Cognitive Flexibility and the Writer’s Brain

I was recently asked why it was so difficult to switch from business-style writing to a more creative style.  I actually had to stop and ponder this myself because I often find that at the end of my business blogs, it’s really hard to pick up and work on other long-unfinished projects.  But, Deborah, I hear you and I am going to try to dissect this issue.

So, first, let’s just get all of this out of the way.  I’m not a doctor, I’m not a psychologist, I’m just a writer who happens to have too much time on her hands.  I write these blogs to help you do better in your career, not because I actually know anything.  I am a professional twat, just so we’re clear.

What is Cognitive Flexibility?

Have you ever noticed how it’s difficult to go from, say, jogging, to doing push-ups without a lot of effort?  Well, your brain works the same way as your body.  Once it’s headed in a direction, with a certain set of rules, it tends to sort of want to stay that way.  Like a body in motion wants to stay in motion, a brain on a rampage wants to stay rampaging.  Whether that means you’re writing technical documents or analyzing Shakespearean plays, your brain is most comfortable doing that thing that it’s doing.

The more you do it, the better you get at it, and a sort of mental muscle memory develops.  This is why sick writers can still work.  There’s no secret, they just know how to do it — they don’t need some magical inspirational thing to happen.  They’ve practiced and practiced and practiced until they can do the thing without being wholly present.  This isn’t a fault, we all do it.  Mechanics do it when they change your spark plugs, farmers do it when they’re sowing seed, bakers do it when they’re kneading dough — those basic things we’ve all done a million times are just us cruising on our practice.  That’s our body in motion, if you will.  (I realize this isn’t how physics works.  Shut up.)

Anyway, so the trick comes in when you need to do something else.  That’s what cognitive flexibility is all about.  It’s the ability to switch from one task to another, mentally, despite rules that may be wholly different or goals that have nothing in common.  Just like with spinal flexibility, cognitive flexibility gets easier the more we practice.  We have to stretch and stretch until our brains are all pliable and ready to turn 180 degrees at the drop of a hat.

This, I believe, is the root of the issue.  This is why it’s hard to write technical manuals all day and then go home and write poetry.  The rules are different, the motion is different, the mental muscles involved are totally different.  But, just because there’s a hard turn at the end of your day doesn’t mean you CAN’T write tech manuals AND badass lyrics.

Cross-Training Your Writing Brain

I know most of you slobs are also sloths, so I’m going to explain cross-training a bit and then move on to how to do this with your brain.  Cross-training is when you use your body (that thing your head sits on) and you train for two or more different activities.  So, for example, you might run a mile and then hit a heavy bag for 20 minutes.  Or you might swim some laps and then hop on a bike.  Or you might wrestle an alligator and then hang glide.  It’s about balancing the muscle groups so that you don’t develop an abnormally fast gate and the rest of you goes straight to Hell.

This applies to writing in two ways.  First, you lazy bastards need to get moving a bit and second, writing can become a very niche exercise, where you’re only ever strengthening those mental muscles that you use for work.  Hey, it’s not a fault, it means you’re really super dedicated to your job — but it can hurt you in the long term.  For example, if you’re only ever been a reporter and suddenly newspapers go out of business… but I digress.

Just like starting to cross-train your body, cross-training your brain can be pretty painful at first, but if you keep at it, I promise you’ll see results.  As per usual, I have a few tips.

1. Baby steps.  When you’re first starting to try to move into a different genre, for fun or for profit, don’t go all in.  Don’t jump in with both feet.  Start slow, keep your expectations low and for fuck’s sake, don’t try to compare yourself to someone else who is at a different place in their journey than you are.  Keep your eye on the prize and baby step your way there.

2. Slow increase your frequency and duration.  You can’t run a marathon without training, you also can’t write a novel without it.  This is one of the MANY bitches I have with NaNoWriMo, but that’s for the fall and not for now.  You can’t expect you’re going to crank out gems, especially if you decide TODAY that you’re going to write two hours a day, every day, on your novel.  It doesn’t work like that.  Start small.  Write a creative description, sketch a character, write a fucking haiku in the beginning.  Tomorrow, write something that’s slightly longer.  Don’t push yourself to the point of hurting your vital brain bits.

3. Remember to have fun.  Ok, this sounds like garbage, I know.  But the key to success with exercise is to find something you enjoy — and the same goes for writing.  You might be really good as a tech writer and not exactly get thrilled about it, but you can’t pursue a new genre with the same hum-drum attitude.  Choose something you really love and you’ll find that working to perfect it doesn’t seem like another boring writing exercise.

I hope this helps, Deborah,  I understand the pickle you’re in.  There was a time not all that long ago that I realized my work was suffering badly because I was only writing one type of copy all the time.  It was getting repetitive, I wasn’t able to give my clients what they deserved because I didn’t have the cognitive flexibility for it. So, for you, I prescribe “A Book of Luminous Things,” a collection of lots of different kinds of poetry that require different types of technical prowess.  I think that’s a good place to start practicing creative writing — different sorts of simple exercises.  I love haiku and often write stupid haikus when I find I’m not stretching my mental muscles enough.  April is National Poetry Writing Month, so there’s also that to look forward to.

The Truth About Writing Mobility

You guys are probably wondering where the Hell I’ve been the last few months, or, hey, maybe you’re just wondering who the Hell I am since you’ve seen thousands of pieces of Internet content since the last time I published.  Either way, I’m back and that’s sort of what this is about.  Since I became a freelance writer, I was told that one of the biggest perks is the mobility of our particular career field.

I know you’ve seen the advertisements for “writing institutes” and “training programs” that claim you can work from the beach.  I’m here to tell you, after moving about 500 miles from Missouri to Texas, that it’s a lot more complicated than all of that.  Unless you’re a penniless lech, that is.  I guess penniless leches can just sort of toss their laptop in a bag and be off.  But I’m a full fledged adult with bills and property and shit.

