Monday, December 1, 2014

Creativity Tips: Five Ideas for Happier Holidays

As part of our Thanksgiving decorations, Kate cut out those turkey handprint forms kids use in elementary school -- you know, you trace your hand, cut it out, color it like a turkey. Then, on the big feast day, we decorated our hands and wrote what we are grateful for on the palm.

Being the brilliant writer that I am, I wrote something terrifically original ... family and friends. And the first thing I thought when I woke up Friday morning was: I should have written Joy. Fun. Laughter. Because, for me, that's what makes life worthwhile. And that's what made this Thanksgiving so special -- the house was filled with laughter.

For example, there was this moment. Tom went to pick up his brother, and I was afraid there wouldn't be time for him to carve the turkey. So I tried. Mary looked up instructions online. I became a vegetarian the moment I tried to amputate the leg. Mary and Kate then stepped up. And there was this moment:
Poor bird. 
And then this:

They did a fabulous job and Tom finished up when he got home. My guess is, we'll laugh at turkey carving for years to come. And that brings us to the five ideas for happier holidays:
  1. Carve out time for fun. Remember what really brings you joy during this crazy busy season, whether that's time with friends and family or quiet time with a good book. Enjoy yourself. 
  2. Consider the gift of time. I've stopped the gift exchange with many friends. Instead of buying presents, we spend the money at dinner out or doing something together. (Most of us have enough "stuff" and it's time with people we love that is most precious.)
  3. Remember that it's not a competition. I can turn anything into a competition. (When I tried to knit, I had to remind myself that "knit one, purl two" was not a score.) However, baking, decorating and wrapping should be fun. Just fun. If it's not fun, stop the insanity. The world will still revolve. Santa will still arrive. 
  4. Go back. Think about what you enjoyed most about the holidays before the responsibility of the holidays was on your shoulders. Playing with the dreidel? Decorating sugar cookies? Setting up a model train under the tree? Whatever it was, do it again. 
  5. Sit down. Relax. Have a hot chocolate or a hot toddy. Watch a movie -- there are so many classics to choose from -- It's a Wonderful Life. White Christmas. The Polar Express. Choose your flick and sit your tuchas down. That's right. You can sit during the holidays. I promise, it will be OK. 
Now's the time to wrap yourself in the joy of the season. Here's to the happiest of holidays for all of us!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Fabulous Phrases: Gilead

I've just started reading Marilynne Robinson's beautiful works and I am completely hooked. I'm about halfway through Gilead now and want to share this gorgeous phrase:

“You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.”

It's perfect. And it perfectly described my weekend. That's one of the things I love about great writing -- it makes you feel less alone in the world. 

By the by, before I picked up Gilead, I was halfway through a beach read by a writer I've enjoyed in the past. I switched books because the beach read kept making my brain go, "Really? You think a character would say/do that?" Used to be, I'd finish a book regardless of how I felt about it -- as though I had made a sacred commitment to the author. No more. 

Interesting how our approach to creative works changes as we change ... 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Creativity Tips: Embrace Structure

One of the greatest creativity boosts I know is structure. Give me a structure, and you've given me a start. Give me a structure and a deadline, and I'm unstoppable. 

The power of structure hits home with me at this time of year, when we Jews beat our collective chest for a litany of alphabetized sins. The prayerbook list has never fully resonated with me, but the structure gave me the incentive to write my own. And, in hopes that it will inspire you to write an alphabetized something or other, here it is ...  

My Alphabet of Failings – Yom Kippur, 2014
by Jan Sokoloff Harness

This year, I confess alone, my alphabet of failings:

For the sin of anger against those who challenge me
And for the sin of belittling those I don’t understand

For the sin of criticizing without caring
And for the sin of doubting the strength of love

For the sin of enjoying what I shouldn’t have
And for the sin of purposefully finding fault

For the sin of greed when I have so much
And for the sin of hating beautiful strangers

For the sin of needlessly imagining problems  
And for the sin of joking to avoid a truth

For all these sins, oh God of forgiveness,
Forgive me, pardon me, grant me atonement.

