Month: June 2011

On becoming a reliable conduit

close shot of wood shavings

Once upon a time in a dingy Hollywood studio far, far away, I took my very first acting class.1

I was there because it had been suggested to me by my improv teacher that while my writing was passable, my ability to convey actual human emotion onstage was somewhere between “painful to behold” and “chair”, and that if I wanted a chance at surviving the increasingly brutal cuts up the ladder, I should hie my civilian ass to an acting school now.

I wanted that chance, all right, and a whole lot more. Things I wouldn’t admit out loud: to be rich, for example, and famous, and the envy of anyone I’d ever envied. But also things I couldn’t articulate yet because it would be years until I understood them: to tell the Truth, to serve with meaning, to live. I’d wanted all of these things, the ignoble and the good, so very much and for so very long that when I stepped up to work on my very first exercise in this new acting class, I was like a human funnel for raw, super-concentrated desire. It was, by all accounts afterward, electrically exciting to watch.

The next week, I got up in class to do the same exercise again and I sucked. Hard.

And continued to suck, over and over, week after week. Well, that’s not completely true: occasionally, something…magical happened, and I did not suck. On certain of these rare occasions (and, significantly, when I was either exhausted, well-coached, or both), I could move emotion as well as the most skilled members of the class. The difference was that, unlike them, I had zero control over this ability; it would either be there or it wouldn’t. The experience was not unlike showing up every week for a bus that might take you on a champagne-and-donut-filled ride to Disneyland, or that might drive you to the wrong side of town, strip you down to your underwear, dump you by the side of the road and make you find your way home. At night. In December.

Finally, after about a year, I became reliably good at the exercises. Never brilliant, like that first day, not once, ever again, but good enough that people didn’t shrink from being assigned me as a scene partner. One of them even suggested it might be time to move to another class, a more advanced class at a different studio.

I checked it out, enrolled, and promptly reverted to sucking. Immediately, this time, without even the whispery hope of a first, great at-bat to see me through the humiliating 18-month slog to the next plateau.

* * * * *

Here is the mission statement I came up years ago, sometime after my bloody epiphany but before I started dating things so I could place them later:2

To be a joyful conduit of truth, beauty and love.

I’ve since been taken to task by my more focused friends (i.e., all of them) for establishing an overarching goal of the mushier variety, my goal does not stand up well to the heat and pressure of daily life, nor does it offer many clues as to what “done” looks like. (If you spy any, let ‘er rip.) It’s even difficult to hold opportunities and projects up against a “goal” like that to see if they’re a good match. Or rather, too many things end up being a good match, and I miss out on the kind of focused intent required to build empires.

Then again, I’m coming around to the idea that empires are a lot like boats, vacation homes, and fancy cameras: it’s nicer to have friends who have them than to deal with the upkeep yourself.

* * * * *

There is a wonderful novel I read last fall that haunts me still. It’s called All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, and if the horrible title doesn’t put you off of reading it, maybe this will: it’s about the life trajectories of two students of a masters program in poetry. (I know, right?)

Maybe after I’ve read it a few more times, I will be able to write a real review that does it justice. For now, the salient point is this: the author uses these two intertwining stories, one of a graduate who achieves early acclaim and concomitant financial rewards, the other of his friend who does neither, to paint as fine a picture as I’ve ever seen about choices, consequences, and the day-to-day costs of “success” (deliberately left in quotes). This is a chief gift of art, its ability to bypass logic and pierce the heart of the viewer, or reader, with truth through the use of meticulously crafted obliqueness. Great art may be the ultimate in teaching a man to fish: when someone connects the dots themselves, the resulting pattern truly belongs to them.

Communicating on this level, like any kind of deliberate transfer of emotion, requires off-the-charts levels of mastery. In order to do it well and consistently, provisions must be made. By the artist. At what sometimes look like extraordinary costs.

Don’t kid yourself, though: there’s a cost to everything. It’s only the currency that varies, and the payment plan.


P.S. Looking for links to old posts I could not find did turn up this and this (from 2008!) on the rather annoyingly sloggy slog this kind of work can be. Then again, I also found this (from 2005!) and this, which provide some actual, concrete steps one can take to ease the pain of conduit-refinery. The blog giveth, and the blog taketh away.

