Tag Archives: writing

Golf Ball Season

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Our house in Syracuse is across the street and down a hill from a municipal nine-hole golf course. You can’t actually see the golf course from my house, but you can’t help but know it’s there because, every spring and early summer, it’s golf ball season.

See, there’s a certain hole in that course where, if you slice them just right, you send golf balls over the fence, down the hill and onto our property. I find them nestled against the curb in front of our house, on my front lawn, or in the flower beds on either side of my front porch. One memorable time, while I was weeding my backyard garden, I witnessed one in action, bouncing down our driveway and coming to a stop at our garage door.

Finding golf balls is as much a part of my spring as the blossoming of early perennials, packing away my winter sweaters, and medicating my reaction to tree pollen.

The one waiting for me at the foot of our driveway when I got home from work today happened to be a nice, pretty new Titleist. I generally feel a little badly for the golfer when he or she sends a new one over the fence, as those things aren’t exactly cheap. But the majority of the balls that land in our yard are obviously practice balls, the more expendable, practical choice for the beginning golfer.

I never learned to play golf. Oh, I took some lessons and tried playing it on the very course I live near today, but it didn’t come naturally to me, so I quit.

I quit because, for too many years, I prided myself on being a perfectionist. And I used this desire to be perfect as a compass for my life; if I was good at something (and/or received praise for it) I stuck with it. If not, I dropped it.

Besides, what’s wrong with wanting to be perfect, I’d wonder? Isn’t “perfect” a wonderful word, a positive one? Don’t people remember Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci for her perfect ten? Why settle for B’s when you can get A’s, for “good” when you could be “best”?

And that perfectionism served me in many ways. I did very well in school. Loved reading because I was good at it, and writing because of the grades and accolades it brought me.

Then there was art. From the time I could hold a crayon, I loved to make pictures. Although I had no formal art training, I experimented with watercolor, chalk, pencil, ink, charcoal and acrylic paints. My mother didn’t just put my pictures on the refrigerator–she framed some of them. I believed I was destined to design greeting cards and illustrate children’s books…that was until, my sophomore year in high school, I got a C in art.

I never took art in school art again. Nor pursued a career as a commercial artist.

Writing, on the other hand, consistently brought me the grades, praise and awards I craved. Long before I graduated from high school, I had my mind set on being a writer.

Little did I know that the perfectionism that drove me to write would also turn out to be my biggest roadblock to a successful writing career. Far from being a “positive’ trait, it held me back, taunted me, scolded me. I’d get a rejection slip and quit writing for months at a time. I’d start a novel and, compared it to the work of my favorite authors, then abandon it, embarrassed, disgusted. Without teachers to stoke my ego and provide me with the encouragement I so needed, I floundered and procrastinated, struggled and avoided.

Yeah, perfectionism does that. So much for being a positive trait.

What I didn’t understand for the longest time…well, actually there were three things:

First, Nadia didn’t achieve her stunning level of performance naturally. She practiced. A lot. Yes, she possessed physical attributes that lent themselves to becoming a gymnast, but she also needed to spend countless hours honing them to accomplish what she did during those ‘76 games. Certainly she stumbled and fell and had imperfect dismounts during the years of practice leading up to her perfect scores.

Nadia exemplified the phrase practice makes perfect. If I had worked on my writing or art with even a tenth of the dedication Nadia put into her routines who’s to say what I could have accomplished.

Second, I’ve found that with any endeavor, the best lessons often come from one’s mistakes and failures. I think–I hope–that I am a better sister, friend, aunt, employee, writer and all around person based on the mistakes I have made over the years and what I eventually learned from them. In fact, I have come to believe that we’re all here to learn. Life is one unending series of lessons. And we’re not going to excel at each and every one of them–what’s the challenge in that?

