Commentary: Google’s New Policy on Email Scanning

Friday’s post on Google’s own blog is causing a pretty significant stir in my circles right now.  Largely, I think it’s because no one really realized that their emails were being read by The Googler. For me, it’s something else… it’s speculation on why this is happening.  What’s coming?  WHAT IS THE GOOGLE HIDING?!?

I know a lot of you have waited a long time for Google to eventually reveal that it was actually behind the last year’s hyjinx all along and is now plotting world domination.  I know you believe this is going to happen, or at least that Amazon is going to undermine all retail, ever.  As with most things in life, it’s none as sinister as you reckon.  The truth is always somewhere between the two extremes in any argument, you just have to find it.

Back to Google’s Email Scanning

Because Google directly impacts what we do, it’s important that we stay on top of what it’s up to — but it’s equally important that we understand what we’re reading.  This is akin to how we use statistics or study data or anything like that, it’s one thing to read it and another to actually understand it.  The understanding is the thing, is my point.

Google has stated that it has never scanned its G Suite emails, only mining free email accounts for information.  When many people read this, the first thing they do is cry, because they’ve emailed some pretty personal/sexy/intimate thoughts using the service.  The thing those folks need to realize is that what Google IS STILL DOING (many headlines made it read like it was stopping Friday, but it’s not stopping until October — that’s another rant for another day) is simply scanning for keywords it can use to feed you ads.  I mean, this is nothing.  It’s a non-thing.

What IS interesting is that they’re stopping.  At least, to me.  Google has spent many years developing some pretty crazy advanced computer systems that can not only make reasonable assumptions and predictions, but learn from data that they’re fed.  Their machine learning is on the cutting edge of everything, Google’s machines are smarter than people in many respects, which is both exciting and frightening.

This not-headline is what the news should be, in my opinion.  If they’re not scanning emails any longer to feed us personalized advertisements, how are they going to do it?  Ad personalization isn’t going anywhere, so what we should be asking is “what’s next?” for Google advertising.

More Speculations on the Google Machine Future

Because Google is predicted to make $72.69 billion this year in ad revenues, I have a hard time believing that it would make a move that would damage that income stream.  More likely, one of two things is happening right now: Google has realized that scanning emails is a fruitless place to hunt up information that enables accurate predictions or (and this is what I think) it has found a much better way to sort this.

After all, keyword-based predictive algorithms are incredibly resource intensive, so if I were a Google, I’d be looking for a faster, easier way to achieve the same level of accuracy.  And hey, it turns out the minds at Google have actually thought a lot about this stuff, as evidenced by papers like “Ad Click Prediction: A View from the Trenches,” published in 2013 and the on-going craziness happening at the Research at Google site.

The thing, the real thing here in this story, I think — I believe with all my brainy bits — is that we’re entering a new stage in the maturation of artificial intelligence and machine learning.  Facebook, Amazon and other internet giants will certainly wonder what Google has built instead of focusing on the minutiae of unscanned email.  Although Google is a not terribly awful overlord, it’s still in it for the money.  Dropping the email scanning is not one of those things that it did just to make people happy.  It simply found a better way to keep you checking your email so you’ll see ads that might convince you to buy a thing.

Mark my words — MARK THEM! — the real story isn’t what Google posted, it’s what it held back.  There’s more to this story, and I have a funny feeling it’s about to get pretty fucking awesome up in here.  Even as my once-noble profession, journalism, is threatened by machine learning, I’m thrilled as fuck to welcome our smart machine conquerors.

Do you think they’d like a muffin basket?

Does Your Lede Actually Lead Readers In?

In the age of SEO and writing to appease Google bots, it’s a rare thing to actually consider your audience, even for a moment.  Imagine, if you will, a place where you could get any information you wanted, simply by asking, and it appeared, like magic.  Not only was that information easy to understand, it was packed in a way that you actually enjoyed reading it.  Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Well, the future is now, bitches.

For too long, we’ve been writing like machines for machines, forgetting our human element.  Trick headlines to draw people in to content they don’t really want to read has reached an apex, now we enter the age of user-focused content.  Are you ready for this?  I mean, really?  Or do you struggle with the ledes of your blogs and articles?  I won’t lie, the lede has long been my weak point, but those who can’t do teach, so the saying goes.

What Are Ledes and Why Should I Care?

