Tag Archives: featured

How Employers Must Adapt to an Age of Longevity

older worker with hoe

I absolutely loved The 100 Year Life, a book by two London Business School professors, Lynda Gratton and Andrew J. Scott. It was one of the first books to examine how our ability to live longer lives will transform the world of work. Whenever I encounter middle aged friends who feel stuck in their job/career/marriage/fill-in-the blank, I say “Read this! You’re going to live to be 100. Make the most of it!”

If you’re familiar with The 100 Year Life and/or the related research on aging and the future of work, the first two-thirds of the book’s sequel – The New Long Life: A Framework for Fourishing in a Changing World – covers familiar ground. There’s a lot more data in the second book, and an explicit focus on how advances in technology intersect with ageing trends.

But I was mainly interested in the final third of the book, where the authors stop identifying challenges and start talking about solutions. There are loads of actionable ideas in here for how we adjust work, school and public policy to accommodate longer, more productive lives. In an earlier blog I explored why it’s in the interest of businesses to adapt to embrace an ageing workforce. Here, I’ll zero in on the potential changes we need to see in the workplace to support this age of longevity:

Read the rest of this post over at The Oxford Institute of Population Ageing blog

Tips for Adulthood: Five Reasons to Clean Out Your Inbox

inbox full

On occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

I was back in the United States recently, clearing out my mother’s home after she died. There were the more obvious, big-ticket items to divide among my siblings: artwork, jewelry and the like. And then there were the more random things to sort through: her enormous collection of greeting cards for every conceivable holiday, a lifetime supply of emory boards, and the chipped, ceramic figures from an erstwhile Christmas manger.

The decluttering bug firmly implanted, I returned home and immediately started clearing out my own home. But I decided not to limit my cleaning frenzy to actual stuff. I also did a virtual declutter.

I’m not one of those die-hard, Inbox Zero types. I’ve come to accept that there will always be a certain base level of flotsam cluttering up my inbox. Otherwise, I’d do nothing but eliminate emails all day long.

But there comes a time – and everyone has a different threshold – when you just can’t bear to look at your inbox splitting at the seams anymore. If you’re like me, you probably dread the idea of sitting down and going through it. Maybe there’s stuff in there that you’re trying to avoid. Or you fear that by managing your inbox, you will necessarily *not* be doing something else with your time.

Today’s post is meant to help you see that by setting aside time to clear out your inbox, you’ll actually feel calmer *and* more productive. Here’s why:

1. You get ideas. I’ve posted before about how I come up with ideas, whether it’s taking a “thinking shower” or going outside for a walk. When I get those ideas, I usually write them down in a little notebook I carry around. But sometimes – and especially if it’s an idea that I plan to save for a later date – I write myself an email about the idea with the thought of subsequently storing it in a file on my computer. Except that sometimes I never actually complete that second step. And so the idea – which has subsequently flown completely out of my mind – is essentially lost, drowning in the sea that is my inbox until I find the time to rescue it (which could be weeks, if not months.) Clearing out your inbox reminds you of those little gems that are hiding in the recesses of your brain.

2. You take action. Once you’ve been reminded of that cure for cancer you came up with while jogging one Thursday afternoon back in March, you might actually be inspired to do something about it. In my case, my virtual decluttering prompted me to send off an essay I’d written (gulp) 18 months ago to a major media outlet and also to get in touch with an agent I’d flagged but never actually contacted. Those were both things I’d been meaning to do for ages. But until I happened upon those items in my inbox, they were languishing on my long To Do list.

3. You reconnect with people. Scrubbing out your inbox also reminds you of friends and relationships that matter. I just found an email that was several months old from a friend who’d moved to Colorado last year. In it, she not only brought me up to speed on what she’s been up to, but reminded me of an idea I’d been meaning to write about for ages (See #1). Another email from an old friend reminded me that his father had passed away. While I’d already sent him a condolence letter, I remembered that I also wanted to send his mother one as well.

