Je Suis Charlie

jesuischarlieThe slaying of twelve people, many of them journalists, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French newspaper in Paris, has come as a psychic sucker punch to me this week. It is hard enough for writers and artists to fight the general negativity of society and their own self doubts in order to find their voices and speak their truths within their work. The threat of violence, let alone actual violence, can be enough to silence those voices for a good long time. I should know, having dealt with a personal threat online a number of years ago over I blog post I wrote. It is horrifying to know that people who make such threats aren’t always just blowing hot air and steam. Sometimes they will carry out their threats and silence a writer or artist for good.

As a writer who has pissed people off with my words, I empathize with the rallying cry, “Je suis Charlie!”

I am also heartened by the outpouring of support from around the world for Charlie Hebdo and the right to the freedom of expression.  May we all have the courage to continue to lift our voices through our creative endeavors.


Christmas, Edited

It took me five minutes to dig this Santa figurine out of storage. One jolly ornament can set the tone for your edited holiday.
It took me five minutes to dig this Santa figurine out of storage. One jolly ornament can set the tone for your edited holiday.

The holiday season has passed. We didn’t decorate one whit and I’m fine with that.

When I was growing up, my mom was BIG on Christmas. We had specific traditions, but I’m not sure if she made them up or they were passed down from her family.

We started in on stringing the popcorn and cranberries around Thanksgiving. For those of you unfamiliar with this tradition, popcorn and cranberries are strung onto white thread using a needle, with lengths of these strings tied together until you get a really long string to wrap around the tree … always a real tree in our house … as decoration. Stabbing hard cranberries with a needle was a pain in the literal sense. The needle often slid off the cranberry and into a finger. While it was easier to poke into the popcorn with a needle, the result was often broken bits of popcorn as it disintegrated from being pierced.

Twenty pieces of popcorn and one cranberry, over and over, until the string was long enough. The string was kept in a paper grocery bag while it was being constructed.

Come Christmas Eve, it was time to decorate the tree, which we selected as a family at a local Christmas tree lot in town. If memory serves, we purchased the tree in the week before Christmas. We always decorated it on Christmas Eve, per Mom’s instructions. There were four of us kids and we had to put ornaments on one-at-a-time in a mysteriously prescribed order. There was the “special” ornament, one that was uber delicate and had been passed down from one of Mom’s relatives (possibly her grandmother), that we all wanted a chance to hang on the tree. Its place of honor was near the top at the front of the tree, out of harm’s way and where we could all see it.

It took forever to decorate the tree, one ornament at a time with four kids bustling about. Dad put on the lights prior to our part in the task. The light strings at that time had large, multi-colored bulbs. None of these newfangled twinkly lights in all one color. In fact, our family Christmas tree was never the color-coordinated affair you often see in local businesses or decorator homes. It contained quite a few handmade ornaments, which sounds all chic, until you realize that most of them were paper and made by us children in elementary school.

Suddenly, I’m recalling paper chains, as well. This was another endless task, like the popcorn and cranberries. We glued strips of colored construction paper together into chains that we hung … hmm … somewhere in the house. I can’t recall the location.

And there were cookies. Mom baked acres and acres of Snickerdoodles and sugar cookies and ginger snaps and probably another couple types of cookies for the Christmas season. We children must have been hopped up on sugar the entire month. It was our job to decorate the sugar cookies, which started out as great fun, what with mixing the frosting, deciding on whether to frost the bell or the Santa or the reindeer, slathering on pink or green or white frosting, and throwing on sprinkles, but after about the tenth cookie, it appeared that the cookies would never end.

Aside from the tree and the paper chains and the cookies, there were other decorations habitually put out for the Christmas season, including stockings and a beautiful Santa figure with a curly white beard that seemed to be made of real hair. Santa was probably between 15 and 18 inches tall. I believe my older brother typically got the honor of setting up this Santa.

