In the woods

We drive two-lane country roads, smooth pavements and wide ditches, trees surrounding us. The hills are slow and gentle.

We go up and down, up and down without noticing until I look back and see the ripples.

The earth is soft.

It is full of undramatic beauty, the kind that doesn’t need to be made into a calendar to feel good about itself. It just is: here, quiet, content, profound. Soft-spoken beauty, easy to overlook if you want cliffside scenic views, jagged peaks, endless horizons, and other postcard-able scenes.

Here there are not scenes but surroundings, and that’s why this part of the country doesn’t work for postcards. It’s not one piece of it that gets you but how it keeps going, how it creeps up slow behind you, how it keeps rolling out in front of you. The generosity of it. The acceptance in it: of you, of the world, of being unnoticed, of just being.

The greens move from light to dark from the road out.

First the bright yellow green grass in the ditches, dotted now by Queen Anne’s Lace and Black-eyed Susans. The green darkens as it moves up the privets and vines—some you don’t want to touch, careful—then the shy dogwoods peeking out under maples and young oaks, then the darker green of the conifers: astringent cedars, pines tall and fragile and sticky. And here, the greens blur into something less distinct than trees, something wider and wilder: the woods.

Some people grew up in the forest, on the plains, by the river. Others, who had and still have my pity, grew up “in town.” Some people, apparently, grew up in places exotic and mysterious to childhood-me: the ocean, the mountains, the jungle, the city.

I grew up in the woods.

The woods always started somewhere just beyond where you lived: at the edge of the yard, on the property line, over the fence, past the gully, behind the shed.

The yard might have trees but the yard did not have the woods.

The woods have their own existence, hold their own peace. You can come into the woods and they can come into you. But you cannot take the woods out with you. You cannot tame the woods into a suburban yard or neatly cropped landscape.

The woods are trailing, dangly, messy, full of spiderwebs and twigs and broken fence posts and rusty, half-buried car parts and slightly dangerous hollows and thorns and ankle-twisting holes and sounds.

So many sounds, each one telling part of a story. Sounds that slither in and whisper and hint, that half-speak and half-sing a history. Sounds that point sideways at unknown worlds always just behind you, just there, in the shadow, close. If you demand more, the sounds and stories fade. You get further away. If you breathe deep and take what you get, you get more.

Walk quietly and notice the moss on the rock. See how the sunlight turns the leaf from green to yellow. Feel the give, the layers and layers of browned pine needles beneath your feet. Put your hand on the bark: the rough pine bark with deep grooves and ridges. The sugary sweet, peeling sycamore.

Here is the story. Here is the history and the meaning of it all.

You cannot bring it out into fenced yards and neat porches. You cannot chase it down like a deer or call it out like a dog. You must go to it: quiet, respectful, listening, humble. Sit down for a moment or a year or a childhood or lifetime—however long it takes—and listen. The woods will tell you all you need to know.

Why it’s so difficult to write about ourselves

Writing an about page or short bio or God Forbid a cover letter is, like, literally, the worst. I am not even kidding.

You’d think it would be easier.

After all, what subject could I possibly know better? Expertise? I got that, baby. I’ve been hanging out with myself since I was born. Maybe longer.

But it’s terrible.

If you’ve ever faced the total blankness and panic that comes after being asked to submit “a short biography,” well, then, you know what I mean.


High school students have it especially hard. They’re always being asked to describe themselves, write a personal essay, share an experience, compare and contrast life events.

What a grossly unfair thing to ask of them.

They’ve had maybe three life “experiences,” on average. At least one of those is a teen turmoil (“That time a senior broke my heart” or “That time I did a thing that made me feel nervous”). Nobody cares, including the student who has to write about it.

Another one is usually of the cookie-cutter be a good person volunteer-trip-mission-service variety. They’re popular for rounding out one’s narrowly focused list of achievements.

It’s like an expansion pack for an average life.

“I am basically like everyone, but also! I went to Africa and dug a well.”

Power up.

Admissions essays cap it off. Imagine having to write an About page that some detached, disinterested panel of judges will, well, judge. Imagine having your entire future at stake, based on what they think of your writing about yourself.

