Brevity is not my goal

As I have said elsewhere, I am, first and foremost, a storyteller. The writing is a secondary decision and a distant one at that.

However, I learned long ago that some people discount what you have to say if you do not couch it in terms and frameworks they accept as authoritative. So, I try to get the grammar somewhat right, anyway. As much as I wish I did not care what other people with more education than me, more credentials than me, and more platform than me… I do.

Deep inside is still the eight-year-old kid who was laughed at by a grownup for mispronouncing the word “proprietor” as I had only read the word and never heard it said. I am yet to forgive that guy. Honestly, I am yet to try. It’s on my to-do list. Admittedly, it’s at the bottom of the list, but it’s on there.

We carry so many ghosts around with us.

So, anyway, I worry about my grammar. And spelling. And usage. And diction. I use several tools, including spell check and Grammarly, to do final passes on anything I send out into the world to make sure I got all my subject/verb agreement and tenses correct. And the fights I have had with the punctuation robots over how many commas should be in a sentence are legion. Generally, the robot thinks I should use less, errr, fewer, unless I don’t think I should have one, in which case, it thinks I am wrong.

To be clear – I see them as advisors. “Here is a potential problem,” they say, and then I decide on whether to take the advice. I do perhaps one time out of three.

In almost every paragraph of any length, it will highlight at least one sentence and tell me that it is too wordy and should be rewritten. (Ironically, including the one you just read.) But the grammar robots do not understand that brevity is not my goal. Telling a good story is.

A good story needs to be understood, and proper punctuation and grammar can aid in that understanding. But it is far from the only requirement.

A good story should connect with the emotions of the audience. It should be an invitation into empathy, a connection with what is important in our humanity, a point of sameness that we can alight on together in a tumultuous world. It’s hard to do that when reducing the word count is your primary aim.

Recently, the James Webb telescope released pictures from deep space, showing us galaxies and solar systems we did not know existed. The picture accompanying this post is one of them. Here is how NASA described the picture in the Alt-Text, which is the description it provides for screen readers:

The image is divided horizontally by an undulating line between a cloudscape forming a nebula along the bottom portion and a comparatively clear upper portion. Speckled across both portions is a starfield, showing innumerable stars of many sizes. The smallest of these are small, distant, and faint points of light. The largest of these appear larger, closer, brighter, and more fully resolved with 8-point diffraction spikes. The upper portion of the image is blueish, and has wispy translucent cloud-like streaks rising from the nebula below. The orangish cloudy formation in the bottom half varies in density and ranges from translucent to opaque. The stars vary in color, the majority of which, have a blue or orange hue.

The cloud-like structure of the nebula contains ridges, peaks, and valleys – an appearance very similar to a mountain range. Three long diffraction spikes from the top right edge of the image suggest the presence of a large star just out of view.

I have two things to say about that description. No, three things.

  • Whoever wrote that cared about the reader. It’s stunning in its description and care.
  • It is not brief. Most alt-text is a sentence or two long.
  • The grammar robot freaked out over that paragraph of text.

People love to harp on Strunk and White’s admonition to omit needless words, but who decides if they are needless? I think clarity and connection are much better goals than brevity.

Payday

Today is payday for my day job, which means that I sit down and pay the bills that will be due before the next payday. Perhaps it just means the capitalists have won, but the feeling of it being payday and sitting down and being able to pay all of your bills – there is truly nothing like it.

I get how sad that sounds. But I have spent a not-insignificant portion of my life – both as a child and as an adult – not having a lot of access to money to pay just the regular, everyday bills. Poverty changes your brain.

In my twenties, my business card said I was an “Account Executive”, but basically I helped rich old people hide their money from the government.

I was successful, in that I made good money and I was praised for my performance, but a failure, in that I hated the pressure my managers put on me, and I hated the pressure I felt to push people into solutions that made money for me but were of dubious real long term value for them. I was a failure because I hated my life, and wouldn’t do anything about it.

If you know the movie Glengarry, Glenn Ross, my life was a lot like a weekly visit from the guy from Mitch and Murray. I once was told by a manager that I just needed to buy a more expensive car – because then I would have more debt and thus be more motivated to close deals.

I hated that money drove everything in my life. I hated that it was the only way we kept score. I hated that it was all that mattered. I made good money (especially for a 28-year-old kid) but we spent it like drunken sailors, too.

Eventually, I noticed that I had to drink a pint of vodka in my car to work up the courage to go into the office, and I quit.

I made $96,000 in my last year of selling money at the beginning of this century. The next year I made $18,000, got a divorce, and moved into a friend’s attic apartment.

So, all that is to say, I have lots of screwed-up narratives in my head about money.

