Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Giving thanks for NaNoWriMo

As Thanksgiving week rolls around I am thinking of the many things I am thankful for this year. Many are the wonderful people I have in my life and experiences I share with them. But there is also something new: this year, for the first time, I am participating in NaNoWriMo and am very thankful to Chris Baty for starting National Novel Writing Month in 1999. It grew from 21 friends who thought being novelists would help them get dates to a non-profit that last year propelled 310,095 writers world-wide to create novels. Of  50,000 words. In a month. Since I am a playwright, my "novel" uses fewer lengthy descriptions, so 50,000 seems like a lot. But I will edit out all the superfluous bits when I am done and hopefully something will take shape!

I have written plays before, but most of them had built-in deadlines. This one has been waiting months - no, years - to be written. And I just could not get it started. Until NaNo. Once you commit to doing the month of writing, you can get online support in the form of pep talks from successful authors, writing prompts, online writing sprints, and most of all, a sense of community. My region, Northern Virginia, has 8,174 members, many of whom have met up at coffee shops and libraries to write, bond and offer encouragement.

Writing is, by nature, a very solitary pursuit. It has been a great comfort this month to see so many fellow Nanites writing on the Forums or on the regional Facebook page about their own frustration at staring at the blank computer screen, or feeling they have run out of things to say, or knowing - absolutely- that everything they have written is rubbish! And to see others rallying round with words of encouragement. "Just keep writing," they say, "Edit later. Get it all out." Of course having a huge number of words to write every single day means that you can't do much editing or self-censoring as you go along. I have found that very liberating!

Support and accountability are things we all need. Creative artists who toil at their computers and live in their imaginations often don't much of either. Sometimes you just need a teensy bit of incentive to get it all out and put it all down. Later you will revise and revise and revise, and share those versions with your writing circle for them to critique. But first you need something to revise!

I have about 6,000 words to go and know I will finish. Might do it next year, as well. Think about joining me. We could be writing buddies! What's the worst thing that can happen? You write 50,000 words; some of then have to be good!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What's cookin'?

"Why do I need a coach to learn how to speak in public? I have been talking almost my whole life." To answer this question I often use a cooking analogy: Early in life you learn what sounds to make, and later what words to use to get what you need. Survival communications. Some people never need to learn more. But if you find yourself pursuing a career where "excellent oral communications" are required, or just want to make yourself heard above life's everyday static, you will need to work harder at it. That's where expert advice comes in, whether it is reading books or articles, watching webinars, or working with a communications coach. Each level of learning brings you closer to development of your own solid speaking technique.

So with cooking. Most of us learn survival cooking skills fairly early in life: scrambled eggs, mac 'n cheese, pb & j. But at some point we need to step up our game--to impress someone, to rescue ourselves from boredom, to cut down on take-out and restaurant costs. And so we read a cookbook and watch some cooking shows. Those of us who really want or need to excel study with the experts.

Every Saturday one of my delights is listening to The Splendid Table, a radio show from American Public Media, hosted by cooking expert and food journalist Lynne Rosetto Kasper. Lynne has a great way of making absolutely every dish she describes on the show sound mouth-wateringly delicious. And "doable." When she broadcasts interviews with guests, she has them break down complicated recipes and explain the culinary process, demystifying cuisine that might seem complicated. Even an elaborate Tourbot soufleé . She also gives a lot of really solid cooking advice to listeners who call in.

Saturday before last a caller said he wanted to become a better cook. He had trouble following recipes, and wanted some hints on other ways to improve. Lynne urged him to step away from the individual recipes, and really understand the underlying technique used in creating the dish. "Don't learn recipes, learn technique," she said. "You are more in control when you know the how and the why of what you are doing."

Back to my analogy: I work with clients to discover techniques that work for each of them. While these are similar, they vary from person to person. Much as cooking will vary according to pans used, oven temperature, quality of ingredients, etc. But when you break everything down and come to an understanding of how things work, you are able to develop a solid technique. Which you can then apply to many different situations. For example, once you have mastered a basic bechamel sauce, you can make dozens of French and Italian sauces. Once you know how to embody and embrace your own authentic presence, you have the ability to speak successfully anywhere, any time!

And doesn't that sound delicious?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Patterns. They are all around us. They are a big part of our everyday lives, as organizing principles, and as signposts to tell us where we fit in. We need to feel part of these patterns. To place ourselves in the now of the framework of our lives and the lives of those around us.

But this is a paradox, because when we are inside the pattern, we cannot see where we are. That is why walking through a maze for the first time can be so destabilizing and disorienting. You may end up down a blind alley or at a dead end.  You have to turn around, retrace your steps, go back to where you started--IF you can locate it. Little wonder, then, that books and movies use mazes to symbolize terrifying journeys into the unknown! I think "maze" and see Jack Nicholson in The Shining chasing Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd in the snow. Or I vividly relive the tragedy awaiting Cedric Diggory and Harry Potter inside the Tri-Wizard Tournament Maze in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Every time we get up to speak, we find ourselves in that maze--experiencing the journey, telling our story, turning here and there and following the path to its logical conclusion. BUT we also need to be outside the maze, keeping the larger picture in mind so we can see the pattern. We must know what our endpoint is and how to get there. We have to be sure not to get lost by taking a wrong turn, going down a rhetorical dead end, or ending up somewhere other than where we planned to be, with no idea of how to get back.

Of course when we practice before we speak, we become familiar with the best way to navigate the maze. And we become comfortable ignoring those little nagging voices that urge us to "step off the trail, go this way, it will be a shortcut, what can it hurt?"

But even before we step behind the podium or sit up straight in our conference room chair, even before the practice session begins, we need to keep the pattern in mind. We need to use it as a structural element when developing our thesis and main supporting points. Sometimes we are tempted to go into great detail to tease out an intriguing but non-essential subpoint. Or we tell an entertaining but digressive story. That sort of detour from the speech's overall plan does nothing to further our argument, and can be quite confusing to our audience. So we need to stay on the path in order to reach our goal.

Patterns can be comforting, if you follow the signposts and clues and don't get lost. And mazes can be mastered--with practice and a clear head!

photo credit: odolphie via photopin cc