I sound like I hate students, but I don’t. I like them.

Asking them to have it all together in a way that enables them to write confidently about themselves, using a format that makes vastly more experienced people want to vomit, is awful.

There’s nothing wrong with an average life, if it’s your average life. There’s no need to be a hero or prove yourself. Being yourself is being a hero. Being yourself requires all the courage you’ve got. Being yourself is enough. But these identity requirements create pressure. You’ve got to have more to say about yourself — and it better be impressive — if you’re going to get anywhere in life.

When I was a high school student, I knew absolutely nothing about nothing. Now that I am decades past high school, I know absolutely nothing about very little. I’ve progressed.

I still hate writing about myself.


Why is it so tough to write about ourselves? It’s all about being vulnerable.

Quick, raise your hand if you enjoy making yourself vulnerable in front of strangers.

No one?

Writing about ourselves is being vulnerable. It’s defining our identity. It’s making a stand. It’s saying, “Here’s what I’m about and what I can do and why I’m valuable.”

As soon as you say that, you’ve created two big risks:

  • The risk of being trapped, and
  • The risk of being judged.

When you define yourself, you’re expected to stick to the self-definition. Forever.

The risk of being trapped

We all create expectations for each other. If I meet your expectations, we’re cool. If I don’t meet your expectations, we might still be cool. Especially if we don’t have any previous interaction. You might be pleasantly surprised. You might be uncomfortable but accepting.

But if I meet your expectations for a while and then — without warning, without explanation, without reason — stop meeting those expectations… 
We will not be cool.

You will feel betrayed, because I’ve stepped out of my defined identity. Now you don’t know what to expect from me. I broke the pattern. I’m making you nervous.

We might not talk about this stuff, but we understand it. Patterns and agreements are how society works. We know that the identity we create is a role. We know that playing the role is how we get acceptance in a group. We know that failing in the role is how we get kicked out of a group. And we know that being ostracized and isolated is death. Humans are tribal creatures. Yeah, even the introverts.

So when you write about yourself, you have a big gut fear thing that’s saying: “BETTER BE CAREFUL! DON’T COMMIT TO ANYTHING YOU CAN’T MAINTAIN.”

The fear of being judged

That fear is directly at war with the other fear, which is fear of being judged.

We want to impress people. We want to be liked and accepted. We want to attract the right connections with our identity.

We want approval!

Affirmation!

Group hugs!

Okay, maybe not group hugs for everyone.

But approval? Yeah. We’re all about that.

And that’s okay. But when the desire for approval cripples us (as it often does) or — worse — convinces us to act like something we’re not, it can escalate into a bad situation.

We find ourselves forming relationships that don’t work, participating in groups we don’t enjoy, pursuing interests we don’t like, spending money we don’t have, wasting time we can’t get back, chasing things we don’t value.

But the alternative — being judged and rejected — seems like it must be worse.

So we continue self-defining an identity that we may or may not truly desire, and then we do our best to play the role we’ve created.

We want to be careful so we don’t over-extend and risk trapping ourselves into something we can’t maintain. We also want to be impressive so we get what we want and aren’t judged negatively.

There’s also a fear of being trapped in something that we’ll outgrow. Would you want to be evaluated now based on your preferred self-expression as a sixth grader? Uh, no.

When we have to write about ourselves, all those fears, those internal conflicts, those psychological baits and traps and pits and mazes, all of them, flood our minds and terrify us. It’s too much for us to think about. It’s too much to overcome.

We lock up, we shut down, we do other metaphors related to not being able to move forward.

Eventually — if we can’t get out of this about me writing requirement — we force something onto the page, hate it, and pretend not to care.

How to write about yourself

I still don’t like writing about myself but I’m better at it. It can get easier. Try these methods.

