Starting up and moving on

Since writing my last post, in which I entreated readers to join me for a collaborative project, I’ve let this blog fall largely silent. Here is why: I realized one day shortly after writing that post that the collaborator I’d been looking for was right in front of me, my boyfriend Jackson.

When he and I put our heads together, we came up with a much larger project than I had originally imagined. I wanted to teach creative professionals how to collaborate more effectively; but what if we could help them find the best collaborators to begin with?

That’s a problem I’ve helped hundreds of people solve through endless emails, Facebook posts, and phone calls. Now there is a single platform to help us all keep track of our trusted contacts, ask them for collaborator recommendations, and keep up with the most exciting projects across many industries—we’re calling it Dovetail.

Starting a web company with your significant other struck us as unusual (and difficult) enough to warrant a blog of it’s own, so we created This Starts Now, where Jackson and I write about this whole start-up thing. Between that and actually starting up, I don’t have enough time to keep up with Hey Miki, so I’m taking a hiatus for the foreseeable future.

I hope you’ll join me at This Starts Now, and sign up for updates from Dovetail if it makes sense for you. I’m unbelievably excited about this new endeavor—knowing you’ll be following along and hopefully offering your insights is the icing on the cake.

Will you be my collaborator?

WHAT IS the single most important skill you can develop to ensure success in today’s economy? According to this brilliant Fast Company article (and my own experience), the answer is…adaptability.

“The new reality is multiple gigs, some of them supershort, with constant pressure to learn new things and adapt to new work situations, and no guarantee that you’ll stay in a single industry.”

But what exactly does it mean to be adaptable? Is it really a skill you can learn and hone?

My gut says yes. But it also says: “Learning to be adaptable is not just one skill, it’s lots of complementary skills developed together.” One of the most important of those skills, which I believe encompasses many others, is the ability to collaborate successfully.

Collaboration & Adaptation: One coin, two sides

If you’ve followed this blog or my newsletters, you’ve undoubtedly heard me talk about the importance of collaborative skills, but let’s break it down further. I’ve identified six broad tools you need to excel at collaboration. Here is how each one can also help you adapt to a fluid new world.

1. Know your strengths (and weaknesses): As job titles disappear (or are routinely invented) and bios become more important than resumes, it’s imperative to know exactly what you offer, why your offering is the best, and why people would want you to pay you for what you’re offering.

2. Find & engage influencers: Now that you’re more likely to create your own job than interview for it, your potential clients, co-workers, and customers are everywhere. Identifying and creating an authentic connection with them is the foundation of today’s successful marketing and sales strategies.

3. Ask the right questions: As I like to say, in our present state of flux, no one is an expert—which means everyone is an expert. It’s not enough to take one workshop or hire the “it” consultant; you need to be asking everyone you meet the big questions that relate to your business and passion.

4. Define goals and meet deadlines: When your customer or client is a moving target and your own services are constantly evolving, you have to be able to quickly and clearly establish goals for all stakeholders, strategize action items, and then build trust by meeting agreed upon deadlines.

5. Communicate successfully: The writing on the wall says that soft skills (largely interpersonal ones) are king in today’s economy. In our super-connected world, you must deeply understand your own communication preferences, be aware what other people hear when you talk, and be comfortable with a variety of communication modes.

6. Learn from experience: The barriers to entry for almost every industry have crumbled in recent years—if there’s not a freemium web serviced doing what you need yet, there will be in a year. That means the new model includes lots of experimentation, and potentially lots of failures. Those who succeed will be able to take them in stride, learn everything possible from them, and then carry those lessons forward to the next experiment.

So, collaboration skills are also adaptability skills. But let’s not forget that collaboration skills are also incredibly valuable in and of themselves. I see dynamic professional collaboration as an important way for self-employed creatives (in particular but not exclusively) to create sustainable businesses where they don’t burn themselves out working alone, in front of a computer, doing five people’s jobs while also balancing a family life.

I’m looking for collaborators

I’ve wanted to help people become better collaborators for a while now. This is the year I get intentional about it (and make it into a self-sustaining business).

I’ll be dedicating my blogging to collaboration, refocusing my website around it, and working to develop a curriculum, eBook, and traveling workshop circuit within the year. I’m jumping into a handful of collaborations myself and creating case studies with successful collaborators around the world.

I’m so excited to get started on all this, but I’m missing one big thing. Collaborators!