Even before the Internet, you had to convince people that the content you’d produced was worth reading.  In newspapers and magazines everywhere, the lede was the thing.  It had the hook, it was the reason that the rest of the article was consumed.  The lede was the Alpha and the Omega.  The lede was everything, and if you couldn’t crank one that hooked, you were doomed.

Modern web copy isn’t much different, frankly.  Now that the age of misleading headlines is ending, we have to focus on the execution of the content.  We need to remember the old rules that kept readers reading and writers in jobs.

The lede is all about starting out.  You know the story you’re going to write, so how would you explain it to someone who might be interested?  That’s all a lede is, it’s just an introduction to your content.  It’s a top hat you put on to make it all neat and tidy.  Ledes also give your content cohesion since you can easily relate your conclusion back to them, tying it all up with a pretty bow.

I could leave it at that, but you know I won’t.  There are several different kinds of ledes that journalists and magazine writers use, they can all be applied to web content, as well.  This is where I explain them:

Summary.  This is probably the most common type of lede, but it’s gross unless you’re writing hard news.  It’s dry, it just states the basic facts of the story and it’s assumed that if readers want to learn more, they’ll read on.  It’s boring.  It’s done to death.  Again, unless it’s hard news, don’t do this.  Ever.

Anecdotal.  These ledes pull in anecdotes that illustrate the point of the article.  It can be very effective if executed properly, but is often not executed properly.  An example of how to use this would be something like “There was this one time I was walking along and found a dollar on the ground.  I was thrilled, but not half as thrilled as Dr. Hammer, who found a winning Powerball ticket yesterday.”  (Lame example)

Commentary.  Be careful with these, they’re a little dangerous. Unless you’re writing an op-ed, they probably won’t work at all.  However, you can lede with your opinion on the thing if the thing is something worth having an opinion on.  Also, people have to care about your opinion.  So far you’re 0 for 2.  Try it like this:  “Many people say the ocean is wet, but they’re totally crazy pants.  I firmly believe the ocean is composed of nanobots that create a mist to produce the illusion of a body of salty water.”

Pop culture.  If you’re writing evergreen content, don’t do this.  Ever.  Otherwise, it can be pretty effective if you know what kids these days are into.  I, clearly, do not.  My pop culture example:  “Pac-Man is good at chasing ghosts and eating endless amounts of fruit and pellets, but he’s got nothing on Bob Hunter, the new hotdog eating champion.”

Paint a Picture (aka. Scene-setters).  Paint a Picture is by far my favorite lede ever, ever.  I mean, it doesn’t work everywhere, but when it works and you write it properly, it’s a beautiful thing.  Here’s an example: “Imagine, if you will, sleek red curves, deep black shades and lots of cargo space — this is just the beginning of the beauty that is the Car-O-Matic 3000.  It’s everything you’ve ever wanted, but on wheels.”  Or “Fireflies blinking in a meadow call to me, bringing me back to my homeland, back to the rolling hills and lush, green grass of the cow pasture.  The doe-eyed animals were content to ruminate over fescue and hay while my brother and I walked the path to the dark woods and the small pond it sheltered on our property.”

Hey, Why Do They Call It a Lede?

No fucking clue, dude.  I even Googled around quite a bit and couldn’t find an answer that made much sense.  The closest reasonable explanation was that “lede” was used to distinguish the beginning of a story when it was sent via wire the old fashioned way.  That way it wouldn’t get lost, I guess.  But for me, it was what I learned, so that’s how I’m teaching you.  It was good enough for journalists of the old school, with our wax burns and mad X-acto knife skills, so I’m clinging to it curmudgeonly .

Now get off my lawn.


Zero Kelvins, Or The Difference Between Can’t and Won’t.

Zero.  Zilch. The big donut.  This is today’s blog topic.  Why?  Because I fucking hate spoons and so we’re gonna make a logical argument that makes sense.  I don’t care if that’s what the kids are doing today or if some one is comforted by a metaphor that falls incredibly short of what it actually means to be living with one or more chronic illnesses that literally leave you unable to move, mutter or moan.

In my house, we talk about Kelvins.  According to quantum mechanics, absolute zero (defined as zero Kelvins), is the point where matter has its lowest internal energy.  All those little particles stop booping around for a while and just sorta chill.  Because ABSOLUTE zero.

More importantly, how is this at all related to this blog?  Well, fuckers, it came up as a topic of discussion in one of my favorite Facebook groups and, yaknow, being as how I’ve not been able to keep this blog going lately, I figured why not.  So today, bitches, we’re talking about Kelvins.  Fuck yer spoons.