4. You feel accomplished. If you’re like me, half of your inbox is filled with things like “Buy bananas!” “Get birthday present for X!,” “Write post on Z!” In other words, half of your inbox is filled with things you’ve already done. (And we all know the joy of retro-actively crossing things off our to do lists!) With the rest of the items, you’re hopefully either executing them (see point #2) or storing them in a virtual home. Either way, you’ll feel like you’re getting stuff done.

5. You relax. And this is perhaps the greatest benefit of all. There’s nothing quite like a good, old-fashioned declutter, whether real or virtual. It takes years off your life…removes pounds from your body…lifts scales from your skin. (O.K., I”m mixing metaphors a bit but you get my drift.) Short of doing yoga, there’s really nothing quite so soothing.

The Personality Traits We Inherit From Our Parents

tennis racket

tennis racketOne of the beautiful aspects of losing someone you love is that people send you their memories of that person. When a friend from high school learned that my mother had died, she shared that news with her own mother, who played tennis with my mom for years. My friend shared this story via email:

One time our mothers were playing on a way back court. They see your father approaching. He strode past all the courts straight through to the one where our mothers were playing, lifted the latch and came onto the court. He had several ties hanging around his neck and called out, “Daryl! Which one should I wear?” Apparently, he had a big court appearance and wanted to look just right.

The vignette captured my parents’ respective personalities – and the dynamic underlying their 50-year marriage – beautifully. My mother was the brains behind the operation and the one who made sure the trains ran on time. My Dad brought the charm and unpredictability.

Behavioral Styles

This story got me thinking – again – about personality types. One of most popular workshops I deliver to corporate clients focuses on communication styles. The model draws on the  work of two psychologists – Robert and Dorothy Grover Bolton – and their model of “behavioral  styles.”
Bolton & Bolton argue that two main dimensions can explain and predict how people behave: assertiveness and responsiveness.
Assertiveness is the degree to which people’s behavior is seen as forceful and directive.  Responsiveness is the degree to which people are seen as showing emotions or demonstrating sensitivity.
The two dimensions yield four resultant “people styles”: quick to action but less demonstrative is the Driver type – these are the “Get it done, damn it!” types. Bold and impulsive, but also charismatic are the Expressive types. These folks are the life of the party. Less assertive but deeply empathetic are the Amiable types – your classic “people people.” And finally, thorough and detailed, but emotionally reserved, are the Analytical types.
In a professional context, the model is meant to help you identify your own type, appreciate how others may see you and – crucially – learn how flex your style so that you can get along effectively with different types you encounter at work. From a personal standpoint, what I find interesting about this model is how perfectly I can place my parents into two of those boxes. My mother was your classic Driver:  highly organised, efficient and action-oriented, but at times practical to a fault. My father was a vintage Expressive: an enthusiastic storyteller who connected with people easily, but couldn’t keep track of details.
I’m right on the line between the two types: organized and logical on the one hand, but lively and voluble on the other.  I’ve written before about how my current portfolio career as a communications consultant suits me well for psychological reasons: it combines the pragmatic trouble-shooter of the editor, with the animated cheerleader of the coach. But until my friend sent me the story about the tennis court, I’d never linked this dichotomy back to my parents.

When I shared this insight with another friend of mine, he concurred. He’s worked for nearly two decades in assorted senior roles in a global financial services company. A couple of years ago, he started coaching younger colleagues in the company on the side, and he now leads the company’s talent development division. As he explained it:

“My mother was a school teacher who once told me that she loves nothing more than seeing a child develop. After business school, my father took a job with Yellow Freight in Kansas City where he worked for about 25 years.  He was a company man… very loyal and got a lot of his value through his contribution at work.
While the links to my father were apparent early in my professional career, the links to my mother were a little more subtle.  Over time though, I realize that working with individuals on my team and helping them develop is what provided me the most reward.  In some ways, my most recent role has consummated that professional marriage between my mother and father.”
What our parents leave us 

I wrote recently about the things our parents give us when they die. (In my case, this amounted to a life-long love of writing and a bottle of instant decaffeinated coffee, among other treasures.) But we take other things forward as well: who they were as people and how those traits embed themselves within us.