I truly believe in the importance of collaboration, of dropping the “me against the world” attitude and asking for help when I need it, so it’s only natural—and necessary—that I find one or more people to join me on this adventure. Might it be you?

Some things I’m looking for in a collaborator: Someone with 5 hours a week they could dedicate to an exciting but unpaid opportunity; someone who likes the idea of running their own business, if they’re not already; someone who loves to help people, talk to people, be around people; someone with expertise in curriculum building and teaching, web design and eCommerce, and/or business financials.

If you’re interested, I’d love to hear from you at miki@mikijohnson.com. And if you would have expected me to email you directly and ask you to collaborate, please get in touch anyway. I could email 100 people I think might be interested, but I’ve learned that my network knows more than I do, so I’m letting it do its thing.

{UPDATE: It’s been called to my attention that I seem to be asking people to do work for free. Well, I am, but with the potential to build a business with me that will eventually pay both (all) of us. I am pretty sure this endeavor won’t make me money for the first year (other work pays my bills); I’m looking for someone who can afford to take that risk with me. The distinction between “collaborators” and “employees” is one of the big ideas my curriculum will tackle, for exactly this reason.}

A few important questions

To help us figure out if we’d make good collaborators, I’m including a short questionnaire below, with my answers. Please include your answers in your email. Looking forward to hearing from you 🙂

1. What are the most important qualities you can contribute to a project?
I’m good at taking in large amounts of information from different sources, synthesizing it, contextualizing it, streamlining it, and sharing it in a clear way with a specific audience. I’m good at getting people excited about things and helping them move forward on stated goals. I love talking with people and connecting people and do it constantly.

2. What skills or areas are you hoping to develop and grow into this year?
I want to learn how to create curriculum, how to truly teach (not just talk at), how to take people’s understanding from point “a” to point “b” and give them the tools to change their lives based on that shift in thinking. I also want to truly feel that I “own a business,” instead of “freelancing” or “being self-employed.”

3. What are your three preferred forms of communication?
I love speaking face-to-face, which has recently included a lot of Skype calls. I get so much energy from other people, from their excitement, from seeing the gears turning in their head as we talk. While this is my favorite, it can also be exhausting, so I do it less frequently. I also like brief, direct communication that includes email, IM, and text, depending on how urgent the question/request is and how likely the person I’m communicating with is to be at their computer. Finally, I’m a big Facebook fan. I love being able to seamlessly share great things I find online, as well as pictures of food I cook, events I’m attending, and questions for my network.

4. How would you describe the role you most often take in group projects?
I used to be a leader, but today I’d say a facilitator. This can often mean taking the lead, setting a schedule, and getting people organized, but it’s more in the service of the group’s needs and goals than my own vision of how we should proceed. I’m more interested in harnessing collective intelligence than focusing on my own.

What did you do this year?

From left: Working on a blog post at LOOK3, my third birthday tattoo (of an archaeopteryx), practicing my wedding speech.

I finally picked up my journal a few days ago and immediately wrote this question: “Why haven’t I been writing?”

Over the more than 20 years I’ve kept a journal, this question has come up a lot. I know by now that I am constantly flowing through cycles where I will discipline myself to write every day, feel naturally compelled to write once a week, or will not write at all for months. Yet I’m still trying to figure out why this happens when it does.

If you had to choose one word to describe my work, it would probably be “writer.” I edited my high school newspaper, studied magazine journalism in college, and have written for magazines, blogs, and creative clients ever since. (And aren’t we all writers now? I must write around 100 emails, text messages, and Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr updates a day.)

But I more often describe myself as an editor. Because, for me, writing has always been about filtering the world around me through my own thought process, then retelling it in a way that facilitates understanding. I know the root of this lies in my personal journaling — where I am most often trying to work out what’s going on inside myself by putting it on a page, and therefore examining it from a slight distance.

So, getting back to my original question, I know that I write less when I am not in extreme emotional turmoil (which I thankfully haven’t been) and when I’m not starting a new project (which often triggers a more intellectual turmoil). I also learned while traveling last year that I’m not good at writing while experiencing lots of new things (like when I quit my job and travel for five months). I seem to be able to either experience or write/process, but not both.

This brings me to another question: Am I not writing because I’m in the middle of a journey? If so, it’s one that I am unaware of (or was, until I started writing this post in my head).

