You Cannot Teach An Old Cat New Tricks … Or Anything Really

“What do you think you could do? For your part in the program?” I heard the voice ask.

I looked around my desk. Papers, sticky notes, a leftover bowl of quinoa the cat was extremely interested in exploring.

“Umm …” I hesitated and tried to buy some time. I glanced at my phone, hoping it would ping with some notification that I could cleverly read out.

The phone was not helping. And the person on the other side of the line was waiting for my answer.

Yes. Yes, I very much wanted to be part of an evening called Women In Whiskey, hosted by a distillery I held in the highest of esteem. And Leslie, their head of PR, was offering me just that opportunity IF … I could create a marketable angle for why I should be there—and a persuadable reason people would feel inclined to attend because I was part of it.

The cat pulled a paw out of the bowl of quinoa, now coated with the sticky red grain.

She stared at it intently. She nosed it. Then stuck a tiny pink tongue out and gave it a tentative taste.

Shaking her head to rid herself of the apparently foul flavor, I sighed and frowned.

She didn’t even really give it a try. Judged it unpalatable without truly knowing anything about it.

If only cats were teachable … and not obligate carnivores.

“Whiskey Tasting 101,” I blurted out. “I can do an introductory course.”

There was a short pause on the other end of the line. “In ten minutes?” Leslie asked.

“Fifteen. I will squish four lessons into fifteen minutes.”

“Hmm … what kind of lessons? Remember, you’re going to be working with a food and spirits critic, a mixologist, and a distiller. You’ll have to bring something different to the table.”

Leslie knew I wrote books—middle grade, YA literature, non-fiction essays, and a lot about whisky. She knew I’d apprenticed in Scotland—studied with distillers and people who were hugely passionate with their work—all because I’d eventually developed a great love for the spirit and a yearning to make it. But my main labors were simply writing about it.

How many people would want to come to an event to hear women speak about their work in the industry and find out my part was just “Lemme tell you about my books.”

Can’t imagine that would fly.

But for the past twenty-five years I had done something that morphed accidentally into a profession. I became a teacher.

Enthusiasm can do that to a person.

Or fanaticism. Samey samey.

My history was one that was both typical and atypical of a person first introduced to brown spirits.

Typical, in that I thought it was the most disgusting thing ever to touch my lips—save for Jeremy Krazinski, who, in fifth grade, tried to plant a big one on me just beneath the monkey bars when I had no idea it was coming.

Atypical, in that only a few short years later, after having traveled repeatedly to Scotland and gaining a depth and breadth of appreciation for everything falling between the barley and the bottle, I found myself determined to make it. To understand the craft, the science, and the magic of that spirit.

My longing for a deep dive found fulfillment because of a great distillery, but my love for whisky blossomed because of a great teacher—one who discovered my first handshake with the spirit had been an avoidably painful one. I’d learned incorrectly and had a good bit of erasing ahead of me. From that moment on I’d grown resolute to not allow the same “first time flop” unfold for other people. I wanted them to love whisky as much as I did.

“What will you teach?” Leslie repeated.

I recalled a series of essays I’d long ago written called Belly Up to the Bar. “Eyeing, Nosing, Tasting, and Finish,” I said with more confidence than I felt.

Indeed, the more pertinent question going through my mind was, Sure, I can write about it, but can I aptly teach it?

I thought about the most proficient instructors in my life thus far. The ones whose lessons have left the greatest indelible imprint on me had no degrees in education—nor fancy lettering following their names. They had instinct, purpose, and need.

A cat has schooled me in the necessity of paying attention to the most muted of reverberations as much as any sound engineer. You wish to catch a prey? Listen like your life depends upon it. Hunger can tutor the stupid right out of you.

An elderly Polish neighbor repeatedly walked me through the woods as a child, revealing what will taste good raw, what will taste good cooked, and what will outright kill you if you so much as lick it.

And no doubt my parents have left me with life lessons near impossible to accumulate from anyone else: Do what you love, love what you do, and please pay attention goddammit to what Mrs. Sobieski warns you not to lick.

