Category Archives: story

Brevity is the soul of communication

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(First draft 238 words.  Edited version 164.  Final version 140. Give me a week, and I can get it down to 130.)

brevity

photo by Erich Stüssi

Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Wit, here, refers to intelligence. As a writer, I couldn’t agree more. You have to be smart to say what you mean and say it concisely.  Many people don’t even know what they mean. They are too busy to think about it. Thinking requires stillness and reflection. So does writing. That’s why people hire me.

Still, when they see the words I create, the first inclination is to add more GLUT.  They are terrified of leaving out something important, so they stuff a brochure like a Thanksgiving turkey. Or they assume that more words—big words—make them look smart.

Our world is noisy and cluttered. People crave simplicity.

So here’s your challenge. Finish your draft, and then cut 1/3 of it. Then cut more.

Watch your message rise to the surface.

Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” said Polonius in Hamlet. The word “wit”  Wit can, of course, mean refers to both humor, of course, which Shakespeare may have meant to convey on one level. But “wit” , but it is also refers to and intelligence. Now that I’ve spent a number of years writing copy for a wide variety of clients and even for myself, After writing copy for a number of years As a writer, I see the truth of Shakespeare’s words. realize the truth of this statement all the more. You have to be smart to say what you mean and say it concisely. Honestly, Most people don’t even know what they mean. They are too busy to think about it. Thinking requires stillness and reflection. So does writing. So they hire me for that part to listen and then put their thoughts to words. Still, when they see the words, the first inclination is to   They haven’t really processed their thoughts it. More often than not, my clients have a tendency to want to The tendency of most clients is to add more STUFF versus delete. They are so afraid that they are not going to get this fact or that message into the mix. They are so afraid they are going to leave outare terrified of leaving out something important, so they  that they end up stuffing a try to stuff a small, trifold brochure like a Thanksgiving turkey. Or they assume that more words, especially big words, make them look smarter.  for Thanksgiving. With all the noise in our world today, Our world is noisy and cluttered. people want you to simplify things for them.  People crave simplicity. They may be willing to stay with you if you are writing a leisure-reading novel, but if you are writing something to convey information quickly and simply, less if definitely more.  So here’s your challenge. Finish your draft, and then challenge yourself to go back and cut 1/3 of the copy.  Then cut 10 more words. See if the message you want to convey doesn’t Watch your message rise to the surface. fore.

The Dragon and the Hero

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Chinese DragonOnce upon a time, a distant village lived in terror of a fearsome Dragon whose name was, appropriately, Death. No one had ever been able to defeat it. Many brave souls had tried, charging full force, armor ablaze, swords aloft, but none had succeeded against the merciless, cruel monster.

Enter the hero.  The stranger had challenged and beaten other dragons handily, so hope rose that he would free their village from the Death Dragon.  He marched up the hill to the dragon’s lair. He raised his sword, and the villagers held their collective breath. No one stirred.

Suddenly, the Dragon opened its mighty jaws, spewing a stream of fire, blasting the hero full force. In a split second, the Dragon snatched up the hero with its writhing tongue of flames and swallowed him whole. The Hero was gone. The villagers were horrified.

The dragon lay on the hill, his belly full and ravishing appetite temporarily appeased. He curled up for a nap, a smug, satisfied smile on his scaly lips.  The villagers were crestfallen. All hope was dead.

A few days later, the Dragon, still snoring, suddenly started with a jolt, head reared and eyes wide in astonishment. His mouth opened but no fire appeared. The Dragon’s jaws seemed pried open against its will–but no fire appeared. Only a tiny light.  To the disbelieving eyes of all, the Hero emerged from the Dragon’s mouth!  The villagers were dumbfounded.  No one had ever returned from the Dragon’s mouth, now opened painfully wide.  As the hero exited the Dragon’s mouth, the Dragon began to fade–first the tail, then the long, scaly back, until only a faint image remained.