  1. Write about yourself in third person. You have to get out of that headspace of judging and fearing judgment. Most of us (sadly) are kinder to other people than we are to ourselves. If you can step away from the self-judgment, and look at yourself as if you’re seeing someone else, you’ll be better at describing what you see.
  2. Be targeted in what you’re writing. Every “about you” writing need has a purpose. If you think for a while about what the purpose is, it’s easier to write. Think about who’s going to read it. Think about connections you have with that person or group. Make those connections or shared interest points the focus of what you write.
  3. Think of every self-description as temporary. Because it is. You’re growing and changing all the time. You can only describe yourself as you exist at a single moment.
  4. Remember that every self-description is limited. Even limited to a single moment, you can only describe so much about who you are. You’re infinite, but your *about page* is finite. You have to make choices about what to include, but these choices don’t signify your values. Describing yourself as a writer doesn’t mean you’ve devalued your role as a parent.
  5. Free write about yourself for a set amount of time. Ten minutes is a good start. Free writing means you sit down and write and don’t stop until the time is up. It can be very stream-of-consciousness. In this method, though, limit your stream to writing consciously about yourself. Ten minutes doesn’t seem long, but if you’re writing the whole time, you can get a lot said. Then you pick out the bits you like best, rearrange them, and you’re set.
  6. Use all the tools and help you have. Ask other people to describe you. Take a poll. Copy the basic structure of someone else’s bio. Use templates. These are ways to make something difficult easier on yourself. There’s nothing noble about axing a door open when you could have used the key.
  7. Write multiple versions. I know, when something’s difficult to write the last thing you want to do is write more of it. But multiple versions give you freedom to mess up. You’re afraid of messing up, and that’s why writing is difficult. Write three versions and you’re safe: you can mess up two of them and be good to go. You can mess up parts of all three, pull out the parts you didn’t mess up, and you’re good to go. Pressure removed.

Photo by Lorraine Steriopol on Unsplash

The difference between a query and a pitch

Where the most important part of a pitch is your specific story idea, the most important part of a query is you: your bio, your experience, your expertise, your fit with the publication.

What is a pitch?

A pitch is the proposal of a specific idea.

You have something you want to write.

You describe it in the most interesting way possible. Then you send it off to an editor and ask them to like it and approve it. If they approve it, you get to write it for the publication.

If they don’t, you get to… throw it away in despair? Weep and gnash your teeth?

No. Never throw away writing. Don’t waste your words. Review it, polish it, customize it for another publication, and send it back out.

And also, no. Gnashing your teeth is bad for your dental health. Feel free to weep, though. Weeping is good for the soul, as long as it’s not all the time.

If your pitch is rejected

A no to a specific pitch can mean a few different things:

  • It might mean that you’re not a fit for the publication at all and it’s not worth your time to continue pitching them.
  • It might mean you’re a good fit, but this particular idea wasn’t a good fit. If that’s so, then check out Step 2 of How to write a pitch letter.
  • It might mean that you’re a good fit and your idea is a good fit, but a) they’ve done something similar recently, or b) their editorial calendar is smashed full with related ideas, or c) somebody was having a rough day and rejected your idea because their KitKat bar melted.
  • It might mean that the publication isn’t accepting pitches and/or unsolicited contributions right now, which means you sent a pitch when you should have sent a query. No worries. Read on for what a query is.

What is a query?

A query is a question. Literally, query means question.

When you send a query, you’re asking for permission to send a pitch. You’re asking if the editor/publication a) accepts unsolicited contributions and b) is open to receive a pitch or two from you.

If you get a positive response to a query, then you write and send a pitch.

In many cases, a publication’s website will make clear whether or not they are open to unsolicited pitches. If they have pitch guidelines, then skip the query and write the pitch.

Don’t waste an editor’s time by making them answer questions that have already been answered.

If you get a negative response to a query, but you really really really want to pitch this publication, here’s an idea:

Don’t.

Like, really, don’t. If someone answers your query and personally says, “Thanks, but no, we aren’t accepting pitches,” and you ignore their response and go ahead with your pitch, you have burned a bridge.

You have proven that you cannot receive editorial direction.

Editors don’t love working with writers who can’t receive editorial direction.

