An education in headlines

So I’m participating in a content creation challenge through, and the first prompt for this month is a “creativity” prompt.

Now, my idea of a creativity prompt is a nudge that will spark my mind to develop writing that could be meaningful, writing that is maybe a little loose and wild in terms of scope.  Messy even. Maybe something like Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages concept.

For my writing (at its best), that kind of work is eventually  going to lead to maybe a theme for a poem that includes lots of subtle word play or imagery that works together gently to all of a sudden hit the reader over the head with a complex understanding or feeling.

Technical, must-do writing isn’t creative writing to me, and prompts that spur me to do task-based work don’t feel creative at all.

So imagine how bummed I was to pop into the challenge today and see that the “creativity” prompt is to write a bunch of headlines.


I hate writing headlines. They’re very limiting, yet the must be grabby. They need to convey the essence of the story, but in only five words or so. And until I write a story, it’s hard for me to know the essence of the story.

So for this prompt, we’re supposed to write 20 or 30 headlines for an upcoming piece of content. Then, over the rest of the month, write a new one each day.

Yeah, I re-read the prompt with a scowl on my face.

Really? WTH. That doesn’t feel like creativity to me. That feels like, well, a task. Multiplied by 20 or 30.

And so, instead of writing headlines, I decided to write about how much I dislike writing headlines.


In the end, my take on creativity prevailed and I came up with this post. Not too shabby for a creativity prompt after all.

And even better, in reflecting on what a “creativity” prompt is to me, and what headline writing is to me, I feel like I’m learning something about myself as a writer.

I put up walls when task writing is thinly veiled as “creative” writing. Yet when I have the space to work on creative writing (my memoir, poems for an event or chapbook, for instance), I can deal with the fact that the act of writing is a task. Although I suppose I already kind of knew that about myself, thinking about it in relation to work through this challenge might have some value.

Right now, I’m not sure what that value is. I don’t know how to make task writing feel more fun and free at work, but I suppose I should try the headline writing bit and see if I can find my way through it with some kind of creative spirit.

Twenty years later, that Christmas is still with me

The organization I work for holds daily devotions in the morning as a way to help us focus on our Mission and enjoy a sense of fellowship.

This morning, Bill, the person offering devotions, spoke of Joseph and the various Biblical stories about Jesus’ conception and birth, and he asked us to recall a favorite Christmas memory of our fathers.

I worked backward to Christmases past, and couldn’t think of any one favorite memory.

Playing cards with my family as a child was fun; dad was always a crack-up at those times, saying things like “the person with the pencil is always the winner,” or “I’ll probably go kablooey, but I’m gonna shoot the moon!”

As everybody else thought about their own dads, I finally came up with a really specific memory.

The year I turned 13 (1995), dad got mom a new car. He got me the topaz ring I wear daily. And for “the family,” he decided we were going to take a trip to Nashville to visit the Grand Ole Opry.

This was really his present, but shared in the Christmas spirit, it became a family vacation. We’d hit up sights along the way, and on the return trip we’d swing through Texas to visit family and spend sometime in San Antonio.

We made many good memories on that trip, but the two I shared today are quite special.

We were in some big city on the way to Nashville (maybe we were in Nashville) and dad was driving the wrong way down a one-way street. He was getting all kinds of honks and birds, and all kinds of frustrated, as he looked for a way out.

Eventually, angry and probably a little scared, he rolled down his window as we passed one of the hecklers.

“Blow your nose, you’ll get more,” he shouted.

I busted out laughing—another dad-ism to add to the list—dad grumbled and got us off the street.

We laugh about it now when we think back to that trip and that time, and although it’s perhaps not the warm fuzzy sort of memory Bill was looking for, today it put me back in that moment, back in my dad’s company, and into some kind of holiday cheer.

On that same trip, as we headed back to Nebraska, we stopped at the Hard Rock Café in San Antonio.

“It’s only fair,” I implored my dad, as we walked past. “You made me to go the Grand Ole Opry, so you have to go to MY kind of music joint.”

