Book reviews

The people who make up your network, or part 7 of live-blogging Dolly Chugh’s _The Person You Mean to Be_.

This is part 7 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. Chugh writes about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. Buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.

…When we only perceive what we expect, we create an echo chamber. We do not look for or notice disconfirming information….What makes these psychological echo chambers even more problematic is that we also live in social and media echo chambers. These are more willfully created. These are the ones we choose….
A PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) American Values Survey asked participants to name up to seven people with whom they regularly discussed important matters….They found that 75 percent of whites, 65 percent of blacks, and 46 percent of Hispanics had homogenous networks composed exclusively of people sharing their own race.”

Dolly Chugh, The Person YOU Mean to Be, pp 100-102

You know how the universe sometimes conspires with you? You’ll look at your calendar and see three meetings with varying parties and friends related to one client, say. Or you’ll realize that, on a day you have an appointment for your dog at the vet, you also notice a new bird you haven’t seen before, or make a new friend who’s studying to be a vet.

Some people say that that’s all just your brain being aware of opportunities that “go together.” Another friend likes to say it’s whatever “energy” you’re putting out there when you book the appointment, or the meeting. It might just be sheer, magical coincidence.

I don’t actually care what it is that makes these things group; I just like that they do. And I like all the explanations, actually.

In the past seven days, I have spent quality time with six friends I’ve known since at least high school. I had drinks with one of them last night; drinks with another two Wednesday night, and spent last weekend with three others. All of this time with old friends, people who know you so well that they’ve accepted all of your bumps and warts and expect more, has me re-assessing why it is we go back to some people again and again.

Because the truth is, I’ve been sitting on top of the task that Dolly Chugh sets to us in the quote I posit I above for more than a month. Her work implicitly challenges us to examine our own networks, and the extent of our own echo chambers. It’s much easier for me to feel good about the fact that I have old friends who work in widely varying fields, and who I’m proud of knowing and want to keep forever, than it is to acknowledge that my own networks are really, really homogenous.


But this is where it gets really tricky. Because, see, I’m part of a “model minority.” And in recent years, I’ve read or seen a good number of studies that show that Asians are often lumped in with whites: we have similar income trends for instance. And we have similar educational profiles, as well. I think we tend to disappear. (Read this essay, from Matt Salesses, for another valuable viewpoint.)

More anecdotally, the stereotype of Asians not wanting to rock the boat, of just quietly slotting in, fits neatly into this narrative, as well. And actually, maybe it’s not a stereotype. My parents told me regularly to just be quiet, hunker down and get my work done. While, of course, earning the best grades in school and being popular, or something. (Spoiler alert: neither of these things happened.)

All of this is to explain that most of my friends were–and are–white. Of the friends I met over the course of the last week, my high school friends, only one of them isn’t white; she’s Iranian. So while Chugh comments that whites, blacks, and Hispanics have networks that comprise mostly their own races, well…I don’t have that issue. But it doesn’t make me feel any more diverse, because for a long time I acted like I was white myself.


I don’t really know what to do about this, except to exercise more inclusion in my life. I’m married to a white guy; my parents are Asian, so is my brother. It’s like, although it’s enough for other people to have more than one ethnicity in their social circles, it’s not enough for me to have Asians and whites in the pool of people I share important things with; I have to have more diversity; be more.

And suddenly, I’m back in high school again, with my parents comparing me to the next kid, over and over: Why can’t you be more popular, like her? Why can’t you be smarter, like her? Why can’t you be more obedient, like her? Why can’t you be quieter prettier care more about your family not quite you?

Listen: I’m not complaining. I like, need, value more viewpoints. Hearing what it’s like from someone else’s point of view is like having a light turned on in a dark room. Yesterday I spent some time with some young Hispanic and Black students as part of a conference I participated in. And one of the panels I was on comprised a white woman, an Indian woman, a black woman, and myself. I loved hearing about their creative processes. I got to spend some additional time with one of the volunteers at the conference. Driving her home, I listened to her talk about the pressures she’s under as a young black woman, what her family expectations are, how she thinks her career in the fine arts is going to shape up.

I hope one day I’ll be able to list her, or someone like her, among the group of people I discuss important issues with.


But for now I have to tell you that the seven people I most discuss important issues with are white or Asian.

They are:
My husband
My brother
My friend Amy
My friend Peter
My friends and neighbors Suzanne and/or Aurelia or both together
My friends Dawn and/or Leigh Anne or both together

Actually, discounting the high school friends (Amy is one), these are just the last sevenish people I discussed difficult or serious things with.

Of them, only my brother is a minority. And he wouldn’t count as being diverse, since he shares my race.


I don’t actually know what to do with this. I didn’t think I’d arrive at this conclusion. I think I thought that I’d just add this to my long list of “to do” items-—consult with more diverse people; make a concerted effort to reach out more often for differing viewpoints. I thought this was going to end on a high note, somehow, that I’d feel energized, after yesterday’s amazing conference, to make more friends. But really, I’m just tired now, and a little depressed. The collision between wanting to be good and my cultural heritage has caught up to me today.

And yet. Two, three weeks ago I was walking Huckleberry in the soccer field by my house when I saw another dog in the field. It was bouncing and happy, and its owner was sitting nearby. I went over and introduced myself and let my dog go, and since then, Huckleberry, Nala, Bruce and I have spent three or four mornings together in the field, talking about everything from work to President Number 45 to our siblings and work and code-switching.

Bruce is 60. He’s black. I am putting him on my list. Because I appreciate him, yes. But also because I need more of his type of wisdom. I didn’t actively reach out to him that first time; I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But maybe being open to those encounters is good, too, even if it’s not “good enough.”


The American entrepreneur Jim Rohn is often quoted as saying that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If I’m thinking of this as an aspirational exercise, rather than a foregone conclusion, I feel a sense of great responsibility.

I want to be more worldly. I want to know what it was like for you, if you grew up Black. Or poor. Or gay or queer or trans. I am none of these things, and I can never be. So maybe it’s not that I am the average of the five people I spend the most time with, but that I am richer, a better person, if I can learn a little more of your story.

This might feel like a false comparison. Chugh is talking about expanding our circles; making our echo chambers less echoey. Jim Rohn is talking about bettering yourself. He’s talking about finding people you admire and looking for ways to spend more time with them so you can be more like them.

But I don’t think these two are all that far removed from each other. Internalizing someone else’s struggle—knowing about it, shining a light on it for yourself, knowing more about it—this can’t be anything but a good thing, can it?

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

“Luck” is way bigger than you think it is. Part 5 of live-blogging Dolly Chugh’s _The Person You Mean to Be_

This is part 5 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. Buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.

Colleen realized that even if everyone in the community had her family’s work ethic, they still might not be able to overcome all the headwinds they were facing. … “What if I had been born black instead of white?” she wondered. What if her grandparents had been black? Colleen asked herself.
… Because fewer of [Colleen’s] hypothetical black family members could access benefits, homes, places in college, and so on, she saw that there were more opportunities for her real white family. They benefited as black Americans subsidized white Americans, through both tax dollars and forgone opportunities. Regardless of her family’s socioeconomic class, they benefited from the tailwinds at their back and the headwinds slowing down others. … “In other words,” Colleen says, “I am the direct beneficiary of those racist systems.”