And third, whether it’s pursuing hobbies or vocations or better mental and physical health, it’s important to have fun with the journey. When I finally stopped expecting myself to write epic prose and just began writing more regularly, I began enjoying both the process and the outcomes more. Sure, I still wince a little when I catch a typo or grammatical mistake I’ve made, and I still sometimes really envy the brilliance in other writers. But I know that my time at the keyboard is cathartic for me and, I hope, beneficial to others. Plus I learn from those other writers. And truly, that’s enough.

So as I retrieve the golf balls that come to my yard each year, I hope that the people who sent them my way don’t give up too soon. If they’re having fun, getting exercise, and spending time with friends, I hope that can be enough for now.

My only advice would be not to invest in new Titleist balls from the get go. Learning something might come at a cost, but it doesn’t have to be so expensive.

 

S.O.S.: Save Our Sentences!

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As much as possible, I like to consider myself a silver lining type of girl these days. I wasn’t always this way, and it still doesn’t come naturally, but I try.

Generally my mind works like this: I see or read something alarming, disturbing or simply annoying, and I initially react with alarm, disturbance or annoyance. Then, after what ideally is a brief time, or even almost immediately, I try to look for the silver lining in what I’ve just seen or read.

Take this article that I came across last week.

In a recently released report, the business consulting firm PayScale found that almost half of all hiring managers surveyed stated that the skill they see most lacking in college graduates today is the ability to write.

And I thought, “Wha-a-a-t?”

Then I realized that, sadly, I wasn’t truly surprised.

I mean, I see it on Facebook all the time. Not typos, which I sort of can live with because I am the Typo Queen (although there’s really no reason for them either, because you can edit a published post) but out and out grammatical and spelling errors, and an over reliance on texting abbreviations.

I see the same things at work, in emails, and in external communications I review as part of my job. Punctuation errors. Incorrect capitalization of common nouns. Participles and modifiers dangling everywhere. I.e. when it should be e.g., for heaven’s sake! (Okay, I forgive most people that one. I looked it up myself many years ago, as I didn’t recall learning it in school.)

So, back to that article I read about college grads. After my initial reaction upon reading it, I came next to the silver lining–think about the opportunities this opens up for those who can write and write well!

Businesses need us.

And I’m not just talking about communications departments; in fact, those jobs are probably filled by some of the more than 50 percent of college grads who do possess solid writing skills.

Many other departments in an organization need solid writing skills, as does anyone aspiring to a leadership role in most companies. As I wrote about a number of years ago in an article entitled “Corporate Roads Less Traveled: A Guide for Freelance Writers” which commercial writer Peter Bowerman included in his second Well-Fed Writer book, Back for Seconds, departments that need competent writing skills include Customer Service, Marketing, Training,Human Resources–even the code-crazy folks in IT departments need to communicate in writing. And I wrote that article well before the emergence of social media and blogging platforms, which provide even more opportunities for the enterprising writer.

Besides offering services directly as freelancers and consultants, writers can also put together business and executive writing courses, then deliver them online, as webinars or in person, filling in the gaps that our education system obviously missed. And, remarkably, these courses can cover pretty basic elements, from the proper use of punctuation (oh, that poor apostrophe and semi-colon!) to when and when not to capitalize nouns (yeah, I realize I’d already griped about that one). You’d be amazed by what people don’t know about writing well. Or maybe not.

Of course, finding or creating these opportunities might take a little chutzpah. You won’t necessarily come across them by searching through online job boards–you’ll need to network and promote, actions that don’t always come easily to the introverted writer. But I’m as convinced that the opportunities are out there as much as I was back when I wrote that article. Maybe even more so.

The English language, while always wonderfully morphing, doesn’t have to be reduced to a twisted heap of hooked on phonics. This is a call to action for writers who are in search of work, to go out there and rescue the written word from the clutches of those who unwittingly but nonetheless brutally abuse it.

After all, we’re its last line of defense.

 

Beware the Silent ‘P’

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Have you ever noticed how many wonderful words begin with the letter ‘p’?

There’s passion, purpose, playfulness, plentiful, potential, poetry, prayer,  partnership, positive, peace. So many wonderful words.

