Looking for inspiration in all the right places.

In college, I took a 200-level English class on American literature and popular culture that focused on the intersection of music and literature. We studied Sam Shepard and Patti Smith’s rock-and-roll play “Cowboy Mouth.” I remember writing a term paper that dissected the lyrics of 10,000 Maniacs. Ever since, I’ve found inspiration in beautifully crafted songwriting.

A couple of months ago, we saw Rickie Lee Jones in concert, and about halfway through, I started to cry, totally blown away by hearing music live that has been the soundtrack to some of my favorite moments in life. Rob is something of a music junkie, the master of the playlist, and we have music playing all the time: while I’m working, while we’re having a cocktail outside on our porch, late into the night when that cocktail has segued into dinner and a bottle of wine.

Hearing Rickie Lee live reminded me of how magical great songwriting can be, how transportive and transformative.

While inspiration often finds me in a great book — my god, have you read All the Light We Cannot See????? — it regularly creeps in through the speakers or headphones. My musical taste steers toward singer-songwriter types, from the 1970s Laurel Canyon artists that dominated the radio waves during my Indianapolis childhood to the likes of R.E.M. and The Bodeans during my college years to current artists like Dawes, Lake Street Dive, Jill Andrews, Sturgill Simpson. I love songs that capture a time and place, that transport you into situations and relationships, that depict characters so vividly you’ll swear they’re standing in front of you.

It’s so important for creative pros not just to seek inspiration — but also to seek it outside their own medium or genre. Looking beyond your milieu opens your eyes to new influences. It frees you from the self-criticism inherent in comparing your stuff to other artists’ work. It gets you out of the weeds and into the wider world.

Skimming through my iTunes library recently, I sparked to these snippets of lyric poetry:

Eddie’s got one crazy eye
That turns him into a cartoon
When a pretty girl comes by
And there’s nothin’ here to do anymore
He sits on the stoop all day
Like there’s something he’s waiting for
Rickie Lee Jones “Living it Up”

You have found me on the other side of a loser’s winning streak
Where my thoughts all wander further than they should
Let me sing to you my solitude, let me pay for your next drink
Let me defend these hearts which are so rarely understood
Dawes “From the Right Angle”

I met him once way after midnight
he lit a smoke and I just stared
He seemed to me like such a sore sight
Bobby Tanqueray with his gorgeous face and hair
Lake Street Dive “Bobby Tanqueray”

Pour some sugar on me
Ooh in the name of love
Pour some sugar on me
Def Leppard “Pour Some Sugar on Me”

What’s in your inspiration queue?

Do people (really) know who you are?

I’ve spent the past several months deep in biographies. I’ve read Beryl Markham’s “West With the Night” and Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” — but that’s not the kind of biography I’m talking about here.

Let’s discuss the Professional Biography, shall we?

Hello My Name IsAs part of my event-marketing work for clients in the creative and food industries, I’ve edited/revised/rewritten hundreds of professional bios. Hundreds. And you know what? Most professional bios are awful.

If you work in any leadership capacity, in any market, you need a well-crafted biography. It gives prospective clients information on your expertise. It tells potential employees who they’ll be working for. It shares your bona fides with people who want to invite you to speak at professional events or write for industry publications.

Your bio lives in many places, in many formats. It’s the written version of the spiel you use to introduce yourself in a professional setting.

Why are so many bios impersonal, clinical, incomplete? (I suspect it’s because many people find it incredibly difficult to write about themselves.)

Here’s what a professional bio should — and should not — be.

It SHOULD be personal. A strong biography marries your professional credentials with your personal characteristics. It conveys your experience and credentials, yes — but it also hints at who you are as a person. It can include your non-work interests and passions (best placed at the end of the text). What are you like to work with? What are your values? What fuels your fire?

It SHOULD NOT be a resume. A potential employer needs to know your career history. A prospective collaborator or client needs to know your expertise. These are not the same thing. So many bios I’ve “fixed” are simply lists of past job titles. Instead, your bio should convey your skills and capabilities. What are you great at? Where do you shine? What’s your essential expertise?