As I settle into a prolonged stage of reflection – and grief – over the deaths of both of my parents, I take comfort not only in their memories, but in how they live on within me.

Image: Tennis Racket and Balls via Wikimedia Commons

What My Mother Left Me When She Died

flowers in a vase

flowers in a vaseI lost my mother recently. It wasn’t to Covid19, thank goodness. But it was very sudden. Because of the virus, I was not able to make a planned trip to spend Easter with her this year. Indeed, and like so many other families who have lost a parent in the last few months, none of her four children were able to see her during the last few months of her life.

What I Notice

When you lose someone you love, memories of them resurface when you least expect it. Some friends here in London sent me some beautiful flowers when they heard of my mother’s death. As I went to change the water one day, I found myself reaching for the sugar bowl. My mother always told me that if you changed the water on flowers every day – and added a teaspoon of sugar – the flowers would live longer. She was full of practical, everyday wisdom like that.

Then my husband opened our pantry and noticed a jar of instant decaffeinated coffee lurking in one of the back corners. The bottle was a holdover from my mother’s last visit some two and a half years ago, the last time she was able to travel alone. I don’t think either one of us ever actually clocked that jar before. It had blended into the obscure architecture of the back cupboard, along with other, long-neglected items like a bottle of yeast extract and a can of Brunswick Canadian Style sardines.

Suddenly, that jar was all we could see. Neither one of us could bring ourselves to throw it out, even though there is no way on God’s earth that either one of us will ever drink instant coffee in this lifetime.

Rituals and Values

Another thing that happens when a parent dies is that you begin to appreciate all the myriad ways you’ve begun adopting their idiosyncratic habits. Ten years ago, I wrote a blog post about five ways I was turning into my mother. These included things like carrying a large library book with me everywhere I go, lest things get dull…doing extensive back exercises every morning, much to the chagrin of my teenaged children…and re-purposing everything I possibly can to save money, including – yes – tea bags.

That list of shared behaviors has grown. When my mother moved from the last house she owned into a small apartment in an independent living facility, she could only bring one bookshelf. A voracious reader (see library books, above), she had amassed an impressive collection of novels, history and plays over the course of a lifetime. But she chose to bring only poetry with her to her new home. I’ve never read poetry in my life. A few months ago, I started reading it too.

I’ve also begun replicating her values. My mother became active in the League of Women Voters when, as a young mother with four children, she moved to a new town where she didn’t know anyone. That political commitment carried on for the next 50 years. Right up into her mid-80’s, she was still making phone calls for her local congressional candidate of choice.

I’ve never been particularly politically active, save attending the odd protest here and there and supporting causes I believe in on social media. This year, I joined a team of virtual volunteers leading the charge to get out the vote among Americans living overseas.

The Gift of Writing

The greatest gift my mother gave me – and certainly the one with the longest staying power – was teaching me how to write. My mother wrote plays, children’s stories and a terrific family history I’ve had occasion to re-read in the wake of her death. When I was in high school, she would sit with me for hours and go over my essays, advising me on structure, wording and tone. Everything I know about writing I learned from her.

When I took some time off years ago to work on a novel, she sent me a poem about writing, which I posted on my blog. It was partly a poem about resilience: about falling down and getting back up, which is, of course, what writing is all about. It was also about how much we feel is riding on those words. But it was also about mothers and daughters, and how we connect through the shared struggle of writing…and life.

I end this post with the closing verse of that poem, called The Writer by Richard Wilbur:

It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.

Image: Dahlias in a vase via Pxfuel

This post originally ran on Sixty and Me.

