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You Are Not Safe

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the world wide web. It was 1995. I was in my rented townhome in Alameda, a small island on the east bank of the San Francisco Bay. I already had a dial-up modem plugged into my Mac LC that I used to send graphic files and documents to my lithographers and commercial printers through FTP (File Transfer Protocol).

I don’t know where I heard about Netscape, probably from a business associate. But I remember the afternoon I logged on for the first time. The interface was full color visual, the first I’d seen, since FTP was only black text on a white screen and no images. The Netscape logo—the uppercase N sinking into a black globe against a starry aquamarine sky, was…beautiful. Once I registered, the next screen had bright, colorful illustrations of a spacecraft, a construction site, a radio tower and more. Under each drawing white text against the black frames said, “Explore the Net. Company and Products. News and Reference. Community.” I was floored, drop-jawed. The interface gave me choices to go anywhere. Netscape was a portal to news sites, business with ‘websites,’ online communities, a virtual store, and reference libraries from around the world.

I called my roommate into my bedroom/office space to show her what I was seeing on my screen. “This changes everything,” I practically whispered, sure that this portal was the beginning of a connected world I only dreamt of as a kid.

As I sat there clicking on each navigation link, then exploring each site the Netscape browser delivered, I recalled when I was 8 or 9 years old, sitting in the back seat of my mother’s huge Chevy, while she drove me and my sister home from school. “One wish,” my mom asked us spontaneously. “One wish. Right now. If you could have anything you want, what would it be?” She often came up with non-sequitur like this to fill the void of silence after she’d asked about our day at school and got, “Fine,” back from both of us.

I answered instantly. “World peace,” and I meant it. My brother had come back from Vietnam a wreck. PTSD. Clinical depression. I’d watched war on TV nightly. And I’d felt war all around me, growing up in the late 60s, the anger of the Blacks, my working mother, and most all women suffocating under our servitude to men. “I wish that everyone would be nicer to each other, and take care of each other instead of fighting all the time.”

“That’s a stupid wish,” my sister said, sitting in the passenger seat. I cowered in the back seat, and shut up. “It’ll never happen. Violence is part of our nature. We wouldn’t be here today without it, since we have no other defenses like other animals on Earth.” She was 2 yrs older than me. Surely, she must be right. She wished for a new purse.

“This changes everything,” I’d said to my roommate as I browsed the internet that first time. And I believed it. A portal to the world would let us see how others lived, and let others see what what possible. In 1960s – 1990s U.S. most of us had a place to live in, and enough to eat every day. Most kids were vaccinated from horrific diseases, and didn’t die from the flu. We got a free education, through at least high school, and 20 – 30% of the population got a college education as well. And in California, college was cheap, making it accessible to most anyone.

My roommate stood over my shoulder staring at my screen as I went from site to site. She seemed unmoved by what we were seeing, and in short order went back to her room. I stayed online the rest of the night, into the early morning hours, amazed. I pursued news sites, read articles from all over the world. We could never again pretend that Holocausts weren’t happening. We’d find out about atrocities taking place anywhere, instantly, and the United Nations would have to stop them! The privileged would no longer be able to turn a blind eye on poverty or disease, even in the most remote places in Africa or the Middle East, seeing it daily on their computers. We could talk to people around the block or in other countries we’d never meet, but share ideas, and feelings. We’d see how similar we all are, how we all feel sad, or happy, or mad at times. We could connect 24/7, and never feel isolated or lonely again. The internet was a window to the world, and the view would surely motivate all of us to care for each other like never before.

This is the argument I gave to my dad at Saul’s, eating bagels and lox a few years later. As a lover of technology since childhood, he too was on the internet, one of the first adopters in his advanced age group. He shook his head and gave me his indulgent smile.

“The internet changes nothing. It is a tool, like a screwdriver. It won’t change human nature. And it won’t save us,” he said. “We’re going to have to do that. Until we learn to care for each other beyond ourselves, we are doomed.” He took a bite of his bagel and savored the mix of salmon, onions and bread, satisfied in the moment.

“You’re wrong, dad,” I exclaimed with certainty. “The internet is connecting the planet. For the first time in human history we are becoming one world.”

“One very small world, which everyone wants their piece of,” he said. “We’ve invented technology we can’t handle, from the Bomb to this internet. Getting bombarded with information isn’t going to change how we react to it. And the more technology we invent, the more likely we’ll implode with it.” He sighed, looked at me lovingly. “You can’t change the world, baby. Best just to focus on taking care of yourself, and your family.”

It was 1998. I had no idea what was coming, how the internet would evolve into the marketing platform it has become. But I left Saul’s that morning sure my father was wrong.

As it’s turned out, he wasn’t.

Making It With Your Muse

How do you get good at anything? Practice.

How do you get great? Obsession—Practice most all the time.

Pick any famous author, artist, musician, and they’ll all have obsession in common. And while we, the public, enjoy the fruits of their creative labor, those closest to these individuals were/are generally left wanting.

Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, “was an indifferent and often inattentive father and husband.”

Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, “worked 12 hours a day seven days a week, [and] his wife, Carol, tended to their daughters, Jodi and Anne.”

Adrienne Armstrong, wife of Billy Joe Armstrong of Greenday said of her husband after the release of the album American Idiot, “I think it challenged us to a new level, pushed us pretty far, the farthest I ever want to go.” The creatives above are all men. All married and all had/have children.

Now lets explore a few famous women.

The romance novelist Jane Austen never married. She was, in fact, ‘relieved in later life to have avoided the pitfalls of married life, not least the huge risks of childbirth, “all the business of Mothering.”’