We are surrounded by teachers. Many have a desire to give you what they already possess: comprehension of the world. And oftentimes for free—simply because of the passion they possess with the subject.

“Okay, you’re hired,” Leslie decided.

I was thrilled. Most times in life I’ve found myself as the student—the hungry pupil desperate for know-how, happy to be on the receiving end of it. But on this night, I would get to be that teacher.

That teacher who teaches what she loves, and loves what she teaches.

Likely I will start off the session with an introductory phrase such as: “Thank you all for coming, thank you for being willing to learn, but mostly I’d like to thank Mrs. Sobieski for allowing me to be here tonight.”

The Reservoir Distillery’s “Women in Whiskey” event.

(Robey Martin, Beth Dixon, Mary Allison, and Shelley Sackier)

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.

~Shelley

Yes, Splice and Dice, But First … Stumble and Tumble

Okay, I wrote an entirely different blog post before this one. The essay you’re reading isn’t even remotely similar to the original. This one isn’t about hiking, this one isn’t about how you can effortlessly compartmentalize mountain bicyclists onto an easy to read Game of Thrones character trait spectrum, and this one isn’t about how much the other one sucked.

It really did.

Yes, you’re right, I did just make this essay about how much the first draft was awful, but we’re not going to talk about that anymore.

Because I wasted hours writing it. All thirteen hundred words of it. Which is far more than I typically allow myself for my monthly post.

People don’t have that kind of time.

Or patience for pure drivel.

Which is exactly what it was.

Seriously, enough of the old one. My point is that editing is everything.

You have to know when to keep plowing through with some endeavor, when to cut, snip, and modify, and when to just find a large fire pit to toss it all into and watch it burn, baby. Your tears can dry by firelight. It’ll be romantic.

Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

I learned long ago the importance of an editor. I learned shortly after that the importance of a good editor and how there is a difference. And now I’m learning just how badly I am in need of a life editor.

We all need people like this. People who shape, guide, instruct, and brutally shine a light on everything we’re too close to get a real grip on. How awesome would it be to have someone silently in the background? A tiny Jiminy Cricket on your shoulder who either subtly whispers in your ear as you’re about to reach for something, “Uh yeah, I wouldn’t do that. Drop it, sweetie,” or one who shouts, “Oh my godfathers, what the hell are you thinking? Run!”

Lately, I’m falling in need of something in the middle. A helpful aid who has a bird’s eye view of thirty seconds in front of me, and who maybe has a sweet and syrupy southern accent, prefacing all my idiotic choices with a, “Aww, God bless your cotton socks, honey,” so I don’t feel such a sharp rebuke with my blunders.

I’m making a lot of mistakes recently. Misjudgments, miscalculations, moving with misdirection. Energy spent on the wrong thing and on the wrong people.

It’s a little bit like the time I decided to paint my bedroom florescent yellow to increase the cheeriness factor within it and ended up suffering a year of massive migraines. I also lost a year of sleep as I slept in a room that shined as brightly as the inside of a working nuclear fusion reactor.

It stings a bit wasting two or three hours on writing an essay that turns out to be a stinker versus wasting a week on a project or plan that falls short because you lack the vital fundamental understanding needed to see the big picture.

And no doubt there are countless people who can scoff at the above paragraph’s whiny note and kick away its relevance by revealing that they wasted twenty years on a spouse who insisted they were near a breakthrough with their milestone advances in organic tree water and anti-inflammatory conifer oils when you finally opened up the door to their backyard science lab and discovered they’d been doing nothing but perfecting the art of making balloon animals for children’s birthday parties.

Experience is expensive.

But so is any worthy education, right?

I finally learned how to write musical manuscripts for a big band swing orchestra with swift speed only after three of the guys cornered me backstage following one rehearsal. They said either I sit down with them and see why the bullpuckey bunk I was penning for them stunk or they were walking and I’d be left without a horn section. Again.

It was the hands-on guidance I needed instead of the “Music Theory 101 classes” I suffered through where reams of music returned to me from a pricey conservatory instructor with his red penned notes saying, “Review page 329.”

