Displacement activities

I was reading about efficiency, about getting things done, when I came across the concept of a “displacement” activity, which was defined as something we do from some internal need for variation or incubation. I liked the term, “displacement”; it carries no hint of accusation or guilt induction. I think that many like me are sometimes drawn to activities that are not clearly “on task” and feel like we are being self-indulgent.

(I am distressed that I did not make a note of the source of the term; I’ve made a point of putting everything I want to recall from the Web into Evernote, because it’s so easy to do. Another demonstration of human imperfection….)

Some of my displacement activities are related to work–reading book-writing related blogs and technology blogs, for example. Others are less clear–downloading pictures from my camera and organizing them. Some are an obvious expression of my need for a break–reading books, for one.

When I feel that my use of time is out of control, I start to track my time, noting exactly what I’m doing all day. The simple recording of times–when I do stuff, when I switch to other stuff–helps me be more aware. Here’s a piece of a fascinating NYT article on the subject:

Humans make errors. We make errors of fact and errors of judgment. We have blind spots in our field of vision and gaps in our stream of attention. Sometimes we can’t even answer the simplest questions. Where was I last week at this time? How long have I had this pain in my knee? How much money do I typically spend in a day? These weaknesses put us at a disadvantage. We make decisions with partial information. We are forced to steer by guesswork. We go with our gut.

That is, some of us do. Others use data. A timer running on Robin Barooah’s computer tells him that he has been living in the United States for 8 years, 2 months and 10 days. At various times in his life, Barooah — a 38-year-old self-employed software designer from England who now lives in Oakland, Calif. — has also made careful records of his work, his sleep and his diet.
A few months ago, Barooah began to wean himself from coffee. His method was precise. He made a large cup of coffee and removed 20 milliliters weekly. This went on for more than four months, until barely a sip remained in the cup. He drank it and called himself cured. Unlike his previous attempts to quit, this time there were no headaches, no extreme cravings. Still, he was tempted, and on Oct. 12 last year, while distracted at his desk, he told himself that he could probably concentrate better if he had a cup. Coffee may have been bad for his health, he thought, but perhaps it was good for his concentration.
Barooah wasn’t about to try to answer a question like this with guesswork. He had a good data set that showed how many minutes he spent each day in focused work. With this, he could do an objective analysis. Barooah made a chart with dates on the bottom and his work time along the side. Running down the middle was a big black line labeled “Stopped drinking coffee.” On the left side of the line, low spikes and narrow columns. On the right side, high spikes and thick columns. The data had delivered their verdict, and coffee lost.
He was sad but also thrilled. Instead of a stimulating cup of coffee, he got a bracing dose of truth. “People have such very poor sense of time,” Barooah says, and without good time calibration, it is much harder to see the consequences of your actions. If you want to replace the vagaries of intuition with something more reliable, you first need to gather data. Once you know the facts, you can live by them.
Your thoughts?

Intimacy

That’s the answer given more than two decades ago by Nicholas Negroponte (founder of MIT’s Media Lab and of the “One Laptop per Child” project) to the question, “What’s the next step beyond personal computing?” It came to mind when I read this piece from the New York Times this morning:

Intimate theater

Intimate theater

I attended such a performance in Manhattan in the early seventies, and loved it. Physical touch is important to me, and I experienced the event as being warmly and lovingly embraced, with safety and even propriety.

Not everyone likes to be physically touched. But every reader likes to be touched emotionally by what they read–even if the way into their emotions is through facts and logic.

When I write, I like to think about what my reader would experience as intimacy. Here are some of my thoughts:

  • The reader wants to feel as if the text is addressing them personally, not as part of a mob.
  • The author should come across as human and vulnerable, but without detailed discussions of hemorrhoids or other manifestations of TMI (too much information). Of course, what is and is not TMI will vary by audience.
  • For me, typos and misspellings are jarring. I’ve learned that this is not a universal sentiment, but I nonetheless work hard to eliminate them.
  • I avoid phrases such as “Some of you…,” which address a group of people rather than an individual reader.
  • I experience smart-ass “humor” and cynical statements as turn-offs; your taste may vary.

I strive for intimacy in my writing—appropriate intimacy. What’s appropriate? Clearly, that’s up to you. Lately, I’ve noticed that movie trailers open with a rating caution: “The following preview has been approved for appropriate audiences.” Huh?

You are the author of your book. You choose your audience, by design or default. It’s up to you to decide what’s appropriate. Be bold.

