Taking it Too Seriously

When I was a boy, I wrote every day. Short stories. Poems. Lyrics. Everything. I would stay awake late into the night pecking away at my keyboard. I loved the feeling of stories and emotions flowing from my brain and heart out into the real world.

Then I grew up and blocked that feeling off from myself. I twisted the act of writing into a reflection of my external character instead of an expression of my internal experience. Writing became the means by which I could elevate myself above others in the quest for a lucrative, stable career. I became convinced there was no margin for error, that everything had to be perfect. Anything that could make me look the fool or expose some gap in my experience was poison. My internal editor was always on and it was impossible to be genuine. Thus, it was impossible to write.

For a couple of years, I barely wrote anything that wasn’t related to school or work. When I did right for fun, I struggled immensely. I felt like a failure whenever the perfect words didn’t come immediately. Aren’t I supposed to be better than this? Am I any good at all? I didn’t realize that those questions didn’t matter.

I was taking myself too seriously, and ironically I wasn’t producing any serious work because of it. The best creative work sits atop a pile of failure, and sometimes the world gets to watch that pile stack up. Somehow, I got it in my head that things would go differently for me. Obviously, they didn’t. My only option was to either stop writing, or just accept imperfection and plod on. It’s pretty amazing how long I chose the former.

Thankfully, this mode of mentality is beginning to pass. It’s leaving me because I’ve been forced to produce words every day in my job as an advertising copywriter where there’s not enough time to overthink my words out of existence. It’s not the most creative kind of writing at times, but there are plenty of lessons to learn from it. The most important one is that you have to produce content everyday if you want to get anything done.

Words are never in the perfect order when they leave your hands. No art ever is. What I had to learn and still must practice daily is the idea that a single piece of work is not enough to define me, no matter how perfect or imperfect it is. My life is simply a collection of efforts, and most of them will not be sweeping successes. That’s fine. A story of growth and perseverance is always the more interesting one anyway.

If I take myself too seriously, I’ll never produce work that lives up to my impossible standards, and therefore, I won’t create a body of work that tells a story. That’s just dumb. It’s a waste of life. So my only choice is to lighten up, publish more, learn from mistakes, and get better.

I have a feeling it’s going to work out much better this way.

A Blog for the Future

My memory is already a pile of shit, so I thought it might be a good idea to start blogging again for reference later. One day my brain will completely turn to gruel and trickle out my ears in a snotty, gray dribble, and when it does I won’t remember how to delight anyone with my special brand of bullshit anymore. Ideally, this blog will come to serve in my stead. That’s why I’m getting its URL tattooed on my head to combat the problem of forgetting it.

Brash decision? Sure. Especially since the idea of a URL might be completely obsolete by the time of my inevitable mental demise. Maybe by then, you’ll need only think of a website, and your smartphone/virtual reality simulator will transport your entire consciousness to the desired digital location in the blink of an eye (fifty blinks if you have Time Warner or Comcast).

In time, your mind will meld with the minds of many others inside giant server farms across the world until the entirety of human consciousness becomes one collective entity comprised of electrons and raw information. Bodies will become superfluous, and after the last abandoned meatbags die off, humanity will finally be set free. We shall at once become all and none, capable of feeling everything and nothing, alive without beginning or end, and free of the petty squabbles and necessities of our primal ancestry. We shall become like unto gods, worthy of our place in the boundless universe.

But that hasn’t happened yet, so it’s off to the tattoo parlor. See you on the other side, future deities.  

Content is King

It’s been said before. And whoever said it was right. Content is king.

As creatives struggling to keep up with the breakneck evolution of technology, it’s easy to breeze past content and move straight to execution when we try to solve problems. After all, there is exciting news literally every day about some service that’s just come online or a new update for some application or the release of a brand new gadget. If you’re any good at your job as a creative, these daily developments excite you and set ablaze the embers of inspiration and possibility. That’s good. But too often this energy is directed at what something can do and not why it should do it in the first place. In my experience this is always a mistake.

You’ll wind up with a wonderful approach and no destination. You won’t have an answer to the question, “Why would anybody care about this?” It’s like having learned a beautiful new language without anything to talk about. This is not a position you want to find yourself in as deadlines approach and budgets dwindle. It’s our jobs as creatives to figure out why people should want to take action before we discuss how they might take that action. To do that, we must spend time polishing our content.

