How to be a better writer

young girl pausing with a pencil in hand A good friend of mine has some issues with language.

She is, by her own admission, a lousy speller. While her vocabulary houses more than a few five-dollar words, they're as likely as not to turn up as malapropisms when hauled out. Her sentence construction can be choppy, her grammatical structure inelegant and her punctuation, when she uses it, would most charitably be described as "creative."

My friend is one of the best writers I know, and I'd read almost anything of hers I could get my hands on.

* * * * *

I get asked sometimes how to be a better writer. Me! Who, if writer prizes were being handed out would almost certainly win the one for Least Aware of Her Own Process. (Note: I'm currently taking pains to change this. They are painful pains. More on this shortly.)

Sometimes it's the earnest request of a person wildly capable in another arena, or someone who came up in another language, then moved to the U.S. and got by on things like wit, smarts, hard work and the acquisition of practical skills. Usually, anyone who bothers to ask me this isn't half-bad at writing already, but is frustrated with not being as good at writing as they are at their core competency, or is embarrassed by their lack of facility in arcane areas like grammar and usage.1

Other times, it's the annoying non-question of the dilettante. They don't really want to know, or rather, they have no interest in actually doing the work required to get there. They're looking (maybe) for a class or a book or a coach, a silver bullet.

But I tell them the same thing I tell anyone who really wants to be a better writer: (1.), read more good stuff; (2.), write more, period; and (3.) if you're already doing quite a bit of both of those things, consider taking an acting class or an improv class or something that will get your stubborn head connected to your damned heart, along with the rest of your organs.

While good teachers and coaches and classes can absolutely help move things along (and make the moving-along way more pleasant), there's really no avoiding numbers 1 and 2. (You can get around #3 via other kinds of emotional education, either on a shrink's couch or in the classroom of life. Budget accordingly.)

* * * * *

This how-to-get-better-at-writing business has been much on my mind lately.

Partly because I have been getting a lot of very nice compliments recently via the electronic mails about my own writing. (You know who you are, and thank you. They have been lifelines to me lately, especially given my low spirits from the Crohn's flare.) I usually look at my own writing with a giant shrug of "Meh.", because I'm always looking at other people's writing and comparing it to that. Yes, Mark, I know comparison is from the devil. But I've only recently been made violently aware that I am actually comparing my struggles with writing to other people's finished writing. Talk about your a-ha! moments.

Anyway, sometimes the nice things are just nice things, but sometimes they come bundled with a query for writing services. While I know there's gold in them thar hills (and I also know the only thing I'll never say "never" about again is saying "never"), I'm afraid that's off the table for the foreseeable future. Call me superstitious, but I couldn't write a damned thing of worth until I'd put a fair bit of distance between me and copywriting, and I'm terrified that picking it up again might the writing equivalent of shaving Samson. Or worse, something of more lasting or even permanent nature, a really, really strong depilatory or a laser or something. Besides, at this point, my voice is so my voice, I would probably be a rotten copywriter. I think the best ones are great mimics who thrive on perpetual new intake. So not me anymore.2

But another big reason it's been on my mind is that finally, FINALLY, I am preparing to teach what I know about writing. A very particular type of writing (blogging, natch), but still, writing. I feel woefully ill-equipped for the task. I feel stupid and ungainly and lost. I feel 100% certitude that I am worse than every other teacher of writing who ever taught.

In other words, I feel like those people I'm always fielding the "how-to-be-a-better-writer" question from.

* * * * *

So that thing about pain I brought up, above? We're back to that. Lots and lots of pain and shyness and anguish and nervousness. As I slow down to look at the things I already know. As I bring my full attention to all the things I do not know. The good news in this is realizing I'm actually a better writer than I give myself credit for most of the time. The bad news is everything else: The unknown! The fear of failure! In public! The anxiety over not feeling good enough!

And at the same time, I know that putting myself through this not only will teach me how to teach, but will teach me more about writing. And probably speaking. And definitely learning.

Everyone who is any kind of a writer worth being always wants to be a better writer. The reading changes, and should keep changing. The form the writing takes changes, and should keep changing. But it keeps on keeping on.

Everyone who is any kind of a writer worth being is also, on some level, balls-out terrified. Because if you are really becoming a better writer, while you are certainly building on what you have done, you are always, always, always doing something you have never done before. You are living, you are improvising, you are making it up as you go along.

