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Number 5 in 10 to 10: Thoughts on writing, and how I’ve become a writer

Thoughts on Writing and How I’ve Become a Writer

August 21, 2011

Adjectives on the typewriter
He moves his words like a prizefighter
The frenzied pace of the mind inside the cell

“Shadow Stabbing,” Cake

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer (also a pediatrician, marine biologist, and teacher….but I frequently came back to “writer”).

In high school I was especially driven by hopes to be a fiction writer. Friends would give me ideas or themes and I would write short stories for them upon request. I was the biggest most hardcore dork in the creative writing club. My proudest feat of the 10th grade was that I wrote a story that was 45 pages long. I’m pretty sure everything I wrote was garbage. My inspirations at the time were Stephen King and Clive Barker. I was fascinated by all things dark and morbid. I often felt like an outcast. This is a perfect recipe for angst and melodrama.

Of probably 20 or so stories I wrote in high school, I believe I have a copy of only one, buried somewhere in a box I never bothered to unpack after we moved into our house 4 years ago. I recall unpacking boxes, seeing the first page of the story, and thinking “I can’t bear to throw this away, but if I actually read it, I will die of embarrassment.” Every now and then I tinker with the idea of trying my hand at fiction again. I’ll come up with a theme or an idea, but have yet to put pen to paper.

I started college expecting to focus on chemistry, but hated organic chemistry so much that I abandoned the idea. I had taken German for a few years and liked it well enough, and ended up majoring in German. There was a part of me that still wanted to write fiction or creative nonfiction, but I never got around to it. I took a few film analysis classes, children’s literature analysis classes, folklore analysis classes, and pop culture analysis classes. I loved learning and thinking about all these topics, but really did not wrap my brain around critical thinking skills. I could write a decent paper summarizing something, but I had significant difficulty deconstructing things, analyzing things, or interpreting things. My professors tried to teach critical thinking, they really did. I remember getting my final paper back in my pop culture analysis class. I wrote about Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers.” My whole paper was about Oliver Stone’s vision of our bloodlusting, media-fervored society, and how he expressed this vision through extreme gore. The professor’s comments on the paper: “That’s all very interesting about what Oliver Stone thought, but what did you think of the film?”

In my third year of law school, when I was working almost full time in a litigation boutique, I finally wrapped my brain around critical analysis. It didn’t matter how many people explained it to me, I couldn’t really understand it until I found myself in a position, day after day, where I had to take an idea, parse it, and develop it inside and out in several different directions. I had to develop winning arguments, losing arguments, counter-arguments, and novel arguments. I often found myself in a position where there weren’t any authorities directly saying what I wanted them to say, but I had to interpret what was out there, justify it, and make it work as well for me as it possibly could.

I was listening to an old episode of the fabulous Filmspotting podcast today, and one of the hosts (I think it was Matty Robinson, but honestly don’t exactly recall…) was talking about a student who asked him what he should do to make it as a film critic someday. Matty’s advice was “Write. Write every day. Write about anything and everything. It doesn’t have to be about movies. Just write.” (ok, I’m paraphrasing)

I still have occasional moments of wishing I were a novelist, or writing clever investigative nonfiction books, or even a film critic. But honestly, I’m there. I’ve fulfilled my childhood dream, I am a professional writer. As a litigator, my job is to read, interpret, analyze, and write convincingly for my client. Sometimes when I feel gloomy about the 3 sets of discovery, appellate brief, 2 complaints, and research memorandum looming over my head, I remind myself that I am a writer. It doesn’t do much to get the work done, but it makes me feel better about it.

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Sunday AM Musings and We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen (2012)

Sunday AM Musings and We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen (2012)

In the last several weeks, I’ve been having a rough time at work.  It’s not caused by anyone or anything in particular. It’s just been extremely busy for several months and I hit exhaustion. I spent plenty of time at work fighting to focus because I was so darn burned out, and it certainly didn’t help matters that I had a ton of things I needed to focus on.  I woke up this morning feeling so much better.  Maybe it was a couple days in the mountains, maybe it was the cumulative effect of spending a lot of the last two weeks not physically in the office, maybe it was because I took Baby Beez to the pool yesterday and we had so much fun, and then I crashed on the couch at 8pm so now I’m feeling extra well rested.  Ironically, now that I’m feeling ready to go back into the office and take names and kick butts, I actually leave for family vacation in about two weeks.   I do need this energy for that lead up time, because I’ve got a lot of big things on my plate that need to be resolved before we set sail, and I’m going to need a lot of focus to get that done.