 

Tips for Adulthood: Five Tips for Coping with Sadness

loss and grief

loss and griefOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

In the wake of my mother’s death, I’ve been feeling sad lately. For many years of my life, I pushed sad feelings away whenever they arose. I felt that if I just kept moving fast enough, I could out-run them. Often times, I did.

But one of the things that happens as you age is that you begin to confront your fears. And, hopefully, you develop new coping strategies to deal with your demons.

So this week, here are some strategies for how to deal with sadness when it comes:

a.  Meditation. I’ve written before about the power of mindfulness. One of the things mindfulness encourages you to do is to treat your thoughts and emotions as fleeting. The idea is that just as the breath comes and goes, so, too, do thoughts and emotions. So when anger, or sadness, or regret pop up, you don’t push them away. You see them, acknowledge them, and move on. “Oh, that’s anger,” you say to yourself. Or: “Oh, I’m feeling sad now.” Over time,  instead of  saying, “I’m an angry person,” or “I’m depressed,” you begin to say: “I’m sad right now.” But tomorrow my happiness will return. Because it’s in there too. (NB: Highly recommend Headspace’s grief meditation.)

b.  Reframing. Over on Maria Popova’s brilliant website, Brain Pickings, she writes about the famous Austrian poet and novelist, Maria Rainer Rilke, and how he conceptualised sadness. While we may feel paralyzed by it in the moment, the ability to sit silently with one’s sadness is also central to personal growth. As he so eloquently puts it, “…this is why it is so important to be lonely and attentive when one is sad: because the apparently uneventful and stark moment at which our future sets foot in us is so much closer to life than that other noisy and fortuitous point of time at which it happens to us as if from outside.” Sadness is painful; yes. But it is also transformative. And it reminds us that we are alive.

c.  Poetry. I don’t read a lot of poetry. But when I’m sad, I find that poetry is the very best way to commune with my sadness and embrace it, as Rilke advocates. Lately, I’ve been reading the Irish poet, James Claren Mangen, because, let’s face it, no one quite does sadness like the Irish. I’m quite taken with his poem, The Nameless One.

d.  Music.  As with poetry, I don’t actually listen to music all that much. My love for show tunes notwithstanding, I don’t tend to have a CD playing or Spotify playing in the background as I go about my life. When I’m sad, however, my go-to music is the music of my young adulthood, when I lived in Central America for a year. During that year, I spent an enormous amount of time listening to the likes of Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés, two giants of the Nueva Trova movement. So lately, instead of podcasts, I’ve been listening to that music as I walk around my neighbourhood or do the laundry. Much like watching a sad film, or reading a sad novel, this music speaks on some deeper level to my feelings right now. If you speak Spanish – and even if you don’t – go have a listen to Mi Unicornio Azúl.

e.  Writing.  And, of course, I write. For me, nothing helps quite so much in confronting sadness as putting thoughts like these down on paper.

How do you cope when you feel sad?

Image: Loss and Grief by Patrick Emersen via Flickr

Why Coaching Is So Meaningful As We Age

writing coach

writing coachI ran into a student just before lockdown whom I’d worked with a year ago. She was in the office of a local university where I coach PhD students on how to write their dissertations. She was there to pick up her diploma.

When I first met this woman, she’d been trying to write her thesis on and off for a decade. Her original academic advisors had long ago left the building. She was on her own now, with a newly assigned advisor who wasn’t even in her field, and struggling with debt, deadlines and concomitant mental health issues.

“Working with you was transformative,” she told me when we met. “You were the first person to talk to me about my work for more than 15 minutes  in ten years.” She was beaming. The slouching person near tears I’d worked with a year earlier had morphed into a confident and accomplished vision of health.

Coaching as Empowerment
I’ve written before about why I enjoy being a writing coach. Unlike editing, where you basically fix a person’s writing, coaching is about cultivating that ability in the writers themselves.

This support can take all different forms. One client I worked with was an undiagnosed dyslexic. We spent six weeks going over the basic rules of grammer, devoting one entire session to the comma. Another client wanted help crafting essays for his business school applications. The schools wanted him to tell stories about himself, but he’d never written in the first person before and felt uncomfortable.