From Middle West to Old West

We knew we would be moving to Texas ASAP from the moment my husband took the job in Fort Worth.  He left home on November 13, 2016 and I stayed behind to pack and clean and sell and organize.  As it turns out, even a 1,500 square foot house can be really packed full of shit.  I literally was down to the wire, even though I had three months to do this task and worked on it almost daily.  The problem, it would seem, is that I still had clients and work due and deadlines and all of that razzmatazz.

I was over-extended, even though I had severely shrunk my client base.  I used to keep about 10 on board at any given time, by the time I was packing I was at two and an occasional small gig.  It should have been easy, but as it turns out, not sleeping is really hard on your entire life.  I’ll get back around to that in a separate blog.

Tips for Moving Your Writing to the Beach

That whole working from the beach thing, though; after this move, it’s laughable in a big way.  I mean, I always thought it was bullshit, but now…  Juggling your client load with packing and all of that, it’s an incredible job.  An incredible, scary, awful job.  IF you survive it, it still won’t be the paradise you’ve imagined right away.

Obviously you can be a freelancer and relocate to the beach or the hills or the grasslands or the lakeside or whatever floats your fucking boat, but it’s not easy peasy.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  But if you want to give it a go, I have these magnificent tips based on my recent experience.

#1. Recruit help.  You’re going to need help.  Don’t try to do this alone.  Make friends where you’re going, make friends where you are.  Let them help you find housing, let them help you get rid of junk, let them throw things in boxes.  In short, get help often and don’t turn down any offers.  If you’re in the predicament I was in, where my dogs aren’t really fond of visitors, find another way to let people help.  They want to, they really do, so let them support you while you’re falling apart.  You’ll find yourself rocking back and forth in a corner weeping at some point.

#2. Be honest with your clients.  Tell them that you need to cut back projects until your move is completed.  Be honest and realistic with delivery dates.  Give yourself a wide berth, expect that everything you write will take twice as long as normal.  You’re about to become the worst version of your professional self because of the whole pulling yourself apart thing.  I focused my efforts on two clients that I’ve had for years and I let the rest go.  I figured I could rebuild again later.

#3. Prepare to suck a lot for a while.  The thing about moving long distance that most people don’t realize is that it really does fuck with your reality.  It pulls you apart emotionally and starts to chip away at your sanity.  Even if you’re excited about moving, it still means leaving something behind and we as humans just aren’t that great at letting go of the familiar.  You’re going to lose a lot of sleep, which in turn is going to make you write like shit.  Take your time, edit carefully, try to make yourself presentable as you go.  Don’t take on too much, you suck right now…

#4. Find the words again.  How long it takes to recover from the shock of moving and so much new stuff varies from person to person, but I’m about five weeks out from my moving day as of the writing of this blog and I’m JUST NOW sleeping properly.  I’ve been unable to sleep since November.  But now that I am sleeping, the words are starting to come again.  I’m getting better at seeing through the fog.  I’m getting my organizational systems back in place.  Things are finally clicking again.

It’s not impossible to relocate your writing business, but please don’t let those damn shyster bastards trick you into thinking it’s an easy process.  It’s probably the hardest thing you’ll ever do, short of shooting a watermelon out of your nostril without an epidural.

Set your jaw.  Grit your teeth.  Get organized.  Don’t expect too much.

Now off with you, fucker.  There’s work to do!

What’s This Work/Life Balance Everybody’s Talking About?

I’m about to posit a potentially unpopular opinion.  Are you ready for it?  Brace yourself.

There’s no such thing as a work/life balance for writers.  There’s only work, more work and less work.  We live in a world that’s either all on or all off.  You’re totally in or you’re totally out.  And that makes it nigh on impossible to really have anything like a work/life balance, even with a staff.  Sure, you might be at your kid’s ballgame, but you’re on your smartphone looking up information for your next article or you’re outlining marketing plans for the future or you’re searching for new clients.  The point is that you’re not really all in your real life — your non-writing life.

Instead you’re outlining, you’re world-building, you’re doing anything but living your life.  I think this is why the writing life is so difficult for us, and why it ruins relationships and why it fucking kills people.  There’s no stopping it, or slowing it down.  You’re just always on to the next project.  There’s no leeway.  if you’re on social media to keep up with real life friends, you’re also there performing for your audience.  You’re participating in groups with the hopes that someone will need your services.

Everything. You. Do. Is. A. Lie

Becoming More Present With a Writing Life

Although we tend to go tits-deep with the Writing Life, there’s hope for a work/life balance.  I know, I was shocked to learn this, too.

The truth is that the non-stop world of work is a fiction we’ve created for ourselves because we believe the task is so overwhelming it can never stop.  The truth is that we can and should take time off, slow down, spend time with our families and friends in real life and get out of the fucking house and get some of that sweet, sweet Vitamin D.

I’ve been pondering this a lot lately, and I think — I believe — I have a solution.  Or at least some suggestions, so here we go.  I believe these tips will help you get a little balance in your life:

Give yourself permission to stop.  All of this, I think, starts with the myth that any small business owner needs to be invested in their business all the time, that every moment should be spent working your butt off until you die.  So, let’s start with that.  It’s fucking wrong.  You’re fucking wrong.  Do you hear me?  You’re fucking wrong.  You can run a successful business and still golf three or four times a week, go to your kid’s ballgame without second screening, have a fucking life in between assignments.  Give yourself permission to stop.  Do it right the fuck now.