If your query is rejected

If you get a negative response to a query but you really really really want to pitch this publication, here’s what you can do:

  1. Write the kind of thing you want to write for the publication and publish it on your own site. Do this repeatedly. Share what you write other places, as well: social media, Medium, or Quora, as guest posts, etc.
  2. Find and follow the publication, editors, and writers on social media.
  3. Be friendly. Interact online when you can. Share or respond to stuff they share when it’s genuine for you to do so.
  4. Find and follow the blogs and other online writings of people involved in the publication. Read. Comment. Share.
  5. Obviously, continue to be an avid reader of the publication. Share what they publish. Leave thoughtful comments.
  6. After some time, if you’ve had some interaction, let an editor know that you’d love to write for them if there’s an opening.
  7. Leave it alone and repeat steps 1 through 5.
  8. After some time, if you’ve continued to have positive interaction, send over a piece you’ve written that you think an editor would love.
  9. Leave it alone and repeat steps 1 through 5.
  10. You can cycle through steps 6 through 10 as many times as you want, but if you’re not getting an invitation to pitch after a time or two, drop it and move on with your life.

In the meantime, you’ve written a bunch of stuff for yourself, gained experience, and expanded your professional connections. Maybe that was the real point, eh?


Photo by Ián Tormo on Unsplash

We don’t always have electricity, but we accept bitcoin

The strange dynamics of survival and growth in a post-catastrophic Puerto Rico

At a panadería in Puntas, somewhere between the coffee pot and the cash register and the glass window of pastries, there’s a small sign.

Coquí Accepted Here

Out back, the generator roars.

Power’s out. How long? Nobody knows. Sometimes there’s a notice on the AEE website. Sometimes there isn’t. Maybe this time will only be a few hours. That would be good.

It takes a lot of fuel to run a generator, and fuel is costly.


Hurricane María was a real catastrophe, but it’s not the one that Puerto Rico has to recover from.

No, the original catastrophe is hundreds of years old. It looked like Spanish ships on the horizon. It turned into frenzied activity from the new arrivals, attempting to answer one question: How can we make money from this place?

The colonizing country changed, from Spain to the U.S.

But the question didn’t. Puerto Rico has been stripped, pillaged, razed, morphed, and manipulated in the name of profits. Maybe all this economic violence — accompanied, as deemed necessary, by cultural and physical violence — wouldn’t be as bad if the profits benefited the people of Puerto Rico.

But they don’t.

The language of occupancy has changed, from colony to territory.

The methods have changed, from physically enforced slavery and slaughter to a much more sophisticated system.

Taxes and tariffs, limits and legalities, denial and debts. It wraps the islandaround, a heavy chain of bureaucracy and blame. It’s too complex for an individual to navigate. It’s too ingrained in the economic and legal structures to avoid.

Puerto Rico’s position remains the same. It is an occupied territory, a country seized and used as an economic resource. A fiefdom.

Oh, God, no, we don’t actually call it that.

We call it a territory. It sounds better.

And we don’t call the people serfs or slaves. That wouldn’t do. In our enlightened age, with all of our post-industrial technological advancements, our emphasis on equality, these terms make us uncomfortable.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens! That sounds much better than serf.

Oh, no, we’re not going to give them representation in our government, or any kind of actual power over their land, their economy, their future.

But they can be kind of like a, you know, adopted sibling. A younger, weaker one. The one we don’t really talk about. The one we make fun of and bully. The one who serves as a convenient scape goat. The one whose candy we steal.


At a popular food cart by María’s Beach, a surfer taps on his phone to open a bitcoin app.

It’s his first time using it, this coquí thing. He’s not sure it will work. Seems weird.

But hey, what the hell. If he can spend a little less cash — tough to come by — and use this digital coin, he’s for it.

He holds his phone up at the counter, his face a question. “I heard you guys take coquí coin?”

Straight up the hill, a water truck rumbles by. The water service has been off and on for weeks. More off than on. The truck parks in an empty lot. It will stay parked there all day, so the locals who don’t have a cistern can come with their empty plastic jugs.

The surfer centers his phone’s camera over the QR code and taps the button. A success message appears: 5 Coquí Transferred.

“Cool.” He nods and sips his watermelon juice.


Eight days after Hurricane María blasted the Caribbean, President Trump waived the Jones Act.