Remember—I had just turned 13, and the significance of being at the Opry was kind of lost on me. Today I’d take the Opry over a HRC any day, but then… well, you know.

Dad refused, but mom backed me up and said we could go in and get a bite to eat.

As we stepped through the door, Dad was shocked into a stammer.


“Dad, this is gonna rule!!!”

An old Cadillac hung upside from the ceiling. Skeletons in faded, ripped metal shirts and Santa hats were bolted into the car. Garish neon lights and music so thick it shook the wooden support beams assaulted our senses.

Within a few beats, a jovial host came up and shook dad’s hand.

“Hello, sir! Welcome to the Hard Rock Café! Is this your first time here? You’re going to love it! What’s your name?”

Dad shook his head, looked down and chuckled.


“James? All right! Here you go, Hard Rock James, take this.”

The host shoved a small plastic disk into dad’s hand. This was high-tech at the time. Remember, 20 years ago.

“What is it?”

“That will vibrate and light up when it’s your turn to be seated. You come back here and we’ll get you seated.”

“Our turn?

“Yeah, we’re looking at an hour, hour and-a-half wait right now.”

Dad doesn’t do good waiting at red lights, so the long wait to sit in a bright, loud offensive place like this was going to kill him. He grumbled as we wandered around the River Walk, and when the disk lit up and we got seated, he grumbled some more.

“Thirteen dollars for a plate of chips?!”

“They’re nachos, dad! Not just chips!”

Remember, 20 years ago. Thirteen bucks for some chips and hard cheese on a plate today probably is pretty normal, eh?

Admittedly, it WAS too loud in there, the cheese was disgusting and the chips were already soggy when we got them.

But as with the rest of that trip, the visit to the Hard Rock Café during that December is one of the best “Christmas” memories I have of my dad.

I know I complained way too much on that trip, and mom repeatedly busting out the camcorder and recording dad in the car (stop it, mi amor, have to focus!”) annoyed him, but he made the best of it, accepting both the woman and child in his care.

I don’t think about that Christmas trip very often, but all day it’s been humming in the back of my mind.

What kind of memories do you have with your own father during this and other holidays?

If you’re like me, the season has become way to consumerist, and has perhaps hardened your heart into Grinchiness,. But I’d bet thirteen bucks and a Cadillac full of heavy metal skeletons that thinking of a special Christmas memory with your dad (or mom, or any family member) might bring some cheer back into your world as the big day draws near.

the not-so-choppy sea of creativity

Week two of the copyblogger challenge I’m tackling for work, and I’ve worked on one of the additional creativity challenges today.

In this challenge, we’ve been asked to play with words, just play with them.

Screenwriting, playwriting, fiction, and poetry are all delicious ways to play with language, sound, and meaning … and take a break from writing another numbered list post.

OK, play with words instead of write a numbered list? I can do that, especially on a day like today.

More elusive than love
deeper than pleasure
as fleeting as joy
sleep appears on the horizon
as if from a punctured raft
bobbing in
and out of grasp again

Can you tell I didn’t get much sleep last night?  Like five hours of tossing and turning and feeling sorry for myself.  Ugh.  And the thing is, I’m still in a terrible mood after so little,  and such poor quality sleep,  but forcing my brain forward into the territory of metaphor and imagery was really calming.

I know that establishing a writing practice is important to my sanity and well-being, but when I have a headache, I’m grumpy and I am worried about how I’m going to get through the day at work (and then go to the dentist), spending a few minutes on my own creative writing feels like an impossibility, a waste of time.

And yet, I found in this practice the same kind of satisfaction I long for and enjoy when I get my sleep.

Creativity can be energizing!

Now, to carry that over into the actual work I need to do today…

The values list

Last week I decided to follow a writing prompt that my supervisor encouraged our team to check out. I was to make a list of 5 — 10 values and then write about them.

Here’s the list:

  • Freedom
  • Creativity
  • Curiosity
  • New experiences
  • Relationships

Sure, there are other things I value, like loyalty, love, peace, but these five are the TOP FIVE, at least right now.

And because freedom comes in at the top, I guess I need to reflect on that idea a bit.