After being on a very literal journey for months last year, it took a while for me to recognize the subtler journey I’ve been on this year. I started to see it when I made myself write down all the Things I’ve Done This Year:

1. Attended a 3-day silent meditation retreat
2. Helped start and facilitate a group of women creatives
3. Hosted an experimental collaboration event while visiting NYC
4. Broke up with my boyfriend
5. Moved out of our apartment
6. Lived out of a storage unit for five months
7. Moved into a new apartment
8. Built a wood canoe with my dad
9. Made a multimedia video of building a wood canoe
10. Live-blogged LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph
11. Spoke at Flash Forward Festival
12. Spoke at PartnerCon
13. Started a newsletter
14. Worked with 10+ new clients
15. Taught a class on social media for small business
16. Was a bridesmaid in two weddings
17. Taught cooking classes for my friends
18. Took a workshop on radio interviewing and became friends with The Kitchen Sisters
19. Did a video interview for the Musea Blog
20. Did a video interview for Heather Morton’s speaking tour
21. Was a remote guest speaker for John Kaplan’s social responsibility in journalism class
22. Modeled for a figure drawing class
23. Went to Mexico
24. Joined a Women’s Sacred Dance Circle
25. Went deer hunting with my dad
26. Got a tattoo

When I got to the end of this list, I thought: How could I have thought I wasn’t on a journey (or, equally silly and also something I imagined: that I hadn’t accomplished very much)? Sometimes I just have to write it down before I can see it.

Now that I’m finally settled in a new apartment, with all my things around me and an awesome roommate and a big kitchen for me to cook in, I’m feeling the calm space I need to write again. Possibly even the centeredness I need to commit to writing every day, whether I feel like it or not.

Whether or not writing functions for you as it does for me — to help clarify and process — I recommend taking some time before the end of this year to make a list of all the things you’ve done. Things you don’t do every year, things you did for the first time, things you’re proud of, things that left a mark. On January 1 our eyes will all shift forward, so now’s the time to look backwards, which is often the only way to really know where you are right now.

You already know the answer

As an introduction and because people keep asking about this video: My dad and I went to Northern Ontario a few months ago to build a wooden canoe from scratch….in 8 days. Needless to say, it was a lot of work. But I learned so much, and it was such a treat to have unmitigated father-daughter time, the long hours and sore back were worth it. Below is a multimedia video I made of the experience. It’s a rough, early attempt, so cut me some slack on the production quality, please 🙂

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=26353983&server=vimeo.com&show_title=0&show_byline=0&show_portrait=0&color=00adef&fullscreen=1&autoplay=0&loop=0

I haven’t felt much like writing lately…too much work, too much distraction, too little time to sit down and process, let alone write about it coherently. But I when I got off the phone with my dad the other day, I finally felt my fingers itch for the keyboard.

Since returning to the Bay Area in July, my work as a freelance branding/social media consultant/coach has taken off. I’m pleasantly surprised by how people keep finding me, getting in touch, asking if I can help them…and then me being able to. It feels good, but it also feels like I’m one of those jugglers riding a unicycle on a tightrope: just keep moving, keep the balls in the air, don’t look down.

Another opportunity has presented itself recently, one that is really exciting, seems to collect all my disparate talents in one project, and is a chance to work with a small team of people I could not respect or like more. Like most exciting projects like this, it presents a less than clear path to me getting paid, at least for the first few months. Yet to do it like I would want to do it, I’d need to do it full time, letting go of the freelance work that would pay my bills.

Sitting here pondering this dilemma, I did what I’ve done so many times before: I called my dad. I told him what was up, that it’s a great opportunity but the money might not be there. Like a good parent, he told me I was worth the money, and if they were worth working for, they’d find it for me.

Maybe, maybe not, I said. But this just seems like the perfect thing. It uses all my skills, it’s people I really want to work with, it gives me a chance to feel less scattered, and, and….Well, then, there’s your answer, he said. You call me up, you don’t know what to do about this job, and then you tell me all about why it’s so perfect. You answered your own question.

And he was right. And part of me knew that would happen if I called him. Then he said something even better.

This is just like how we used to do your geometry homework, do you remember? I didn’t. You would bring me some problem you couldn’t figure out, and I had no idea how to do it either, but I would just go back to the chapter before and start reading it. You’d start explaining it all to me, and by the time we got to that question that was stumping you, you’d say, “Nevermind, I figured it out.”

