Baby shoes

Classic_baby_shoesSome years ago, I stumbled across a concept that still holds my fascination. It’s called six-word stories, and the idea is to tell a story in–you guessed it–exactly six words.

The idea supposedly originated with a bunch of writing cronies who got together and placed a bet about who could produce a short story that was only six words long. Or who could write the shortest story that could make someone cry. Or who could write the shortest story. The details are nebulous, if they’re true at all, but supposedly Ernest Hemingway won hands down with this:

For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

Pretty powerful stuff, those sentences.

Its origin notwithstanding, the idea fascinates me. It offers a clear illustration of the power of words, thoughtfully and carefully chosen–one of my favorite topics.

Six-word stories are tough to master; if you thought staying within Twitter’s 144-character limit was hard, it’s nothing compared to this. Succeed in six words, and you’ll feel like a genius. It’s a great brain exercise, and your “regular” writing will be better for it.

Here are a few of my favorites from sixwordstories.net*:

Painfully, he changed “is” to “was.”
—Icantusemyimgurname

Smoking my very last cigarette. Again.
—Seablood

Born a twin; graduated only child.
—kconz21

Sorry, soldier. Shoes sold in pairs.
—Independent

Amazing how six words can tell you all you need to know. Try it; I dare you. You’ll be better for it.

Every word matters; choose each thoughtfully.

*The sixwordstories.net website and its corresponding Facebook page haven’t shown any activity for more than a year. They’re still fun to poke around, though.

Special note to JHS, TJT, RDH, and CC: you wordsmith/writer types are on notice. I want to see what you can produce in six words. I promise, this will be better than the ice bucket challenge!

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Greatness

IMG_1448It’s no big secret that I harbor a dream of writing a book. It’s also no big secret that I hate–I mean really hate–to fail.

I’m no dummy, but it took until today, more than four decades into my life to see that I’ve let the intertwining of those two concepts determine my current position on the matter: inactivity.

As I finished a book I had been reading, a thought popped into my head. I want to be a great writer.

That was no revelation, but the countering voice that followed it was: Sure you do, but on the first try.

Well, that’s enough to knock a girl on her butt.

To seal the deal, I recalled an interview I recently did with Sinbad, the comedian. He’s tried a lot of stuff: basketball, the military, comedy, acting, music. He’s not afraid to take a chance on something new because he knows he doesn’t have to get it right the first time. He told me, “People who are great didn’t start great.”

He remembers a piece of advice his dad gave him years ago. If you don’t mind being the worst person for a period of time, you can be the greatest.

Translation: nobody starts out great, and failure is the best teacher.

Those are humbling words for a perfectionist like me.

I finally started writing that book awhile ago, but it seems to have stalled out after a couple of chapters. Oh, I have tons of excuses: my kids won’t let me use the computer, no time, too tired, I’ll get to it when I have a good chunk of uninterrupted time, etc. I think the real reason, though, is this:

I want to be a great __________ (on the first try).

What’s hard for me to accept is that it’s the inevitable failure that will make it–or the next one–great. The criticism I receive from others. The parts that just don’t work. Phraseology that doesn’t connect with the audience. A dumb plot. Whatever.

Hearing that someone doesn’t like it and why will help me be a better writer–as long as I’m listening, of course.

And now another thought pops into my head. As my kids have lamented less-than-perfect scores on tests over the years, I always tell them the same thing. After verifying that they’ve tried their best, I remind them that they are in school to learn. If they got everything right on the first try, neither they nor their teachers would know what they still needed to learn. In that sense, failure becomes a roadmap to success.

Almost no one is great on the first try, nor often on the second nor the third nor the fourth. We all have a lot left to learn, and we have to pass through the crud to get there. Ultimately, it’s the crud that makes us great.

People who are great didn’t start great.

P.S. Here’s my Sinbad article, if you’re interested in reading it: Keeping It Real.

Fireflies

fireflyFor a long time–well over a year, for those of you keeping track–I didn’t think I had anything to write about. I froze up.

Oh sure, I’d jot down tidbits of ideas (just like always), and later I’d try to flesh them out (just like always).

But I froze up.

I couldn’t make those ideas turn into anything, until eventually they stopped coming at all. No matter how many stops and starts and excuses I made, I couldn’t figure out why. And then it hit me.

I had started worrying about my audience.

Who would read it? Friends? Coworkers? What would they think? Would someone be offended? Would what I wrote be interpreted correctly? After scores of questions like that, the tiny seed of self-doubt we all carry somewhere deep inside began to grow, until finally it full-out blossomed.

Not only could I not make sense out of my jotted tidbits, but I also stopped being able to find new ones. While I used to pull them out of the air like fireflies, I stopped even lifting my hand.

All because I forgot that I was writing for me–not for you. And even though I said right here in this blog that I would keep writing even if not a single person reads my ramblings. And even though I’ve really, really missed this visceral part of me.