To me, freedom is an all-encompassing thing. Freedom to travel, freedom to acquire the things I need/want, freedom to spend my time the way I want. Freedom to spend time with the people I want to spend it with. Freedom to say what I want.

Of course, that word also represents the blessing of living free from tyranny or oppression, living in a free country and not being incarcerated.

Now, I suppose it’s at the top of my list because I don’t really have the freedom to travel right now. Not with my job, which offers beans in terms of time off.

But it’s not just that, really—my significant other can’t travel much right now either, and being apart from him on a fun trip doesn’t sound like much fun.


Loki, my fur baby, all settled in for a ride in the car.

But it’s also at the top of the list because as much freedom as I lack in the ability to travel, I do have the freedom to live mostly the way I want. That job that keeps me stuck at my desk? Well, it also keeps me in good cheese, out-of-season produce, gifts for friends and myself…and daycare for my dog once a week.

So yeah. I recognize that there is a balance. And in my mid-thirties I’ve found the grace and grit to stick with a job that sticks me at a desk because it also opens up much of the world to me.

Having that choice—the ability to stay, or to think of myself as stuck or not stuck… perhaps that is the greatest freedom, or perhaps that’s what freedom really is: personal choice. And the ability to recognize that… well, this is something I really value.

A new writing challenge

No matter how I feel about spending 40 hours a week of my life tied to a desk every week, I have a pretty great supervisor and crew to work with.

Most of the people on our team come from the journalism world, and whether we’re spinning straight up news story ideas,  pulling on creative stretches of the imagination or throwing darts at the wall, we all have the autonomy to explore things that are meaningful to us in our writing.

And that, in and of itself, is pretty meaningful.

I’m thinking about this today because this morning my supervisor sent out a Copyblogger creative writing challenge for consideration.

Now, I’m not really a fan of this content writing tips website, but I gleaned a couple of good ideas from their last challenge, so I figure, what the heck, why not try this one too?

Here’s the challenge: “…commit to a year of consistent improvement as writers and creative professionals, starting now and continuing through December next year.”

Sonia Simone, the force behind much of the content and training at CB is leading the charge here, and she’s come up with a set of prompts for us each month in 2017.

One is creative, one is designed to help spark productivity.

I feel pretty productive in my role at work, and I know I get lots of opportunities to be creative. I mean, I recently wrote about a recipe contest and got to create a “Tasty” style food video!

See? I totally get to push myself creatively.

So although I don’t feel like I need “help” in these areas, I’m jumping in to see what the challenge does for me.

Our first prompt is on values and asks for a list of 5–10 values that are important to us.
Once we develop that list, we then write a  few ‘graphs about how that/those value/s are present in our lives.

“You might write about

  • What the value means to you
  • A quick memory or story
  • Frustrations with the value
  • Mixed feelings about the value”

read the instructions.

Check back tomorrow to see what this means for me, both in terms of what the prompt asks of us, and what it turns into for me. Sonia’s goal is to help us reenergize, do what needs to be done, and make better decisions.

So we’ll see.  I mean, even if creativity flops, the mental space to act in such a manner is a great value to have realized.

Love and calamity in life and writing

NaNoWriMo is going on for another couple of weeks, and although I’m failing miserably at hitting my targets, I am getting something out of the practice of trying to write a novel in a month. It’s not so much coming in the form of honing my craft, or connecting with other writers, but in connecting with something deeper than myself.  And right now, I think that’s a good thing, for any one of us struggling against the weight of what the next four years might feel like.

This snippet came from one of the  Nano encouragement emails I got last week. The author is talking about why suffering is necessary in any good story:

You character didn’t ask to suffer. To be humiliated. To be confused. Lost. Scared. Denied. Kissed passionately. Wait! That part, if it’s in your book, is something your character did want, and it was probably preceded by all of the suffering I just mentioned. Consider it a consolation prize to life. Sometimes, there’s kissing amidst the calamity.

As I watch the world struggle with”calamity,” this small ‘graph helps me reflect on the poignancy of love more than any of the junk I’m reading in my Facebook feed these days.

