I was on my way to a conference in San Francisco last week when I saw this sign with safety tips for riding the famous cable cars. I imagine the person that designed these images must have had fun using “sign people” so creatively. The “hang on around curves” picture makes me want to go see if I can get that much air, though, so perhaps they missed the mark. It’s also a bit ironic that the “do not step into oncoming traffic” picture assumes said traffic would be in the form of a taxi. If you’ve spent any time in San Francisco, you’ll know it’s next to impossible to get a cab. In any case, next time you come to visit the city by the bay, take heed.
I try really hard to ignore advertising on the Internet, but unfortunately, this ad caught my attention. Imagine the flags animated, marching swiftly around the border of the message. The obnoxious movement caught my eye, but then I read the text and realized that not only did someone write the absurd first line, but someone also paid to have it placed where real people could read it. This copywriter needs to hook up with the fortune cookie writer for a few tips, I think…
A Writer’s Identity
A few months ago, I attended my first writing group, and I instantly realized that I had no identity. Because I was a newcomer, all the seasoned, confident, group members – many of them published – were asked to introduce themselves, which only some of them did. The group, so accustomed to each other and seemingly unused to newcomers, had a hard time staying on task as the leader prompted each of them to share their names and writing genres. Even before the meeting officially began, the man I sat next to asked me what I write.
“Ahhh, … essay, … some memoir,” I responded. My answer sounded more like a question than a statement and I was sure I looked intimidated, unsure of myself.
“Do you mean essay, memoir, or memoir essays?” He continued.
“Um, … All of the above?” I fumbled for an answer again, the student who thinks the teacher is asking a trick question. Thankfully, he gave me a break, anddescribed the mix of writers’ that attended this particular weekly session. I was silently grateful that the meeting began before I could be further flustered by his polite attempt to match my face to a genre.
Becky (Facilitator, anxious to get the meeting moving): “Tom, why don’t you start us off?”
Tom (Pleasant, bald gentleman, whose well-groomed salt and pepper facial hair makes me wonder if he invented the goatee): “Sure. My name is Tom, and I am writing a novel – a dystopian thriller that takes place in the Bay Area.”
A what? I thought, but nodded and smiled as though I knew exactly what that was.
Joan (Disgruntled woman that looked of retirement age and wore a tired facial expression): “I don’t want to read tonight. In fact, I might never read here again after last time.”
Becky (Slightly snappy, losing patience): “This isn’t about reading. Do you want to introduce yourself?”
Joan (Confused, still oblivious to my presence): “No, I don’t. Why would I?”
I really don’t mind if she doesn’t introduce herself. I mentally attempted to head off the awkward conflict.
Becky (Exasperated): “There’s a new person here. Can’t you at least introduce yourself?”
Joan: “Oh. Well, I guess. I’m Joan.”
Boy, is she grumpy. I smiled, unfazed by her bitterness – it reminded me of a relative I’m fond of, so I could easily look past it.
Becky (Rolling her eyes as she gives up on Joan): “OK, Liz?”
Liz (Late twenties, bubbly, all smiles): “Hi, I’m Liz. I write YA, and have a novel coming out next February.”
I’ve always wondered what motivates people to write YA. Maybe now I’ll find out.
Mike (40s-ish, excited): “I have a new piece tonight. I’ve been working on a Sci-Fi short story.”
Wow, talk about diversity.
The introductions continued, and in addition to the YA (Young Adult for those that don’t speak in writers’ code), dystopian (Wikipedia says a dystopia is the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian), and Sci-Fi writers, I learned I was amongst a group that included writers of historical fiction (one WWII novel in progress, another set in the time of the Spanish Conquistadors), Western (which I would soon learn involved drunken cowboys reading their destiny as inscribed on the worms found at the bottoms of bottles of mescal), creative non-fiction, a rather vocal reviewer whose genre I cannot remember, and a poet. Then we got down to business.
