Why You Can't Write about Fleas

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.—Herman Melville

Not every big idea needs to be in a big package. Often, the things that we remember are the short phrases and concepts. That was the thought behind Ernest Hemingway’s original six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

You can read that story, short and haunting, in a matter of seconds.

On the flipside, it takes hours—maybe days—to read all of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It’s 587,287 words.

If you’re not familiar with book lengths, I’ll lend a hand.

  • The King James Bible has 788,258 words

  • Fahrenheit 451 has 46,118 words

  • The Hobbit is 95,022 words long

  • Oliver Twist is 155,960 words

  • East of Eden is 225,395 words

A long story isn’t guaranteed to be better or worse than a short one—in fact, length often has nothing to do with the merit of a tale.

I know you have a burning desire to know: what, then, makes a good story?

Obviously, all the factors everyone already knows: lovable (and despicable) characters, a hearty plot line, good writing. But at the end of the day, none of those are the defining factor that weeds out a classic from pulp fiction.

It’s the idea.

If you want your writing to last, you need to write about a subject that lasts. Technology, trends, style . . . the list goes on and on, and it’s all transient.

But redemption, restoration, courage—those themes have been around forever, and they’re not going anywhere.

Whether you’re writing Leo Tolstoy or Ernest Hemingway style, write about the big ideas. They’re the ones that stick around past the end of the year.

Creating in a Vacuum

Every person needs heroes in their field. Young basketball players think of Michael Jordan (or, as Curtis—who’s very wonderful—tells me, perhaps LeBron James). Painters remember Monet and Van Gogh and Rembrandt. Cooks perhaps think of [insert famous chef name here, as I’m not a budding culinary specialist, I don’t know any . . . ], ballerinas have role models, even businessmen look up to those who have been successful before them.

Most of us would probably agree that iron sharpens iron, and that two are better than one—but why? What’s so special about working with like-minded people or studying someone who’s been successful in the past?

Because it’s nearly impossible to create in a vacuum.

Imagine yourself as a sweaty farmhand (or, if you are a sweaty farmhand, just imagine yourself as yourself). One day, your foreman brings you to a new plot of land the farm has just purchased and tells you to build a fence. He walks you along the fence line, shows you where he’s marked the corners, and wishes you good luck.

Then, he leaves. You begin to plan, but suddenly everything crashes to a halt. You have no wood. No money. No way to contact him. No pickup truck to drive over to the main farm. All you have is your lunch pail and a shovel that you happened to bring along.

Seems like you’re going to have a pretty tough time building the fence.

Creating (or doing business, or a sport, or anything, really) is just like that. If you don’t have the tools and supplies to make something, it’s pretty tough to make it.

And if you can’t observe someone correctly using a technique, it’s pretty hard to get the technique right yourself. That’s why we send children to school, and engineers to the Colorado School of Mines (BEFORE we let them build bridges and buildings and stuff like that).

That’s why it’s so important to constantly be practicing, researching, learning. It’s why athletes spend hours a day in the gym with trainers, and why musicians practice from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. with instructors, and why writers should always be reading the old classics and the new ones.

If you’re always practicing and learning, you’ll find it easier to perform and speak. If you’re trying to create in a vacuum, you’ll find it hard to come up with anything to say.

*Related only in my mind: Curtis and I are in the middle of a big purchase, and it includes ELEVEN (yes, 11) vacuums.

How to Write a Good Blog Post

I have started at least four different posts. I’ve been convinced each time that, “This will be the one that takes off, this will be the right one for today.” Instead of taking flight, each post has jumped off the picnic table and crashed to the ground.

Probably, it would be smart to stop trying and to watch cat videos instead.

Everyone says that novels are supposed to write themselves, without the author even trying (that’s definitely not true). What is true is that when you write a novel, you develop characters and throw them into sticky situations to see how they react. Unfortunately, when you write a blog post, you can’t just slap a sentence up there and see what happens. If you want to write a good post, there’s a six-step sequence you should follow.