Schedule regular and significant vacations.  Get out your calendar, bitches.  Schedule two things right now.  First, pick a week or two every four to eight weeks and schedule them off.  Do it now before you fill the rest of your schedule out.  Next, schedule a few days for overflow.  We all have those days where nothing comes together and we suddenly lose our precious days off to make up for that lack of production.  Go ahead and give yourself permission in writing to have both types of days.

Put the computer away.  On those days you’ve scheduled off, get the fuck away from the computer.  I find myself coming in here and fiddling with my calendar or doing something on my laptop when I should be decompressing.  This world is a pressure cooker and the only way you survive it is to go cold turkey.  That includes me.  Get the fuck away from your computer.  Run, don’t walk, on your days off.  Don’t even think about opening up productivity programs or looking at your work schedule.  I swear I’ll find you and cut you.

Find a non-digital hobby.  The way I was raised having a hobby was sort of a secondary or tertiary priority.  But the reality is that it’s not, this is something vital to living an enriched life.  Whether you’re a woodworker or a gardener or you fly kites or ride mountain bikes, you need time away from the computer.  Exercise.  Go outside.  Do competitive sports with your dog.  Anything, just do it in real life, even if you also talk about it online.

Bitches, burnout is a real thing, it’ll crush your heart and soul, it’ll make you feel lost and angry and bored and it’s hard — so hard — to overcome once you’re all in.  So, listen to me now when I say you need to get a little more balance in your life.  Everything has to balance eventually.

God knows you don’t want to find that balance after a mental breakdown and months of not working.

New Year’s Letter: 2017’s Gonna Be Better

A year ago, it was impossible to know that this letter would be the harbinger of the oncoming storm.  But that’s why we do these things — they’re a reset, a way of better understanding where we’ve been and where we’re headed.  In 2016 I had to learn about priorities and how to reshuffle things.  We lost more brilliant writers, we found more friends who were in real trouble and needed a hand up, not a hand out, and we generally fumbled around in the dark pretty hardcore.

I let this blog stagnate and basically sputter out, which was a massive disservice to all of you.  For that I apologize.  For the first time in a long time, things were going pretty smoothly for me — then my husband took a job 450 miles away.  I went through a lot of different emotions, knowing I’d likely never see my native Ozarks again — not in the same way, anyway.   But with this job also comes a new beginning.

Once I finish packing our Ozarks home and we fetch the truck to transport it to our home in Texas, all those little projects I never had the time to work on are going to get attention.  The good ones will be picked up, the bad ones will be chucked, my plate will be cleared.  The very first of those must be this blog, otherwise why am I here today?

2016 was a difficult year, it was a year that brought with it a lot of disaster and destruction and it’s a year that is still leaving a lot of us with more questions than answers.  My advice to that is to keep your questions, but don’t obsess over them.  If you don’t like the direction of a thing, then take a stand.  Don’t mull over it, just do it.  Mulling is for cider.

My life will change in so many ways this coming year, but I hold on to the hope that my new home in The Land of Eternal Summer will bring with it great opportunities I never could have realized here in the Queen City of the Ozarks.  Starting over with new doctors is a terrifying prospect, but it’s a necessary evil.  It is what it is.  It’ll be ok.

Usually I have a lot more to say in these letters, but right now I’m still sort of pondering the future.  I have a lot of irons gently smoking in the fire and a LOT of boxes to pack, so I’m going to call it a day and get my client work finished so I can focus on the massive task ahead.  My one solid goal is to eliminate noise that doesn’t help me either A) personally or B) professionally.

2017 is a year of new beginnings, I can feel it.  But it’s also a year of closing a lot of doors, maybe forever, and it’s a year that’s not going to be gentle.  Change is always chaotic, no matter who you are or how you go about it.  Change is the beast lurking under the bed, it’s the fucking monster in the closet.  The question, then, is how do we juggle change while embracing the future that we’re barreling towards?

I’m not sure, to be honest.  I’m not sure how to do that.  Right now it’s all one big puzzle for me, so if you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.   2017 will be different from 2016… that’s pretty much all we can know for sure.  The world is about to change dramatically.  Journos, stand tall and hold to your ethics, marketers, remember that the truth always sells better than a lie.  The rest of you, find the truth in all things and I think we’ll be ok.  Everyone, shine a big light on the things that matter, bring them to the front, and we’ll come out of 2017 better than we did from 2016.

All my big puffy hearts and shit.

~Kristi

A Writer’s Curse: Stumbling in the Darkness

So.  I’ve been away a long, long time and I feel like I owe you an explanation.  More than that, I feel like I owe  you some advice on what I’ve just come out of because I know from working with other writers that this isn’t an uncommon problem.  Things in my personal bubble got shaken violently back in the before times and I cracked under the pressure.  I was suffering from severe depression and anxiety due to the situation which is still near and dear enough to me that I can’t really touch it yet.

But today I’m back and I want to help you.  I live to help you, believe it or not.

I know, I was surprised, too.

A Long History of Writers and Depression

I’m not actually going to review this case by case, but there’s a weird sort of a romanticism of the tie between mental illness and creativity.  I don’t have any useful studies or stats on this, but I’ve noticed that most of the writers and artists I know personally suffer from some mighty unworldly demons.  Some suffer needlessly, others suffer gladly and the rest put the kibosh on that shit however they can.  This is why writers turn to drugs, drinking, even chain smoking and other unhealthy, obsessive behaviors.

This level of self-loathing is not normal.  But we live it every day and it tricks us into thinking it is.  We’re not super human, we’re just human.  There’s nothing about mental illness that makes you more creative than the next guy — so stop fantasizing about it, for fuck’s sake.

I had a poetry professor way back in the day who once told us that he admired people who were depressed because they obviously had so much to draw from.  So much what?  So much exhaustion and mental fatigue and sheer self-hatred?  He clearly had never suffered from a mental illness to say something so fucking heartless.  His wife had just killed herself by hanging, so I mean, I gave the guy a pass… but that ugly thought has stuck with me even though I’ve lost so many beautiful and lovely memories.