Dolly Chugh, _The Person You Mean to Be_, pp 71 & 78

Last year, I wrote a blog post about the phrase “Good luck,” and why I stopped saying it to people. TL;DR: a lot of good luck is preparation, and I want to respect the work that goes into people’s endeavors.

When someone starts off on the first mile of a marathon (or a 5K!), for instance, I don’t tell them “good luck.” I tell them I hope they have all the fun they want to have. These people have worked hard to train. They don’t deserve to think it’s all down to luck.

When I was younger, I demurred a lot when folks complimented me on my success in what they saw as the fickle world of writing and publishing. “Aw,” I’d say, feeling really embarrassed, “I got lucky.”

But then, at some point, I got to believing that it was better to just own it. I had worked hard. And, it made me feel good to believe and say that I had worked hard. I was deserving, dammit.

Enter the bootstrap narrative.

But I did not have to bootstrap; not really. My parents paid for college. (But I worked at the college newspaper and in the public relations office!) We never wanted for anything at home. (But my parents threatened to withhold tuition if I didn’t study what they wanted me to study.) I could afford an apartment my first year living in New York, and I refused support from my family, even when I was eating free Goldfish crackers off bars for dinner and making $18,000 a year.

You must have noticed all the little protests I keep on throwing up there. Those aren’t there for illustration’s sake. They’re completely reflective of what goes through my head, I promise: Every single admission of how easy I had it comes with a knee-jerk response. And I’m not alone, either: Earlier in the book, Chugh refers to psychologists Taylor Phillips’ and Brian Lowery’s work, which reveals what they term the “hard-knock life” effect: respondents answering a question about their relative comfort in life answered one way or another depending on whether or not they heard about another social group’s struggles in comparison to theirs. Put more frankly, white Americans were more likely to report an easier childhood if they weren’t asked to compare their advantages to those of black Americans.


I think this is related to the idea that society is a meritocracy. I’ll sidestep into a field I’m more familiar with. Let’s look at literature, and publishing. So many writers believe that if you’re just good enough, or talented enough, the “right people” will “find you,” and then you’ll be gold. Life will be good. Cue Oprah and Terry Gross and a movie adaptation by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine production company.

C’mon. You don’t really believe that, do you? As a writer I was communicating with put it, “I realized that an executive from HarperCollins was not going to suddenly appear as I was scribbling in my notebook in a diner.” No. No she’s not. And if she does, she’s more likely to ask you for your salt shaker than she is to ask you if she can see your notebook. And then be able to pull a narrative thread from your ramblings.

Let’s take that a little further. You’re sitting in a diner? It means you can afford to eat there. You have time to write? It means you’re not working three jobs to make ends meet. You’re within vicinity of a HarperCollins editor? You’re probably hanging out in an okay part of town.

Let’s not even talk about the MFAs. I have one myself, and it netted me a gazillion connections. I currently publish a magazine and run a writers’ retreat with four friends from that same MFA. And I got one of my steadiest writing gigs via an editor I met at the MFA. And I’m sending my next novel to an agent I met there.

MFAs are expensive, man. I got in because I got decent grades at a good college and could afford to hone my craft freelancing over fifteen years or so. I graduated because I could afford an unfunded MFA at a low-residency institution. That is some rarified air, indeed.


Denying my privilege—my luck—would be silly and misguided. And blind.

I’ve covered each end of the spectrum now: I went from from not being able to admit I worked hard to prescribing my success to only hard work.

I’ve walked away from my desk seven times while writing this paragraph, so that must mean that what I want to say next is hard: I need to find a way to both recognize my hard work and acknowledge the invisible help I’ve had in getting me to this point.

To wit:

  • My family is well off. This means that I am more likely to take creative risks, since some part of me is aware I’ll always have someplace to turn if things really hit the skids.
  • Both of my parents are college educated, which means they also expected me to get an undergraduate degree, at a minimum. Of course they would pay for it.
  • My parents were able to immigrate to America with no real barriers. My father had a job already set up when he arrived, thanks to his extensive network of doctors who had graduated from the same medical school he did.

Of course I can’t deny that my ethnicity, and that presents a set of barriers.

  • I was expected to marry.
  • I was expected to only become either a doctor or a lawyer.
  • I was expected to demure.
  • I was expected to fade into the background, or I didn’t fit in.

These expectations came from my parents, certainly. But they also come from the American society I wanted to adopt as my own. The number of times I’ve had to hear “Wow, you’re opinionated for an Asian girl.” Oi.

Oi.


Now that I see these things written out, I can better balance what I “came with”—what makes me lucky—with what I actually had to work for. I can see more clearly the things that might be useful for me to address when I look at how to better promote equity in my workplaces and social places.

For instance, I can represent minorities working in publishing and media and work to lift others. The publishing industry is 87% white. Minority narratives have not always been in demand, even if they are earning some share of the market now.


My parents have a strange saying that always rankles. But still, it has a tinge of truth to it: “Don’t try to help others until you’re sure you can help yourself.” They’re not wrong: I can do far less good if I’m destitute or starving. What they haven’t quite internalized, though, is that everyone has their own respective measurements of the levels at which we believe we need help. And, I’m not sure they buy the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats argument, but I do.

Last fall, when the election result that I didn’t want to happen happened, I had to sit down and have a long conversation with a white family member about the implications for people who might be impacted, including myself. I’ll never forget what she said:

“But they won’t be targeting you, Yi Shun. Asians have such good work ethics.”

To this day, recalling that conversation makes me go lightheaded. I haven’t pinned down what kind of lightheaded. I’m not angry. I’m a little hurt, still, because I have a terrible work ethic, actually, and this family member knows that. Her lumping me in with this stereotype erased my individuality. I think maybe part of the lightheadedness is a direct reaction to the realization of how far apart this family member and I are from each other in our world views: After a beat during which I saw confused blue spots, what I said to her was this:

“Whenever you see or hear the word ‘minority,’ you should think of me. Black, Latino, Asian–we are all targets. And so are the people who value us and spend time with us.”

Or maybe the lightheadedness is due to the recognition of the fact that she was right. I’m not likely to be as targeted as Black Americans, or Latino Americans, or Muslim Americans.

This, too, I have to credit to luck.

very bad drawing of little girl sitting cross-legged below some gigantic clueless smiling shamrocks.
I have no idea what I am doing with markers, FYI.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Diffusing the “cultural smog”: Part 4 of live-blogging Dolly Chugh’s _The Person You Mean to Be_.

This is part 4 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. And you can buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.

“…[Rick] recalled a conversation in which a female colleague had challenged him not to refer to women as ‘guys.’ He had dismissed it with a roll of the eyes. … Remember, Rick hired women. He promoted women. He was a believer. His moral identity was tied to being one of the good guys. … Our unconscious biases, those attitudes and stereotypes outside of our awareness, may or may not align with our consciously held beliefs.
…[P]sychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum describe how these unconscious associations are shaped by what she called ‘smog.’ … We breathe [them] in, whether we believe them or not. … While Rick’s explicit beliefs are egalitarian, he breathes in the same cultural biases as everyone else.”