When it came to presents, we had a couple of traditions. One was that we were allowed to open one gift on Christmas Eve. (Why do you think decorating the tree felt so darned interminable?) The only gifts that were out on Christmas Eve were the ones from Mom and Dad. The Santa gifts wouldn’t arrive until the next morning. Come Christmas morning, we were up well before our parents, circling around the tree and scoping out the presents, seeing which ones were ours. When Dad and Mom finally joined us in the living room, we would each pick a gift and on their signal, open them.

I’m not gonna lie. That was the most joyous part of the holiday for me. In one photo of me during Christmas Past, I’m in third or fourth grade, wearing a robe and a cap over the curlers in my hair, and next to me is a turquoise and white typewriter. I have no idea what happened to that typewriter, but obviously my folks sensed something about my future interest in writing.

Fast forward to my adulthood, with three children in the house. It was time for my husband Erik and I to create our own Christmas traditions. The popcorn and cranberry strings and paper chains were out, my memories of enduring these tasks making me not want to put my children through them. We did have a Christmas tree pretty much every year while our children were growing up and we made some of the ornaments. Most of the time we skipped making cookies, but there was a stocking for each kid. We typically limited the number of gifts to five per kid, whether from Erik and I or from Santa (when we wanted to give the Jolly Fat Man credit). We kept the tradition of letting the kids open one gift on Christmas Eve and the rest on Christmas Day.

The tradition we most enjoyed, which developed over years, was going to a Christmas tree farm, having a ride on a hay wagon, picking and cutting the tree, and enjoying hot cocoa afterward. We’d decorate the tree as soon as we brought it home. As the kids got older, they would scatter as soon as the tree was up and leave the decorating to me. Um, yeah. Not so much. Now that the kids are adults, Erik and I have given up on the tree. That may be a sacrilege to my mom and other Christmas lovers out there, but for us, the tree and the decorations don’t make the season. Eating fabulous food (not optional), sharing great conversation (also not optional), and a few well-chosen gifts (optional) with family are what the holiday is about.

Which brings me to the reason I wrote this post. I know there are people who feel absolutely frantic between Thanksgiving and New Year’s if they can’t get the holiday cards out, the tree up and decorated, the lights strung, and the cookies baked. It’s as though the holidays (there are a slew of them between Thanksgiving and early January) aren’t the holidays without the trappings.

If you’ve got time to do all the holiday tasks without getting frazzled and revel in the preparations, by all means, go for it. But, if life events prevent you from living up to your holiday expectations or you just don’t feel like dealing with all the seasonal everything, relax and learn to celebrate an edited version of Christmas or Hanukkah or [your holiday here]. Pick one or two simple things to do that put you in the spirit of the season and fully enjoy those. Maybe eschew the tree and put a wreath on the door instead, or get a Charlie Brown Christmas tree with one ornament. Leave the lights off the exterior of the house and put an electric candle in the window. Skip wrapped gifts and just hang stockings containing small gifts. Make one batch of cookies, not ten.

There will always be someone, a store or a neighbor, that goes all out for the holidays. Borrow your holiday cheer from their preparations rather than feeling you must do it all every single year. It’s okay. You have my permission to celebrate Christmas, Edited.

Catching the Big Fish

DSC01387For my year of creative reading, which technically started in December 2014, not today (I’m not that fast a reader), I read David Lynch’s “Catching the Big Fish“. It is by THE David Lynch of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet fame. It contains mini-essays by Lynch about his experience with transcendental meditation and how he thinks about film making and the creative process.

My surface impression of the book was, “Meh.” Perhaps it would have done more for me if I were familiar with Lynch’s films.

While my initial impression wasn’t that favorable, the book did have me thinking a couple of things. One, what’s the difference between transcendental meditation (TM) and other forms of meditation? A Google search gave me the answer. Other than TM using a mantra to induce relaxation, it also produces different brain activity than mindfulness meditation.

Lynch has practiced TM twice a day for over three decades and swears by it as a source of his creativity. He is so taken with the technique that he has a foundation to help introduce TM to schools.