1I’d actually taken some acting classes as a kid, and even one in college. But this was the first one I’d taken where I wasn’t, you’ll pardon the pun, just playing around. I really and truly wanted to be an actor. Stakes change the game.

2I worry sometimes that this portends a future for myself fluttering with yellow sticky notes placed on everything, like that man who mistook his wife for a beret or just a garden-variety Alhzeimer’s victim. Given how much I fear winding up with a faulty mind in an unbroken body, you’d think I’d be better about floating it in warm baths of alcohol, caffeine and sugar. Let us just say that my capacity for tricking myself has grown right alongside my other abilities.

Image by Matalyn via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Frrrrriday Rrrrroundup! #57

padlock on a fence declaring love

An end-of-weekly roundup collecting fffffive of the fffffoxiest things I fffffind stumbling around the web. More about the genesis here. Every dang Friday Round-Up here, you procrastinating slacker!

A writer plays with Instagram. [Google Reader-ed]

Why “funfeminism” is neither fun nor feminism. Great, great true-life stories in the comments thread. [Stumbled]

Minimalism and frugalism can overlap, but they’re two decidedly different things. [delicious-ed]

Blowhards, exposed as “humblebraggers.” [Facebook-ed, via Mike Monteiro]


Image by aless&ro via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Love, communist style

people spelling out "L-O-V-E" with their bodies arranged on an atrium floor

Several years ago, during the dawn of the Social Media Age, I ran into someone I knew ever-so slightly from the blogging circuit at one of the nerd conferences people on blogging circuits tend to run into each other at. A kind of a celebrity-hero of early Web 2.0, albeit an accessible one.

Many of us were new to the internets back then, but I was also a neophyte in the ways of networking. As I got out from behind my keyboard, along with the introverts, freaks and social misfits I’d been expecting, I also discovered these odd hybrids: pseudo-nerds, or nerd-friendlies, who in their previous, pre-Internet lives had picked up the interpersonal skills I’d somehow managed to avoid acquiring in over 40 years as a human being. These people were upbeat and genial and welcoming, and I always sank gratefully into their company. They knew what to say and what to do; they were able to move through the world with at least outward confidence while putting other people at ease.

So of course I paid attention to the things they did and said, absorbing and parsing constantly: What things did they inquire about? What things did they offer up? How did they introduce mutual acquaintances? Or new topics? Or sustain a conversation? Or exit one?

It was exhausting, but useful.

I began engaging people this way myself, with…unusual results. My heartbeat would speed up. I’d feel dizzy, like the world got wobbly or a haze suddenly descended. It was a little unnerving, sure, but I wrote it off as inexperience, change is hard!, and resolved to try, try again.

Which is where I was at when I finally met my kind-of celebrity/hero: nervous, but trying. Awkward, but trying. I screwed my courage to the sticking point and said “hello.” Clearly not one for small talk, he generously put up with my wobbly attempts at it. Until finally, when I had wandered so far of the res of my own groundedness that the room was practically spinning around me, I asked the question that was so foreign to me just the thought of saying it could trigger an out-of-body experience:

“So, (Celebrity-Hero of Web 2.0), tell me: What can I do to help you?”

Whereupon he sighed, rolled his eyes, and said, “Seriously? ‘What can I do to help you?’ Seriously? This isn’t you. What are you doing?”

I froze. And then two things happened.

First, I wanted to disappear. Because I was humiliated and angry and humiliated. This produces in me an urge to make everything go away, starting with myself.

Second, I wanted to throw my arms around his neck and kiss him. Because he was right, and I was free. I never had to ask that stupid fucking question again as long as I lived.

* * * * *

Before the rock-hurling and/or tribal shunning commences, let me make myself very clear: helping is a good thing. I am pro-helping. I help people; you help people; Celebrity-Hero of Web 2.0 helped (and probably still helps) people. We’d better all be helping each other, or every last one of us is doomed.

There’s also nothing wrong with asking what you can do to help someone, if that is what it takes for you to really help someone. Asking is a marvelous way to gather useful intelligence with which to shape your loving and generous impulses. I mean, who hasn’t gotten a crappy graduation gift from Uncle Fritz, right? Or attended a pot luck with four desserts and no casserole?