Wow. You know what you are, dad? What? A facilitator, I said. He laughed.

I’d never thought about where my own attraction to, and gift for, facilitating had come from, but this was clearly the root of it. I’ve learned that you cannot answer people’s questions for them, so the best kind of teacher helps you find the answer for yourself. So do good friends and family. Facilitators help us feel safe enough to try things we don’t know how to do; they help us gain confidence in our ability to make our own decisions.

Who are the facilitators in your life? Have you called them lately?

Hi, Social Media, nice to meet you

This is NOT a photo from my RenCenter class, but it is from a presentation I gave at the Apple Store last year. Can you tell how red my face was because of that silly mic-headset I had to wear? Thank goodness the RenCenter didn't have one of those 😉 Photo by Matt Baume.

I taught my first class on social media for small businesses July 18 at the very cool Renaissance Center in San Francisco. (You can sign up for the second class here. )

There were so many great questions, and such a wide range of online experience, that I found myself running out of time before we’d addressed all the information I’d prepared.

For that reason, I promised to put up a post here on my blog, so people could ask specific questions that I will respond to (in the comments, please). Plus, anyone who wasn’t in the class can benefit from the discussion as well 🙂

Here are the slide presentations for my first class, as well as the second, more advanced class on August 2. If you press “play” on the first one, you’ll be able to listen to an edited version of the class, synched to the slides. If you just want to read them, you can use the “forward” and “backward” arrows. I’m still happy to take questions in the comments of this post.

And here are links and important quotes from several posts that relate to what we talked about in the classes.

Stop Selling, Start Connecting

“You would never walk into a room and, without introducing yourself, assume that everyone wants to hear about your latest greatest thing would you? Most of us will spend time actually listening to people, finding out who they are, and gaining their trust before we try to sell them our AmWay products. Just because it’s technology, that doesn’t give you carte blanche to abuse people with your sales pitches.”

The resume is dead, the bio is king

“If you’re a designer, entrepreneur, or creative – you probably haven’t been asked for your resume in a long time. Instead, people Google you – and quickly assess your talents based on your website, portfolio, and social media profiles. Do they resonate with what you’re sharing? Do they identify with your story? Are you even giving them a story to wrap their head around?”

What is a brand?

“So what is a brand? A brand is a promise. It is whatever people think, feel, trust, and believe you, your business, or your product will give them if they buy from you. It exists inside people’s minds, out of your reach — yet it’s a big part of why they buy from you.

Logos, colours, fonts and words are simply how you try to convey your brand’s promise to people. Thus a “brand” is a promise and “branding” is all the tangible things you use to express that.”

“Why” not “What”

Every single organization on the planet knows what they do. You know the products you sell and the services you offer. Some organizations know how they do what they do. What we think makes us better or stand out from our competition. But not many organizations know why they do what they do. And by ‘why’ I don’t mean to make a profit. I mean what’s your purpose, your cause, your belief. Why does your organization exist; why did you get out of bed this morning; and why should anyone care?”

Press Releases for Bloggers

“I went to drinks with the Brilliant Online Publicist one night, and asked her how she did such a good job while everyone else was failing. Was she clairvoyant? No: she just actually READ MY BLOG and knew the kind of things I liked to write about. How did she have time to give so much attention to the needs of a then relatively small website? She told me her secret: she only publicizes to eight blogs. She picked the eight blogs that covered her client’s subject, TV, that she liked the most on a personal level, read them religiously, and only sent them only the content she thought each blog would be into.”

Trust Agents (Trust Economies e-Book)

“The edges between work and social life are blurring. People are shifting their social network into their work networks and vice versa—business associates and childhood friends, side by side. We prefer to buy from people that are like us. You like Batman movies? Me too! That may not always be enough to move a sale, but it shows your human dimensions.”

New Media Professionals

A Tumblr I keep as a way to remember useful social media articles that I generally agree with. This is a simple list of links that I update every couple of days. If you want to dig deeper into my “suggested reading,” check it out.

Resources (not exhaustive, just a few I mentioned)

 

Men Being Emotional

I hope Ariel doesn't mind me turning her into a bit of a metaphor ... going through my pictures from LOOK3, I was struck by this image of her, surrounded by men who tower over her, yet at the center nonetheless, in the spotlight.