Various members of the group read from their works in progress, and each had a fifteen-minute time slot for reading and taking comments. As we listened and read along, the rest of us made notes. We corrected grammatical errors, noted misspellings and typos on the printed pages and passed them back to the author at the close of each reading. Spoken comments were kept to major points about things like characters and writing tone. A novelist suggested that a short story be turned into a novel. The poet recommended a prose piece be edited into a poem.
Luckily, new members aren’t allowed to read until they’ve attended three sessions. I’m not a very outgoing person, and it took some courage for me to attend the group at all. In fact, I’d been tossing around the idea for three months before I actually went. If I were expected to read, I surely would not have come, and if my attendance represented one step forward, then the unexpected genre identification drove me at least three steps backward.
I listened intently to each speaker, though, and felt satisfaction when another member of the group brought up a point I’d also thought of. If I had no identity as a writer, at least I was capable of reading. The comments were all over the board. There were some words of encouragement, but also some blunt criticisms. In all, the readers took their lumps pretty well, though Becky did have to stop an exchange or two when a writer and reviewer disagreed.
Periodically, Becky leaned over to whisper to me, providing backstory. Her comments were about logistics – authors weren’t supposed to respond to reviewers’ feedback. They could follow up later, if they really needed to, but fifteen minutes flies by. The group had to be repeatedly rushed along like children unwilling to brush their teeth before bed. She told me it’s always a good idea to bring copies because reading spots open up if scheduled readers don’t show – which happens especially on rainy nights, like that one.
Rain or not, I couldn’t see myself reading my work in front of this group. Perhaps my hesitation stems from my introverted character, or maybe from the fact that I’m fairly new to writing. Though I assume the authors probably don’t cling to their genres as tightly as the introductions suggested, each person read or commented with confidence (except perhaps Joan, in her wound-licking state of mind). The investment they had in the pieces they shared was evident, and each clearly had a writers’ identity. I couldn’t imagine emulating their performances with any semblance of grace.
I don’t know that I really have a genre. Because I don’t write fiction, perhaps it’s fair to say my genre is non-fiction. If I agree with that statement, though, it sounds as though I’ve made a definitive choice, which I haven’t. And that’s not to mention that like fiction, which runs the gamut from dystopian to romance to just plain literary fiction, non-fiction, too, breaks out into any number of subcategories – memoir, essay, biography, and journalism, to name a few. Examine the category of essay, and the world of identification opens up all over again. Lyrical essay, personal essay, nature essay, travel essay – the list goes on and on.
Since I began writing in earnest, not quite a year ago, I’ve simply written about whatever is on my mind. I’ve written a lot about my life, though I have yet to produce more than a couple of finished pieces. Perhaps that means I write memoir. I’ve also written a million papers on leadership as I wrapped up the final year of a Master’s program. That could mean I’m an academic writer. I write articles for my professional blog. In this case, technical writer might be the best label. Then there are the posts for my personal blog, which range from stories about work to short pieces that come from writing prompts. Maybe that means I’m an amateur.
Critics of creative non-fiction and memoir say it is weak in comparison to fiction. They believe that only great minds can tackle fiction, so alternatives are seen as inferior, conceivably because we write about what we know, not what we imagine. Sometimes, I almost agree with them. There are moments when it seems an impossible feat to create a world out of words, with imaginary inhabitants, events that shape their lives – offer them pleasure and pain, force them to struggle, but then grow – their personalities emerging slowly on the pages, like a fine piece of glass arrives at the hands and mouth of a master with fire and a blowpipe.
Then I think about my writing. I often don’t know where to start, and I rarely know where I’m going before I get there, but I strive no less to provide the rich experience I’m sure a fiction writer aims to deliver. And although I’m not writing fiction right now, I do not preclude myself from doing so at some point. If I do, who knows what genre I might choose? Surely, I don’t. I can’t even say what I’ll write about tomorrow. In truth, I write to figure out what I have to say, and perhaps that’s why I don’t yet have an identity. First, I’ll focus on finding my voice. Perhaps then I’ll be able to tell you what I write.
