The Last Herald Mage trilogy book covers

I have been revisiting a series of fantasy novels from my youth. It’s the Last Herald Mage trilogy by Mercedes Lackey. I want to be clear, there are problems with these books, and I do not recommend them. I think the reason I’ve been listening to them so much is that I find something this familiar to be comforting during a period of high stress.

But I have been listening to the three books over and over again, because each time I listen to the series I notice something new. And I have some thoughts on these books.

What I Like

I have really mixed feelings on the objective quality of these books. It’s always heartbreaking to reread something you loved as a child and find that with adult sensibilities, it’s just not very good.

And the thing is, Mercedes Lackey has really produced a vivid world and a compelling story with distinct, interesting characters. The world of Valdemar and surrounding nations are host to a variety of cultures with different governments and religious beliefs. She has also written a cast of non-human races other than the typical (boring) elves and orcs and whatnot. The Last Herald Mage trilogy doesn’t touch on these much, but other books set in the world do.

The central romance(s) in this series is sweet, which I found to be a pleasant surprise (more on why later).  

The story itself may verge into the melodramatic, but I found it compelling as a tween and still find it compelling today. Its female characters feel complex to me, and its male characters range the gamut from the very toxic to the very kind. 

I thought that the way that the romance is echoed and reversed through the first and last books of the trilogy was skillfully done. There are elements of it I didn’t notice reading the books in text that I did notice listening on audio, and I was grudgingly impressed.

In addition, I have always loved how Lackey handled magic in these books. She doesn’t present magic as a system, she presents it as a force, and leaves the means and methods of manipulating that force rather open ended. This leaves room for us to be surprised by the ways in which this force is used. I think there’s a lot of focus on magic systems in fantasy books these days, and I wonder if that’s an artifact from fantasy RPGs. I don’t like it. I want some mystery in the magic.

Queer Representation

Magic’s Pawn was the first novel I’d ever read with a gay main character. Gay men play several roles in the Valdemar books, but gay women are conspicuous by their absence. The central gay romance is portrayed as sweet, which is nice because in my experience, gay relationships are often boiled down to the sexual, not portrayed as “normal relationships,” because The Straights are endlessly obsessed with gay sex.

Boy oh boy, the author loves to torture gays, though. The gay romance is intensely tragic, with one member of the couple dying young under painful circumstances. The second gay romance in the series involves one member of the couple dying alone, saving Valdemar from outkingdom threats.

Even supporting gay characters are defined by either their tragedy or their character flaws, and this is kind of common in gay stories told by straight authors; our pain is what they find most compelling about us.

This is also the first place I read about an agender character, referred to in the text as “neuter,” though the character is referred to with the pronoun “it.” I’m not willing to say outright that this is bad, but it’s definitely something we could have a conversation about.

One of the characters in a different series written in the same world is genderqueer; presented as a gay man, it states in the text that the character is perfectly balanced between masculine and feminine. This representation came before I even knew what genderqueerness meant, and it left an impression on me. It still defines gender based on the binary, but at least admits that there’s identity other than male and female.

Other books in the world of Valdemar tackle asexual characters as well.

Classism

The main character in the Last Herald Mage trilogy is the firstborn son of a family of landed nobility, and there’s commentary on classism in the books. Part of the change that the character experiences is coming to understand that “common people” are people just like him. 

Despite this seemingly virtuous commentary, the entire society of Valdemar seems to rely on servants to keep things running. Very little is said about these servants. Even characters that come from low-born families end up at some point or another being waited on by servants, and there seems to be just an assumption that servants are there to help, and that they’re happy to do so.

I feel like this aspect of the setting kind of undercuts this awakening of the main character to the fact that poor people are alive and have feelings.

In addition, Lackey describes peasant folk in unfavorable terms; “as plain as a peasant hut,” being just one example.

Everybody’s White

Everybody is fucking white.

On the rare occasion when someone isn’t white, there seems to be a lot of appropriation and exoticism at play. When characters aren’t white, they’re almost always supporting characters. Whiteness is portrayed as the default, and race is never really addressed.

And like, this is white people stuff, right? Race isn’t an issue for white folks, so we ignore it. And the result is that representation suffers.

You could say, “well, this character is described as ‘swarthy,’ that could indicate race,” but this is the same cowardly stuff that Rowling pulled with both racial representation (black Hermione) and queer representation (gay Dumbledore).

And white writers need to do better.

What I Don’t Like

It’s always heartbreaking to return to a beloved work of fiction (whether it’s a book or a film or a television show) and find that it was never as good as you thought it was. I find it’s even more so when I see the good bits, and contrast them against the bad.

While a lot of the story is actually really compelling, it relies heavily on melodrama. Now, I like melodrama, and I think it appeals to the target audience for this book (which was probably teen girls, a little older than I was when I first read it). And I indulge in melodrama in my own writing, I’m not going to lie. But it has to make sense and it has to support the story. You can’t use “agony” every time there’s pain, or it stops meaning anything.

I often wondered when rereading these books how things got through the editing process. It’s astounding that my own personal editing process is more stringent than that of a large publisher (originally DAW Books). The writing errors are rife: reliance on cliche, repetitive word choice, conflicting sensory details, etc.

It actually made me want to go through the book and produce a version edited by me, except distributing such a project would be a violation of copyright law.

I wish the courtship period of the first romance was longer. I want the main character to immediately express attraction to his romantic partner, and maybe struggle a little more with the realization that he’s gay. When you write a romance, even if it’s within another genre, the build up is so important. It gives the romance importance. It gives it weight.

What I Want

What I really want is to rewrite the entire trilogy as good books instead of just good stories. And despite their many, many problems, I do think these are good stories. The writing, though, leaves a lot to be desired.

COVID-19 Coronavirus

The date is March 19th, a Thursday, and we are officially self-quarantining. It is strange. I already feel as though I’m in a place without time or dates. I go lie down if I want to. I’m getting a bare minimum done both around the house and in terms of work on personal projects. Just enough to keep my life together.

How am I doing, you ask?

Anxiety

I’m having intense anxiety, all the time. Tension headaches, tightness in the chest, difficulty sleeping and disrupted sleep. I have been prescribed a new medication for anxiety and sleep, and my other anxiety meds have been increased. I’m nauseated all the time. I have heart palpitations.

The anxiety is worse in the evening than it is in the morning. My mornings are pretty functional, and the physical sensations of stress increase steadily throughout the day until bedtime, when I lie down in bed, stiff as a board, and listen to my heart thump for two hours before drifting off for three to five hours.

I’m not that worried about the virus itself. I’ll get it or I won’t. It probably won’t kill me, though I may be sick as hell for a while. I am a little worried about friends and family who are in vulnerable categories. 

But what really worries me is the future.

The economic impacts of this will be tremendous. The social impacts will be profound. The impacts of this will cross generations. And I can’t tell what will happen. There could be good changes; there could be very bad changes. Most likely it will be a mixed bag. But the not knowing, and the enormous scale of this thing, these are the things keeping me up at night.

Many of my favorite local businesses are either shut down, or working on very reduced operations. I worry about waking up to a world in which these businesses don’t exist. These businesses are one of the things that holds this community that I’m a part of together, and we will be greatly lessened by their loss.

Virtually every friend I have has a possible vector of exposure to the virus, which demonstrates how inaccurate the number of cases being reported is. The fact is the virus is much more widespread than the media is reporting, simply because we haven’t had the availability of testing that would allow us to accurately track the spread of the disease. I, in fact, have a vector of exposure to the virus. And I worry because some of these people will emerge irrevocably changed; either by their own struggle with the virus, or because of the loss of a loved one.

Some of them may not emerge at all.

Anger

It didn’t have to be this way.

I think that’s the thing that makes me the angriest.

We knew this virus had made its way to our shores. We knew on January 20th. And still, the government had no real response plan, and downplayed the impact of the virus rather than advising people to take steps to limit the spread. Senators dumped millions and millions in stock, knowing that the pandemic would impact the market. 

I’m relatively lucky in that I live in a state where the government has taken steps. But in states where the government is taking a slightly more hands-off approach, I worry about folks there. They’re largely folks that I disagree with strenuously over issues that I will absolutely not compromise on, but they don’t deserve to be left to die by their government.

And I’m mad as hell that this has been made into a partisan issue. So angry.

I’m deliriously angry that part of the reason steps weren’t taken was to gloss over pandemic concerns due to an upcoming election.

People are going to die.

People are already dying.

And while not all of those deaths are avoidable, some of them certainly are.

The differentiation in access to testing and care between the rich and famous and the poor and obscure is a source of rage for me. This kind of testing shouldn’t be a luxury. It is to the benefit of all of us that testing is performed as widely as possible, to allow us to track the spread of the disease and take appropriate action.