Dolly Chugh, The Person You Mean to Be, pp 51-52.

Years ago, my husband told me a story about how he grew up in Wisconsin and Rhode Island. He said when he was a kid, he and his dad and his brother would go out digging through the garbage cans on the softball fields. They were looking for aluminum cans, which they would then drag to the recycling center, to be turned in at a nickel a pop.

I was horrified. Jim told me later that he never wanted to see that look in my eyes directed at him again: he could see I pitied him. He was deeply hurt by my reaction.

Crushed Coke can.
Model: Molier International

I didn’t deny it. In my limited experience, I could never picture a situation in which you would encourage your children to pick through someone else’s garbage for extra cash.

In my mind, it was exposing your children to all kinds of risks.

But in Jim’s mind, it was fun. It taught him the value of money. He was with his family.

I was living under some cultural smog that told me that when folks are thrifty, or are creative about ways to earn some extra money, that means they’re poor. And that, further, poverty is something to be ashamed of.

Some of this has to do with my personal cultural smog. There’s a rack at my local grocery story by the milk and the extra baked goods. In this rack, things are 50% off, either because they’re out of season or because the product didn’t sell well or the packaging is wonky.

I was maybe in junior high when my mom pointed out one of our neighbors who was rooting through the offerings. She pulled me into another aisle, whispering. “See? If you don’t earn enough money, you’ll have to be like her. It’s so sad. She has to buy the second-rate goods.” Obviously this isn’t a direct translation of what she said, since I don’t actually remember exactly what she said. But it made an impression.

That experience, and the clouding of judgment that came with it, changed the way I view thrift. It created my own personal miasma.

I want to take a look at one way to, uh, diffuse smog, whether personal or cultural. Take a close look at the way I’ve described these two anecdotes. Where I describe Jim’s family on the softball field, I say they’re “digging through the garbage cans.” When I talk about my neighbor in the grocery store, I say she’s “rooting through the offerings.”

Words have power. What happens when I tell these stories in a different fashion? Jim calls the thing with the cans “hunting for cans,” probably a shoutout to the fact that he was the kind of kid who used a B.B. gun to scare off squirrels. I now “have a look” through the 50% off rack myself, because sometimes chocolate bars no one else seems to love but me live there, and because the other day I found a jar of molasses exactly of the brand I use to bake ginger cookies.

(And also because, hell, who doesn’t love to save 50%? You’d have to be an idiot.)

One way cultural smog screws with me is by messing with my objectivity. We all have preconceptions and biases. (Elsewhere in the book, Dr. Chugh talks about how our brains are neurologically wired to use preconceptions to help us to make quick decisions about very basic things, like what’s “dangerous” and what isn’t. We use red, for instance, to signal things are hot.) But our sense of objectivity really suffers when we are lazy and don’t look at things for what they are.

Put another way, we often look at things without seeing all the other possibilities of what that thing could be.

In another book I read recently, Amy E. Herman’s Visual Intelligence, Herman writes about the difference between accuracy and rightness. Herman uses fine art to teach everyone from FBI agents to trauma-room nurses how to be better observers, and thus, better at their jobs. She uses the example of Edward Hopper’s Automat:

www.edwardhopper.net

The mood of the painting is somber. The girl looks bereft, lonely. But this is all charged language, and although it might be right to say these things, it’s far from accurate. An accurate description of the girl’s face would be that it’s part in shadow. That her eyes are downcast. That her face is slack.

So the girl could be pensive. She could be reading the tea leaves in the cup of looseleaf tea we presumed was coffee. Maybe she’s reading coffee grounds. Or maybe she’s meditating. So many possibilities, although it’d be silly to presume that Hopper wasn’t trying to evoke one mood or another with the painting as a whole.

Taking a page from Herman’s literal book, I think a good way to take some cultural smog away might be to really listen to what you’re being told–and then to describe it to yourself in uncharged, unbiased language.

Here, let’s try it:

Jim went with his dad and his brother to the softball fields. They were looking for cans. They found a few and they went to the recycling center. They turned the cans in and they got money back for them.

In the case of my neighbor in the grocery store:

That rack is 50% off. The woman is shopping in the rack. She finds something she likes and buys it.

Put this way, my neighbor’s shopping in the 50% off rack is no different than my mom paging restlessly through shirts in the Nordstrom Rack’s half-yearly sale.

I’m trying to be rid of a lot of my cultural smog. Better listening is one way. Trying to see all the possibilities is another. Rewriting in a distilled, neutral fashion is yet another. But, as Chugh says, a lot of the cultural smog is invisible, and I think that ultimately, I need a lot of consistent, self-examination around the way I’m reacting to things. And I don’t think I’ll ever be smog-free.

Case in point? When I sat down to write this piece, I told Jim, “Just so you know, I’m going to write about the cans.”

Jim said, “What?”

I whispered, “The cans, the cans. You know.”

What?”

I explained it to him, feeling the heat rise in my face, hating myself for making him relive the whole thing all over again.

“Oh, those,” he said, looking exasperated. “So what?”

Right. Because to Jim, it’s just a story about some kids and their dad, earning a little spare cash. And to me, it’s still a story about some people who so badly needed to make ends meet that they had to go rooting through other people’s garbage for scrap metal.

Sigh. Sometimes, the smog is extra, extra thick.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Work-in-progress, and I’m not talking about my next novel: Live-blogging Dolly Chugh’s _The Person You Mean to Be_

This is part 2 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. And you can buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.

…If I have a growth mindset about drawing, I believe that I can improve my stick figures with effort, time, and feedback. The alternative, a fixed mindset, is where I see myself as fully formed—either as someone who is terrible at drawing or wonderful at drawing or somewhere in between—and destined to stay that way. The fixed mindset is an “either/or” mindset because it allows no room for being a work-in-progress.

Dolly Chugh, The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, pg 24

During a group activity I was participating in, one of the group members kept on calling out for his “Cambodian wife.” Earlier, he’d introduced me to our colleagues as his “Korean wife.” When the Cambodian wife line got no answers, he switched to asking for his “Vietnamese wife.”

I am none of these things, but it was apparent he was calling for me: I was the only Asian woman on the course.

Let it be said that my relationship to this person is jovial, and long. It involves banter and beer and a lot of loudness. This had been going on for years before I finally said I’d had enough. “Stop,” I told him. “You’re not saying these things because you think Korean, Cambodian, Vietnamese women are to be respected. You’re saying it because you think they’re caricatures. And I’m not any of those things, anyway.”

“I know,” he said, and “I’m sorry. I really thought we were having such a good time.”

“You were,” I said, with a twinge of guilt. “But I’m not. It’s hurtful. You have to stop saying things like that.”