For the sin of kindness too often withheld
And for the sin of loving in measured touches

For the sin of malice toward those who are richer
And for the sin of nourishing my worst intentions

For the sin of observing when I could be helping
And for the sin of pretending I am less than I am

For the sin of quitting when I still have fight
And for the sin of not resting when I am exhausted

For the sin of saying it doesn’t matter
And for the sin of thinking he can read my mind.

For all these sins, oh God of forgiveness,
Forgive me, pardon me, grant me atonement.

For the sin of not cutting the umbilical cord
And for the sin of not visiting my parents enough

For the sin of not weeping, to prove my strength
And for the sin of never forgiving my ex

For the sin of yearning to alter time 
And for the sin of repenting at the zero hour.

For all these sins, oh God of forgiveness,
Forgive me, pardon me, grant me atonement.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday Fun: Chicken Soup

I was getting grumpy, so Hedy made chicken soup. 
Because, as you know, chicken soup cures all. 

Here's to a weekend that cures whatever ails you! 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Fun: Snake in the Grass

Happy Friday! 
Am I charming?
Or do I just work well with snakes?
Here's your creativity exercise for the moment: Give me a caption for this vacation shot! 
Then go outside and play. Remember your sunscreen. 
We don't want your beautiful skin to get all scaly ... 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Creativity Tips: Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

Yesterday, I needed a break from the writing so I took a walk around the neighborhood park. On my third lap around the park path, I noticed this:

And there was this:

It took me three times around the park before I saw the trees. Three times. Once I saw them, I realized there was something beautiful and different about every single tree. And it struck me: How many times do I walk by people -- even people I love, especially people I love -- and not see what's beautiful and different about them?

In our rush to meet deadlines, keep up-to-date, stay relevant, there's a real danger in missing the wonder right in front of us. My advice for you today? Slow down. Look around. My wish for you today? I hope someone sees the ever-changing beauty in you.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Creativity Tips: In email, no one can hear you scream

Hi gang! Long time no post. I wrote this on LinkedIn (don't ask why), so thought I'd share here too. Enjoy!
I love email. I love texting. I love all forms of written communication. However, our newest forms -- the emails, the texts, the Tweets, the updates -- do a horrific job at conveying emotion and intent. So, when a client emails, "Your schedule isn't a problem. We understand your need for work/life balance." I can read that as:
1. My schedule isn't a problem. They understand -- and respect -- my need for work/life balance.
2. Oh my god. I just lost this account. They're never going to send me work again.
It's just hard to say. Because in email, no one can hear you smile. Or laugh. Or wink. And the only way anyone will hear you scream is IF YOU USE ALL CAPS! And that's so not professional.
Given the challenge, ask yourself these five questions:
1. If you got that message from someone else, how would you feel? After you write the message, reread it from the audience's perspective.
2. Are you being snarky? Because email isn't the place. Seriously. Don't do it.
3. Have you started the message with "Hi, whoever" and ended it with "Thanks!" or something equally friendly and professional? It takes five seconds, max. Changes the entire tone of the message.
4. Did you hide the real message in the middle of the email? Get to the point. Politely, but quickly.
5. Should you be writing this at all? Some messages are best communicated over the phone or face-to-face. Consider the medium.
And I'll give you a sixth piece of advice as a bonus: If you really want to make a written impression, forget the email. The text. The Tweet. Put pen to paper and mail it. While you still can ...

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Creativity Tips: Haiku Happens

So, picture this. You have this job and it's OK, but there's really not much room for creativity. People want the same old, same old, every dang day. You know what I mean?

Then, one fine day, the boss comes in and says, "We need to update the copy people see when they're downloading Firefox."

What can you do? Well, you can write, "Please be patient. The download is in progress." Or, if you're the copywriter for Mozilla, you can say, "Yeah, baby. It's haiku time."