I’ve been lucky enough to have some “kissing among calamity” in the past week,  so perhaps it makes sense to me only because I’m experiencing the truth of this statement. And maybe that makes my brain mush.

I know it sure is difficult to believe that “love trumps hate” when there is so much hatred out there.  But really, one of the things I love about writing, the act itself, and the creation that results from the process, is that it can transport a person from one set of realities to another. It can make a small impact, change the world, or change your life.

Whether you’re participating in NaNoWriMo or not, I’d encourage you to check out some of the other great topics at the “pep talks” section here. Not all of them are so warm and fuzzy, but a good read is a good read, and distraction from the mess of our world, however temporary, is always nice.

And perhaps, as Adam Falkner says in the TedTalk I shared in the “change the world” link above,  you will find that your own life and your feelings right now are just what’s needed to change the world and make a mark amid the strife going on these days.

All in a day’s work

An alphabetized list of  the more interesting things I discussed with others while at work today.  I feel like there’s a way to use this, as a writer… let’s see… scroll down for what came of this nonsense. Not too bad, given the randomness of my word bank!

  •  360 videos
  • astral projection
  • alzheimer’s disease
  • caregivers
  • faffing
  • lemon rosemary chicken
  • statistics and web analytics
  • tasty videos
  • virtual reality


Virtual Reality

She watched life from beyond her body
wracked as it was by disease
Out there, a panorama of good things —
lemon rosemary chicken
people who loved her
people to love
But gone were the words to describe
what it felt like to travel outside her body
let alone what it was like now
being stuck inside

The order of things

This week I’ve had to work a little harder than usual to connect with two challenging students. It’s not just that they’re challenging me, it’s that their struggles mirror my own.

Both of these fresh writers have responded to my feedback about needing to develop their ideas through examples and detail by saying they don’t want to “write extra words just to write extra words” or use “vapid and arbitrary filler.”

It’s frustrating because one of the students is a good writer, and could be a great writer if willing to push through the work of having to think and reflect. The other student is a mediocre writer, but could certainly become a better writer—if the effort were there.

I haven’t heard back from either after the latest round of emails and encouragement, and at this point, the “I’m OK with losing points on my assignments because of the way we disagree,” comment from the first student, I doubt I will.

These young writers have been on my mind all week because I want to push them to be better writers, but also because I’m dealing with my own sense of self-righteousness and “what is all this arbitrary shit?” at my full-time job.

A couple of months ago, our team put in place a new workflow for our work. Yes, a workflow. Something like this:



Screenshot captured from Google images

When I’m teaching composition or research writing, I call similar structures mind maps, because they kind of help the student writer lay out all of his or her ideas and see how they logically flow (or don’t) with the other ideas. They are good organizational tools in that context.

In the context we’re using the thing at work, it is more of a tool to direct the way we work. Start with W, move to X, then Y, then Z. Before you get to Y though, you must have done W and X.

While the logic of getting to one point after first visiting another makes sense when tying your shoes or painting a house, the writing process is not always like that. X does not always follow W when writing. And all storytellers know that sometimes en medias res is the BEST place to begin.

So this workflow is bad enough as it is, dictating how I work and when I take which steps and how I clear those steps with before I take them. But in addition to the workflow, we added a spreadsheet to the mix too.

One of the first points in the workflow is documenting seven various elements of our story to determine whether or not it is worth writing. But here, the kicker for me is that “worthiness” is not necessarily based on the quality of the story itself, but whether or not it is going to bring clients to our door.   So to me, new to spreadsheet documentation of my ideas and just a couple of years into the writing-as-marketing world, it is, to channel my student, writing words just to write words.

So as my students take issue with my comments about how valuable it is to think through what it is they want to say, and how they say it, I’m struggling to give them advice that I myself have a hard time taking right now.   And in my own reflection, I think I’ve found common ground for all of us (not for myself and those who love workflows spreadsheets, just my students and I):

1) Writing is a creative process, and often it is in the process of writing it that real truths and real value are discovered. Saying what the value is ahead of time isn’t always possible, and sometimes it’s not even possible in the middle, either. But unless one practices writing, and practices thinking about how to improve, neither improvement nor value will be attained.