I was in a very dark place recently.  I was groping for anything in the nothing and although I was functioning, I wasn’t thriving and I couldn’t see beyond the moment I was in.  I was showering once a week and  neglecting my friends and connections and crying at the drop of a hat and it was just. not. right.  I’ve seen so many writers go through the same thing and I never really knew what to tell them — how to help them — because I hadn’t lived it.

But now I have and now I can.  I can see it so clearly because I just got pulled out of the fire.  Don’t get me crying again, but I had some very dear ones who never gave up on me.  And that’s the trick, I think.  When you’re groping in the darkness, finding a hand, any hand, that will pull on you until you can see even a slit of light is the biggest gift.  It feels like they’re nosing in, like they’re too much in it all, and maybe that’s because of how isolating the darkness is.  It’s a thankless job, but they do it gladly because they’ve been there, or just maybe because they love you.

I know you can’t feel it or understand it right now, but you are loved.  So, so much.  Someone out there is ready to throw themselves in front of a bullet for you or to endure you endless emotional jabs just to drag you to salvation.  They’re a little like tugboats that way.  Squishy meaty tugboats.

If You’re Stumbling in the Darkness

Writers, there’s no shame in suffering.  There’s no reason to hide.  Take a chance, scream it out — yell, “I’m fucking hurting!” or “I can’t feel any fucking thing!” or even “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I’m not myself!”  Someone will hear you if you yell it loud enough.  Like a man being chewed on by squids, you have to shout at the top of your lungs.  If you’re afraid to tell your friends and family, call a doctor.  Doctors are like firemen, they’re there to help you, even if you don’t believe it in the moment.

A lot of family practice Docs will set you up with a therapist and some anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds.  It can take a few weeks to adjust, but I promise they won’t change you forever.  Your creative spark will be there when you recover and it’ll be just as bright as it ever was.  Even brighter, because your focus will be back where it belongs.  You’ll find yourself in a new personal Golden Age.

It might not be right away, it might even take a long time, but your personal flotation devices will be there to lift you up.  Your network, your family, your friends, your doctor, your therapist, your pharmacist, your fucking internet forum buddies.  All those guys, they’re so incredible — and they don’t mind if you lean on them.  I promise.  And if they do, come find me on Facebook and I’ll introduce you to my incredible family of digital folks.

My friends — because you’re all my dearest dears –you’re never alone in this great big world.  You’ve always got someone worried about you, someone who cares about you, so let them hold you up when you can’t keep going.  They want to help.

I love you all and I hope you’re having a good day.  If you’re struggling and need a friendly voice right now, please call 1-800-273-8255.  That’s the suicide prevention hotline.  They’re pretty A-OK.

PS.  Sorry for the lack of “fucks” in this blog.  I’ll do better next go.

 

This Internet Life: How Are You Influencing Your Audience?

I’ve been an internet person for six years now, for better and for worse, and I often ask myself one simple question: “How am I influencing my audience?”  Are they getting something positive from my social media interaction?  Is my influence something they cherish and find important?  Am I the kind of person people SHOULD be influenced by?  (The answer to that last question is definitely “NO.”)  Think With Google actually did a short piece on the influence of YouTube stars versus traditional celebs back in July and although I just saw it, I think it’s worth the time to reflect a bit.

Do You Think About the Content You’re Putting Out On the Web?

I admit that I didn’t really give a second thought to most of the content I created in the early days of being a full time Internet denizen.  My years at Demand Media (now StudioD) aren’t years I’m particularly proud of, but they gave me time to learn how to work online and build a meager, but loyal, social media following.  I didn’t think about what I was putting out back then, which I kind of wonder about now… but there are no take backs in this world of digital publishing unless you’re the publisher — and I’m not.  Obviously.

So, since then I’ve tried to be more conscious of what I put out into the world.  And, as it turns out, that’s probably a good thing.  I mean, that is if you assume that social media mavens are ranked anywhere between YouTube stars and regular celebrities in influence.  Google found that 70 percent of teenagers related better to YouTube creators than regular celebs and that 40 percent of Millennials believe their favorite creators understand them better than their friends.

Let me stop there for a moment.  Forty percent of Millennials think that digital media creators understand them better than their friends, people that they have a close and personal relationship with, in theory.  That’s an incredible amount of power for you, as a digital creator, to be holding in your hands.  A dangerous amount of power, I’d argue.  You have the ability to affect change, to introduce some really great ideas, share your culture or be lazy and lob worn out material into the universe.  It’s up to you, really.  That’s the crazy part!

You have more power than traditional celebs, people we once revered and followed around like they were the center of the universe.  I can remember going to the super market and being surrounded by sensational headlines (the click bait of yesteryear) about the personal lives of celebrities young and old.  So and so was having a secret affair with so and so.  Such and such was having that guy’s baby.  *gasp*

Tabloid magazines had incredible influence in their day, too, and a lot of unfounded rumors started right there in the grocery queue.  The power of the media is too often well beyond what any individual member of the media estimates that I think we kind of snowball out of control before we realize.

Being a Responsible Content Creator

Yeah, yeah… I know, you’ve gone over this before, and other people cover this shit and this shit has been done.  Well fuck ya’ll, it’s never been done by me.  And unlike some of those other folks, like the guys at Inc. and Google and wherever else you might consider read-worthy, I’m a different sort of thing.  I’m beholden to no one.  I’m a free fucking agent.

And I still think you’re a bunch of assholes who need to get your acts together.  As it turns out, people share that shit you’re making, often without fact-checking it or even bothering to read beyond your sensational headlines.  Don’t believe me?  Do you believe the Washington Post and Columbia University?  What the researchers involved in this project found was that approximately 60 percent (59, to be exact) share news articles and other types of content without actually consuming it beyond the preview generated on social media.