I spent last week at LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Virginia. I contend that LOOK3 is the best photo festival in the U.S. (if not world); however, I’m not exactly impartial. I helped organize last year’s LOOKbetween, a symposium for young photographers held in LOOK3’s off year, and liveblogged, Facebooked, and Tweeted for the festival this year.

I could go on about why I think LOOK3 is so great (limited attendance, small town setting, inclusion of younger photographers, passionate heart, amazing organizers), but I particularly want to talk about something I noticed in the talks and slideshows at this year’s event…as someone (I wish I could remember who) said to me after talks by Christopher Anderson and Ashley Gilbertson, “Today could have been titled, ‘Men Being Emotional.'”

Chris kicked off Friday’s Masters Talks with his usual thoughtful eloquence, focusing on his latest work, Son, an extremely personal project centered on his family (wife, young son, and ailing father). Ashley followed with an impassioned talk about his years of conflict work and especially his most recent project, Bedrooms of the Fallen, which quietly but undeniably demonstrates the price we pay for war. Their presentations were mentioned as a festival high point by almost everyone I met.

This got me thinking about photography that is more emotionally present, something I wrote about a few weeks ago here. There seems to be a trend, with photojournalism in particular, of going beyond an objective capturing of “who, what, where” to a subjective account, seen through the photographer’s own emotional lens.

Now, there is nothing to say that this is necessarily a movement from “male” to “female,” but I do think that to be emotionally engaged with your images you have to be vulnerable (a big idea in my life right now). And I think it’s fair to say that vulnerability is associated more with women than men, that it is something we are more inclined toward, or, probably, more encouraged by society to feel and express.

Which brings me to the second high point of LOOK3: the closing-night conversation between Sally Mann and Nan Goldin. Sally opened with this: “It occurs to me that Kathy Ryan put us here on stage together for a reason. We are perceived to be so strong and unflinching. Yet, I know that I’m fragile as ash. And I have the perception you feel the same.” And things only got more raw and more real from there. (Read the full conversation here.)

They admitted they envied each other’s lives, they commiserated about their work being dubbed pornographic, they talked about their pussies (and I don’t mean their cats). A few times I wondered nervously what the men in the audience were thinking. But then I thought, who cares? I’m sick of women acting like it isn’t hard to work in a male-dominated field, of not wanting to admit we’re vulnerable because it further calls attention to our “femaleness.” There was something so empowering and exciting about seeing these talented, wise, proud women talking just like they would if they were alone. “This is really how women talk to one another,” I thought.

What triggered my final “aha” moment was a slideshow presented on Saturday night: Steve Giovinco’s On the Edge of Somewhere. The artist’s description reads, “I photograph psychologically intimate and emotional relations between couples,” and the voice over clarified that the couple in the photographs was Steve and his wife. I liked the work, but I kept thinking, “This is just like Elinor Carucci.” Elinor’s My Children was shown a few slideshows ahead, so I doubt I’m the only one who saw the resemblance.

I don’t want to get myself in trouble by saying there is a “female” way of making photos, but if we had to draw some pattern from contemporary women photographers (at least in the fine-art world), it would be of making personal, vulnerable images, often of themselves or their loved ones. And here was a man doing exactly that! Women entering any male-dominated field have long been influenced by the men already there: insisting they are “just like men” or else working in conscious contradiction to “maleness.” I wondered if that flow of influence is starting to reverse?

Even more exciting is the idea that, like most walls in our modern society, the one between “male” and “female” art and artistic subjects/approaches is coming down. We are all given room to be vulnerable if we want, to make “family” photos that are still respected by the industry, or to do the opposite, if that’s your thing. More freedom and less pigeonholing can only be a good thing for art, right?

Stephen Mayes – Liveblog from Flash Forward

 

Stephen Mayes, Managing Director of VII Photo and one of my favorite photo thinkers, is presenting a lecture titled, “Restructuring the Photographic Process,” during the Flash Forward Festival today, June 3, at noon EST.

If you’d like to see what he has to say but can’t join us in Boston, please check in here, where I’ll liveblog his talk and any subsequent discussion.

[liveblog]

Panel discussions that don’t suck. Any ideas?

I’m leaving San Francisco soon for a month and a half of travel, which will happily include a stop in Boston, where I’m joining the Future of Photobooks panel discussion during Magenta’s Flash Forward Festival, and in Charlottesville, VA, where I may be organizing a panel for LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph.