Many members of government praised the move. They’d called for it. Puerto Rico needs help to recover, they said. The Jones Act makes everything more expensive, they said.

The Jones Act, part of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, is simple enough:

“Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act is known as the Jones Act and deals with cabotage (coastwise trade) and requires that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried on U.S.-flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents.”

There’s another Jones Act, too: the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917, conveniently created a month before the U.S. entered World War I.

It granted citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico. What a gift! Now they can serve in the military.

Now they can pay taxes.

Now they can have representation regarding the laws that govern them.

Oh, wait, no.

Not that last bit.

Puerto Ricans were granted statutory citizenship, “meaning that citizenship was granted by an act of Congress and not by the Constitution (thus it was not guaranteed by the Constitution).”

And they were given representation.

Kind of.

The two houses were a Senate consisting of 19 members and a 39-member House of Representatives. However, the Governor and the President of the United States had the power to veto any law passed by the legislature. Also, the United States Congress had the power to stop any action taken by the legislature in Puerto Rico. The U.S. maintained control over fiscal and economic matters and exercised authority over mail services, immigration, defense and other basic governmental matters.

A few years later, after 20,000 Puerto Ricans had been drafted into military service, the Jones Act of 1920 — limiting the “coastwise trade” of U.S. ports — was created.

All trade coming into Puerto Rico from the United States has to be transported on ships built and owned and crewed by the U.S.

The net effect is that all business Puerto Rico does with the U.S. comes at a much higher price than it has to. More affordable shipping options — from global competitors — are eliminated by the Jones Act. As a small island that has to import many of its end-consumer goods as well as raw materials, Puerto Rico is in a stranglehold of economic limitations.


A business in Puerto Rico can do what it wants, sure! Make stuff! Buy stuff! Sell stuff!

“We don’t mind,” chuckles the U.S., generous older brother. “Sure! Get what you want! Join the global economy.”

Pause.

“But, uh, you’ll have to ship it through our boats. You know. It’s a small thing. Just send all your shipments here, and we’ll move them over to our boats, with our crews, and then we’ll get your cargo to you.”

Pause.

“What, no? Of course we can’t do that for free. We have to pay for the ships! We have to pay the crew! What do you want, a hand-out? God. The ingratitude. It’s shocking.”

Pause.

“What do you mean, your economy’s not strong? If you don’t like it, do something about it. I mean, we want you to succeed. We’re not stopping you.”

Pause.

“You just can’t get it together over there, can you? Tell you what. We’ll help you out. Fine. We’ll loan you some money. But seriously, you can’t keep operating like this. It’s a drain on us.”

Pause.


And on the eighth day after Hurricane María caused island-wide devastation of a U.S. territory., President Trump lifted the Jones Act. For a total of ten days.

And on the thirteenth day, the U.S. statutory citizens in Puerto Rico were toldthat their lives cost a little too much to save — kind of broke the budget — and their disaster wasn’t that impressive.

And on the eighteenth day, the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico continued to live without power and without water.

Nobody likes to spend money maintaining slaves. It’s easier to get new slaves.


On the morning after María, a big group of machete-wielding, statutory U.S. citizens (and a few of their friends with constitutionally protected citizenship) made their way down a tree-covered road.

They started in driveways and worked their way out.

They chopped small branches off downed almond and mango trees. They threw palm leaves to the side. They moved debris: pieces of cars. Roofing. Sign posts and power lines. They worked together to roll tree trunks and large branches out of the way.

Within hours, the road was driveable. The clearance was narrow, but everyone took turns, swerving around the massive tree trunks and downed power lines.

Neighbors checked in on each other.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. You? Todo bien?”

“We’re safe. We’re okay.”


And on the tenth day, the President of the United States complained via Twitter that Puerto Ricans wanted everything done for them.


Six months after María, the creator of COQUÍ Cash visits a local farm-to-table restaurant for lunch.

He pays half in cash, half in coquí.

It’s getting hot. The high season is over. It wasn’t a good season. The San Juaneros will be taking their summer vacations, but it’s the U.S. and European tourists who bring the most money.

And so many of them didn’t come this year.

But some tourists did come.