So, if they’re not reading it, what’s the harm?  Oh, boy, the harm’s big and real.  Without reading your content start to finish, those readers aren’t giving themselves a chance to really flex their bullshit detecting muscles.  “Hmm.  I’m pretty sure water doesn’t cause cancer,”  they’d say to themselves if they read all the way to the end of your article.  But since they don’t, you’ve got the added responsibility of making sure you’re not a lying sack of shit.

Here are some tips for not being a lying sack of shit on accident.  I think you can guess how to not do it on purpose:

1. Fact check, you already know your readers won’t.  Before you state that a reader can heal their insulin-dependent Diabetes with Plexus (I know I’m going to make some enemies here, but you can go right on and fuck yourselves…), maybe you should look into what’s in Plexus and maybe ask a doctor for an opinion.  If the ingredients don’t include insulin and the doctor doesn’t say “Yes!  DO THAT!”  then there’s probably not a good reason to believe that’s gonna work.  More importantly, if you can’t find PRIMARY research with placebos and double-blind studies, then there’s a REALLY good chance the health claim you’re making is going to end up hurting someone.  Cut the shit.  I’m really tired of this offense in particular.

However, this also goes for political stuff — and it’s that time in the cycle in America.  Skew the facts all you want, but you better present them whole.  Oh, Hillary was a member of a cult when she was 19?  Great.  But she ended up converting it to a Fortune 500 peanut butter factory?  Fantastic.  The Donald breeds rare kittens just to skin and turn into toupees?  But he also donates extras to kids with cancer?  Give us the whole story.  Give us the accurate story.  Be honest.  Honesty is good, and you’ll feel good….

2. Tame your fucking headlines.  Do you have any idea how ineffective it is to write a thousand headlines that say “This One Amazing Trick…”,”Weirdest X You’ve Ever Seen!,” “X Things You’d Never Believe About Y!”?  I’m pretty sure everyone knows a fucking Click-bait headline when they see it by now.  No one is asking themselves “what is that one amazing trick?”  No one.  Do you know what headlines DO work?  Headlines that say something.  Let me give you an example.  Inc. just posted an article with a headline that reads: “Apple Unveils iPhone 7 With Improved Camera, Wireless Audio.”  It’s not “X Secrets of the New iPhone 7!”  This is how a headline works.  A good headline tells you something about what’s inside.

3. Add something to the conversation or shut the fuck up.  This is probably the hardest part of being a content creator.  The actual content you’re creating… it can’t simply be a repeat of the other content that’s out there.  You need to create something that’s different.  Something that’s special for your client or your brand.  No one wants to read 40 business blogs with the same advice.  They want to read about tricks and tips that worked for your company, with specifics.  Be detailed, be interesting, but most importantly, be fucking original.  I realize that you’ll repeat some of the same advice, that’s going to happen — but add something to the conversation or don’t bother, even if that thing is just a unique perspective and a heavy spattering of “fucks.”

If you read this far, congratulations — you bothered to listen to someone who’s been where you’re headed.  If you didn’t, well, you’ll never see this, but go eat a turd anyway.

Eliminating Distractions in a Social Media World

I don’t usually share the big parts of my life in this blog, but once in a while I think there’s a valuable lesson here, so you know, there you go.  This week has been one really big learning experience after the next.  It’s been one of those weeks, you know what I mean?  It’s a week where there’s not a curse word long enough to encompass the fuckery and so all I can do is mutter calmly, which should scare the shit out of most people in my general wake.

The real world has been highly distracting.  For example, yesterday, Wednesday, August 31, 2016, there was a drugged up madman roaming my neighborhood with a fucking gun.  I wish I was making that up.  I was already dealing with plenty enough distractions in my personal life that adding this weasel on top of it all was much too much, you know?  So, yesterday was kind of a pisser and not much got done besides a lot of tea drinking and stress spiraling and general freaking out.  But from those ashes an idea was born.

The World is Big and Loud and Awful

I’ve been really stressed out lately and I can’t figure out why I can’t get more done with increasingly smaller amounts of time.  What I didn’t realize until yesterday is how much of my day is spent juggling social media, email, friends, family, work and this blog.  And it is a juggling act because all of those things need attention.  It’s not like I can just stop answering emails or let my social media wells run dry.  I can’t ignore my friends or family or just stop working (wouldn’t that be nice?), I can’t give any of it up, but each thing is such a demand that there has to be some way to make it all work better.

I spent last night thinking about all of this.  I’ve actually written a stack of B2B blogs about how managers can better schedule their time, how business owners can avoid burn-out and so forth — but do I take my own advice?  Of course not.  What the fuck do I know?  Obviously nothing.  Clearly.  I’m not trustworthy.  I think we all know that.  But, as it turns out, I’ve written some things that are actually useful, so I’m going to sort of round them all out for you here.  My top tips, as it were, for dealing with a big, loud world of virtual and real problems that seem to tug and tug and tug at a person until they feel like they’re going to explode.

This goes for everyone, not just freelance writers or creatives or artists.  I mean, everyone.  Parents, people with cats, owners of Ford Broncos.  Absolutely everyone needs to learn how to better compartmentalize the noise that’s coming at us all constantly.  We’re drowning in silent screams, whether we know it or not.  It’s time for a change, kids.

These are my top tips.  Gobble them up.  Like Superman’s mom said about the world in Man of Steel, “Make it small.”  Super Mom.  That’s who she is, guys.