Insofar as you can, hasten to create good content by doing your research, identifying the right KPIs, and employing compelling storytelling. Be aware, though, that it’s not at all uncommon to find yourself struggling with subpar content, particularly if you have stubborn clients. Regrettably, it is not always possible to move a client away from bad content, but you are still on the hook for the innovative solutions they believe you and your organization are capable of. When this happens, resist the urge to narrow scope only to focus on tactics. The importance of content never diminishes, but the problem of context becomes incredibly important.

If content does not appear in a complementary context, few will interact with it, particularly if the content isn’t very strong on its own. Does your client really need their very own app when a responsive website would be easier to build, maintain, and display across devices? Barging ahead with bulky, complex solutions can be incredibly costly and time consuming, and that isn’t something most companies can afford to do for very long. See that your content deserves the context it appears in, and make sure the audience you’re trying to pitch it to is willing to take the steps necessary to experience it.  

Hitch-22: A Long and Humbling Read

Christopher Hitchens was one of my favorite authors and journalists, and his death has made me all the hungrier for his works. My most recent expedition was through his memoir, Hitch-22. This is somewhat of a review.

I have finally finished the long and humbling read that is Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch-22. I won’t beat about the bush: it was good (although I would not recommend surmounting it before getting to know the man through his works first—Love, Poverty and War, Letters to a Young Contrarian, God is not Great, and any floor-mopping debate with the wretched Dinesh D’Souza are all great places to begin).  It was so good, in fact, that it has the distinct effect of depressing you in contemplation of your own experiences and contributions to humanity by comparison, while at the same time lifting your spirits and solidifying your gumption in the direction of your favored cause.

Hitchens’ memoir is a testament to the fact that actively fighting for and testing your beliefs is, if nothing else, incredibly interesting. To have the sort of conviction he possessed as young man is something to be envied and emulated by all, but especially by anyone who is still contemplating the safety of relativism or quiet, unobtrusive partisanship. Hitchens has conclusively shown that the path of least resistance is not the way to cultural significance, nor experiences worth reading about, and certainly not international friendships that span borders and cultures. If, at the end of one’s life, one can claim to have known people, places, and (most importantly) discussions as Hitchens did, then one should feel content to die with at least some satisfaction.  

The best takeaways from this read declare a need for steadfast solidarity with other humans who value liberty, free speech, and the importance of reason. This, along with the knowledge that the struggle for these things is never a waste of time is worth keeping in mind at each instant. I found myself challenged on several occasions throughout the read. I espouse many of the same values as Hitchens, but have I the conviction to do more than passively applaud their successes and lament in quiet their defeats? Anyone of even remotely decent means must be constantly challenging themselves similarly, and this tiny collection of noble experiences suggests that the bar ought to be set high. This is a good thing, and it makes for a good read—all good writing should seep into your soul and interrogate your being. 

It’s due to this evocation of self-examination and contemplation that the book took me so damn long to read. Just about every sentence is a conversation starter, for one, and Hitchens has no interest in brevity. The breadth of his eloquence is matched only by the size of his vocabulary, and he flexes both of these muscles frequently (although I do believe he could have taken a note from his hero, Orwell, on a few occasions and opted for more plain and concise language and fewer foreign phrases). When embarking on this journey of prose, one should be prepared to give it some good time, and keep a pen and Post-Its at the ready all times. There are few pages not worth revisiting for some kind of insight.

In fact, younger readers like myself might find within the pages a course’s worth of important recent history deserving of at least some consideration. Almost none of the events described in Hitch-22 were ever taught at length to me in my studies—events like the ethnic slaughter of Muslims during the war in Bosnia/Herzegovina or the truly psychopathic nature of Saddam Hussein’s torturous regime or the flimsy utopian fever dreams that motivated Cuban revolutionaries in the late sixties. Hitchens was able to bring me to those moments, if only in quick bursts, and allow me to contemplate them as more than locations on a timeline of events preceding my birth. And for anyone who’s read the full-length articles he penned in response to these events, having a look “behind the scenes” only adds to the effectiveness of his abilities as a storyteller. To study Hitchens the man is rather to catch a glimpse of history animated through the real stories, feelings, and motivations of humans.

