So Good to Hear Your Voice

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I’m smack dab in the middle of reading Mark Twain’s autobiography this month.

Okay, that’s not exactly true.

It feels like I should be smack dab in the middle, but in truth, I’m only stuck inside the introduction. Which, unbelievably, is nearly as long as the book part itself.

I’d say about one quarter acre’s worth of trees was sacrificed for the beginning of this book. And I’m gathering that the beginning of this book was deemed worthy of that slaughter.

Except I’m craving Twain’s words. Not some editor’s. Not some scholar’s. Not some newfound margin scribble from the guy who sat and took dictation. His words.

Mark’s. Or Sam’s. Or maybe he went by Phil on Tuesday’s and every other Sunday. It doesn’t matter. I want to hear what’s inside that man’s brain.

I want to hear his voice.

As an author, and I’ve checked with a couple of others on this bit so you can trust me, we collectively agree that the most important thing we can do for our careers is to develop a unique voice.

A voice that not only spins a good yarn, but does so with a color most folks don’t typically see in their everyday multi-hued spectrum.

Brown? Too drab. Purple? Too flamboyant.

Brurple.

That’s me.

If you’ve got something to say one must next find a way to tickle the auditory hair cells within the cochlea of the people you’re directing your words toward—or if like me and your musings are absorbed in the form of at least one effortful eyeball scanning words across a page, you need to create text that just leaps off that paper and literally spanks the reader across the forehead.

In a really loving spanking kind of a way.

But getting to the meat of your message is important. Dressing it up? Not so much.

In fact, I cannot count the number of times an agent or editor or beta reader of mine has said, “Yuck. Your writing is just dripping with purple prose.”

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it’s like taking a beautiful roast ham, packing it in a great wad of brown sugar, plastering canned pineapple all over it, wrapping it three times with maple bacon, and then pouring a large liter of Coco Cola over the top of it. Ala Paula Dean.

One ends up with something sticky, sweet, syrupy, and inedible. One also ends up searching for a large bucket of bleach and a wire brush with which to scrub one’s teeth. You’ve ruined what could have been something quite toothsome and savory.

Hiding behind unnecessary words results in confusion. I’ve been lectured repeatedly that it’s best, when trying to cultivate your true and authentic voice, to use your own. Don’t be snatching catchy phrases or snippets of impressive sounding opinions from clever pundits, worldly academics, or The Onion.

Okay, well, yes, I’ll take back that last one. The world could use a little bit more of The Onion.

The problem with this—the using others’ words in place of your own—(that I’ve most certainly discovered first hand) is that when people raise their eyebrows with interest at what you’ve just professed, they oftentimes will ask you to expound, to further enlighten the dark areas of their minds. And when you can’t …

Yeah, you better hope there’s an eagle or a squirrel close by. Maybe an errant This is not a test text that comes across everyone’s screen to save your tuchas.

I’ve become so profoundly aware of this situation because recently I’ve been purposefully surrounding myself with speeches.

Next month I’ve got a couple to give. It’s good to look at the historical soup of a million others. But I’ll quickly point out two that emerged and left me with a measurable thumbprint of thought.

I’ve just finished a book that held a selection of Kurt Vonnegut’s commencement speeches. They’re short, they’re punchy, they’re meant to occasionally have faculty members behind him draw in a sharp breath as he tells the students in front of him what the school has been glossing over for the last four years in their protective bubble.

No doubt within three sentences, you know this is pure Vonnegut.

Last month, I watched The State of the Union address. I’ve seen plenty of others. I know how these work. But these weren’t the words of the individual who was elected to office. Far from it. And I think for the people who voted him into that position, and for those waiting for the much touted promise The presidency wholly and completely changes a person, it was a lost opportunity.

It was purple prose.

Sticky, sweet, and yet altogether flavorless. No meat. No message. No memorability.

No thanks.

There is so much we people hide behind these days. Other people’s words, other people’s thoughts, other people’s ideas. It’s really not impossible to create our own.

