from the Duchess and the Queen?

Two things. And a blessing:

First, please know that your work, your name, can live on well past you, your mark on a banner still flown high.  This shouldn’t change your day-to-day one whit, but you should hear this news as liberating.

Next: please write what you want. Like McQueen himself, break through your boundaries, as it’s where the good stuff comes from.

And now the blessing:

May you not implode in the process. Or hurt anyone. Or abandon your dogs. May you continue to do what you are doing and only get better at it. May you live to see Her Royal Highness—Duchess of Cambridge, Countess of Strathearn, Baroness of Carrickfergus—radiant and poised, go down the aisle in one of your masterpieces, the hope of the empire pinned to her 29-year-old bosom.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: Her Royal Highness by Audrey Pilato, americanistadechiapas; McQueen by Fashion Wire Press.

How to Find your Brand

Finding your brand—voice, approach, look, message, identity—is not as hard as some make out. Rather, it’s a question of gathering lots of data. That’s first. And then, analyzing it with an open mind.

One small concrete example is provided by this blog. When I started, my mission was to address any and all things related to the art and craft of the written word. My focus was and remains on process—that is, the how of something, the blueprint—delivered in short, narrative weekly bursts, and with two telling photos to put things at a glance.

My brand, on the other hand, was not something I had figured out. Brand is what is special about what I was trying to do, what separates it from other blogs. It’s the way you know it’s me. And that took some data gathering, took some thinking.

This is post number 112. Looking back, studying the metrics of what worked and what didn’t, I noted that the best posts shared a particular voice. Let’s call it friendly, though not necessarily chipper. I would also call it enthusiastic, both confident and  encouraging. The voice and approach convey the idea that if I can do it, you can do it (the gospel truth!), and what’s keeping you, and here’s how to go at it. I also noted that the wackier stories are among the best, as are the personal ones, especially those derived in foreign places. 

Could I have told you this much about these posts at number 14, say, or even 40? Could I have defined the specific elements—the special taste, color, tone, look, message, and texture—the things that mark me as me? Not nearly

To discover zebra strips, you need volume and an arm’s length distance to consider what’s working. After that, it’s just a question of working with it and making it better.  It’s your brand, whatever it is, and no one can do it quite like you.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: fingerprint by blvesboy Jose Luis Agapito; zebra by Annemieke de Bondt.

A Daily Rhythm

You have a working life, and another life. For this writer, anyway, it’s really best if the two don’t merge or things get muddy, neither side of a day managed with the crisp efficiency I prefer.

Real life, it seems, is a raucous, wild, wonderful, tragic, crazy thing with ups and downs that can curl your hair. A writing life is a fragile, quiet thing, like a robin’s egg carried in the pocket, completely one’s own, and a wonder as well.

What’s needed to sustain a real life?  [insert answer here]

What’s needed to sustain a writing life? Success often hinges on finding a daily rhythm.

What time of day is best for you? When do you feel the freest?  How many hours do you have of this unencumbered time, and how many do you need to serve your well-considered writing goals?

If the math doesn’t work, what can change in your real life?

One answer:

Up early. 5:00. Coffee. A moment in nature. And a quick pass through e-mail.

And then, the household pin-quiet, I write.  

I use a near-paperless office. I never do administrative tasks during writing time.

If it’s going well, I’m so relieved that I stay at the desk: 6:35. 7:10. Can it really be 9:25?

If it’s not going well, I wander to the kitchen. Refill the mug. Sit in the garden.  Skim yesterday’s news, still on the counter. And if something pops, I go back to my desk and try again.

Once the real life part of the day kicks in, I put the robin’s egg back in my pocket and carry on. I also carry pencil and paper.  And a lot of writing goes on in my head.

Later, 2:30, 3:00, 4:00, I might go back, try again.

Day after day, a daily rhythm, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, and work gets done. There are a million rhythms in the world, maybe more. What’s yours?

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: robin’s eggs by Bart Hanlon; metronome by Vlasta Juricek/Vlastula.