To put it another way, Hitch-22 is well worth the effort it takes to read. It’s a highly entertaining, educational, and challenging read. As with a work of great fiction, this one will linger in your thoughts after you’ve put it down for the day. The only difference is that your mind will be working not on the plights of fictional characters, but on history and the evolving political forces at work around you, and even your own motivations and actions. You will stew on the impact you might have in your short time in this life, and perhaps, in your weaker moments, lament the impossibility of measuring up to this incredible man for whom the world is now poorer for having lost.

RIP, Mr. Hitchens. I regret not having shook your hand in this life, but in your words and works, grasp firmly an ever-outstretched member.

Don’t Go to School for Journalism

Something I might have told my 18-year-old self if I could go back in time.

Dear College Freshman,

So you’re trying to pick a major, and you fancy the craft of writing, huh? Let me give you some advice. Don’t go to school for journalism. I did. I learned quite a bit. I also learned that you don’t need to go to school for journalism. Study the subject you want to write about instead and write about it while you’re learning it.

You will certainly learn great skills at a J-School like the University of Colorado’s, which I attended (and doesn’t exist anymore). You’ll learn how to write thoroughly and with brevity and how to bother people for information. You’ll learn the important questions to ask and what kind of information your audience is most interested in. You’ll learn about the tools of documentation and the variety of media that comprise modern storytelling.

But here’s the thing: You should learn these skills and tools when studying any subject.  Journalism is, at heart, simply the pursuit and elegant retelling of information. It’s learning as much as you can about a subject, how it’s perceived and understood by the people involved, and understanding how to communicate what you’ve learned to your audience in an impactful manner. This is something everyone should know how to do when approaching anything with strong conviction, particularly a degree program. I can’t tell you how many otherwise thoughtful and intelligent people I know who couldn’t write well to save their own lives, and I think about what a disservice it is that they’re unable to communicate effectively when they have important wisdom to impart. You should aspire to learn how to write well no matter what wisdom you choose to pursue. If you like politics, study political science. Study anthropology or economics or foreign affairs. Don’t simply pursue the methodology of communication. Even with the best tools, you still need to know what story to tell.

If you do opt for J-School, you’ll likely be left largely to your own devices to figure out what subjects you care about and want to pursue. This will put you at a distinct disadvantage. You won’t know that subject matter well enough to ask more than the basic questions unless you devote a great deal of independent study (which you won’t have time for because of all the other journalism classes you’ll be taking!).  You’ll produce shallow, incomplete reports, or miss a more interesting story, or misunderstand what an expert has told you. How many articles have you read that completely botch scientific conclusions, or unintentionally misrepresent a cultural fact? I know I’ve read many. I’ve even written a few myself. If you want to contribute to the discourse, you owe it to yourself to know what you’re reporting on and why you or anyone else should care about it.

The bigger risk you’ll come across while studying journalism is the problem of the assigned passion. By this I mean that you’ll find yourself assigned to topics that you may or may not care about simply because your editors know you can write but don’t know or care what about. Trust me, reporting on subjects that bore you is an incredibly painstaking experience, particularly because journalism is stressful work in the first place. Take as much control over subject matter as you can, otherwise you will burn out fast.  You probably want to pursue journalism because you like to write about something—if you simply like the look and sound of your own words strung together, you should not be a journalist—and if you approach a subject with the seriousness and dedication of a degree program, ideas for articles will never stop springing up in your mind. The more you learn, the more you’ll want to tell. You’ll meet the right people and know the right stories. Your pieces will be thorough and interesting because you are fascinated with the material. All of these things will make you a better candidate when it comes time to publish your work, and getting published is a surefire sign that you have become the writer you dreamed of becoming in the first place.

Getting published is incredibly important. It means getting experience and showing potential employers that you are serious about what you do. It’s the best way to grow because your work will live in public. You need practice. Your first articles are going to be terrible and you’ll get criticism and harsh feedback right away. You’ll learn more about journalism from this than you ever will from any classroom. Write for the student paper. The best skills I gleaned at school came from my time at the CU Independent, and not from Reporting 3001. Find some kind of forum to get your work in public while you pursue your major. Student papers are great because you’ll be alongside helpful and passionate peers, and you’ll be able to get your hands on cameras and computers and editing software as well. Editors will give you advice on technique, which will help you become a better writer, and all the while you’ll be learning more about your favorite subject during your daily studies, which will make you a better storyteller.