Which is why no matter how great a writer you are, you should have a few butterflies scattered around the joint. Because if it ain't butterflies, it's probably buzzards.

Remember my friend, the great writer with wobbly vocabulary and the rickety foundation of grammar and usage? She is a great writer because when she writes, she is 100% alive. She is living, which is to say growing, changing, in that very moment. So life pulses through her writing, and flows through you as you're reading.

* * * * *

Read more (good) stuff. Write more, period. If necessary, please do get some improv training or qigong lessons or your head shrunk.

If you really want to be a better writer, though, learn how to make friends with fear and open your heart to change.

And then get yourself used to the idea of doing that forever.

xxx c

1And I get why they sweat it, some people are horrible snobs about usage. I wish I could remember who said it, but someone big, like, Seth Godin-level big, went on record as saying a lot of our grammatical and usage rules are b.s., elitist, kept in place to make people feel bad about themselves. English is crazy plastic (callback alert!); we're adding "bad" pronunciations and rules along with new words all the time. I can be a little on the snobbish side myself, dangerous in someone who plays pretty fast and loose with rules she's not 100% sure of, but only time it really bothers me when people "break" English is when they are trying to make themselves seem more educated than they are. Even then, I mostly just feel sorry for them now that I am all grown up and full of equanimity and stuff.

2I do have an inkling of how I can employ my writerly skills to help you out, though, so if you're interested, watch this space. Better yet, get on the newsletter mailing list.

Image by milena mihaylova via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

"Nothing is stupid. Even stupid things aren't stupid."*

A book about blogging? No, wait, a self-published book about blogging by a bunch of bloggers, many of whom are relatively unknown even in the blogosphere and none of whom are exactly rocking slots one through ten on the New York Times bestseller list? Hey, they all laughed at Christopher Columbus (and probably, at some point, at the guys who wrote about it), too.

Intrepid business blogger Jon Strande hatched a stupid, ingenious plan for explaining blogging to the general (offline) public: collect a hundred, that's right, 100, bloggers and see what they had to say about it. Seriously. At the outset, that was the sum total of the plan.

But then an amazing thing happened. In typical bloggy fashion, the bloggers he invited suggested others, which in turn not only suggested a great method of collecting 100 bloggers but a means of illustrating the connectivity, joy and power of blogging in the construction of the book itself.

Here's how it ended up working: Jon invited the first 25 bloggers. They, in turn, invited 25 more. Their 25 invited another 25, and that 25 invited a final 25, for a total of 100 bloggers**, linked by blogging, just like...blogging!

Now that my little bloggy tree is established (me > half mad (former) spinster > Michael Nobbs > Trevor Romain), the next step is to come up with my post, er, chapter. I'd like for it to somehow reference one or all of my people, and at least a few of the other bloggers in the book, like Evelyn and Hugh, whose acquaintanceship was either directly or indirectly responsible for my participation. But that's my problem.

The problem I'd love your help with is selecting a post, or even a style or category of post, since I'm kind of all over the map, for inclusion. "Why I Blog" is going to be a biggish topic in the book, but don't let that stop you. If anyone out there reading this blog with any regularity has a strong opinion on which post I've blogged so far would be my best choice for this book, by all means, let me know, either in the comments section or, if you're shy, via email. Don't hold back, either; even if you think it's an inappropriate post for inclusion in a generic blogging book, there may be some useful information in your preference. For instance, I'm probably not going to choose that perennial crowd-pleaser, the Mrs. Potato Head manifesto, but if it resonates with enough people, I will think seriously about incorporating the elements that I think make it successful, like the list format, the rapier-like wit and the wink-wink/nudge-nudge.

Thanks for playing, everyone! And remember, there are no stupid ideas. Even stupid ideas aren't stupid.

xxx c

*Words to live by from Callie - 1st grader, via Trevor Romain's blog

**Well, we're close, anyway. The math alone makes my head spin, so I'm leaving the collection process to John and other, sturdier souls.