It’s intimidating, yes, because we may be rejected or rebuffed.

It’s effortful, yes, because it requires one to formulate concrete thought and opinion, and wrestle with why you want to say these words in the first place.

And it’s humbling because there are bucketloads of moments when afterward we discover just how wrong we are.

But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Try to be authentic. Strive to be astute. Reach for earnest bona fide status.

I want people to truly seek out my words, and to have engaging enough words that they will fight through the forest of extra pages of editorial intros in order to get to them.

And like any good firewood chopping Wisconsinite, I know where the good stuff in a tree really is. And I want my books and words and sentiments to reflect that.

Otherwise, it’s all bark and no heart.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

My Simpleminded Smartphone

My smartphone is …well, how do I put this—not terribly smart.

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Now, don’t get me wrong, I am hugely amazed at the capability of said smartphone, and believe these miniature, magical machines deserve daily praise and admiration. For Pete’s sake, I punch a button and the world of wireless wealth unfolds before me–coupons, car diagnostics and my hourly cholesteral calculation.

Yeah, I rightly should set up a tiny shrine and go through a nightly ritual of lighting incense and candles to properly worship its cache of riches. Maybe toss in a ceremonial dance or two as well.

But what I’ve come to discover, and sheepishly so, is that smartphones are pretty much a mirror image of their owners.

Meaning, only as intelligent as the Joe Schmo operating it.

I’ve seen plenty of people (read: teenagers) actively attempting to reprogram satellites with their handhelds, and I’ve come across numerous folks (okay, you know who you are) who have found great use for them as doorstops, coasters, and bookmarks.

And as impressive a span of accomplishments one’s phone has been programmed to complete, the world of technology, and those who consume it, are hungry for more.

We are always looking for a smarter phone.

A phone whose IQ is regularly improved upon and impressively upgraded to achieve more than ever before, and more than your below average science fiction writer could ever conjure up.

We want a device that’s more than super smart.

More than slick and sassy.

And more than sharp and shrewd.

We want a new brain.

Thinking is hard. It’s taxing. And oftentimes, we decide to hell with thinking, I’m just gonna fly by the seat of my pants on this one.

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And then if we find ourselves in the middle of giant whoopsi poo, we rely upon a few tired backup systems put in place by millions before us that regularly explain our errors.

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We brush our hands of the dust, and off we go, convincing ourselves that everyone is fully on board with our excuse for the screw-up because:

We’re low a quart of caffeine

We never got the email

Or

The President was apparently flying within one hundred miles of my town and, therefore, all roads were blocked off to allow safe air passage and now I’m running three days behind schedule, plus my child just lost a tooth.

Yep. Heard it all before.

What we need is a scapegoat brain.

What? You mean the report that was due about first quarter financials? Yeah, that was outsourced to my Neural Network Simulator. Not my fault.

Of course I didn’t pick up the kids from your mother’s. My Collective Cognitive Conveyance took that over last week,

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don’t you remember, or is your Recapture App on the fritz again?

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Why didn’t I pick up your weekly pint of Chubby Hubby at the supermarket? Apparently, our AI Grocery Gofer scanned your current waistline, honey, and deemed it an unnecessary purchase.

I think you get my point. Responsibilities, memories, decisions—all this riff raff gets in the way of living a calm and quiet life, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be so much easier to assign basic thought—or occasionally all thought—to an outside source?

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Hoping to head off on a much needed, hard-earned vacation?

Got the flu and you’re laid up in bed?

Desperate for just one quick, blissful afternoon nap on a rainy Sunday afternoon when there’s still so much to tackle before the new week begins?

Yes, there’s still work to be done, but how about you just hand all that over to some form of artificial intelligence and rest easy knowing your best work—and quite possibly better than your best work—will still be happening without you.

Researchers all around the world in both private industry and well-funded university departments, not to mention a few shabbily decked out basements and garages, are beavering away bringing us ever closer to that reality.