Where it gets tricky is when the helping is “helping”: asking how you can help as your secret judo way of soliciting it for yourself, or asking when you have zero intention of following through. This is the kind of “helping” that gives helping a bad name, and unfortunately, it’s as rampant as hollow, meaningless inquiries into the state of one’s health.

Additionally, let me say that the first two people I heard ask me this question meant it. 100%. Short of my asking for a pony or other unrealistic deliverable, they would have agreed and come through (and possibly never asked for anything else, ever.) Both of them are people who are much in the world, who have exceptionally large hearts and energy to match. They are hardy. They are robust. If they have hidden agendas, they’re being served with scraps from the main table. It works for them.

I, on the other hand, don’t work that way. And by that I mean I seem to shrivel up with too much giving, the same way I do if I have too much social interaction. I have to be judicious in my offers of help if I want to make good on them, which I do, if only because violating Agreement #1 makes me feel so rotten. So I am careful about how I offer help, and to whom, and when. It is not as much as some people would like, and it is even less than that on Twitter.

Do I wish I could do more? Oh, yes.

I also wish that I could be 5’9″, eat anything, and sing like Ella Fitzgerald. I don’t think those are going to happen anytime soon, either.

* * * * *

People love to make a great noise about the importance of hewing to your path. There is a fair amount of literature out there on the noble struggle involved. But rarely do we get into the gruesome details of how doing your own thing will make you feel on a day-to-day basis.

Like crazy, for starters. Alone and crazy. Mean and crazy. Selfish and crazy. Stupid and crazy. Wrong and crazy.1

Part of the reason you feel these things is because people will intimate that you are these things, if they don’t say it outright. Most of the time they do this because it makes them feel less crazy, less alone, less mean and selfish and stupid and wrong and fallibly human. On a good day, I can get down with this and even approach something I suspect might be what compassion feels like. On an average day, I rise to the bait, real or implied, and beat myself up. (On a bad day, I attack…and then beat myself up.)

The other part of the reason is the always-on, 24/7, city-that-never-sleeps effect of the Internet. That thing that brought you together with fellow travelers whose existence you only dreamed of before Usenet or or whatever point you plugged into the matrix can also make you feel very alienated from the rest of the world. Here, someone is always up, always happy, always shipping. It’s a dangerous place for comparing insides (yours) to outsides (theirs) and subsequent mimicry. It gets loud up in this bee-yotch.

* * * * *

Right now, I am liking this definition of help: love, externalized. Love in motion, love in action. One reason I like it is that it takes help out of the land of tit-for-tat transactions. I grew up with both plenty of love and plenty of help, possibly more than my fair share, but trust me, a strict accounting was kept at all times.

Today, I am having fun, actual FUN, noticing how help flows out and shows up. As free guest rooms and rides to the airport. As secretly-picked-up tabs and comped coffees. As database advice and emotional support, as quiet letters and cheery introductions, as tomatoes and tips, as labor and hilarious jokes. Maybe someone with a very, very high up view could make sense of this strange economy, but down here, it starts to look like magic.

Am I done forever with mutual backscratching? Probably not. I wouldn’t even say there’s not a place for it, again, my view is myopic and low to the ground.

But I am increasingly in love with the idea of love flowing from each of us according to our abilities, and to each of us according to our needs. This is the kind of help I want to give and to get: love, communist style.

I think it can happen in business. I think it can happen on Facebook. I think it could make for an amazing world to live in, if can let each other let each other.

If I can let myself be myself.


This piece was inspired in part by an incredibly helpful and well-written little book by Bindu Wiles about how to write for the Internet. Yes, really. As I read it, I kept saying “Yup” and “Yup” and finally, “Well, I guess now I don’t have to write an incredibly helpful book about writing for the Internet; Bindu already done did it.” And it’s yours for the price of an email address. See? Helpful.

1And I’m not talking about the big things you might be called “crazy” for, like leaving a marriage that isn’t working, or quitting a good job to go out on your own, or sailing across the ocean on a sandwich bag. Do something that’s big enough and people will at least applaud your audacity while they call you crazy. As with most things, the devil is in the details. Boring, stupid, unseen, important daily details.