Most of the people I coach are at some stage of writing their doctoral dissertations. With them, it might be about helping them re-think their introductions so that these provide a roadmap for the entire paper. Or showing them how construct a literature review that won’t bore the reader. Most of the time, it’s simply about asking them a series of questions to help them articulate their core argument in one sentence and why it matters.

As you work together over time, you don’t just help clients with their writing, of course. You help them to feel confident about doing all these things on their own.

Coaching During Lockdown: The Power of Connection

Lockdown has intensified my relationship with the people I coach, especially the students.
Writing a PhD can be a very lonely process. Most of the time, you’re holed up in a library, poring over a bunch of obscure texts and trying to make sense of them. Occasionally, you go visit your advisor for feedback. Their job is to make you feel even worse about your writing. (Here, I paraphrase any number of famous people who’ve been credited for observing that “the politics at universities are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”)

But during lockdown, students are stuck in their bedrooms. They can’t derive comfort from an impending coffee break with their friends or from the shared struggle of looking up and seeing a hundred other people tapping on their keyboards in a library. Worse, most of the feedback from their advisors now arrives via email.

So when I talk to them, it often feels like I’m the first human being they’ve spoken to in ages. This connection is good for them. But it’s also good for me. I’m finding that one of the silver linings of lockdown is how much I’m enjoying my daily, face-to-face connection with students. It’s become a high point in my day.

Giving Back as We Age: Wisdom and Crystallized Intelligence

I wonder  sometimes if I would enjoy my coaching work as much if I were younger. I doubt it. A recent episode of Adam Grant’s fantastic Work Life podcast probed the difference between “fluid intelligence” and “crystallized intelligence.” The former refers to the ability to solve problems in novel situations and tends to peak when you’re young. The latter is the ability to use knowledge acquired through experience, which emerges when you’re older.

I think the reason I’m enjoying coaching so much right now is that it affords me this ability to transfer the knowledge I’ve acquired about writing through 30 plus years of experience. As someone who’s spent a fair bit of her life in a classroom, the rush is no longer so much about how I come across to the students or how I perform. It’s increasingly about what they take away from our interactions.

Research suggests that the difference between older and younger managers is that whereas younger managers are all about self-advancement, older workers are much more other-directed. They are more collaborative, more empathetic and more inclusive. They listen better and delegate more.

I think this is what Jonathan Rauch calls wisdom in his book The Happiness Curve:  Why Life Gets Better After Midlife. Wisdom is not only, or even primarily, about knowledge and expertise. It’s about cultivating a greater ability to focus away from ourselves and towards our community.

Image: Writing by Alan Cleaver via Flickr

Note: This post originally ran on Sixty and Me.

Mourning the Death of a Parent: A Poem

woods

woodsNothing drives home the reality of adulthood quite so clearly as the death of a parent.

My mother passed away last Wednesday. It was her 89th birthday.

Shortly after my father died 11 years ago, a friend sent me the following poem to comfort me during this loss.

Today, in my mother’s honor, I again share that poem with you:

In Blackwater Woods

–          Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blur shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what it its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Image: Woods-Trees-Forest-the edge of by Guangyanggluo via Pixabay

Tips for Adulthood: Five Reasons to Listen to Billy Joel

Billy Joel

Billy JoelI’ve been listening to Billy Joel again. Yes, I say that loudly, proudly and unabashedly. If you grew up in the 1970s, it’s pretty impossible *not* to be in love with Billy Joel. When “The Stranger” was released in 1977, it was all anyone listened to for several years.

My husband gets this. He’s the one who got me started on my new Billy Joel kick. He recently came across a series of videos of Billy performing his songs before a live audience. As Billy performs each song, he explains its origin and meaning. (Side note to Billy Joel fans – in case anyone who is *not* a Billy Joel fan has gotten this far into this blog post – he doesn’t like Piano Man all that much. Sniff.)