Okay, fine, but why??

And experience is painful.

I recently attended a fifth grade science fair where I saw a young lady, casts on both arms up to her elbows, standing in front of a white board that read How High is Too High?

No doubt all of us look back and feel our lives might benefit from some redaction. From a touch up given to us by an expert. From a reshoot, or revision, or an overdub.

But our lives are not a blog post. Our days are not essays published with an eye-catching snapshot or two of the subject. We’re not a slickly scripted podcast or a mirthful vlog nailed on the twenty-first take.

We are the humans who live the stories, who then write the stories, who then publish the stories as warnings or lessons or amusement for others.

The good ones are filled with conflict and resolution.

The real ones are riddled with mistakes.

If you want to tell a great story, you really need a great editor.

If you want to live a great life, you might want to boot kick that idea of a “life editor” to the curb.

Cuz they’re going to stop you … before you even have a chance to fall into something worth writing about.

~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.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; Nature’s Turducken

Photo by Mike Bird on Pexels.com

Last year, I had a gazillion bunny rabbits gather on the lawn both at sunrise and sunset every day through the three beautiful months of spring—nibbling, lounging, fattening.

This year, I have been hard-pressed to see even one dash out in front of my car as I trundle down the mountain to run a few errands in town.

Where did they go, I wondered?

This morning, I watched a brawny and brutish red fox prance along the woodland’s edge, patrolling the perimeter, his ears and swishy full tail twitching with anticipation at any movement or sound from the grassy border.

Ah. Now I know.

There were a few brief, tense moments when the world virtually paused, my breath suspended, when with lightning quick speed, the fox sprung into the air in the direction of a fat rabbit, dashing from the safety of her brushy compound, making a run for it—out in the open.

Now, I know you’re all wondering what happened to that fat little bunny, and I could be cruel and tell you that’s not the point of this essay, but for the sake of keeping friends, I’ll relieve your suspense.

She made it.

But it won’t be for long, so let’s not grow accustomed to her furry little face.

Because bunnies are accidental survivors. Countless times, I have taken walks and come across one of them on the side of the path, and their method of life management is nothing more than freeze.

If they find they’ve fooled you into believing they’re actually a painting or statue, well … bully for them. They live another day of blissful clover grazing. If you are a predator and make your raptorial move, then their only hope is to outrun you, or “under-size” you by fitting in somewhere you cannot.

Not much to be impressed by.

A fox, on the other hand, is a planner. A plotter, a schemer, and wholly opportunistic.

Unlike a bunny, his nose is not focused solely on the floral fragrance of the tender shoots from the genus Trifolium, but also notes whether or not those herbaceous patches carry the scent of lucky rabbits’ feet.

Lucky for him, anyway.

Treading the path once or twice during the gloaming hours, he notes their playground and their warren holes, then takes a quick kip till just before the time sparrows fart and the sun’s rays creep over the dewy grass.

He positions himself in their familiar Don’t mind me, I’m just a figment of your imagination style crouch when muddle-headed bunnies womble out of bed and head to the clover cafeteria, and then waits until …

Gotcha.

Breakfast and exercise all in one fell swoop.

Nothing to do but sleep off the meal.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

And possibly be surprised by a sharp wake-up call in the middle of the night, as he is now surrounded by a ring of coyote—canines recognized for their ability to utilize deception and cheekiness to their benefit.

Obviously, our fox sees little comedy in his demise, but I can certainly appreciate the turducken style gallows humor and feel compelled to view life outside my window through these optics.

To do anything less would have me lamenting about the woodland hills, the smell of death thick in my nostrils, and an overwhelming feeling of despair and fatalism cloaked about my shoulders.

I cannot live life like this, mostly because I was raised on a diet rich with despair and fatalism, but wrapped up in a puff pastry crust of Monty Python humor.

I know some of you might be wondering where I’m going with this whole essay, and it would be crystal clear if you saw the books and articles scattered across my desk:

How to Write Better Bad Guys

Six Tips to Scandalous Scoundrels

Superheroes, Supervillains

This is a time period (in between books) I designate as “The Gathering.”