I LOVE creativity in unexpected places. And you know how I feel about haikus. Why don't you write one for me? Right now! 5-7-5. Choose your topic. Summer? Mozilla? Sex on the beach?

(Oooh. You're going to click on that link? You do trust me. I need to work on my reputation ...)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Creativity Tips: It's time. Head in the right direction.

If you had told me a couple of years ago that I could do a headstand, I'd have laughed at you.

If you had told me I'd be willing to attempt this headstand in FRONT OF PEOPLE I DON'T EVEN KNOW, I'd have stopped laughing and questioned your sanity.

And yet ... this happened last night:

Naturally, I wrote about 8 million funny captions between the time my buddy Julie took these photos and I got home from Shanna Haun's yoga class. But then I started thinking about it ... and realized I didn't want to turn this into a joke. This headstand is serious stuff:
  • Two years ago, I was diagnosed with osteoporosis with severe risk of fracture. I was suddenly terrified of falling and breaking -- I clung to the railing when I walked up and down stairs. Now, I'm flipping upside down. There's nothing like finding the right incentive to get us moving -- whether we're moving toward an improved physical condition, an artistic goal, a better relationship or anything else.
  • I could not have done this two years ago. I probably couldn't have done it one year ago. Physical strength is just like creative strength. It builds. Sometimes slowly. And the best way to build it is to exercise the relevant muscles daily.(Want to be a writer? Write. Every single day.)
  • We can't get to the next step -- we can't discover what we are capable of doing TODAY -- unless we're willing to take a risk. And that means letting go of our old self-images. It's hard to take a quantum leap if you're worried about how you look leaping. Last night, I never even considered what people would think, or what might happen if I fell. Could I have looked silly? Absolutely and big damn deal. The world is in dire need of more silly.
  • Know what you need. When it comes to creativity, my needs vary by the project and by the day. Sometimes I need silence. Sometimes I need people. Sometimes I just need a dictionary. When it comes to my headstand, I need to know that someone I trust, someone who believes I can do it, is ready to catch me if I can't -- and won't think less of me if I fall. For me, and a whole lot of other lucky people, that someone is Shanna. I hope I've been that person for a lot of my writing puppies.
So let me ask you: What do you really, really, really want to do? What motivation do you need? How long are you willing to work? How hard are you willing to work? Who (besides me, I'm here!) is going to support you?

Today is the perfect day to start, my friend. Turn your world upside down. It's a really beautiful view. 

P.S. When you were a kid, did you like looking at the world upside down? I used to hang off the couch, look at everything upside down, pretend the floor was the ceiling, etc. I liked figuring out how the chairs could stay in place. It's completely possible I was weird from the get-go. 

P.P.S. If you don't think those photos illustrate a perfect headstand, you're wrong. It's a perfect first headstand. Wait until you see how my headstands look in six months ...

Monday, February 17, 2014

Creativity Tips: Don't Rely on Random

You know the whole "practice random acts of kindness" concept? It's lovely. But ... why rely on random? This week, practice a few planned acts of kindness -- just to make sure you don't forget. Because the weeks get away from us, and opportunities for kindness too often slip by.

How do you plan ahead for kindness? Let me help get some ideas flowing. You could:
  • Make a donation to someone's favorite charity in their honor. Do it online. You're online, right?
  • Send an email for no reason other than to make the recipient smile. Think about the subject line. What line would make you happy if it popped up on a Monday?
  • Bake cookies for the neighbors. It doesn't have to be a holiday. 
  • Volunteer to babysit for a harried friend. Don't wait to be asked.
  • Mail a handwritten note thanking someone for a kindness received -- maybe a shoulder or smile when you needed it, a wink that let you know you were seen, a good long hug that said I love you louder than words.
Getting some of your own planned kindness ideas? Perfect! I knew you would. You're that kind of person.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Kiss and Tell

I like not only to be loved, but also to be told that I am loved. I am not sure that you are of the same mind. But the realm of silence is large enough beyond the grave. This is the world of light and speech, and I shall take leave to tell you that you are very dear.” -- George Eliot

I love that you're here -- that you read what I write. Such a gift, and it's appreciated with every post. You are very dear to me. Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Friday Fun: Fake but Fabulous

Well, according to this story, there is no Soggy Bottom Boys winery. Nonetheless, this is a classic wine label. Long live Photoshop and here's to the weekend! L'chaim!