I don’t believe my friend and I have ever really recovered from this exchange. But I’m willing to bet that those of you reading this probably are focused on the fact that I felt guilty telling him these things. “Why?” some of you are saying to the screen. “Why on earth would you feel guilty?”

I’m feeling guilty because I wish I had said something before. I wasn’t ever the kind of person to enjoy a joke like that, but for most of my adult life I just swam with the jokes, believing them to be what I had to work with, to deal with, as a minority in America. I wanted to get along, so I just let them go.

Like Sammy Davis, Jr., I suppose, when he endured being the “Man of the Hour” at Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast. Oh, you, haven’t seen it? It’s an hour long, but you only have to watch the first eight minutes to be party to jokes about everything from watermelons to lynching:

(As always with YouTube videos, don’t read the comments. They made me nuts.)

“Oh,” you might say, “it’s just a sign of the times.”

It was this kind of thinking that led to my belief that I could only endure. I didn’t think it mattered enough for me to stand up and say something. But then I realized that the people around me weren’t necessarily laughing. And when I brought up the incident and the previous ones to leadership of the event we were at, they said, “Oh. When we first saw it happening, we took cues from you. We saw you were laughing, so we just went along with it.”

Later, they told me that they had mistaken it for something personal to our relationship, which I maybe could have stood for. And then they said, “We thought it might be an American thing.”

When Chugh writes about growth mindset versus fixed mindset, she’s mostly talking about individuals, and the way we see ourselves and each other. But I’m thinking more about society, and the way we see it. I’m thinking about how the way we see ourselves as individuals feeds into the way society is, and whether or not it’s within our power to do anything about it.

I was operating under the assumption that there was nothing I could do to change this. “It is what it is” had become my motto. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ had become my lifestyle.


Take, for example, my allergy to math. For a long time, I caricatured myself: “You’re talking to the only Asian ever to have scored a D- in Algebra,” I’d say at cocktail parties, by way of eliciting a laugh, or by way of making myself stand out, maybe.

During a game of Cards Against Humanity, a close friend drew a set of cards that had her nearly choking on her drink. They were so funny–and seemed so apropos–that I took a photo of them. All of my friends know and believe that I am terrible at math. I have told them so. They never let me calculate the tip.

But in another interaction, a friend looked at me curiously when I ran the line about my being a terrible Asian/math person. “Why perpetrate that stereotype?” he asked, quietly, and I went into a corner to sit and Think About What I Had Done.

And in yet another interaction, my friend Roz’s mother, who teaches fifth grade, put on her teacher voice and said, “You’re not bad at math, Yi Shun. You’ve just never made it a priority.”

Hey. I like that. And even if my not making math a priority does lead to my being terrible at math, well…it doesn’t mean I can’t be better at it one day. Everything is a work in progress, even my math skills.


I think seeing systems—and ourselves!—as flexible, and works in progress, has true application beyond our desires to be good. A belief that we can change the systems around us to work more efficiently is a valuable, healthy way forward.

A friend works as a programs director in a small city government. She has inherited what can only be described as a dysfunctional workplace. For instance, when she doesn’t respond to emails within ten minutes, the person or resident who is asking for help or information either calls her directly or comes to her desk, even if she’s specifically asked for that time alone, to work on grant proposals or paperwork or admin. When I told her I had moved to checking e-mail only three times a day, she laughed merrily and told me the system wouldn’t tolerate that.

My friend essentially works every single weekend as a direct result of this system.

I don’t know anything about working in a city government. But I think that there are lots of ways she can challenge the status quo to make it work better for her, even if she’s having to press against many years of doing things one fixed way. And people can change, too. My friend’s claim that the people around her won’t respect her time is a false claim, I believe. I think she can probably encourage them, in her role as programs director, to see that the workplace can produce even better programming than ever before if she can cut down on things like e-mail and interruptions of a more obvious nature, like people opening her closed office door or stepping into her blocked-off calendar.


In another book I read recently, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, the authors write about how important it is to recognize the idea that conversations that feel bad may be affecting us because they threaten our ideas of who we are.

In the case of the first interaction I described, my friend thought he was being jovial. He thinks of himself as being funny, the guy who gets the laughs. I thought of myself as the cool girl, the one who could roll with the punches and “take it,” whatever “it” was.

In the case of my friend and her dysfunctional workplace, she may see herself as the woman who can work with whatever difficulty she’s presented with. She may not want to rock the boat.

I don’t know what’s happening yet, in the case of me and the mathematics thing. It’s probably a combination of wanting to be the cool girl, the girl who can laugh at herself in straight-talk fashion, and the girl who will never rock the boat.


Challenging the system feels like touching a cactus spine, to me. “I wonder if…” and then, the inevitable, ouch! But sometimes, you touch a cactus spine, and you think, Well, hunh. That’s not so bad. If you touch it gently enough, you might even try it again, until you eventually see that cactus as not a terrible Danger Plant (TM), but just as something to be navigated.

In the extended version of this metaphor, and if you’re me, you might find yourself loving cacti, and then saddled with an unhealthy obsession with all things related.

Or you can draw your own metaphors. Whatever way you choose to look at it, the best systems are the flexible ones. And those systems comprise flexible people, with growth mindsets.

smiling cactus wearing a hat made of flowers

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

“A Boy Named Sue”: Live-Blogging Dolly Chugh’s _The Person You Mean to Be_ (Part 1)

This is part 1 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. And you can buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.

Sarah wrote out the names phonetically. She practiced saying them … She was surprised to realize that the names were not that hard to say semi-correctly, albeit in an American accent … She just had not tried before.
A week later, Sarah called Gita. When Gita answered, Sarah asked, “May I speak with Gita Suryanarayanan Varadarajan?” Gita cried. It was the first time anyone had tried to say her name since she had moved to America several years before. “The first time,” Gita emphasizes.

The Person You Mean to Be, Dolly Chugh, pg 11

The other day, on a long road trip, my husband introduced me to “A Boy Named Sue.”

(I know. You thought it was Johnny Cash. Me, too. But no one does maniacal sing-yelling like Shel Silverstein, and I’m glad he wrote it. It slots with everything I thought I knew about Shel Silverstein.)

When I first heard this song, I felt immediately seen. Because everyone’s name has a story to it: Your parents named you Mike for your great-grandfather, say. Or you’re called “Tick” because your name is actually Christopher, but your parents called you “Kit,” and when you were little you couldn’t pronounce it, so you introduced yourself as “Tick,” and now it’s what’s on your business card. (This is a true story, by the way. I don’t know where Tick is anymore, but this is one of my favorite name stories.)

Me? My name means “humble.” And I’m named so because when I was born I had flaming red hair, and my grandfather said, “Uh oh, better name her something that’ll temper that red hair,” and so, humble it was.

This is the story I am told, anyway, with great love and joy, by my family members.

My name is complex. Spelled out in Mandarin, it comprises some 34 strokes and three characters, if you include my last name. In English, my parents chose to spell it out in two discrete words, which is why sometimes you’ll see me, on Goodreads or on Twitter or on Facebook, as “Yi.” (This is an annoyance to no end. It’s like Shelby being called “Shel” all the time. Or Allison being called “Al.” It’s fine for close friends. It is not okay for the DMV or a faceless social networking tool, because they don’t know jack about me. Well, they do, but that’s a different post and issue.)