The collecting of ideas, the generating of plots, the reviewing of old writing habits that no longer serve and need to be replaced.

Like that of writing antagonists.  

We are surrounded by them in our everyday lives. They are the people who we intermingle with often and repeatedly: the guy who cut you off in traffic because he saw an opening and took it, your boss, who criticizes your work in front of a roomful of your coworkers which leads to you pull an all-nighter to prove her wrong, your ex, who tells every handyman in town that you don’t pay your bills on time and sometimes not at all.

Yeah, they’re evil, heinous, and diabolically sinister people in our minds.

But … not in theirs.

In their minds, they are doing what’s right. What’s right for the flow of traffic, the result of the project, and the protection of the local business owners who don’t deserve to get burned.

In their minds, why would they choose to do anything else?

A fox is never going to pass up the bunny buffet. The coyote would be harebrained to skip out on the freshly prepared “foxbunherb.” And the only thing missing now is what follows to bring down the sharp-toothed pooch.

I vote Monty Python’s Foot of Cupid. As there is nothing more satisfying then seeing your enemy squished by an animated sketch, followed by the juvenile sound of ripping flatulence. And truly, this is the Universe’s way of saying enough is enough.

It is an effortless exercise to read about creating great villains on paper, and then see the perfect example of them right outside my window. The thing that makes them perfect is that they are all relatable. We understand them. Their motivations. And can empathize with their actions.

They are not evil for the sake of being evil.

Photo by Wendelin Jacober on Pexels.com

Some of them, in the case of a humongous, hand-drawn heel are just evil for the sake of being hilarious.

And I can live with that.

~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.

When Everyone Tells You You’re a Witch, Eventually You Try on the Hat

I don’t feel well¸ I’d whispered just loudly enough for my own ears to register.

I reached out for the wall beside me, steadying quivering knees, and felt my hand slide southward until it came to touch the floor. I wrapped both arms around my bent legs. In this custodial cocoon, I closed my eyes and searched for a thread of clarity as a new anchor of support.

Another sound my ears captured—their scattershot proficiency even further impeded by the thump of my resonant heartbeat—was a half growl, half moan, also coming from me.

I spoke again in a whisper, directing my words to both recently and long-passed female relatives, If you all think this is funny, I will find a way to make you pay for your merciless amusement. Leave. Me. Alone.

I looked up and scanned the room. It was rich with excavated artifacts—urns, beakers, swords, and tools, skins, sketches, baubles, and bowls. Relics unearthed from the very ground I stood upon—or hunched over, as it were.

The Kilmartin Museum was perched atop a small ridge that ran along the edge of Kilmartin Glen—a stretch of prehistoric sites through the valley of a tiny village in western Scotland. It was here I was suddenly sinking with the feeling of lassitude—which I’m certain brought a smirk of self-congratulations to many of my female ancestors, as the words they shared with me when alive were of the variety that would bring great alarm to most, but were banal and eye roll-worthy to me during my youth:

You’re an old soul—you simply can’t recall your past lives. The tarot cards show this.

Open your ears to the goddesses, don’t put up such walls to their speech.

You are but a vessel—and willing or no, your spirit is an empath and draws the needful toward you.

I’d believed none of it. But partly wished it were true. They believed all of it. And impatiently waited my surrender to their truth.

I’d come for research—to resurrect not only the tangible details I’d need for my story, but the perceptible ones as well. One provided a sense of touch, the other, palpable only by the mind. Many storytellers find that if one can stand in the spot where the tale unfolds, and utilize all one’s senses, countless doors of creativity swing open with ease.

The problem I was encountering was not so much the onset of malaise but discovering that the long distance travel had not shaken the long buried voices of my own dead relatives—those who regularly muttered around me—and they now intermingled with the voices of those I wished to hear more clearly and singularly.

The book I was writing steeped within a warm soup of Celtic mythology and village mystics. The book I’d just finished was fraught with warring witches and fear-filled kingdoms. Death snaked its way through both narratives, just as my familial undead featherstitched their presence uninvitingly through more of my calendric cycle than I wish were true.