The Difference Between Can’t and Won’t

Anyone who has worked with me anytime ever knows that I’m very bad about working myself to a point where most people fear to tread.  I’ll miss sleep, I’ll write for 24 hours straight (remember that one, hotel description team?  Good times…..), I’ll miss meals, I’ll miss out on real life.  This is a very bad habit to develop.  It means you have no room for anything else in life.

Well, when I got sick, I had to really learn how to sit on myself.  I learned the true meaning of “can’t.”  When most people say they don’t have the bandwidth or that they just can’t take on another project right now, they’re safeguarding their time.  What they really mean is that they won’t.  And it’s ok to refuse to do a thing so you can do other things.  You don’t need to spend a week in a mental ward to learn this lesson the way I did.  It’s ok to say no, in whatever polite terms you choose…. or even the not-so-polite ones, Precious Little Snowflake.  Fuck those social niceties.

But for most people, they say “can’t” when they mean “won’t.”  And this is an important distinction to make, I think.  I think it’s ok to say you won’t.  No, I won’t do the thing.  The thing is too time consuming, it’s too obnoxious, it’s too much pondering life’s deepest questions, it’s too existential dread.  The thing is a no.  And that’s the end of it.  Now I’m going to go to my intramural crochet kickboxing class.

“Can’t” is another animal.  You can’t because you literally have another thing blocking your ability to do the thing.  I can’t because I have to care for my elderly parent.  I can’t because my dog was just hit by a car and my brain is coming unglued.  I can’t because I woke up totally flatlined from tomorrow (aka. zero Kelvins).  I can’t means there’s no way whatsoever that in any possible configuration of reality you’re able to do the thing.

And “can’t” is a constant when you have zero Kelvins.  Especially when having zero Kelvins is a new thing, or you’re trying very hard to make headway in other areas and them Kelvins keep nose-divin’.  When you have a chronic illness, or a host of them, “I can’t” might happen because you had a sandwich for lunch instead of another liquid meal.  It might happen because you sat out in the sun one minute too long and now have a sunburn that is literally taking all your energy to heal.  It happens for things that don’t make sense to anyone else, and it’s often things you can’t predict. (See, proper use of “can’t”)

Avoiding Zero Kelvin for Writers and Other Home-Based Workers

Zero Kelvin is a bad place to be, especially if you’re a freelancer who took that route instead of filing for disability.  There are a lot of us, and we’re a blessed in a lot of ways.  I mean, really.  If your primary skill is digging ditches and you lose a limb — BAM — no choice but to file.  If your job is to speak in front of people all the time and you develop agoraphobia, that’s just it.

But if you write or draw or whatever, it’s a solitary thing with a set finish point.  You don’t need to be in an office, or even in pants, in order to mission accomplish.  Sure, you might be a bit slower than you were before you got sick, but you still possess that skill that can happen behind the scenes.  You can hide movement disorders behind carefully composed emails, cover mood disorders with a digital veil, you can literally do the thing without anyone being any wiser.

Not that I advocate for hiding your disability from your adoring public, but that’s an option you will always have.  As a good friend of mine wrote on social media yesterday:  “Unfortunately peopling online is different than peopling in person and I’m definitely not good at the peopling with the people in person. People.”

I think that pretty much sums it up.  Sometimes — online — you can be a whole person.  A whole person with a good job and feelings of accomplishment and whatnot.  But, in order to keep up this charade, you have to know how to avoid hitting zero Kelvin.  So, as per pretty much always, I’ve got a few tips to make your life much more betterer.

1. Focus on Work.  Working from home can be a gauntlet of temptation.  You want to take that phone call, you want to do the laundry, the dishes call you from the kitchen.  You can’t succumb to temptation.  Work time is work time, not doing chore time, not free from the kids time, not sleeping until noon time (well, sometimes it’s that, too).  So work.  Don’t do other shit.

2. Prioritize Your Workload.  Deadlines are great, they let you know which things are the most overdue so you can focus on those first.  (Seriously, don’t do that.)  When you live with chronic illness, it can be stressful to keep going.  It can be a total cry-fest in order to just move from one moment to the next.  So, prioritize things and do them in order.  First, do your blogs that are due tomorrow, then onboard that new client.  Or first research for your upcoming interview, then write about the best taco trucks in America.  Whatever.  But have a list and stick to it.  Anything that’s low priority today can be high priority tomorrow if you don’t find the bottom.

