Mar 282014

I was really enjoying this documentary on the Algonquin Round table. Check it out if you have the time; it’s about 26 minutes. A youngish Walter Cronkite narrated.


Quite a group of writers and others met regularly as part of this group. Guests included Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, Franklin P. Adams, Marc Connelly, Harold Ross, Harpo Marx, and Russell Crouse.

From what I get, it’s part mastermind group and part Friars Club roast.



Dec 022013
I think I can get these guys to line up ... sometime.

I think I can get these guys to line up … sometime.

I think you know already, I’m a planner. The whole idea of getting started before I’m ready sounds so, well, counterproductive.

I like to make sure all the duckies are lined up before I pull the trigger.

In ny case, though, the duckies are usually hanging out on the street corner. Shooting craps. Smoking cigarettes. Whistling at the girls.

Such is my life, I figure. Do you think I’m pulling the trigger when those ducks won’t work with me here?

Hey, where can I get a little cooperation around this joint?

But here’s the thing. The duckies never line up. Never could get them to do it. They all have the ADHD real bad.

Such is real life. Yours too, I’ll bet. Conditions are never going to be perfect.

Since they’re never going to be perfect, nothing’s going to get done either.

Doin’ it like the big dogs

I read a piece in BrazenLIfe about Richard Branson (that’s Sir Richard Branson to you and me), and he likes to fire before he’s ready.

He’s got an interesting story. He started a small magazine when he dropped out of high school. He started a record company when he clearly had no clue what he was doing, but he signed some acts that just weren’t ready for prime time.

Maybe he was too goofy to know he wasn’t supposed to be ready to run a recording company.

He wanted to get to the Virgin Islands real quick (something about a girl) and his flight got canceled, so he chartered a plane.

Except he couldn’t afford it.

So he sold tickets to others from that same aborted flight, offered to fly them to the islands for $29 per head. Even came up with a name for his instant company and put it on a handwritten sign: Virgin Airlines.

That’s how Virgin Airlines was born. Oh, yes … he managed to raise enough money to pay for his own trip.

Did he know anything about running an airline? No. He wasn’t ready for that either.

Here’s what writer James Clear said about Branson’s modus operandi:

“… Branson doesn’t merely say things like, “Screw it, just get on and do it.” He actually lives his life that way. He drops out of school and starts a business. He signs the Sex Pistols to his record label when everyone else says they’re too controversial. He charters a plane when he doesn’t have the money …”

That’s the stuff of legend. Of course he wasn’t ready for any of this. The ducks wouldn’t line up. He just went ahead and did his thing without them.

No time, no tools, just not ready

So here I am feeling sorry for myself. If I don’t have my go-to piece of software, the right kind of stationery or my favorite black-lacquer-finished Cross fountain pen loaded with black Parker ink, I just can’t write.

If I don’t have the right degree or certification I can’t do my work.

If I don’t have an uninterrupted block of time when no one calls or texts, when the cat is in a coma, when the coffee is the right strength and temperature, and when my computer is where I always keep it (one-eighth of an inch tolerance allowed because I’m generous) my day is shot.

Or so I believe.

So I very conveniently forgot I managed to crash the news industry without the required degree. Never mind the fact that for a decade I’ve fooled editors in five states into thinking I can actually do the job even though I wasn’t near ready.

But I forgot all that, see, and still think I need to be ready in order to do stuff.

I’m accountability partner to another writer who thought the same way. He had a really intense fulltime job until health problems forced him to leave. After he retired he didn’t have the technique, the equipment, even the story. He wasn’t ready.

Now he’s writing, getting a page or more down every day.

He’s still not ready.

Does anybody care?

Not him, apparently.

I’m doing that thing I’m doing, writing 1,000 words a day, editing my fifth self-pubbed book.

I’m still not ready.

The ducks are still playing stickball when they should be lining up for me. So I’m not ready.

Reckon I never will be ready.

Guess that means it’s a good time to start.

# # #

What say you? Are you ready yet? Does it even matter? Please tell your story in the comments.

Sep 062013
guy with bullhorn

Put that bullhorn down and do the work already!

A quick way to kill a project is to announce you’re going to do it. That’s when the whole thing of asking permission really kicks in.

I’m a little slow to learn this. I usually have about a gajillion plans, all ambitious and maybe some even have value. And I’ll announce them to friends and other people prematurely, like in the planning stages.

Wow, look at me. Look how busy I am! That’s the underlying message, and it’s every bit as dangerous as the thing we say in the Solid South: “Hey, y’all, watch this!”

With my last ebook, I included a sample chapter of another project that I’m working on.

Big mistake.