As the hero emerged the light grew brighter. It was the Dragon’s fire, but the Hero held it in his hands, rolled into a small, fiery ball. He raised the ball of fire aloft and flung it into the sky where, even today, you might catch glimpses of it in the night sky on a moonless evening. The Dragon remains, but his fire is extinguished forever, and in his belly the Hero planted the seeds of never ending life.

Risen.

Indeed.

It’s the music, too.

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A couple days ago, I referenced a post from music industry blogger Bob Lefsetz where he challenged Hollywood to re-focus on telling a great story versus filling a screen with special effects. (From his lips to God’s ears.) In a similar post, aptly entitled “Credibility,” Lefsetz warns musicians about obsessing over inking the record deal or getting airplay. Before long they lose site of the music itself.

My husband, Barry, just released a CD, so I understand the pressure to pay bills and realize a profit from your investment, but Lefsetz’s post confirmed a gut feeling Barry and I keep coming back to—

Enjoy this.

This is about sharing your passion. It’s about that sweet connection between musicians and audience when the rhythms and melodies turn perfect strangers into friends. It’s about doing what you love and inviting others to be part of it. And it’s about giving voice to other people’s deepest hopes, longings, joys, and sorrows in a way that they cannot themselves create—but they can enter, with full solidarity, into what you have created for yourself to make it their own.

Lefsetz provides thought-provoking tips on what musicians should do instead (excellent advice for other artists as well. Read it!). But I’d like to focus on a poignant response from Colin Hay, former front man for 80s mega-hit band, Men at Work.  Speaking from experience, Hay concurs with Lefsetz and writes about his life now—post-Top 40, MTV mega-stardom. He talks about rediscovering the music, along with the fans, who actually come because of the music versus the image.

He talks about his new CD, Gathering Mercury, and jokes about building his audience to a “massive 900 people or so in New York City, or Philadelphia, or slightly less in charming Clayton, NC.”  He expresses a rich appreciation for the fans he mingles with on tour. “When I got dropped by a major label, my live audience was all I had…They let me be myself. And isn’t that what we all want…to be who we are, and not who someone else wants us to be?” He goes on:

You are correct when you stress the importance of establishing a core audience… My old band had massive radio success and MTV exposure to the max, and when that went away, so did most of the audience. It’s like building a house with no foundations, you can’t.

…Last year I was sound checking at the Birchmere in Virginia, a delightful venue, and I was filled with an inexplicable euphoria. Its intensity lasted a few seconds but it was powerful. A simple experience, the wait staff was setting up tables for the night, the sound crew were twiddling knobs, and I realized that I was exactly where I should be, doing exactly what I should be doing, and all was well in my world.

Paris Musician

Paris Musician. Photo by Barry Johnson.

…I did make a big splash, I did descend into obscurity, and alcoholism. But, my salvation was, and still is, artistic expression, and a vague quest to strip away and reveal something essential, which is seductive, and ever elusive.

Best to you,
Colin

Wonderful food for thought.  And good advice for any of us.
There are people who connect with your deepest passions, whether you are an artist or a farmer.

Flamenco. Nerja, Spain. Photo by Barry Johnson.

Never overlook them because you want a bigger audience.  Play for them. They are listening.

Paris Metro Musician

Paris Metro Musician. Photo by Isaac Johnson.

It’s the art, stupid

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Musician

Musician Isaac Johnson. Photo by Barry Johnson

Artists live in two worlds. In one, they create. In the other, they market. The two could not be more opposite. One requires time, reflection, and solitude. The other requires diving into the fray to network, shake hands, blog, tweet, build a digital empire and land that ultimate publishing or record deal. In such chaotic noise, it is very easy to forget two essentials: 1) The art itself.  2) Your audience.  Without your craft or the people who appreciate its value, the rest is meaningless.

Bob Lefsetz, blogger and music industry analyst/commentator, recently addressed the 20% drop in ticket sales in the movie industry, despite predictions that movies were considered recession proof.