Their calls—which were clearly an unmistakable theme in both books—repeatedly stressed, You are one of us. Do not be deaf to the obvious and inevitable.

And although I may have purposefully shut out the opinions my more eclectic family members layered on, I have never been deaf to great books, as they speak to me with more than mere words. They leave countless overarching impressions. When you are the reader of any story, the author prays they have cannily articulated some message to you, and you leave feeling moved by the experience. When you are the author, you hunt for that affecting message. It is oftentimes a slow sweeping away of debris that reveals the structure: the bones, the skull, the spine.

And standing in a multi-roomed hut, jammed with primitive curios, or upon a battlefield, the acrid smoke charred deep into the soil, or beside a cairn, the stones heavy with the grief of thousands of tears, I can barely pick out the tone of my own long ago voiced youthful complaints as I stymie the growing sound of history’s vocal barrage.

I’m not like all of you. I’m my own person, I’d said to some auntie, eyeing me with pity through the wisps of the exotic smoke from her cigarette.

She’d shaken her head. You see it wrongly. You are not tethered to this hallowed ground with an anchor, but rather a tube. One that can act as a channel.

She is right. There is a hurricane of chronicles waiting to be heard. And countless times in my life I have been in the right place and present at the right time where the valves have twisted open. At these moments, I am usually caught unawares and overwhelmed.

Fighting off a chorus of narrators, rich with the urgency of untold tales is akin to skittering down an icy, rock-laden hill. You will not come out unscathed.

As writers in any genre will affirm, there are myriad ways to quilt the patchwork of a story together: spending months or years in a library while pouring over reference books, chronicling dream journals and cherry-picking threads of a narrative from within it, ferreting through new innovation and discovery via disrupters and thought leaders we interview. The list is endless.

But there are those that believe the stories are omnipresent, ubiquitous as the air we draw for each breath. And within our breath is the breath of others. Our task is to tap into the substance of it, the elements within it. We simply unveil that which keeps it muffled from others’ ears.

I had no inkling I would be a teller of tales one day, that I would find a snug fit of comfort stretching beyond the bounds of everyday humans and attempt to build worlds elsewhere. And for an unfathomable amount of time I stubbornly resisted seeing one of those unhuman worlds as it was repeatedly illuminated by others who believed they held access to it and wished to hand me a key.

Those experiences—the ones where I’ve been flooded with the emotions, or voices, or thrumming vibrations that did not belong to me specifically—have more often than not, not been welcome. I don’t know why they appear. Maybe those women are right. Maybe I am an empath. And welcomed or no, some unseen fingers may continue to twist open that wheeled handle despite my trying to plug the spigot. But lately … lately I have wondered why I would willfully eliminate a source of inspiration or guidance. Why would I dismiss a muse as it sits staring into my face, or whispering into my ear?

So for writing’s sake, for the enrichment of story, I will try on the hat—to see if it fits. Fits like a child’s head, warmly embraced within the arms and bosoms of women long passed, but refusing to be forgotten.

~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.

 

The Strive to be Ahead of Your Time

There is nothing like the joy of bringing something new into the world—something you worked incredibly hard to produce. A baby, a book, a barrel of whisky—they’re all boxes I’ve been privileged to tick off.

The thing that brings absolutely no joy, but is also heavily represented in the realm of the world of production, is the waiting that comes with it.

I am not a waiter.

I am a pacer, a tosser and turner, a nervous finger drummer, and a clock watcher.

I wear out carpets, pound and fluff pillows, and have more scraps of paper containing chaotic time-tables than the TSA currently, as they’re scrambling to fill “no-shows” in their employee work schedules.

Yeah, a bit like that.

And whether I’ve been hauling around a growing human, chattering on social media about an emerging tale, or taking far too many samples from the barrel “just to check its progress,” there is one thing certain about all of them:

They ain’t done till they’re done.

The element of time is something I cannot alter. And altering it is the one thing I wish were at the top of the “to do” list for a few more scientist, physicists, and local crackpot sorcerers.