It SHOULD be unique. Take your name out of your bio; could it describe at least one other person you know? That’s why the resume approach doesn’t work — a list of past positions makes you sound like everyone else in your market. What do prospects get in working with YOU that they don’t get from anyone else?

You need three versions of your professional biography: long form (for your website’s About page), mid-length (for speaking engagements and other external uses), short form (for social media).

In the spirit of full disclosure, here’s my professional biography.

Here’s one I wrote, for Enrich Creative principal Gretchen Schisla. Note that it describes Gretchen’s entrepreneurial spirit, connecting her with the type of client her firm thrives on working with.

And another, for NYC food photographer Evi Abeler. It references Evi’s childhood in Germany, setting the stage for her artistic vision. We recently worked together to update it.

Take a look at your bio. Maybe it’s due for a refresh? I can help you with that!

You don’t suck at writing. You just need to get started.

Recently, I was having a “you can do it” sort of conversation with a client who’s stuck in the long, thankless-until-it’s-published slog of writing a book, when she asked me about my writing process. The answer I gave her was probably unhelpful: I tend to wait until inspiration strikes, at which point the piece pours from my fingertips almost fully formed.

No inspiration? No writing.

(At which point, I should acknowledge that it’s been monthsandmonths since I’ve published a post here on my professional website. See ‘inspiration’ above.)

But what if deadlines loom and there’s simply no time to wait for the muse to arrive? Lynda’s question about process got me thinking more introspectively about mine. So for her, and for any of you who struggle (don’t we all?) with writing, here are a few of my practices that might be helpful to you.

Consider the nature of the project. Personal essay-ish pieces, like these posts or ones for my recipe website, or my editor’s notes for Edible Ohio Valley, do require inspiration. Often, I’ll noodle on ideas while I’m doing something completely unrelated: My Edible editor’s notes are unfailingly written in my head while I’m out walking Peroni. Recipe ideas jolt when I’m eating something delicious at a restaurant or browsing cookbooks or magazines. With more technical writing, information is more critical than inspiration. Research and interviewing are the prompts I need to get started. See below.

Just open a blank document. I know: The prospect of facing a blank page is daunting, no matter what you’re creating. But I find that opening a blank document, and saving it — making the project real, giving it a name, a purpose — often gets me over the hump.

Start collecting inputs. In that newly opened document, I’ll stash snippets of online research material, interview questions, Wikipedia content, interesting quotes or insights I’ve gathered. For example, I’m currently writing a newsletter for a client on a marketing-related topic, one that I’m familiar with but not expert in. So I started by doing several Google searches and gathering ideas, images and information (being sure to save my sources so I can later either quote or cite the originals). Soon, I had pages of reference material to work with.

Organize the inputs. It’s easy to see patterns in the inputs: a theme for the piece, or common elements that can be grouped together. For example, I’ll cut and paste quotes from extensive interview notes in a linear fashion. Once I’ve organized the inputs, I have the skeleton of the piece.

Fill in the blanks. With that skeleton in place, I’ll add transitions between ideas, fill in supplemental information or explanation, make sure the content flows logically and add a conclusion that helps the reader understand the concept or creates a call to action.

This newsletter is itself a case study in process:

Inspiration > Blank document > Ideas > Organize > Fill in.

Some days, we all stare at that blank page/canvas/screen and think, “I. Can’t. Even.” But then we can.

Finding inspiration in Hemingway: Are you refilling?

“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing; but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.” — Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I have spent this summer refilling from the springs.

I have always been a reader; but the kid who devoured books one after another has, as an adult, found it difficult to consistently make time for reading. This summer has been different. I’ve moved from book to book, putting one down only to pick up another. I’ve felt almost hungry to read. It’s like eating Mexican Seven Layer Dip: I just. Cannot. Stop.

First, it was David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey,” a hefty nonfiction book about American writers, artists and physicians who flocked to Paris between roughly 1830 and 1900. These expats sought to perfect their crafts in what they saw as the most vital, creative life-giving city in the world.