As I wrote in my “manifesto” last year: I love photo events, but they kind of suck. And since I’m on my way to these panel discussions, I’m especially interested in how to make sure they don’t suck, either. (FYI, Matchstick has been tabled for the near future, but I’m still dedicated to those principles.)

Can we all agree to stop being this guy?

Ok, so I’m being a little hyperbolic, but I’ve sat through A LOT of panel discussions. When they’re good, they inundate the audience with so much information you leave feeling excited but overwhelmed; when they’re bad, they drag on while inept public speakers give overly vague or insultingly obvious “advice.”

In an attempt to improve on this scenario for the Future of Photobooks discussion, I’ve been brainstorming with FlakPhoto‘s Andy Adams and moderator Stephen Mayes. One of my ideas: Instead of each panelist talking about their own projects and providing disconnected overviews of a topic, we will each present a specific case study that we think exemplifies an important theme in the larger topic. For instance, I’ll talk about Simon Robert’s We English, a great example of how photographers can create a dedicated pool of supporters (and buyers) for a book through early online engagement.

I also love how Andy has been linking a larger online discussion to a real-world talk. For his recent Photo 2.0 discussion at the New York Photo Festival, he created a Facebook event where he asked people to send him discussion topics, which he folded into the talk. Now he’s asking his FlakPhoto Network to chime in about how best to integrate social streams with our Future of Photobooks discussion.

Do you have other ideas about how to improve the panel discussion template? Have you experienced panel discussions that worked really well, and what did they do right? Also, I’m particularly eager to get feedback on the questions below:

1. Discussion with the audience, helpful or annoying?
I’ve had varying degrees of success creating real dialogue between the audience and panelists, but I know that it’s key. Yet I often dread Q&A sessions when I’m in the audience, since “questions” are too often posed by people who just like to hear themselves talk.

2. Background Tweet streams, distracting or useful?
We are considering streaming tweets about our discussion in real-time, so the audience can comment instantaneously and content can easily be shared with those not in attendance. I often find these side conversations distracting, but I have faith we can find a way to make them work.

3. Setting intentions, too touchy feely?
I think it would be helpful to ask the audience, before we start, to take a silent minute and decide what they most want to get out of the talk. Why are they there? What questions do they want answered? That way they can zero in on the information most important to them and have a focused question to ask during Q&A. But, then, I live in San Francisco, where this kind of touchy feely stuff is totally normal 😉

I’ve Been Thinking: Emotionally involved journalism

“I’ve Been Thinking” is a new column on Hey Miki, spurred in part by my new bi-weekly newsletter. I’ve always got a few “big ideas” buzzing around my brain, maybe not so fully formed as my usual blog posts, but nagging a way that tells me there’s something important there. I’m hoping if I share them with you, I’ll be able to get to the bottom of them quicker 🙂

An image from Justin Maxon's project on Chester, PA, where he is getting directly involved in improving the lives of people he photographs.

Although I love all kinds of photography, photojournalism is what keeps me up at night (probably because I studied journalism myself). Dedicated photographers like James Nachtwey and EugeneRichards  have proven that photographs can change the tide of history. But I strongly feel that we need to refine and sharpen the way they do that for the current media landscape, which is fragmenting and/or going bankrupt at an alarming rate.

The photojournalism community (including myself) seems stuck on an old story: photographer makes image of something terrible, magazine or newspaper publishes it, people realize how bad things are and send help. Maybe part of you thinks, “How naive,” but I bet there’s another part that remembers that Nachtwey’s Somalia images led to international aid that saved 1.5 million people.

I’ve had many conversations with photographers who simply don’t believe in that model anymore. Although they still strive for fair and balanced coverage, they no longer connect to the concept of “objectivity,” and instead are actively working to change the situations their images highlight. Continue reading

How to fall in love a little with everyone you meet

 

Communicating through a screen can be hard, but a good story works in any medium. Image from video by Peter Earl McCollough.

I’ve been thinking about storytelling a lot lately. Partly because I recently read If You Want To Write by Barbara Ueland, which kindly nudged me into believing the title of its first chapter: “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.” And partly because I’ve been reading a lot of inspiring writing, lately (the best parts of which I’ve shared below).

As I wrote in one of my first posts on this blog, “this year I’m determined to make friends with my lurking creative powers.” While I was traveling last summer, that largely meant publicly calling myself a “photographer.” Lately I’m remembering how much I love writing and realizing that I might make a damn good audio producer if I put my mind to it (to which end, I recently bought myself some professional recording gear).