And the anger I feel is so big that it feels like it’s a separate thing from me. Like it’s a big floating thing tethered to me, but separate from me. I feel the heat of it glowing against my skin.

Cabin Fever

It’s hard to say for sure, but I think this is the first time I spent even an entire day at home, let alone several days, in literal years. I get out of the house every day. It’s a part of how I hold my routine together, it’s a part of how I maintain productivity. I find it near impossible to get good work done at home, because there are so many distractions; other activities, sensory distractions, you name it.

I live with a housemate, and while we’re good friends, spending days at a time cooped up together in a small rental house is bound to take its toll, and that worries me too. I don’t want to end up in a situation in which the friendship becomes imperilled. I don’t want to potentially lose my housing.

I want to see other people. I want to see their faces, see the way their bodies move, and I can’t do that now.

I am, at heart, an extrovert. I like to be around people. And this… this indefinite separation from my community, it’s already difficult and it will take its toll on my mental state. 

But even if I wanted to go out, the places I would go are closed.

Symptoms

I can’t tell if I’m sick or not, which is probably a good sign. 

The symptoms of COVID-19 are difficult to suss out from severe anxiety: pain in the chest, headache, digestive upset, shortness of breath. In addition, I’m an asthmatic smoker, so a sore throat and some shortness of breath kinda come with the territory. I am very tired, all the time, but that can be due to stress as well.

Frankly the only symptom that can be sorted out from anxiety and smoking related sypmtoms is the fever. You can’t buy digital thermometers anymore, so I’m just checking in to see if I feel feverish. I do feel sweaty and flushed sometimes, when I’m tired, but nothing that feels like a bad fever. Not yet.

My housemate and their partner are also sick. Is it COVID-19? We don’t know, and we won’t know. Could be a seasonal cold, could be allergies. We can’t get tested, so what can we do other than act as if we may have the virus, and quarantine ourselves? It’s honestly the only responsible way to proceed I think.

The pets are a godsend. They neither know nor care about the virus, so their routine remains essentially unchanged, other than the fact that their people are now home all the time. And this feels like an anchor back to the normal world to me.

So yeah. I don’t know what’s going to happen. If you’re under quarantine, just keep in mind that even though you’re alone, you’re also kind of not.

You’ll hear from me if anything changes.10

 

 

 

I want to start this post out by stating that I am not a licensed mental health professional, and the advice I’m about to give is not a substitute for real therapy and mental health management. They are only strategies I’ve learned along the way and tried to implement in my daily life.

I think sometimes we all struggle with confidence and self-image. When you like yourself, you’re more able to present your genuine self, and other people will like you more. You’ll be more willing to be daring, to take risks, to innovate, and to speak up about your ideas. You’ll be a more effective and persuasive communicator, and better at building relationships and community.

But how do we get through those times when we don’t feel the best about ourselves?

This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. In fact, I still struggle with it. But I’ve implemented these strategies in my life and I’ve seen some success with them.

This is not a panacea, and it’s not easy. They’re work, and they take practice. But I think they’re worth it.

State Your Feelings as Feelings

When we’re struggling with negative thoughts, whether they’re about ourselves or about something in the external world, it helps to express those thoughts and feelings. But when we state them as fact, we are more likely to believe them. This is an apparent paradox that I struggled with a lot.

But a good friend said to me once that while your feelings are real, they may not be true

This was a statement that I thought about for days, and the more I thought about it, the more it changed the way I look at myself and at the world. And slowly, I started stating my feelings as feelings, and not as fact. For example, after making a mistake, I would not think I’m so stupid, but instead, I feel so stupid. The first is a statement on reality, and the second is an expression of feeling.

The cult of positivity exhorts us to avoid all negative self talk, but the negative feelings we have need to be talked about. This strategy allows me to explore and express negative thoughts without risking further embedding them in my mind.

Practice Mindfulness

I don’t necessarily mean meditation, though that’s a good way to practice. What I mean is redirecting your attention to what’s in front of you.

That’s difficult in this culture. It’s difficult when you’ve got long term goals to move toward and a dozen tasks needing your attention and “multitasking” is an assumed skill.

Multitasking is not really a thing. What looks like multitasking is really task switching, and it can actually lead to a reduction in work performance, feelings of overwhelm, and wondering why everyone else can handle things that you struggle with.

This is a simple concept. Note, without judgement, when you find yourself thinking about the future, or about a task other than the one that’s in front of you, note it, without judgement, and consciously shift your focus back to what’s in front of you. 

Despite its simplicity, this takes practice and work. You will find yourself worrying about other things many, many times in a day, and this experience can be very frustrating. Resisting the urge to judge these moments negatively has been one of the hardest aspects of the practice for me, but it’s also very important.

Celebrate Small Successes

While we all have larger goals to work toward, it’s important to acknowledge your small successes, your milestones. While many of us will beat ourselves up over every little failure, we will ignore the little moments of triumph; moments that can offset our mistakes in our internal landscape and help keep us more balanced, confident, and focused.

We must not let these little triumphs go unnoticed.

We should be able to take pride and enjoyment in as many pieces of our work as possible. Seeing each success as a thing to be celebrated generates more pride in yourself. Even successes that are only steps in a larger process can be celebrated.

These celebrations can take many forms, but they can be as simple as sitting back for just a moment and feeling good about what you’ve done. 

Instead of saving your pride for when you’ve finished the manuscript, take a moment to feel pride about the thousand words you wrote today. It’ll leave you more likely to sit down and write more tomorrow.

Compare Yourself to Yourself

Comparing yourself to your peers not only can result in you feeling badly about yourself, it can kindle feelings of jealousy and negativity toward your peers; impairing working relationships, collaborations, even friendships. When you do this, you’re only working with a limited set of information, and often we draw the wrong conclusions from this information.

Everyone has their struggles. When you compare yourself to your peers, you are ignoring their struggles, the piece of information we most often lack when making these comparisons. 

The best way to benchmark your performance is to compare yourself to yourself. Making forward progress in your craft or profession is always forward progress. Mistakes are always lessons to be learned that give you insight into what you’re doing. Comparing yourself to yourself gives you vital information on your own performance, and areas in which you need to focus and improve.

Comparing yourself to others doesn’t give that insight, because you don’t know where or how that person is struggling (we’re all struggling sometimes, somewhere). You can’t make the same judgments because you don’t have all the information. You’ll get a lot more benefit through introspection and striving to improve beyond your own past performance.

Understand Mistakes as Practice

Did you know that it takes the average smoker between 8 and 14 quit attempts to stop smoking?

The good news about this is that each quit attempt makes the smoker more likely to quit.

Because those quit attempts are practice.

When you regard your mistakes as practice, this opens the door to learn from them; to collect information necessary to improving performance on your next attempt. 

Mistakes are inevitable. What leads to success is examining and learning from those mistakes. Doing this requires one to regard those mistakes dispassionately, without judgement.

When we allow these mistakes to damage our self-confidence, we hamper our own ability to learn from them, replacing “how can I succeed” with “why I can’t succeed.” This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, sometimes even leading us to give up on even trying. Sometimes, this attitude of judgment leads to a fear of failure so intense that it rules out success.

Now, I’m not much of a self-help person. I’m actually a self-help skeptic. And I’m not here to say “my life was a mess, but through this set of behaviors I’ve turned it all around.” I will say that my life has been a continuous iterative process, trying to figure out what works for me, and how I work, in ways that are more likely to lead me to success. 

I offer these strategies to you because if you struggle, like I do, with self-confidence, one or more of these might help.

Oh, Bernie Sanders. To some, a rumpled and benevolent socialist uncle. To others, a bumbling but harmless elder, out of touch with the times. To still others, a real danger to the status quo from which they benefit. But the Bernie Sanders campaign is employing a branding strategy, intentionally or not (I think it’s intentional), known as hostile branding.

Hostile branding is a strategy of aggressive differentiation, often targeting the personal identity of the target market. Part of the strategy is to explicitly exclude those not in the target market, engendering feelings of exclusivity, aspiration, and/or uniqueness in the target audience.

In this post I want to take a look at some of the elements of the hostile brand, and see how they relate to the Bernie Sanders campaign in both 2016 and 2020.

Love it or Leave it

Part of hostile brand strategy is to choose a brand personality and stick to it, proudly and unapologetically. Bernie appeals on camera looking rumpled and disheveled, consistently and without apology or self-consciousness. He makes the same appeals over and over again, without adjusting to feedback that he recieves from the electorate. There are no apologies, sincere or not; no backtracking. He maintains the identity of “democratic socialist” despite the fact that it is alienating and frightening to some.

This forces people to either get in line behind Sanders or not. This is a part of why Sanders is a polarizing political figure.

