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Get the Best out of Your Goals: Join a Group

A group of people placing their hands in the centre of the circle.

Joining the right group can help you achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself this year. Not only can group members help you stay accountable to your plan, but being around others with similar goals can really affect your ability to stick to your own plan. I belong to a professional writing association in Canada, and it has kept me going over the years. But how do you know you’ve found a good group?

Speaking from Experience

I’m a writer and therefore belong to a profession that has an unusual trait: it invented a term for when you run out of ideas: writer’s block. I forget who said this, but it seems writers are the only ones who’ve done this. Have you heard of doctor’s block? Sales rep’s block? Politician’s block? Writers can easily spend an entire evening talking about how they have no ideas.

But I pay $250 a year to belong to a group of professional writers. You can bet I don’t want to spend my evening talking about not having ideas! Nor do I wish to spend an entire meeting lamenting about industry changes, bad clients, or the like. With my group, even if several members have had a depressing month, there’s always someone there to say, “Yeah, but did you know there’s a way to deal with that?”

Groups That Raise You UpTeam-building fist pumps over a table.

The catch is that you want to surround yourself with people who are moving forward. Even if these people fall three steps back, they find enough energy to take one step forward. If they then fall back five, they still get up and take one forward. You get the picture, right?

No matter what group you join to help you with your New Years’ resolutions, it’s the you-can-get-past-this attitude you’re looking for. The last thing you want is for everyone around the room to nod their heads in understanding and then start sharing similar stories. By the end of the evening, you’re all depressed. What good does that do?

So now you may be asking, “But I’ve had a rough time since the last meeting. Am I not allowed to talk about that?”

Of course you are! Whatever your goal, you’re going to hit roadblocks. It’s inevitable. And those roadblocks will at best frustrate you and at worst make you debate if your goals are worth striving for. How do you overcome these ugly monsters? You differentiate between venting and commiserating.

Venting releases the pressure that a roadblock has built up, and there’s nothing more freeing than talking with others who know exactly what you’re going through. Commiserating, on the other hand, means everyone joins in and laments with you, and nothing is accomplished.

How a Group Can Help You

In the end, you’re going to have to make a decision, and hopefully you’ve found a group that sees things the same way, because this decision really boils down to three choices:

  1. Keep stewing about the issue, wasting valuable creative energy.
  2. Let the situation go, if possible. (E.g., if you’re having a hard time paying taxes, you can’t let that go. But if some stranger said something rude to you today, you can imagine turning it into fuel for a fire and using it to warm yourself up.)
  3. Decide to change something in the situation (which often means changing something about yourself) and take your first step towards that change.

Ask your group for various options, and then commit to your next action, even if it’s that you’re going to think things through and report back to the next meeting.

Finding a Good Fit

If you’ve already joined a group that can help you with your goals, and if that group meets your expectations, then you’re doing awesome! If you’re not sure about joining a group, though, here are a few tips:

  • Check out the group’s online presence and see if it feels like a supportive, knowledgeable group to join.
  • Ask the group’s organizer if you can participate in a meeting. Then you can see how the members support each other.
  • If you don’t want everyone staring at you, ask if you can meet in person with one or two members.

There are ways to get a feel for the group before committing to it, and these suggestions are especially helpful if the group costs something to join.

Joining the right group can be just the thing to propel you forward faster than you planned. Don’t sit back and deliberate if you should join: do some research, then send out those emails and ask for more information. Do it now before the month is over.

Time to Focus

You’ll find that one of the hardest things to accept with leading a more creative life is that you will need to focus. Despite what many self-help gurus say, you can’t have it all. (I’m not against self-help gurus, but you do need to read what they say with a grain of salt sometimes.)

I’ve been working my way through David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and it’s given me the full picture of everything I’m trying to accomplish in life. It’s quite daunting, actually. The first exercise he has you do (and I’ve blogged about this before) is to write down absolutely everything that “has your attention.” I like how he uses that phrasing, because it gets you out of the mindset of a formal to-do list and into the mindset of brainstorming all the things you’ve got swimming around in your head.