A few weeks ago, a blogger/author I follow added a page to her site called Make a Memory. There’s apparently a whole movement behind it, but what really stuck with me were the words, “Turn ‘I wish I had’ into ‘I’m glad I did.'”

So I finally started that book I’ve always wanted to write. I’ve only knocked out a couple of chapters, but it feels good. Really good. And guess what!

I started seeing fireflies again.

I’ve even caught a few.

So here I am–right back where I started, writing because it’s my outlet, because it makes me whole. As much as I love my readers and hope that one of my fireflies will light up your life in some way, I’m doing this for me.

So let me ask you this: is worrying about your audience keeping you from doing something? Maybe it’s time to go catch some fireflies.

 

Sally forth

not an optionYou can never go back. Ever. If I had a dollar for every time I learned that lesson the hard way…well, you know the saying.

It’s true. It’s impossible to recapture a moment, to reverse a mistake, to revisit the past. And it’s almost as difficult to pick up something where you left off and go on as if there had been no break. You can never go back.

But you can make a new start.

I’ve struggled to make a series of life adjustments over the past year. Instead of finding a new world order and taking charge, I’ve come pretty close to letting it take charge of me. Among (many) other things, I haven’t been running, and the last post I made to this blog was too many months ago to count.

But I can’t go back.

So here’s the deal. I’m recommitting to writing, but I won’t just pick up where I left off. Since this is a new start, I’ve given the blog a new look and I plan to freshen up the content, too. I’m not sure how yet, but if I wait till I figure it out completely, Wordsmatter will remain dormant. So I’m forging ahead and pounding the keyboard. I’ll figure it out as I go along. Suggestions welcome.

In the meantime, sally forth!

P.S. If you think this post applies to more than writing, you might be right.

Road map

road mapFor days I’ve been struggling with a piece I’m writing. I just can’t make it work. I’m actually a bit flabbergasted by this because the subject matter is one I know better than almost anyone. Should be a piece of cake.

Today as I struggled with it, I found myself pondering whether to include this detail or that, in which direction I should take it, and WHY IS IT SO HARD?!

Light bulb.

It suddenly occurred to me that trying to decide which direction to go 300 words into the article was a huge red flag. No wonder I was having trouble: I hadn’t done my homework. I may have a vast repertoire of facts and anecdotes at my disposal, but where is my outline? Where is the pre-work that lays out my plan step by step? It’s like trying to put together one jigsaw puzzle using pieces from ten puzzles. I need to identify the correct pieces first and then try to put them together.

Now I’m up against a deadline, and I’m tempted to plow ahead anyway. After all, I’m almost halfway there; why stop now?

Thankfully, I know that from experience that is exactly the wrong approach. It will take me twice as long to write the article in this manner as it will to stop, organize my thoughts, make an outline, and begin again. I need a road map. After all, if you don’t know where you’re going,

…any road will take you there,

…you might end up somewhere else,

…you might not get there, or

…you can’t tell when you’ve arrived.

Write on – an apology

Thank you, faithful readers, for not giving up on me. The last few weeks have been filled with a frenzied workload, international travel, and a lingering (though not serious) illness. What started as an unintended day off from blogging to get some other things done somehow has turned into more weeks than I care to admit. I apologize.

Now all the words I’ve squelched are tangled up inside and need to be unknotted.

Look out. I’m back.

Suck it up

Yesterday was a big day for me; I dove headlong into my dream interview and came up smiling. It was also one of the toughest challenges I’ve experienced. Rather than having 30 or (better yet) 60 minutes to pick this person’s brain, I was nominally granted 15. And oh, by the way, those 15 minutes would happen some time within a window of two hours, with little or no warning.

When the call came, I literally stopped in the middle of a sentence during the training I was conducting to take the call. Before passing the call to the interview subject, the handler on the other end let me know that I would have FIVE–not fifteen–minutes to do the interview. Gulping, I threw down my pen, hit the speaker button, and embraced my keyboard. I immediately commenced firing my questions, fingers flying as the answers came back. I even pushed out the limits so that the entire call actually lasted 9 minutes and 52 seconds. Whew.

Given the tight time frame, I didn’t have time for nerves. Interestingly, the hard part was the mid-sentence about-face, having to be “on” in two completely unrelated arenas with no transition.

Of course, the prospect of writing a 1000-word article based on nine minutes of verbal exchange was daunting, too. I thought, There is no way I’m going to be able to make this happen. I can’t eke that much out of this conversation. It’s not fair! I need more time!

When I went back and read some of the email threads, I realized that this is the way the game is played. My time slot was one of many in this person’s schedule. My subject was giving 5-minute interviews in rapid succession; everyone got the same opportunity. I was lucky to be on the schedule at all. Small-town Tammy, welcome to the bigs. If you want to play, you have to suck it up, babe.

If they can do it, so can I. And with 725 words of the article written and counting, I am.

Stop complaining about circumstances and get to work.