Google, Facebook, NASA, IBM—just a few of the ‘big boys’ making giant strides across the fertile fields of artificial intelligence.

In the past, machines progressed on the scale of intelligence by collecting vast amounts of data on our habits, compiled that info, and then systematically revealed how we as individuals would behave in the future. A boon for marketers, if nothing else.

A little freaky for those of us who believe choosing which color socks to put in the morning is going to be the first monumental struggle of the day.

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But machines had been getting stuck with a tiny little thing called REASONING. Apparently, data analysis was running across a pothole in the road when it came to human inference and interpretation. Ones and zeros had a hard time with rationale.

Except now it seems that technology is making it over this hurdle too. Machinery is finding success with the art and skill of human reasoning with nothing more than algebra. Yep, math. Well, in truth, this is an extraordinarily dumbed down explanation for the concept of Deep Learning within machines where data is fed in, spat out, judged and fed in again round after round. There are countless articles explaining it far better than I could with the space I’ll allow for it. Just Google ‘machine learning algorithms.’ We’ll wait.

No, don’t. On second thought, unless you want an instant software freeze within the confines of your own neural network, I suggest you hold off on that. Nobody appreciates the acrid smell of synaptic burning coming from between their ears first thing in the morning.

Nevertheless, a faster, sleeker, smarter digital assistant is on its way to each of us.

But if, like in my original assessment, we are still stuck with a reflection of our individual capabilities, I’m fearful that after opening the protective casing of my newest device I will be greeted with the spine-chilling voice of Barbie giggling and saying,

Math is hard!

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I Wrote DEAR OPL

Who Writes a Prologue to a Blog Post? … Umm, Me.

A heads up to this beautiful community I have come to know and embrace. The next three posts are not ‘blog posts’—they are a polished rough draft of a speech.

I’m crowdsourcing and asking for your valuable input.

The speech isn’t about the book I’ve written for children, it’s about the messages within the book that I’m trying to highlight by spreading awareness. Years ago, these topics grabbed me by the shoulders, shook me until my teeth rattled and demanded I do something about them.

The book is a vehicle to address these topics with children. The speech is my outreach campaign to engage parents, educators, and activists who care about how food politics are aggressively influencing our health.

So, I’m asking you to read and comment. Help me make an impact. Tell me what works for you, what doesn’t, what you’d like to see more of, or what you feel detracts. Your opinions matter to me.

This is not a plea to purchase my book. This is an appeal to help me make a difference. If this isn’t your shtick, I promise your names will still be rattled off in my nightly prayers of Please let these folks win some lottery in life. The point is to take advantage of eager, willing voices and collective brain power.

Your thoughts mean a great deal to me. I want to carry them with me as I carry this message to others.

And now … Why I Wrote DEAR OPL.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I’m usually not one for eavesdropping—okay, who am I kidding? I’m a writer. I’m always listening in on conversations all around me. It’s a fountain-like source of creativity I regularly tap into. And it’s addictive. But it’s part of my job.

On this particular occasion—while I was working—I just happened to overhear a conversation that made me cringe. We were in Australia, and my then seven-year-old son was chatting with an Australian lad who was just a little bit older than him. The boy asked my son where he was from. I heard my son answer, “America.” The other boy’s response was, “Oh. Where the fat people live.”

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I sat back and thought about that unflattering national slogan. It did not have a sexy ring to it.

I thought about a few other places that had slogans to capture the essence and beauty of what they had to offer.

Egypt: Where it all began.

Bahli: The islands of gods.

Disneyland: The happiest place on Earth.

And now …

America: Where the fat people live.

The more I thought about it, the more a few other slogans repeatedly popped into my head. Like this one:

McDonald’s: I’m lovin’ it.

It gave me a lot to chew on—excuse the pun—but it really had me thinking about how big ideas could be distilled down to a few simple words. And sometimes those words could leave a bad taste in your mouth.