A few weeks ago, a big group rolled through the west side of Puerto Rico in a vintage Airstream.

The rumors about them were wild.

They’re buying all the empty factories.
They’re starting a commune.
They’re buying up acres and acres of land.
They’re founding a city.
They’re buying up Puerto Rico.
They’re creating jobs.
They’re running out the locals.
They’re boosting the local economy.
They’re here to stay.
They won’t be back.
They’re throwing around millions.
They’re making empty promises.

Bitcoin billionaires, come to liberate Puerto Rico, or come to be its newest set of colonizers?

How do you know the difference?


You don’t wait to find out. You take action yourself. You create your own niche in a new kind of global finance.

You realize that the system is a system. That financial incentives from the outside — however altruistic the intentions — are still a method of control.

You look at how to side-step. Not to fight the current of change, but to find an alternate vehicle on it.

To get off the big ship, the one that has to be American made and American owned and American crewed, and step onto your own.

It’s smaller. It’s less stable. It’s unpredictable. How will it fare in this current? The waters are choppy.

No one knows for sure.

But you can’t swim with chains on your ankles.

And you can’t make your own way on someone else’s ship.


Photo by Ricardo Dominguez on Unsplash

When a hurricane destroys your farm, you open a restaurant

When the path forward is covered by fallen trees, downed power lines, devastation and impossibility, what would you do?

Before the hurricane, Javier and Sonia grew crops, ran their farm stand, took care of their three boys, and managed vendor relationships for their main products, Té Sana and a line of piques (sauces).

They worked hard, they had plans, and they were growing. Their farm’s produce provided the mainstay of the business. With the popularity of their organic tea, and distribution agreements with stores all over Puerto Rico, they could begin expanding their small farm stand.

Then came María.

Acres and acres of organic tea — nurtured for years, cultivated carefully — were destroyed in a single day.

Their new home — which they’d moved into only weeks before — was completely flooded. Their children’s schools were closed.

Expansion plans became survival maneuvers.

With the rest of the Caribbean, they put long-term plans on hold. You don’t think about the future when you aren’t sure how to survive the present. No power, no water, and no crops meant no business. For a time, Javi and Sonia weren’t sure they could recover.

But they kept going.

First it was greens. Arugula by the handfuls. One of the quickest crops to grow, and more popular than ever. The hurricane had destroyed almost all the fresh produce on the island.

People were craving fresh, green, life-giving food.

Sana provided.

Slowly, they found and grew more produce. Local farmers, after months of clearing debris and replanting, began to harvest crops. Water services returned.

Things were getting easier, but still, everything was harder.

Getting inspections and permits took even longer than usual. Specialty ingredients, equipment, and supplies were difficult to find and costly to ship in. Every setback was more than a setback: it was one more push closer to the edge, one step nearer that point of no return.

They thought about shutting it all down.

It would be easier, they knew, to leave. There were jobs elsewhere. Easier jobs. An easier life. No one goes into farming for the relaxation.

But the life they loved was here. This island. Their home.

They stayed. They rebuilt the farm. They let go of some things (you can’t rebuild a decade of organic tea cultivation in a few months). And they tried new approaches, like adding local fish to their formerly all-vegan menu.

They took one step after another toward their vision.

The vision had been the same, present in their hearts and minds before María: a farm-to-table restaurant highlighting the freshest, best local produce. Everything on the menu prepared expertly, full of flavor, presented with care.

The vision remained, but the approach to the vision?

The path forward?

That was totally different. Plans always change when they meet reality. When that reality is a hurricane, plans get demolished.

When the vision remains but the path to it is covered by fallen trees, downed power lines, devastation and impossibility, what would you do? It’s a time of soul-reckoning. You have to decide how much the vision is worth. How real it is to you.

If it’s real, you keep going. If you can still see it — just there, at the end, barely, through a tangle of obstacles you never predicted — you take a step. Then another.

On March 31, 2018, six months after Hurricane María, Sana Farm to Table Restaurant opened.

If there’s anything to learn from a hurricane, it’s that nothing is certain. You don’t move forward because you have a guarantee. You don’t work hard because you know it will all work out. It might not work out. It might be destroyed. You might find everything falling apart instead of coming together.