P.S. Thanks to Stephanie for the pic!
P.P.S. I really need to get control of the exclamation points!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Creativity Tips: How to Write a Valentine, Redux

Don't you love love? Come on, it's OK to be mushy. It's February! The month of love.

I was poking around the CI blog the other day and found this 2011 post on How to Write a Valentine. It's still good stuff. Go. Read. And then make your Valentine a Valentine!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Creativity Tips: Never Assume Anything

My first day at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, one of the professors handed out a brochure covered with a single lesson: Never assume anything. 

It's good advice for a journalist or anyone else. When you're creating a work of art -- with words, with paint, with clay, whatever -- never assume that the reader/viewer will understand your message. Find a few first readers, first viewers. See what they see.

Valentine's Day always reminds me of this particular lesson. Years ago, I bought Tom a Paul Simon CD as a Valentine's Day gift. Wouldn't you think this would be romantic?
You're the one! Perfect for a Valentine!!
Yeah. No. The basic lyrics for the title song are ... You're the one. You broke my heart. You made me cry.

Never assume anything. And marry someone with a good sense of humor!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Creative Inspiration: Your One Wild and Precious Life

It may be warm where you are. In KC, we're in the midst of a ridiculously cold winter, so I'm starting the week with a favorite poem by Mary Oliver, The Summer Day. For the summerness, and because her last line keeps running through my head: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

The Summer Day
Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

from New and Selected Poems, 1992
Beacon Press, Boston, MA

Friday, January 31, 2014

Food is Love: "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Green Smoothie

I've done the research, and if you ask reasonably rational people if they'd like spinach and chia seeds for breakfast, they'll say "NO!"

Well, that's not exactly true. According to my research, at least one of those people will put a finger in her mouth, pretend to gag, and walk away laughing.

Sigh. It's hard to be a good influence. So here's my advice: Don't ask. Don't tell. Just make your loved ones this scrumptious green smoothie and serve it with a smile.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Green Smoothie 
(Makes 1 big smoothie)

3/4 cup milk (Whatever kind you want. I use 1 percent, but it could be skim, soy, whatever.)
1 medium banana
3/4 cup frozen berries -- preferably a mix with blueberries, raspberries and strawberries
3/4 cup fresh spinach
1 tablespoon chia seeds

Put in the blender in the above order. Blend. Pour. Drink. Feel great!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Creativity Tips: 5 Ways to Conquer Empty Office Syndrome

So, here's the deal. I finally got used to my empty nest (sorta kinda), and now I'm dealing with the empty office. My clients these days are scattered -- Miami, Schenectady, Nashville. Copenhagen. That's really fun in terms of business trips. On the other hand, on an average day, it's generally me and my computer.