Earlier this week, one of our cats had some weird symptoms that we needed to take her to the vet. This was unplanned and unexpected, and I hate that my only hesitancy around taking her was that I was unsure how much this would cost. To be clear – it wasn’t that we had no money to pay for it – we do – but that open-ended question just hung over me.

I have broken teeth in my mouth I am scared to go to the dentist for. Not because of fears around pain or fear of dentists or even that it is likely that at some point in the next ten years I shall have to migrate to dentures – it is that it is a huge open-ended question mark around how much it will all cost and that there is every possibility that I will have a pleasant visit with a professional who will, at the end of our meeting, tell me I owe them $3500, with no warning in advance.

The lowest I have ever felt in my life was one summer morning in May, in Durham, NC. We had just left Duke Hospital, where my wife was being evaluated for eligibility to have a heart transplant that would save her life and give her a normal life expectancy, rather than the 3-7 years she had if she did not get it.

That morning, we had a meeting with the financial counselor, who looked at our insurance coverage and told me that if we did not get approval from one of our insurances to cover this procedure, I would have to show evidence that I had $20,000 in cash before they would list her as eligible for transplant.

I did not have $20,000. I worked at a small, scrappy grass-roots severely underfunded nonprofit that I had founded, and I made very little money while doing good work. I did not know where I could get $20,000. I had very little hope, under normal circumstances, of ever seeing $20,000 at one time.

And so, with a smile on her face, this nice person at Duke told me that because of choices that I had made around vocation and income and yes, money, my wife might die.

Spoiler alert: We got it worked out, she had the surgery, and she did not die.

But I still feel all sorts of anxiety about money. While writing the passage above about that day at Duke Hospital, I had to stop and get up and walk around, because even though it is almost 7 years later, it is all still too fresh in my brain.

So, when I decided to launch the membership program earlier this month as a way to make my writing economically viable, I had butterflies galore. All the old stories reared their head.

“Who are you to try to get paid money because you write things on a blog? It’s not like it’s real writing.”

“You aren’t good enough to get paid to write.”

“Nobody will support you, and you will just look stupid.”

“Writing is fun for you. Things that are fun we should do for free.”

“You are just going to be let down.”

But those are just stories I tell myself and have no bearing at all on what happens in reality. Because my brain is filled with old stories. Stories that are not kind to me.

In the Spike Jonze movie Her, the titular character says that the past is just a story we tell ourselves. And we can learn to tell ourselves better stories.

So, I’m trying to write (in my head) better stories about money, abundance, and scarcity, and better stories about my worth as an artist, as a writer, and as a person.

I’m trying to learn to tell myself better stories about myself.

And part of that is coming to believe that my labor has value and that other people believe that as well. That I need not apologize for making money for doing something which I both enjoy and do well. And that it is OK for me to ask for what I need.

Letters From Strangers

Since 2015, I’ve been publishing a newsletter every Monday morning. In the world of newsletters, it’s small, but there are a few thousand folks who faithfully read it, and while I have never really marketed it other than occasionally mentioning it on my social media accounts, I try hard to do a good job with it.

Over the winter, I began to consider what it would look like to be more intentional with making money from my publishing projects (including this blog) and asked myself what it would look like to take the newsletter seriously. To be intentional in how I do that work.

I knew from a recent survey of my readers that for a lot of people, my weekly emails end up in Google’s promotions tab, so I thought that since I am sending an automatically generated “You’re subscribed” email anyway, why not put the instructions on how to keep the email that matters to you out of that folder and in your inbox in that email too? So I did.

And people started responding. I mean, like writing back to the automatically generated email. With how they found the newsletter, how they heard about me, and where they lived in the world. That had never happened before. Ever.

I guess my new email was just personal enough that it no longer looked like a “form” email. So, not wanting to be rude, I wrote back. I thanked them for writing. I told them I looked forward to writing for them.

If my transactional form email was getting responses as if it was a personal email, what if I cranked that up just a bit and made it more personal, and invited responses?

So now, if you subscribe to my newsletter, you get the following email a few hours after you subscribe:

Thanks for subscribing to Life Is So Beautiful!

Hey there!

Thanks for signing up for my newsletter, Life Is So Beautiful! I appreciate it.

Every Monday (barring US Federal Holidays), I send out an email with a short essay on where I found some beauty in the world that week and links to five things I discovered that week that I thought were beautiful.

And now you are on the list!

I think I have some of the best readers on the whole Internet, and more than anything else, I believe that writing is a relationship between the writer and the reader. I am a pretty personal writer, sharing a lot of “me” in this newsletter.

So I can get a better sense of who is reading my stuff, just hit reply to this email (or email me directly at hugh@hughhollowell.org) and let me know something about you, like:

  • What is your hobby is
  • Where you live in the world
  • What your favorite thing to do to recharge is

Don’t overthink it – anything you want to share is fine.

