How to suck.

As a surprise, I signed up for ballroom dancing lessons with Jenny. I had rosy visions of twirling her around the floor while brilliantined men in dinner jackets played peppy tunes on from the bandstand.

Alas, after two or three sessions, it was obvious that I suck. While my wife is graceful and athletic as a prima ballerina, I clearly and congenitally have no innate sense of rhythm, no ability to remember steps, no actual understanding of music at all. Despite her brave smile, I finally acknowledged I’d have to buy Jenny steel-capped pumps or hang up my dancing shoes. 

What if you try doing something and find you’re not very good at it. What are the consequences?

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How to murder your darlings.

When I was still a young pup, I was asked to write a draft of an incredibly important newspaper ad. It was to explain to the American public the historic breakup of AT&T into eight different companies. This pivotal moment would end a century of monopoly and change American technology overnight. 

I  pounded away at my Selectric® for days, dog-eared thesaurus at my side, then dumped reams and reams of copy on my boss’s desk. He looked over his reading glasses at me, sighed and said, “I see you didn’t have time to write less,” then picked up a red grease pencil and started to slash at my masterpiece. When he handed it back, gutted and bloody, I was appalled. How could he cut this phrase, that similie, those seven paragraphs of blinding brilliance? 

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How to find your passion.


Let me ask you a personal question: do you have a passion problem?  I’m not asking about your hormonal levels but about your life’s passion.  Money, responsibilities, others’ opinions aside, what do you really want to do with your remaining days?

This can be a really hard question for a lot of people to answer. It was for me too. There I was, for decades, working in a respectable career that I was pretty good at and which paid the bills —  but I always a had a little itchy sense that I should be doing something else.  

I just didn’t know what.  

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How to find your voice.

Recently, we went to see Gatz, a wonderful staging of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The play isn’t based on the novel. It is the novel. All 49,000 words of it, read aloud, over eight hours (including a few intermissions). All they left out were the chapter titles.

Gatz was a profound experience and I’ve been thinking a lot about what I felt as I sat in my narrow theatre seat for the better part of a Friday. The part I’ve been thinking about most wasn’t the length of the experience. Yeah, it was long but I’ve spent more time binge-watching shows on Netflix. The thing that stayed with me was the personal experience of voice and what that means to the way I make things.

Let me explain.

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How to start.

It’s Friday and I have to write a blog post. I could start with a humorous anecdote, maybe something self-deprecating —I’ve been doing a fair amount of that sort of self-flagellation lately. Maybe about the time I fell asleep in the library in college and was so embarrassed when I was awoken by another student that….

Or how about a shocking  fact —  someone just told me that in a recent poll 80% of Americans said they want to write a book (I wonder what percentage want to read one?). Or maybe a bold assertion, like “I shot a man in Reno, just so he would stay still while I drew him…”

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How to party.

I like a decent party, but I’m no social animal. The idea of sashaying into a room full of strangers gags me with anxiety, but once the initial ice is broken, I generally have a good time, meet a few new people, have some interesting conversations, and manage to avoid eating or drinking to excess. I generally like to arrive once things are likely to have warmed up a bit and leave before they get ugly. 

The last party I attended was on Saturday afternoon. It was in an empty high school cafeteria with 150 adults, 147 of who I’d never met before. It lacked many of the trappings one has come to expect of a good party. There was an empty coffee urn, a Ziplock bag of rather dry homemade cookies, no toilet paper in the bathroom, and no music. In fact, we were instructed at the outset to avoid speaking at all, unless absolutely necessary. We were also warned not to shush anybody who did make noise.

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How to win by losing.

This is going to be mortifyingly embarrassing but I may as well tell you about it. When I was a teenager, I loved the Newhart show. Not The Bob Newhart Show where he was shrink in Chicago married to Suzanne Pleshette but the later one in which Bob had a different wife and lived in Vermont. You may remember that show, a not-terribly funny precursor to Fawlty Towers, in which Bob ran an inn and there were the three local brothers named Larry, Daryl and Daryl.

I loved this show because of Bob’s second career, his real career. He was a successful author of “how-to” books. This struck me as the perfect ambition. To sit in a cozy study and churn out books that were effortless to write. Not to strive for Pulitzers or National Book Awards but just to crank out shelves full of books on animal husbandry, basket weaving, and transmission repair. Real books nonetheless, arrayed on shelves filled with one’s name over and over on the spines.

Continue reading “How to win by losing.”