I really enjoyed this BlogHer post titled “Please Don’t Declare Yourself an Expert on Your Blog.” It argues that “expertise” has been diluted because anyone can declare themselves an expert on the internet, and that there is value in being a student, learning from others thoughts and posts and experiences, instead of dictating what to do.  This perspective rang true with me.  I’m not shy about sharing my experiences or thoughts, but I am careful with disclaimers that what works so well for me may not work for everyone (this is particularly true with parenting issues).  I’ve found that the blogs I enjoy most take a “sharing” approach– here’s what we did and had a lovely time, or here’s what I think, what has been your experience?  There have been blogs that I find extremely off-putting, because the blogger puts herself on a pedestal and declares herself an expert.  I recall a series of posts by one blogger about “How to Have a Perfect Marriage,” and the only thing it inspired me to was some serious face-punching.  It’s a fine balance– no one will acknowledge your expertise unless you claim it, but if you trumpet it too loudly and insist on making every post a “how to” on how you do everything perfectly, well then that’s a recipe for reader hate.

On to the book!

This was my month to pick a book for book club.  I take this honor entirely too seriously, and have been racking my brain about WHAT TO PICK FOR THIS SACRED MONTH OF MY SELECTION!  I read a ton of magazines (seriously, like 10 subscriptions), and read with my phone in hand, so that I can immediately add recommendations from the “books” section into my Goodreads.  I’ve got almost 50 selections on my “To Read” list.  Picking a book to share and discuss with my friends is an opportunity I do not take lightly.

We’ve read a lot of fiction lately, so I opted to mix it up with a little nonfiction, and picked We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, by Yael Kohen.  The book is structured in documentary style, constructed in snippets of recollections from various key members of the comedy industry– comedians, managers, writers, club owners, etc.

we killedThe book progresses from the emergence of women on the comedic stage in the 1950s all the way through the 2000s, and explores key evolution points in style, trailblazers in content, and the challenges women faced along the way.  I learned about the comedic style of women I’ve heard of, but have not been familiar with.  Thanks to the book, I also learned the vocabulary to identify what kind of comedy I like and don’t like (I’m a huge fan of improv and sketch comedy, not such a fan of observational and most stand-up).  Before this book, I just lumped it all together as comedy, and could not articulate why I thought one comic’s approach was funny but another’s was not.

We Killed is not a book of comedy, it’s a book about comedy, so if you’re looking for lots of laughs, this isn’t quite the right place. But it certainly is fascinating, and gave me a much deeper appreciation for the work of comedy.  I admit, that I’ve fallen into the false assumption that comics just “are” funny, and they get up on stage and show off their stuff.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Comedy takes hard work and practice.  Jokes are written, re-written and re-written.  Delivery is fine-tuned and sometimes overhauled completely, and women have had a unique position in the comedy world, facing frequent hurdles and sometimes even the unfortunate misconception that women just aren’t funny.  This book was awesome and taught me so much, and is an ideal read for anyone with even an inkling of interest in the art of comedy.

To supplement my book club meeting, I put together a YouTube playlist featuring many of the women in the book. Enjoy!

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December NaBloPoMo: Workin’ it

National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo) started off as a response to National Novel Writing Month.  BlogHer somehow positioned itself as the “official” NaBloPoMo site, and while November remains the official month, they have stretched the event over the whole year with different themes and prompts.

NaBloPoMo_122012_465_287_prompts

December’s theme is Work (click for the prompts).  Although work is a massive part of my in-real-life life, it takes up a disproportionally small amount of space on this blog.  I love the prompts that BlogHer has posted, and am challenging myself to complete the month with their posts.  There aren’t prompts assigned for the weekends, so I’ll come up with my own topics on the theme.  I will also continue to add in some non-work posts from time to time.  Despite the theme, writing about work of course will not involve me writing about office gossip or clients/engagements.  Rather, the theme focuses on more general issues of work, motivation and discipline.

