Why am I giving a short story as a gift?

Every day I milk a large, verbose cow.

There was a little song my kids learned when they were preschoolers: “What can I give to the king, what can I give to the one who has everything.”  It’s got a contagious earworm of a tune and a sentiment that gets under my skin anytime I’m like a preschooler: feeling small and overwhelmed that anything I could offer up would possibly be of any worth or value. Kings and God-metaphors aside, that little song hits to the center of every creative person’s wrestling mat. Is what we make any good? Is it gift worthy? Would anyone ever want it?

The song’s verse goes on to say we can offer, “a heart that is open wide, a life that has nothing to hide.”

Funny, that. One short poetic children’s lyric lays out the angst of anyone involved in the pursuit of an authentic, open, honest, humble, true life.

It’s not easy keeping a heart open wide. It’s not easy telling the truth about one’s life. And yet, that’s our greatest gift as creative human beings.

For me, that means living the mantra, the line that works equally well for meditation and whining toddlers alike: USE YOUR WORDS.

I can give words. I can use words. I can craft words. It’s how I was made and the older I get, the more I suspect its why I’m here.

Which brings me to last year, the ramp up to Christmas 2015. I wanted to offer something handmade as a gift and that brought me to words. A poem? An essay? Anne Lamott suggests in Bird by Bird that writers have many ways to share their writing beyond traditional publication. She says writers who feel compelled to write should simply do so.

I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway.

But I also tell [my students] that sometimes when my writer friends are working, they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time. And sometimes when they are writing well, they feel that they are living up to something. It is as if the right words, the true words, are already inside them, and they just want to help them get out. Writing this way is a little like milking a cow: the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it.

And, after you milk the cow, what do you have?  A bucket full of milk. If you do it every day, you have enough milk to drink, to make cheese, soap, butter, chocolate…you start having things to give away.

So, I did last year, I gave away some words. It felt good. Some friends enjoyed my story. One said I didn’t go deeply enough into the psyche’s of my characters. That was helpful feedback for a character writer. I worked hard this year on craft. I finished the 2nd draft of my novel Work In Progress and then took a 2 month break to read. Another story spilled out.

What is this year’s holiday gift?

My 2016 annual holiday free short story gift.

My 2016 annual holiday free short story gift.

This year’s short story gift is about Marjorie James, a woman in her late 70’s reorienting herself after sudden and unwanted change. When her new husband starts stealing her joy, Marjorie discovers her spine.

“A glimpse into an older generation– I think I know these characters!”  -D. Hesterman

My story is a free download, available via email. I hope readers will share it with their friends, will give it away, will pass it on. You can do so by signing up here, by sharing the link, or by sharing the email once you’ve received it.



The Power of No: Setting Personal and Work Boundaries for Greater Productivity and Integrity

Why can’t people get work done at work? It was the premise of a very good talk by Inc. columnist and 37signals co-founder Jason Fried at TEDxMidwest. He articulated the need of “creatives” – designers, programmers, writers, engineers, etc- to have long periods of uninterrupted time to get things done. And, how businesses that spend a bunch of money on a place called “the office” have staff and employees who don’t get their work done there!

I found it to be validating. Liberating. Because saying yes to everything only leads to burn out and overwhelm.

Listen to what he says about work “moments”:

Jason Fried TED Talk, “Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work”

He’s got nothing nice to say about managers and meetings. From what I’ve seen of traditional salaried, cubical work, I’d have to say I agree. His work-sleep phase analogy was brilliant.

As a creative, as an entrepreneur, and as a working parent I’ve learned to embrace what I call, “The Power of No”. While a lot of women’s self-help focuses on learning how to say no (and not feel guilty about it), I find it to be addictive and empowering. Being able to say no enables a boundary to be upheld. Being able to say no also offers the flip side of the coin: the ability to say yes with passion, authenticity, and honesty.

When my children were little, I said no to a lot of outings and obligations so that I could say yes to their naps and reasonable bedtimes. When I’m faced with multiple personal growth “groups”, all with evening meetings, I might say no to 4 so I can truly participate in 1. I frequently say no to distractions by turning off social media and my phone volume so that I can say yes to a few hours of writing. And yesterday I said no to a freelance opportunity because my current projects require my focus and an authentic yes.

At first it was hard. Sometimes it still is. It can feel like letting people down or missing out; they don’t always enjoy being told no. But building the boundary makes me a better writer, a better wife and mother, a better business owner. The benefits outweigh the challenges by far.

Speaker and writer Mike Robbins, in an article that appeared on The HuffPost Healthy Living blog wrote, “…saying “no” is one of the most important aspects of living a life filled with balance, integrity, and authenticity. Our ability and capacity to say “no” with confidence is one of the most important aspects of creating peace and power in our lives. This is about creating healthy boundaries, honoring ourselves, and being real — it’s not about being closed, cynical, or unwilling.” He went on to point out that being able to tap into the power of saying no offers us freedom and liberation but also helps those around us to trust we mean what we say.

I appreciated Fried’s suggestion of creating no-interruption times.

  • Cancel the next meeting. Just don’t have it. Everything will be just fine.
  • Switch from active communication (meetings) to timed-choice methods: email or IM
  • One afternoon a week of silent work- “No Talk Thursdays”

“Giving someone a few hours of uninterrupted time is one of the best gifts you can give” he says. Better than software, a new computer, or anything else you could offer.

So think about that. Give yourself the gift of uninterrupted time. Unplug over the weekend. Put earbuds in and tune out distraction. Set boundaries and be unafraid to speak up about them when making appointments. Choose your communication method and teach people that’s the best way to reach you. And then say no. As Jason said, “everything will be just fine.” Keep track of your productivity and you’ll probably find you are better than fine: you are managing life instead of life managing you.