Some people butcher my name. That’s okay. I just correct them and laugh and tell them it will take them a while to get it. I encourage them to keep trying.

But the ones who really rankle are the ones who tell me, straight up to my face, that they’re not even going to try.

Right after my husband’s grandmother’s burial, the pastor came up to me and said, “Now, who are you?” I told him I was married to the eldest grandson, and introduced myself, and then he said, “I’m not even going to try.”

Okay, I was at a cemetery, but I could not stop myself. “You should,” I said, and waited through an uncomfortable silence, and then spelled it for him and pronounced it again, and then waited until he had tried it.

My impatience may have been because of where I was–my husband’s family and I have come to loggerheads several times over political and humanitarian matters–and it might also be because, just the day before the funeral, I was getting a breakfast burrito at an airport kiosk. I put my name in and waited.

The young man behind the counter called my name when my burrito was ready. “Yaeshooon?” he called, tentatively, and then, when I started laughing while coming to collect my burrito, he said, shoulders slumping, “I’m so sorry. Please tell me how to pronounce it.”

In Chugh’s book, she quotes Dale Carnegie: “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” But to me, hearing that young man ask me how to pronounce my name was sweeter than my name itself: It told me he was trying to understand where I come from.

Perhaps a person’s name sounds so sweet to them is because it carries with it baggage of identity, of history. I used to say, when introducing myself, “Don’t worry about it. It’ll take you ages. In the meantime, I’ll answer to anything.” I don’t say this anymore, because I have come to realize that my name is tied up in the fight for my identity. That not having people even try to pronounce it is a sign of my struggle as a minority, which I’ve only recently begun to explore. That giving the Starbucks barista “easy” American names like “Sue” or “Melissa” or even my husband’s or my friend’s name so I can avoid seeing my name butchered on a coffee cup is just dodging the truth–that I live here, that I am multi-cultural. That even so, I deserve to take up just as much brain space as Sue, Melissa, Mike, George.


Each year, my father’s high school hosts five or six kids from Taiwan to come visit California. They live with host families over two weeks and are introduced to … erm, American things. They learn about the higher education institutions here and visit a famous aerospace lab. They go to Disneyland and Universal and baseball games too, don’t worry.

These kids, who speak some English, are placed with Caucasian families so they can better their language skills. When my husband and I picked them up at the airport, they introduced themselves to us with their Taiwanese names.

A few hours later, when we met them and their host parents for dinner, they had started using their English names. “Oh, you mean Justin?” said one host parent, blithely, when I asked how her student was settling in. I told her, “That’s not his name.”

She said, “It’s easier for us.”

I said, “You should try. He has a name already. It’s–” and then I proceeded to completely mispronounce Justin’s Taiwanese name.

I don’t think this was necessarily the right place for me to bring this up. Lots of Taiwanese kids have English names. I have cousins who have chosen the names Joanna, Brenda, Brian, Willy, Henry. But the motive, in this case, was way off. “It’s easier for us” is way shittier than “It’s what he wants us to call him.”

I’m not all that interested in your ease, lady. I’m interested in this kid’s sense of identity.

For what it’s worth, I asked Teddy and Justin and Eddie what they’d prefer to be called, and they said their English names were okay, but that they also liked to hear their Taiwanese names. I told them that, in America, it’s okay to be called what you want to be called.


If you haven’t noticed, I can’t remember any of the kids’ Taiwanese names, but I remember their American names perfectly fine. And, when I was repeating them back to them, to make sure I got them right, I Americanized the bejesus out of them. This is because I can’t actually write or read in Mandarin,* so remembering Taiwanese or Mandarin names is rote memorization, using rhythms I don’t know as well, and combinations of letters I don’t usually see. Some might argue that it’s pointless to pronounce someone’s name unless you can do it perfectly. But you know what? Speaking from long experience? It only matters that you try.

Because not even wanting to make the effort sends a pretty clear signal that you don’t believe the word that sums me up–my name–is worth your time.

Think about it. When was the last time a friend of yours did something endearing, or hilarious, or frustrating, and you said to yourself, “Oh, God. That’s so Peter.” Or “That is straight-up Jim.” Or, “That is 100% Borchien.” In this roundabout way, I have come to see people’s names as a personification of who they are, all their bits and bobs and trip-ups and foibles.


In relating the anecdote about Gita and Sarah, above, Chugh relates that Gita told Sarah she believed people don’t try to pronounce foreign names because of arrogance. Sarah, Chugh writes, was horrified. She had never tried to pronounce Gita’s middle and last names because she was afraid of getting it wrong. Now, her friend was telling her her behavior was arrogant, which sent Sarah’s sense of self-identity into the red zone. She had always believed she was a nice person, but here she was, being told she was arrogant.

It’s so important to make our motives clear, but in the end, what matters is how they’re perceived–the feelings you hurt. To write those possibilities off is of highest arrogance, isn’t it? There’s no winner in the name game—at worst, the offender is perceived as arrogant. At best, the person with the unusual name ends up feeling like she has to bend to majority opinion, and she always does it, putting her feelings and her history at a lower value than the majority rule.

You know what? No one’s feelings are worth that. And realizing that, I think, takes true humility.

It’s why the guy from the breakfast place will always be my benchmark. He put his feelings aside, and asked, humbly, to be taught something new. No matter how the rest of my day went, I was always going to remember that someone thought my name–my person–mattered enough to set his own ego aside.

It matters enough that I’ll tell you how to pronounce my name at a grave site. It matters enough that I’ll call you out for your laziness at a social gathering meant to honor you. Why? Because my temporary discomfort, and yours, is nothing compared to being told that the word that embodies a person should be easier for you to pronounce–or never uttered at all.


I asked my parents a few nights ago why they hadn’t given me an American name. “Your pre-school teacher,” my ma said. “Mrs. … Piccone?”

“Uh huh,” I said. “I liked her. She had curly brown hair.”

“I told her your name, and I said if it’s too hard, I can change it.”

“Oh,” I said.

My mother shook her head. “Mrs. Piccone didn’t want that,” she said. “She said, ‘No. I have to learn.'”

My mother would have chosen “Hope” for me, she said, and my father, perhaps already seeing a future comprised entirely of bumps and scrapes and hoping to change my stars, “Grace.”

But for Mrs. Piccone, I may have had an easier time. Maybe I wouldn’t be so neurotic about people’s names, although I have a terrible habit of mixing up friends who come in twos (married couples, best friends, and the like.) But she’s become a part of my history too, and for her, if for nothing else, I’m glad I’m called “Yi Shun.” (Use my business card below to learn how to pronounce it.)

*Taiwanese relies on Mandarin for its written language. So although I can speak it fine, I can’t track new words very well. It’s something I’m working to change.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

It’s broke: Love it enough to fix it

When I was in college, eleventy trillion years ago, I was editor-in-chief of the paper which served the five colleges that made up our undergraduate system. I think I did that for a year or so.