What this all means for me, then, is that I’m changing the purpose of my blog. I’ll be starting grad studies soon to further my education in German, so the time I spend writing here each week will shift over to preparing for my studies. (If you’re here because you’re looking for a copywriter, I’m still taking on clients.) As such, I’ll use the blog for announcements, book reviews as they come along, and special interviews and important topics, but I’ll no longer be blogging weekly, at least not for now. If there’s one thing that reading David Allen’s book has made clear to me, it’s that I need time to focus.

Enjoy the few days left of summer!

Guilt Getting in the Way of Your Creativity? These Suggestions Might Help

Guilt is never a nice feeling. At its worst, it reminds us we’ve hurt someone (which is what I think its original purpose was for), and many live with that feeling for the rest of their lives.

But, like many negative emotions, guilt can also interfere with other aspects of your life. Like worry, it can hijack your mind and keep you from creating, because your mind is occupied by all the other things you should be doing.

To be clear, I’m not going to rant about how important it is to feed your creativity to the point where it looks like I’m asking you to ignore your responsibilities. What I’m talking about here is the guilt that comes after those basic – and hugely important – duties have been completed.

But a Parent’s Duty Never Ends

I know. Even when I’m in my office, with both doors closed, my ears are open, listening to my kids. As much as I dream of spending a week away at a writers’ residency, I think the silence would be too distracting.

But let’s look at the context: Do you feel guilty about spending time on your creative work because you could be chopping up vegetables for tomorrow? Or because you forgot to dust the baseboards again? Oh – a few doors have fingerprints that have been driving you crazy, right?

I’m not teasing you here – those are things going on my head, too. (Garage door from the laundry room and office door from the kitchen – fingerprints galore!) But my point is you’re not feeling guilty because your kids are hungry and you insist on continuing your art.

Look at the Full Context

You need to step back first and examine the big picture (the trees vs. forest thinking I was talking about last week). Let’s look at an after-work situation. You finish at 5:00, want dinner on the table by 6:00, and feel guilty for not having a full, standard supper ready for your family. When it comes time to work on your own personal project, you’re chewing yourself up at having made tacos with last night’s leftover ground beef instead of finding some ingenious way of turning cooked ground beef into steak, baking huge potatoes, and julienning carrots for the wok.

The thing is, you’re almost never in the door until 5:30. What options do you have? Well, you can

  1. Continue berating yourself for not living up to your high standards, but we’ve seen this hasn’t been working for you.
  2. Move supper to 6:30.
  3. Put supper in a slow cooker in the morning.
  4. Prepare the meat in the morning so you can throw it in the oven the moment you get home.
  5. If your kids are old enough and are home before you are, start getting them to help.
  6. Lower your expectation.

Your feelings of guilt that you can’t have a full meat-potatoes-vegetables meal on the table every evening will only sap your creative energy. They’re not worth it.

Use Your Creativity and a Little Self-Compassion to Solve Your Problem

Years ago, I dated a guy whose mom always made us meat, potatoes, and a vegetable for supper when we came to visit. He wondered why she didn’t try pasta on occasion, or other dishes. Her response was that, as students, we likely ate pasta all the time, and she thought this would be a nice change (she was right). But I think part of it, too, was that she knew exactly when to start, how long each step would take her, and she could quickly switch up meats and vegetables as needed. It was easiest for her and let her focus her energy on other things.

A word about lowering your expectations: Keep in mind your overall goals and the least amount of work needed to accomplish them. For example, I want my kids to have healthy, home-cooked meals. For me, this means one substantial protein, at least one vegetable (usually two), and a grain. Possible options include

  • tacos (minus the high-sodium spice mix that comes in the package)
  • pasta and a good meat sauce
  • oven-baked chicken, roasted vegetables, and quinoa
  • turkey and carrot casserole, with brown rice, tomato sauce, and cheese

And if things are so harried sometimes that all I have time to cook is frozen, breaded meat, frozen peas, and toast, then that’s okay. (But not all the time – a few times a months is my limit.)

You deserve time to be creative. I would even say that you need it. If you’re finding yourself feeling guilty while you’re creating, examine the source of that guilt and what can be done to get rid of it. Guilt does have its purpose, but killing your own personal creativity is not one of them.

 

Are You a Forest Type or a Tree Type?