Particularly as I get older, I find that Billy Joel’s music speaks to me even more than it did back in junior high. To wit, five Billy Joel songs with particular resonance for middle age:

1. James – This song comes from one of Billy’s earlier albums, Turnstiles. It’s mostly a song about those early, intense friendships we have in childhood and adolescence that often dissipate as we grow up and choose different paths in life: “I went on the road. And you pursued an education…” I always feel incredibly sad when I hear the lyrics to this song, because it reminds me of the bittersweet, awkward feelings such relationships inspire, especially if you ever find yourself reunited with said friend and realize that you have very little in common anymore. But it’s also a song about regret, which is, for me anyway, one of the central emotions that we navigate in midlife. As Billy asks his erstwhile friend: “Do you like your life? Can you find release? Did you ever write your masterpiece?” Ouch. Most of us didn’t end up writing our masterpieces. But the song ends with some sage adulthood advice, encouraging James – and all of us – to follow our own dreams, not those set by others: “Do what’s good for you, or you’re not good for anybody.”

2. New York State of Mind – Closely linked to regret is nostalgia, another inescapable feature of adulthood. I grew up in the tri-state New York area and while I’ve subsequently lived in many cities across many continents, there are a handful of Billy Joel songs that bring me right back to the place which, for me, will always be home: “I don’t care if it’s Chinatown or on Riverside…” For me, this song readily calls up a sea of memories:  the summer in college I spent living on Riverside Drive in an impossibly posh apartment I got through a family friend and trying out every bar in town…the numerous times my mother hauled me and my siblings into the city to see previews of the original cast performances of shows like Evita, Annie and Sweeney Todd…the smell of pretzels mixed in with the city’s gritty streets. (Note to the Super Fans: if you want to see a truly miraculous Billy Joel moment, watch this video where he allows a very talented piano player from Vanderbilt University to spontaneously accompany him while he sings New York State of Mind.)

3. ViennaSlow Down, you crazy child…you’re so ambitious for a juvenile...” Dear Lord, do I feel that this song was written for me. As someone who has lived much of her life at a gallop, I’ve had a very hard time learning that life is not a crew race, it’s more of a marathon. As Billy enjoins us: “Take the phone off the hook, and disappear for a while.” When I hear Billy sing this song, it feels like a sort of musical version of mindfulness.

4. I’ve Loved These Days Another gem. This is ostensibly a song about people who’ve been overdoing it – living it to the hilt with drugs, sex and God knows what else. They know that very soon, they’re going to need to put an end to their outrageous lifestyles and get real. But for me, it’s always been a song about break ups. About those terribly clear moments when you suddenly know that a relationship is over, but you still want to squeeze whatever joy that you can out of the final hours/days/weeks together: “So, before we end, and then begin, we’ll drink a toast to how it’s been. A few more hours to be complete, a few more nights on satin sheets…” It’s a song about the inevitability of loss and recognizing that all good things must come to an end – another bittersweet reality of growing up. (n.b.: This was my high school’s senior prom theme. Ahem.)

5. Allentown – An ode to all those middle-aged folks who once had a job and a company and a place in society where it all made sense. Now, their entire lives have been upended (by globalization/modernity/the internet/time/fill in the blank…). They don’t know how to be anymore: “Well we’re waiting here in Allentown for the Pennsylvania we never found. For the promise our teachers gave, if we worked hard, if we behaved…” This song could be ripped straight outta 2020.

How about you? Do you dare to own your secret passion for Billy Joel? If so, which are your favourite tunes?

Two bonus gems for the Super Fans:

  1. Billy’s hour-long interview with Alec Baldwin on the podcast Here’s the Thing
  2. Billy’s *own* five favourite Billy Joel songs, with Stephen Colbert

Image: Billy Joel by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons

Tips for Adulthood: Five Tips for Editing Your Writing

editing

editingOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

One of the main strands in my portfolio career is my work as writing coach. Which means that in addition to thinking a lot about the craft of writing, I’m also constantly proffering advice on how to edit.

