Friday, October 9, 2015

I Want to Write What I Don't Write Well

Allen Steele: Credit: Wikipedia
So I just finished reading a collection of short stories called Tales of Time and Space written by Allen Steele and I discovered I've been bitten by the bug again.

Don't get me wrong, I've been a published author for over a decade and at my "day job" I'm a technical writer for a software company, so I'm writing every day. And although I don't contribute to this blog very often, I'm frequently seen or at least read at My Morning Meditations and The Old Man's Gym, so again, I write very frequently.

But the one thing all of the works I've ever produced (or almost all, but I'll get to that in a minute) have in common is that none of it is fiction.

The first writer who ever made me want to write fiction was Harlan Ellison. I don't know what it was, but something about his style and how easy it was to believe his characters were real human beings you could talk to, touch, and connect with, made me want to create people and worlds, too.

The first (of two) creative writing classes I took was in high school. I think I was a senior. It was for an English credit. We were assigned to write all sorts of poetry, trying to learn the styles associated with, among other things, Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnets. We even got to try our hand at haiku.

But when it came to writing fiction, my big problem was that the characters and the situations I created were too derivative. They were always some variation of something I'd read or seen on TV.

My second creative writing class, the one I took because I'd been reading Ellison, was a UC Berkeley extension class which, interestingly enough, was held in San Francisco. I was living in Berkeley at the time, little income, and few friends, and consequently, I had a lot of time on my hands. You'd think that in my early 20s, being more mature than I was in high school, would make a difference.

So I took this class. I don't remember very much about it except that I had the same problem I encountered in High School. I didn't even believe my own characters were real. How could I expect anyone else to?

I should say at this point that I took another UC extension class from cartoonist Dan O'Neill at about the same time, and this class also addressed fiction writing, but from a very different perspective. I still have an unused copy of The Big Yellow Drawing Book which was the "textbook" for the class (I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to learn how to draw or for teaching your kids to draw).

But while I drew cartoons for family and friends over the next several decades (I only do so occasionally now), I never was successful at professionally writing or cartooning or being published in any sense whatsoever.

The bug that originally bit me in the 1970s buzzed off and only rarely visits its old haunts, probably because it knows it won't overcome my inertia, not for long anyway.

A few years back, reading a self-published online comic strip called Westward resulted in me coming up with a plot line and drawing a series of comic strips I planned to put online. In the end, I realized my story idea and drawings weren't very good and I abandoned the project (and unfortunately, Westward's creator eventually discontinued producing new material for the strip).

I've read two science fiction anthologies before Steele's, one about robots/artificial intelligence, and the other on Mars, but science fiction about Mars that could have been written before the mid-1960s, before we knew that there were no canals, no atmosphere that could sustain animal life, and no hope of finding a "lost civilization" on the Red Planet.

Only these stories were written in the past several years by science fiction writers working in the 21st century.

I could hear the bug buzzing around my ears.

So I finished Allen Steele's collection of short stories earlier today and returned it to the library.

It wasn't just reading Steele's stories that got to me, it was the paragraph or two he wrote to introduce each one. Steele presented the background of each tale, what inspired it, and what (if any) portion of his actual lived experience he injected into his creations. He gave me a taste of how a science fiction writer writes and where it all comes from (at least for  him).

Since I was at the library anyway, I decided to look up "how to write fiction" in their catalog system. The catalog number for books of that nature is 808.3, so, being quite familiar with the layout of the Boise Public Library, I took myself over to the northwest corner of the second floor, found that section, and looked around.

Sadly, books like Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy weren't immediately available, but the first edition of Josip Novakovich's Fiction Writer's Workshop caught my eye (not literally, of course). On an impulse, I checked it out (as well as a copy of Steele's novel The Jericho Iteration which, now that I look it up on Amazon, may not be his finest novel, but I didn't want to wade into his "Near-Space" or "Coyote" series just yet).

I may or may not use this blogspot as the platform for trying out some of the writing exercises in the Novakovich book, but just publicly (to the limited number of followers of this blog) declaring my intentions may push me a little bit farther along this path than I might otherwise go.

I've started and quit a lot of projects over the years, and as far as I know, this is just one more of them. After all, just because I'm reading a book about fiction writing and practicing writing exercises is no guarantee that I have any actual talent at writing fiction.

I'm a writer. I want people to like my writing. I like it when what I write is deemed "good" or otherwise appreciated (I get paid). I've probably got too much on my plate right now to take on anything more, but the bug has once again bitten and until the venom wears off (or it doesn't), I'll go where my low-grade fever takes me.

I just wanted to let someone know.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Telling a Story

When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable. What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.
-Daniel H. Pink
from Part Two: The Six Senses
Five: Story, p.103
A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future
I've been thinking about this while preparing for a meeting this afternoon to discuss with the various stakeholders where I work the next steps we should take in our documentation and knowledge management planning.

We have a nifty new web platform upon which to impress our wisdom and will for the consumption of our customers, partners, and prospects, but between me, customer service, and product, we all have differing approaches to the direction our company should be taking.