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From unsplash; photographer unknown

 

“This constant back-and-forth is one of the most metabolism-consuming things that our brain can do. We step out of time, out of the moment, and survey the big picture. We like what we see or we don’t, and then we go back to the task, either moving forward again, or backtracking to fix a conceptual or physical mistake. As you now know well, such attention switching and perspective switching is depleting, and like multitasking, it uses up more of the brain’s nutrients than staying engaged in a single task.” – Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind

 

The old forest vs. trees spectrum, but I’m starting to see it in a different light. I’ve been reading this book for the past week or two, trying to learn more about how my brain works and how I can work more efficiently with it. On the one hand, many things aren’t new to me, e.g., it’s more efficient to stay on one task, multitasking doesn’t actually exist (he means multitasking as in “flipping between tasks,” not as in actually doing two things at once), etc. The difference here, though, is that Levitin goes into the science, using examples and highlighting individual studies to make his point. That makes the information more alive for me, and that’s when I start to see connections and start asking more questions.

Volleys of Insult

For example: Is this energy-draining task a reason for many of the insults firing back and forth online?

It’s a bit of a scary time in the world right now, I feel, because of the high-noon stand-off between the American and North Korean governments. Although I’m starting to see that humanity will always be scared of something and claim the world is coming to an end (i.e., Chicken Little), I have to admit, I’m a bit more nervous about this one.

With how often the President of the US has been in the news, I’ve noticed on Quora recently questions about conservative thought in the US, how liberal Europe is, questions about Canada’s prime minister, and comparisons among all three parties. Unfortunately, some of these discussions have often turned into Facebook-style exchanges, where very generalizing comments get catapulted around, and invariably someone says, “If you don’t like it here, then you can move.”

But It All Started Out So Innocently

What does this have to do with Levitin’s quote above? Usually, the first few answers on such contentious subjects are detailed and considerate, regardless of the person’s opinion. Someone took time to write them and to explain their point of view to anyone reading the string. Some respond in kind.

These are the answers that are most interesting, whether I’m reading a Republican’s or a Democrat’s answer. I may still disagree with the answers, but these kinds of answers are the closest I have to being in someone else’s shoes.

This Q&A process, when done with respect, lets you find commonalities between both parties (e.g., “I’m doing this because I think it’s best for my children”), and you suddenly realize you’re not that different after all, even if you disagree on the subject.

And Then Came the Slingshot

But why the mud-slinging? Because it’s easier? Mud-slinging involves insulting someone and cutting down their ego through generalizations and assumptions about the person. I’ve often wanted to engage in it myself, simply because someone’s ego grates me the wrong way (we’re past rubbing) and I want to shoot them down using the written word.

Instead, I start writing down a more detailed answer, and before I know it, 20 minutes have passed and I haven’t even posted my thoughts. Looking at the time I’ve already wasted, I delete everything and move on.

What Levitin is saying above is that it’s hard for us to switch between the general and the detailed, the forest and the trees.

Tornados and the Blues

Last night, my family and I went to the local blues festival to catch Steve Strongman, a singer-songwriter we’ve all come to really enjoy. The entire festival was cut short by a tornado warning. This usually only happens maybe once every year or two in our area, so it was scary. While I was waiting with the kids for my husband to get the car, I was frightened that lightning would hit any of the many trees we were near – the festival was in a park. The lightning was bright and thick and flashed down from the sky. (If you’re wondering if I’m overreacting, a student on the campus where I work got struck by lightning three years ago, because she stood under a tree.)

My husband drove up the street, and I was waiting at a four-way stop with the kids. The motorists all waited for me to cross and get the kids into the car. That’s when I saw the trees – that people are kind and compassionate – instead of the forest – the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

It’s Not All Hellish

It’s easy for us to read the headlines, whether we get them via social media or traditional media, and start to worry. And I will be the first to say that this old-fashioned pistol-drawing going on between these two governments does worry me. But it also makes it far too easy to have a negative view on the world.

Back to my original problem: I know hurtful things cause feelings of hurt, and I see the natural reaction in kids, namely, to hurt back. But what if we stepped down from the forest and into the trees and actually took 20 minutes once every week or two to explain our points of view instead of three minutes everyday slinging insults? I think we’d come a little closer to humanizing all the arguments out there and seeing that, yes, we actually have more in common with each other than we thought.