Also, never forget that you can repurpose academic papers into journalistic articles with only mild effort. Why not knock out two birds with the same stone?

Of course, I can only speak for my own experiences. Some schools might teach journalism better than mine did. But I suspect that you’ll find yourself more satisfied if you vigorously study a subject you’re passionate about and learn to write at the same time. If you’re not convinced, at the very least, study your school’s program thoroughly and question whether it really is the best path to the height of your personal growth—as both a writer and a human being.

This Week in Bad Poetry: Coffee, The First Friend

an ode to coffee

Faithful elixer
Dawn is wont for your embrace.
Unconcerned with calendar fetters,
the clock’s hands of disinterest,
you wake the dead who slumber on,
whose eyelids cling to lifeless rest
and beg for encore at the mind’s theatre.

With each new sip
slowly open closed arms
to grasp the waking day.
With each new sip your heat decays,
the last few lukewarm drops remain
discarded and washed away.

Tomorrow, love will be yours again,
a gauntlet of blades and electric fire.
Back to the crypt, the living dead will smile,
your aroma of resilient hope.

On Procrastination

We procrastinate to avoid inconvenience, though we know it is a futile and enormously counterproductive exercise in the end. Procrastination turns out to be one of the most inconvenient acts we can inflict upon ourselves. The solace is fleeting, and later the problem demands action, though our minds have moved on; we have to drag them back in the late hour to reintroduce the task at hand and welcome a newfound urgency. There is no efficiency in this, only waste and regression.

It’s better to meet our inconveniences in the light, on our own terms, than to face them in the dark alley of necessity, where anger and frustration lurk. Stay in control. Serendipity and opportunity are fruits best reached when one is not weighed down by the demands of yesterday.

Neo Fuddy-Duddyanism

Apparently, it’s the week of anti-social media ranting. Just this morning, I’ve read two articles bashing social media and the way people choose to use it, one in the New York Times, and the other a PSFK piece. On top of that, a group project I’m doing with a few friends is running into organizational snags because one of them quit Facebook (and the others are hardly active). Yet others in my friend and peer group offer unabashed contempt for social media whenever the subject arises, and many of those I know outside advertising seem to wear a sense of pride when espousing their nonuse of social media. I see much of the same in other spheres as well.

It’s the same two arguments over and over again: privacy and/or information overload. In short, we’re giving away too much important information and receiving far too much worthless drivel from everyone else. I call bullshit.

To quote Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic.

“These tools are only as good as the network you create on them.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself, but I might not have even tried to say anything like it a few years ago. I too had a strong reaction against every major social media development, and I’ve known the false pride that comes with taking a contrarian’s position towards Facebook and Twitter. But as I studied the potential of social media and the strategic implementations thereof, I learned to exercise some humility. It turns out I didn’t know all there was to know about these social networks, largely because I wasn’t using them. The more I learned about social media methodology, the more I learned what to do with it—and what not to do with it as well.

I wake up every morning at six o’clock so I can hop on Twitter and other news and social aggregators. Why? Here’s a hint: it’s not because I want to know what my friends had for dinner last night (and isn’t that joke, like, five-years-stale by now?). I’ve tuned my social media to give me exactly the kind of information I want. World news, politics, industry updates, and new music are all on my radar right away and I can consume them all from my couch while I sip coffee and warm up my brain for the day.

It’s incredibly therapeutic for me to wake up knowing that more information than one could acquire in a lifetime by oneself is at my fingertips before my eyes can even open all the way. In fact, it’s necessary for me to feel this way. My job is to be informed and inspired constantly, but even if my employment didn’t depend on this, I would still desire these states. Social media offers one of the quickest means to achieve this.