1. Prioritize. Your. Shit.  Hey, I’m the first to admit that I’m terrible at this, but I’m working on it.  There are things that will always jump up in your face and get in the way, but every morning, before you do anything, sit down and make a list of things that need to get done.  List them in the order they must be accomplished and check them off. in. order.  If an armed gunman pops up in the middle of your checking things off and screws up your list don’t panic, just do your best to stick to the plan.  Get the stuff done that has to get done.

2. Shut out the noise.  If you’re anything like me, you have several email boxes that allow you to sort out the incoming garbage.  This email is for work, this one is where you get personal stuff, that one’s for spam, but sometimes coupons… you know what I mean.  Spend some time going through those boxes and bother to unsubscribe from the stuff you literally never look at.  If it’s an automatic File 13, make sure it never gets to your box in the first place.  It’ll slow down the pace that your email goes off and you’ll have less to sort through in the morning.  Seems simple enough, but this is a major undertaking, so treat it like eating an elephant: do it one bite at a time.

3. Get organized.  I know you think you’re organized, but you’re not.  If you’re constantly distracted from what you’re doing, if you can’t finish a blog for your email going off or your social media demanding your attention, your organization is shit.  You can turn off the social media for an hour, you can leave the email alone long enough to go to the bathroom.  It can be done.  Organize more than your desk, organize your mind and your time.  This hour is for email, this hour is for work, this hour is for ice cream.  Google Calendar can be a great help for this and doubles as a checklist if you delete things as you accomplish them.

4. Automate your day.  It might not seem as genuine as posting live, but automation is awesome.  Tools like Buffer and HootSuite are amazing for keeping your social media roaring on without your having to constantly monitor it.  I use Buffer, I’m not ashamed to say, and I love it.  I can top it off with 10 or 15 posts in an hour and go on with my day and it feeds my social media crowd for most of a week.  The same goes for things like your blog.  Often (obviously not today), I write these posts way ahead of time and schedule them to go off when it’s time.  You can always bump timeless pieces for breaking news, but having a few scheduled blogs is a great way to keep things rolling.  I’m told that automated email replies are also awesome, though I don’t use those.  I generally just check my email once an hour or so.  Can’t be perfect all the time.

5. Let yourself fuck up.  You heard me.  Guess who’s not perfect.  Yep, it’s you.  You’re a giant bag of failure, in fact.  I saw you fuck up last week when you thought no one noticed.  You got stressed over that thing and shit slid sideways.  Let it go, baby.  It happens.  Things won’t always go your way, life won’t always be perfect.  What will keep you from being at your best is how you respond to those days when it feels like the world is crumbling in your hands.  Do you reach out and phone someone, do you get a friend to help you pick up the pieces, do you hold all that shit inside until you implode into a singularity?  How you respond to fucking up is what defines you, not the fact that you fuck up.  And fucking up your response to fucking up isn’t a death sentence either, so long as you recognize, regroup and respond better next time.

Even this blog could be a source of distraction if you’re reading it instead of, say, drinking coffee if it’s supposed to be your coffee drinking hour.  So, I guess my point is that you’re kind of a jerk and you really need to get your act together.

I can’t believe you writers.  You’re such a fucking mess.  My lunch alarm just went off, so I’m outta here.  Go fuck yourselves.

 

Cloud-Based Office Apps for Writers and Other Maniacs

If you have a memory that functions better than that of a fruit fly, you’ll recall that on Tuesday I published a piece on why moving your operation to The Cloud just makes fucking sense in 2016.  I’m not going to leave you hanging there, though.  I went out to the web to figure out what options you had for Cloud-based office applications so this blog would be like… useful and shit.  Anyway.  That’s what I’ve been doing since Tuesday.

There are a ton of specialized Cloud-based spaces today, you can get anything you want from blank canvas hosting to point of sale software and project management tools out there in the wild.  There are also a ton of outdated links to tools that no longer exist (I realize the future irony of that statement, so shut your face).  In light of all of that, I thought I’d just make it a lot easier and bring all the information I found together into one space, tell you about my experiences and what I’ve heard and let you make your own decisions.  How’s that sound?

Enter the World of Cloud-Based Apps for Writers

In my hunt for the better Cloud-based office suites, I found four that I consider to be major contenders in the market as of right now.  Right now.  Remember, these things change constantly, new stuff comes in, old stuff shrivels up and dies like so many raisins in the sun.  Staying power is actually a major consideration for me, since I feel that The Cloud should host my data forever so I don’t have to bother to move it again.  That means really my choices are really limited to two, but I’m still going to present all four for you.  Ok?  Ok.  So here they are.

Zoho Office Apps.  If you read anything about Cloud-based word processing, it’s going to include the Zoho suite because, frankly, the writer’s desperate to get away from MS and Google.  The truth is that the Office section of Zoho is bundled UNDER the Mail program, which, to me, says that it’s basically an afterthought.  Zoho is really a productivity and project management tool, it’s not a fucking word processor.  I mean, it can get the job done, but unless you primarily want it for the other stuff it can do, I’d steer clear.  Forget this thing ever existed.

Polaris Office.  Admittedly, I’ve not downloaded Polaris Office, but from the tellings, the sayin’s on the web, this is actually a really awesome suite that’s super affordable.  If you can’t quite spring for Office, but you’re no fan of the Googler, Polaris can do everything MS wants to do and is free to get started.  Functionality and storage improves as your contribution improves, of course, but that’s the way life is, idn’t?  The one thing to note is that Polaris, like MS, will require some local storage.  So if you’re working with a device with limited disk space it might not work out for you.

Microsoft Office 365.  By now you’ve probably heard of a small company in Seattle called Microsoft.  They made an office suite, aptly called Office.  When it went to The Cloud, they called it Office 365.  We used to bitch about how much it cost, but now we can subscribe to it on a monthly basis for like $7.  It’s really quite cheap and you can save stuff in their Cloud space and all of that.  It works with all your mobile devices, it’s a Microsoft product so you don’t have to worry if your documents will be compatible with users of Microsoft Office (which is a rare complication of using any of the non-MS products).  Lots of bonuses.  Downside is that it’s still Microsoft, so there’s that.  They do at least now offer a free version (thank you, Nancy Allen, for that correction.)  Here’s the link.

