Years ago, I took a long, meandering walk through the streets of New York City with a woman I deeply admire. She wasn’t my “mentor” — not officially — but she cared about me, and she generously offered advice whenever I asked for it. She also happened to be a powerful writer with a distinctive, unforgettable voice, and a massive international fanbase.
So, you know, when a woman like that invites you to take a walk, you take a walk.
As it turns out, one walk can change your entire life.
“Tell me about your blog,” she inquired.
I’d recently started my very first blog, and I was pretty proud of it.
“Oh! I’m having so much fun,” I responded breathlessly, eager to impress her. We arrived at an intersection and paused for a red light. “I’m posting recipes that I like, and lists of books that I’ve enjoyed. Also, every week, I do a ‘link round-up’ where I post a bunch of links to various blog posts and other things that have inspired me.”
She nodded. “Uh huh, and what else?”
I gave her a puzzled look. “What do you mean?”
“What else are you putting on your blog? What else are you writing about?”
I didn’t understand the question. Hadn’t I just explained everything that was going on my blog? I stared awkwardly at my feet. The light turned green. We crossed the street, weaving through the crush of pedestrians. On the other side, she smiled at me, and said,
“Alex, nobody’s ever won a Pulitzer Prize for doing a ‘weekly link round-up.’ You should be writing about your own life. You should tell your own stories, not just re-hash other people’s work.”
I almost started crying, right there at the corner of Intensely Busy St. & Blaring Taxi Horn Ave, because I knew she was right.
I thought about her advice for the rest of the day. Actually, I’ve thought about her advice every day for the past eight years. I decided to accept the challenge that she’d issued.
I started writing (awkwardly and shyly) about my own life. My love stories. My break-ups. My foray into self-employment. My thoughts on discipline, motivation, and productivity. My brushes with illness. My set-backs and darkest moments. I took everything that had ever happened to me, extracted the lessons I’d learned, and poured everything onto the screen. Over time, my blog evolved from “a place where I celebrate other people’s creative work” into “a place where I showcase my own body of work.”
Look, I still love reading — and writing — “link round-ups” from time to time. I still publish a couple on my website every year, to this day. There’s nothing “wrong” with scouring the Internet for cool resources and compiling them into a fun list. That can be a lovely creative project, and your readers will probably enjoy your list very much!
However with a capital H…
Just like my unofficial mentor said to me, all those years ago, “What else?”
What else do you want to say to the world?
What are the life experiences that have shaped your identity, and that have taught you the greatest lessons? Do you ever talk about those experiences publicly? If not, why not?
What are the stories you’d like to tell online, and perhaps in books, on the airwaves, and onstage? What’s hindering you from telling them?
How do you want to be remembered when you’re gone?
Would you like to be remembered as someone who “made a lot of really great lists and posted them on the Internet very frequently”? Or as someone who told honest, personal, courageous stories that gripped people’s hearts and touched people’s lives?
I know. It’s a lot to consider. Keep percolating about all of this as you’re meandering through the streets of NYC, or London, or Boise, or wherever you may be today.
Everyone is different. Every writer has her own goals and ambitions. If you enjoy “making lists” and that’s all you ever want to do, that’s totally groovy and you should do whatever makes you happy.
But if there’s a little voice inside of you that’s whispering, “There’s ‘more’ I want to say…” or “I wish I was brave enough to tell THAT story…” then I encourage you to listen to that voice, because it’s popping into your mind for a reason.
What else? What else? What else? Keep asking yourself that question.
Instead of rummaging through the Internet looking for things to re-post onto your blog, maybe, just for this week, just as a little experiment, rummage through the chapters of your own life. Rummage through the story of how you got your first job. The story of how you met the love of your life. Or that time that a close friend betrayed you and broke your heart. Or the story of how you finally learned to speak up. Rummage through the archives of YOU. That’s where you’ll find your best material. That’s your goldmine.
Your inbox is full of ego-rattling rejection emails, but you’re emailing ten more literary agents today. Because nobody will discover you unless you make yourself discoverable.
Your sneakers are battered from 7am jogging sessions through icy rain and sleet and muck and mud. Because those miles aren’t going to run themselves.
Your podcast has exactly three fans (and two are your parents) but you’re posting a new episode every single week, nonetheless. Because everyone’s got to start somewhere.
Your heart is aching after your 100th audition for yet another role that you didn’t get. Tomorrow you’ll do it all over again. Because this is the art that you’ve chosen to make.
