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Writing For Your Life Today

All art is cosmos in chaos

Leonard Bernstein tells me more than the dictionary when he says that for him music is cosmos in chaos. That has the ring of truth in my ears and sparks my creative imagination. And it is true not only of music; all art is cosmos, cosmos found within chaos. At least all Christian art (by which I mean all true art, and I’ll go deeper into this later) is cosmos in chaos. There’s some modern art, in all disciplines, which is not; some artists look at the world around them and see chaos, and instead of discovering cosmos, they reproduce chaos, on canvas, in music, in words. As far as I can see, the reproduction of chaos is neither art, nor is it Christian.

from “Walking on Water” by Madeleine L’Engle

No one enters the presence of God except by God’s grace

The New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine has told a particular story so often that I can hardly get it wrong, but you need to know that she is Jewish in order to appreciate it. Here is how it goes. When someone asks her for her interpretation of John 14:6, she says that she imagines herself at the pearly gates after a long and happy life. While she is waiting in line with everyone else to see whether St. Peter will let her into heaven, she makes a list of everything she wanted to ask him while she was still in the classroom. “Can you speak Greek? Where did you go when you wandered off in the middle of Acts? What happened to your wife?”

When it is finally her turn to talk to Peter, she starts pelting him with so many questions that he just waves her through. This concerns the next person in line, who has heard of Dr. Levine and knows she is a Jew. “Excuse me,” the guy says to St. Peter, “but I don’t think she’s supposed to be here.” That is when Jesus sticks his head through the gates and says, “It’s fine, Peter. I know her, and she’s okay by me.” Get it? “No one comes to the Father but by me, and she’s okay by me.” Levine’s point is that no one enters the presence of God except by God’s grace. No church, no church doctrine, no individual gets to referee that. Where the Way of Jesus is concerned, he is the Decider.

– from “Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others” by Barbara Brown Taylor – HarperOne

What should you look for in a mentor?

What should you look for in a mentor, a person to accompany you on your creative journey? Here are some ideas, but this is certainly not an exhaustive list.

  • Someone you get along with generally. You need to feel comfortable with this person.
  • Someone who is not a major authority figure for you. The relationship will require honesty and vulnerability, and authority usually brings along a sense of judgement. So even if the person does not consider herself an authority over you, if you perceive her as such, that will stunt your ability to converse freely.
  • Someone who is truly interested in your work and development. Feel free to pay good money to someone else for a professional review of your work. But your mentor should be engaging with you out of genuine care and interest.
  • Someone who is a step or two ahead of you. You need a person who has journeyed a bit beyond you. If you seek guidance from a person who ends up getting advice from you more than the other way around, you will become frustrated and feel cheated.
  • Someone who will not be threatened by your success. This is another reason to choose as a mentor someone who is already beyond you. A true mentor is rooting for you to do well and is the first person to jump up and down when you get published or win an award.
  • Someone who has room for a little craziness. Creative life involves some craziness. Sometimes you need to go off on a tangent. Your mentor should understand that need and not get tied up in knots when your creative work doesn’t follow a straight line. A good mentor will know when your craziness is necessary and when you’ve begun to use it as an excuse not to focus on the work.
  • Someone who is a good listener and observer. The best guide is a person who becomes very good at reading you. This person can reflect your soul back to you. In this sense your mentor becomes a sort of therapist. Avoid as a mentor someone who merely brings you books on writing or throws exercises at you and is constantly giving advice. You can find your own books. There are numerous books of writing exercises. In fact, books and exercises are what you take writing classes for. And advice is helpful only if it’s what you need at the time. A good mentor will listen more than speak.

– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/720105.The_Soul_Tells_a_Story

BE LIKE BEZOS

No industry is experiencing more calamitous disruption than retail. Specifically, Amazon is reinventing commerce, customer experience, and the rules of consumer engagement. 

At first glance, Amazon appears to be the poster child for disruptive technology. But in fact, the real innovation is that Jeff Bezos (the company’s founder and the world’s richest man) is focusing on what’s not being disrupted.

While innovations in eCommerce, supply chain, and distribution are the parts of the company we observe, if you peer deeply into the heart of the real Bezos strategy, you learn something radically different, as he explained in an interview.

“I very frequently get the question, “What’s going to change in the next 10 years? And that is a very interesting question,” he said. “I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that this second question is the more important of the two because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable over time.”

“In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future where a customer comes up to me and says, ‘Jeff, I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ or ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ And so we know the energy we put into serving those needs today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now.”

“When you have something that you know is true over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

Rather than focusing on the latest trends or leveraging emerging technology for new business models. Bezos has a laser focus on improving what people already know they love and want. 

Amazon, the most disruptive company, is built on a handful of constant human desires – low prices, fast delivery, vast selection – not space-age drones and algorithms.

Technology did not create these human needs. It’s quite the opposite. Serving these needs created the technology.