Cult-like appeal

The Love-it-or-leave-it strategy results in a kind of us-and-them mentality among Sanders’s most fervent supporters. You’re either with Bernie, or you’re an obstruction at best, an outright enemy at worst. I had a friend tell me during the 2016 campaign that if you didn’t support Bernie Sanders, “you’re basically Ann Coulter.”

Yeah, we’re not friends anymore.

This cult-like appeal is not an accident; it’s a strategy employed by the campaign. Sanders made himself into the leader of a movement (hence his political group, named Our Revolution), and that movement has revolutionary change at its heart. If you’re not embracing that revolutionary change, you’re one of Them.

This appeals to people of a certain identity; it reinforces that sense of identity and in fact rewards them for it with a sense of moral superiority.

Less is more

Sanders’s campaign is built on dreams. Aspirations. A vision of what America could be. There’s no real roadmap to those ends; he doesn’t talk about what he’ll do to implement these things with an actively oppositional Senate (and House, maybe. Who knows what the future holds).

I’m betting this is also not by accident.

Bernie Sanders is campaigning against the system, against the status quo, against the Democratic Party itself! Having plans to actually implement his agenda would involve the admission that he’d have to dirty his hands by working with The Enemy. An admission that instead of breaking the system, he would have to work from within it in order to produce the results he and his supporters want to see so very badly.

Moreover, it would be a tacit admission of the fact that their revolutionary movement could fail. Bernie paints every moment of his vision as all but inevitable; his supporters see it as a righteous revolution. Admitting that it could fail invites the chill of reality into that vision, and cools the fires of the passion he’s worked so hard to inspire.

Perceived authenticity

Bernie’s lack of polish, his unabashed connection to socialism, his gruff manner, all of it lies in stark contrast to his political contemporaries. He is, in fact, breaking the rules. And breaking the rules, appearing to be different than others in the competitive field, is courting both success and disaster. Sanders’s willingness to maintain this persona in the face of possible disaster is a marker of authenticity.

Other politicians’ apparent bending to these rules of political campaigning makes them feel inauthenitc; it implies that they are willing to change themselves to play the game. 

This contrast is a strong differentiator; Sanders, as far as his stans are concerned, is not just another politician. And his apparent authenticity leads his stans to believe that he’s someone they can trust. He won’t just sell them down the river like the last politician and the last one, back into the mists of history. Bernie, as far as they can tell, is the Real Deal.

The Risks of Hostile Branding

Much of hostile branding is based around the alienation of the outsider. Lululemon alienates women who are “not meant” to wear yoga pants (meaning women who don’t adhere to the white, thin, young vision held by western beauty standards). American Eagle (and several other “fast fashion” brands) differentiated themselves unapologetically by refusing to offer sizing above the “straight sizing” range, excluding a large group of people from their offerings.

Most hostile brands see that there’s room to prosper within their chosen target market. The risk of alienating all others is factored into the brand’s strategy.

However, this can go two different ways: the hostile brand becomes aspirational for those it excludes, or the alienated become actively hostile to the brand, taking action against it, up to and including direct action, like calling for boycotts.

Because of this, if you’re running a branding campaign that relies on capturing the imagination of a large part of the population, you could end up shooting yourself in the foot by using hostile branding.

I’m not saying this can never be successful in politics; Donald Trump successfully employed hostile branding in much the same way Sanders did. The reason he succeeded is that he employed it while targeting a portion of the population that holds outsized economic and political power in the United States; white people.

Sanders cannot win with democrats this way, so it makes his use of this campaign strategy more complicated.

Hostile Branding and Populism

Populism is defined as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”

It’s easy to see how populism and hostile branding go hand in hand. You find your enemy, your status quo, your establishment, your elites, and you position yourself in opposition to them. 

However, as mentioned above, you must find a target audience that is large enough to drive your brand to success. It is difficult to later incorporate those who have been alienated by your brand.

The problem is, many of the “establishment democrats” that Sanders explicitly positions himself against have done good things, and/or represent ideas that resonate with the electorate. I had someone tell me that Sanders supporting  Stacey Abrams is a line in the sand because of her connections with the finance industry.

Stacey Abrams represents a lot of things. She’s the first black female major party gubernatorial nominee in the United States. She was the first black woman to give a response to the state of the union address. And since her loss to Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial race, she’s dedicated her time to addressing racial inequity in voting rights.

Sanders is not his supporters, and did not come out in opposition to Abrams because of her ties to the finance industry, but Abrams is an establishment democrat, a member of the party. There are other examples of beloved establishment figures, and Sanders treads a delicate line when positioning himself against “party elites.”

Hostile Branding and National Politics

Regardless of your political inclinations, it’s easy to see why the democratic party is necessarily a big tent. It’s a more diverse party than the Republican party, and different groups within the party have different legislative and policy priorities.

The question is, can Bernie’s target market carry him to victory in the general election while he alienates the rest of the party?

I’m not so sure. People assume that his message of economic socialism will resonate with people, but the culinary union in Nevada vocally opposed Sanders during the primary, because they feared his healthcare plan would put their dearly fought for health benefits at risk. Sanders did not do well with southern black voters, despite his change in strategy from 2016 (which appears to mostly be not complaining about “identity politics” anymore), but he may be losing support from white middle america as a result of easing his stance on immigration.

It’s a delicate balance. Donald Trump could use racism to unite the largely white republican party. Given the democrats’ relative diversity, how can Sanders unite the party that he’s campaigning against?

He won’t do it by pretending that those other concerns don’t exist, that’s for sure.

 

Let’s get started with this: this post is not about buying stocks or saving for retirement.

This is also not about “self care” or being able to “treat yo’self.”

This is about investing in your future success. You’ll see more about that below.

During my adult life, I spend a lot of time being very poor. I was even homeless for a time. This kind of stress leaves its marks on you; one example is that I find it very difficult to spend money. It causes feelings of stress and anxiety, and the magnitude of those feelings increases along with the amount of money I’m being asked to spend.

I cried in the car on the way home with my first brand new television, for example.

I save boxes for abnormal amounts of time in case a personal financial disaster occurs and I have to take whatever new thing I’ve purchased back.

I’ve been working on getting better about this, but I still have a hard time making a clothes buying decision, for example. I will patch clothes and wear them until they’re rags, putting off replacing them as long as possible.

This is a problem when it comes to self investment.

Let’s talk about school.

I originally went to college as a teenager, using my college savings from my childhood. I was in a fine arts program, intending to transfer to a University arts program. When the money ran out, I dropped out. 

I resisted going back to school to complete my education because of the enormous price tag. It wasn’t until, unemployed after the Great Recession, my resources ran out that I filed my first FAFSA and entertained the idea of going back to school. 

I was able to do my first two years on grants alone, and I had to take out loans for the last two years of undergrad and for my MBA tuition.

The loans still make me incredibly anxious, even though I believe that this money is the smartest money I’ve ever spent on myself. I have learned and grown through my academic career in ways I do not think would have been possible on my own. Those loans represent an investment I’ve made in myself; new skills learned, new talents developed, new environments explored. Those funds represent me becoming a new and better person, and while having spent those thousands of dollars fills me with dread, I don’t actually regret it.

Now, you don’t have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to invest in yourself.. There are small ways you can invest in yourself every day.

Here are some questions I ask myself when I consider investing in myself:

Will I Learn a New Skill?

This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorite kind of self-investment, and perhaps the hardest for me to actually spend money on. The problem is, there are so many free learning resources available, especially in the internet age, that it gets difficult for me to spend money on it. But a lot of those resources are surface level only by design, in order to get you to pay for further curricula. And that’s when I have a hard time pulling the trigger.

But the fact is, there’s a depth of learning you’re eventually going to have to pay for to get results, unless you find yourself in the incredibly lucky position of having a friend who’s an expert who’s willing to teach you for free.

But look. Learning new things is always worth it. That doesn’t mean that all learning opportunities are worth it; some of them are garbage. For example, I have a hard time believing that writer’s conferences are worth the money they demand (there are reasons for this but that’s another blog post). 

But purchasing a course from Codecademy? Probably worth it. Many of the courses on Udemy? They’re also worth it (but you know, shop smart). Going back to school to complete your higher education? Almost definitely worth it. Adult Ed courses at your local community college? Definitely worth it.

If the skill you stand to learn is related to your professional field, all the better. But learning something you’re interested in is good too. It is not just personally fulfilling, but learning itself has benefits. You keep your mind more flexible, and make it easier to learn other things down the line. It may not make you smarter, exactly, but it does keep you from slowing down, and as an adult who returned to college, I can tell you that that’s important.

Will it Make my Life Easier?