When I finished it, I felt the need to stay in Paris, and to read about the next generation of writers and artists who went there in first two decades of the 20th century: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Anderson, Picasso, the group that Gertrude Stein called “The Lost Generation.”

Eiffel_TowerSo I picked up “The Paris Wife,” Paula McClain’s fictional account of Hadley and Ernest Hemingway’s courtship and marriage and early life in Paris. And then, of course, I had to read Hemingway’s memoir of that same time, “A Moveable Feast” — a gorgeously written, heartbreaking book. Forty-some years later — after he and Hadley had divorced (and he’d married three other women in succession), after he’d undergone horrific electroshock therapy treatments for depression that had sapped his memory — Hemingway received two steamer trunks of letters, notebooks and old clothing that he’d left at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris in the 1920s. He stitched together those old writings and fragmented memories into “A Moveable Feast.”

The book is more than reflection on a marriage; it captures conversations among writers about the craft of writing. I’ve underlined passage after passage that inspire me — and maybe you, too, no matter what your creative discipline:

On keeping momentum in your work — “I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”

On the struggle to begin, to face the blank page — “But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going … I would stand and look out over the roofs of paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”

On the need to seek out other writing as inspiration and respite from our own work — “When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written, to keep my mind from going on with the story I was working on.”

So, as the summer winds down, what are you doing to refill from the springs?

Let’s make work a nicer place.

I’m just back from three days at HOW Design Live — the premier event for folks in the creative professions (graphic and web design, advertising, marcomm and related fields). HOW remains close to my heart, since I spent many years managing the brand and helping to host the conference. (This year, I developed a content strategy, helped with a big chunk of writing and covered the event live on social media … big fun!)

Unexpectedly — and perhaps unintentionally — a prominent theme pulsed through the event, linking many of they keynote presentations. It was a theme of kindness. Simon Sinek talked about it. So did Tina Roth Eisenberg and Tom Peters. Brené Brown touched on it, too.

This event wasn’t JUST about the work — it was about being nice to each other at work. And people responded. Everyone I talked to had picked up on it. It was this sort of primal energy that fed the entire crowd.

Why?

As Simon Sinek pointed out, workplaces large and small have lost their way. Profits come before people. Workers are laid off without conscience, and the rest of the team are pressured to pick up the slack. The pace of work is inhumane. Technology is beyond disruptive; it’s poisonous. When did it become OK for managers to email employees on weekends and expect them to respond? When did the pace of work pick up such that people can’t even breathe, let alone connect with colleagues and create really incredible new ideas? Yes, companies exist to create profit — and in doing so create jobs and build communities — but so much of this profit focus is incredibly short term, and it’s destroying people.

Why do we think the independent workforce is booming now? People are getting off the freakin’ treadmill.

What do we do about this? Five keywords emerged at HOW Design Live, words that might point to a better path:

Trust. This is a big one. Companies don’t trust their employees to make smart decisions, to take ownership of their work, to fall and learn from mistakes. Employees don’t trust that companies have people (themselves, or their customers) as their primary focus. Trust isn’t an asset on a resume or a function on a job description. It’s earned. Managers earn trust by digging into the trenches, working alongside their teams, telling them, “I have your back” and then living those words. Employees earn trust by recognizing what needs to be done and stepping up, rising to challenges, being honest when they’re confused or when they make mistakes.

Truth. This goes hand in hand with trust, doesn’t it? In politically charged workplaces, it’s impossible to have honest conversations. People say one thing and do another, throw each other under the bus. Brené Brown talked about how we have to own our flaws, be honest about our failures — or others will use those things to define us. We have to control our own stories.

Try. I enjoyed hearing Angie Myung and Ted Vadakan, the founders of Poketo, talk about the by-the-seat-of-their-pants startup story. They moved in with Ted’s parents, picked and packed orders themselves, made some bad decisions about inventory. They just gave it a whirl, and now they have an influential brand that brings art into people’s everyday lives. They tried.