This seems like an elegant way to approach the world of marketing disruption, too. Instead of feeling dizzy over these continuous technology shifts, why not establish a foundation for business success that’s built on the things that we know won’t change – constant human truths – and then figure out how technology can be made to serve those unwavering needs?

– from “Marketing Rebellion: The Most Human Company Wins” by Mark Schaefer

Who will teach me to write?

Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.

The page, the page, the eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you  cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.

There is another way of saying this. Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood: aim for the chopping block. 

from “The Writing Life” by Annie Dillard

In every line

We tell our clients the same thing my filmmaker friends told me when I was writing screenplays: anything that doesn’t serve the plot has to go. Just because a tagline sounds great or a picture on a website grabs the eye, that doesn’t mean it helps us enter into our customer’s story. In every line of copy we write, we’re either serving the customer’s story or descending into confusion; we’re either making music or making noise. 

from “Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen” by Donald Miller 

Inseparable

All right. So it’s an impossible task. But thinking about it may open new questions , new insights. And as I listen to the silence, I learn that my feelings about art and my feelings about the Creator of the Universe are inseparable. To try to talk about art and about Christianity is for me one and the same thing, and it means attempting to share the meaning of my life, what gives it, for me, its tragedy and its glory. It is what makes me respond to the death of an apple tree, the birth of a puppy, northern lights shaking the sky, by writing stories. 

from “Walking on Water” by Madeleine L’Engle

Our fundamental “groupishness”

In his significant book “Not in God’s Name”, Jonathan Sacks reverses a popular trope. It is not our religion that makes us violent, he says. Instead, it is our penchant for violence that gives rise to our religious impulse. People are born with two sets of primal instincts, he notes: altruism toward those in our own group and aggression toward others. In daily life, this dynamic shows up in everything from football rivalry and political affiliation to racial division and armed combat.

Since most of us need to feel good about ourselves while we are acting aggressively toward others, we develop psychological mechanisms such as splitting, projection, and scapegoating, which allow us to assign goodness to our group and badness to the other group. This not only relieves us of having to deal with the goodness and badness inside our own group; it also frees us to believe that our violence against the other group is essentially altruistic. We bond best with our group when we confront an external enemy.

Sacks exposes another illusion when he points out that historical substitutes for religion have done greater harm than religion. These include the nationalism that sparked two world wars, the ideological system that gave Mao and Stalin license to murder millions of their own people, and the racism that fueled the Holocaust. “After that,” Sacks writes, “no one who argues that abolishing religion will lead to peace can be taken seriously.” It is neither our secularism nor our religion that fuels our violence, he concludes, but our fundamental “groupishness.”

– from “Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others” by Barbara Brown Taylor – HarperOne

Proudly Unreachable

Let’s go back to the soap story for a moment. What does it reveal about the inevitable next rebellions? Here are five clues:

  1. My young friend built an emotional attachment to the humans behind the product more than to the product itself. The soapmakers helped her believe in their vision and their cause without ever actually selling anything. Who is the human we can believe in at Ivory?
  2. My young friend is immune to traditional advertising even when an iconic product like Ivory soap has been promoted heavily for more than 100 years. She explained to me that she streams her television show, listens to ad-free satellite radio and podcasts, and has an ad-blocker on her phone and computer. She literally sees no ads.
  3. There is no “marketing” for this local product in any traditional sense. My friend bought the soap because she could see a tangible benefit in her community. And she paid a lot more for it compared to established brands. The value of the purpose behind the company and alignment with her personal values outweigh any need to economize and buy the safer choice of Ivory soap.
  4. She told this story in such a compelling way that it made me want to but the soap, too. The power of word-of-mouth referrals and a social media-fueled supply chain levels the playing field, eliminating the historical barriers of owning shelf space at mass retailers or contracting with gigantic New York ad agencies. A story that is meaningful, believable, and relevant can define the brand. The company’s story is so authentic that it’s passionately carried forward by my young friend. The customers are now the marketers.
  5. There was no sales funnel, at least not like the one in your company PowerPoint deck. There was no “customer journey” to dissect other than the one that my friend chose for herself. How do you market to a person who is seemingly unreachable? In fact, proudly unreachable.

– from “Marketing Rebellion: The Most Human Company Wins” by Mark Schaefer

How Do You Find a Community for Creativity?

Where do you find people who are good for you, who enhance your growth as an artist and who increase your confidence to keep up the work? For some people, a writer’s group or some similar association works well. For others, a certain spiritual affiliation is most helpful, such as people from church or a small group from that faith community. 

Some people find community primarily through others of like gifts-other artists. Sometimes it’s enough to have close by the works of other artists. In the same way you might find spiritual companionship through the writings of C. S. Lewis of St. Teresa of Avila, you can find creative company through the works of other artists, living or dead.

You can find community through a class where people like you hang out. You can find it through one or two good friends who can truly appreciate your work. You may not find community where you’d hoped; many artists are disappointed at how little community they find in their own family or in their religious organization. The point is to find it where it actually is and not worry about where you don’t find it.

– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press

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