2) At the office, I’ve been gritting my teeth and filling out the spreadsheet, and following the workflow as much as I can bear. You know why, right?

Because it’s my job.

Just like my students’ job right now is to work on their writing.

And therein lies the real truth, the one that my students need to learn, and that I sometimes need to remember: No matter how creative it is, or how cathartic or how important, or how much money you are getting paid (or paying), writing requires work.

 Thanks, student 1 and student 2, for the reminder that sometimes you just have to buck up and do the work. It sure made today’s spreadsheet/workflow meeting easier to get through. I hope you, too, find that sense of duty in your own way as our flow of work continues.

The Names

I can still see the images, and removed by 15 years, I see myself from a distance, pink and purple paisley  pj bottoms, pink tank top, toothbrush hanging from my mouth.  I was a college freshman when the World Trade Center Towers went down,  and I’ll never forget the moment I walked back into my dorm room that morning, having just brushed my teeth.There on the TV, twin flames, twin spumes billowing into a now-changed future.

I don’t do much to commemorate the day; in fact, I don’t do anything. Immunized these fifteen years to all the ways it’s gotten worse since then, I simply offer you these words, from the poet Billy Collins.

The Names

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.

A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,

And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,

I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,

Then Baxter and Calabro,

Davis and Eberling, names falling into place

As droplets fell through the dark.

Names printed on the ceiling of the night.

Names slipping around a watery bend.

Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.

In the morning, I walked out barefoot

Among thousands of flowers

Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,

And each had a name —

Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal

Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.

Names written in the air

And stitched into the cloth of the day.

A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.

Monogram on a torn shirt,

I see you spelled out on storefront windows

And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.

I say the syllables as I turn a corner —

Kelly and Lee,

Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.

When I peer into the woods,

I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden

As in a puzzle concocted for children.

Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,

Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,

Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.

Names written in the pale sky.

Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.

Names silent in stone

Or cried out behind a door.

Names blown over the earth and out to sea.

In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.

A boy on a lake lifts his oars.

A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,

And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —

Vanacore and Wallace,

(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)

Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.

Names etched on the head of a pin.

One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.

A blue name needled into the skin.

Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,

The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.

Alphabet of names in a green field.

Names in the small tracks of birds.

Names lifted from a hat

Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.

Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.

So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.


Revising, as an instructor

When I started teaching, my former instructors told me that one of the greatest benefits of being on the other side of the desk was that I could look at my own work with new eyes. At the time, I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to view my own writing from an instructor’s standpoint; after all, since I had written it, I was inextricably linked to it as the writer, the student/writer, because writing always teaches me something.

Over the years (FIVE now!), I’ve seen that this advice was legit– as long as I have some distance between myself and the thing I’ve written. In fact, it proved true last night.

After grading paragraphs of fiction and scenes of screenplays, I took a break to think about what poems I would read at next week’s poetry session.  The Blot Collective, the group hosting the event, put out a call of sorts: themed sections.  The first part of the night will be dedicated to “the city.” The second, “the forest.”

I was thinking of some poems about Chicago from a number of years ago, poems I hadn’t worked on since the poetry class I took with Patrick Hicks.

poetrybinderShedding pages and random notes, the fat orange binder in which I’d kept all those old poems sat quietly on my office shelf.  As I leafed through it, I felt both inspired and a little surprised at the obvious problems in some of the poems. Wonky rhyme schemes, stanzas in odd places… you get the idea. This is pretty common stuff for any writer–those nascent first drafts are always messy.  And students learning the craft are students learning the craft.

So of course those errors were to be expected, and with time, any writer would be able to see them.  But what has changed the most for me, I think, is that as an instructor/writer, I really understand the value of rewriting, of breaking apart a poem and starting over. I didn’t understand that as a student. So now I can look at my poems, think about what I’d say to the student to help him/her “fix”them, and dive in.  And also changed is that I look forward to that kind work now!