There’s nothing I hate more than dressing up. Well, that’s probably not completely true. I probably hate other things as much or more. But in this moment, the Friday night before I start a new job – the first job I’ve had in ten years that requires me to dress “Business Casual”– I detest the fact that next week I will have to wear clothes that I don’t want to wear and shoes that will invariably hurt my feet.
Almost as bad as wearing the clothes, is shopping for the clothes. I come from short stock and inherited the husky genes of the Eastern European women that came before me. That combination precludes me from finding almost anything off the rack that fits me. I have to hem all my pants, and even the sleeves of business suits. Shirt length is a problem, too. Apparently only tall persons are meant to have broad bodies.
As if that weren’t enough, I have feet that are flatter than the plains of Nebraska. I’m supposed to wear custom orthotics to fool my feet into thinking they have an arch, but that rules out about 99% of shoes in the world. The rigid blue plastic inserts add just enough height that my heel slips right out of the shoe with every step I take. Add to this that the forms, made after my doctor molded “fitted polyester casting socks” to my oddly shaped feet, drop off abruptly before the ball of my foot, leaving a hard ridge that reminds me constantly of its presence via blisters.
To deal with these abhorrent problems, when I do find clothes that fit, I buy at least half a dozen of them in different colors. Yes, I’m one of those people. Normally, I only have to worry about buying t-shirts, jeans, and the occasional pair of sneakers, though, which is considerably more manageable than maintaining a wardrobe of Business Casual. Years ago, when I escaped corporate America for smaller companies, I swore would never again work for anyone that forced me to dress up. I know. Never say never.
In high school, I played clarinet in the concert band. Girls had to wear floor-length black polyester sleeveless dresses with a mile-long zipper up the back, underneath which were white blouses, also polyester. We despised the puffy long sleeves and odd built-in scarf thingy that tied in a complicated way under our chins and hung like a long narrow double bib down our fronts. Boys got to wear black pants and jackets with white button down shirts so at least they looked like they were from the century we were living in.
My sister, two years behind me, joined band when she got to high school, and when it came time for her to don the hideous outfit, she expressed her disgust like all of us had before her; she questioned why we had to wear uniforms at all. Despite the fact that I agreed with her, in an effort to prove my superior knowledge, I answered her complaints quickly by regurgitating the reasoning I’d heard from our band director when I was a freshman. Drum roll, please. Uniforms create uniformity.
If we all looked alike, we would effectively disappear, and the audience would not be distracted from the music in any way. We were not there to be individuals. Not to mention, we were an accomplished lot for a high school band, with a director who could have wiped the floor with Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus. We should look the part. Of course, I failed to acknowledge that none of these reasons explained the necessity of our particular abominable uniform.
As I write this, I have to admit that I still can’t find much fault in the reasons we had to wear uniforms in high school band, which perhaps makes the teeth of my argument against Business Casual a bit less sharp. Nonetheless, I still seethe with irritation at the thought.
I can’t decide if being forced to dress a certain way as an adult feels more invasive than it did when I was still a teenager, or if it was just too long ago for me to recall the degree to which I felt oppressed in high school. I do remember a sort of resignation that came with the knowledge that at least we all had to wear exactly the same thing, so I looked no worse and was no less comfortable than the person next to me.
It might not be evident based on my opinion of business dress codes, but I am actually not much of a rebel at all. Most people that know me would say I’m quite rule-bound. I hate being late to anything; in fact, if I’m not at least fifteen minutes early that qualifies as late. I obey all the traffic laws and am what you would call a defensive driver. I wait for the walk signal even when the street is empty. I never cut in line or miss a deadline.
Early in my career, when I was first thrust into an environment in which business suits were the norm, I had the same issues with locating clothes that I do today. I was young and fresh, though; eager to impress the experienced consultants around me, I suppressed the dress-clothes-loathing part of my personality and aimed to conform. I even wore some sort of strap meant for people with tennis elbow to cover a tattoo on my forearm. After I left the corporate world, I kept only one suit, and for more than a decade, it served as my all-purpose outfit for interviews, weddings, and funerals.