Most people hate editing. Unlike writing, where you can and should let your ideas flow without judgment, editing is all about discipline. I think Ernest Hemingway summed up the distinction between these two phases of the writing process best when he counselled: “Write drunk. Edit sober.”

Accordingly, this week’s tips list goes out to all of you fellow travelers who have something you need to edit – a poem…a short story…heck, even an office memo – and need to find your mojo.

Here are five tips for editing your writing:

1.  Take time off after the first draft. This crucial piece of advice comes from Stephen King in his fabulous, incredibly useful, not-to-be-missed book, On Writing. (Did I tell you how much I liked it?) King recommends that novelists take four to six weeks off after finishing a manuscript so that they can come back to it fresh. But I’d say that, if you can manage it, you should take even longer. The reason for waiting is that you want to be able to open your manuscript up and read it like anyone else would. You don’t want to be able to recite it line by line. That’s the only way to figure out what works, what needs fixing and what should be tossed in the bin. You may even surprise yourself. As a screenwriter friend once told me, “There will be things that will be better than you thought they were and things that will be worse.”

2.  Find ways to make the material new. When you’re in re-write mode, it’s really important to make the old draft feel new. If you’re writing fiction, you might decide to write a biography of all of your characters to make them come alive…again. I particularly liked this piece of advice from American novelist Christina Baker Kline. Kline recommends that if you wish to jumpstart a revision for fiction, you write three new openings. In each opening, you start from a different moment in the story – maybe even at the very end. What a great idea!

3.  Trim excess words. We all know that editing requires cutting excess verbiage. But how to wield that axe is another story entirely. One of the best writing assignments I ever got was in a high school English class. We were told to write an essay of 1,000 words on a given topic. The next week, we came in and the teacher told us to write the same essay, this time in 500 words. Boy, does that exercise help you to discover what you love most about your writing. Another good tip if you’re looking to be more concise comes from the Write to Done blog: Start with the first sentence. Take out the first word and read the sentence. Does it still make sense and carry the same idea across? Yes? Then leave it out. Repeat. Skeptical? Try it. I just went through the intro of this blog and cut out loads of words that didn’t need to be there.

4.  Read your writing out loud. On the topic of reading your work aloud, David Sedaris says: “When I hear myself reading out loud, I hear things I don’t hear when I read (silently) to myself. When I read aloud, I always have a pencil in hand. If I feel I’m trying too hard, or I’m being repetitive, I make a mark.” Another reason to read your writing aloud is that it also helps with voice. You not only hear the repetition, you can also hear whether you sound too stilted, too casual, too funny or too sharp. I think this is why I like Sandra Tsing Loh so much as a writer. (Not incidentally, both she and Sedaris frequently perform their work on radio.) They are writers who have really honed their voice. I’m sure it took a lot of re-writing to get there.

5.  Don’t send it off too soon. Stephen King has a great metaphor for the writing process. He talks about writing “with the door open” vs. writing “with the door closed.” What he means is that the first draft is really for you, the writer, to get your thoughts down on the page. But at a certain point, you need to bring in other people to offer feedback. One of the biggest mistakes writers make is to spend endless amounts of time on the “closed door” phase of writing, and give short shrift to the “open door” phase. Here’s Victoria A. Mixon, with a cautionary tale on what happens when you send your draft out too soon:

You know what my first agent said about the draft I sent her of my first novel?

“I love this paragraph.”

Months later, after the manuscript had cooled off, I re-read the whole thing and was absolutely horrified.

I called her to apologize, and she responded (rather callously, I must say), “See what I had to wade through?”

Yikes. What works for you when you’re editing?

Image: Mistakes editing school via Needpix

Tips for Adulthood: How to Generate Ideas

creativity ideas

creativity ideasOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood. But as Friday is the new Wednesday under lockdown, I’m posting some tips today.