3.  Automate all you can.  I know a lot of you are still hesitant to invest in things like Buffer, HootSuite and the like in order to make your lives easier.  They’re a scam, you say.  I can post the thing when it’s time.  I say you’re a fool and you’re deceiving yourself.  Those tools are wildly popular because they make it easier and faster to do the work you’re doing by hand.  For example, I have two tools I use for social media: Feedly and Buffer.  These two together make it simple to aggregate news, schedule posts, re-schedule posts and I can do it when I’m having downtime (read that “in the bathroom”) or when I feel a little perkier.  It lets me shift my energy around, which is really all we can do to survive this life.

Look, living with a chronic illness is no fucking picnic.  I’m not gonna lie.  You’ll have to make tough decisions about when you “won’t” so that you don’t reach that wall where you simply “can’t.”  The trick is to stop before you hit zero Kelvins, even if you’re just on the brink.  That last step is a doozy and requires climbing gear to come back from — and you’re already way too fucking spent for that sort of shit.  Turning a can’t into a won’t means you live to fight another day.


How Does Your Writing Stack Up to the Cheesecake Factory’s Menu?

So, I was cruising the web the other day, as I am apt to do, and I came across this gem from Neil Gaiman’s blog.  The TL;DR version goes something like this: he was asked to read the Cheesecake Factory’s menu for a highly publicized charity stunt.  And that got me thinking, scratching my long luxurious lady-beard, and I wondered to myself: How would I feel if what they had chosen to read was something I had authored, even if it was ghosted.  After all, I still hold a little piece of those word babies tight to my chest and feel responsible for them for their entire lives.

Then I thought “Well, Hell, that could be a blog topic!”  So here we are.  You are now officially caught up.  Thanks for sticking with me.

How Does Your Content Read to Others?

As you probably know by now, I work with young writers from time to time, giving them whatever weak bits of advice I can come up with and generally acting like I actually know something.  One of the most common roadblocks these young’ens have is a fear of not being good enough or of being out-written by the competition.  I’m sure you’ve had this fear yourself at some point in your journey, or maybe you feel that way right now.   I’d be a liar if I said I never felt that I wasn’t as good as other writers.

But you know what?  If someone is paying you for writing on a consistent basis, you’re doing better than most.  Even those keyword-driven content monkeys are doing a better job with the words than the vast majority of the public, else the Google would have blacklisted their sites long ago.  And that, my friends, should bring you some level of comfort.  However, resting on your laurels is what’ll get my big black boot right up your ass.

You can always be better.

What if Neil was reading YOUR infomercial, blog or product descriptions for charity?  How would you feel?  Would you shrink in shame because you phoned it the fuck in and didn’t bother to actually care?

Although I’m not exactly proud of all the work I’ve done, and I’ve worked for some clients that I felt were totally fucking awful slimeballs (ambulance chasers, for example), if Neil Gaiman were to read any of those pages, any of those pieces out loud, I’d take a front seat.  I’d be like, “Them’s my words, motherfuckers, and Neil bloody Gaiman is reading them!”  And then I’d pass out.

Improving Your Content, Improving Your Mindset

There are two kinds of writers in this world.  Those that write with confidence that they’re doing all they can to produce top notch content and those who bang out random words in hopes of getting paid.  You can easily tell the difference between the two.  Writer #1 is crippled with self-doubt and reads blogs like this.  Writer #2 has no fucks to give.

You’re reading this, so I assume you’re Writer #1.  And if you’re Writer #2, maybe you sorely want to be Writer #1, so I’m giving you a pass just this once.  Charity.  Don’t get used to it.

That writer that’s wracked with guilt, that wishes they could do more, be more, learn more, get better and better, they’re the ones to watch.  And there’s a reason for this.  Not only are they meticulously checking their work for places it could be improved, they’re also spending time reading and learning, which tends to trickle down into a wider vocabulary and even better ways to turn a phrase.  Tends to.  I mean, you can’t get away with reading cereal boxes and learn anything, but I digress.  This blog is built on generalization, after all.

If you’re already doing all that stuff — the reading and the learning — well, I mean, that’s about all there is out there.  There’s no magic to good writing.  You simply learn the words, you figure out how they fit together, while demystifying punctuation and developing a sense for how people read along.  Metre is important, it’s so vital, but it’s something you pick up as you go.