His take as to the cause? Simple. “The movies suck.”  Lefsetz argues that the movie industry has forgotten its “primary mission”—which is to tell stories. He goes on:

Every few years a blockbuster emerges from the fringe that costs almost nothing to produce.  And the real reason these flicks triumph is story…People need food.  They don’t need movies or music.  They can keep their wallets closed.  The challenge is to create something so compelling that people need to go, price ends up being secondary. Read his entire post here. I highly recommend it.

Lefsetz is right. Put your freshest energy into the story, the song, or the painting. Make it compelling. Make it something people have to see or hear or participate in. You do have to network, but begin by networking among those who already love and appreciate what you do.  Build slowly and be patient with the process. It is an exercise in trust.

The Help

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The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No doubt, there will be those who will hate this book and say that Kathryn Stockett was presumptuous to write it in the first place. But I will not be one of them. Stockett’s story about “Skeeter,” a young white Mississippi woman in the 60s who decides to secretly interview the household help of her junior league friends so she can write their stories is brave and remarkable. The book provides a glimpse of Stockett’s own effort to understand what it was like for “colored women” to work for white families like her own. It is brave because she recognizes her own family’s lack of understanding and appreciation for the painfully unappreciated lives of swallowed pride these women led. And Stockett also sees and understands the irony in the inexplicable love that sometimes developed anyway between “the help” and their white employers.

At the same time, while Stockett does not give her white characters a pass for their prejudices, she also does not turn them all into one-dimensional villains. She reveals their foibles, pride, misguided thinking, and fears, and in the process she reminds us that they, too, are simply human—sometimes grand and sometimes pathetic. Stockett’s story is about so many white Southerners who grew up with prejudices that a new generation would take a lifetime to unlearn. Those who cherish those prejudices are hateful. Those who learn to discard them—well, it turns out they were just prejudiced, not hateful. There’s a difference.

I, too, grew up in the South, in Tennessee. While we never had hired help, my mother has often talked of the maid she had back in Alabama. Ruby was her name, and Mama, like Stockett, thought Ruby was family. No doubt Ruby had her own thoughts about that, but I am certain that my mother and grandmother loved Ruby the best they knew how, which, like all human love, very likely fell short of perfect.

My parents grew up and lived in Birmingham through the worst parts of the civil rights struggles, and they determined that their children would not grow up hating people because of the color of their skin. For all their efforts, I’m sure they unwittingly passed on prejudices they didn’t even know they had, but I love them for trying. Like the time they invited a black man to stay in our home. There was no talk, or even thought, of separate bathrooms and eating utensils. He was a bona fide guest and was served as such. I’m sure it was a big step for my parents—maybe for our guest too—but I look back and love the fact that I don’t remember that much about it. I guess I just thought it was okay, and I suppose that was the point. I have no idea what their friends, or my grandparents, thought about it. They never told me.

Stockett does a painfully beautiful job of portraying the reality of what it might cost to reach across racial barriers to extend a hand of friendship. It might mean you lose friends. It might mean you’re at odds with people you love—and you do love them, even when they are wrong. It means that too many times you aren’t sure if you are reaching across racial lines because you really do love color, or you just feel guilty for being white. Probably both. But the alternative is to live in a one-color world—and that just isn’t an attractive option.

The point of Skeeter’s book, and Stockett’s, is that we have more in common than not, so with this book she issues a gracious invitation to both sides to come to the table to find that common ground and, hopefully, find new friends. I applaud Stockett for making the effort. I hope she finds a lot of people willing to join her at her table.

Note: I listened to this book on my iPod, and I have to say this is a book worth listening to. The readers, Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Cassandra Campbell, bring Stockett’s story to life with such compelling voices, you feel as though you are sitting at the kitchen table with them, and you don’t ever want to leave. I highly recommend it.

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© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.