Image by schipulites via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Frrrrriday Rrrrroundup! #56

snooty ladies not allowed

An end-of-weekly roundup collecting fffffive of the fffffoxiest things I fffffind stumbling around the web. More about the genesis here. Every dang Friday Round-Up here, you procrastinating slacker!

On girl-on-girl hate, gender double standards and other really super-tired patriarchal horseshit we should have retired with the corset. [Google Reader-ed]

For anyone who’s leery of Groupon, sick of relentless IN-YOUR-FACEBOOK marketing, or in need of a terrific underdog story, how one little pizza parlor made magic. [delicious-ed, via Dave Seah]

Bewitching little music-making squares. It’s great fun, pretending you’re Brian Eno! [Tumbled, via].

Finally, my favorite take on Weinergate from New Yorker writer Amy Davidson: it’s about the foolhardy taking of risks, not morality. Here’s hoping it’s the last word. Or the almost-last one, anyway. [Facebook-ed, via kottke]


Image by Armosa Studios via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Work in progress

graphic notes of mark silver's workshop from the World Domination Summit

You need a lot of things to sit down and write.

You need a chair, for example, to sit on. You need a pen or pencil and paper, or a typewriter and paper, or a computer and no paper. You usually need something a little more reliably horizontal than a lap to serve as a writing surface, a desk, a table, an ottoman, a step.

Then there’s the light that you need, natural, if it’s daytime, or artificial, if it’s not, or if it’s daytime in Portland, Oregon. You need heat sometimes, unless you are in Arizona (or my apartment) in the summer, in which case you need air conditioning (or a wet bathing suit and a series of strategically placed fans).

Depending upon who you are and what you’re like, you might also need complete quiet and privacy, plus a set of earplugs. Unless, of course, you need noise, a series of carefully crafted playlists, or streaming white noise, or, if you were someone completely unlike me, an orchestra of leaf blowers and grumpy neighbors. You might also need water, plain, coffee- or tea-flavored, and snacks. And a timer. And a distraction-free writing environment, and noise-canceling headphones to place over your earplugs. And another sweater, or perhaps a vest, or perhaps a sweater-vest. If you are a certain kind of writer, you might even need a lucky sweater-vest, and a special mug from which to drink your variously-flavored water and a special coaster to put it on, and a timer.

You will almost certainly need to have for your very own self a particular stretch of day that begins and ends at particular times, or else how the hell could you possibly get anything of any seriousness done, much less writing, for god’s sake? And you will need to be well-rested to greet this time of day, and sufficiently exercised, fed, watered, burped, pooped, scrubbed, and groomed. You will need to have ideas to write, perhaps that you have sketched out the day before in a special notebook, perhaps during one of those invigorating constitutionals, or upon index cards with a particular fineness of Sharpie, or upon coated white vertical surfaces with special erasable markers.

You will absolutely need the complete love and understanding of those closest to you, a door separating this room of your own from the rest of the household, a room somewhere entirely off the premises, preferably located close to some additional place that serves coffee- and tea-flavored beverages and provides tables and chairs to work at and wifi for breaks between the working.

You will certainly need all of these things. ALL of them, or how can you possibly be expected to produce anything of consequence? And that is all that is worth producing, right, something of consequence?

* * * * *

I am a planner. Like most of my character traits, it’s something I use to both propel myself forward and to hold myself back. (And that others have used both to praise and to diminish me.)

About a week ago, I had to give a talk rather unexpectedly, the kind of thing one cannot really prepare for.

I was part of a team of people helping out behind the scenes at a friend’s exciting new conference in Portland, and we had hit a snag: one of the scheduled speakers suddenly fell ill, he’s fine now, don’t worry, and had to cancel his talk and fly home, leaving us an empty hour to fill with content and less than 24 hours in which to do it.

Working together (which, more and more, I’m seeing is as critical to accomplishment as is working alone), we came up with an idea that would build on the message he would have delivered in his talk. The new plan became: show an excellent video of a shorter version of his talk that had been uploaded elsewhere; share a few personal stories that contained examples of the theme of his talk; coax from the entire body of attendees their own experiences with the theme of the talk; tie it all together with a magical, meta bow. Ta-da!