So, if you’re struggling, if you’re wondering if you’re enough, and you think you’d be mortified if Neil Gaiman were to read your blog, you’ve probably alright.  A lot of it comes with experience.  You’ll learn when to hold them (keep working on a piece) and when to fold them (stop touching it and turn the motherfucker in).  You’ll learn when to walk away, you’ll learn when to run (from bad clients?  This metaphor isn’t holding up).   Write, that’s the thing.  Keep writing and keep caring.

Writing Readable Content is the Goal

There are lots of tips out there for writing clean and perfect content (it’s a fucking unicorn, stop chasing it), but there’s only one you really need.  Read that shit out loud, motherfuckers. Read it to your cat, read it to your pet barracuda, read it to the stars, but read it.  There’s only so much you can extrapolate about the flow of a thing by simply staring the words down.  You need to hear them, bring them in through your earholes and savor each umlaut.

Listening to your content is the one and only way to ensure that others will read it as you intended it.  Clear your mind and read that shit out loud.  You can break the rules, you can put an m-dash where there should be a period, provided it all flows right in the reading.  Look, I don’t know what your mother told you, but English is a language that should flow easily from the tongue, even if you’re reading a automotive parts catalog or a Cheesecake Factory menu.

I did a piece a while ago about writing by beats, and I still believe in this.  I do this every single time I write.  Do I need to write something super peppy and salesy?  Crank the happy music.  Am I writing a somber report of sadness?  Slow and steady, man.  Writing by beats is a quickie cheat to getting your metre right.  I’m very pro-cheat, or “life hack,” as we now call this shit.

What I hope you take from this blog is that you are absolutely capable of writing better content than the marketers at the Cheesecake Factory.  Your content can fucking sing if you’ll let it.  Just keep writing, just keep writing, and don’t forget to crank the jams.

I’m counting on you.  Make me proud.

Beginning Again is the Thing

There are times in life when no matter what we do, we simply can’t keep going.  We can’t keep working, we can’t keep blogging, we can’t keep exercising, we can’t keep living like a human… and for many, that’s where it ends.  I’m done.  There’s no way to fix this mess.  But as a certified stop-and-start college student, I can tell you from experience that failing isn’t the thing.  Beginning again is the thing.

What I mean is that there comes a point in your life where you’re gonna fall off the Goddamn horse.  He’s gonna kick you in the face, he’s gonna roll you in the dirt, and you’re going to want to lay there and just like it.  You’re going to want to make the ground your new home because you’re embarrassed, you’re disappointed, you’re afraid that you’ll never be able to ride a horse again — not properly, anyway.

The fact is that everybody falls.  Everybody has moments where they simply. cannot. hold. on.  And the correct response is to catch your breath and then stand back up, dust off your jeans, slap your hat back on and get back in those motherfucking stirrups.  I say this as a person who has never ridden a horse, but I think the metaphor works.  I’m eager to hear from horse people (not centaurs) who will ultimately correct me and tell me I’m wrong.  Whatever.  Words.  Feh.

The Art of Failing

There’s little in this life that will truly teach you how to be human like a nice, fat, public failure.  You’re afraid to try again, I know you are, because you might fail again and just dig that hole you’re in a lot deeper.  This is why so many writers start out and don’t get far.  Our career is about failing.  Our career is about humility.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is full of shit.

Writers burn-out, writers fail, life happens, it all turns into a giant smorgasbord of dicks.  There’s a lesson in the failing, though.  You learn what isn’t working, which is a valuable thing to know.  Tempering your skill under pressure will absolutely always give you better results than living in a vacuum where you’re always perfect and always on point.

Fuck it.  Be off point.  Lose your mind.  Expand your waistline.  Get Diabetes.  Fail miserably in life and in work.  Screw up so bad your friends aren’t sure what to say to you.  Do it because it’s a lesson that’s waiting for you.  Do it because you want to be better.  Don’t let it drive you into an anxiety spiral, let it drive you into a tailspin of self-improvement.

Why am I spouting all this fucking nonsense?  I feel like the world’s biggest loser right now.  But I know I’m not the only one.  I’m not the only person who has failed and feels like there’s no escape.  So, I’m blogging instead.  I’m beginning again.  I’m giving you something to hold on to if you’re dangling from the end of your rope.

In the last week and a half, three people who were important to some part of my life died.  I’m 500 miles from home and covered up in work.  I feel like I’m going to lose my mind, but it’s not in me to lay at the bottom of this crevice and cry.  I’m going to come out of this fighting, and I’m going to drag you out with me.  So, c’mon, grab on to my backpack, and let’s get the fuck out of this hole.