You’re not afraid of the hard, slow, tedious, and (sometimes) anxiety-soaked work that you’ve got to do. You’re not searching for shortcuts. You’ve committed to a marathon and you’re going to see it through. The training. The rehearsal. The revisions. The early mornings. The late nights. The 10,000 hours of practice that nobody ever sees, knows about, or applauds. The tough grunt-work that you never get an “award” for. The stuff that happens at 11:49pm in your home office in your stained yoga pants. You show up for it. You’re here for it. All of it.
You won’t quit on yourself. You won’t break your own heart. Your strategies may change through the years, but you’ll never stop trying.
If that’s you — the hard worker, the un-complainer, the tenacious warrior, grinding and slogging and striving to create something beautiful in this world — I see you and I think (no, not think, I know) that you’re fucking amazing.
I hope you know it, too.
And I hope you never give up.
Earlier today, a client told me:
“I want to feel more confident about my writing. I want to write powerful, honest stories that really move people, not just fluffy blog posts with no substance. Also, I want to write more consistently. I’m sick of always putting it off and never getting around to it.”
She asked me if I could recommend a few “homework exercises” to help her out.
I said, “Absolutely.”
I emailed her a few suggestions. Then I thought to myself, “Hmm, I should post those suggestions on my website, because I’m sure she’s not the only person who wants to become a strong, confident, and consistent writer. Other folks might want to see these recommendations, too.”
So… here you go. Enjoy!
I hope these tips make your day — and your writing — a little better than it was before.
If you want to write something really strong and powerful, something that makes an emotional impact on your reader, but you’re not sure what to write about, here’s my recommendation:
1. Start collecting “irritation stories.”
The next time something happens that makes you feel irritated, angry, or frustrated… write down a few notes.
What just happened? What are you feeling? What’s the “lesson” or “moral” of the story? Jot it down so that you don’t forget. Or record a voice-memo on your phone.
This doesn’t have to be anything “major.” It could be something very ordinary, like, “A guy cut me off in traffic and then flipped me off. I’m upset, because this feels like a tiny example of a bigger problem in our culture… which is that people can be so careless and rude. We all need to treat each other better.”
Start collecting “irritation stories” — as many as you can — and compile a big list. Most likely, at least of couple of these “irritation stories” will be great topics for future blog posts, essays, articles, podcasts, and so on.
Often, our strongest writing is born from a place of genuine frustration. When you identify something frustrating that’s happening in your own life, in your industry, in your country, or in the world, and then you write about it… that’s powerful stuff.
If you want to figure out a couple of “major themes” for your writing, so that your writing doesn’t feel scattered and random and all over the place, here’s my recommendation:
2. Figure out your “repeat messages.”
There are certain phrases, reminders, and messages that you probably find yourself saying again and again. (Possibly, without even realizing that you’re doing it.)
My friend Nicole used to help people train for 5K and 10K races, and she would always tell her clients, “You can do hard things!”
When I’m talking to artists and writers who are terrified of being criticized (like, terrified of getting rejected by a literary agent), I always tell them, “You’re going to survive.”
My client Ellen is a career coach, and when her clients feel frustrated because they’re job-hunting and it’s not going as quickly as they’d like, she tells them, “Go back in.” (Meaning: “Get back into the ring, keep fighting, and be tenacious. Don’t give up yet.”)
Those are all examples of “repeat messages.”
What about you? What are the phrases, reminders, or messages that you continually say to yourself, or to your clients, colleagues, and friends, over and over again?
See if you can write down a list of your own “repeat messages.” Then, try to narrow it down to 3-5 messages that feel especially “important” to you right now. Like, “More than anything else, right now, these are the 3-5 messages that I want to write about, talk about, and share with my audience. These are the messages that I feel called to share with the world.”
Don’t worry if your repeat messages sound “boring” or “cliche.” That’s totally OK. Often, repeat messages aren’t particularly “original,” but it’s HOW you share each message (the specific story you tell, and the style of your writing) that makes it feel fresh and exciting, even if it’s a message that’s been said a thousand-million times before by other people.
For example, Oprah and Jillian Michaels and Tony Robbins all tell their audiences: “You are more powerful than you realize. You are capable of transforming your life.” Three people. Same message. But all three of those people share that message in different ways — with different personal stories plucked from their own lives. That’s why it feels “unique” even though they’re all basically saying the same thing.