Our offices were in the basement of the college bookstore; I had a key and a stipend and there were a few scandals during my tenure on the paper overall, from writer to news editor to editor-in-chief. I really can’t remember what they were about or who they involved, probably because my hippocampus or frontal lobe or amygdala or whatever or maybe all of it wasn’t developed enough to comprehend what was actually happening.

At any rate, all of this led to some indignation and righteousness and then I became editor-in-chief, and this led to a good friend of mine sitting in the living room of one of the dorms we used to hang out in at another college (??? why did we do this? so strange. i know we had friends there, but…anyway), talking about the newspaper.

I remember distinctly telling him I thought it was broken. And I remember Jake being royally pissed off. He was red in the face, even. “How can you say that?” he asked. “This is your thing now. You should be proud of it!”

“I am proud of it,” I said. “There’s just a lot that needs to be fixed about it. It needs a lot of changes.”

Jake wouldn’t budge. He couldn’t comprehend how you can love a thing, respect it, and want it to change. He saw it as the height of disrespect that I would tell him that it needed changes.

But see, for me, loving a thing means wanting to change it. You love a thing despite of all its flaws, or maybe even because of them. You see it for everything it is. You know it so, so well that you are an expert in its weak points, its pain points, its very realness. And yet, you continue to work at it, because you see what it can become.

College was a long-ass time ago. (I graduated in 1996.) But I’ve never forgotten that conversation, and it pops up in my memory now and again.

Most recently, I remembered it because of that terrible tweet from our commander-in-chief, saying that four congresswomen should “go back to the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” (It’s missing a hyphen, but whatever.) Yes, yes, three of the four women he was addressing are from America already, but I was struck by how intent 45 is on how great this nation is. Lawmakers go into office, as I understand it, to effect change in a place they love, not to sit on their laurels.

But then, probably because I can’t stand to think of 45 very long before my head explodes and I make yet more wrinkles in my lips from unsavory expressions, I pivoted to the conversation I had with Jake, all those years ago: How I feel the way I do because of the way I grew up. And how it’s probably the same with Jake.

I don’t know much about the way Jake grew up, actually. I’ve visited his home town only once, and his family home on the same visit. (On this same visit, Jake ribbed me about being a baseball fan who doesn’t know what a “balk” is. “You know, I think it’s really weird that you call yourself a baseball fan but you don’t know what a balk is,” he said, and I returned that there was so much more to love about baseball than its infuriating intricacies.)

But I do know about the way I grew up. In my household, criticism was a daily pill. No! Pills you take once a day. This was more like windows, peeing, air–criticism was always there. My brother and I were criticized–too fat, too sickly, too loud, too stupid–as a manifestation of our parents’ love. Nothing was good enough, and so nothing would ever be perfect.

This backdrop manifests itself in my adult life in other ways, too. When I am running with my young dog, Huckleberry, I give him grades for how he behaves. If he looks at a dog passing by on the other side of the street and doesn’t lunge or drag me in its direction or bark, that’s 98% good. If he lunges, that’s 73%. If he lunges and barks and drags me, that’s 33% and no cookie.

If he goes right on by, that’s 100%. Perfect.

I actually tell him this. “Good boy, Huckleberry! One hundred percent! I am so impressed!”

Or, “What was that? That was terrible. Sixty-five percent. Not even close to passing.”

What happens in my brain when I run with Huckleberry. Why, why?!

Friends, I hate grades. I hate them with the fire of a thousand flaming Dumpsters.* I hate them because I am bad at them, and because they were used as leverage all my life. I avoid them whenever possible in my teaching, preferring to assess my students qualitatively.

And yet, with the least assuming creature in my life, there they are. Bang. I cannot escape them.

You probably already know where this is going. I am fascinated by the role our upbringings have in who we are as adults. I think I can trace everything I do today to what happened to me and what I was exposed to as a kid. I am fascinated, in short, by unconscious, or implicit, bias.


For the next few weeks, or however long it takes, I’ll be working through a live-blog** of Dolly Chugh’s book _The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. Chugh is a social psychologist, and I admire her work. I learned a lot from her book, and the posts are meant to be a way for me to illustrate for myself the lessons I’ve learned, and they can also be seen as a way for you to think about some of the issues she raises. Some these issues are: Why we believe what we do; how to broaden our perspectives; how to talk to people who don’t have our perspectives and not go completely batsh*t.

I made a couple annotations, or something.

For anyone who’s ever thought of themselves as a good person, for anyone who wants to be a better person, for anyone who feels stymied about how to be a good person when there are so many varying definitions of “good person”–this book is for you. I hope my posts can supplement your reading of it.***

Talk to you soon. And if you’ve read this book and want to discuss with me, drop me a line: yishun@thegooddirt.org

*I used this phrase in a comment to my class awhile ago. They have to cite themselves to avoid self-plagiarizing, so I’ll do the same here: Yi Shun Lai, Brightspace class announcement, 7.22.19, SNHU Online MFA program.

**It’s not technically a live-blog. I’ve already read the thing. But I didn’t know what else to call it.

***I find seeing examples of things helps to cement an understanding of it, so this is also for me.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

I’m reading Moby-Dick, so you don’t have to

…Actually, I think everyone should read Moby-Dick. That doesn’t mean I admire the thing, it just means I’m finding it intriguing. This is my second attempt at reading it; I last tried in 2015 and made it all the way to chapter 18 before I realized the whale wasn’t going to show up anytime soon. This time, I’m halfway through it. Moby-Dick himself still hasn’t shown up yet, but enough interesting stuff has happened that I thought I would share it with you. I don’t know that I’ll make it all the way through this time. It’s a testament to the book, I guess, that I remembered enough of it to continue on nearly four years later. Or maybe it’s a testament to the fact that nothing of real interest plot-wise has happened yet. As my Twitter friend @angryreporter put it:

 

At any rate, here we are, 62% of the way through Moby-Dick. And here’s the link to my spreadsheet of my reading of Moby-Dick. Or, rather, so far of the things that made my ears go up. Let me know if it doesn’t work. Let me know what you think. Commenting is on. I’d especially be interested in hearing from those of you who have already read it.

 

 

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The Shame of Getting Paid to Write: Live-blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 16 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-15 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Freelancers have to decide if they’re willing to accept PR or publicity-related writing opportunities alongside traditional gigs. Many writers do both but rarely talk about the corporate-sponsored writing they do (which usually doesn’t include their byline).”

The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 230

Wooooeeee. It has been a long, long time. I am sorry, because I have really, really missed writing these, AND we are coming to the end. (My high school track coach used to always yell at us if we didn’t sprint through the end of the race. This feels a little bit like that.)

I was away for a little bit, and then we acquired New Puppy, whose name is huckleberry, small aitch.

Tell you what, people. New puppies are demanding. Mine is great in his crate, unless you’re not within eyesight, and then, according to Mr. Gooddirt, it’s howl city. As far as I know, this does not happen when we leave the house. We’re just in the full swing of house training now in his total of 16 days with us, huckleberry has gone a total of five days without peeing in the house. I count it a win, although those days were not consecutive.