This is the ultimate form of self-care for me (I know, I said it wasn’t about self-care, but keep reading). It may seem obvious, but making your life easier makes literally every other thing easier. We all have a limited about of mental energy to spend in a given period of time, and the mental energy you don’t put into vacuuming the rug every day because of your vacuum robot actually frees up personal resources to be redirected toward more important things.

And it’s not just doing those other things that makes things easier; it’s that you don’t have to worry about those things, too. Because that stress and worry uses up mental resources. Worrying about the fact that you haven’t had time to vacuum the rug, regardless of whether or not you actually vacuum the rug, costs you resources.  In fact, since the worry often lasts longer than the actual task itself, it may cost more resources than actually performing the task.

There’s this idea that we should feel guilty about outsourcing the menial tasks of keeping a life together, but here’s the thing; in prior ages, we had a member of the household specifically dedicated to performing these tasks. In the modern age, where many of us are a) single, or b) members of dual income households, we no longer have that option. If a meal delivery service, or a monthly visit from a housecleaning service, or a vacuum robot will make your life easier, relieve stress, and open up time for other things (like learning a new skill, perhaps?) then I say you should do it.

You still have to evaluate whether you can afford the expenditure, of course. I’m a poor grad student, and I cannot afford a vacuum robot. But man, when I re-enter the professional world and have the option to own a vacuum robot you know I’ll have one. I have a lot of things to do that are more important than vacuuming the rug. Don’t you?

Will it Make me Appear More Professional/Credible to my Peers?

Ah yes, appearances. So shallow and so unimportant, says the artist in me. Whose humanity is sufficiently represented by appearances? What kind of way is that to value human beings?

And yet.

I have always struggled with appearances as a concept. I have consistently been at odds with my appearance throughout my entire life, filled with despair that I didn’t look the way I thought I should. Not necessarily the way other people thought I should (though there’s plenty of that too), but also I never felt like I looked the way I felt. My appearances, though I would not have the words to express this until well into adulthood, never matched my identity.

And appearance is fundamental to identity. 

Investing in your appearance to confirm your identity is worthwhile because it improves happiness. Now, for some people that means clothes and manicures and hair appointments, and me, I’m honestly fine with patched jeans and graphic tees and Great Clips haircuts. But. These things will not make me appear credible to managers, recruiters, and clients. No, not even here in Bellingham, Washington.

So despite my lack of interest in blazers, after a long search process and a good online sale, I purchased myself a black blazer for job interviews, etc. I bought myself two knee length business skirts and a pair of slacks. I bought myself a blouse. I need some more blouses but like I mentioned above, I have a hard time spending money on these things. Most of these articles in fact still have the tags on them, even though the return period has passed.

This also relates to the first question; will a skill on my resume make me a more attractive hire? Will a PHP certification or a data analytics certification make me more attractive as a digital marketer? Almost certainly, even though there are managers out there responsible for similar hiring decisions that don’t even know what PHP is.

Having a certification on your resume, even if it’s only tangentially related to your field, also tells potential employers that you sought out, invested in, and completed an opportunity to learn a new skill, which says something about you.

So ask yourself the above three questions, and if your opportunity answers one or more of them, give it serious consideration. Of course, you still have to evaluate whether you can easily afford your options, and you may have to prioritize them and decide which will provide you the most value. But an investment in yourself is going to be the best money you ever spent.

I started another book tonight, when I should have been studying for my Finance exam. The  working title is The Eight Greatest Fears of Sam Reichardt. I’m hoping by the time it’s written, long titles will be back in fashion.

This makes three active projects: No Chance in Hell (in drafting), The Falcon and the Bluebird (outlined, with chapter list), and the Eight Greatest Fears (in outline). This is probably not a great way to work, but once I get an idea, I am terrified of forgetting it, so I have to start developing it and writing it down right away. 

I don’t go through this beginning process all that often, and I was having thoughts about it, so I feel like it might be worth documenting here.

I have seen writers try to divide themselves into Pantsers and Plotters, that is whether you sit down and just start writing, or whether you make an outline first. I refuse to choose. I think both are useful tools in the writer’s arsenal, and that both are skills every writer should learn, because they lend themselves to different developmental problems. Thus, I am both.

But the outline isn’t the beginning.

The Beginning

In the beginning, there’s an idea. A mood. A theme. A concept that the writer wants to express in narrative. I work on this idea until I can express it in a one-sentence narrative. In this case (spoilers? but you’ll have forgotten all of this by the time the book is published, I’m sure) the idea was exposing oneself to fear, and the vulnerability inherent in bravery. There’s more to it than that, but this is the root of it. I work that into a narrative sentence: a woman sets out to face down her eight greatest fears.

The number eight has no significance here; I just liked how it sounded.

Now I start fleshing that out. Why does she do this? What does she stand to gain? What does she stand to lose? What obstacles does she face?

Note: I have not written anything down yet. This is all brain work, and most of it is back of the brain work.

The Structure

Once this idea has ripened in the back of my head sufficiently, I begin laying out the structure. I can’t tell you when your idea is ripe. It is a feeling, more than a specific stage of development. I often have to resist the urge to sit down and start writing, because if I write before my pre-writing is done, there will be a mess to clean up.

This process of laying out the structure is not really the outline; it’s what comes before the outline. I decide which structure I want to use, and start sketching it out on a notepad I keep on my desk. I almost always start with the three act, eight sequence structure from screenwriting. It’s very straightforward and without it I often struggle with pacing. The three act eight sequence structure helps me keep things tight.

I start mapping out the main plot points on to the eight sequences. I always, always have missing pieces here. It’s part of the process. It’s like you’re putting together a skeleton and you have missing bones. So where the bones are missing, I write down questions. 

Then I usually map this on to Dan Harmon’s plot embryo in order to square up thematic elements. The plot embryo is based on the Hero’s Journey, which as conceived by Joseph Campbell is kind of out of date and a little sexist, but the plot embryo kind of modernizes it a little bit, in my opinion, by loosening it up. 

So now I’ve got my plot points and my questions written down, and I’ve set up some thematic elements to include and have decided how the events in the story will reflect those themes.

Let it Age

This is the only solution I have to coming up with the answers to my questions. This is more back of the brain work. I have come to understand that a great deal of this creative work happens when I’m not looking. This is where those ah-ha moments come from; they are not bolts from the blue. Your brain has been working on these things while you’ve been going about your day, and when the work is done, the egg timer in your head goes ding, and the new answer is served up hot and fresh into your conscious mind.

This can take days, or it can take weeks. Don’t rush it. You’ll regret it if you do.

Flip back to the page of the notebook with your structure on it. Re-read it. Start jotting in the answers to your questions. This may bring you additional questions. If so, great. Write them down and start this step again. You are iterating. It is fine.

What happens if the answers don’t come?

There are two possibilities.

One, your idea might not be very good, or it might be incomplete. There are a variety of ways to build out an idea, including mind-mapping and brainstorming. I also particularly like telling someone else (a non-writer, that’s very important) my ideas and seeing what they come up with.

Two, your idea is good, but you’re not ready to write it yet. You don’t have the requisite experience or understanding. That is also fine. Put the page you were working on away and come back to it when it creeps back into your awareness.

The Outline

Now it is time to outline! Take your plot points, your thematic elements, and your questions and answers and open a file in your word processor of choice.

Start with the biggest simplest structure. For me, that’s Acts I, II, and III. Break it down a little smaller. for me that’s the eight sequences. Break it down a little smaller than that. For me, that means putting in all the little things I know I want to include that aren’t big enough to be main plot points. These can be in there for a variety of reasons; they can lead to a plot point, or support a thematic element, or whatever.

Keep doing this until you’re at the end of Act III. 

The Chapter List

I always write a chapter list before I start writing. I think about how long I want the book to be, and then I think about how long my chapters are likely to be on average. This depends on the kind of book, usually. Faster paced, more action oriented stories are likely to have shorter chapters, and more literary style books are likely to have longer chapters. Maybe I want a 150k word book, and I estimate that my average chapter length is going to be 3k words. I know I’m going to need around fifty chapters.

I know that Act I is going to take up the first quarter of the book (37k-ish words, in this example) and that tells me what needs to happen within those first twelve to thirteen chapters according to my outline. So I start writing down a one sentence description of what happens in each chapter. Some chapters will be blank right now and that’s okay! You’ll fill them in as you go.

This is important: you will not follow this chapter list to the letter. Things will change as you write, and that’s just part of the process. But the glory of the chapter list is that if I get stuck somewhere, I can skip a head (or go back) to a different chapter and keep writing while whatever I’m stuck on eventually gets resolved in the back of my brain.

There. Now you’re ready to write your first sentence. 

Easy, huh?