Step 1:  Let’s See What Went Wrong

Sometimes, life happens and you break.  There’s no shame in that, but before you declare that it was “life happening,” make sure it really was.  Did you fail because you were missing crucial information?  Were your expectations too grand?  This is where the rubber meets the road, my friends.  A failure is JUST a failure if you’re not willing to own the fuck out of it.

Step 2: Make a New Plan

My grand failure has been letting this blog languish.  This blog is me, it’s everything, it’s all I ever wanted.  But it’s sat here dusty and dirty for a while because life happens and I’m not making it a priority.  So, this weekend I made a new plan.  I downloaded some software to help me better aggregate news (Feedly) and pulled out my Google Docs program and made a motherfucking list.  “Blog ideas.”  It was the new plan.  It wasn’t grandiose and it wasn’t fancy, but it was a plan.  Use a paper napkin, use your fucking smart phone, use your nephew’s arm, I don’t care.  Make a plan and write it down.

Step 3:  Put the Plan Into Action

It’s really that simple.  You’ve got your plan all worked out and you know for certain this is how you’re going to do the thing, so all you have to do now is jump.  I know, it’s really the hardest step ever, ever.  But close your eyes and just do it.  Say Geronimo and let’s be on with it.  You’re never going to know if your plan will actually work out unless you test it.  For some, it helps to publish the Plan so there’s some accountability, but I don’t recommend doing this.  If you need to change directions or you’re simply timid, any negative feedback can really be crushing.

Step 4:  Success?

In your Plan, you should have defined success in some way.  Sales, clicks, readership, rocks thrown at your house — they’re all metrics that can help keep you motivated.  They also help you know when you’ve actually implemented the Plan fully.  Did you get the clicks you’re looking for?  Time to make a stretch goal.  Be like a Kickstarter.  Give yourself an incentive for beating your target.

There’s a reason that the phoenix is such a strong symbol for humanity.  There’s literally nothing that can stop that fucking bird, it’ll just resurrect again and again.  Be a phoenix.  Be a cliche and love it.  Just get your ass back up, however you have to, and step through the path to regaining your success.

As a side note, I thought I’d tell you that after my first massive life failure, I had a phoenix tattooed on me.  He’s a massive son of a bitch, and he’s there to remind me.  Every day. Every step. Every breath. is a chance to begin again.

So, let’s start from THIS moment, from this fucking spot right here, and rise again.  I’m the motherfucking oncoming storm, assholes.  Get the fuck out of my way.

Sloth is the Number One Killer of Blog Traffic

HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!  I hope you can appreciate the hilarity of the situation I’m handing to you this morning.  If not, get out. *serious face*

I’m not probably really writing a useful blog here, but hey, we can have some chuckles at the sheer enormity that is life and how incredibly tiny your blog is in the grand scheme of things.  Your blog is completely meaningless, really, even if it’s generating revenue for your company.  I hope that’s a freeing thought.  It had to be for me.

You guys don’t know this, but i’ve been fighting a really difficult battle with my own brain for months now, years, maybe…. then I fell into a tiger trap after that last blog and I couldn’t climb out.  Finally, a heroic elephant dangled his long trunk into the hole and helped me up.  It was just in time, as it turned out.  And I tip my hat to that elegant elephant, with his dazzling monocle.

I’ve had to back burner so many of my personal projects for a long, long time now, as it became harder to think and it was slower to think and it was just impossible TO THINK about anything other than making it through the day to the next one.  That’s not a way to live, I can tell you, but sometimes you can only soldier on.  You can only keep walking in a straight line, even in the darkness.

So I marched.  And I marched.  And I might have had a moment of light to write about marching, but I had no idea what was keeping the lights out or how much further it would be.  And I know I’m vaguebooking, but I don’t care right now.  I can’t tell you for sure what was the culprit, but a drug called amantadine restored my functioning like magic.  Like magic, motherfuckers.

I’m not going to waste too much time on this today, because I don’t know how to explain this until the doctor gives me the words, but know that you’ve been on my mind, as has that book about the farm and that other series about that fella and the stuff.  I feel change.  I feel it stronger than I’ve ever felt it.  I’m trying hard to not get ahead of myself, but here we are.  Blogging about nothing for no reason and without as much as an editorial calendar to guide me.