This lets me do a better job of writing things that make sense to you, and also, I just think the world is a better place when we are more personal and less formal.

Thanks again. And welcome!

Hugh

PS: A few things you might want to know:

  • Emails for the newsletter will come from this email: hugh@hughhollowell.org. It would be best to add it to your email address book or contacts. If you haven’t gotten it by noon this Monday, check your spam filters.
  • If you are on Gmail, you may find it gets shunted to your Promotions tab. (How rude is that?) Instead, you can drag it to your Primary tab. Then Gmail will ask if you want to make that change permanent. (Of course, Google! How silly.)

About 10 percent of the people who get that email respond. Like, with letters. Real, engaging letters.

They don’t just say they live in England, but rather that they live in Hertfordshire, just north of London, in the UK, with their husband and two daughters. Or that they live in Durban, South Africa, though they will likely soon be moving to Toronto, Canada this fall. Or tell me that they have been single their whole life, but recently met a potential partner who makes them swoon. Or that they read Victorian lit and live in Dehli, India and help run a food bank there. Or they explain, with links, what netball is, and why they love it so.

I make sure to reply to every single email. Sometimes it takes a few days for me to get to it, but I always respond. I make it a point to use their name, to discuss something they said in their email to me, and to thank them for writing.

Some of them write back. The longest exchange thus far is more than 10 emails long. And then some of those same people kept writing after each issue of the newsletter is sent. They tell me what they liked and send me submissions and in general, become highly engaged.

It shocks me that the emails are as personal as they are. After all – these are people I don’t have a relationship with at all. They just subscribed. But I think we are all hungry for connection these days and have a deep desire to be known and seen. I’m glad I get to play my small part in that.

I Have No Idea What I’m Doing

Every Monday morning, I send out a newsletter. I have done this for more than seven years now. At this point, it’s just something I do, and I suspect that if everyone unsubscribed, I would probably still do it.

And amazingly, people read it. I know that sounds like I’m fishing for compliments, but I mean it – that people read anything I write amazes me constantly. That other people spend folding money to make sure I have the freedom to do that writing is staggering to me.

Last week, I started a survey of my newsletter readers – a thing I’ve never done before. There are some demographic and informational questions I have wondered about – how old are my readers (mostly between 35 and 65, it seems) and when do they read my newsletter that I publish on Monday mornings (almost perfectly evenly split between “as soon as it hits my inbox” and “I save it for later when I can savor it”), but mostly I wanted the more subjective comments to questions like, “What do you like about this newsletter” and “How would you describe what this newsletter is about?”

From a marketing perspective, these are mostly useless. Knowing that an anonymous reader (I didn’t tie responded to email addresses, so people would be more honest) thinks that I need to do more of what I’m doing, or that another anonymous reader thinks that I am a “breath of fresh air” won’t help me get more readers, but it does reassure me that at least some people get value from what I’m trying to do.

But what I love about reader responses is what they tell me about myself. As I’ve said elsewhere, I believe writing to be a partnership between the reader and the writer. A friend who is a movie critic once told me that it’s the job of the critic to tell the artist what they are doing – that it’s actually the critic (or audience), for example, that decides whether a movie is sad, or inspiring.

So when I get responses to my question “Is there anything you would like me to know?” with things like “I love reading your newsletter because it calms my anxiety” or “You are like a Southern Bob Ross” or “I love how calm you are in the face of the tragedies all around us, without ignoring that they are happening”, it tells me something I would have never guessed on my own about what people get from my writing.

Because I don’t really feel calm, or even like I am trying to be calming. I mean, there are a couple of people who ostensibly have things in common with me who are sorta famous on the internet who are very viral, and who are always angry and post click-bait posts designed to provoke a reaction and make you angry at other people. I decided a long time ago that I don’t want readers that badly. So, it is not so much that I’m trying to be calming as much as I’m just trying to not be an asshole.

But knowing that people perceive the project I’m working on to not just be about beauty but also as calming and restorative is useful feedback and lets me know that I am doing things I didn’t know I was doing.

Just like how, when a friend says, “I don’t think you know you are doing it, but you chew with your mouth open, and it’s pretty gross”, you can stop. And once I know I’m doing a thing, and that people like it, I can do more of it.

I’ve been writing nearly daily on this blog for more than four months now – almost 99,000 words since the beginning of November, and during that time, I’ve sorted into a rhythm of sorts. I know that posts about self-care get shared in ways that nothing else I write does, and I know that posts about food are loved and heavily commented on, and I know that people respond well to my posts that are heavy on memories and nostalgia. But I’m not sure yet if the blog has figured out yet what it’s doing.