 

I’m working as a graduate assistant at the university that I’m attending. When I first decided to do this, it was just a way to make extra money and reduce my tuition costs. I found myself working for the marketing department, helping manage a work study project for nine undergrad students, and despite my expectations, I’m finding I really love my job!

The work study project is a new way of handling Integrated Marketing Communications curriculum. I’m excited to create and complete tasks related to my job, I spend time every day thinking about how to do things better, thinking of things we need to teach these students to get them prepared for creating content in the real world.

I think there are a few reasons I’m so excited about this work.

This is the way this class should always have been taught.

I took Integrated Marketing Communications as an undergrad as a marketing elective, and while the class did provide useful information and skills, the only practical experience we got was creating an integrated marketing communications plan, with a few digital assets.

In the work study version, we’re helping a team of students put together a real content campaign for a real client. This means that they’ll learn a lot of skills they’ll need as a marketing professional, and they’ll learn it by doing. I’m actually a little jealous of them. I’m trying to give them access to the skills I would’ve liked to have had when I started out creating content.

I’m learning too!

Another thing that’s really great about this job is that I’m learning too! I’m looking for and putting together resources for the team, and a lot of it is about stuff that I’m not an expert at, like SEO. Not only that, but I’m learning more about how to manage a team at the same time. 

I am passionate about learning, and one of my ongoing projects is to teach myself the skills that I didn’t get from a traditional marketing program. A lot of this material changes so quickly (like SEO) that it’s difficult to create curriculum that is evergreen, so I think a lot of it gets passed over. The program also dedicated so much time to theory that there wasn’t a lot of room for practical skills, so this gives me dedicated time to teach myself these things.

I like my team.

I’ll admit, I was kind of dreading working with undergrads. I just remember the intense frustration I experienced trying to work with my peers in undergrad; they didn’t care about performance or learning or intellectual rigor. They did all the work at the very last minute. They didn’t bother showing up to meetings (or class) on time, and I longed to be around people who took their education as seriously as I took mine. This is one of the things I love about grad school: people are there not because they feel like they have to be, but because they have a goal they want to reach, and they’re willing to work for it.

But the work study team is so small, and it’s full of people who want to be there. It’s a job as well as a class, so there was a selection process. I don’t know what that process was, or how many applicants there were originally, but these folks had to apply, which indicates they’re here because they want to be. So far, and it’s early in the quarter, nobody has had to be pushed to do their work. Nobody has balked at receiving feedback. A student even asked to have a meeting with me about the project. It’s fantastic.

I like my boss.

So far, and like I said above it’s early in the quarter, my boss and I have a great working relationship. I actually took the old Integrated Marketing Communications course from him, so we’re familiar with one another, and I think that helps. He treats me like a partner, a peer, rather than like a subordinate. He tells me what we need to get done, and we do it. I tell him something I’d like to do, and he tells me it’s a great idea and I should do it. In fact, I have a hand in shaping how this project develops.

I don’t know if I’ve ever had that kind of creative (and it is creative) freedom in a professional capacity before, nor this level of responsibility, and honestly I’m thriving. I’m excited about the work, I’m eager to handle tasks and assignments, I’m happy to engage with the students. I love it. I get up excited about the work I’m doing, and that’s a rare feeling for me.

My boss and I think similarly in a lot of ways. Not all of them, and I think that’s part of why this works. I think we’re complementary in our communication and work styles, and we’re both willing to put in extra work to make sure this is everything it can be, and that’s a wonderful environment to work in.

I’m passionate about the subject matter.

As I’ve said here before, I love digital content. It’s my favorite part of marketing. It’s a part of culture, it influences and is influenced by culture, and in that sense, it’s similar to my other love, fiction writing. I love how the internet has  democratized content, even though the results of that are sometimes suboptimal (hi, white supremacists).

So I’m able to approach the subject matter with all that passion and excitement, and I hope that I get to excite our students with my approach to the subject as well. And that’s aside from the fact that I get to help with something I love. And I get to immerse myself in learning and doing something I love. It’s really a win-win situation.

It’s the real world.

My experience with the prior Integrated Marketing Communications course was good, but the end result of the class was an IMC plan and a few digital assets for a fictional organization. The fact that this work is being done for a real client in the real world, the fact that we’re developing real assets and real content that will be available to the public, in fact intended to be distributed to the public, really excites me.

But on the other side of the coin, because we’re all doing this in the context of a university classroom, we have our training wheels on. The lower risk means that we have the room to make mistakes, to fail upward, as it were. This gives us the freedom to try things out, see if they work, and learn from them. We can take safe risks, and risk is vital to creativity. Risk is vital to learning.

I comfort myself with the fact that I’m still writing. In fact, I’m writing in ways that stretch my skills more than writing fictional narrative does, because I have more experience and practice with fiction. I am expanding the boundaries of the notorious comfort zone, and making myself a better writer all around.

But I still miss writing fiction.

It has been a long time, months, since I’ve written on any of my current works-in-progress. Since starting the MBA program, maybe longer. You might say to yourself, well winter break is the perfect time to dive back into the work you love! The fact is, I’m spending more time on professional blogging pursuits than on fiction during the break.

But Why?

I’m not sure. It’s complicated. It has to do with the way that long-form artistic work functions, I think. First, to start again, I would have to go through reams of notes and read through my manuscript again before I’d know where to start or what to do. Second, it takes a while to get into and then to get out of that particular mode of work (at least it does for me), so break feels like a short time to get back into it. 

I know that sounds odd for someone who can write a book in a couple of months, but it really does depend on the mode of work. I don’t like using the phrase “flow state,” because I think it’s misunderstood, but I think that’s the closest I could get to actually naming the phenomenon.

There’s also a lurking fear in there that being in my academic frame has changed the way I write, and I might ruin the good things that are already in the manuscript. The idea that there might be an abrupt change in tone or focus of the writing as a result of having taken so much time off the project is a real fear (whether or not it’s justified) and it feels safer just to let it lie until I can really focus on it.

Which, of course, will be never. Because artists have day jobs, and there’s always things to get in the way and it’s never the “right time” to write a novel, and all of the dozen other things I railed against when I started writing. 

It’s funny, I used to be able to write any time, anywhere. I remember coming home with folded stacks of scrap paper in my pocket, a new chapter, ready to be typed into the main document.

What Changed?

I don’t know, a lot of things changed. Some personal, some environmental. My brain is different, for starters, for a host of reasons. I lead a more structured life now than I used to, something that’s necessary to maintaining academic performance and robust physical health. I guess I am more of an adult now, which isn’t a good thing or a bad thing, but it is a thing. 

There are all kinds of things that adults let get in the way of writing, like meals and sleep and housework and social events. We trade the magic of writing half a book in a week for the drudgery of not living in filth and eating cold hot dogs at our laptops. Is it a worthwhile trade? I don’t know. Both modes of living have their ups and downs, obviously.

I appreciate the stability and structure of this adult life. I am grateful for the benefits it’s had for my health and general well-being. Structure helps me use my brain more effectively, understanding when to switch frames and tasks, and how to prioritize those things. There are massive benefits to not being a largely dysfunctional but tremendously productive author.

Unlike many famous white dude authors of the recent past, I don’t have a dedicated wife to take care of me, to edit my drafts and feed me and remind me to bathe. This seems to be a privilege reserved for artistic men. So I can’t hedge against sacrificing control of my life on the altar of creative pursuits in that way.

And the things that I’m doing instead are personally fulfilling and interesting in their own ways. But I still miss fiction

What Do You Miss About It?

Oh gosh. A lot of things. The risk is part of it. You can take risks in professional and academic writing, sure, but they’re different. In fiction it’s more about taking big risks that impact an imaginary world, while professional and academic pursuits involve taking smaller risks that impact my very real world. The sense of scale and feeling of recklessness are missing.

I also have this flair for the dramatic that isn’t satisfied by most academic or professional writing. You want to bring something of your personality to anything you write, obviously, because otherwise you could just get an AI to write it for you. Your personality, your voice, is what makes you marketable as a writer. But there’s a limit to the drama that you can inject into it.

In fiction, you can find ways to allow yourself to dramatize things to absurd degrees, though, and I do miss that. I miss the feeling of drawing out tension, the feeling of releasing that tension. I miss the ability to change the scope of the writing to serve my mood, zooming way in small or pulling way back. So I guess there’s an element of power to it too. I can make whatever I want, present it how I want the reader to see it, magnify the things I find important. I am the sole view into a fictional world when I write fiction; I am the final arbiter of reality, and my own propagandist. 

There’s an element of craft that I miss there too. I mean craft is a consideration in any writing, no matter how technical; things must be read and easily understood by your chosen audience, and that’s craft. But the options are almost unlimited in fiction. I could spend  three paragraphs writing about a rock on a beach, spinning it into a metaphor on the story’s theme, or whatever. There’s a lot less of that in professional and academic writing, and the rules you do it under are a lot less lenient.