I often hear the “glorified RSS feed” attack leveled at social media, and I object. There’s a level of personality and candidness that social media can and must achieve to be relevant. It solidifies further the personal bonds I’ve made with those in my networks. For instance, I have a few hard-right conservative friends who post some of the most blood-boiling, excruciating, logic-defying sludge I’ve come across, but I value their opinion and I often take a look at the sources they cite because it challenges me to think about why I hold the principles I do and whether or not I know how to back them up. It also helps me understand their reasoning and self better on a personal level, which is something an AP article cannot deliver. Other friends post links to their (often good) work, and I file them away as a potential resource for future projects, as I hope they do me when I self-promote. I can always count on my former Boulder Digital Works classmates to post interesting and relevant information, and I’ve often grown because of the things they’ve shown me. And my friends who offer seemingly meaningless statements of what they’re doing/eating/thinking often do so in a way that makes me laugh, think, and self-reflect—and if they don’t do this, they get blocked.

That’s the beautiful thing about social media. It’s so incredibly easy to curate. In literally five minutes, you can transform your feed from a terrifying festival of inanity into a functioning, practical extension of your digital self. There’s no reason anyone has to put up with annoying garbage. Likewise, there’s no reason other people shouldn’t be allowed to consume annoying garbage in their own feeds.

As for privacy, I understand the concern but find it misplaced. It’s incredibly easy for someone to construct a semi-accurate profile of you through your online persona if you allow them the means to do so. But this seems to imply that one cannot have a social media presence that isn’t damagingly revealing. Quite the opposite is true, in my opinion; it’s all too easy to paint a rose-tinted picture of yourself through selective updating. It’s all in the level of self-control one exercises. My followership doesn’t know what sexual varieties turn my gears, or if I smoke crack, or what my criticisms of my company and clients are. The things I post largely represent the same information anyone would come to know about me after even a cursory encounter in real life. If the information I post poses a privacy risk, it’s because I’ve already considered the implications and assumed that risk. I could easily dial back or scale up my social media output or adopt a pseudonym or create an online alter-ego. Privacy has largely to do with control, and of the most damaging information, the user still remains largely in control.

(Caveat: I do see a potential problem with minors and immature teenagers who don’t yet understand the implications of their online actions, but this is largely a problem of education, where close-minded fuddy-duddyanism is nothing like a solution)

The other information you might give away on a social network like birth date, location, financial credentials, personal taste, and so forth are already given up by you just about anytime you use the internet for a meaningful interaction, unless you have made painstaking effort to obscure your digital presence. Privacy settings can be adjusted, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of readily available articles devoted to helping you maximize your online security without completely abandoning your social presence. I suggest taking a look into them, informing yourself, and weighing your options as opposed to a complete retreat from a communication mechanism that’s clearly not going away anytime soon.

I risk self-righteousness here because I see lots of wonderful potential for social media and I dislike the prideful complaints of those who express such contempt for it without bothering to have much experience. It’s the next evolution in human communication, and it really has helped humans achieve some incredible things. What would the Arab Spring, or Hurricane Sandy disaster relief, or even the nightly news be without social media? We live in an age where we not only have the most information available to us than ever before, but also the greatest ability to spread that information. Surely everyone can find some sort of value in that. 

I’m Thankful for Mass Consumerism

The American way made an American holiday possible for an American boy.

I opened my eyes on Thursday morning to a day without structure. Eleven o’clock seemed like a great time to begin thinking about an American holiday others had spent months preparing for. It was Thanksgiving and I had not made a single plan or applied even a modicum of forethought. Oh, I’d seen the day coming since at least a week prior, when the holiday’s imminence took me by surprise. Yet I did not panic or prepare. No plans with friends, most of who were leaving town any way. No family travel. I didn’t even know what sorts of dishes I could expect to consume in impressively unreasonable quantities later. Quite simply, I hadn’t prepared the time to prepare.

The present had happened instead. I’d had parties to plan and attend—company functions and birthdays—friends in town, evening band practice to prepare for late night shows, and all the drinking in between (or, I should say, during), not to mention the full-time job I attend regularly. The apartment was in shambles. I was low on energy and sleep, having crammed as much work and play into every 24 hours as possible. I’d all but abandoned my exercise and health routine, favoring instead late nights of fried food and booze. And I was tired.

What wastrel’s life have I awoken too? I thought as I rose groggily from bed. And how can I recover this day in spite of it?