Google Drive.  I saved the best for last.  Or, I saved the one I use for last, at least.  I love Google Drive… for a number of reasons.  First, I can export to just about any format, with reasonably few problems.  Second, it’s free unless I want to pay for extra storage (which I do, to the tune of a whopping $1.99 a month).  Thirdly, even though it’s still a pretty basic word processor, it can do a bunch of stuff — so it’s kind of a split between the graphically heavy, overly functional MS Word and the more basic WPs available elsewhere.  I can do a resume on this thing as well as write a document.  I don’t need another thing.  I can do all the things here.  So, it’s my go to.  It’s also compatible with my Chromebook, which I use for writing quite often.  *shrug*  I like it.  I’d actually pay for it.

As of right now, these are your options.  I’ve heard that LibreOffice is working on going to The Cloud, so if you’re a fan, you may want to watch for updates about that.  I don’t know more, I could sort of take it or leave it.  Whatever, yo.

Get thyself some Cloud computing.  It’ll change the way your life works forever.  FOREVER.

4 Reasons All Writers Should Be On The Cloud

In my early years as a young, budding journalist, there was no key combo as important as Apple-S.  Apple-S.  You wrote a beat, then Apple-S.  Oh, Apple-S.  Did I remember to Apple-S?  Let’s Apple-S just in case we didn’t Apple-S.  Every article was a long string of words invisibly punctuated with Apple-S.  (For you PC-types, that’d be CTRL-S)

The computers we used back then were amazingly sleek replacements for our typewriters and onion skin papers, but they couldn’t quite be trusted.  Oh no.  Those little fuckers would lock up or forget we’d written something or just sort of vomit whenever it seemed to suit them.  The closer to the deadline, the more likely this was to happen.  So, everything we wrote back in the 90s was punctuated with Apple-S because we were engaged in a never-ending battle with a technology that was created to make our lives easier and actually ended up creating a new subconscious keystroke for an entire generation of writers.

Eventually technology caught up to our actual needs and this amazing fucking thing was invented.  They call it The Cloud.  It’s not white and puffy, it’s not a sign of stormy weather, it’s a thing out there where you can store data and shit.  It’s fucking unicorn magic and puppies and fairy dust and donuts with sprinkles all wrapped up in a big soft down comforter and compressed into ones and zeroes for your fucking consumption.  So let’s talk about that.

Get On The Cloud Today, Freelance Writer!

So, The Cloud.  You can’t really understand The Cloud without experiencing it, but I’m going to do my best to explain it to you so we can both feel like we did our jobs here.  Now fucking sit and listen, because I’m sure as shit not going to repeat myself.

Do you remember when we had to use floppy disks or Zip drives or other portable media for files because we shared computers and did other unsanitary things in the newsroom?  You’re too young for that?  Hmm.

Well, there was a time when we had to carry our data with us because there was no where else safe to put it save inside the belly of a single computer, where it was difficult to share with anyone who might need it.  Instead of emailing files, we carried them to one another on coasters containing encoded magnetic circles that magically recreated our ideas — mostly.  I mean, if they got too close to a magnet or you dropped them or used them for an actual coaster, well, you were probably fucked.  And that’s why The Cloud is really important.

Know your computing history.   Here are four reasons why using The Cloud is superior to all that data lugging bullshit:

Two words: Auto. Save.  If you’re not part of the Apple-S Generation, you don’t know the struggle of constantly having to save your data for fear that you’ll lose it all if your computer were to suddenly crash or the power were to go out in a freak wind storm or something else horrific were to happen.  If you’ve never lost an entire article to one tiny computer hiccup, you don’t know the struggle.  But for those of us who lived through those dark times, The Cloud offers an anxiety-free alternative: Auto Save.  For example, Google Drive literally saves every character as you type.  It doesn’t get much more up to the second than that.  You can also configure your computer, smartphone or tablet to back everything up to your Cloud drive… so there’s literally nothing you can’t protect.

Improved Data Integrity.  Remember those disks I was talking about like 10 seconds ago?  Well, like cassette tapes, they didn’t have especially great data integrity.  Meaning that sometimes, even if you “Apple-S”ed as hard as you could go, you’d still lose your data because your disk was garbage.  Or if you did get your disk too close to a magnet or something that contained a magnet, it might wipe the disk entirely — making you double fucked.  Hard drives were also easily corruptible in the old days, basically nothing could be trusted.  So you had to print a copy and carry around a digital copy if you had any hopes of keeping your data intact.  The tech that backs The Cloud is so secure and has such excellent integrity that credit card companies and banks are moving their entire operations there instead of trying to upgrade their internal systems to match the level of tech.

Many Services Offer Built-In Software.  Your old, slow word processor that’s no longer compatible with anything or anyone needs to be chucked, along with the platform shoes in your closet and those fucking parachute pants.  NO ONE LOOKS GOOD IN PARACHUTE PANTS!  There are a number of Cloud services that offer built-in software suites for people just like us.  Access to word processors, spreadsheets and even presentation software is as easy as spending your $5 or $10 a month for your storage and access.  Your software’s always up to date and you’ll never have to have that embarrassing conversation with a client when they ask why they can’t open your file.

Group Think.  Even if the other stuff isn’t appealing to you, there’s one thing you can do on The Cloud that you’d never be able to do on your Earth-based PC.  You can’t share a document and literally work on it at the same time as someone else.  For any sort of group think project, from editorial calendars to branding projects and even blogging brainstorming sessions, having more than one brain in your working document can improve it exponentially.  Or it can fucker it up — I mean, I don’t know what sort of shitwads you work with.