But, here I am, making a foray back into corporate America, forced again to comply with the policy of Business Casual. Why, I wonder, do people still believe casual clothes aren’t appropriate for an office? My girlfriend says dressing up shows respect for the role. While I don’t disagree, neither do I believe dress clothes are necessary to illustrate respect. I do understand why it makes sense in her world – the world of a public school principal. She wants to portray authority and while formal dress cannot accomplish that alone, it can certainly bolster her image. She also happens to be tall and thin; she can be comfortable in anything.
My issue is not with those that enjoy dressing up. To them, I say, have at it. But for people like me, dressing up is a form of torture. I’m physically and mentally uncomfortable, inherently in a worse mood than I would otherwise be, and I can’t wait to get out of the office at the end of the day so I can be comfortable again. I can guarantee Business Casual has a negative impact on my productivity, even if it is slight.
The stinger in Business Casual is, without a doubt, “Casual Friday”. You might think it would ease the pain of having to dress up the rest of the week, but to me it simply makes an absurd rule even more preposterous. It tells us that the corporate rule-makers acknowledge the constraint of Business Casual is loathsome; otherwise why throw in the “perk” of being able to dress down on Fridays? Or taken another way, if the powers that be truly believe we won’t conduct ourselves appropriately in jeans, do they expect we won’t get anything done on Fridays?
Note: Just to clarify for regular readers that I’m not actually about to start a new job, I wrote this last summer.
The head on the horse
A few months ago, I began a brief consulting assignment for a guy I found quite perplexing. He is the sort of guy that thinks very highly of himself, yet also surrounds himself with consultants, many of which he strings along from one part of the organization to another as he himself moves around. After one of our first meetings, I’d have said he had a big head, but I didn’t need to because he did so nicely by referring to himself as the “head on the horse.”
I’m not really sure how I kept a straight face (or maybe I didn’t and he just didn’t see my brow pinch in consternation), especially because he squeezed it into the conversation six times in an hour. Imagine a few variations of this:
“I didn’t really want to take on this project, but the boss needed someone that could really get it done, and he knows I’m the head on the horse. I’ll get things done, whether people like it or not. I mean, this project really needs a head on a horse, and that’s me.”
“My professional life is really looking up,” I thought to myself at the end of that painful hour. Then I began my work.
One of my tasks was to update a stakeholder “molecule diagram,” which had been drafted by another consultant that came before me but then left the company mysteriously. A “molecule diagram” is sort of what you’d think it’d be, but applied in a way that is somehow both superfluous and just plain stupid. In this case, company departments were named in circles randomly placed on a large page, connected with lines of varying length to a central circle that represented the project (the project that needed the head on the horse). Then, individual stakeholders were shown in smaller circles that spider-ed out from the department circles. I can only imagine if it were a model of a real thing, it’d be some kind of free-will-stealing, integrity-thieving, crazy-making substance we’d all best stay far away from. Even as a poorly chosen representational thing, it had that effect on me.
One of these days, I will figure out what kind of work I can do that won’t leave me feeling like I’m pimping myself out so someone else can get rich selling the same ideas to the same client every few months. In the meantime, I’m open to suggestions…
Follow the links
I know I just did a Follow the links post, and I’d normally give it some time before putting another out there, but in my effort to catch up, I’ve got more I need to share, so please – follow the links…
Congrats are in order for Tele of Hooked, and I want to spread the word about her success! I’ve been very lucky to stumble across the writing of a few people that I’ve also been able to create a genuine connection with, even if it is just in blogland, and Tele is one of those people. I’m so excited to see her piece on National Fisherman. Check it out!
And, because I haven’t introduced anyone new in a while, and this piece is worth every second of your time, please read Valuing the impulsive word on bottledworder, a blog I recently started reading and suspect I will continue to follow closely.
Mary Jaksch, Chief Editor at Write to Done did a wonderful interview with Seth Godin, and he has some great things to say about writing, making art, and his new book, The Icarus Deception. It’s a must read (more on this later).