The second thing that struck me about the book was Lynch’s method of capturing his original creative ideas in movie form. It’s almost as though he sneaks up on them by playing with the various aspects of film making, like the location, sound, or lighting. He can start with very tiny images or thoughts and build an entire movie starting there and sneaking up on the larger story. Here’s what he has to say about ideas:

“It would be great if the entire film came all at once. But it comes, for me, in fragments. That first fragment is like the Rosetta Stone. It’s the piece of the puzzle that indicates the rest. It’s a hopeful puzzle piece.

“In Blue Velvet, it was red lips, green lawns, and the song — Bobby Vinton’s version of “Blue Velvet.” The next thing was an ear lying in a field. And that was it.” (pg. 23)

I’ve never thought of my initial idea for a creative project as a Rosetta Stone, something waiting to be deciphered that contains the whole idea. I figured I had to keep adding to the initial idea with more ideas, rather than attempting to code-break the original by sneaking up on it.

This feels like a big idea that I haven’t quite grasped yet. Perhaps some TM is in order.

It also goes to show that I can’t always trust my initial impression of a book.


Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer is a musician, but that’s not how I know of her. I first heard of her through Neil Gaiman’s online journal. Neil is a writer of strange and glorious tales of gods come to earth and secret doorways to places and beings outside of this world. (Hard to capture his work in a brief sentence, but that’s my stab at it.)

My intro to his work came not through his acclaimed Sandman series, which I have never read, but through his novel American Gods. I’ve read a number of his other books, including Anansi Boys, Coraline, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett), Fragile Things, The Graveyard Book, Neverwhere, Stardust, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. (The one book of his I’d pinch baby armadillos to have is the one he wrote about Duran Duran prior to the work that made him famous.) I followed his journal closely a few years ago because, as a writer, it was compelling to read how a successful writer conducted himself in a public forum. There were good lessons about how to be productive as a writer and how to deal with public controversy. When Neil announced that he was engaged to Amanda Palmer, who seemed to be just as open online and creative as he was, I had to check out her blog. (Sounds kind of weird, but isn’t this one way we find new artists, writers, and musicians to follow, by taking the recommendation of someone whose work we respect?)

Amanda often begins her blog posts with “hola comrades!” and proceeds to let her thoughts tumble out in a stream-of-consciousness style, with no time for capitalization. She writes Facebook posts much the same way. On all her channels of communication (she adores Twitter, as well), she wants to hear from fans and genuinely engages with them. She sometimes gets embroiled in controversies without meaning to, typically by people making assumptions without knowing the full story. When this happens, she takes to her blog and explains her side of whatever issue has people’s undies in a bunch and bravely invites their feedback. (I’m no stranger to online trolls, but if I had to put up with the hostile crap that has been thrown her way, I’d probably be hiding under a rock by now.)

Amanda was asked to do a TED Talk after her massively successful (and inadvertently controversial) Kickstarter campaign. The talk, which has been viewed over 6 million times, was called The Art of Asking and in it Amanda discusses the power of asking fans for support as an artist. She was then asked to write a book on the same topic, which was released in November 2014. As Amanda does in other avenues of her life, she crowdsourced the book-writing effort, asking her followers to answer questions that helped her work through sections of the book. I jumped in with my two-cents on a couple of questions, including one about the difference between asking and begging.

Investing yourself even a little in someone else’s book (whether by following the process or answering a question or two) makes you want to read that book. When Amanda said that it would soon be available, I went to my local library’s online system and requested the book, which was not yet in the catalog. Someone else had ordered the digital version before me, but I’m an old-fashioned girl who grew up on books with covers and paper pages, so I ordered a hard copy. It is not lost on me that this was an act of asking and that it was the first time I had ever asked my library to acquire a book it did not yet own. (Great power in that, I’d say, and I highly recommend it to those who love libraries, those wonderful socialist institutions of knowledge-sharing. Most library systems make it very easy to request books for the collection.)