I mean, I know what I think I’m doing, but like the newsletter example shows – what I think I‘m doing and what people see you as doing can be different things. So, expect an anonymous reader survey soon, because I’d love to know what you think I’m doing.

 

 

 

The partnership

I carry a notebook around with me, and I jot down things I want to remember to write about. But it’s a small notebook, and I have 50-year-old eyes, and so sometimes in the name of expediency, I lose either legibility or intelligibility and sometimes both.

Like the entry that I wrote a few weeks ago in bed, late at night. Here it is, in its entirety: Paul McCartney, song (talk to Renee) / partnership between reader and writer.

Now, this time, I happen to completely understand what I was getting at. For Christmas, I got Renee, who is a huge Beatles fan, this two-volume book of Paul McCartney lyrics and commentary, called, fittingly enough, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. It’s huge.

And one night we were lying in bed, reading our respective books, when she told me that she had just learned an interesting thing about a particular song – that while the lyrics were powerful and moving to us both, it turns out that when he wrote them, it was meant as a fun song, almost whimsical.

I bet you are wondering what song it was. I am too because while I wrote down the event, I made no mention of the song because I would surely remember it.

I do not remember it. My brief note was a bit too brief.

But I wrote it down because it so perfectly encapsulates the partnership that exists between the writer and the reader.

In 1994, I was dating a woman who was my superior in practically every way. She made more money than I did, she was older than I was, and she was smarter than I was. And when we broke up, which was, in hindsight, inevitable, I took it rough. Really rough, in the way only a 22-year-old could.

I went on a three-day drunk. I drunk-called her house at all hours. I showed up outside her house and the police got called – not by her, but by the neighbor who took umbrage to my declarations of my love in her front yard at 3 in the morning.

Eventually, I came to terms with the breakup, but like 22-year-olds everywhere that go through tragic breakups, I found solace in music.

At the time, there was a popular country music song called Little Rock, by Tom Douglas, sung by Collin Ray. In it, the protagonist is starting his life over in Little Rock after destroying his relationship and is now trying to rebuild his new life while mourning the loss of the life he had.

A sample of the lyrics:

Well, I know I disappeared a time or two,

And along the way, I lost me and you.

I needed a new town for my new start

Selling VCR’s in Arkansas at a Wal-Mart.

I haven’t had a drink in nineteen days.

My eyes are clear and bright without that haze.

I like the preacher from the Church of Christ.

Sorry that I cried when I talked to you last night.

I think I’m on a roll here in Little Rock.

I’m solid as a stone, baby, wait and see.

I’ve got just one small problem here in Little Rock,

Without you, baby I’m not me.

Now, you might look at those lyrics here in the cold light of day in the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty-Two and say to yourself that they are trite and sentimental. And I would agree with you. But 22-year-old me in 1994 drank at least a few cases of beer while sobbing and listening to that song on repeat, for weeks and weeks. I wore out that cassette tape; playing that song, then hitting rewind and playing it again. One thing you can say for MP3 players – listening to sad breakup music is easier than it was back in the day.

I already knew the song, of course. It had been out a while. But when I went through that breakup, it perfectly captured the struggle, the mourning, the lament, and the hope of it all.

When Tom Douglas wrote that song, he had no idea who I was. He had probably never set foot in Southaven, Mississippi, the scene of the yard incident. But he didn’t have to. He wrote the words, but I supplied the meaning. We were in partnership, Mr. Douglass and I.

It doesn’t matter if he had ever been through a breakup. It doesn’t matter if he had ever dated anyone, ever. I supplied every bit of meaning that I put on that song. And while I hear that song today and it reminds me of that time, I recognize that, objectively, it’s not a great song.

But it didn’t matter.

I try hard to write in an accessible way – people who know me say they can hear my voice when they read my writing, which is 100% what I’m shooting for. And I’m fortunate that I have a really interactive group of readers. Not a day goes by when I don’t get an email or Facebook message from someone who read something I wrote, and often they will tell me the story of how something I wrote – sometimes something I wrote years ago – really spoke to them.

And sometimes, they see things in my writing that perplex me, because I didn’t put them there. Luckily for me, they tend to be good things, by and large, but still. But I guarantee you I saw things in the song Little Rock that neither the singer nor the songwriter put there. In the partnership between the writer and I, he supplied the worlds, and I supplied the meaning.

Now, I have to confess that as a writer, there are times this frustrates me. I will spend a great deal of time crafting an essay about, say, birds, and then I see where someone shared it on Facebook, and they talk about how it’s a testimonial to the enduring power of the human spirit.

I really thought it was about birds. But if they needed to hear about the enduring power of the human spirit right then, I’m willing to let them have it. After all, I just bring the words – they supply the meaning.