It turns out that mass consumer culture had my back. Convenience is plan B for the plan-less. I’m lucky enough to live within walking distance of three locations of the same supermarket chain, where the ill prepared can find everything they need to create a passible holiday experience (you can even pick up a few transients near the entrances if you’re low on friends). Naturally, I drove. There, I found everything from refrigerated gravy to a completely precooked and prepared turkey in under an hour, delivered to us in landfill-grade plastic for prices only factory farming can deliver.  All we had to do was throw the items in various dishes and bowls and heat them up.

While our oven did most of the work, Amy and I took the time to clean and reorganize our apartment, wash our clothes and ourselves, and begin to repair the damage a life of overindulgence and over-commitment inflicted on us. It took all afternoon, and when we’d finished, we actually felt proud to have all the lights on again. A friend arrived to share our meal with us just in time for the oven timer to ring. We set out the spread, buffet style, and everything was there. Gravy. Potatoes. Green bean casserole. The works. We actually looked prepared.

It wasn’t nearly gourmet. But it was good enough. It did the job and gave us a successful holiday. I went back for seconds, and we had enough leftover to feed us for days afterwards. And all the while we sipped wine, made merry, and cheerfully observed our beltlines expanding.

We had a wonderful evening because we were able to buy it earlier that morning, all thanks to supply and demand. We weren’t the only ones rummaging through the supermarket that day. In fact, poor planning and execution were so popular, the delicatessen actually offered to prepare the entire meal from biscuits to pumpkin pie right there in the store. Yes. We could have done even less work.

I’ve always personally believed that mass consumer culture is the C-average lifestyle for those who haven’t made the time or taken the effort to explore better possibilities. The fruits of independent work and individualism are always the sweetest. But this year, when I did not make time or take effort, the big-box store was there for me. It saved me from the sad guilt of a cut-rate holiday, whose disappointment I could not blame on poverty or lacking resources, but only on myself. I didn’t have to sit in failure at an empty table while tradition came and went without. Instead, I had roughly what I would have had if I’d planned. I ate well and worried little. And it’s all because others routinely behave the way I did this year.

Next year, I’m determined to do better. But the rest of you should slack off in case I end up doing the same. Gotta keep that demand up!*

*That was the sound of me dapping the invisible hand.

The AP: When Style Overrides Communication

Here’s a sterling example of why traditional media is losing ground everyday to digital journalism. This is from the AP’s regurgitation of celebrity Twitter reactions to Clint Eastwood’s performance at the 2012 RNC Convention:

“And so on this day, August 30, 2012, (at)MittRomney became a better actor than Clint Eastwood.” - Lawrence O’Donnell, host of MSNBC’s “The Last Word.”

“I can’t believe I just watched (hash)ClintEastwood turn into somebody’s DRUNK UNCLE HARRY on the stage of the (hash)GOP (hash)RNC. He humiliated himself.” - Star Jones, “Today” contributor.

Really? (at)? (hash)? I feel like I’m about to dive into some JavaScript or something.

The whole point of journalism is to increase understanding, and this does the exact opposite. What’s the difficulty in just using the “@” and “#” symbols? That’s how everyday people understand references to Twitter! And if you don’t know what @MittRomney means, then (at)MittRomney makes even less sense. This is part of a masochistic exercise where adhering to consistency outweighs conveying helpful information in a better way.

I remember my days as a college reporter, being forced to adjust my language to match AP style when what I’d originally written was a closer reflection of common understanding—weird things like capitalizing “internet” and making “website” into two separate words were just a few examples. The AP has recently updated these particular terms, but far too late in my opinion. I find little sympathy for a communications organization that can’t keep up with the way real people communicate, especially when the technology in question (Twitter) has been around for six-goddamn-years.

This may seem like stylistic pedantry on my part, which, to a degree, it is. But the truth is that human language is constantly evolving. It’s advancing at an especially quickening pace with advances in technology and social communication. Every year, humans use new slang. No surprises here. But mobile communication technology and an increasingly code-literate population has made symbols as important to the written word as the comma or em-dash. Bloggers and online publications can keep up, but one of the world’s most important information brokers cannot? This is not a good thing.