But I like slogans. I am all about slogans—or catchphrases or mottos—whatever you want to call them. I surround myself with them because throughout my whole life I’ve found them to be effective.

In fact, here’s an example of just how powerful one became:

As I was growing up, studying classical music was a precise and strictly defined practice. There were rules and not much wiggle room for interpretation of any of them.

I remember as a teenager sitting at the piano with a friend of mine who had not studied classical, but was rather raised playing jazz and improv. We were very different musicians. One afternoon we tried to find a song that both of us could play together on the piano. It ended up being something I could read off sheet music and he improvised alongside.

When we’d finished the piece, he turned to me and said, “Okay, now don’t do it regular.” I didn’t know any other way but regular, and when I found out that’s what I was, I aimed to change it.

In fact, that became the slogan with which I raised my children. My children weren’t particularly thrilled with my ‘swim against the current’ motherly advice as it made them stick out in ways that would make most kids’ toes curl. Their complaining fell on deaf ears and was usually followed with that old parental pearl of It’ll build you some character!

When years ago I heard the highly acclaimed entrepreneur, Seth Godin, say, “Ordinary is boring,” I nearly leaped out of my skin. I wanted to rush to my children and point out that I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t trying to ruin their fun, I was simply trying to enrich their lives.

That phrase of Just Don’t Do It Regular became a theme song I was determined to sing when coaching my kids through countless situations as if I were some first draft version of Maria Von Trapp or a slightly more colorfully dressed adaptation of Mary Poppins. The last thing I wanted for them was a ‘go with the flow’ predictable experience. I wanted them to counteract the narrative of their generation. If they had something to say to the world, it would take words noteworthy and uncommon in order to be heard above the fray.

And people pay attention to noteworthy and uncommon. After that trip to Australia, it seemed like I repeatedly stumbled upon the same message directed at a growing swath of our planet’s population.

We are in trouble, people. We have a big fat problem on our hands … and hips and thighs and bellies.

I couldn’t ignore the message.

After slogging through a forest full of research articles and data authored and collected by the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control and a compilation of all of Dave Letterman’s Top Ten lists, I realized that some of my sources were—although meticulously detailed and scientific—extremely dry and nearly impossible to swallow.

It’s as if the WHO and CDC embraced both Seth and McDonald’s mottos and made an unlikely lovechild tagline for themselves: We’re boring, and lovin’ it.

My guess is that neither of the big research and data collection agencies thought their articles could use any spicing up—with something like a massive neon lit memo—in order to hail the attention of the folks who were most desperately in need of reading it.

Extracting the main point message was easy though:

A shocking number of people are eating themselves to an early death. In particular, children.

I spent a lot of time looking around and asking the silent question, Does everyone know this? And then I spent a lot of time thinking it really shouldn’t be a silent question. And lastly I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I could take the message about our world’s growing epidemic of obesity and spread the word in a way that wouldn’t make people fall asleep with their eyes open.

To reach children, I wrote a book.

But for all of you, I’ve broken the message into three bite-sized portions of important information that I’ve gathered from myriad experts—aka folks far more clever than me—whom I’ve hunted down from all corners of this great round ball we live on. Those three points—the meat and marrow of this talk—are thus:

  1. WHAT WE EAT
  2. WHAT WE KNOW
  3. WHAT WE NEED TO DO

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*I hope you’ll come back next week for part 2 of 3. And I hope you may consider offering your thoughts thus far.

Cheers everyone!

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Text No Evil

Here’s a scary fact:

There are two people inside of me.

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Okay, wait. That sounded much more alarming than I wanted it to. Let’s try that again.

I hear two voices.

Nope. That doesn’t really work either.

And this has nothing to do with the whole author thing where we train ourselves to get inside a character’s head and write from their perspective, which, when you really think about it could be considered a bit invasive and creepy.