When I got the email notice that the book was in and picked it up from the library, I wanted to immediately race home and practice hygge, just get all cozy, ignore the world, and read. Instead, I read it every chance I could over a few days.

The book is written in Amanda’s pell-mell blog style, but gussied up for a book format. Letters are capitalized and there are no “hola comrades!” involved, which was a bit of a bummer. It did make me realize a basic difference between writing for blogs and social media and writing for a book. A book is like a formal speech and blogs and social media are like casual conversation. (For those of you expecting well-polished essays for personal blog posts, please lighten up. Do you expect a formal speech during casual conversation? That scolding includes me, for as a writer, I expect my blog and social media posts to be fully polished.)

Once I became accustomed to Amanda’s book voice, which didn’t take long, I was immediately taken with her story. She discusses being a human statue (The Eight Foot Bride), her Kickstarter campaign, TED Talk, music career, communal living with other artists, and the controversies she has stirred up. She also details her relationships with her husband Neil and her good friend Anthony. The thread running through the book that connects these various parts of her life (other than Amanda herself) is the willingness to ask for what she needs and the graciousness to accept people’s help.

One of her mantras, gleaned through learning that Henry David Thoreau’s mom brought him donuts while he was living at Walden, is “Take the donuts.” As artists, we often have a hellavu time asking for help, but an even harder time accepting it. Scandinavian Minnesotans might be even worse at asking and accepting than artists. Try being a Scandinavian Minnesotan artist. Egads, we’re doomed! But Amanda’s point is that we don’t have to be. We can work through our fear of being denied when we ask for help. Her book is a guide to that. She lays bare all manner of hurt she has dealt with in her quest to crowdsource her artistry. Her efforts are also an example of how to build a following for your work, one fan at a time and with genuineness, by engaging people personally.

Reading the book made me realize that I have never heard Amanda’s music. I became a fan through her writing  and her TED Talk, which goes to show that with the longevity of today’s artists, both artists and fans have to expect that people can become fans at any point in an artist’s career and we all have to be okay with that. Some fans might think I’m a heretic because I haven’t read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series or heard Amanda’s Dresden Dolls work. Certainly I’m not a “true” fan if I haven’t been following along since the beginning. What a bunch of hogwash. (Whoa! Memory rings. I wrote an essay about The Late Blooming Fan in 2005 that talks about this phenomenon in a tongue-in-cheek way.)

In any case, Amanda has an amazing sense of ESP because my realization that I hadn’t heard her music came while I was reading and once I got to the end of the book, she has this note: “I am first and foremost, a musician. Writing a book was great, but I desperately want you to hear my music so I don’t lose track of myself.”

I would say she’s much more than a musician … she belongs to the Club of Creative Hyphenates. And now I have some music to listen to.

If you haven’t read The Art of Asking, I highly recommend it. If you’re in the Great River Regional Library system in Minnesota, there’s at least one hard copy to go around. If there are lots of requests for the book, I’m sure the library system will order more.



Finding Meaning in Work

thoughtfodderFast Company is my new favorite business-y blog. The article I’m reading on the site this evening is about finding meaning in your work, indicating that companies that figure out how to make their missions and jobs meaningful to employees will typically see greater productivity and gains in income. If their employees are engaged and feeling full of purpose, companies will do better in general.

While that is useful information, it feels a bit “duh” to me. Certainly, if an employee feels like her life at work has meaning, she will be more productive. But the article is about companies creating missions with meaning that people feel good about contributing to. This shift has been coming for a while, with states adopting a new business structure, the B-Corp (short for Benefit Corporation) that allows private companies to be structured to provide public benefits other than profits for shareholders. (Minnesota passed the its B-Corp legislation in spring of 2014, with it taking effect January 1, 2015.) This is a good thing. Private businesses should feel some larger responsibility to the public than simply making lots of money for themselves.