I’m really not fussed who it turns out to be is the person we all bow down to after he or she has discovered how we can tinker with a timeline to suit our needs, but surely someone is going to wear that sash and crown eventually, right?

For years, whenever visiting universities for my daughter’s college campus test drives, I’d manage to find a way, specifically out of earshot of my “I’m going to help conquer space” child, to have a private conversation with one or two of the professors we’d met. I’d inquire about space/time travel, they then made a wide berth of me for the remainder of the tour.

It’s only now, maybe six or seven years later, that the chatter on that subject is finally one that fills the internet with graphs, pie charts, and spreadsheets made from multi-degreed scientists and not just science fiction authors.

It’s a teensy bit ironic that I’m having to wait for time travel.

Weirdly, just as strong as the desire to leap forward to arrive into the moment of accomplishment, there is another want that travels at its side, in its shadow: the yearning to leapfrog back.

It is impossible to do, of course, but anyone who’s ever endeavored to journey through a long haul production will likely agree that at some point within the undertaking—whether halfway through or at the finish line—you will feel a desperate urge to return. To tweak, to adjust, to unclutter. To reappraise, jigger, and amend.

But again, science is moving molasses slow with their participation in giving us this option. A bit like the speed of a snail with a limp.

And thus we are left with a few paltry alternatives. First—be circumspect with your work from the get go. Second—suck it up and deal with the regrets. Third—hide, Thelma and Louise it right off a cliff, change your name and buy a food truck/mammogram van to fill the need for cancer prevention through comfort food. Call it Two Boobs for a Biscuit. I don’t know. I’m riffing here.

Anyway, the point is that we can’t go back.

We can’t unmeet that man. We can’t revise that chapter. We can’t redistill that spirit.

The results are the results.

The good, the bad, and the ugly. And in some worst case scenarios—failure.

But … what people often misunderstand is that right up until the moment of the outcome is not a colossal waste of time or effort. The result may be called failing, but the rest is called learning.

I know that’s a small measure of comfort when you’re on the precipice of seeing your results unveiled. It brings little relief to those of us in charge of a gazillion dollar mission to Mars that sees catastrophic calamity in its “all done and dusted phase” to have the ability to say, “Well, at least we know what line of code doesn’t work.”

But it’s a necessary and unavoidable part of all progress. Period.

And the concept of ‘progress’ brings us back to the whole idea of time, movement, and achievement. The text missing in this chronology is the word reflection. When our efforts are spent and we’re left with an outcome, sure, we can choose the food truck, but we can also choose the food for thought.

Mindfully revisiting and diligently muddling through a postmortem are key for advancement, for if there is one thing I feel certain of, it’s that I simply do not want to be good enough to keep my feet on the track, I want to keep my feet moving forward.

So yes, the waiting for our books or babies or booze to be complete must be reframed as not stalling out. Reflection and projection might be very capable methods to utilize at these moments. We can learn from our past—and one day, if science will finally hear my beseeching petitions, we can learn from our future. All so that we will not just survive the present, but thrive within it.

~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.

 

The Need for Meedful Media

The word social is not one I would use to describe myself with. Like, ever. As a writer, I am comfortably cloistered away, far from noise, or distractions, and, most disconcerting to many … people.

Yes, I prefer to be far away from people.

Primarily because people are noisy and distracting. Of course, it’s true, they are many, many other things as well. People are generous, and interesting, helpful and creative, some of them are good at balancing silverware on their faces and can be truly entertaining. And if they could be all those wonderful things without the not so wonderful things, I’d be hooked on people. I really would.

Now the word media is one I rely upon heavily for myriad reasons. My work must be transported through the “agencies of mass communication” in order to be utilized, to provide some worth for others, to be functional and purposeful.

My goal, as a writer, is to find words, string them together into a pattern that either entertains or informs, and move a reader of those words to either act upon or experience something.

It’s pretty simple.

Yet the action of putting the words social and media together, side by side, is anything but simple.

It’s an effortful act of interaction if one wishes to be significant. And that interaction requires the bonding of human beings—to relate, and to be relatable.