Do You “Risk It All” for Your Dreams?

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Photo by Alex wong on Unsplash

I’ve been reading self-help books on and off for years, and I wonder how they can promise that you can “have it all.” However, I also find these inspiring, and they often get me to think about my life in much different terms, and I think I’ve finally figured out how to balance my dreams with my life.

I’m reading The Power of Intention by Wayne Dyer right now. I came across this advice:

That silent inner knowing will never leave you alone. You may try to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist, but in honest, alone moments of contemplative communion with yourself, you sense the emptiness waiting for you to fill it with your music. It wants you to take the risks involved, and to ignore your ego and the egos of others who tell you that an easier, safer, or more secure path is best for you. (page 152)

I love the book, but I find advice like this potentially misleading: he’s suggesting you don’t listen to your inner doubts and just take the plunge towards your dreams. For me, that would involve stopping all work and just focusing on writing fiction, which doesn’t bring in any money until you’ve developed somewhat of a following.

Tell that career decision to the bank that wants to take back your house.

Stay Safe

On the other hand, though, is the “stay safe” advice he talks of. There are varying degrees of this, at least in my experience. Here’s one side of the spectrum: An older relative of mine was once worried about the whole-grain, no-sugar diet my parents were raising me and my sister on (in the 80s and 90s, before it became trendy). The relative thought I’d have a hard time finding a husband by being on that diet. I eat sugar now, but I still prefer whole-grain baking and cooking to regular, and yet I somehow managed to find a husband AND have children with him. The relative meant well, but this is one version of the “safe” advice that Wayne Dyer is speaking of.

Here’s the other side: “You have a family to look after. Why on earth would you quit your job to become an artist?”

To which the person might respond, “Because I just know in my heart that it’s what I was meant to do.”

That last statement may be true – many of us push off what we’ve always felt to be our calling because others told us we’d never make a living with it, whatever it is.

But where are you in your life? Do you have a mortgage or rent to pay? Kids to get through university? A weekly grocery bill to feed others besides just you?

Yes, right? So, what to do?

Think of the Possibilities

Don’t be afraid of blue skies dreaming. Dream, write it down, dream some more. Many of these self-help authors are good at putting you into the right frame of mind for that. You let your mind go free with all the things you dream of, all the things you want to do and to have, and start envisioning this new version of your life.

Now, this is where I would halt the process: Before you go any further, you need to look at your life as it is now and start setting things up to work towards your dream.

You want to become a master painter? Find an appropriate painting class, sign yourself up, and squeeze in 10 minutes a day to practice.

Want to work your way up in your company? Talk to managers and ask them how they got to where they are. Then start emulating what they do. (But make it your own; as the saying goes, “Just be yourself; everyone else is taken.”)

Want to change your career? Find more responsibilities in your current job that are applicable to that career change.

I don’t want to make it sound like these ideas are easy. You may have to shift your schedule around, or risk standing out from the crowd at work…and I wonder if these are the risks Wayne Dyer is really talking about but not explaining? There are legitimate concerns surrounding any major life-changing decision, but there are also fears that hold us back, like a thick woollen blanket wrapped around you: it’s warm and cozy but immobilizing.

The trick is to differentiate the two categories.

What About Bob? Baby Steps…

I don’t know your situation, of course, but I do believe that if you want to change something for the better, you will find a way to make it happen. For me, it was deciding to forego TV after the kids were in bed and spending that time on my novel.

Would I like to spend part of each writing fiction, at a time when my brain is more functional? Yes. But I chose to have a family and a mortgage. To just drop all my streams of income to “follow my dreams” would be hugely irresponsible.

But that doesn’t make following my dreams impossible.

Don’t feel guilty or frustrated if you aren’t living your dream life. Whatever life you are living, so long as it’s generally helpful to you and others, can probably teach you something that will benefit the life you are dreaming of. But figure out what those baby steps are that can get you moving in the right direction: the real risk, in the end, may be just prying open the door.

3 Don’ts and 6 Dos for Attracting Good Writers to Your Company

If your company is having a hard time finding good writers, then read on, because I have a few tips for you.