It’s panties to the wind, pals.

Falling Apart and Coming Together

I know I promised I was back and this was back and it was BACK, but as you’ve seen, I’m not as on the ball as I had hoped to be.  I know other writers who have struggled with this sort of thing after a massive life change, be that having a baby or being diagnosed with a serious illness or just moving far, far away from home for the first time.  These massive shake-ups are the times when our lives truly, truly far apart.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but when I was in school and taking creative writing courses, the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory was usually an early handout.  This inventory was perfected by various mental health experts to help better classify and determine just how stressed a person was.  Some of my professors disagreed with certain items and moved them around, but for the most part this was the currency of fiction.

Characters in assignments were to have a score of 100 or 125 or 150 to really teach how fiction works.  It makes a better story if there’s conflict, the entire world reasons.  No one wants to read a story about a lovely picnic or a starry sky or a vast canyon.  I mean, I do, but I’m not people, apparently.

The Bit About Falling Apart

Today, I sit at a 198.  That’s plenty, if you ask me.  This is why I’m falling apart.  Client work is still moving along, I think it’s even getting a bit better, but personal projects, hopes, dreams, goals, all of that stuff is getting dusty on the shelf.  This is the bit where I fall apart.  I’m not depressed, I’m not in danger, I’m just… I’m so stressed I can’t function properly.  And there’s naught to do for it except watch the big hand rotate around.

Until then, I’m trying to learn how to love my new home of Ft. Worth, Texas.  I’m eating more tortillas than should be legal, I’m holding private tres leche cake judging contests between the various supermarkets, I’m exploring new and unusual vegetables and fruits.  It’s not home, it won’t be, but it can be a home.  I just keep chipping away at it.

The funny thing, I think, the funniest thing to me, anyway, is that in the midst of all this abundance, I am overwhelmed.  You’d think that having sixteen different supermarket chains and twenty different healthcare systems and a zillion entertainment options and a sea of houses would simply thrill someone from a place that exists with only a tiny fraction of all of this.  You’d think it would be a cornucopia.  In ways, it is, certainly.  I can visit merchants I had only ever seen online before, for example, but it’s too much.  My brain can’t take it.  I am constantly functioning with a status of “overwhelmed.”

… that’s the falling apart.  That’s why I’m struggling.  It’s like when you first got onto the Internet and there was simply more to see and do and read than you could have ever imagined.  It was more collective thought (and porn) than anyone ever dreamed possible, but it was too much.  You didn’t sleep, you consumed until you fatigued.

I think that’s where I am now.  I’m pining for the fjords, but there’s nothing for it.  This is what falling apart looks like today.  It’s me missing fickle spring in Southwest Missouri, where it goes from 10 degrees to 70 in a matter of days.  It’s the smell of sweet clover and cow manure wafting through my memories.  It’s everything I knew disappearing into shadows.

… But Then There’s the Coming Together

As much as I miss my home and I fear it’ll fade into nothing the longer I’m here, no one can wallow in the past for long.  There’s a bit in all of us that wants to survive, to live, to thrive.  There’s that little glimmer of hope and curiosity and fucking overcoming life’s shit that keeps us moving on.  I promise you, I have this, too.

I know because when I look over my neighbor’s fences and see the red-orange sunset that seems to spread forever I take comfort.  I know because the wicked wind that comes across the prairie has stopped screaming and is now simply singing a low song.  I know because tacos from a truck are far better than anything from a fancy restaurant.

As each box is unpacked, each picture hung on the wall, each day ticks down, I feel a little bit more like I am finding myself again.  For those of you who grew up in these sorts of knots of confusion and noise that they call cities, I don’t mean any offense.  It’s not a wrong way to live, but it is a very different way than what I knew.  Even Springfield, the third biggest city in Missouri and probably the biggest city in the Ozarks, isn’t anything like this.  Even the smallest suburbs here are more city than Springfield ever hoped it could become.

It takes time.  Just like the first time I saw the Internet, the first time I’m forced to have to exist inside a network of cement and asphalt and trains and cars and noise and lights will eventually become my new normal.  If it’s normal to have friends inside a computer, it can be normal to have a railway lullaby.  Anything can become normal if we find a way to accept it that doesn’t clash with our inner self.  That’s the coming together.

Like with writing, integrating in a new place can be as simple as understanding yourself and the context in which you’re placed.  The falling apart and the coming together… it’s all a little bit you and a little bit me.

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.