And he has largely stopped eating rocks, bits of patio cement, and flower petals, but his new favorite thing seems to be lizard poops. Sigh. Yes, yes, to eat.

In any case, he’s a confident, curious creature, and the differences between he and Sprocket are stacking up. (My vet says I have Second Dog Syndrome. Apparently it’s a Thing among people who had great first dogs.) But that’s another post.

Anyway! Moving on. Oh, sorry. Here’s a photo.

(For the record, huckleberry is not at all forlorn about being under the couch. That is where he wants to be.)

Okay. Sorry for that minor diversion. Now, onto this post, which strikes at a subject that is near and dear to my heart. This is a little jumbly right now, because, although I’ve been living with this train of thought for a long time, it is a long, long train, with lots and lots of interesting little cars that don’t always want to stay on the track. But I am going to give it a shot.

When I was in my first editorial assistant job, I was already working for the J. Peterman catalog as a copywriter. So “corporate copy” wasn’t something I shied from, although I’d be lying if I didn’t say I told myself that the fictional nature of that copy and the imagining it allowed me to do was fueling my future career as a novelist. I’d also already done a stint in advertising, and spent a good amount of time picking apart commercials and advertisements, wondering how they worked and made me Want Things. (For more on my beginnings in marketing and corporate copy, listen to this episode of Writers’ Rough Drafts.)

But this is not the post on why we should look at corporate copy/advertorials/whatever with as much gravitas as we look at “real writing.” (That post is here.) This is a post on the harm we do to the industry of writers in general, and to the generations of writers who come after us, if we don’t acknowledge all the work we do.

Am I being dramatic? Not in the least.

Listen. We’ve all heard writers kvetch and moan about how annoying it is when someone says, “Oh, you’re a writer? Cool. Write anything I’d have read?” It seems to be a sly way of asking writers if they’re famous enough. Lately, I’ve taken to answering this way:

“It depends on what you like to read.”

I like this answer for a lot of reasons. It puts the onus on the asker of the question to tell me what they like, and it opens up conversation. But we all know that’s not the intent of the question, and that intent is why I think it’s important for all of us to disclose how writers actually make their money:

Many people believe that, if you get paid for putting words down on paper, you are not a real writer. 

I know. It sounds crazy. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that writing corporate copy or social-media posts “isn’t really writing.” I once heard this from a jackweed customs officer, believe it or not.

Come on, people. Writers who write corporate copy or social media copy are quite likely making more bank than any of us ever will penning short stories or poems. I made $5 a word easy when I was writing for Peterman, and that was in the late ’90s. Tell me I’m not a writer, for writing pithy, imaginative copy that makes people want to up and buy a tiny faux-croc-skin change purse for $75. I dare you.

And here comes the second reason for being loud and proud of where you make your money: I can’t think of another profession that is as head-in-the-clouds when it comes to how we make our money as writing for a living is. You’re not doing the profession any good by not placing a dollar value on what you write, and accounting for it over the entire arc of your career. This attitude is destructive. College students and their parents regularly ask me if it’s still possible to make a living as a novelist. The answer is that it never was possible to make a living JUST as a novelist. Writers always have some other thing going on, whether it was writing corporate stuff, or speaking gigs, or editing, or writing articles about the craft of writing. Sure, it’s all related, but it’s not all strictly writing novels.

We are not one-trick ponies. We are hacks, sometimes. And we should be damn proud of it, because it puts food on the table and keeps us writing and awake and doing things we also like to do, like  having lunch with writer friends. And signing up for races that cost a pretty penny. And going to writer’s retreat. And running literary magazines.

So: Got a day job? Say it loud and proud, right alongside of your “Yes, I’m a writer.” Write copy for a living while you’re penning your magnum opus? Say that, too. Giving guided tours of New York while you’re screenwriting? Yeah, that too. Walking dogs? Man. You’re going to have some awesome stories.

Listen. When we can come to terms with the fact that writing does not pay all the bills, we might actually be able to make people value our work. We might actually then bring it home to people who expect us to do stuff  “for free,” because we are ostensibly “living our dreams,” or whatever.

The more we can get used to the fact that writing is a commodity, the more we can expect to get paid for it. Because every time I open up a new word document, or a new notebook, I am putting a little piece of my memory, my education, my heart down on that piece of paper, and dammit, I expect to get paid well for it.

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Measuring your career and profitability: Live-blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 15 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-14 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“When your book hits a major best-seller list, it does create a meaningful ripped effect—more people hear about it, more sales get triggered…and you’re likely to get more invitations to do media or to speak.” (pg. 220)

“It’s important to see and track where the work comes from as well as the profitability of the work.” (pg. 229)

These two quotes come from two different sections of Friedman’s book. The first is from a chapter on book launches, and the second is from a chapter on making a freelancing career.

I see them as being related. My book career is, more and more, related to my freelance writing career, and I am looking to streamline this even more, as I get older and, uh, mature in my career.

Hopefully you’ve seen by now how a lot of writing actually mirrors a lot of the way we would work in any other career: tracking your successes, doing your research, training for success, making sure you have the right resources to succeed, are all par for the course, just as they are in any other field. This is as it should be.

For today’s post, we’ll talk a little bit about what it was like for me before and after my book was published.

My book was published in 2016. Before then, I was doing a lot of marketing writing and content creation. I still do this, because I really enjoy it, but the bulk of the things I was hired to do was either pitched magazine articles or corporate work. A large part of this is not only my actual qualifications, but where I felt most comfortable offering expertise. Even while I was in the process of getting published—a long year, because that’s how long it takes in the traditional publishing world—I didn’t feel quite comfortable talking about what it was like to write fiction or publish it.

Most of my speaking gigs and teaching gigs up to then leaned on my expertise as an editor for the Tahoma Literary Review: I would come into classrooms and talk about things like working with an editor, what editing careers look like. I focused more on the broader field of publishing, since I had a lot of experience in that already, on both the publishing end and the editing and writing ends, as a freelance writer.

After I published, though, it was like a switch flipped in my head. I could see the various options that were open to me more clearly, and, probably most importantly, I felt confident in my offerings. Here’s the key, though: Nothing had changed in terms of my expertise at writing fiction, but the book—that product in my head—gave me key currency with which to trade.

Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu debuted at number 5 on my distributor’s fiction bestseller list. And it crawled its way up to number 3, and then eventually fell off the back end, after eight long months. And although this is not one of the major best-seller lists that Friedman refers to, it gave me even more of a leg to stand on, if only in my own view of my career as a published writer.

After I published, I felt much more confident pitching magazines with articles on the art of publishing and the craft of writing. And even the nod I got from the Thurber House (Marty Wu was a semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize in American Humor) gave me the added emotional impetus I needed to pitch and write an article on black humor, a topic I’ve always wanted to cover.