A home of one's own, Part II.

house 4Several years ago, while I was going though an unusual confluence of broke (career change), unemployed (cataclysmically idiotic SAG commercial strike) and dork (freshly discovered love of computers), I stumbled upon a little time-suckage device called "Epinions." Much like the blogosphere, Epinions was a virtual community where like-minded souls could: (a) "meet"; (b) exchange ideas; and (c) engage in conversation or debate, lively or otherwise (depending on the mindset of aforementioned souls). Nominally, we were all there to provide consumer information in the form of product and service reviews, but for many of us, especially those of us who reviewed less popular and hence, less profitable items, the real draw was (O, Hubris, thy Name is communicatrix) intellectual stimulation.

house 82Of course, Change, merry prankster that he is, swooped in soon enough and decimated our virtual village. Egregious mismanagement and the incessant, petty shitcanning of reviews as "off-topic", off-color, or just plain smart-alecky by the newly established Asshole Majority drove most of the people I liked to go home and take their balls (ha!) with them. Sad, sad, sad. I left my old reviews on the site (ten bucks a year is ten bucks a year) but the joy had gone out of posting and my involvement with Epinions dwindled to the occasional stray email commenting on my most popular review and my subsequent reply.

house 62

I suppose there was a blogosphere back then, too, but as a carbuncle firmly planted on the butt-end of the Early Adopter demographic, it was not yet my time to explore it. Plus, the UIs were ugly. (Sorry, but they were.) Besides, the strike ended, I started booking like a maniac and I had a little cashola with which to shop again. (Also, because the Universe is nothing if not generous, my live-in relationship helpfully went on Orange Alert, thereby providing me with a seemlingly limitless source of time-suckage with no lengthy dial-up waits. But that is another story for another day.)

house 7But the demise of Epinions left a void in my life and me and nature, we abhor a vacuum. I threw myself into my theater company (and, as a guest, anyone else's who'd have me); later, post-Crohn's, I became similarly obsessive about my involvement with the SCD Listserv, starting with rapacious reading at the front end of my illness curve, progressing to righteous diatribes on the necessity of "fanatical adherence" and the breathless posting of SCD "convenience food" discoveries (when you have to cook everything yourself, individually wrapped Baby Bel cheeses are indeed, a revelation).

In the end, though, it was no use. These groups I joined were...well, groups. And try as I might to fit in, I'm a freak, I'm a loner, I'm a lover, I'm a fighter, I'm everything but a joiner. Granted, when forced to attend large, festive gatherings I've gotten much, much better at imitating a person enjoying herself, but inside, my heart is gripped by fear and my brain is ticking off the minutes until I can safely escape to the blessed solitude of my car, my cave, or both. Whatever the reason, I just do better one-on-one, if not just plain one.

house 17So here I am, several years later, blogging away. And while I've blogged about why I blog and blogged about my need for a safe space to explore my truth, I don't think it's even occurred to me until this very day how much I blog because it's become my artistic home, a safe house to play in conveniently located in a community full of like-minded souls whom I can visit for inspiration or companionship and from whom I can retreat into solitude as my spirit requires. Evelyn Rodriquez is there with sound advice or food for thought when I need her and cool when I need me some "me" time. (And vice-versa, of course.) Half-Mad Spinster went away on sabbatical for goodly chunk of time (and came back Half-Mad Married Lady!), but good neighbors that we are, we dropped by occasionally to make sure her house was still standing, and then, upon her return, welcomed her with much rejoicing if not a real-live shindig. Blogging is a two-way street (albeit a really long, twisty one that goes on and on and curls back on itself in unexpected ways). And my blog is a little live/work studio on that street.

So I (ahem) bang away here in my little bloggy space, making what I will of it. I thank you all (or, more appropriately, you both) for stopping by every once in awhile, mainly because it's fun but also because it forces me to keep things relatively clean and tidy.

And for those of you who dropped in accidentally, say, on your way to "'WOMEN SLAPPING' AND DOMINATION" or "black camel toe xxx", well, the door's to your left.

xxx c

"...and a little blog shall lead them."

My activist friend, Judy, who keeps me abreast of all important demonstrations, underfunded causes and Nefarious Evildoings of the Neo-Fascist Regime in Their Neverending Quest for Global Domination, is the one who pressed me to see The Corporation this summer. (Frankly, I would have preferred to see Riding Giants with my then-boyfriend and his surfing buddies, but I could sense that relationship was on the decline and felt my time might be better spent with actual friends who genuinely gave a crap about me.) Judy, ever the organizer, assembled a mini-caravan of people from our old workplace and my final Day Job, a stint in the research department of a large media-buying concern here in Los Angeles. Because while the company was home to many of the kinds of disenfranchised people you usually find doing monkey work in L.A. businesses, actors, photographers, radical lesbian feminists with multiple piercings and Interesting Hair, it was also a powerhouse media shop full of incredibly smart, wildly capable advertising mavens, and one of them had been interviewed for The Corporation, a documentary about the rise and rise of the corporate structure in America. (She was also very unkindly skewered for her zeal in various reviews, but we'll let that go for now.)