Knowing this, living this lesson, if you keep going forward, you do it for one reason:

You do it for the love.

Farm-to-table, ocean-to-table, but most of all, heart-to-community. Sana’s story is one of many. An entire island has faced this reality and made these choices. Some had to leave, hearts breaking. They are still here in spirit.

And Sana is here, feeling like your new best friend.

There’s chatter and energy all day, activity, coming and going. It’s a point of connection. At night, the lights glow and there’s music. The food on your plate is beautiful and it’s from the island you love. You step into this oasis that grew out of a storm, and you breathe deep.

No more naked babies: quit making these writing mistakes

Quit editing as you write.

Few writers can do this and still produce enough words to publish something. I’m not one of those, and I bet you aren’t, either.

When you edit as you write, you do these terrible things to yourself:

  • You slow your rate of writing way down.
  • You cut off your creativity.
  • You disconnect yourself from the flow of your writing.
  • You prevent yourself from having fun.
  • You waste time fixing things that might not need it.

When you edit while you write, you don’t have a feel for the whole piece yet. You spend ten minutes choosing the perfect word for that one sentence; then, in the final edit, you end up cutting the entire paragraph.

Stop editing as you write. You’ll save time, and you’ll have more fun writing.

Tip: Come up with a mark that you can throw in your writing to remind yourself to edit this part. When you can’t find the word or reference or analogy, don’t stop in the middle of writing to find it. Put in the edit mark, and save it for editing time. (I use three slashes: ///. Easy to find using the search function; easy to spot when scanning my piece.)

Quit reviewing your work too soon.

If you read your finished work as soon as you’re through writing it, you’ll be in one of these unpleasant places:

  • The Pit of Despair: Too soon! Back away! Your ideal — the way you wanted it to sound and flow, the story as it existed in your mind — is too close. When you read how you’ve written it, the gap between the real and the ideal slays you. You’re too close to the pre-creation vision to see the value in the real, created written work.
  • The Cliffs of Insanity: Too close! Step down! You’re still on a writing high from that great idea, that perfect analogy, or the experience of writing in flow. You love all the words! So much! You’re too connected to the energy of the writing to see the (obvious) room for improvement.

Sometimes you need to wait a week. Sometimes a day. Sometimes an hour or two will do it.

I prefer to schedule separate times for writing and editing. (And I like to work in batches: so, one morning draft a bunch of posts. A couple of days later, edit them all.)

Tip: As a basic rule, the longer the piece, the more time you need between writing and editing. So if you want to write and publish a blog post in a day, you can. Give yourself an hour after writing, then edit, format, and hit publish.

Quit publishing without any editorial process.

The flip side of the edit-as-you-write writer is the impulsive writer. Is this you? You let the words pour out in a pent-up, ragey energy, and then — without any editing or proofing or even scanning — you push the thing out into the world.

Confession: I have been this writer many, many times.

Never for guest posts or freelance gigs or client work, but often for my own blog posts. You can scroll through my blog archives and find plenty of examples.

No, I haven’t gone back to fix them all. And I’m not planning to.

Yes, I edit everything before I publish it now, blog posts included. (Granted, it’s a quick-and-basic editing process, but it’s still an editing process.)

Sometimes you have something you need to say so badly that it pushes itself out of you in a rush. Sometimes you’ve gotten so comfortable with a particular topic or format that you can write without thinking.

That’s great, but editing and reviewing are important no matter how much flow you feel or how comfortable you are.

Give your best to the world; that doesn’t mean you sweat and struggle for perfection. It does mean you dress your baby in clothes before you show it to the world. Publishing without engaging in an editorial process is like taking your naked baby out for a walk. Somebody’s going to end up with shit on their hands.

(Hint: that somebody is most likely you.)

Use the tools at hand — here’s a good list — to make the editorial process better and smoother. Or create an editorial checklist to zip through the editing process without missing an important step.

Tip: Editing does not have to take hours. For short-form work, especially: set real standards, cover the important bases, and move on. It’s better to share something decent than to wait for something almost-perfect.


Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

There’s another level

I have this idea that’s been floating around in my mind, that there are two levels to the world we live in:

  • Level 1: the most obvious level, the physical world with all its systems and structures, economic exchanges, and social rules.
  • Level 2: the higher (or deeper?) level, the place where we see each other for who we really are, we see what’s really going on, we operate from intuition/spiritual understanding, we create value and send it out and we receive value as we need it from others, who are also doing the same…

Of course I’m not the first one to have such thoughts.

This is every hippie dream, utopian vision, every commune creator’s blueprint. Let’s make things better! they say. Let’s build a better world. This system is terrible. It’s hurting people. Let’s try a different system.

Communal, utopian, intuitive visions don’t seem to have a great track record when they meet cold, hard reality.

And the naysayers seem to get a kick out of their failure, which is just stupid and spiteful. Um, hello, are you aware of the problems in the world? Why wouldn’t you mourn if someone fails to improve things? Why wouldn’t you hope and pray that somebody, somewhere, has some sort of plan that can get us out of these messes we’ve made and into some sort of reality that doesn’t depend on war, fear, greed, and oppression to function?

Eh, most people are too committed to their own systems to root for another, even if it is, unquestionably, better for everyone.

Still, Level 2 seems like a fantasy. A beautiful one, but not a real one.

In Christian circles, we would say, That’s what heaven is, dear. You can’t expect heaven on earth. That’s not how it works.

Hmmm. I agree, kind of. I do agree that this picture, this idea, this Level 2, this visionary utopian fantasy is the kingdom of heaven, or kingdom of God.

And being asked by the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God cometh, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: 21neither shall they say, Lo, here! or, There! for lo, the kingdom of God is within you.

Luke 17:20-21

For a long time, I’ve thought of Level 2 as something that exists in a purely spiritual/mental way. Like an alternate reality, but not one that’s real in the physical, tangible, measurable way we think of things being real.

But I think it is real, just as tangible, measurably real as anything.

We keep getting something backwards.

I think we don’t have to build it. I think we don’t have to construct it. We don’t have to buy 150 acres and invite our 50 closest friends to start a commune (I mean, go for it, and invite me, but you don’t have to do that).

I think it already exists.

It’s not a different system; it’s a different way of seeing.

It’s not an escape or alternative to the reality we’re stuck with; it’s a different way of living in this reality.

If you remove fear from the world, right now, what would happen?

Violence, greed, denial, oppression, and control would cease. No one would need them anymore. No one would feel the urge to hurt, or to hoard, to defend or preserve, to oppress or control, if there were no fear.

And what is fear but a way of seeing?

When Joe and I watch those extreme snowboarding videos, he smiles and feels excitement. I feel my heart rate rising and start getting panicky. He sees fun, adventure; he feels interest and joy and adrenaline. I see danger, so I feel fear.

We’re watching the same thing.

How we see things determines how we experience them. How we experience them determines how we feel about them. How we feel about them determines how we respond to them.

The habitual ways of seeing, experiencing, feeling, and responding add up to a way of living.

The kingdom of heaven is within us.

We just need to see it.

Instinct vs intellect

That God is, perhaps, is the only belief I hold with any complete certainty.

And even in that, at least 40% of me knows full well that all this ‘evidence’ could be my own willful misinterpretation.

Fine.

Perhaps it is.

But whatever it is in me that calls out for Something outside of me is as insistent as the need to eat, the urge to write. Maybe it would be different if I had been raised differently, given a different set of values and loyalties.

I can’t know that.

I do know that beauty – even stark, powerful, terrifying beauty – has always told me a story about things unknown. And I have listened, have been listening, my entire life.

The language is foreign to my humanity, my physicality, but it is the music of home to some other, deeper, better, buried part of who I really am.

I don’t know the story. I’m still listening. Trying to hear. Learning to be still and let the music drop through me and hit bottom, get to that place where I can understand the meaning, one half-note at a time.

My instincts know what to do.

My intellect, however, has different goals: wants to understand, analyze, categorize, extract data, gain knowledge, form a system.

My intellect would study the molecular structure of water. My instinct would stand outside and feel the rain.