What I appreciate about the Fast Company article (which is quite long but worth the read) is a new generational term it uses … Generation Flux. I’ve long been irritated by how often Gen X gets skipped over in reports about generations. Boomers and Millennials, along with a few Greatest Generationers, get most of the coverage and most of the props for everything happening in society. As a Gen Xer and historian, seeing Millennials get credit for the “new” trend toward entrepreneurship and expecting purpose in their careers rankles because it’s not as though magic fairy dust was sprinkled over Millennials and suddenly that’s the way things are. These trends were solidly taking root with Gen X and were certainly in evidence with previous generations, even if not experienced by a majority of these generations.

Using the term Generation Flux erases this tension because it’s not about when someone was born in history. According to the article, “Fluxers are defined not by their chronological age but by their willingness and ability to adapt. These are the people who are defining where business and culture are moving. And purpose is at the heart of their actions. ”

Creative hyphenates, a.k.a. multi-hyphenates, fit this definition. I believe most of us are multi-hyphenates but because business has traditionally been about money, not purpose, and has been segregated from our personal lives, we’ve never had to think of ourselves in this way. When we’re at work, we’re one thing; in our personal lives, we’re several other things, and never the twain shall meet, as though the skills and talents we use in our personal lives have no effect whatsoever on work. (Baloney!)

That’s never been the case but we’re only now figuring it out, probably in part because technology keeps us tethered to work after hours, but also because of this move to making sure our personal sense of purpose meshes with our employer’s larger mission. We’re also being told, because of the internet, that we need to cultivate a personal brand and mission statement. Individuals are becoming “businesses” even if they have nothing to sell, simply as a way to preemptively express who they are online before someone else does it for them.

This brings me to another Fast Company article I read recently, “Personal Mission Statements of 5 Famous CEOs (And Why You Should Write One Too)“. It seems to me that if Generation Fluxers are interested in working for companies with compelling missions, having them write personal mission statements would assist in determining whether their own mission works with that of their employer.

After reading the personal mission statement article, I’ve been giving some thought to creating my own and have made a couple of stabs at it. More thinking is needed.

Do you have a personal mission statement? If so, what is it?

Working in Secret

processIn case you haven’t heard, Sony Picture’s computer system has been hacked due to the imminent no longer imminent release of the new movie “The Interview,” which features a plot to assassinate North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.

With the hack attack, Snapchat’s emails were leaked, revealing strategic business maneuvers the company was making. Snapchat’s CEO Evan Spiegel was upset about the release of this sensitive information and he released a letter regarding how he felt.

What’s great about the letter, other than giving the public a peek into how a company responds internally to events of significant impact, is what Spiegel says about keeping secrets, specifically, the benefits of a company keeping secrets regarding its work.

“We keep secrets because we get to do our work free from judgment – until we’re ready to share it. We keep secrets because keeping secrets gives you space to change your mind until you’re really sure that you’re right.

“We care about taking the time to get things right. Secrets help us do that.

“Secrets keep the space between our community and the public – space that we need to feel safe in our expression and creativity.” (Evan Spiegel’s letter on Twitter.)

Yes! Exactly! As a writer, I keep quiet about what I’m working on for a couple of reasons. One, until I get to a point where a piece feels finished, it’s still nebulous to me. I don’t know where it’s going until I reach the end and I’ve done an initial polish or two. I will not share a work-in-progress because I don’t want the opinions of other people mid-way through the process. What do they know about what’s in my creative heart? As Spiegel says, I need space to change my mind, but I sure as heck don’t need outside judgment that could fog up my thoughts on a piece.

Two, I find that talking too much about my writing causes me to lose interest in the topic. I’ve read about this in books that give writing advice and it’s true. Too much blabbing makes it feel as though I’ve already written a piece and the passion heads straight out of my mouth only to be lost in the air.

The one person I implicitly trust with work-in-progress is my husband. He listens while I try to talk through the sticky parts, but he doesn’t interject his opinions about where a piece should go. He knows that I mostly need a sounding board so I can work things out myself. He’s also willing to hear me blather on about exciting stuff I find while doing research. And, my husband doesn’t tell others about what I’m working on. He, unlike the Sony hackers, knows how to keep a secret.