Georgia O’Keeffe, the surrealist artist “wanted to have children but agreed with him [her husband, Alfred Steiglitz] that motherhood was incompatible with her art. She needed to focus all of her attention on her painting.”

Oprah Winfrey, the media mogul has never married, “the very idea of what it means to be a wife and the responsibility and sacrifice that carries — I wouldn’t have held that very well.” And she never had children. “If I had kids, my kids would hate me. They would have ended up on the equivalent of the “Oprah” show talking about me; because something [in my life] would have had to suffer and it would’ve probably been them.”

Ms. Winfrey had the guts to address the unvarnished, unspoken truth when she referred to the “responsibility and sacrifice,” in being a partner and parent. The investment of time, physical and psychic energy it takes to keep a marriage vital, and the even greater demands of being a conscientious parent, interferes, and often waylays the creative process.

Men have historically been the breadwinners in the family environment. And while this trend is slowly changing, the fact is women who seek personal excellence, especially in the arts, often have to choose between pursuing greatness and being, at least, an available partner and parent. Even today, men rarely have to make this choice. Regardless of this disparity, anyone, man or woman, obsessed with becoming great [at anything] should recognize the ‘sacrifice’ and costs to pursuing brilliance.

As a wife, mother, and a writer, my creative muse is constantly vying for prominence over the needs of my husband and especially my children. When my kids were babies, the creative process encountered fewer distractions. I could stay rapt in story, run dialog in my head while changing diapers or pushing them on the swing at the park. Small kids, small problems. Big kids, big issues. Now the parent to a tween and teen, my siren is often overwhelmed by the very real traumas and trials of adulthood my children face every day. To help them navigate these tumultuous times, I question, probe, even invade their space to stay connected, be there for them as a sounding board, a trusted confidant to lean on, to envelope them in a hug and hold them when they’re falling.

I chose to marry, to have kids. And while I willingly choose to be present, available for my family, forfeiting the relentless pursuit of my creativity is a battle I engage in daily. Much of my fiction focuses on this internal war, as in my novel Reverb, through James Whren’s obsession with his music, the cost to the lives he touched and the price he eventually paid absorbed in making it with his muse. My recent novel, Disconnected, explores the propaganda of the 1960s still being sold today, as Rachel struggles with the reality that we can’t ‘have it all,’ be everything we want to be, and still be there for our kids and family.

We glorify the brilliant author, the renown artist, successes in business, often secretly wish to be one of the famous. But to become great at anything means obsessively working at the job or craft, honing a skill set with relentless practice, which is the fundamental reason why genius is so rarely achieved. The price those who solely engage with their creative muse must pay is actualizing a full and balanced life.

Storytelling is Truth—Tweaked

Way before writing novels, I was a storyteller. As a little kid, before I could write, I used to come to breakfast and recount tales of going to Disneyland and other elaborate adventures I had during the night with my stuffed dog, Checkers. The purpose was less to entertain then to garner my mother’s attention, a precious commodity given mainly to my manic depressive brother and coiffed sister. The stories I chose to relay often had a point—either I was saved from some peril by a kind stranger because my parents weren’t there to help me, or I saved the day when I climbed the Matterhorn ride and fixed the car engine, rescuing the children stuck at the top to illustrate my prowess and kindness was beyond the pretty face of my sister’s benevolant facade.

Like most writers, I’ve written since learning to write, at first in diaries and journals, now articles, blogs, short stories and novels. Writing, for me, isn’t so much about entertaining, but more about getting my feelings and thoughts out of my head and in front of me to help me decipher them. Sometimes I have an idea or notion I’m convinced is true, then write it down and see the flaws in the logic. Writing about events, interactions, relationships, abstractions, helps me figure stuff out.

Beyond a writer, I’m still, and will always be a storyteller. I use tales as parables, to teach with, to communicate thoughts and feelings, not only to myself, but my kids, my husband, my students, basically most anyone I interact with. I’ve always related stories of things that happened, or, more precisely, elaborating on things that happened…OK, fabricating truths, to communicate, or to fit the lesson. Long time ago, I was told the best way to pull off a lie is to keep it as close to the truth as possible, just “tweak the truth.” It’s easy to pull of a realist tale this way, since most people aren’t paying that close attention anyway. We take what is said at face value, only questioning its validity if it’s too far out there. I find I need to tweak the unvarnished truth more often than not to be heard or believed, as truth is either too boring, or too bizarre—truly stranger than fiction so much of the time.

Fiction is the truth, tweaked. But so are blogs, memoirs, non-fiction, even ‘news’ articles—they are all simply the point of view of the writer/storyteller trying to communicate a feeling or message. Fox News is the Republican point of view, and will give you a completely different take on ObamaCare, then say, CNN. But Truth Tweaked, goes far beyond the news media. Even the most far out fiction like Twilight or Hunger Games resonates with us because they communicate real, true feelings that are familiar to us all. They exploit the truth of our hopes for a better world, a more just society.

Storytelling is the foundation of human communication. Before written languages, sharing stories was how we passed on our history, learned from our experiences, instilled morality into our communities and advanced our race. We all elaborate on our stories, writing them down or recounting an event in our day. We all tweak the truth to serve us, to present an image, teach our children, or convey our fears, desires, dreams.

For as long as I can remember, most every time I tell anyone I’m a writer, they respond with, ‘Oh, I write, too,’ or, ‘I’m going to write my novel one day.’ Used to bug me, spending most of my time and energy honing the craft of writing, I felt dissed by their self-proclaimed association while they invested little to no effort in my chosen, but challenging profession. And while most will never actualize their writing ambitions, the fact is, they too are telling a tale to communicate an image to me, to themselves, that their stories are valuable, their life meaningful, tweaking the truth to serve their needs. We are all storytellers indeed.