If you want to write more consistently, instead of procrastinating and neglecting your writing projects forever, here’s my recommendation:
3. Schedule your writing sessions in advance.
Musicians need to rehearse. They attend scheduled rehearsal sessions. Athletes need to train. They attend scheduled training sessions. Writers (and aspiring writers) need to write. So, schedule your writing sessions in advance. Put these dates / times on your calendar, just like any other high-priority appointment.
If you’re committing to doing 30 minutes of writing every morning, schedule it. If it’s 45 minutes every week, schedule it. If it’s a 10-day writing-bonanza-vacation at your favorite resort in Bali once a year, schedule it. (Also, can I come?)
Whatever amount of time feels realistic for you, schedule it.
Personally, I know that if something isn’t on my calendar, it’s never going to happen. Scheduling is essential. Often, one little line of text on my Google Calendar makes the difference between “neglected dream” and “reality.”
And by the way, if something on my site inspired you to start a blog, produce a podcast, share a personal story onstage, create a family cookbook, or anything like that, feel free to email me and tell me about it. Because that’s AMAZING. And you’re amazing, too.
Once a year or so, I release a new “love list.”
It’s a collection of books that have inspired me, music that I listen to obsessively, time-saving tools, and more. Basically: stuff I really love.
Here’s my list for 2017.
Enjoy! I hope you find something that delights you, entertains you, or makes your day a little better than it was before.
BOOKS / SHOWS / MUSIC / INSPIRATION
– I listen to podcasts ALL THE TIME — when I’m jogging, when I’m running errands, when I’m tidying up the apartment, and (of course) when I’m feeling lonely and I want to hang out with my imaginary podcast-friends! Haha. Lately, I’ve been listening to: Another Round, Two Dope Queens, Throwing Shade, International Waters, Judge John Hodgman, Jordan, Jesse, Go!, and (my fav of the year) Invisibilia.
– I have watched pretty much every TV show that the magician David Blaine has ever put forth. I am mesmerized by his talent and his incredible discipline, artistry, and expansive imagination. If you haven’t seen his TED Talk, it’s incredible, too. He makes me believe that anything is possible.
– Speaking of magic… The Magicians is one of the best TV shows I’ve seen in a long time. Dark, twisted, surreal. It’s like Harry Potter but for grown-ups, and with tonnnnns of sex. The book series is amazing, too. More TV that I loved this year: Insecure, High Maintenance, Stranger Things, and Nashville. (I am so glad Nashville is moving to another network and coming back for another season! I almost went into cardiac arrest when it got canceled.)
– How Bad Do You Really Want It? by Matt Fitzgerald was one of the best non-fiction books I read this year. For Real by Alexis Hall was my favorite smutty romance novel of the year. And A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness is a must-read for anybody who loves supernatural love stories and fabulous, smart descriptive writing.
– I really struggle to write unless I’ve got some music playing. This chilled-out playlist is beautiful. This one’s great, too. I’ve been really into Röyksopp lately, as well as VNV Nation, Years & Years, HONNE, Hozier, and MUNA.
ONLINE TOOLS / APPS / COOL, TIME-SAVING STUFF
– Unroll.me. Dude. LIFE-CHANGING. Unroll.me instantly compiles a list of every newsletter that you are subscribed to (you won’t believe how many you’ve accumulated through the years!) and then you can “bulk-unsubscribe” from dozens of lists that you no longer want to be on… in just a few clicks. DO IT!
– Postmates. Get delicious food — from almost any restaurant — delivered to your door ASAP. Order, track the exact delivery time, text your delivery person, pay, and add a tip using your phone, tablet, or computer. I’m slightly addicted to Postmates because after a long day of typing, thinking, and staring at a computer screen, sometimes I sink into a puddle of lazy-inertia-goo and I just don’t feel like making dinner. Postmates to the rescue! If you decide to try out the Postmates app, enter this code – z2ug – and you’ll get $10 off your first delivery. Niiiiice.
– ClassPass. If you love working out, but get bored easily (“Not this SAME yoga class AGAIN!”) you’ll love ClassPass. I became a member after my friend Rebecca raved about it. You get to take unlimited fitness classes at different gyms and studios all around your city for a super-reasonable monthly rate. (The rate varies depending on where you live, but here in Portland it’s less than $80 a month.) It’s like being a member of hundreds of gyms instead of just one. If you sign up here, you get to knock $30 off your first month.
– Nicole Antoinette is an amazing friend, writer, athlete, podcaster, and human being. With her encouragement and support, I trained for my first 10K race this year, and I did it, and I did not die! Her podcast brings me so much joy, and I’m excited to come onto the show for my second appearance pretty soon. Nicole: I love you.