How to Write a Good Blog Post

The Idea. Most good ideas start out as snippets of thought. The Idea can go one of two places to grow: the brain, or the mouth. If you’re an internal processor, you’ll think through the idea and decide what to do with it. External processors will take The Idea to a forum, where the group can mull it over and point out finer qualities and unnecessary points. If you can stomach it, both processes are very helpful in developing The Idea.

The Write. After thinking through The Idea, it’s important to write it out. Get it all on paper, from beginning to end. Don’t leave anything out, and don’t trouble over how to say it. Think of The Write like cleaning the fridge: dive in, pull every single thing out of there, and slap it all on the counter.

The First Edit. Unfortunately, many people stop at The Write—but wait! When you’re cleaning your fridge out, you don’t just leave all your food on the counter! You look through it, realize you have four bottles of open soy sauce (three of which expired before 2015), and throw them in the trash! This is your opportunity to look at your words on paper (or screen, probably), see what’s working and what’s not, and get rid of the excess.

The Second Edit. Often, The First Edit refines The Idea and eliminates smaller errors of thought, while The Second Edit purges whatever smaller misdemeanors are still lurking in the neighborhood. You may be tempted to skip The Second Edit, but don’t. It might save you from something really embarrassing, such as a run-on sentence or a misplaced modifier.

The Proof. If you’re posting on a traditional platform, there should be an option to preview your content before it goes live. It is always best to read your content the final time in its complete form—it will help you spot things you missed in the drafts. So hit preview, then slowly and carefully, comb the words, sentences, and paragraphs for any errors. Catch them before you post it so you can avoid any really bad publicity from misspelling dog or house.

The Post. Once you’ve triple-checked and are sure your content is error-free, post that article with pride. Sit back as it goes viral and you become an overnight sensation.

Hannah: A Vignette

This week Curtis (he’s very wonderful) turned 24. To celebrate we ate barbecue and ice cream cake (not together). We ate at a small restaurant in Big Rapids (not to be confused with Grand Rapids, Eaton Rapids, Elk Rapids, Long Rapids, or Maple Rapids. Michigan loves her rapids).

Moving casually, our waitress told us she’d be right back. She returned to take our order and stood leaning on an empty chair behind her, only pulling out her pad of paper as an afterthought. Tan and mellow, her grin showed bright white teeth and her long dark hair hung in a loose braid. Wearing a black shirt and cotton denim shorts, she was decidedly informal. Adorning her wrist was a tattoo in a script font that read, “Hannah.”

She was a great server, and she’s probably a normal person with a normal life (although, are any of us, really?). But if she were in one of my stories . . .

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It's Good for You

I believe in the Scottish proverb, ‘Hard work never killed a man.” Men die of boredom. They do not die of hard work.—David Ogilvy

When my siblings and I were kids, we took piano lessons from a lady who lived two miles away. My mother, eager to raise us with an appreciation for physical activity, encouraged (it wasn’t really voluntary) us to ride our bikes to our weekly lessons.

As often happens to children on those dirt country roads, both the way to the lesson and the way home was completely uphill, often both pedals fell off our bikes, and some strange magical transformation always turned our tires to squares ten minutes before departure time*.

Every week on lesson day, we worked hard to convince our mom that she should bring us in the car. We’d often contract high invisible fevers right after lunch, or spot some wispy cloud on the horizon that “LOOKS LIKE A TORNADO!” One time out of fifteen, she’d buy . . .

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The Two Sides of Characters

Normal people never really make an impression. If you’re walking down the street and see a dozen perfectly average folks, dressed well and walking in a straight line, you’re not likely to remember any of them.

But when you see a scruffy looking fellow digging around in the trash can on the street corner, you probably go home and tell someone. Or when you see a lady hunched over and rocking back and forth outside the drug store, perhaps you even stop to make sure she’s alright.