Treat. As in, treat people kindly. Why are there so many assholes? Where is it written that if you’re unsure about yourself or your capabilities you get to mask that by being a bully? One great piece of advice from Sinek: When someone asks for a minute of your time, close the laptop and put your phone in a drawer. Disconnect from technology — entirely — and give them your full attention. Attention, he said, is the purest form of generosity.

Thanks. Tom Peters gave an enjoyably curmudgeonly rant that wandered all over the map. But he ended with the two most important words in business: Thank you. Thank you speaks truthfully and builds trust. We don’t say ‘thank you’ enough.

So, let’s all commit to this, shall we: Say thanks every day (every hour?). Try stuff. Be nice. Be honest and authentic. Support each other to build trust. Put the phones away and just talk.

I’m in.

New work: Taste of the Holidays for Meijer.

I loved creating the copy for Meijer’s beautiful in-store holiday publication. Our goal was to create an approachable, engaging guide for holiday entertaining, cooking and gift-giving, with content designed to spark ideas — and, of course, to prompt sales of the featured products and ingredients. Mission accomplished!

Taste of Holiday coverTaste of Holiday spreadTaste of Holiday spread 2

Who are your influences?

There’s a scene in “The Commitments” (a terrific movie about the rise and fall of a soul band in working-class Dublin) where self-appointed manager Jimmy Rabbette is auditioning singers. A parade of musicians knock on Jimmy’s door; he opens it a crack and demands, “Who are your influences?” Hearing responses like, “Barry Manilow,” “Joan Baez” and “Spandau Ballet,” he repeatedly slams the door in disgust.

Who are your influences?

Recently, I reconnected (if you’ll indulge a personal anecdote) with one of my influences. During the holidays, looking for something to read in between finishing book 3 of the “Game of Thrones” series and starting “Gone Girl”—yes, I’m just now getting to that—I had a taste for material that was less dark and intense.

So I picked up an old favorite, “The Wind in the Willows,” Kenneth Grahame’s charming story of the Water Rat, his kindly friend Mole, and the motorcar-addicted Mr. Toad. I immediately found myself in familiar territory: Not only had I read Grahame’s beautiful story many times since childhood, but I recognized the pattern and rhythm and structure of the writing. The way Grahame works in threes, stringing together three words or phrases in a singsong pattern. The way he inserts knowing little asides. The way he uses metaphor to convey an idea.

WITW imageThe recognition struck like lightning: This is how I write. Little did I know, writers I loved in childhood—Grahame and E.B. White and A.A. Milne—would in ways large and small influence my own work decades (and decades) later. Of course, I don’t propose to compare my writing to theirs—with all due modesty, I’m competent, but not that good—but I can’t help but realize that I’ve borrowed styles and techniques from authors I’ve loved. It’s entirely subconscious. But the influence is there.

Who are your influences?

Think about the people—writers, designers, artists, mentors, colleagues, managers—whose craft and technique have informed your own work. Do you regularly revisit, review or reread those influences?

Shouldn’t you?

The creative benefits of puttering.

garden toolA couple of weeks ago, when the weather wasn’t so goshdarn steamy and my workload was summer-light, I wandered outside to take a look at the vegetable garden before sitting down at the computer for the day.

An hour and a half later, I realized that I’d been completely sucked into The Puttering Zone.

You’ve had this experience, right? What starts with a simple task, like putting something away in your workbench, or deadheading a few flowers in the landscape or stashing a box of crackers on the shelf … winds up as 90 minutes of tinkering or gardening or cleaning out the pantry. One little thing leads to another, and without much thinking about it, you’ve managed to accomplish quite a bit.

Or not. The pleasure of puttering is in the act itself, not necessarily the outcome (though that can be rewarding, too).

After futzing around in the garden for awhile, it occurred to me that this kind of activity might be really good for us. Turns out, puttering is good for both the body and the brain:

In one study by the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, which tracked 60-year-old men and women over 12 years, found that people who had an active daily life that included “non-exercise” — physical activity like “gardening, car maintenance, blackberry picking or DIY projects” — had a 30% lower risk of heart attack or stroke compared to people who were sedentary.