And to close on a light note … like Stephanie at Listful Thinking, I too come from a family that has not yet evolved to incorporate the hug into social interactions. If you are one of us and get tired of people looking at you funny, read this. I promise you’ll feel much better.
Still brushing off the cobwebs
For the past number of months, I’ve been struggling with some personal challenges, and one of the most disagreeable side effects was that I couldn’t write. I thought about it. I meant to. I wanted to. I tried to. I jotted down notes about things I should write about, but the writing never came. It still feels a bit like slogging through mud, but I’m here and am hopeful that I’ve come back to a place where I can again make this part of my routine. While I’m still brushing off the cobwebs, though, I came across a photo I took at work one day, of what can only be called a surreal, yet real, version of a child’s Matchbox car. Don’t you wish you could see what’s behind the tinted windows?
Follow the links
I started this post four months ago, which makes it incredibly overdue, and if I thought I was slacking then, I’m not sure what to even call it at this point…
I was pleasantly surprised (and very humbled) a couple of
weeks months ago when Graham of Graham’s Crackers nominated me for a Very Inspiring Blogger Award (especially since my writing habits haven’t been all that inspiring of late – I’ve been slacking quite a bit in the past few months). Nonetheless, his doing so happened to help inspire me to get back on the horse again. Thanks, Graham! I needed that. As a recipient of the nomination, I will now nominate seven others, while also sharing seven random facts about myself. I’m going to do this all at once by linking to others’ whose posts themselves illustrate the random facts I intend to share about myself. I apologize in advance that this seems sort of circular. It is.
1. In Google reader, I have a handful of categories for the blogs I follow. “Agents and Advice,” for those moments when I think maybe I’ll publish something someday (current unread count: 162). Second is “Beginner Bloggers,” which might seem odd unless you’ve taken part in one of the “platform building campaigns” that Rachel of Rach Writes organizes a couple times a year. When I started this blog I stumbled across her campaign and decided to join. The blogs in this category represent what’s left of the other people in the Beginner Bloggers group I joined (current unread count: 3 – maybe that deserves its own posts one of these days). Next is “Creativity,” which I think I meant as a shot in the arm for those times I seem to have no idea what to write about (which is really almost always, so it’s a good thing it’s simply a figurative shot in the arm).
The two last categories are “Humor” and “Writers”. “Writers” is the category I use for almost every other blog I’ve come across that I wanted to stick with, unless the writing is always funny (or almost always, anyway), in which case, it goes in “Humor”. 2. I have two blogs in Humor, the wuc and listful thinking (though I’m sure there are plenty of other funny writers out there). Read on…
3. Check out this post on listful thinking – it’s funny and an all too accurate commentary on our relationship with technology.
4. Next, I may never have shared with the world how much I like pickles – or other pickled vegetables – but, it’s true. I’m a pushover – especially for pickled brussels sprouts. So, of course, I loved reading “In a pickle.”
5. Charlie Hale’s post, Juvenile Delinquency, reminds me why I started doing genealogical research.
6. Graham recently pointed out my fixation with writing about odd things, though he put it much more eloquently than that. The Tall Person, of Bassa’s Blog, does brilliantly with pictures what I can only attempt to do with words. Look at a few of his pictures, and you’ll see things that I doubt anyone could write about with any success. Check out this one, and this one, and this one – and then keep going back for more. On the other hand, if you were to take a picture of some of the things that I find perplexing or out of place, they probably wouldn’t seem very odd at all.
7. I’m constantly amazed at John-Bryan Hopkins, the force behind Foodimentary. Every day is National-some-kind-of-food day. Every day. He never misses a beat. I grew up in the midwest and will always have a soft spot for these things – thing 1, thing 2, thing 3. I am also particularly amused by the quotes by Yogi Berra and Dorothy Allison, on this page at Foodimentary.