I also miss the culture surrounding fiction writing. I miss getting to discuss structure and craft with other authors. I miss that particular camaraderie. 

So basically everything, I guess.

So What Are You Going To Do About It?

That’s always the question, isn’t it? What am I going to do about it? Am I going to keep whining about it and not change anything? Am I going to dip my toe back in with some short fiction? I really should write more short fiction. Or am I going to read through my manuscript and puzzle out where I left off and what I was doing at the time, and then plunge in?

Which is easiest? Which is most practical? Which is most satisfying?

Ten years ago it felt like there would always be time for more writing. But now I’ve got three books on the back burner and it’s been years since I last published something. My education is preparing me for a career that will involve full time work, which means writing in the cracks and margins. How much time do I really have left to prioritize my fiction? Forty more years, if I’m lucky? I’ve already lived forty years and I’ve only got two books out. You can see how the pressure starts to mount.

I do not and will not have kids, but faced with questions like these I often wonder how I would advise my children in this same situation.

It would probably be something along the lines of follow your dreams! I know you can make it work! or something equally trite. Something that ignores the complexity of real life.

Because that’s the really great part of fiction; ignoring the complexities of real life.

Because the complexities of real life are soul-killing and boring, and it’s that, more than anything else, that I would want to protect my children from as long as possible.

 

 

So I wanted to post an update regarding the Shanghai trip.

And I’ll give you the bad news first.

The Shanghai trip has been cancelled.

The faculty in charge of the trip say that they couldn’t in good conscience risk exposing us to the Wuhan coronavirus.

I am on a drug that suppresses my immune system, so I’ll admit the virus has been a concern for me, but I decided that if the university faculty decided that it was safe, I would still go. 

They have decided it is not safe enough.

But. And here’s the good news. Maybe.

They’re saying now that they may move the trip to a university in southern Taiwan. 

This is not a sure thing; they are gauging interest to see if it’s worth making arrangements. If we don’t have enough people willing to go on the trip, it won’t happen. Some members of my cohort already sound like they’re dropping out of the trip, so it’s a big question mark right now.

I really hope the trip goes ahead, though. Taiwan is a beautiful and culturally complex place, and I would love the chance to experience it. 

Also it’s warm and I’m very tired of the Northwest winter.

If the trip doesn’t go ahead, I’ll be offering refunds to all donors to the trip fund.

If the Taiwan trip goes ahead, I’ll still offer refunds in case any of my donors are uncomfortable with the change in location.

I feel that going to Taiwan will accomplish the same educational and personal development goals that I had for Shanghai, and if it happens, I’ll be really excited to go. I’ve never been to Taiwan.

That’s the update. Bad news, followed by possible good news. I’ll keep everyone updated as the situation develops.

Getting good at stuff is a constant pursuit of mine. Unfortunately, what that stuff is sometimes changes from day to day, which is a bit derailing. As an adult, I’ve gotten better at prioritizing and organizing things I want to get good at.

If you want to get good at a lot of stuff, that necessarily will make you something of a generalist. This isn’t bad; it makes you flexible, agile, adaptable. All of which are desirable traits in any professional role. But there will always be someone more expert than you in any single subject, so be prepared for that.

Getting good at stuff carries an important benefit other than just being good at stuff. You learn how to learn. If you’ve already learned how to learn, it helps keep that skill sharp. Learning is a skill, and if you don’t keep using it, it starts to degrade over time. Knowing how to learn keeps you agile, and it keeps you moving forward in both your professional and personal lives. But how do you get good at stuff? This is a question I wrestle with periodically, especially for things that my school doesn’t offer classes on. What follows are lessons that I have learned in my pursuit of getting good at stuff.

Use Professional Resources.

One of the resources I overlooked the most in my youth was my job. I was, like most college dropouts in their twenties, both bewildered and sure that I knew everything I needed to. I thought the garbage job I had would last forever, and that it would forever be appropriate for me.

Now that I’m older, I’ve found ways to look into my professional situations for things to learn. I learned about my last professional role voraciously, asking for additional projects, volunteering to help other departments, and finding tasks that I could take over from my supervisor. Not because I wanted to get more work done for my wage, but because I wanted to learn. You can nudge this to get it to work better for you. If you’re early in your career and working entry level positions, seek out a role that complements or assists a role similar to what you’d like to do in the future. Ask for extra work (assuming it won’t derail your existing duties). Offer to help during the end of year budget scramble. Take notes for meetings. Humbling yourself to assistant level tasks puts you in a great position to learn.

Use Academic Resources.

I have an advantage in getting good at stuff right now because I’m in an academic setting, paying to be taught stuff. And if you’re so inclined and have the financial ability to do it, I think going back to school is a great idea. Lots of master’s programs have evening and weekend programs available, and you can develop a skill set that complements your existing degree. Or, if you haven’t graduated from university, it is never too late to start. Going back to school was life changing for me. It helped me find direction, and if I’m going to be honest, it helped me see a future for myself where I wasn’t sure one existed. But you don’t have to make these kinds of commitments to avail yourself of academic resources. Many community colleges and some universities will offer continuing education programs where you can take one or two courses for not a huge amount of money, and these courses might just be enough to get you started. And once you get started, once you have the basics, there’s a lot you can teach yourself.

Use Your Personal Resources.

You have friends and family and coworkers that know stuff. Ask them how they got good! These people have knowledge that they might not even know is valuable. They won’t have the time to teach you every step of the way, most likely, but they can tell you how they got good at stuff, and even point you toward resources that will help you get started. You can even offer to work with them or assist them in doing the thing they’re good at, whether it’s fixing cars or carpentry or baking. And that’s not just a great opportunity to learn, it’s a chance to build much needed community bonds as well. Your friend or family member will probably be flattered that you want to learn from them, too.

Find Free Resources.

We live in the internet age! There’s dozens of free resources for learning all kinds of things, from languages to arts and crafts to coding! Fire up your search engine of choice and start looking. Some things to look out for:
  • Some websites will claim to have free resources but will want you to pay at the moment of conversion.
  • Some free resources on the internet are just not that good. If someone’s not getting paid to provide that service, it may be spotty or out of date.
  • You may need to cobble together multiple free resources to get the information you want.

Use Paid Resources.

Honestly, some of the paid resources available on the web are really good. When people make money off of providing information, they’re likely to put more labor into it and keep it timely. Some of these resources can be had at a really good deal; I bought a course on Python from Stackskills on a pay-what-you-want sale, and I still consider it to be a smart move. I haven’t done the course yet but I do have it bookmarked. Look, I have a lot of things I want to learn, okay? Anyway, there’s always the temptation to think that you can get what an online course is offering for free elsewhere, and in some cases that’s true, but the benefits you get when paying for it can include things like structure, timeliness, different course formats (video, etc), and even the ability to ask questions. An entire product category has sprung up around learning from experts on the web. If you can afford it, take advantage of it.

Don’t Wait; Get Started.

Regardless of how you choose to get good at stuff, the most important part is to get started. Is it more important for you to learn a thing, or to watch Hulu? (You can learn things from watching television too!) Sometimes you’ll want to watch Hulu, but sometimes you’ll want to put energy and time into getting good at stuff. When those times arise, get up, and get started.

A reader asked me to write about where the creative and the analytical intersect in business, and while I’m sure I’ve written around this topic before, I thought maybe I should try writing directly at it. Maybe by doing so I’ll hit on some things I haven’t covered or even thought about before. Maybe by doing so, I’ll express ideas in more concrete ways than I have before.

We do get better as we write more, after all.

Problem Solving is Creative.

What is creativity?
Creativity is defined as the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others. Human Motivation, 3rd ed., by Robert E. Franken
This is just one definition of a concept that often defies such encapsulation. Creativity is often thought of as the domain of artists and writers, and while the creative ability is essential in these fields, it’s about so much more than art, music, and literature. Creativity is about experiencing the world in novel ways, looking at things differently, and using that experience to find and develop solutions to problems. This may seem sterile, but if your creative act doesn’t solve some kind of problem, it will never make it in the public domain. Even art, despite the rarified position we give it in culture, is a tool used to solve problems. In fact, one of the common ways to measure creative thought is the “unusual uses” test. This is a test in which a subject gives as many different uses as they can for a common object (a brick, for example). The more different uses, the more creative thought is employed. This test measures creativity, and requires the subject to come up with practical uses for an everyday object; in short, ways that object can be used to solve problems.

Business is About Solving Problems.

What excited me the most in my study of business was coming to understand the whys behind business. Before I get started, this is a sort of a starry-eyed description and is in no way intended to imply that all business is good or beneficial. There are obviously bad, exploitative businesses out there. Business at its heart is about solving problems.