We’re trained to believe that the only activity worth mentioning in a story is exterior (hair color, arm gesture, “Then he crossed the street.”)—something we’re able to see, identify, and describe.

But that’s a misconception—and the thrill—about telling stories. There isn’t just one type of activity. There are TWO.

Outside. Yes, there are all the weird quirks and habits that people have that we can see. Like how your aunt always puts mustard on her scrambled eggs, or how your next door neighbor puts a leash on his cat and takes it walking. These are the tangible parts of a story that help us see what’s going on. They pique our interest, fascinate us, and make us stare a little bit. After all, when someone’s doing something weirdddd, it’s a little bit hard to look away.

Inside. This is the unacknowledged part of every narrative, but it’s actually the more important of the two. Maybe only two in ten people are doing something odd on the outside—but ten out of ten people are experiencing a specific emotion in their hearts or minds. Outside, the lady at the grocery store is completely normal. But inside, she’s worried about raising her children alone, wondering why her ex-husband really left her, and hoping that the repairs on her car won’t cost too much. And it’s the inside story that makes readers be able to relate to the characters. And it’s the inside story that keeps people coming back to a character again and again. Because even if he’s simply unremarkable on the outside, I just feel like he’s so . . . real.

Should you create weird characters? People who save seats for their invisible friends at the opera and collect worms from the dirt in Central Park? Absolutely. But more importantly, remember to make them interesting from the inside out. Fill them with human ideas, concerns, and struggles. Make them someone you’d want to be friends with, and your readers will want to be friends with them too.

5 Disjointed Thoughts on Life Transition

Stepping into transition is like standing on the edge of the pool deck thinking about jumping into the pool, when suddenly your well-meaning but somewhat misguided friend shoves you into the water. It always seems to come before you’ve quite prepared yourself.

Living through change is like going on a run and never quite being able to catch your breath.

Preparing for the future is like planning a birthday party with a guest list of 200, but not asking for any RSVPs.

Leaving one place for the next is unsettling—but not bad. We’re just creatures of habit who take comfort in familiarity, and new places are habit-breaking and very unfamiliar.

Concentrating on personal growth, health, and development in the middle of a hectic season is like trying to change the oil in a hail storm. Not impossible, just distracting and somewhat difficult.

Goodbye, Jenkins 8T

Almost three years ago, Curtis (he’s very wonderful) and I moved into Jenkins 8T. It’s a small apartment on the eighth floor of a building in downtown Chicago. It was empty and bare, the windows were permanently fogged, and the faded carpet was probably a charming brown twenty years ago.

A lot happened in that apartment. A few days after our first Thanksgiving, the sprinklers exploded and ruined many (most) of our belongings (and the carpet and walls). We got our first . . .

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I Should Try

Childhood is full of learning new things. Babies learn to crawl, then walk, then run. Toddlers become potty-trained, feed themselves, and discover how to put on pants. Before long in elementary school, kids learn adding, subtracting, and how to get along with other kids on the playground.

Every experience of growing up is punctuated by awe. It’s thrilling to learn how to tie your shoes, because “they” tie their shoes (who they? the big people). Each skill acquired is a step toward independence, even though kids don’t think of it that way. Their natural bent is simply curiosity and the willingness to discover (spend thirty minutes with a five-year-old and count how many times they ask, Why ?).

But somewhere along the way, it’s easy to lose the hunger to learn. We become confident in our abilities. Admitting we don’t know something is a chink in our armor rather than an opportunity. But what if, instead of a threat, every new thing you didn’t know became an opportunity?

There are two distinct mindsets involved in learning. Either, you come to a new experience, and think:

I probably can’t do that. Oh well.

Or, you venture into something new, thinking:

I wonder if I can do that. I should try.

It takes humility, confidence, and the willingness to accept that you may fail the first time—or the first five times. But if you never try anything, then you never learn anything. And that’s way worse.