I was recently headhunted for a writing position at a company. (Yay, me!) I did apply, but then I pulled out because I understood they were looking for a part-time employee when in fact it was a full-time position.

However, the tone of the initial email, plus other job descriptions I’ve seen for professional writers, have brought me to this week’s topic: What professional writers are really looking for when they read a job description.

What Good Professional Writers Don’t Want

  1. Don’t begin any emails to a writer with generic attempts at boosting their ego. Writers write, so they can see through that kind of writing in two seconds. For example, an email I received once said, “You probably get emails like this all the time.” (Their emphasis, not mine.) These sorts of words waste the writer’s time. Just say hi, introduce yourself, and explain what you’re looking for.
  2. Don’t say you’re looking for a writer who delivers perfect copy all the time. Professional writers know they can’t attain that. Yes, they absolutely strive for it, but I’ll bet you anything that someone will find an error in this post somewhere, no matter how often I proofread it. (Always happens when anyone, including writers, complains about writing.)
  3. Don’t toss away resumes because the writer ends sentences with prepositions or doesn’t use “whom” or uses “their” in the singular (see #1 for an example). Although the first scenario is a leftover from the days when people thought English should be more like Latin, using “who” as an object and “their” as a singular have their time and place. If you otherwise like the writer’s applications, ask them about their writing during the interview.

What Good Professional Writers Want

  1. Do mention that you’re a workplace that understands how to balance the company’s needs with the writer’s desire to produce good copy. In other words, you won’t expect a creative, well-researched, 15-page whitepaper in one day, but you do need a writer who can occasionally pump out a 100-word eblast in an hour (after appropriate company training).
  2. Do move language requirements to the very bottom of your description, because listing them at the top of your description sounds like it’s the most important thing you’re looking for. Consider these questions: What style of writing do you want? How much experience? In what industry or industries? What kind of personality would fit your team? Those are more relevant to a professional writer and should encourage more suitable applicants to apply.
  3. Do list a pay range. Pro writers know what they’re worth, and it isn’t $15/hour (even in USD). Listing an appropriate range can help you attract writers who believe their value is in that range. (You’ll also get bad writers who drool at the dollar signs, but you’ll see them from miles away. They’re the ones who start off with “I started writing at the tender age of 5” or “Writing is my passion.”)
  4. Do emphasize the co-operative nature of the team the writer will be working with, so long as it’s a true statement. E.g., “We expect a high level of writing, and in return, we offer you team members who proofread each other’s work. It’s how we all learn and create copy that is as close to perfect as we can get.” (Now, that would attract me.)
  5. Do feel free to ask for company-specific writing samples, but only once you’ve whittled your selection down to those you’ll interview. Asking for company-specific samples during the cattle-call phase signals to pro writers that you have little respect for their time, and many believe you’re just looking for free copy for your website. Ask for applicable portfolio samples first and then a company-specific sample later.
  6. Do understand that many (but certainly not all) writers are introverts. Offering a quiet corner where your new writer can work with relatively few disturbances would be incredible.

Just as job searchers can increase their chances of getting hired by customizing their job application to your company, you’ll likely increase your chances of finding good writers if you follow these tips when trying to recruit a good pool of applicants.

*I edited the order of the top paragraphs before the first headline. Sorry – saw a better way to order things.

*And I edited the entire post for point-of-view consistency. I apologize for that, too.

Being Interviewed for an Article? A Few Tips

Whether you’ve just launched your book, are announcing a new tour, or celebrating your next opening night, you’ll likely find yourself talking to media at some point or other. I interview people from many industries for the magazine articles I write, and some interview better than others.

Why does this matter? Because it’ll affect what information I can use for the article.

I’ve got a few tips here for you so you, too, can become a better interviewee.

Watch Your Pronouns

If you’re talking about two guys and a gal and you keep saying “he,” the writer may go back to her notes and suddenly realize she’s not entirely sure which “he” you’re referring to. Although the writer may try to reach you for clarification, if she can’t, then she’ll likely go for one of the following solutions:

  • Strike the quote, no matter how good it is.
  • Assume which person it refers to and change the quote.

