But sometimes negative is the only way to go

My previous post hinted at the possible advantages of writing in a positive rather than negative vein.

But sometimes negative is the only way to go. And no one can sound more positive when he’s being negative than Chicago Sun-Times tech columnist Andy Ihnatko. Watch a master in action as he vaporizes the Zune.

Accentuate the positive?

The late Stephanie Feeney, founder of the Northwest Gardeners’ Resource Directory, was a superb writer and public speaker. I remember hearing her talk about English gardens at the Northwest Garden Show at a time when I was considering writing a travel guide to mystery locales. I noticed immediately that Stephanie managed to be colorful, amusing, and distinctive without ever falling back on two very common communications crutches: deprecation and self deprecation.

Anyone who’s made a living writing criticism knows how much more attention accrues to a clever, withering attack on a book or film than to an equally well-crafted paean. Complaints and criticism, at least when initially (and creatively) expressed, can be highly entertaining.

And yet, over time, that attention-getting negative approach can come back to hurt a writer. Gradually, the reader comes to think of the writer, the column, or the blog as one long whine, rant, or pity fest.

This danger, I think, is particularly true when writing “how-to” pieces or advice. The writer who focuses advice on what to avoid and how to spot signs that you are screwing up runs the risk of coming across as a sanctimonious finger-waggler. Unless you know the author well, or she is addressing your specific situation, it can be very easy to decide the last thing you want to read is, well, an unsolicited lecture or a dose of negativity.

In September, marketing guru Daphne Gray-Grant wrote a piece for Marketingprofs.com on “Five Negative Thoughts That Can Sabotage Your Writing (and How to Shake Them).” This month she followed up with “Five Positive Thoughts That Will Turbocharge Your Writing (and How to Channel Them).”

Both articles are packed with good information. I’d be curious to hear your reactions to the titles, and to the pieces themselves. Which one did you want to read most? Did you enjoy reading one more than the other?

Five things you didn’t know about my writing career

Deborah Ng of Writers Row, who compiles an excellent listing of freelance writing jobs and has been a perennial resource for the online writing community, passed along the blogging meme “Five things you didn’t know about me.”

I’ve adapted it to be “Five things you didn’t know about my writing career.”

1. I got my start in writing penning consumer complaint letters for my mother after our vacuum cleaner blew up.

2. My first short story was “The Christmas Tree and the Hanukkah Bush.”

3. My first paid, published writing gig was music criticism for the New Haven Advocate. One of my pieces was a profile of a hard-working local rock singer who’d spent more than a decade trying to break into the big time but was getting discouraged by increasing violence on the concert circuit. A few years later, he finally hit it big (Michael Bolton).

4. My journalism thesis at Columbia was about court battles involving the drug paraphernalia industry. While working on the thesis, I met and dated a charming NYC civil liberties attorney whose clients included NORML and Dial-a-Joint. Our dates frequently included swinging by night court for arraignments.

5. I spent more than a year in the early 1980s working on two interrelated investigative stories involving illegal garbage dumping, corrupt local officials, and a lot of people with Italian last names. By the time it was over, I’d been chased by a garbage truck, had worn a wire while conducting an interview, and a landfill (seized by the FBI) had caught fire. Repercussions from the story went on for years, culminating in a landfill worker we’d exposed for illegal overtime taking a town official hostage. Fortunately, the official escaped by climbing out a bathroom window.

Please try this meme yourself! And let me know when you’ve posted it.

Hello? Hello? We’re losing that mind-body connection

Yesterday’s New York Times had a mindboggling article about a New York area fitness club that revoked a man’s membership because he was making a grunting sound while lifting weights. He was bench pressing 500 pounds at the time, bless his soul.

If this were the independent action of a particularly fussy club manager, it would be one thing, but the “grunt-and-you’re-out” rule is a policy of the club’s parent chain, Planet Fitness — a company whose management would, indeed, seem to be from outer space.

This article caught my interest because I’m currently doing a “trailer park” yoga program four days a week. It mixes yoga with weightlifting, jumping rope, running stairs, working with wrist and ankle weights, and working with heavier weights, including 15-pound handweights and a weight bench. I haven’t heard anyone in our group of two dozen women grunt, per se, but I have heard plenty of moaning, shrieking, and screaming. And maybe a howl or two. The teacher, who is the most inspiring fitness instructor I’ve ever encountered, encourages the sound effects.

I tend to shriek, myself. Fifty leg lifts hurt.

According to the Times article, the club’s no-grunt rule (and a few other weird ones, as well) has nothing to do with cutting down on distracting noise in the gym. It’s based on the chain’s philosophy that most members are intimidated and discouraged by body builders and other serious fitness types. The club therefore has crafted rules that discourage those fitniks from patronizing the gym and disturbing the place with sounds of physical effort.

Oh, heaven forbid anyone should connect hard work, physical or mental, with achievement. Americans are fervent believers in overnight weight loss, cosmetic surgery, and unregulated herbal potions. Hard work and discipline? Argggh! Fortunately Planet Fitness is here to protect us from the sight — and sound — of it.


While podcasting leaves me cold, I’m increasingly enthusiastic about photoblogging. Doug Plummer’s Daily photo can be breathtaking, and I’m a big fan of New York’s The Sartorialist. If you have time, the extensive reader comments at The Sartorialist can be as entertaining as the photos themselves. (So few blogs have really good comments that this success is worth some analysis.)

Seattle now has its own version of The Sartorialist, Pike/Pine, which, despite its name, has recently focused on Ballard — and on fashion worn by 20-somethings. Yawn. Nice photography, but let’s have some context here…fashion wasn’t invented 10 years ago. Even Seattle knew about it before then. Let’s see some of the older fashionistas who frequent Nordstrom designer shoes downtown.

Finally, you don’t have to be a photo pro to make great use of pix to spice up a blog. Guy Kawasaki’s blog uses small photos, often stock, usually to very good effect.

One last note from Mind Camp

One of the highlights of Mind Camp was the “paper airplane” exercise Thomas Schmitz used in his session on generating new ideas. Each person took letter-size sheet of paper, wrote down a product idea, turned the sheet into a paper airplane, and sailed the plane across the room. The person who retrieved the plane opened it, built on the idea (sometimes using methods Schmitz had covered earlier), and sent it flying across the room again. The exercise ended when the fourth person added his or her idea. Then we went around the room, with each person reading the four ideas they were holding, and then saying a few words about his or her own techniques for getting new ideas and inspiration.

One participant, who identified himself as an educational consultant, said he finds the best way to get inspired and creative is to attend conferences in fields unrelated to his own. This makes perfect sense to me, but I had to wonder how many employers, even those who give lip service to creativity and new ideas, would even consider paying for it.

Would yours?

Home from Mind Camp

The two-day Mind Camp has a trajectory similar to what I’ve experienced at dance camp weekends: Initial energy, meeting lots of people, a great session, a mediocre session where your energy slips, a chance hallway meeting of a fascinating group, a boring discussion with someone you can’t get away from, a collaborative problem solving experience that deepens a friendship, exhaustion, the temptation to leave, a surprising encounter that leads you to new discoveries about yourself, sleep (not enough), wondering why you are still here (at breakfast), hanging out and realizing there are yet more fascinating people you haven’t heard yet, cleaning up, driving home wondering why you are full of energy after 5 hours of sleep on a yoga mat and sleeping bag, being happy to see everyone at home, and wondering why the only thing that has changed is…you.

Three words: Great Mind Camp