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What I’m actually talking about are the conversations behind conversations. The things that come out of one’s mouth when in dialogue with another versus the things that get whispered, grumbled or screamed inside your head and nobody but the real you is there to hear.

We all do it, so there’s no need to fear I need a few week’s rest in the nearest laughing academy—although a softly padded rubber room and a nurse with a needle full of snoozing juice could be considered a worthy vacation at this point in time. I may reevaluate the idea.

It’s just that lately I’ve become more aware of how loud that inner voice is growing.

Maybe it’s the fact that I have teenagers and realize that no matter how hard I try, putting parental lessons in my best Disney Princess Voice is no longer a viable tactic, but my Nurse Ratched routine isn’t gonna fly either.

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Or it might be that I’m preparing a series of presentations to schoolchildren about food and have this desperate desire to get on my hands and knees, grab them by the shoulders and shout that “Scientists have discovered rats will work eight times harder to get sugar than they will to get cocaine!” Except this will have me escorted out classrooms and libraries faster than a gun fight in a phone booth.

The art of communication is tricky.

I think we all probably remember that well-drilled-in childhood lesson stating If you don’t have anything nice to say, maybe you’re not cut out for social media—or something like that. But I’m realizing that of late I’m growing quite desperate to allow my inner ‘best if kept caged’ thoughts to escape and run rampant.

Many of these urges happen when I’m texting. There’s the response I actually text, and then the response I actually say while typing out the text. Oftentimes they’re contradictory, or one is passable for the National Security Agency’s eyes and the other is my “air text” which is the message my fingers were itching to type.

And I’m getting pretty good at spotting the air texts written by other folks as well. Especially those of my kids. A typical conversation might go something like this:

Hey Mom?

Hi, Bud. What’s up? (read: Why are you texting me in the middle of the school day? You’d better not be in trouble. Is there a police officer standing next to you?)

I’m not feeling good. (read: I’m sick of school.)

And? (read: Ask the office for an Advil and head back to math, Mister.)

I think I need to come home. (read: I’m so not ready for the chemistry quiz.)

Sorry to hear that. (read: Suck it up, buddy.)

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I just need to get into bed. (read: I really want to watch the next five episodes of Archer.)

Are you sure you can’t stick it out? (read: If you think you’re skipping out on the rest of the afternoon to binge watch Netflix you’re about to be sorely surprised.)

No. Please call the office and get me excused. (read: Show some mercy here, Mom. I CAN’T TAKE THAT QUIZ!)

Fine. (read: Did you hear how loud my sigh was? It was deafening on my end.)

I have to stop and get gas on my way home. (read: I need snacks while I binge watch Archer.)

You’d better have a raging fever and be tossing your cookies once you open the front door. (read: There actually wasn’t any finger itching air text here. I sometimes actually write what I mean.)

I think it may be more challenging to squish a troublesome inner voice if you’re naturally a snarky individual, or determined not to be judged by the size of your brain but rather the size of a brain you’re convinced you deserve, or if you’re nearly certain there’s an 18th century sharp-tongued fisherman’s wife controlling your vocal chords—all of which are true, and do not make the task an easy one.

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On the flipside, these growing urges to speak my mind may stem from a healthy diet of female empowerment slam poetry Youtube videos or maybe just an extra large serving of Beyonce lyrics—it doesn’t matter. The point is, the older I become, the more ankle I want to show.

Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of deciphering what are the most important messages I need to get across and what’s the most precise manner in which to do so.

Maybe those extra voices in my head fighting to be heard aren’t all brash and uncouth. Maybe it’s not tact I’m fighting for, but truth I’m fighting against. Maybe with each successive year I’m realizing the unbridled freedom of truly saying what I mean.

Or it could be that I forgot to take my meds this morning.

Time will tell I suppose. It will surely reveal if any of these musings are worthy and will likely determine where my next vacation will be.

~Shelley (or Sybil)

*ROBIN GOTT’S NEWEST POST!* (click)

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.