In my opinion, the first one is the only option unless context is very clear. If I’m not 100% certain whom the pronoun is referring to, I will definitely cut the quote. Because I do much of my writing evenings and weekends when those I interview aren’t always reachable, this means the information doesn’t make it in to the article.

Don’t Use the Writer as a Subject

It’s annoying when I get used as an example. Not because I’m insulted at all, but because I can’t use the quote. Using the writer as a subject looks like this: “Let’s say Lori is trying to improve her pirouette, so she focuses on her teacher’s old advice of pulling up straight. But this causes Lori to pull up her shoulders…”

I’ve had phenomenal illustrations given to me this way, quotable material. But I can’t quote it because my name’s in it. (And no, I won’t change the name. I have no issues changing a pronoun if I’m 100% certain of the antecedent, but I won’t change the name.)

Yes, the writer can call you up to clarify or ask your permission to change the name, but again, this is an extra step that may not happen.

Let the Writer Jump in Once in a While

Although limiting your answers to two sentences can make it difficult for the writer to get any quotable material, if the writer hasn’t asked you anything in five minutes, wrap up your thought and then pause. Some writers are too polite to interrupt, some need a moment for formulate the next question (and that’s hard to do when someone’s talking), and to be honest, it can get really boring listening to someone talk for 45 minutes straight.

Treat the interview like a conversation, and just ease into it. Yes, you should be talking the most, but let the writer participate.

Understand Time and Space Allotment

Unless you’re told otherwise, assume that others will also be interviewed for the article. I consider it impolite to ask who, but I think there’s nothing wrong with asking how long the article is.

Knowing the assigned length of the article will give you an idea of how much information the writer is looking for. For example, if the article is 1200 words, even if you’re the focus, the interview will likely last only 30 minutes or so. You’ll have certain information you want to share, so prepare with that time limit in mind.

And if the writers says they’ll only need five minutes of your time, plan accordingly.

Have Respect for the Writer’s Time

I generally like interviewing, because I get to meet some really interesting people. I expect the person I’m talking to to share information, anecdotes, personal reflections, and the like. However, even for a 1,200-word article, I don’t want someone’s list of their personal 10 Commandments.

(I once interviewed someone who kept me on the phone for two hours, even though they were one of three people I was interviewing for a 1,200-word article and knew that. Needless to say, I was livid, and I certainly wasn’t going to transcribe the entire two hours. If that subject had wanted something important in the article, there was a good chance I missed it.)

Although erring on  the side of more information is generally a good idea, you can go too far.

Just Think of Your Own Projects

In the end, it comes down to the same guidelines that likely apply your own art: stay on topic, keep the overall framework in mind, and respect everyone’s time. It’ll help you get the information you need into the media and hopefully bring you more leads down the road.

What is Good Writing?

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Photo by Hisu lee on Unsplash

No one definite answer to “What makes for good writing?” exists. Some people focus on mechanics, others on plot. Some label a piece of writing as “good” simply if it holds their interest.

However, when it comes to the debate of what makes a good writer, I often feel one element gets ignored: context.

Context is why a very strong report writer, who excels at sifting through information and can organize it in such a concise way that the right information is presented at the right time to the right eyes, may suddenly become a “bad” writer if asked to write poetry.

Literary = Good, Commercial = Bad?

Let’s say you’re reading a commercial-style writing giant, like Danielle Steele, and you’re comparing her to a literary-style writing giant, like Alice Munro. Judging by mechanics, I’d say both are equal. If we judge by plot, some will prefer Steele, others Munro. Same if we talk about what holds your interest.

If I reflect on my own experience reading both authors, Steele’s was the book I opened up on a sleepless night, staying awake until it was done (and paying for it at work the next day). Munro’s book (a collection of her short stories) was far too complex to read with half a brain in the middle of the night. I also couldn’t finish it, because I eventually lost interest.

Does that make Steele the good writer and Munro the bad one? Absolutely not. We’re not talking about popularity here, and both certainly have very large followings. (Not to mention, Munro received the Nobel Prize for Literature.)

Munro writes deeply layered portraits of people, real people, with desirable and undesirable traits. What bored me was, in part, the absence of a novel; I couldn’t get deeper into her characters. (I know she’s written one, but I haven’t read it yet.)