Then there are the not so wonderful ‘p’ words. Psychosis, pneumonia, pseudo, ptosis, psoriasis, psittacism (yeah, I didn’t know what it meant, either). Notice what those have in common?

The ‘p’ is silent.

So I began to wonder—could we relate to the difference between the pronounced ‘p’ and the silent ‘p’? Could it be that, as years go by, through conditioning or neglect, so many of us lose touch with the things we feel passionate about is that we’ve learned over the years to silence them?

During my teens I wrote poetry.  The ones I remember most vividly spoke about hope, love and possibilities (ah, another wonderful ‘p’ word!).  

Then, as life began to present me with its inevitable challenges, disappointments and setbacks, my poems began to take on darker tones. I wrote of loss, frustration, heartbreak, disconnection. Eventually, I stopped writing them altogether.

Around that same time, I also began to lose sight of my dream to make a living as a freelance writer.  Months would sometimes go by between one writing project and the next; attempts to submit my work or query ideas grew even more staggered. I left a trail of half-written stories in my wake, along with a few that I even finished, but that never saw the light of day.

After college I snapped up the first stable nine to five job I could latch onto and, relieved to receive a steady paycheck and benefits, I hardly even noticed as the dream faded.  I had college loans to pay back, an apartment to furnish, a car to maintain and insure.  I was living the dream, right?  Never mind that it was not my own.  My life seemed fine.  My chosen path seemed safe. Most writers never make a living wage anyway…

My ‘p’ grew silent.

In Walden, Henry Thoreau famously wrote that most men “lead lives of quiet desperation.” A dismal worldview? Maybe…but look how it plays out in the “Thank God it’s Friday” existence that so many of us lead, lives where relaxation, adventure and fun are all packed into one or two weeks a year, or where we live vicariously through the success and joy of those who dared to do or be what we did not. These results stem from letting our ‘p’s’ go silent or, worse, by intentionally silencing them in order to gain the acceptance and approval of others, or through fear that we if we took a riskier path, we might fail.

I’m trying to decide how to bring this post to an optimistic close. The fact is, I continue to cling to the safe and familiar, and still need the approval of others more than I care to admit. So it’s not like I am a shining example of self-actualization.

But I guess simply being aware of that is a start. That’s the optimistic closing I was looking for and would like to share here because, as I am beginning to learn through the reading and exercises I’ve been doing lately, awareness changes everything. The first step in solving a dilemma is admitting that the dilemma exists.

Time to take the next step. Care to join me?

 

Writing Into Thin Air

images (2)  A significant part of my day job involves sending updates to our customer service area regarding new, events and customer mailings that may generate phone calls, changes in or reminders of department procedures, and initiatives taking place in other departments within our organization that might impact their jobs.

At first, the service staff said they were getting too many email communications, so we changed the format to two “daily news” email messages each day, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, each containing a few updates.

But then they said they couldn’t easily go back and reference specific email messages, so I pitched the idea of creating a customer service blog to our department’s VP. She happily gave the green light and, for over a year now, I have been posting daily updates there, sprinkled with photos of staff celebrations and the occasional contributions from department management. I then send daily morning and afternoon digest emails to alert the staff of the latest posts.

Despite of all this, and the fact that the customer service employees know they should be reading these, I still receive fairly regular questions from them asking for the status of something I just wrote about within the last day or so. Or I get asked to remind the staff about an issue I very recently already reminded them about. And yes, the blog has a search box. And I also use tags and categories to guide them to whatever kind of information they’re looking for.

It sometimes makes me feel like I write these messages, send them, and poof!  They vanish into thin air, unread.

I guess all writing can feel like that sometimes, too, right?  You brainstorm topics or stories, write, rewrite, edit, proofread. You send queries to agents and editors, or you post to your own blog, and…nothing.  No comments.  No feedback. It can feel like you’re writing into thin air.

But of course, that’s not true.  I think about all of the articles, posts and books I’ve read over the years where it never even occurred to me to reach out to the author, thank him or her, or share my reaction to their work. Writers just don’t often get the kind of immediate and tangible reactions from their audiences that other professions do. That doesn’t at all mean we’re not appreciated.