If you work alone, meet me at the virtual water cooler and consider these five tips for conquering the dreaded Empty Office Syndrome:
  1. Create an online community. You may like Twitter, Or Instagram. Or Pinterest (Warning! Warning! Irresistible time suck!) I jump on and off Facebook when I need a reminder that there are other humans in the world, or I want a little inspiration. Some of the links my friends post are fabulous. Check out this Mandy Patinkin clip.
  2. Stop the negative Nelly thoughts. The advantages of working at home and/or alone far outweigh the disadvantages. Do you really miss the gossip? The noise? The interruptions? The wait for the elevator? The bad coffee? Go pour yourself a cup of the good stuff. And, while you're in the kitchen, remember what that office refrigerator used to look like. Terrifying. 
  3. Volunteer. You're feeling lonely? Tsk, tsk. Are you tied to that chair? Is someone barring your door? No? Then get up and get out. There are people to meet and organizations to help. Find a fun group that needs your time and talent.
  4. Get up and get out. I know -- I said that before. It's a key message. I'm saying it again. Go to the library and ask the librarian a question. Talk to the checkout clerk at the grocery store. Enroll in a small group exercise class. Take yoga. Take a walk and smile at everyone you pass. 
  5. Find a coffee shop buddy. My pal Kate kept me sane a while back by meeting me regularly for coffee. She said she wanted to talk shop. I know she knew I was slowly going stir crazy and wouldn't ask for help. Because I'm much better at giving advice than taking it. I like to consider that part of my charm.
And, speaking of my tremendous charm, those of us who work alone can work in our jammies with bedhead hair. Very adorable. And, on a cold winter morning, reason enough to love my empty office ...  

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Creativity Tips: Finish

How's your New Year's resolution coming? You'll be happy -- and possibly astonished -- to learn that I am doing pretty well on mine. I'm sitting. Some. A bit. Now and then. Really ... I am.

The trick is simple. I'm reading again -- I just devoured an Alice Munro short story collection and am now nearly finished with The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. Hmmm. I sense a trend. Alice in Wonderland could be next.

Meanwhile, as I celebrate my New Year's dedication to relaxing, I also want to belatedly applaud my darling Kate. Last January, she set out to do a 365 project -- taking a photograph and posting it every day. And you know what? She did it! It's a huge accomplishment and I'm very proud of her. I hope you'll look through her pics -- there are some real beauties in the collection.

For now, I'll just share photo 365. Because finishing what you set out to do is a beautiful thing.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Creativity Exercise: It's Monday -- Party On!

Happy Monday! Let's start the week with a quick exercise. You know the routine. Get out a clean sheet of paper.

You'd rather do this on the computer? 
Fine ... it's Monday ... I'm not going to force you to pick up a pen. 

Now, write down five words that make you happy. For example, my list might include beach (because that's my happy place) or marshmallow (because I just like the sound of it).

I want a toasted marshmallow. Now.
Do you have your five happy words? Yay for you! Now, use all five of those words in a sentence. It doesn't have to be a sensible sentence -- but keep it grammatically correct. For my sake. For your sake. For the sake of the world.

Done? Mazel tov! Your creative synapses are now firing. Be off to great things ...

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Relationship Equation

I recently went to lunch with a woman who made me feel <. You know. Less than. Less than important. Less than worthy. Less than her.

Most of our discussion centered on wealth. While nothing was ever said directly, she clearly communicated that I didn't have enough money to matter. 

Now, those of you who know me know that money has never been my primary motivator. On the other hand, I have made a good living -- and a good life -- as a writer and I'm very proud of that.

So why did I take her comments to heart? I don't know. I don't know. All I can tell you is that she reminded me of the truth in the old cliche: People will forget what you say. People will forget what you do. But they'll never forget how you made them feel.

Fortunately, I am typically surrounded by people who make me feel =. Even a handful who make me feel >. Not greater than them -- that wouldn't be fun. But greater than your average Joe. Greater than ordinary. Definitely greater than I did when I walked into the room.

I love these people. They're > than anything. 

What about your people? What about you? When you consider your relationship equations, are you making people feel less than? Equal? Greater than?

There are lots of ways to know. A little self-actualization helps. But you can also watch the other person's body language. Does he make eye contact? Is she suddenly slumping in her chair? Is he physically pulling away?

Then, take a psychic step back and listen. Does she sound defensive? Is he getting awfully quiet?

People matter. Feelings matter. Words matter. Why, just writing this post is my way of getting my mojo back. With that in mind, I've got one more thing to say and then I'll let it go:

Kindness is > wealth.