This where tracking the profitability of these ventures, though, becomes paramount. It’s very easy to lose yourself in the headiness of chasing after speaking gigs and teaching opportunities, or penning blog posts and interviews. And, because much of this work is done with no immediate financial return on time investment (no, you do not usually get paid for doing Q&As about your book), it’s also easy to fall into the trap of justifying this time spent as moving towards more book sales and more speaking gigs.

But you have to work to balance these out. You must acquire paying gigs in order to offset the “free” work you’re doing in order to promote your book and its work.

Pre-publication, that work looked like marketing work for me. Post-publication, it’s paid articles about writing and publishing. It’s also adjunct work.

When I visit college classes, students often ask me if it’s “still possible” to earn a living off of writing books. I tell them yes, but that it’s time to expand the definition of what that means: “Being a writer” means, to me, sharing what I have learned with others. It means building on the capital I’ve acquired and leveraging that.

I mentioned tracking your profitability in the headline of this piece, and I think, the things I mention above are all parts of that puzzle. But one tool you must use is a time tracker and invoicing service. I have used Harvest for many years, thanks to my colleague at TLR, Ann Beman, who introduced me to it ages ago. It comes with a built-in set of parameters that include billable and non-billable hours, so that I can see where my time is spent. I have a complicated formula in my head that allows me to “weigh” what I’m doing against its inherent value, which I’m not going to share with you here because it is too involved—and frankly, I’m not 100% sure of what it actually is.

But I do value the work, on both a practical and an emotional level. And in our society right now, which is based on money exchange and not on, say, the barter system, well, measuring your profitability is the only way I can see of being sure that we are valuing our work on the same level everyone else does.

Here are some tips for you:

  • If you’re doing work for free, be sure you offset it with plenty of work that pays well.
  • Measure or track your time. Be clear about this; no wishy-washiness. You need to know where your time is going.
  • Find your own sense of worth and value around your work. Experience counts, so you can’t expect to command top dollar if you’re just starting out.
  • Finally, don’t underestimate the emotional value of a hard piece of “currency,” whether that be your published book(s), articles you’ve written, or your degree. I mean this mostly from an emotional standpoint. And if you don’t feel ready to make an offering because you haven’t published or are mid-degree or whatever, that’s okay, too, but be realistic about it: many great writing coaches don’t have MFAs, but you may not feel comfortable stepping into that field without one. Everyone is different, and respecting your own parameters is good. But so is pushing your own limits.

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Great Literature Events: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 14 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-13 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Unless you’re a household name as an author, you need to think carefully about how you’ll structure your reading or event. What will be instructive, entertaining, or delightful for those who turn out? Readings have a tendency to be dreadfully boring, with audience members wondering when they will end..” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 214)

In my work as a disaster relief volunteer, we have the end user of our aid always in mind. The end user in our case are the families receiving our aid, so everything we do must in some way contribute to a good result for them. This kind of thinking–asking ourselves who we ultimately serve–makes everything easier, by way of allowing us to benchmark: Does this course of action serve the families who receive our aid? No? Then let’s pursue another solution. Yes? Okay, let’s follow this road and see where it takes us.

I think folks who hold readings must also consider carefully who their end user is. Often, writers run into the question of why they’re having a reading or event, and the answer isn’t always, “oh, to sell more books.” Your experiences may vary, but for me, the end user is always the reader, and the reason I make appearances is to win people over, to keep them reading me.

The why of being a writer is about the readership; the why of why I choose to put pen to paper is about the readership. For me, then, the why of readings and events is also the end user.

Years ago, when I was involved in marketing for the MFA program I graduated from, I was asked to produce an event at AWP, the biggest writer’s conference of the MFA’s year. As part of our sponsorship of the conference, we had access to a space that we could use for a cocktail party. We wanted people to socialize, but we also wanted them to get something out of the event. My only tenet going into the planning of the event was that I wanted to make it an event that people–our end user, the attendees of the party–would have fun at, would get something out of. I wanted them to be impressed with our graduates and walk away with a bright, warm spot that they would associate with our MFA.

We had readings, sure. But they were pop-up readings. Our meetings at the MFA were called to order with a big ship’s bell, so we used that to “ding” the room into order whenever a reading was to start. That kept people on their toes. And after every reading—thirty seconds max, I think it was—the person who was reading drew from a big hat of raffle tickets and someone would win a prize.

There were very short speeches. But mostly, it was a packed, rowdy room full of people who hadn’t seen each other in awhile, and people who had wandered in to see exactly what the hell all the dinging and laughing and cheering and ruckus was about. Members of the board of directors for the conference stopped by. They said they had never seen such a turnout for these value-added events before

It remains, by far, one of my most memorable and happy professional experiences, and it was all down to making sure we kept the end user in mind.

When my book was published and I started to plan readings and events, I remembered how well that event had worked, but I don’t think I saw much in the way of possibility to recreate that kind of event. The closest I came was helping to put together a panel discussion between myself and two other writers at a New York City bookstore. We all read from our works, very briefly, and then we had a robust conversation about the state of diversity in literature. It was a great evening. I really enjoyed myself, but I was pretty clear that was because I felt like the audience was walking away with some solid information under their belts, stuff they could feel happier about having learned. I recently participated in a similar event that had the same structure, and I was so happy to be asked to join in.

I love events with other writers. Two or three or four heads are always better than one, and the energy in a room is so much better when you can bounce off of someone else. But even if you’re doing a solo event, there are ways to make it feel like someone else is up there with you, and ways to promote other writers: One writer I know, Kaitlin Solimine, buys copies of books by people she knows, and raffles them off at the end of her events. She also printed pre-stamped postcards with her book’s cover on them, so that we would almost inadvertently spread the word.

Probably, for me, the best thing ever is getting a chance to promote someone else’s work. I love the sensation you get of using your success, however limited it might be, to bolster someone else’s work. We see this in our opening event for the invitation-only (for now) twice-yearly writer’s retreat, too. Twice now we’ve given the faculty members the option of just doing a reading or opting into a discussion with one of our retreat’s staff members as moderator, and both times they’ve opted for the moderator.

This might be for the simple reason that three people makes for better dissemination of nervous energy. Or that it’s just easier to talk to a moderator whose job it is to see the connection between two vastly different pieces of work. In any case, it’s preferable.

You may not come to the same conclusion as I did about who my end user is. That’s okay. But you should know, at least, who you’re aiming to reach, and build your strategy around that.

And now, your tips!

  • Each event may be different. Ask yourself who’s likely to be there, and what they may expect out of it.
  • Don’t be afraid to show your personality. I’m loud, so when even me at the mic couldn’t make the room hush up during the big event I mention above, I started to sing The Carpenters’ “Close to You.” Pretty soon, the whole room was singing, and it’s easier to make everyone stop singing than it is to make them stop talking to people they really like. And at the very first reading I ever went to, the author only read for a little bit before he said that he didn’t really like long readings, and he pulled out his steel guitar and started playing for us instead. I don’t know how many instant fans he made that night. I was one of them.
  • Do ask other writers to join in. This is one thing that never, ever fails. I love spending time with other writers, and this is such a great way to support each other. Share the love!

What were the best readings or literary events you’ve participated in or attended? Tell me in the comments below.

 

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.