It was too long by a good half-hour and even the new seats at the NuArt haven't the heavenly, George Jetson-level of ahhhh that the ArcLight's do, but The Corporation kicked some serious documentary ass. In a surprisingly balanced way, it explained the trajectory of the American corporation from its (very) humble beginnings as a legal construct designed to protect and nurture fledgling businesses to the unassailable monolith it is perceived by many (including, in some instances, me) to have become.

Now, I do not hate business. Or advertising. Or money or power or Republicans. (Religion I'm a little shaky on, but since I've met some really cool, super-tolerant and loving people who are, in fact, devout followers of various religions, I'm trying to keep an open mind.) I think few things are inherently evil and none of the aforementioned (with the possible exception of religion) could begin to qualify. But as an observer of the media all of my life (both my grandfather and father were in the advertising business) and a player for a good chunk of it, I can absolutely agree that things have gotten out of hand, that the lust for money/power/total world domination has spiraled out of control and something needs to be done to shift the balance of power, especially in this country.

So how do you dismantle the corporate structure? How do you pierce the impregnable, scale the unscalable, attack the unassailable? How do you bring Goliath to his knees? (See? I do so like the Bible!)

With a David. Or rather, with a million billion zillion Davids. Only David, it appears, is manifesting in our time as the blog.

It's been all over the blogosphere for months and it's all over the mainstream media these days. Well, mostly. Time missed the boat with its annual cover, but ABC News and now Fortune have essentially anointed bloggers as People of the Year. We seem to have hit critical mass, and if my own usual place on the techno-assimilation scale is any example (I'm in that slim slice of the pie between Early Adopter and Mass Assimilation, kind of like the freaky, tail-end 1960-64 part of the Baby Boom I'm also in), blogs really are ready to hit the mainstream now. So even with the story about blogs, blogs are leading the way, which gives me hope.

The trick to toppling the reigning power is to find its weakness and expose it. To everyone. The corporation's weakness is not its bottom line but its unassailability, its Death Star-like way of sealing itself into an invisible sphere with a sheer face that makes it virtually impossible to attack. The secret, of course, is not to try to fight fire with fire, but with, say, darts or the Millenium Falcon or tickling, in the exact right spot.

I think the naked emporer construct is really the best metaphor* for the way blogs work vis-à-vis corporations. The Kryptonite Factor, which I discovered via Hugh MacLeod who discovered it via Rick Bruner who discovered it, I believe, via Engadget, was basically an exposé of a flaw in the ubiquitous mac-daddy of bike locks, the Kryptonite, wherein one bike enthusiast figured out you could bust the unbustable with a Bic pen. Kryptonite gets wind of the blog unrest and posts lame morsel of non-response on its corporate website (westandbyourproduct; ourproductisgreat). Blogosphere is outraged and goes wild; story gets picked up by the majors (New York Times, AP); Kryptonite is ultimately forced into action, admitting culpability by offering to exchange any affected lock, free. From the Fortune article:

"It's been, I don't necessarily want to use the word 'devastating', but it's been serious from a business perspective," says marketing director Karen Rizzo. Kryptonite's parent, Ingersoll-Rand, said it expects the fiasco to cost $10 million, a big chunk of Kryptonite's estimated $25 million in revenues. Ten days, $10 million. "Had they responded earlier, they might have stopped the anger before it hit the papers and became widespread," says Andrew Bernstein, CEO of Cymfony, a data-analysis company that watches the web for corporate customers and provides warning of such impending catastrophes.

I doubt that the goal of most blogs is to bring anyone down. There are as many reasons for writing blogs as there are bloggers. Well, that's not true; there's probably more like five or six reasons, and variations on a theme. But from my brief time in the blogosphere (8 months reading, 2+ blogging) I find that the blogs I frequent have two things in common: a clear voice and an honest intention. Transparency is key in the blogosphere, which is I think why the old school marketers are having kind of a rough time figuring out how to cash in on this whole blog thing. I spent years in advertising wrestling the twin demons of spin and obfuscation, and ultimately, I got plumb tuckered out.

Problem is, that's almost the sum total of weaponry in the marketing arsenal, and it's no longer enough. Blogs may be small but we wield the mighty sword of truth, and we'll wave it as we please.