Since today is a weekend and therefore a pick my own prompt day, I’m going to kick this off with some warm fuzzies about good things that happened at work this week:

-My research and briefing resulted in a positive result for an important client.  The main partner on the matter sent a firm-wide email congratulating me on my hard work, and it totally made my day.

-I got calls on two new engagements this week.  One was specifically about a defamation case about a blogger, which is right in my niche practice area, and I’ve been working hard to develop recognition for my knowledge in this area.  Building a book of business is a slow and tricky process, and I’m ecstatic to see things start moving in that direction.

- Legal Intelligencer asked me to write regular Young Lawyer columns!  You can look forward to see columns from me quarterly!

Happy December, all!

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Two Little Words

“Good Job”

“Nice Work”

“Thanks for your hard work on that project!”

Do you have any idea how amazing these little phrases can make my day?  Praise is so powerful when it’s handed out sparingly but meaningfully.  And when I’ve worked really hard on something, there is nothing that makes me happier than hearing “Good Work!”

My practice group leader left a note for me this week telling me that an article I drafted was “First Rate Work.”  Another partner said I did a “Good Job” on a brief, and that he really liked it.  Despite my days being hectic and long, that little sparkle of encouragement reminded me why I love the work I do.  Those words brightened my mood, and my productivity even increased!

It’s just as important to give recognition as it is to receive it.  Keep your eyes peeled for hard work, and remember to recognize it with a few kind words.  You will make someone’s day!

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#BlogHer12 — A Retrospective

This was my first year at BlogHer. I suspected it would either be phenomenal or terrible. It was neither, it was somewhere in between, closer to the “satisfying” place on the spectrum. In the opening address, BlogHer’s founders promised that we would “find our flock” and be surrounded with people who finally “get it.” My experience was slightly different, but no less enlightening.

1. I learned a ton of awesome stuff, tech wise

I blog using WordPress, and I know the basics of it, but don’t have the time to really mess around and teach myself much. I attended small, focused sessions on the WordPress platform and on WordPress plugins. Although the sessions were too short to really get into the meat of the subject, they provided exactly what I needed to point me in the right direction to get this blog more in order, tech wise.

I also attended an awesome iPhoneography (iPhone photography) panel, where I learned all about quick and easy apps for photo editing. Since getting my iPhone, I’ve ditched my 5-year-old digital camera, and with all the amazing apps and technology available, I’m convinced that was a rational choice.

I’m just not able to set aside the time I need to get my head wrapped around these things, and this was a perfect opportunity to do so. Even though I didn’t learn all the details I need, I was provided with the foundation and direction to easily find those further things myself.

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2. The blogger economy is not my economy.

I really did not appreciate the scope (and depth) of sponsorship offerings until I attended BlogHer. I met an Australian blogger who was fully sponsored for an 11 day trip to NYC (FROM AUSTRALIA) for her and her husband. There were TONS of other bloggers who came from the US and Canada on someone else’s dime. I knew bloggers are offered free products in exchange for an online review, and are also frequently paid for reviews, but the extent of this practice was lost on me until I came here and started talking to people.

Private sponsored parties were also in abundance. I met people here, started following their twitter accounts, and immediately started reading about all these fun, fantastic parties by all kinds of different sponsoring parties…none of which I was invited to. I admit, I felt left out and a little sad. I’m not a sponsored blogger. I don’t even run ads. This is by choice, it would cause too many complications with my day job. But all the “cool kids” of BlogHer have tons and tons of followers, and are sponsored to the gills. It made me feel left behind. But I’m not like them, and I’m not going to be like them.

Not surprisingly, most of these massively sponsored bloggers do not have day jobs. Blogging is their “day job.” In blogging, time is the currency. The more time you can invest into your site, into scouring the internet and commenting on other sites, and driving more traffic to your site, and optimizing your SEO, the more traffic you will naturally receive. In the economy of time, I am impoverished. Even without revenue, I love to see my site traffic go up and up and up, it’s purely an ego boost. But I have to be at peace knowing that there will be limitations on my ability to build traffic, simply because there are limitations on the amount of time I can put into this little hobby.

Yes, up against these “big time” bloggers, I felt a little inadequate. Then I realized that my feelings were RIDICULOUS. Feeling inadequate undermines all the hard work and accomplishments I have devoted to my professional life, where I’m lucky to be involved in prominent cases, and make my mark on the legal landscape on a national scale. With all the elbow grease and dedication I’ve put in my career, it is absolutely ridiculous for me to feel sheepish in comparison to moms, who have all day long to tinker with their sites and get their traffic sky-high.