Once published, your words remain out there indefinitely, unless you  choose to remove or change them.  They are there for anyone who happens to search for a topic you’ve written about, receives a link to your blog from a friend, finds your article in a magazine or your book on Amazon.

And once the words are published, they are there for you to revisit as well, to recycle or repurpose into another blog post, article or book chapter.  You can link back to them in your newer posts.  Add to them. Build upon them. Share them again with prospective readers who may have missed them the first few times around.

At my day job, I know there are customer service employees who do read and appreciate the daily updates I send to them.  Every once in a while, one of them even lets me know with a heartfelt thank you email, or a question or comment about a particular post.

No, our words don’t vanish once we send them out into the world. Every word we write, every post or page we publish, is then forever available for someone to discover, learn from, enjoy and maybe even share. And for us to build upon.

Instead they become a very part of the air, the content that fills the internet, libraries, bookstores and magazine racks, those places where people go to look for our work.

We’re appreciated more than we’ll ever know. And you know what? That’s okay.

The Curse of the Blinking Cursor

images (1) I’m in that space this morning where I just finished a blog post and am not sure how to start the next one.

The blinking cursor and white screen have been taunting me for nearly 20 minutes now, and I really should finish getting ready to go into work, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let them win this war of wills. I’m a writer. I’ll think of something to write about, even if it’s the struggle of coming up with something to write about.

I have long admired newspaper columnists, and now other bloggers, for conjuring up material week after week, sometimes multiple times a week, always on schedule. I admire not only their discipline, which has never been one of my strong suits, but also the consistent quality of their writing, and their ability to keep unearthing new things to write about or putting new spins on old topics, every week, every month, for years. Truly amazing.

Meanwhile, I’m just pleased as punch that I have made myself sit down at the keyboard and hammer out some words nearly every morning since the start of this year.

I guess even the greatest columnists and bloggers started somewhere—maybe even exactly where I am right now.

It’s not that I feel at all limited when it comes for things to write about. Every moment of every day presents an array of encounters, events, emotions and observations to dissect and explore. From interactions with family, friends and colleagues to keeping up with news, sports and weather, from fleeting wishes for life to be different to deep gratitude for things exactly as they are, life provides a constant stream of experiences from which writers can drink, whether in tiny sips or with huge gulps.

No, we are certainly furnished with enough raw material. It’s up to each of us to turn that into something that will entertain, educate, enlighten, provoke. inspire—whatever it is we want our readers to do or feel when they come across something we’ve written.

My guess is that the most stalwart of columnists and bloggers do what I’ll need to do if I want to keep this current blog of mine going more than a few months: they remain constantly alert, in the present moment, as much as possible; they envision potential stories in every snippet of conversation they overhear, scene they witness, movie or program they watch, and book, story or article they read.

And they capture them for later use and development. In a notebook. In a Word doc. On a recording device. They don’t let what they’ve seen, read or heard get away.

That’s actually the key to winning the battle with the blinking cursor, the blank screen—creating a treasure trove of ideas, thoughts, observations and topics from which to draw when nothing comes immediately to mind, and continually adding to it. This stash can prevent deadlines from being missed, blogs from stagnating and writers from abandoning their craft for months at a time. It can provide the inspiration we need when we think our writing wells have gone dry, the kick in the butt we need when we’re feeling less than motivated.

We also must to refer to this vault of ideas between stints at the keyboard.  Refresh our memories with what we’ve stored there. Mull over them. Let them percolate so that, when it comes time to sit down to write, the words seemingly just pour onto the page, fully brewed.

If you have an ideas folder, why not go there right now and open it up? Or start one right this very moment? That’s what I plan to do later today—I know I have ideas tucked away someplace. Time to take a fresh look at them, so that I pull up a blank screen tomorrow and, just perhaps, not become transfixed by the dreaded blinking cursor.