It’s been awhile since I posted on creativity. But it’s one of those things that I think about all the time. I’m fascinated by how creative people relate to their work, how they structure their days, and how they access their creative “space.”

Because I offer workshops on creativity and writing, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to how and when I come up with ideas, whether for blog posts, short stories, or reported pieces. Like many people, a lot of my best ideas emerge when I’m doing something *other than* sitting at the computer typing.

So today, I’m sharing some techniques for coming up with ideas, with the hope that these may prove useful to others. While I focus on writing ideas, I’m sure these strategies are pertinent to other fields:

a. Exercise.  When I’m confused about an idea, not sure how to spin it or just wondering if there’s even a “there there,” it’s amazing how often exercise solves that problem. In the old days, I’d go for a run. Now (at least once quarantine lifts!), I go for a swim. I may not set off on my workout intending to think about a certain issue. But if there’s something kicking around the back of my mind, I often find that the combination of forward motion, exertion and fresh air allow everything to fall in place. A friend of mine who’s a novelist does the same thing with bike rides. He writes in the morning and takes long bike rides in the afternoon. By the next morning, he tells me, he’s got loads of fresh material. The trick is to rush inside right after the workout and jot down your ideas.

b. Take a Thinking Shower.  During my first few years in graduate school, we were required to take a series of exams in order to qualify in our chosen field of study. These were called “field exams” and in my department, at least, they consisted of a series of essays which you researched and wrote over the course of a weekend. Needless to say, none of us got much sleep during those weekends. But I did have one friend who always seemed to be in the shower when I’d phone up to see how she was getting on. “The shower?” I’d ask, wondering who could possibly bathe regularly when they had so little time to complete an exam. “It’s a thinking shower,” she’d explain. She found that burst of hot water on her face  enabled her to outline her essays. So I tried it. So should you. Scientists even have a name for the link between water and creativity: blue mind.

c. Figure out what’s distinctive about your perspective. This is a technique I’ve used quite a bit since moving overseas. I find that so much of what I think about various issues – whether it’s health care reform, therapy, or getting a driver’s license – has changed dramatically simply by virtue of living somewhere else. But you don’t need to change place to draw on this different viewpoint. Just this morning I was thinking about the current turmoil engulfing the United States over race relations. I realised that I was thinking about the emerging divides in and around the Republican party over using the military to quell protests through what I know as a political scientist, rather than as a citizen. And having that different perspective was informative and useful.

d. Reflect on the most striking thing someone has said to you in the last week.  When I’m trying to come up with ideas for blog posts, I sometimes think about the most unusual thing someone’s said to me in the past week. Often, that person is one of my children. “Why is God so famous?” my daughter once asked me when she was six. A friend of mine recently observed that people have begun engaging in “opposite behaviour” during lockdown – i.e., those who normally hate cooking have taken to Instagram to share their culinary triumphs, while avowed introverts are flocking to Zoom for virtual drinks. A stranger confessed that he selects which films to watch based solely on the appeal of the poster. (Whaaaa???) Whenever this happens, I grab my pen and scribble these comments down.

5. Go outside for a walk.  Here, the focus is less on exercise – though there is research supporting a link between walking and creativity – than it is about being an observant student of other people. Writer and long-time public radio host Garrison Keillor once wrote that “A long walk also brings you into contact with the world, which is basic journalism, which most writing is. It isn’t about you and your feelings, so much as about what people wear and how they talk. The superficial is never to be overlooked.” Simply put, when you go outside you notice things. I’ve been taking long walks around parts of my neighborhood I’ve never visited before. The other day, I discovered a street called “Harriet Tubman Way.” It happened to be one of the first days of the racial equality protests in America. I paused to stare at the sign for a moment. It resonated differently than it might have a month earlier. And that’s what it’s all about.

How do you generate new ideas? Share in the comments section.

Image: Idea Creativity Innovation via Pixabay