Introducing Mindy Gibbins-Klein: “The Book Midwife™”

When I became a coach, I joined a BNI chapter in Palo Alto. And when I decided to focus on helping people write books, I was struggling to come up with a memorable “elevator pitch” that would encapsulate what I offered. One Wednesday morning, the words just popped out of my mouth, unpremeditated: “I’m Joel Orr, book midwife. You have a book inside you, and it wants to come out; I’m here to help it be born.”

Mindy Gibbins-Klein

I loved the image, and so did my BNI friends. It was sticky and evocative. And having attended a live birth in my youth, it resonated with my feelings on helping an actual human being into the world (as I had on January 5, 1975).

I began to use the “book midwife” term to promote myself–by inserting it in my email signature. Shortly thereafter, I received a warm and polite note from Mindy Gibbins-Klein. She’s been “The Book Midwife” since 2002, and has actually registered the trademark for it in both the UK and the US. She asked that I not refer to myself in that way, and I responded that I would stop doing so.

What I did not immediately understand was that calling myself a “book midwife”–quotes, no caps, no “the”–might also weaken her claim to her intellectual property, because it could lead to the phrase becoming generic. Now I know better.

As a coach of aspiring authors, I am very sensitive to such issues, and fully support Mindy’s position on this matter.

So I thought it would be appropriate for me to state publicly: If it’s “The Book Midwife” you’re looking for, that would be Mindy. From what I’ve learned about her products and services, they are first-rate. I encourage you to go to her site and sign up for her inspirational emails.

Writing collaboratively

I’ve heard more than one account of friends who set out to write a book together–and lose their friendship. This won’t happen to you if:

  • You write alone, or
  • You have clear boundaries in the collaboration, and
  • You observe the boundaries assiduously.

Whether you have read my book, heard me speak on my method, or just been a reader of this blog, you know the essence of “The Simple Secret To Writing A Non-Fiction Book In 30 Days, At 1 Hour A Day!”: Structure first, then content.

Sounds simple, I know. But it is not something most people are used to doing, and they don’t know why it might be important when undertaking to write a book. The metaphor I usually use is the building of a house: You don’t start with a trip to the lumberyard. If you do that, you will wind up with a yard full of stuff, and no idea as to how to assemble it into a house.

You start a house with a trip to an architect, who creates a plan. The plan makes its way into the hands of a builder, who uses it to create a list of materials. Then, after the materials have been acquired, a foundation is prepared and a frame built. That becomes the skeleton of the house.

It’s the same with a book. If you create your “framework”–your outline–first, it’s easy to write your book. If you don’t–well, good luck. You’ll need it if you hope to get a book done.

Creating the framework has an additional benefit: It makes the delicate process of collaborative writing practical. It does so by creating boundaries.

You see, once your framework is complete, all the book’s pieces–its chapters and subchapters–are defined and named. So if two people are to work collaboratively on a book, they should:

  • Structure the book together, at least at the table-of-contents level.
  • Then they can split the chapters between them, and each create the list of subchapters for his or her own chapters,
  • Or structure the whole thing together, and split the subchapters up.

The place where many collaborations bog down is at the level of paragraphs. By dividing up subchapters and chapters, that opportunity for failure is avoided.

You and your partner may choose to identify yourselves as the respective authors of different parts of book. Or you may choose to have an editor “Homogenize” your distinct writing styles into a consistent “voice.” Either can work.

Structure makes collaboration possible.

Learning about writing from matchbooks

I’m afraid of fiction writing. I’m afraid if I started, I would lose myself in it and forget to come out, forget to pay the bills. I’d just refine and refine and read more good writing and go back and write some more.

So I push it away. I stick to the purposeful prose of non-fiction, and teach others to do the same.

But still. I love the beauty of the writing craft, the endless possibilities. And while you are writing your book that tells your story, in a way premeditated to communicate your uniqueness to prospects and clients, you have the passion that can move, even dazzle–that can fuel a small fire in the reader, or even fireworks.

Go read about matchbook literature, and enjoy the stimulation.

Learning about writing from musicians

A friend sent me a video of an unusual performance of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, which you probably know and enjoy. It led me to think: How can I mirror this kind of innovation in my book writing? First watch the video; then we’ll talk.

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OK, now that you’ve seen it, how does it speak to you? What can we model, as book writers, that can make our books more engaging? Comments are open.

Where to find ideas for your book?

Aspiring authors have been asking me this question for years. Today, through a chance encounter with Dave Grossman’s website, I finally got the answer. See this simple but elegant explanation. After reading it, you will know what to do.