A majority of the books I read are novels, yet I know that “documentary” storytelling will always be my true passion. Ira Glass sums up why in his introduction to The New Kings of Nonfiction, a fantastic collection of inspiring non-fiction pieces he recommends to potential This American Life contributors.

“While this is the golden age of [great nonfiction] reporting and writing, it’s also a golden age for crap journalism. And for some of the most amazing technological advances for stuffing it down your throat. A lot of daily reporting and news ‘commentary’ just reinforces everything we already think about the world. It lacks the sense of discovery, the curiosity, the uncorny, human-size drama that’s part of all these stories. A lot of daily reporting makes the world seem smaller and stupider.

“In that environment, these stories are a kind of beacon. By making stories full of empathy and amusement and the sheer pleasure of discovering the world, these writers reassert the fact that we live in a world where joy and empathy and pleasure are all around us, there for the noticing. They make the world seem like an exciting place to live. I come out of them feeling like a better person — more awake and more aware and more appreciative of everything around me. That’s a hard thing for any kind of writing to accomplish. In times when the media can seem so clueless and beside the point, that’s a great comfort in itself.”

Maybe I forgot for a while how much I love telling stories because modern mass media make our world seem less interesting to me. I’m glad I’ve been reminded by Ira and others that’s not real journalism, at least not the kind I signed up for.

Maybe I’m also scared. Telling people’s stories, especially in a way that holds the attention of the iPhone generation, is one of the hardest things I can imagine myself doing. Malcolm Gladwell explains why in his introduction to What The Dog Saw, a collection of some of his best New Yorker articles.

“The trick to finding ideas is to convince yourself that everyone and everything has a story to tell. I say trick but what I really mean is challenge, because it’s a very hard thing to do. Our instinct as humans, after all, is to assume that most things are not interesting. We flip through the channels on the television and reject ten before we settle on one. We go to a bookstore and look at twenty novels before we pick the one we want. We filter and rank and judge. We have to. There’s just too much out there. But if you want to be a writer, you have to fight that instinct every day. Shampoo doesn’t seem interesting? Well, dammit, it must be, and if it isn’t, I have to believe that it will ultimately lead me to something that is.”

I learned very early that the only kind of knowledge worth anything is the kind you get from asking other people questions. This passage from Ira Glass gave me chills because it so exactly describes my own experience.

“I have this experience when I interview someone, if it’s going well and we’re really talking in a  serious way, and they’re telling me these very personal things, I fall in love a little. Man, woman, child, any age, any background, I fall in love a little. They’re sharing so much of themselves. If you have half a heart, how can you not?”

If I ever taught a class on how to interview people (which I’d love to do), I might title it, “How to fall in love a little with everyone you meet.” Maybe I’d write this quote from Ueland’s If You Want To Write on the chalkboard the first day.

“[T]he only way to love a person is not, as the stereotyped Christian notion is, to coddle them and bring them soup when they are sick, but by listening to them and seeing and believing in the god, in the poet, in them. For by doing this, you keep the god and the poet alive and make it flourish.”

She is actually talking about how she convinces her students (all non-writers) that they can be good writers. In a way, this blog is a chance to listen to myself, to honor the poet, the storyteller inside me. Now that I’m thinking so much about storytelling, I realize that telling people’s stories is still daunting to me, but teaching people how to tell their own stories is anything but.

For the past several months I’ve been working with Heather Elder, a commercial photographer’s rep in San Francisco, to build her a dynamic blog and online presence. Instead of coming up with “social media marketing strategies,” I helped her define her voice, the personality of her company and her photographers, and what kind of knowledge she could share with the photo community that people would really appreciate. It’s been a great experience for both of us, especially since she’s been having great success.

People ask me a lot what I actually do these days. Being a freelancer, my work includes magazine writing, social media strategy, and curriculum development. But recently, I think I’ve finally found a phrase that sufficiently describes what I do, how I can help people.

I am a personal publishing strategist. In our internet age, everyone is a publisher. From your Tweet Stream to your self-published photo book, you are distributing a huge amount of content every day. It’s important to be honest, consistent coherent, and transparent in what you publish — so the right people find you and, potentially, hire you. That’s where I can help: by teaching you to listen to yourself with love and to share your story with skill.