No, no, you say. Business is about increasing shareholder wealth!

Okay, well the truth is more complicated than that, especially these days, but even within this Friedmanist view, the way to build shareholder wealth is to solve problems. Specifically, to come up with solutions to problems that people will pay you for. Successful business (okay not all of them, some of them are terrible) do this well. Solving problems, as addressed above, is not a purely analytical process. Problem solving skills are taught in an analytical way, though, so this is how we come to understand them. But the truth is, effective problem solving involves both skill sets: the creative and the analytical.

Not Every Job in Business is Creative, But Some Are.

This is why business often requires multiple minds. Not because analytical thinking and creative thinking are opposites (they aren’t), but because we’re taught about these skills in very different ways, and so we tend to specialize. So we end up with people who specialize in the creative, and spit out idea after idea regardless of their practicality. This is incredible, the ability to just generate solutions. It’s also one of the ways we now measure creativity in experiments and studies, actually. But people who specialize in the creative often lack the structure (again, not due to inability, but due to how these skills are coded in the culture) to organize and execute these ideas. So we also need structure specialists, and that’s where we have those who have specialized in the analytical. They can take those ideas, structure them, rank them, test them, and find the ones that are the best for any given situation. Then they can measure them and present the results in digestible and organized formats for the creativity specialists to iterate on. Because these skills are culturally coded as opposites, we have structured most businesses to have different roles for the creative and the analytical, although we do see this separation breaking down in modern, effective business workplaces.

Creativity is a Business Asset.

The ability to take a problem and come up with multiple solutions is a tremendous business asset. Sadly, most workplaces are built not to encourage creativity, but to discourage, even punish it, because creativity carries risk, and successful businesses have a lot to loose. We waste a lot of creative assets in this way,

because of how we handle failure

. Again, modern workplaces are getting better at encouraging their workers to practice creativity, but American business has a long way to go before they’re taking full advantage of this resource, in my humble opinion. There are still companies and roles in which creative workers are considered to be an unfortunate nuisance, a regrettable yet necessary part of the value chain. But business has its fashions, and if “creativity” was the buzzword of the previous decade, “business analytics” is the buzzword of the current one. Business today is looking for data, reams of it, and the charts and graphs that go along with it. Whole business realms are now data driven in a way that simply wasn’t possible ten years ago, and this is the root of a lot of innovation. Not just in terms of supply chain efficiency and service effectiveness, but also in terms of sustainability. But don’t let the data analytics buzz fool you; the people who are making new ideas out of that data are the same people that have always helped bring signals out of noise. Creative workers.

Creative is not the Opposite of Analytical.

This is something that took me a long time to learn, and I still think it’s something I haven’t fully internalized yet. While there is a degree of chaos and risk involved in creative work, the structure of the analytical and the mess of the creative are not opposites. You do not sit on a spectrum between analytical and creative. You in all likelihood have both skills, and have developed one in preference to the other due to how you were socialized as a child. This is something I’ve struggled with most of my life. I was recognized early as a creative kid, an artsy kid. My parents encouraged me to develop that skill, and made allowances for my deficits in the maths and sciences. The message I received was clear; I was not supposed to be good at those things, because I was already good at this thing. And I labored under that belief for most of my life. It wasn’t until I got to college (the second time) and pursued a business education that I came to realize that I did have analytical ability. It is not as developed as my creative skill, not because I lacked natural aptitude, but because I had not developed those skills. I had never been told I had those skills, or that I had the option to develop them. During my second stint at college, I had the opportunity to undo some of that. I had opportunities to develop analytical skill. I was still behind where I thought I should be, because I had not been practicing these skills for the last twenty years. But I could get better. And I did. And the secret is, gaining more analytical skill did not make me less creative. Because these two things are not opposites.

Business is Creative.

One of the things that stunned me most on entering the study of business was how very bright and interesting and creative my instructors were. Granted, I entered a focus (marketing) that tends to collect more creatively skilled people, but still. The use of creative skills in this field had to be structured by research, by process, by data. Even classes outside of my concentration that required analytical frameworks only bolstered the usefulness of my creative skills. I went from planning to be an art major to being a business major, and I never felt a single qualm about it. No sense of self-betrayal, and after I was embedded in the program, no sense that I was a poor fit for the field. And that’s because business is creative, and creativity is business.

This might seem like an odd topic to write about on a blog that’s ostensibly professional, but it’s about an important part of who I am and what drives me.

I feel very nervous writing about it, in fact. Which is probably a sign that I should write about it.

A classmate of mine recently asked me when I came out, and my response, “oh, a year or two ago,” prompted a surprised response.

I actually came out to my friends as genderqueer before I came out as bi. In school, I am more willing to discuss my sexuality than my questions/understanding of gender. This realization led me to the understanding of how complex these contexts are, and as I develop friendships within my cohort these contexts grow closer together and overlap in uncomfortable ways.

This post is going to talk about sexuality more than gender. I think my feelings about gender and my identity are complex enough topics to deserve their own space.

Wait, You Came Out in Your Forties?

When you’re a bi woman, I think, and especially if your attraction to men and women (catering to the binary for the sake of simplicity) is roughly equal, it’s easy to believe that you’re straight. And this is what happened to me. As an artsy kid, I rationalized that female beauty that struck me dumb was an artistic appreciation. That the women that I wanted to fawn over in my life were simply people I deeply admired.

It wasn’t until age 40-41 that I started to recognize deeply gay feelings I was having for what they were.

I attribute this to my existing in a circle of friends in which queerness and same-sex attraction is very normalized. It suddenly seemed not so strange that I would see a woman in a midriff baring shirt and kinda want to squeeze her belly. That I would want to kiss a woman’s shoulders. It was no longer something I could pass off as artistic, as platonic admiration.

I went home and said to my roommate: “I’ve been having some very gay thoughts today.”

She leaned forward and said, “tell me more.”

And I did.

I really benefited from having someone to talk to about it in a non-judgmental way, someone with whom I could verbalize what I’d been feeling and sort of get things untangled.

A few days, maybe a week later, I came out as bi on Facebook.

Why Bi?

I identify as bisexual probably because I’m older, and it feels more comfortable to me. The bi identity is often accused of being binary and transphobic, but it means that I am attracted to genders the same as mine (homosexual) and those different than mine (heterosexual).

People say that “pansexual” is an identity better fitting this definition, but I don’t know, it just sounds so modern and wishy-washy to me, so I don’t use it.

Since coming out, I have felt a great deal more attraction to women than to men, and I’m not sure if it’s a case of waking up in a beautiful garden and wanting to smell all the flowers, or if it’s a genuine reflection of my orientation. Either way, I don’t know that it matters. I don’t think I’m a lesbian. I’m absolutely for sure not straight.

I think I might be done dating men. This is not a reflection of my orientation; I still find some men attractive. I’m just so tired of dating men and all the bullshit that comes with it, and statistically cis straight men are just not good in bed. This squares with my experience with sex with cis straight men. So why put in the effort if the sex is bad and the relationship fraught with societal issues around gender?

I also don’t know about dating women? This new (it’s not new, but more on that later) attraction is kind of scary. The thought of learning how to have sex all over again at age 41 is intimidating and women are beautiful and scary. But if I were to date, if I were to even eventually marry, I would prefer it be with a woman or non-binary person rather than a cis man.

See how complicated this gets?

How Could You Not Know?

Well, there were signs, right? I should have known.

Those girls and women that I felt compelled to make meticulously handcrafted gifts for, those were people I had crushes on. The teachers and professors that I worked so desperately to please, I found them beautiful. My often lackluster attraction to my male lovers, that was a sign, too.

The fact that I would make out with women whenever I was drunk and had a willing accomplice, that was a sign too.

But the fact is, since I was sexually attracted to men, and since I grew up in a time when “gay” was the worst thing you could be, it was a matter of internalized homophobia causing me to ignore those feelings, to rationalize them away, to be what I should be: a straight woman who has sex with men.

I had an advantage in this sense. I avoided harm that came to my contemporaries as a consequence of their sexual orientation. I lived as a straight person for most of my life, and I consider this a form of privilege, because I lived out of reach of the violence and hatred that was visited upon gay people during my youth.

But I also feel as though I gave up the opportunity to acknowledge and explore this part of me, and as a result, may have missed out on important, life changing relationships. I missed out on part of who I am. And I feel that loss now that I’m out. I feel it almost every day.

Why is This Important?

I mean, it’s personally important, right? Let’s not just take that for granted. But lots of things that are personally important to me don’t make it on to this blog.