Immediately, the whole thing started to die. Can’t put my finger on it, but all the crap that usually comes up to derail me happened.

It wasn’t until recently that I started back with the project, jamming out 2,000 words per day on average. I’m back on track, after I stopped talking about it and maybe everyone forgot my premature announcements. And no, I’m not going to tell you the nature of the project. You’ll see it when I ship it.

See, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, and announcing a project is a version of asking for that permission.

Really. I’m asking permission to actually do the work. In the early stages I’m asking folks to bug off while I work.

Another mistake.

As soon as I announce a project, that ol’ debbil Resistance starts bugging me again. Understand, Resistance comes from within and from without. Might as well take the latter out of the equation; there’s enough Resistance to knock me off the track. Why do I have to invite more of the same?

I’m recently discovering something:

When I don’t ask for permission, the work gets done.

Kind of a crazy thing when you think about it, but I find it’s true. Profound, maybe. Don’t completely know how or why that works, but it does. That’s good enough for me.


Great projects, greater mistakes

I like how the late Robert Townsend put it in Up The Organization (written in 1970). If you have a great plan to, say, eliminate air pollution in every state for almost zero cost, the way to kill the project dead is to announce it. Better to just do the job, state by state without telling anyone.

Yeah, you might have to worry about a) staying alive and b) staying out of jail. Those things could be important.

But you’re doing the work without any real resistance except for that which sits in your head. That’s plenty, thank you.

But the job gets done because you didn’t ask for permission. Maybe later, you might need to ask for forgiveness. Isn’t that better?


Working with accountability

OK, I can see the need to announce your plan, somewhat. That would be to one person who you trust with your life and is simpatico with your idea. Let that person keep you on task. But that’s all the announcement you’ll need.

Do the work. Quietly. Without fanfare. Worry about the ramifications later. Just doing the work gives you enough to worry about.

When doing something great, tell no one else. Just get it done. Then toot your own horn a bit, maybe send someone a bill for services rendered, and announce it at that time.

“Look at what I did” is a whole lot more productive than “here’s what I’m going to do; y’all with me?”

It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

# # #

[What say you? Does any of this make sense? Have you had better success when you do something first and announce it later? Share your thoughts in the comments below.]

Note: Any links to books are through my affiliate Amazon account. I get a commission on all sales. Just thought I’d let you know.


Jan 312013

Sure your best efforts will draw criticism. if you’re doing anything significant, some toes will get stomped and a lot of people will be howling at you. Book it.

If you have a trusted friend to take on the antagonist’s role (and you are sure enough in your abilities to take some abuse), have him tell you what a bum you are and why that sucky idea of yours won’t work. The more crass his descriptions and the more impolite he is, the better.

I thought this was a stupid exercise when I heard it, but it makes sense. Better to get used to having your guts torn out by an imaginative but trusted ally; by the time you unleash your idea on the public you’ve already heard the abuse. (Personal note: My ‘nads aren’t big enough or brassy enough for me to try this.)


Jan 082013

(OK, got a little ahead of myself. This is really tomorrow’s posting, so let’s just call it today and be done with it.)

How deeply committed are you to your art? Let’s put it another way: How much adversity can you endure to pursue it?

There’s plenty of stuff around to knock you off track. Life happens. There’s the day job, a family to feed, promises to keep. Many aspects of life threaten to supersede your art.

OK. Some of these things are non-negotiable. But the cast-in-stone things are fewer than you might want to think, and if you’re serious about your art you will find time. If you’re not, you won’t.




Dec 122012

Whatever your art is, it’s probably solitary. It’s just you and the canvas, you and the typewriter, and the rest of the world is an afterthought. Creative work is a lonely pursuit.

I’m not a big fan of writer’s groups — in my experience many are still in the “aspiring” stage — but I certainly recommend building a network of pros to bump you along.

One may encourage me. One may crack the whip over my back. One may email me just to remind me not to waste time reading my email. One may swap stories with me over coffee. All of these people keep me on task and away from the rabbit holes.


Nov 012012

You wouldn’t think of creativity as a team effort, but who you surround yourself with makes a big difference in the process and in the results.

If your closest friends are on the same page as you, this makes the process easier. If your friends have similar goals, even if they’re friendly rivals, they’ll keep you centered. Friends that encourage and challenge one another, that hold one another accountable, will put an amazing amount of fuel to the creative fire.

Although most creativity is a solo act, you’re actually doing it with and for others.



Oct 032012

If you don't measure up, a real friend might be able to point you in the right direction.

If the criticism passes the sniff test, then there’s the question of what to do with it. That’s when you evaluate the advice. It might be useful now, or even later.

