Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Words of wisdom, free for you today

Alexander Graham Bell was a smart man. And not just because he invented the telephone, folks. But because he had a philosophy that allowed him to invent the telephone, by learning from past mistakes and moving on to make new ones.
"When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us."
Thanks to the folks at American Public Media for that tidbit. It's from The Writers' Almanac, a daily compendium of poetry and writerly wisdom, available to you - yes, and you too - simply by signing up for the e-newsletter.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Turning Down Work

I just turned down a job. It doesn't happen often - I've done it maybe four times in 15+ years of consulting - but it's always an interesting experience.

This one would have been a first-time client. He found me through an online listing and said he was looking for someone to write a white paper for his client. No problem; I've written many of them. But as we talked more, it became clear that his client doesn't need a white paper. He wants "visibility" in a certain sector of the media. You don't get that by writing something - no matter how brilliant it is - because unless you add some PR into the mix, no one will read your brilliance. So I handed off my potential new client to a former colleague who's got connections out the wazoo in the industry they're targeting. Vaja con dios, all.

That was easy - and it felt really good, helping people to make the right connections. The first time I turned down a job, it really hurt. It was in the middle of a recession and I needed the money, badly. But when my client called me up and told me what he wanted, I had to say no. He was surprised - we'd worked together well in the past. But I explained that I couldn't do this assignment because I didn't believe it would serve him well. I thought it would do long-term damage to his reputation to speak out on the issue he wanted to address. Fortunately for him, he listened to me and gave up the idea...for a couple of years, at least. He called me back again and I said the same thing. Yes, the money would have been very helpful. But I wouldn't have been able to look myself in the mirror.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Talking About "It"

I don't talk about "It" - the corporate earthquake I wrote about yesterday. In fact, yesterday's post is the most I've ever said about the experience. But I was prompted to write about it by two things - first, the mess Eliott Spitzer has created, and second, a luncheon I attended yesterday.

It was at the New York Speechwriters' Roundtable, a group of mostly corporate scribes who gather three or four times a year to share a brown-bag lunch and listen to a speaker. Speaking to a group of speechwriters must be a daunting proposition, but the gentleman we heard from yesterday seemed personable enough. What bothered me, though, was his topic.

He has written a book. Good for him. But it's a book about his former employer, the man for whom he wrote speeches for 20 years. Which, in my opinion, is not so good. Now, I understand why he did it - his old boss' name on the cover will sell books, no doubt about it. But I can't help thinking that it's a betrayal of trust.

The author asked us that question: As speechwriters, did we think he'd broken "the seal of the confessional" (he's an Irish Catholic - can you tell?). I was pretty surprised to hear the two or three people who responded to the question say, basically, that his boss, being a public figure, was fair game. I didn't say anything because I haven't read the book - and I doubt I will - but judging from the kinds of stories the author said he put in the book, I think I would have made a different decision.

In fact, I have.

I, too, have a former boss (maybe more than one) whose name on the cover would sell any book I wrote. I could have written about the "earthquake," but instead I don't even speak about it. (You'll notice that yesterday's post deals only with my experience, not anyone else's.) One of my old bosses (not the one who caused the earthquake) once introduced me to a woman who said, "I'd love to talk to you about [the earthquake]" and I immediately said, "Oh, no. I don't talk about that. Because I don't know how much of what I know is privileged information and what (if anything) has made it into the public record." And with that (and - actually it's funny to remember this detail now - after I made some comment about Eliott Spitzer), the woman went away. Months later, I found out she was writing an authorized book. So not only will I not write about "It," I also lost my opportunity to be a footnote in the definitive history of "It." Which is just fine with me.

Hire me, and I figure that whatever I witness from the time I walk into the lobby doors in the morning until I crawl back through them at night, that's your business - and nobody else's. That may be an old-fashioned attitude. And it may keep me off the best-seller lists. But I sleep like a baby at night.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Governor's Staff

There's a lot to be sad about in this Spitzer mess. (Including the fact that the perfectly straightforward headline above can be taken as a naughty double entendre.) Everyone focuses on the collateral damage to the innocent victims in his family, especially his lovely wife and children. But I can't help feeling sorry for his staff, the people whose work enabled him to become - and (so far) stay - governor.