 

Photo taken at Olio Restaurant on E. Bay St. Or as one instagrammer said, "Perhaps where Ebay gets their Dry Goods"

Photo taken at Olio Restaurant on E. Bay St. Or as one instagrammer said, “Perhaps where Ebay gets their Dry Goods”

Why You Should Care About Having a Better Business Blog

Would you, or do you, yourself ever read your own company blog? Be honest. Or, is a better question, “When was the last time your company blog was updated?”  Virtual cobwebs on the site much? Time stamp from the last administration?

“Maintaining content is a top pain point” said over 59% of B2B’s and B2C’s (report compiled by Ascend2 and Research Underwriters). These are businesses who understand the need for content and an online presence; they are the proverbial choir who doesn’t need another sermon on why they should have a blog in the first place. They understood the need for construction and made it happen. Checked it off the list. And then….

It’s a bit like a body, actually. Your body needs fuel and it has a stomach and mouth so that you can feed it. So you make it a meal. If you feed it a few meals and leave it alone for a really long time, it will starve. It doesn’t really matter that you fed it a long time ago! If you feed it junk that won’t perform, it will be weak. You’ll keep shoveling resource into it and not seeing a return, like trying to run a marathon on corn chips and diet soda. And many companies are guilty of either starving or junking their blogs.

It wasn’t on purpose! They didn’t mean to! They simply (and often innocently) fell for a few common snares.

  • they told their secretary to do it. (Or, replace secretary with anyone in-house who already serves another role). This person has a job to do and you just dumped a major pile of invisible to-be-done work in their lap. They don’t have time for it and most often, don’t know how to create content that performs online. As soon as something more visible comes up, the web content needs sink to the bottom of the list.
  • they outsourced and shopped lowest price. Look, I’m going to say it as gently as possible: When it comes to writing, you get what you pay for. Machine generated and poorly translated copy is cheap and available. No one will read it and chances are it won’t even help your site. There are more enjoyable ways to waste your money.
  • they got a blog because they thought they should, and now they aren’t so sure. This happens when the ROI is bad. You don’t see the results you expected so you question the justification of resource. Here’s a secret:  I believe that not every business should have a blog. Maybe you should scrap it; let’s talk about that. But I also believe that if you have a blog, its saying something about you, good or bad, and you have an obligation to care about that. I care about it deeply (I despise wastefulness. Make it work well or Cut. It. Out).
  • the best laid plans… Sometimes you have a good plan and even better intentions. It’s on paper even! A posting schedule and preliminary keyword research and perhaps even a topic list. You didn’t cast it off to someone unqualified. You understood poorly written content might harm your reputation and didn’t fall for it. But your blog still isn’t current. It’s not performing. And frankly, you are too busy to chase down the reason why.

Don’t lose site of the priorities:

  1. You need a regularly updated blog site, written well enough to be read by people and optimized for search engines. 
  2. You need this to be completed with the same quality and integrity as the rest of what you want your business to be known for having. 
  3. You need this done by someone else because you have other things to do. 
  4. You need a blog site that is part of a correctly built website, so that nothing behind the scenes can sabotage your success. 

Good business blogs become an asset, a cog in the wheel that does it’s part. They aren’t designed to carry the whole load themselves, just in case your performance expectations are too high. But if they’re broken, they also compromise the strength of the entire strategy. Your online reputation matters. What does your blog say about you?

Photo taken on the dock of Mandarin Park @Julington Creek after a perfect summer rain.

Photo taken on the dock of Mandarin Park @Julington Creek after a perfect summer rain.

Does Cost Predict Performance?

It’s a scary question. No one wants to invest in something that won’t get the job done. But there’s an even scarier question worth asking:

Does the performance reflect the cost?

There are so many examples out there of expensive things that don’t live up to their performance expectation. This is certainly true when it comes to products, tangible items. The phrase “durable goods” doesn’t mean what it used to. Things can be made more cheaply and they are, to the detriment of durability and very often, performance.

When it comes to products, sometimes you get what you pay for. Sometimes you don’t.

It’s true in the service industry as well. Services may be a bit more difficult to ethically cost slash…but we all know this is a global economy. Money in one country means something else in another. Outsourcing happens. And along the way a reminder has been experienced.

Sometimes you get what you pay for. Sometimes you don’t.

In my career experience I’ve seen some things go on that make me boil. Here are a few:

  • Expensive websites that are so cluttered and cumbersome to load that traffic clicks away before the page finishes.
  • Expensive websites that have broken code, no anayltics and no optmization. Which means, all the continued and ongoing resource the site owner pours into the site won’t mean squat.
  • Cheap writing that was generated by a machine; a paragraphed assembly of irrational keywords that aimlessly stab in the search engine dark.
  • Cheap writing that was created by someone with poor language proficiency, which saved the owner a few bucks and makes their business look really bad.
  • Stories from business owners who were sold on services and products that don’t effectively  help them achieve their goals and target their unique audience.
  • Stories from business owners who do things because they are sure they need to…but can’t really explain why. It’s a sure fire red flag of either a random approach or a bad sale.

I believe business owners, no matter the size of their company and the strength of the current economy, care about where they spend their resources. Most of those I’ve worked with value investment over expenditure. With an investment, performance surpasses cost.

With a defined vision, a planned content structure, quality products and services, and ongoing analytics and performance reports, that will happen.

Photo taken at the Dreamette, a Jacksonville favorite for dipped cones.

Photo taken at the Dreamette, a Jacksonville favorite for dipped cones.