Impressionism and the book writer

As the final installment in my birthday festivities, my wife took me to the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, in San Francisco, to see The Birth of Impressionism. The unusual number of well-known masterpieces by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pisarro, Cezanne, Gauguin, and others is here thanks to the Musee D’Orsay, their usual home, undergoing extensive remodeling.

Portrait of Claude Monet, 1875, Musée d'Orsay,...
Image via Wikipedia

I have a deep love of Impressionist art, dating to a Paris visit in the eighties. It was before the conversion of the old train station into the Musee D’Orsay, and the Impressionist art was cheek-by-jowl on the walls of the Jeu de Paume building in the Tuilleries garden. (Don’t all these place names make you want to go to Paris?)

I was wandering around, wondering what all the fuss was about. I had never looked closely at Impressionist art before; it just seemed messy and blotchy. Suddenly I came upon this painting of Monet by Renoir. Reading the sparse legend, I realized that these two friends were in their early thirties when this portrait was done.

I was in my late thirties at the time. Something struck me, and suddenly it was as if Monet was a real person. Everything in the painting became real to me. And I was moved to tears.

As I moved along to other paintings, the experience continued. All the Monets and Renoirs affected me this way; also Mary Cassat’s work. Sisley’s later paintings, and some of Pisarro’s, opened that channel of light to me, too.

And it never left me. Even a small, low-resolution reproduction of a Renoir or a Monet still evokes the feelings in me, as if I were looking into another world. The art changed me, and opened new worlds for me.

That is what I aspire to in my writing: To have an impact on my reader that transcends the moment.


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The story of your life is a professional asset

Joel at 17

My daughter sent me some old pictures for Father’s Day. This one is of me when I entered the Israeli army, at 17.

If the main purpose of your book is to play a part in marketing your professional services, one of the most powerful stories you can include is yours. People feel like they know you if they know something about you, and the more they know, the closer they feel to you.

You don’t need to include a complete autobiography, or the details of who came to each of your birthday parties from age 1 onward. Tell the parts that brought you to where you are today, practicing what you do.

Perhaps you had an experience that led to a turning point, a major shift of some sort. Such accounts are exciting! Everyone longs for tales of hope, because if you were able to overcome your challenges, perhaps they can overcome theirs.

Start by clustering your story, thinking in terms of its role in your book. (If you’re not sure what clustering is, search for “clustering” in this blog, using the search box at the top right.) Edit and prune unemotionally; readers will appreciate it. “Awww!” is not the reaction you want, so avoid sappy sentimentality and self-indulgence. But don’t be afraid of telling about emotions.

Some pictures of you in your youth can be helpful, but are not essential.

Don’t go overboard. Remember the purpose of the story. You are saying, “These are some of the circumstances and experiences that brought me to where I am today. This may help you understand why I am passionate about what I do, and why I feel strongly that I can help others move ahead.”

Run it by a clear-headed friend or associate, even before the book is edited. Writing about yourself is hard for everyone.

Your book is you

I just got the latest issue of Writer’s Digest; it’s one of the few magazines I still receive in the mail, and only because it was a package deal with their websites. And I must admit that the kinesthetics of a physical magazine still offer me something pleasant, despite the inconvenience of not having it electronically.

A hot issue: Truth in memoirs. After several scandals (look up authors James Frey and Frank McCourt and throw in “Oprah,” and you’ll get the gist), the subject of “embellishment” of stories that are ostensibly true has gotten a lot of attention.

But let’s cut to the chase: ALL writing is false, in some sense, no matter how journalistic or scientific. It is false in that it perforce tells only part of the story. There’s going to be a range of “truthfulness”; if you invent people or events claim truthfulness, don’t be surprised if you get called on it.

Yet whose memory is perfect? Even with notes or recordings? And what “facts” are significant? Is it better to write, “The color of our family car was blue, or maybe grey; actually, it may have been dark green. I’m not sure…” or “Dad pulled the blue Buick into the driveway, and threw his suitcase into the back seat”? Well, what do you mean by, “better”? The latter moves the action along; the former may be more truthful; but what are you trying to accomplish?

Most of my clients are writing books to establish their professional credibility. I encourage them to include some autobiography, so that readers can get to know them–and perhaps like and trust them. To that end, I suggest judicious storytelling–not to mislead, but not to draw attention to imperfections.

Ultimately, your book represents you. Your integrity, or lack thereof, will be examined, largely by the evidence you provide–and how well it matches what people may find on the Internet. Think about that when you plan what to write.

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