It's about as disorienting an experience as one can have at the office. One day everything is normal and all you have to worry about is the usual headaches of work. You know your boss isn't perfect - far from it - but he does his job and you enjoy doing yours to support his work. Then "It" happens - whatever nasty revelation "It" is - and it's like you're at the epicenter of an earthquake. All of a sudden, you're dodging chunks of acoustical tiles as the ceiling caves in; every time you try to grab hold of something solid, the ground seems to shift right under you. After the shock passes, you're left - if you're lucky - to clean up the mess. If you're not so lucky, you salvage what you can from your desk and beat a path to the nearest unemployment office. And although your world has crumbled, once you step out the office door you're shocked to see that as far as the rest of humanity is concerned, the sun is shining, the grass is green, and there's not a cloud in the sky.

At least in an earthquake caused by geological faults, the survivors get help. People flock to donate money, food, shelter; the Red Cross flies in with blankets and emergency supplies; strangers halfway across the country pray for you. But when the earthquake is caused by human faults - hey kid, you're on your own.

If it sounds like I might know what I'm talking about, it's only because I do. My boss was undone by the same thing that tripped up Governor Spitzer: Hubris. I don't know if it was a learning experience for him, but it certainly was for me. Living through that mess made me a better person, I think (if a less trusting one), and a better writer. It also gave me a new appreciation for the people I'd worked alongside all those years, as I saw them toughen up under fire. But I wouldn't wish such a growth experience on anyone

It's been nearly 20 years and just thinking about that period in my life makes me very sad. A few years ago, I unexpectedly came across some news footage of the event and burst into tears. Can you get Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from working in an office? Ask the Governor's staff in five or ten years.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Battery Low

I've been away. Not far away, geographically speaking, but just far enough from a psychic perspective. The creative batteries were running low, so I spent the weekend getting a good recharge. Will return with something useful to say soon.

Monday, March 3, 2008


Oh I know, I know, I wrote about The New Yorker in the last posting. But, hey, it's the thing I read the most, other than The New York Times. But there's an article in the current issue - March 3rd - that's been generating a lot of interest for what it says. I'm equally interested in the way the author says it.

The author is the poet Honor Moore, and the article, "The Bishop's Daughter," is, as the title suggests, a memoir about her relationship with her father, Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore. The New Yorker's Web site doesn't archive every story in perpetuity once the current issue is off the newsstands, so I'll also link to the article about the piece in today's New York Times -- "A Bishop Unveiled God's Secrets While Keeping His Own."

Yes, Reader, unbeknownst to much of his flock and his nine children - though possibly not his two wives - the Bishop was gay. There's a lot more to the story, though, which didn't make it into the magazine, so I was pleased to find out it's an excerpt from a book that will be out in May. I look forward to seeing it on a nightstand near me soon.

But as newsworthy as the revelation about the Bishop's life may be, what drew me into the piece was the way Honor Moore uses words to paint pictures. It's not surprising - she is a poet, after all, and a darn good one. I first encountered her voice back when I was in college and read her play Mourning Pictures, which opens with the declaration: "Ladies and gentlemen, my mother is dying" and takes the audience on quite an autobiographical ride before it ends.

So how do you learn to use words like that? Reading the few pages of this excerpt, the answer seems to be "By listening to words used like that." Without ever quoting Bishop Moore directly, Honor leaves no doubt that the power behind his speaking and writing lay in its specificity. Here she talks about the lasting effects of a Good Friday service remembered from her childhood.
"I don't remember [a specific incident], but I could tell you the whole [Good Friday] story, and as I told it I would see the darkness that descended as the rain fell, the light that broke through a gash in the clouds as the sky cleared, how it sounded when the young man on the Cross said, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' I would tell you about the rich old man who offered his own grave for Jesus at the last minute. I could make you see Jesus' face loosen as he finally died, and what I imagined Mary Magdalene looked like, sitting there on the ground looking up at him, the vials and pots of fragrant ointment in her lap."
Specificity brings the written or spoken word to life, gives it color, makes it memorable.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Story Time

I'm not a "science person." Haven't touched the stuff since 9th grade Biology. But I love reading about it - if it's written the right way. Oliver Sacks, Atul Gawande, Jerome Groopman - all of them make science and medicine compelling to read about. (Not surprising, since all of them write for The New Yorker.)

What's their secret? Stories. They tell stories. Too many businesspeople are afraid to tell stories, I think. Afraid that their message will get lost, or they won't seem sophisticated or learned enough to their audiences.

Let's look at that: I mean, The New Yorker is not exactly the magazine of choice for uneducated rubes. I firmly believe that the right story, well integrated into the narrative of whatever you want to convey, is the best way to catch people's interest.