The bike lock is buck naked.

xxx c

*I'm forever dancing through fields of metaphors, (punctuated by parenthetical remarks) trailing ellipses in my wake. Sigh....


Fortune: "Why There's No Escaping the Blog" ABC News: "People of the Year: Bloggers"

What to get the butt doctor who has everything

cscope 0904 As a neophyte blogger, I'm still fascinated by every technical aspect of blogging. But I'm especially curious about where my up-to-200 hits per day are coming from. I mean, I have friends, but not that many. And while my new presence at has driven some traffic over here, there are still plenty of people who randomly stumble on my wacko wedge of iSpace and, I guess, poke around a bit while they're here.

Many of them come via Google. Some are doing a search on my name, which freaks my shit out a little, but since I've not done too many noteworthy things I'm ashamed of, doesn't really keep me up at night. (I have lain awake wondering if any of the other Colleen Wainwrights ever Google our name and if so, whether they click on my links like I do theirs.)

But by far my favorite Google search landing people here thus far is this one: colorectal + surgeon +  christmas + gift + ideas.


Frankly, I'd sooner go back on prednisone than buy a gift for the one colorectal surgeon it's been my misfortune to meet. But if you have a beloved butt doctor on your holiday shopping list, I do have a suggestion.

If you don't have one of your own, I'd be happy to make you a copy of my own recent colonoscopy memento (see  above-left) at cost. It was taken just this fall that sought-after c-scope photog, Dr. Graham Woolf of Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. Because, after two years of struggling with Crohn's, I'm happy to report that my colon is pretty as a picture.

Not to mention suitable for framing and gifting.

xxx c

Change your life: write a blog

henkaWhile I'm new at this whole blogging thing, I think it's safe to say that "Why Blog?" is a perennial question amongst bloggers. And I include the variations on this, such as: "Why am I blogging about this?" Or better yet, "Why am I blogging about this?" Who am I to be writing things down and throwing them out there for everyone, or no one, to see? It's a hot question in the blogosphere lately. Hugh MacLeod points to a staggeringly long entry on Frank Paynter's blog that asks "Why Do We Blog? I think the sheer number and fervor of the entries answers the question more eloquently than any of the excellent essays themselves: we blog, most of us who do, because it plugs us in, to the community, to the questions, to ourselves. (I'm putting aside those who blog exclusively for the bucks; neither the question nor the answer is of much interest in that case.)

Evelyn Rodriguez weighs in on the Why Blog? question this morning with an interesting spin on the issue: what I'd call the "Morning Pages" motivation:

I was thinking that blogging could be an excellent practice for someone in "transition" figuring out and wondering what they would like to do next in their lives. Your writing will lead you into what's next for you if you just focus on one day's post at a time. The pattern between your posts will reveal what your voice whispers but is too shy to shout. And your surroundings and other writers and readers that stumble across your path will inform you as well. Writers become keen observers - about the world about them and the world within. Pay attention to what tugs at you and write about that.

For the uninitiated, one of the chief tools of Julia Cameron's watershed book on personal transformation, The Artist's Way, is Morning Pages, basically, daily journaling within very specific parameters designed to empty the mind of clutter and provide a peaceful, open space for growth and change.

What's marvelous about Morning Pages, aside from the inner peace they give to type-A whack-jobs like me who suck at sitting meditation, is the reverse map they provide. In looking back over where you've been , you tend not only to see more clearly where you are but also where it is you are headed. Pretty nifty, that.

Of course, there's also the huge bonus-extra of getting better at writing and thinking and listening. As I mentioned in my recent post about morphing from copywriter to actor, change is mostly born of lots and lots of boring-ass, repetitive work: what I call logging the miles.

Interesting side-note: while I picked up The Artist's Way on a lark, it wound up getting me to dump advertising completely and become an actress. At 33. In Hollywood. Which, for those of you who aren't intimately acquainted with the way things work here in hyper-youth-oriented LaLa, is completely fucking insane. But it turned out to be not only the perfectly perfect thing for me to do, spiritually speaking, but also a good financial move. Go figure.

But I'd have done it for free (and did, for the first few years) because of the joy it gave me.

Just like blogging.

Go figure.

xxx c

P.S. Today's JPEG is the Japanese kanji "henka," or the symbol for change. From the ever-wonderful Beats that triangle we used to use in high school chem.