– Melissa Cassera is a dear friend and longtime client, as well. Last year, she decided to move to Los Angeles and become a TV screenwriter, despite having no previous experience in that industry. Oh and guess what? SHE FUCKING DID IT. Her first TV movie gets released in the USA next year, and she’s got tons of other projects on the horizon, too. Melissa continually reminds me that just because people say something is “unrealistic” or “impossible” doesn’t mean that’s necessarily true. If you work hard and stay relentlessly optimistic, you can do anything you want.
– Justin Thomas Smith is the best personal trainer in Portland. I met him a couple years ago — back when I could barely do one push-up — and he has helped me become so much stronger, fitter, faster, and more importantly, mentally tough. PS. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in becoming a client.
– Lastly, but never leastly: My sweetheart Brandon. You are my king, my partner in all things, and the biggest cheerleader I could ever wish for. Also: you’re SO damn sexy. I’m so proud of you for starting your own business this year. I love you foreverly. (I will tell you lots more compliments and love-words when we’re alone… in private.)
A FEW MISCELLANEOUS THINGS THAT I LOVE VERY MUCH
This cookie recipe is the bomb — especially if you add a bunch of chocolate chips. This company makes amazing candles that last forever and ever. Brit+Co is one of the few websites that I visit regularly, because it feels like a sparkly little gift in the midst of a troubled world. I love my Blue Geo yoga mat because it’s so pretty, I never want to roll it up. This red wine is my favorite, and it’s so inexpensive! This kombucha is delightful. I love these guys. And this. And this. And lastly: this.
So much love.
In response to this article, I received about 70 emails from people saying, “Thank you for saying that.” I received 2 emails from people saying, “I didn’t like what you said” and “I feel it was wrong of you to talk about your political views.” Also, about 100 people unsubscribed from my mailing list altogether. This got me thinking about hiding, censorship, and the impossible task of trying to please everybody.
So many people – particularly bloggers, podcasters, and other people with a “public presence” – often struggle to decide “how much” to share, and when, and how. Many people censor themselves, fearing that their income / livelihood will be negatively impacted if they say what they really feel. Many people (understandably) fear harassment, public scorn, and criticism. It’s a complicated topic, and it’s one that needs to be discussed. This is my “open letter” on this subject. These are my thoughts. This is my stance.
I’m a writer.
I write about my personal experiences and feelings.
That’s what I do, and what I have always done.
I am bisexual, and I don’t hide that.
I have struggled with depression and an eating disorder in the past. I don’t hide that either.
I am self-employed, and I write honestly about what that’s like – the tough choices I’ve had to make, and the challenges I’ve had to face.
I have experienced pain in my life – romantic rejection, broken bones, surgery, recovery, loss, grief, and shame. I write about all of those things.
I have experienced victories in my life – publishing deals, art projects, athletic pursuits, exciting adventures. I write about all of those things, too. I write about my lowest points and my highest highs. The darkness and the light.
And if I feel distressed about something that’s happening locally, nationally, or globally in our world – say, a major political election – then I’m going to write honestly about that, too.
I don’t expect everyone to share my feelings or agree with me. All I can do is write from my heart and gut – my “hut” – and say what I feel is true. Some people will say, “Hooray! That’s what I believe, too!” and others will say, “I strongly disagree,” and that’s OK with me.
If you enjoy my work, then keep reading. If you don’t enjoy my work, or if it feels distressing, uninspiring, or morally problematic to you, that’s completely OK. You can stop reading. You can unsubscribe from my newsletter. You can stop visiting my website. I won’t be offended. I’m free to write, and you’re free to read – or not read – the things that I write. We’re both free to proceed as our hearts command.
But I’m never going to censor myself, or dilute my opinions, because if I start doing that, then really, what’s the point of writing anything at all?
It is not possible for me to create a “perfect piece of writing” that delights six billion people and upsets zero people. No matter what I say – and no matter how I say it – someone, somewhere, is going to be delighted, and someone, somewhere, is going to be upset. There’s no getting around this fact. That’s just how writing / reading works.
Rather than trying to please everybody on the planet, instead, I ask myself, “What is the story I want to tell, in this moment?” and “How can I tell that story truthfully, honestly, and clearly so that some people – who knows, maybe even a lot of people – will feel uplifted and inspired when they read it?”
That’s all I can do, and that’s what I will continue to do. Always.
It goes without saying, but I encourage you to do the same.