Steele’s plot moved at a fast clip, and I found myself easily cheering for the protagonist. Her writing was tight, she clearly knew how to tell a story, and her characters were interesting. But I was left feeling like I hardly knew any of them, because she only wrote what was needed to further the speedy plot, and nothing more.

How This All Helps

When I judge if someone’s a good writer (and let’s face it, many of us do), I still include the basics among my criteria: conciseness, strong command of grammar, an appropriate vocabulary, respect for the reader, staying on point, and many others.

But context is why a chatty blogger can get away with not being very concise, a technical writer doesn’t need similes and metaphors, and millions of viewers accept that people just break out into song and dance in a musical.

There is most definitely not one clear definition of what makes a good writer, and I don’t purport to have the answer, either. But I think many writers would agree that what makes a good writer in one genre or style does not necessarily apply in other genres and styles, like a brilliant comedic actor who suddenly falters in a drama.

What do you consider when you’re debating if someone is a good writer?

Hertha Mueller: A Writer You Should Get to Know

I came across German-Romanian writer Hertha Müller* (“Mueller” in English) about two months ago. I’m embarrassed to say, I had no idea who she was, despite having two degrees in German Studies. In my defence, though, I stopped studying in 2005, and it wasn’t until 2009 that she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

She’s in her 60s now, and I believe lives in Sweden. Let me introduce you to her and what the idea of freedom for the arts means.

Who was the Guy and his Wife being Shot?

Mueller was born in the 1950s in one of the last leftover German villages in Romania. (The majority of ethnic Germans had been deported after WWII to either Germany or the labour camps in Russia.) I remember once at Christmas being at my grandmother’s – she and my grandfather were also Germans from Romania but (thank God) never returned after the war – and she had her eyes absolutely glued to the television. (My grandfather had been dead a few years by then.)

A man and his wife had been captured and were being executed. The news was full of lots of death, so I didn’t get why this execution was so important. (I also didn’t get what was so important about a graffitied, cement wall in Berlin and why its destruction was so celebrated.)

All I recall was that she said his name was Nicolae Ceaușescu and she was glad he was gone.

I eventually learned he was a dictator, but that was it. Only recently, with reading Mueller, have I begun to understand what that fully means.

Germans in Romania

I’m reading a book whose title can be literally translated as My Fatherland is an Apple Core: Conversations with Hertha Mueller. (The title refers to a poem or song that I’m not particularly familiar with.)

It’s unfortunate the book isn’t available in English, because she describes in exacting, vivid detail what it’s like to be a writer in a brutal dictatorship that’s trying to silence you and your friends.

As you can likely imagine, being an ethnic German in Eastern Europe during and after World War II wasn’t an enviable position to be in, regardless of which side you supported. After all was said and done, only a handful of Germans remained in these areas. I forget the exact figures, but the German populations decreased by the millions, partly due to deportation to those Russian labour camps, where many died.

Mueller’s mother was schlepped off to one of these camps but returned. (Whether she was lucky was debatable.) Mueller was eventually born and grew up in one of the few remaining German towns in Romania. It might be likened to Mennonite or Amish colonies, where everyone speaks their form of German and continues on with life as they know it, often sans electricity and telephone (though not by choice in this case).

Sneaky and Sly Like a Fox

Hertha Mueller had a fox fur on the floor between her bed and wardrobe, something she and her mother had purchased together from a neighbouring town. She says in the book:

The village tailor was supposed to make a fur collar and cuffs for a coat from it. It was a whole, flat fox with snout and paws and shiny claws. It was far too beautiful to cut up. I kept it for many years as a carpet. One day, I was mopping the floor, and the tail slid to the side. It had been cut off. I convinced myself at that time that it had torn off on its own. I didn’t believe myself that it was an exact, very straight cut, not a tear. (Page 86 of my ebook version via OnLeihe.)

She put the tail back where it belonged. A few weeks later, the first hind leg had been cut off. Later, the second one. Thereafter, one of the front legs. She describes that the cut-off limb was always placed on the fox’s stomach. This took place over months, but during those months, she always entered her apartment and immediately checked if a part of the fox had been severed.