In theory, this was a simple, elegant solution that, while it could never replace the particular experience of having this speaker give his talk live, honored him and his work and the entire spirit of the conference in an interesting and (at least to us) inspiring way. For what greater thing is there than having your work carried forward in the work of others? None, that’s what. (Okay, sunsets, smiling babies and bunnies in cups, satisfied?)

In practice, this meant a whole lot of things lining up pretty seamlessly. I, for one, was terrified. While I only had to provide a measly two minutes of programming, and while I knew that the story of my bloody epiphany fit the theme, that really awful things can turn out to be really great, life-changing things, well enough, I had never told this story in less than five minutes. And it had taken me something like 20 hours to boil it down to that, plus another 20 or so hours of running it over and over like a madman. This time around, after dispensing with the rest of my commitments for that day and the next, I’d have roughly three hours of private time to cut the talk in less than half, and not particularly well-rested hours. Maybe someone who did this every day could do it with no problem, but I’d basically promised something I wasn’t entirely sure I could deliver. Not my favorite thing in the world.

But I had to do it, you understand. Not because anyone made me: I offered. Because I wanted to do it. Because we had to do something. Because I had to do it.

* * * * *

There have been two stretches of my life where I stopped writing: a nine-year break during my tenure as a professional ad ho and a four-year hiatus after I fried my brain and before I had my bloody epiphany.

Even during these times, I wrote privately. (Or as privately as someone who commits thoughts to paper and doesn’t destroy the evidence later can be said to write.) My writing was sporadic, dull and repetitive; I wrote to release things no one else would listen to, things so tedious they bored even me. I did it to stave off doom, not to stay sharp against a time when I might be again willing to step up to the plate and swing in front of God and everyone. Still, the fact remains that I wrote: hand moving across a page, over and over again.

* * * * *

At the same conference I ended up delivering my small, semi-improvised talk, I had an experience in one of the sessions that will change forever the way I think about my work. Almost offhandedly, before dispatching us to do one of his really useful exercises designed to help you do better work, Michael Bungay Stanier said, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, but not much, “The first time you tell your stories, they suck.” (Is it any wonder I loved Michael immediately?)

I reflected briefly on this nugget, decided to go with a known quantity, then turned to my partner…and proceeded to tell him the most boring, uneventful version of a pivotal moment in my life I have ever told.

So apparently, the fourth, seventh and ninth time you tell your stories, they can also suck.

My partner then told me his story. It was the first time he’d told it to anyone. It was long, winding and looped back on itself. I was riveted all the way through, and cried more than once.

If I had not had 10 years of acting study, I would not have understood why, but I have, and I did: he was completely present for all of his mess. He did not worry about nudging the pieces of his into some kind of tidy shape; it was his life, and it was untidy, with no clear arc, no neat lesson. But clearly, he had spent a good deal of his life really taking things in and reflecting on them, reading, being present. He had lived the kind of life my well-meaning father might have called unfortunate, the life of a person who was clearly capable, but who couldn’t get his act together, which is what a person needed in the end, to make it in this world.

My father is dead now so I cannot tell him this, but I can tell you: because of this stranger I did a five-minute exercise with, I will be able to tell a story that has thus far eluded me, and in a way that might actually land with someone else.

Also, this is as good a definition of “making it” as I think one can come up with.

* * * * *

I used to think there came a time when, if you worked long and hard, all the strands of everything you’d done and learned wove themselves together and magically transformed you into an Extraordinary Being of Knowing: kind, capable, wise, endlessly patient and a delight to be around. You, only grown up.

Now I think that if there is such a you, it is there all along, gently poking and prodding you to get on with your business. And that if you do enough business, eventually you get to meet the extraordinary person who was there all along, patiently waiting for you to stop your whining about wanting to be of service and log your miles/build up enough muscle to be of real, reliable service.

So yeah, You, Grown Up has lived longer and knows more. You, Grown Up has logged the miles and can deliver on command. But the only reason You, Grown Up is able to be of use (much less someone anyone is delighted to be around) is because You, Grown Up has managed to stay open and available, to tolerate change and mess, and to yuk it up a little instead of taking life so seriously. The things you can do right now with zero training (albeit sometimes in very small amounts, and often only when external forces back you into a corner).