3. I know my flock.

BlogHer is not all mommy bloggers….but it is a lot of mommy bloggers. I’ve spent so much time scouring the internet for the working, blogging moms. And specifically, moms that work demanding, high-hours jobs. And I have had little luck finding these people, presumably because they are WORKING instead of blogging. OK, we lawyers and doctors and phamacists and engineers are not working ALL the time, but when you work a time-intensive job, there are limits on how many hobbies you really can pursue, and while many people in this position enjoy playing sports or similar endeavors, there aren’t a whole heck of a lot of them who are really into blogging.

So when the speakers announced in the BlogHer opening that I would “find” my flock this weekend, I wondered where that flock was hiding. And after mingling with and meeting bloggers over the last few days, I know exactly where my flock is– all around me at home in Pittsburgh. I am so blessed to have so many people who understand me, and where I come from, and the challenges I face. And these people are not online, they’re all around me, in real life. I’m lucky to have a great group of friends who understand the challenges of a demanding job. I’ve got my friend Christine, who is always up for a Clarks show and a beer, and my friend Sandy, with whom I can email with day-in day-out about the frustrations and triumphs of raising headstrong toddlers, and even my friend Krista, who I can call up and have a total meltdown over why does everything I write still have typos, even though I’ve proofread it 178 times?!?! I don’t need to FIND my flock, I HAVE my flock. They are all around me, and I am so lucky about that.

4. Folks need to learn some PERSPECTIVE

BlogHer isn’t just for Mommybloggers, It’s for all bloggers. But there sure are a LOT of Mommybloggers here. Mommyblogging, by the nature of the industry, is egocentric. You’re making money talking about yourself. Combine that with a massive expo with tons of freebies, and it’s like a wrathful god dumped all of the Costcos on the planet together on sample day in the Hilton NY. Mommybloggers make money (or at least get free stuff) from their writing. I get that. I get that writing is effort, and is work, and is valuable, and should be compensated. But I overheard entirely too many elevator conversations about the “absurdity” that such and such a vendor would think they’d deign to write about the product, just because they handed out a product for free, but not “working with” (i.e. paying) bloggers.

This came to a head when I was watching the #BlogHer12 hashtag feed on Twitter. During the session on how to price and value services, there were all kinds of enthusiastic tweets about how valuable writing is, and how a blogger shouldn’t sell herself short, and she should get a good contract with whatever company she’s working with, and make sure it compensates her fairly. Then came the tweet about how bloggers should get those contracts reviewed by a lawyer FOR FREE.

Wait.

What?

YOUR writing about the marvelous scrubbing powers of P&G’s latest creation is so valuable and meaningful that it’s beneath you to put hand to keyboard without a check on the way, but I spent over $150,000 on a legal education, have worked damn hard in a cutthroat industry, and have developed meaningful expertise and I should review your contract for FREE?

Sorry ladies, the world doesn’t work like that. The Mommyblog bubble lacks serious perspective about the give and take of the professional world. It’s to be expected, when the main tasks in your life are chasing after little ones, testing new crafts and recipes, and sorting out which humorous anecdotes about your humble existence wrangle the most page hits.

I recognize that this last bullet point probably just made everyone I met at BlogHer hate me now, but whatever. I do have some comfort in the fact that my pals in out in the real world do have some perspective, and don’t make my hair light aflame with anger quite so often. Phew.

So where does this leave me with BlogHer? I am glad I went. Would I go again? Maybe. This year, BlogHer made up half of my official “vacation,” and I wouldn’t spend my vacation again on the conference. Next year is in Chicago, and I could catch a night flight there, and only miss one day of work. The conference itself is surprisingly inexpensive, so I’m certainly not ruling it out. This year it made sense for me to spend my vacation at BlogHer– Baby Beez is too young to behave on an airplane, I wanted to check the conference out. All the pieces fit together. But next year I need a vacation that involves snuggling with a (hopefully better behaved traveler) Baby Beez. So next year is a “maybe” on my attendance, but I’m certainly counting this year as a good experience, and an eye-opening one.