Good criticism from a friendly source is the stuff we grown on. I usually evaluate the evaluator first (always start with the sniff test), take a look at what’s said, determine how important or doable it is, and decide whether I should use it now or later. Then I make my adjustments.

Better the rebuke of a friend than the kisses from an enemy. But then you already knew that.



Sep 142012

Elizabeth Gilbert, not yet into her 40s, hit the big time and discovered the view from that high up can make your stomach drop.

“My greatest success is behind me, she told the audience during a TED talk a couple of years ago.

When Sinclair Lewis (of Babbitt, Main Street and It Can’t Happen Here) became the first American to earn the Nobel Prize for literature, he expressed the same idea.

Upon winning the prize, the 45-year-old Lewis said, “This is the end of me. This is fatal. I cannot live up to it.””

His comment may have been tongue in cheek — and maybe even fueled by a little firewater perhaps — but he was spot on.

They tell me it’s lonely at the top. I wouldn’t know. Not at that level, anyway. But those who have been on that mountain of success say there’s no future in it.

Gilbert had a decent writing career up until 2006, but when her Eat, Pray, Love found itself on all those bestseller lists, life changed. All of a sudden this journeyman fiction writer is in great demand. OK, you live it, enjoy it, savor your time on top and go back to work.

Go back to work?

You’re kidding.

You’ve exceeded all your personal expectations, operating at an unconscious level, and it’s time to go back to work?

Doing what?

You tell me.

“I’m pretty young,” Gilbert said. “I’m only about 40 years old. I still have maybe another four decades of work left in me. And it’s exceedingly likely that anything I write from this point forward is going to be judged by the world as the work that came after the freakish success of my last book, right? I should just put it bluntly, it’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me … what a thought! You know that’s the kind of thought that could lead a person to start drinking gin at nine o’clock in the morning, and I don’t want to go there.”

That is a wicked thought. But it’s hard to adopt a “let’s get back to work” mindset after a success like Lewis’ or even Gilbert’s. Even something minor — like a statewide journalistic award, or making that first sale, or signing that first contract or getting very cool response on that breakout album — make it hard to continue. What’s next?

Writers talk of this thing called “second novel syndrome,” which is all about the demands of following up on a previous success. Musicians say you’re only as hot as your last gig, which holds to that same idea. Taken to the extreme, a writer may find himself unable to write again, a musician unable to play another note. Kind of the artistic equivalent of Steve Blass Disease, where you lose your mojo doing the simplest parts of your work.

My own great moment came after winning an award for reporting, years ago. When my managing editor Verne Peyser broke the news to me, I nodded and said something like, “Cool. Let’s get back to work.” But it wasn’t easy. I had so much fun pursuing and writing the stories that garnered all this ridiculous attention, nothing was quite the same for a while.

A year later, I was working fulltime in a Laughlin, Nevada casino and writing occasional freelance articles.

So what does one do for an encore?

I have to think about when Bill Clinton left the White House after doing his maximum allowed two terms. The guy was still reasonably young, in his early 50s and forced into retirement because he’d hit the top so early in life. His life as he knew it ended in 2001, at the age of 54.

No matter how much he wants it, he’ll never have a sweet gig like being President again. Unless he starts a banana republic for himself somewhere and names himself generalissimo, his best days were done.

Now Clinton spends his time getting in the way, capturing a bit of press attention here and there, speaking out of turn every chance he gets. I guess you can now call him a professional gadfly, but it’s a whole lot better than whiskey ‘fore breakfast.

Gilbert puts it succinctly: “I would prefer to keep doing this work that I love.” In her case, that’s writing. And maybe that’s a key to staying sane.
We creative types do what we do, and most of us spent years perfecting our gifts for the love of it, knowing that if we actually made enough to live on would be a crapshoot.

Expectations or not, success or not, we exercise this gift because we love it.


(I must thank the crew from The Davinci Dilemma for posting the TED video and giving me the idea in the first place. I’ve come to respect the multitalented duo of Lisa Rothstein and Liisa Kyle.)

(While researching this piece, I found an article on what former Pirates pitcher Steve Blass is doing now. He’s enjoying life, and he says this attitude helped him get past his sudden inability to find home plate back in the 1970s.)

Aug 152012

Back in the 1970s Robert Townsend, former head of the Avis car rental company, wrote a management book that still deserves to be in offices and boardrooms everywhere. One Townsendism that stays with me is the distinction between conviction and ego.

This spills into the creative world, too. When you’re writing or drawing or playing something, are you operating under the conviction that you’re doing what needs to be done, or just feeding the ol’ ego?

It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference in mid-creation, but it becomes quite apparent once the work is completed. One will have an impact and the other won’t.