The little talk I had to give turned out fine. Even if it hadn’t, though, it would have turned out fine, just not the way I’d envisioned.

Show up, show up, show up. Raise your hand when volunteers are requested. Try to remain focused on the moment and unattached to outcome.

All work is work in progress.


Image by Armosa Studios via Flickr used under a Creative Commons license. (Don’t know who did the graphic notes of Mark Silver‘s workshop, but they’re dandy.) UPDATE: The visual notes are by Cynthia Morris, who wrote about drawing them at WDS. Thanks to Melody Watson (and her extraordinary comment) for pointing it out.

Frrrrriday Rrrrroundup! #55

beautiful mac desktop wallpaper by tsilli pines

An end-of-weekly roundup collecting fffffive of the fffffoxiest things I fffffind stumbling around the web. More about the genesis here. Every dang Friday Round-Up here, you procrastinating slacker!

Jesse the Jack Russell Terrier is pushing Nylabones these days. Oh, that one could come in every package. [Google Reader-ed]

Part of getting down with the tremendous time of bounty we’re living in is that we won’t have time to see it all. [delicious-ed, via Madeline Mann]

Sadly, this list of what you should really, really think about before emailing someone has not changed in the three years since Seth Godin posted it the first time. Even more sadly, it will probably hold three years from now. [Stumbled].

This may not be the kindest way to deal with obnoxious moviegoers, but it’s right up there with the funniest. Warning: totally curse-filled. By the obnoxious moviegoer. [Facebook-ed, via David Avallone]


Image © Tsilli Pines, from her desktop wallpaper series.

What’s up & what’s gone down :: June 2011

colleen wainwright

me, totally pulling a talk out of my ass

A mostly monthly but certainly occasional round-up of what I’ve been up to and what’s in the hopper. For full credits and details, see this entry.

Colleen of the future (stuff I’ll be doing)

  • June L.A. Biznik Mixer at Jerry’s Famous [Los Angeles; Wednesday, June 22]  Fun, free, low-key networking plus great tips, tricks and ideas from your fellow indie-biz folk, which of course includes me. Duh. All that, and Happy Hour specials, too. My co-host this month, photographer/creative director Josh Ross, may or may not be taking excellent shots of the whole affair. Join up here (free membership, which is nice), then sign up here.

Colleen of the Past (what I have done for you lately)

  • World Domination Summit [Portland, OR; June 3-5] This fantastic conference put on by my friend Chris Guillebeau of The Art of Non-Conformity and his crack team of dedicated volunteers exceeded even my loftiest expectations. (Bollywood dance lesson! Group crying! Free, Oprah-style fortunes taped to the bottom of our chairs!) There are photos available to view on Flickr (and my June newsletter shares one lesson learned). There will also be a documentary assembled eventually. What can I say? Get on the list for 2012; I’ve already bought my ticket.
  • ASMP’s Strictly Business Blog I’m an occasional contributor now, because dammit, I just can’t talk enough about marketing. This post covers the use of personal work in portfolios, written for photogs, but applicable to any artist whose life and work overlap.
  • The Suitcase Entrepreneur Podcast The already-high-spirited Natalie Sisson got rip-roaring drunk on cider and asked me my thoughts on how to build your audience as a blogger. And she did it all from a café somewhere in the world with really spotty wifi. God bless the internets!
  • World-Changing Writing Workshop 2011 My special poetry feature bonus thingy gets released later this week. If you’re a member of this year’s WCWW class, please be sure to join the forum dedicated to my bonus feature. It’s the place, and the only place, where I’ll be discussing aspects of the pieces, and answering questions.

Colleen of the Present (stuff I do, rain or shine)

  • communicatrix | focuses :: My monthly newsletter devoted to the ways and means of becoming a better clearer communicator (plus a few special treats I post nowhere else). This month: How to talk FAST (or, pulling a talk for 500 people out of your ass the night before). Free!
  • Act Smart! is my monthly column about marketing for LA Casting. Nominally for actors, there’s a ton of good info in there for any creative business person. Browse the archives, here.
  • Internet flotsam :: If you suffer from a surfeit of time, you can always look for me on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, StumbleUpon and delicious.


Image by Armosa Studios via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.