The secret police (the “Securitate”) had a key. They wouldn’t break in, ever, they would just quietly enter. She said they wanted you to know they could come in whenever they wanted to.

Eggs and Onions and Hair

In another episode of intimidation (there were very, very many), she was on her way to get her hair cut. A police officer asked her for her ID and then whisked her off into a hidden room, where she was questioned, accused of blatantly false crimes, and forced to eat eight hard-boiled eggs and an onion. At one point, the agent picked a hair off her clothing, and she said, “Put that hair back, it belongs to me” (page 97 on my Onleihe e-book version). She said he actually put the hair back.

But it Didn’t Stop There

Even after she was allowed to leave in 1987 for Germany, the intimidations and games continued: they stamped her passport with February 29, 1987. That drove the German authorities nuts, she says, because it wasn’t a leap year.

The threats continued. The interviewer also mentions a situation where a Romanian operative was stopped at the German border, allegedly with instructions to kill several who were speaking out against Ceaușescu. Mueller’s address was on his list.

The dictatorship – from what she can gather – even blackmailed a very good friend of hers who had been diagnosed with cancer and was in its last stage. The friend was required to travel to Germany to visit Mueller. It didn’t take long for Mueller to figure out why her friend had come: the passport has visas for many different countries, a kind of passport that was not given out in Romania. Once she called her friend on it, her friend spoke openly and said Mueller would find her name on the death list if she didn’t stop speaking out against Ceaușescu.

We Need Our Openness

I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for our press, publishing industry, and the breadth of opinions out there. It’s not perfect. But it’s not what Hertha Müller had to contend with just to get her voice out there. I know we don’t all agree on how much freedom the press should have, what fake news really is, and how much censorship is too much.

(I recall reading that Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree had been banned by school boards in the past because the tree talked. I draw the line for my kids at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the current cartoons: my kids don’t need to learn a list of names to call people they don’t like.)

But we need to continue having open discussions about all of this, so long as our discussions show respect for the other side. I know there are thousands, likely even millions of artists out there in countries whose work is censored for something as simple as saying they don’t like the government.

It can be frustrating reading comments from people who disagree with you, especially when those comments are rude (and I, too, wish they would be more respectful). I don’t know if this helps, but as I read through this book, it certainly helps me realize that we at least have that right to say something.

*I didn’t add a photo here: the topic is serious, and I’m not an artist who can create something fitting. In addition, I didn’t want to use a photo of Hertha Müller, because, honestly, I feel guilty about using her picture to help promote my blog.

A Quick Note on Gut Feeling

7K0A0075I know gut feeling is highly debatable: No one has more impeccable intuition that Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and he’s a fictional character. Some argue that gut feeling is just our five sense working with our brain to come to a conclusion. Others feel it’s a sixth sense. I’ve also seen people claim that something is intuition when it’s really just their ego masquerading as this undefinable gift or skill.

Whatever it is, though, I still go against it even though it’s proven itself right on numerous occasions. The other week, an acquaintance presented me with a wonderful volunteer opportunity where I would have gotten to meet lots of incredible musicians. My gut feeling was telling me to turn it down, but I couldn’t figure out why: my calendar was clear, and although I had several assignments on the go, I could certainly squeeze in such an opportunity.

Something was urging me to turn it down, but I couldn’t figure out why, so I said yes.

We often think gut feelings are there to protect us, but in this case (as in others, too) it was there to protect this person. You see, I’ve been fighting this cold for over a month. And as embarrassing as that is (it’s been a few years since I’ve had a cold that lasted longer than two days), I assumed it would be gone by that night.

You know where this is going.

Not only had the cold not left by then (a good week after the initial phone call), it had gotten worse. There was no way I was going to infect over 100 singers with some kind of bronchial infection. That morning, I had to call her up – sinuses congested and my trying to suppress the horrible-sounding cough – after I’d arrived at work and cancel. (I also left work a couple of hours later to go home and rest.)

Had I listened to my gut feeling, my acquaintance would’ve had time to find someone else to help her out that night. The night went ahead, and from what I can tell, all ended well. But sometimes that gut feeling – whether it’s your mind just knowing something or it truly is some kind of sixth sense – needs to be listened to.

Have a good Canada Day long weekend!