As a marketer, I consider myself a cultural worker. As a writer, I am most definitely a cultural worker. And my identities and how they intersect absolutely impact my work in cultural spaces. That includes both writing and marketing. That doesn’t mean I can only market in queer spaces, but it does mean that I have an ability that straight people may not have to understand some of the ways messaging impacts queer communities (the LGBTQ space is very diverse and I by no means speak for or to all of the many communities covered under this umbrella).

It also means that I’m more likely to write in ways that include non-straight, non-cis people. This has cropped up in my fiction especially, where even before my late revelation, I had taken to writing queer and gender non-conforming characters. And that’s something that’s going to continue.

This is valuable, because as our culture is (slowly) becoming more accepting to diverse orientations and identities, we’re going to see more people like me; more people who were safe living as cis straight people and could reasonably pull it off coming out, and fewer teens and young adults who feel the need to hide their identities even from themselves to be safe.

The world is not getting straighter and more binary, in short. The internet age reduces information asymmetry and speeds social change. And writers and marketers will need effective ways to address those changes.

Aside from being personally significant, my orientation and my identity are a way to address marketing in a queering world.

I don’t know if any of this made sense, or if any of it is accidentally offensive. If you have comments, feel free to post them.

When you’re a student, money can be precious and the temptation to eat out can be overwhelming. Being able to cook simple, inexpensive, and satisfying meals at home can help you save some much needed cash.

Beans and rice is a time-honored student staple, but I think back when I first started living on my own, I didn’t realize they could be good. It usually ended up being a bowl of flavorless mush. This is, of course, because I was learning to cook beans and rice from bad recipes. Now, as an adult, having engaged in extensive bean cookery, I have a much better understanding of the humble bean.

Beans and rice provide a lot of nutrition for not very much money. Here’s two recipes, one for black beans and one for red rice, that are easy and tasty, and can be put together in an hour or so some lazy afternoon and stored for meals throughout the week. They’re tasty; I make them for myself fairly regularly, and what they lack in authenticity they make up for in simplicity.

Black beans:

  • 2 tbl cooking oil
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 jalapeno, chopped
  • two pinches whole cumin seed
  • 2 cans black beans, drained
  • salt to taste
Heat the oil in a pot. Add the onions, garlic, bell pepper and jalapeno. Cook over medium heat until soft, a few minutes. Add in two pinches of cumin seed and cook until fragrant. Add two cans of black beans, plus a quarter to a half cup of water. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until beans start to break down and a “refried beans” consistency is reached.

Red Rice:

  • 2 tbl cooking oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 jalapeno, chopped
  • 1 cup uncooked long grain rice
  • three tomatoes, pureed, or enough to make 1 3/4 cups of liquid
  • bouillon cube (chicken, or vegetable if you’re vegetarian)
  • Salt to taste
  • 2-3 tbl chopped cilantro
Heat the oil in a pot with a fitted lid. Add the onions, garlic, bell pepper, and jalapeno. Cook until soft. Add the rice, and cook until it takes on a slightly toasted look. Pour in the tomato puree, and dissolve the bouillon cube in the liquid. Bring to a boil, and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes, with lid on. Fluff rice; stir in chopped cilantro and salt.

They Work Together!

Do you see how well these work together? Similar ingredients, plus you can buy one onion, one bell pepper, and one jalapeno to make both! Each batch makes about four servings, maybe three if you’re a hearty eater. I like these together with some cheese on top and a little hot sauce. Especially nice during the winter. If you’re feeling rich, you can scoop it all up with some nice tortilla chips!

Pricing it Out

Let’s first make a list of everything we need, with prices. I’m pulling these prices from my local Fred Meyer via their app, so your prices may vary.
  • 1 onion $0.45
  • 1 green bell pepper $0.79
  • 4 cloves garlic $.50/head, so about $0.10 for this meal
  • 1 jalapeno pepper $0.20
  • 3 tomatoes $1.29
  • 2 cans black beans $2.00
  • 1 bouillon cube $1.79 for a jar of 25, so like $0.08?
  • 1 cup uncooked long grain rice $1.69 for 2 pounds, so about $0.43
  • 4 tbl cooking oil $2.29 for a 32 oz bottle, so about $0.15
  • cilantro $0.79 per bunch (I didn’t divide this out because it’s not like it’s going to keep until next time.)
  • whole cumin: you can get this in the latin aisle of most grocery stores for $1.99 and it’ll last you a year. Look for “comino entero” if the labeling is in spanish.
That’s $6.28 for a small pot of beans and a small pot of rice, which will yield 3-4 meals. Add cheese and sour cream, it’ll be a little more, but not a ton more. This stuff also freezes well, so if you have an afternoon off, make a couple batches and freeze them in snap top containers. (calculations do not include price of salt, if you don’t have any, steal some salt packets from a cafe on campus.) And they’re not difficult to make! If you can cook a pot of rice and use a can opener, you can make this! And perhaps most importantly, it’s real food.

I try not to make resolutions.

There’s a cultural notion surrounding New Year’s resolutions that is zero sum, make or break, succeed or fail, and if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll understand that failure is something I’m passionate about. In short, failure is not the opposite of success, but a part of the process of success. And when we make success a zero sum situation, we’re guaranteeing that we won’t succeed. Because that’s how that works.

I don’t like setting myself up to not succeed.

That having been said, I do like the idea of taking time to reflect on the past year, to think about what you want for the new year, and looking for ways to make that happen. For me, this often translates to setting goals for the new year.

I like goals. Because in a way you can’t not succeed at them. You set a time to check in, and if you haven’t reached your goal, you can evaluate what you’ve been doing and look for ways to get there more effectively. But if you work toward it, you’ll get there eventually.

Okay, you can miss goals, but for me the main way to make sure that will happen is to focus on what you haven’t done and fail to celebrate what you have done. Living and learning are iterative processes; you try things. They work or don’t work. You evaluate your results. You try something new. You make changes. You go again.

So with that in mind, here are some goals I want to achieve in 2020:

Learn PHP and JavaScript.

Good lord. I should have done this twenty years ago. I tried to do this twenty years ago, and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Thankfully, now there are better tools for accomplishing this kind of thing. These languages are vital to a webdev these days, and while I’m not planning on going into web development, they’re useful for a digital marketer to know, even if it’s just for purposes of understanding what’s going on on a website you’re looking at.

This is going to be a difficult goal to measure, because what I want is an understanding of how the two languages work, specifically on websites. So I’ll say this; I want to complete the free curricula on Codecademy for both JavaScript and PHP before the end of 2020.

This leads into my next goal:

Create a WordPress Theme.

I want to create my own WordPress theme from scratch, even if it’s bad. WordPress is estimated to power as much as 30% of the web, so for any professional working in digital communications, it’s worth understanding. Not just that, but I remember fondly how personally satisfying I found web design back in the Web 1.0 days, and I’d like to get back into some of that. Plus, I want my own websites, which function at least in part as a kind of resume in my field, to demonstrate that I understand these concepts. I may not use my homemade theme (or at least my first one) on my own website, but understanding the way WordPress works inside and out will help me make tweaks to my own websites, making them both more personal and more professionally appealing than a free canned WP theme.

This one will be pretty easy to measure in that I’ll have a WordPress theme, but difficult because I have to define what that means. I want to create a WordPress theme that supports blogging (of course), and that works on both mobile and desktop browsers. I want to finish it by the end of the year, and I want it to have unique visual elements (not just Hello World on a white background).

Finish my MBA.

Okay so this one might seem like a no-brainer, but we’ve already had someone drop out of the cohort and we’re only two quarters in. The goal is to complete my MBA on schedule with the rest of my cohort by the end of summer quarter, 2020. It will require a lot of hard work and discipline, but I think it’s probably the most important of my 2020 goals.

Study SEO.

You might notice that this says “study” instead of “learn.” Well, that’s because I’m not really sure you can ever learn SEO. The field changes so fast that it’s not something you’re ever done learning. But it’s a vital skill in my field, and it actually wasn’t taught in any comprehensive way during undergrad and it won’t be taught in any comprehensive way in the MBA program, so I’m going to have to learn it myself.

I’m lucky, I have a good friend in the industry who can at least recommend resources for this, but I’m going to have to do the bulk of the work.

This is going to include reading some guides from well-known and well-respected SEO and digital marketing resources, as well as following news in the field for regular updates to best practices.

So this is another hard one to measure, but I’ll say I want to learn basics of SEO that can be applied to my own websites, and I want to become conversant with the basics of keyword research so that I can know which words are most useful to optimize for. I’m focusing on organic search (SEO vs SEM), because I think that’s the field that’s easiest to see big results in, and because if your SEO ain’t working, your SEM isn’t going to do much. Also it will be cheaper to experiment with my own website and see the results myself.

So that’s what I’ve got going on for 2020. What goals do you have for the new year?