Without that engagement, every author’s efforts simply sit on a library shelf, or a bookshop discount table, or in a warehouse somewhere with a bucketful of other unloved, unknown books.

The clincher is, you cannot just shout at people to, “Look over here! Hey! I’m annoyingly loud!” without them giving you an eye roll and going back to grouting their tile with a lot more enthusiasm.

I have worked with people who are slick and savvy at social media. They have studied the art probably with more intense effort than a teenaged boy, who measures and charts the growth of his biceps after each twenty reps of push-ups.

And if you’ve ever been a mother to a teenaged boy, or been a teenaged boy yourself, you may recall that I am not kidding about the “intense effort” applied.

But these clever engineers of awareness campaigns are usually paid professionals. At times, it’s best to employ them. They can be expensive, and regrettably … a little impersonal.

So here is where the paradox lies for many.

One must understand just how important it is to truly connect with someone you’re trying to get the attention of. And oftentimes, anyone marketing a product or idea goes about grasping that attention with the success of a five-year-old relentlessly tugging on the pant leg of their mother while she’s soaking up juicy neighborhood gossip from her best friend down the street.

You will be ignored.

We, as consumers, learn to turn a blind eye against the overwhelming influx of info wash that can at times feel like a fire hose of detritus. We have to. To keep our minds and moods safely intact.

Unless … and this is a big, important word … unless we get a whiff of something that brings value to our lives. Then we pay attention. Then we find some focus. Then we see the worth. Then we spread the word.

Long ago, years ago, when I first started publishing—whether a blog post online, a book in solid form, an essay, a picture, a tweet, a vid—it didn’t matter so much on the format—what I realized quickly was that if I wished to stand out within the noisy, info-saturated platform I worked within, I would have to show up with two things: something fresh, and something urgent.

Fresh, in that you can take old ideas and sharply spank them into something vibrant and sparkly—to appeal to a new set of eyes and ears, and reinvigorate some older ones.

Urgent, in that the content one produces must fill the recipient with a need to share. This is the smartest way to spread one’s work: word of mouth. Same goes for any industry.

If what you offer is something old—something people already possess—they’ll vote you straight off The Gong Show. You’re an amateur with dubious talent.

Connecting to people on both levels—both in content and campaign—requires consistent attention to crafting one’s skill, but also developing sincerity. And you can’t fake that. It’s been tried. It’s transparent. And people feel like taking a hot shower with a bucket of bleach and a wire brush after they’ve been exposed to it.

The timeless and repeated counsel I’ve been given can be summed up thusly: The years, the schooling, and effort you put into your craft should first and foremost be evident. What you write (or make) should resonate. It should amplify the meaningful not the meaningless. If you find it cannot captivate an audience, either go back to the drawing board, or find other employment where you can succeed. Don’t reconcile with offering up poor output. We need noteworthy voices that refuse to settle with generating mind-numbing content.

Then, when that content has been spat upon and polished to an absolute sheen, find one person who believes in it. Then find another. Find two. Be patient. Find ten. Be diligent. Be gracious. Reciprocate. Give back. Be social.

Yes, be social.

Not in the gossipy, drink in hand, playlist in the background kind—the kind I struggle with endlessly. Rather the kind where you contribute to society. To culture. To humanity. To the betterment of someone, somewhere else.

If you’re reading this post, then you’re part of the overwhelming majority of people who are somehow touched and involved in social media. You don’t have to be selling a widget to find this essay applicable—because, widget or not, you are selling something: yourself.

Spread your ideas, pass on your work, share your vision. Just make sure it is worthy and worthwhile to pay attention to.

~Shelley

PS–(In case you missed it!) An important update to all the Robin Gott Doodle Devotees out there! Robin has opened a new site where you can finally and officially purchase some of his finest and funniest work via a website called Society 6. To quote the champ of chuckles, “I know it sounds like some kind of low-budget South African sci-fi film, but it’s actually an online market place for all sorts of design.” Don’t miss out. Check it out here: ROBIN GOTT

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.

So Good to Hear Your Voice

Image result for be good and you will be lonesome mark twain free image

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.