Another study by a team from Rush University Medical Center found that similar activity — described in a news release as “activities like cooking, washing the dishes, playing cards …” — may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Three aspects of puttering I think are beneficial particularly to those of us who work in a creative field:

  1. Puttering has an absent-minded quality to it. Performing simple tasks like pulling weeds or reorganizing tools on a pegboard, and moving from one task to another without planning, doesn’t require much concentration. Our minds are free to wander, to make connections between things stashed away in our brains, to generate ideas. (I’ve written about how we can coax ideas along in those seemingly serendipitous moments.) And in fact, the idea for this newsletter emerged as I was on my hands and knees working the soil with a cultivator.
  2. Puttering is one of many antidotes to sitting in a chair all day. The physicality of futzing around helps with balance and coordination. Just moving around is good for us. It’s what our bodies are programmed to do. (Too, I’ve written about how physical activity fuels creativity.)
  3. You can’t put “puttering” on your to-do list. It just happens. You go out to get the newspaper and, voila! Next thing you know, and hour has passed, and your car’s wheels are bright and shiny. Puttering is the antithesis of the to-do list. It forces spontaneity. This is a good thing.

I did indeed come back indoors and sit down at the computer, at which point I opened a Pages document and sketched a few notes that became this newsletter. I recall having a much brighter outlook on my day, having accomplished something and enjoyed myself in unexpected fashion.

I think we all need to make more space in our lives for puttering, don’t you?

Rethinking your elevator pitch.

Don’t you just hate talking about yourself?

Earlier this year, I had occasion to give a talk about my career and my work to a group of retirees as part of a senior-learning program sponsored by Miami University. I focused my talk on The Clara Project, a series of posts on my recipe blog, writes4food.com, inspired by a collection of 1930s recipes, which were previously owned by a woman named Clara Shenefelt, and which I discovered in an antique shop nearly 2 years ago. (As it happens, Clara lived at this retirement complex until she passed away earlier this month at age 98.)

I was unusually nervous and self-conscious about the talk. Giving this presentation felt like giving my “elevator pitch”—but, like, for nearly an hour.

But I learned something very important from this experience, something that I think is relevant to anyone who works in the creative field:

Whatever it is that you do for a living, if you speak of it with authentic enthusiasm, people will be interested in hearing about your work.

And that goes whether you’re pitching to a prospective client or meeting the friend of a friend at a party.

Aside from the few elderly gents who dozed during the presentation like they were in church, the audience seemed genuinely appreciative. They wanted to know what I write about, and how I do it. They loved the story of The Clara Project. And I found that expressing my genuine excitement made it so much easier to talk about my work.

image via creative commons license

You may have worked on your own “elevator speech”—that one-sentence pitch that describes what you do and for whom. It probably follows some kind of formula:

I do _____ for _____ who need _____.

And while the formula can help you structure and hone how you speak about your work, it has its limitations. It can sound a little stilted when you utter the words, like you’ve memorized a few lines of poetry. It can be a little jargon-y, which might play well in a business setting but might be out of place in a social interaction. And it can be a little restrictive.

Instead of memorizing a set pitch that you repeat over and over, try these tips when you’re talking about what you do:

Keep it flexible. The standard version of my pitch is: “I’m an independent journalist, copywriter and content developer, and I focus on food and wellness, creativity and design.” Recently, I spoke to a group of olive oil producers, and I introduced myself by saying, “I write about food for magazines and food brands.” When I spoke last month to a group of design-firm principals, I said, “I help creative agencies tell their stories.” Your pitch should flex depending on who you’re talking to.

Have a shorthand version for social settings. At a party, if I’m asked what I do, I simply say, “I’m a food writer.” Invariably, I’ll get a follow-up question: “Oh, so who do you write for?” When you’re in a social setting, can you come up with a short-and-sweet description of your work that prompts additional conversation?

Let your enthusiasm shine. Whether you write about food or you develop B2B websites, there’s something about the work you get really geeked about. Tap into that when you’re talking with someone new about your work.