Like it or not, unicorn butt sniffer, times change and we get better tools.  It’s to our advantage to use them instead of clinging to the same old technology we’ve been using since the Dark Ages.  Break your dependency on routine, check out some Cloud tools and see what you’ve been missing.  In part two of this two part series I’ll be discussing and reviewing some of the major Cloud subscriptions so you can make a more informed decision.

 

Humor Writing Tips: You’re Not Funny, But You Can Be

My whole life people have told me that I’m one funny motherfucker, but you know, looks aren’t everything.  That’s an old, awful joke that you should never repeat.

Humor writing is one of the most difficult types of writing to master, in my opinion.  It’s one that I see people trying very hard to apply to everything quite often and Jesus H. Christ it’s painful.  So I wanted to write a treatise on just how to improve your humor writing.

The problem I quickly found is that humor writing is more than I can possibly put into a single blog — it’s an attitude, it’s a way of being, it’s a way of seeing things differently, and it’s definitely a book’s worth of guidance.  Hell, it might be a class.  I dunno.  The point is that it’s huge and you are small and this blog is never more than about 800 words.  And in 800 words I can barely dip a toe into the waters that are comedy writing.

To be clear, I’m talking about writing humorous columns, or adding a dash of humor to an otherwise bland and boring business blog.  I’m talking about cheap shots on social media.  I can’t help you with your stand-up comedy, I’m not that sort of writer.  Timing is everything, but timing is different between the written word and the spoken word.  So if you’re here for advice for your routine, keep that in mind.  I’m not responsible for all the fucking tomatoes about to be lobbed at your head.  (Please send us a link to the video, though, because we want to see it!)

What is Humor Writing, Really?

I’ve been studying comedy since I was 10 or so, whether I knew it or not.  All those hours spent watching “Evening at the Improv” and “Saturday Night Live” with my brother late into the night and reading “Norton’s Book of Light Verse” and Shel Silverstein and trying to really figure out what it was that made things funny were the bedrock of what would later become a more formal study of humor and how it functions in the human brain.  What I’m trying to say is that I can make you laugh.  Even if you don’t want to.  It’s like a fucking super power.

But it’s not magic.  Not really.  It’s science, in a way.  It’s all about understanding what people think is funny and how to add the unexpected in places it shouldn’t be.  Humor is about bringing a twinkle to someone’s eye, not beating them to death with jokes about ducks.  In the written form, it’s subtle, it’s graceful and it’s fucking hilarious.  Go read some old Dave Barry or Erma Bombeck and see how they do it.  They don’t throw joke after joke at you, they spin a web with jokes stuck here and there.  And that’s what we’re gonna do.  Because that’s how it goes.

Tips for Improving Your Humor Writing

Face it, your humor writing fucking sucks.  But, we can fix that.  I mean, maybe.  Maybe you’re doomed to a life of mediocrity because you don’t care to study or learn or get better.  I don’t fucking know you.  But this is a good place to start.  Also, read this, because I thought it was an excellent article on the topic.  Also try this stuff:

Stop trying so hard.  Humor works best when it comes naturally.  When you’re trying to force it into every crack and crevice, your audience is going to notice.  I mean, sure, tweak your words so your delivery is solid, but just fucking chill a little.  If your writing’s uptight and then a joke comes along, one of two things is going to happen: that joke will sound totally unnatural and thus your reader is going to stumble over it or worse, no one will notice it at all because they’ve already fallen asleep.

Consider your audience.  So, this may sound awful, but I don’t particularly fucking care because it’s the truth.  Some audiences will laugh at fart jokes and others laugh at parenting jokes and a third group only want to hear awful, misogynistic, racist jokes.  Obviously you can deduce my stance on the third group.  If you have to tear someone down to get a laugh, go fuck yourself.  But, the point of this is that you have to consider what your audience thinks is funny when you’re writing humor.  If you tell pie jokes and your audience thinks pie jokes are fucking hilarious, then don’t start telling jokes about dogs because they’re not going to hit.  Stick with pie jokes.  Branch out into cake, see how that goes.  Baby steps.  Remember that your audience is the most important thing because jokes are very personal.  Not everybody has to like what you’re selling, but your audience should.

Pepper that shit in.  I see you guys smearing jokes on thick like they’re peanut butter and you’ve got one last slice of bread.  Jesus.  Let it go.  Calm the fuck down.  When you’re writing a column or a book or whatever, you need to go easy.  Jokes are tasty little spices that add to your message, not rapid-fire missiles to use to attack your readers’ eyeballs.  So, slow it down.  One joke at a time.  Give your reader a minute to digest the first joke before the next one comes.  Give a joke, then something useful, then another funny little tidbit.  Otherwise they’re going to choke on your words and someone’s going to have to call an ambulance.

Have something to say.  In the same vein as the statement above, you’ll need to have something to say to go along with your written jokes.  Whether you’re telling a story about your cat or explaining how rockets work, keep that joke in context.  A joke without context is… what?  A bad dad joke?  A joke a fifth grader would tell?  We’re better than that, people.  Tell a story, give your audience a show.

I know this is a sorry shitty excuse for what you really need to improve your humor writing, but it’s a start.  I intend to do an eBook and post it here in a while about humor writing and how to do it.  This is definitely a book… not a blog.  There’s just too much.  So, stay tuned for that kids.

Until then, stop being a shitty comedian.  Stop being a racist humorist.  Find something funny that’s not tearing down other people.  People of Walmart isn’t funny… but you know what is?  This.*  THAT IS FUCKING HILARIOUS.

*(Special thanks to Sara Barcus: Fine Art and Illustration for that one)