Thank you to everyone I’ve linked to in this post – you all inspire me and I very much enjoy reading the thing you write about.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted, so I thought I’d catch up with a completely random collection of thoughts…
First, some recent blog spam (typos intact):
Several months ago, I heard exeictd cawing and looked outside my window to see a semicircle of crows gathered around a crow that lay spread face down on the sidewalk with its wings extended. My first thought was that the crow had died and the others were mourning and upset. Then I noticed one crow run up to the prostrate crow, pull at its wings, peck energetically at its head, and then go back into the circle. This behaviour was repeated several times while the crow lying on the sidewalk seemed to be attempting to protect itself by endeavouring to lie more flat on the pavement. After ten minutes or so, the lying-down crow got up and flew away and the circle of crows dispersed without paying any more attention to the crow who seemed to have been under attack. There is a family of crows who live on my block and many other crows also gather daily. Over many years, I have never before seen this behaviour. I live in Vancouver BC.
I’m not quite sure what to think of this, but Graham, being a Canadian citizen, perhaps you can comment on the behavior of crows up in your neck of the woods…
Next, I’ve been to my local watering hole plenty of times, and often, I think I want to write about my adventures there, so I make a few notes on my phone. I generally don’t use the notes on my phone, so at the moment, they are filled with obscure references that I will try to decipher, given I was under the influence when I wrote them.
I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned this before, but the ‘company’ that mans the karaoke booth is called ‘Kontrolled Kaos Karaoke.’
I also found a great picture online of the interior of the bar, and I’m sure when you see it, you’ll wish it was also your neighborhood bar.
A couple months ago, there seemed to be a Spanish theme. Axl Rose was greeting everyone in Spanish, which doesn’t fit at all, considering his classic rock and metal personality, and his Norwegian heritage. Then, someone sang Heart of Glass, by Blondie. You’d think there would be no connection, but to my surprise, while reading the lyrics on the many teleprompter screens in the bar, I noticed some more completely inexplicable Spanish in the song:
Once I had a love and it was divine
Soon found out I was losing my mind
It seemed like the real thing but I was so blind
Mucho mistrust, love’s gone behind
On another occasion, getting Chinese before we went people-watching at Mel-o-dee, a friend got this fortune in her fortune cookie:
Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question
Anyone who might be able to shed some light on that one, please let me know.
Last weekend, a friend and I made two new friends at Mel-o-dee. My friend recently moved to the area from our home state of Wisconsin, and was in desperate need of someone to cut his hair. He wasn’t ready to pony up the average $75 a haircut, but luckily, we met a transsexual FTM barber with a handlebar moustache who was out partying with his mom and girlfriend and only charges $30. My friend had an appointment within 15 minutes for the next day and loves the haircut. Score.
The next friend we made is a Tibetan named Karma. He taught me a Tibetan greeting that I can use with the man who walks incessantly around my block every day with his prayer beads. I can’t pronounce it very well yet, but it means “Good luck, good health” and I expect my elderly Tibetan neighbor to be very surprised when I do something other than wave or give him an apple, which are the only ways I have been able to communicate with him thus far.
We spent a little time discussing Buddhism, and Karma shared a brilliant piece of advice with us, which I will close my long overdue post with….
When there is a disaster or something goes terribly wrong, before you panic, you should examine the situation. Pause, and ask yourself if there is a solution. If there is a solution, then there is nothing to worry about. If there is not a solution, then there is nothing to worry about.
I get a monthly email from one of those employee discount services through a payroll provider, and this month’s email is titled:
November’s Giveaway: Lenovo IdeaPad Z580!
I’m a Lenovo fan. I’ve owned more ThinkPads than any other kind of laptop, so I decided to read this month’s email. I was both confused and amused to find this offer inside:
In case you skimmed over that little ad, please go back and read the second bullet. Brilliant, right? I had no idea an IdeaPad came with steaks! I went to the website to check this out further and find out if it’s real, but I can’t find the specifics of the giveaway online. I have decided it is actually a little Easter Egg put there by some prankster copywriter who thinks we all just delete these emails, anyway, and I only wish I knew who that was so I could send him or her a thank you for brightening my day.