I realize in reading Pink's book, that the reason I blog so much (I only infrequently blog on "A Million Chimpanzees," while I blog incessantly elsewhere). I write in order to tell a story, the story of whatever is happening to me at the moment.

But why do I tell these stories? To entertain others? To elicit knowledgeable responses from experienced readers about some puzzle or conundrum I've encountered?

Yes and yes, sometimes. But more often than not, I write in order to process my lived experience, so that I can externalize, by writing my own words and then reading them, what has only existed internally up until I blog about it.

I suppose I could tell my story, that is, I could speak it. But as articulate as my spouse says I am, stories make more sense to me when I write them and read them. Information, all by itself, doesn't have all that much meaning until placed within the context of the story.

Then the light bulb clicks "on" above my head.

On page 105, Pink quotes Ursula K. LeGuin:
"The story--from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace--is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories."
In deconstructing clunky User Manuals and API Guides, I'm faced with the challenge of convincing a group of highly technical Left-Brain-dominated workers and managers that the best way to convey what our customers need to know about our product is to tell them a story.

In fact, Pink suggests that there really is only one relevant story that is told describing the journey of the Left-Directed (L-Directed) knowledge worker through the sometimes painful transitory process of becoming a Right-Brain-Directed (R-Directed) conceptual storyteller, the story of a hero.

I'll spare you another "blockquoted" paragraph of text. You can find an example of the hero's story in Joseph Campbell's 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

In brief however, the hero story has three parts:
  1. Beloved hero is confronted by visitors who convince him/her that he/she is worthless/useless and must abandon his/her country.
  2. Hero reluctantly goes into exile, but with the help of kind mentors in a far-away land, becomes transformed into the hero his/her land both wants and needs.
  3. Hero returns as "the master of two worlds" and improves both of them.
I don't know that the Write the Docs conference I attended last May qualifies as my "hero's journey," but having never attended such an event before, I was reluctant to go. I hate change as much as the next person.

But now I have returned from my journey possessing some minor sense of transformation, and I've been looking for an opportunity for expression.

Today may be that opportunity (OK, just one more quote).
And Xerox--recognizing that its repair personnel learned to fix machines by trading stories rather than by reading manuals--has collected its stories into a database called Eureka that "Fortune" estimates is worth $100 million to the company.
-Pink, p.108
So in the future, when a customer visits our support website, keyboards a query in the Search field, and then presses Enter, the initial response should always begin (metaphorically), "Let me tell you a story..."

I hope to tell a good story this afternoon.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Summer Reading for the Technical Writer

Summer reading lists are abounding on the web just now as you might expect. I ran into one targeting IT professionals and decided to give it a look. While my reading tastes aren't identical to that of a sysadmin or a coder, there were a few suggested books that piqued my interest.

Actually, the first one I selected was recommended at the Write the Docs conference several weeks ago. I ordered it and it's sitting on my desk, but there's a couple of other books I need to work my way through before I tackle Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind.

According to the marketing blurb at Amazon:
The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers-creative and holistic "right-brain" thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn't.
It makes sense that a book aimed at "information workers" should be at the top of my list.

Then there's Katie Hafner's Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet, which chronicles the origin and development of the Internet, from the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s until the publication date of the book in 1998.

I've read this book twice before thanks to it being available at my local public library. It's a short and easy read and yet full of fascinating details from the creation of the first router, which was about the size of a refrigerator, to how telnet was invented almost by accident. I highly recommend it for history and trivia buffs.

Next up is Christian Rudder's Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking). The review at Amazon says:
In this daring and original book, Rudder explains how Facebook "likes" can predict, with surprising accuracy, a person’s sexual orientation and even intelligence; how attractive women receive exponentially more interview requests; and why you must have haters to be hot.
Since I work for an organization that mitigates online, card-not-present fraud for merchants, banks, insurance companies, and other such entities, I have a certain curiosity about identity theft and data privacy (or the lack thereof).

I recently read Marc Goodman's book Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It, and although I am aware that our information on the web is less secure than we imagine, the portrait painted by Goodman is truly frightening. Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray couldn't be more terrifying...or revealing.

Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains tackles the popular question, "Is the Internet making us stupid?" Particularly for millennials and the generation of children now growing up who never experienced a world without the Internet, this is a particularly relevant and poignant question.

We like to think we're getting smarter because we have such quick and easy access to vast amounts of information, but that access means we don't have to do any mental work to acquire and retain that data. Imagine what doing even simple addition and subtraction was like before the invention of the cheap calculator vs. now. Can today's high school student working at a fast foot joint make change without the cash register "doing the math?"

Last on my list (for now) is Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.
At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over working in teams. It is to introverts—Rosa Parks, Chopin, Dr. Seuss, Steve Wozniak—that we owe many of the great contributions to society.
In Quiet, Susan Cain argues that we dramatically undervalue introverts and shows how much we lose in doing so. She charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal throughout the twentieth century and explores how deeply it has come to permeate our culture.
This speaks to me quite directly since I'm an introvert and working is groups is difficult if not occasionally painful. Yet it's an absolute necessity in my day-to-day job and existence, particularly since I'm supposed to innovate and create, and yet, promoting that to my employer is an enormous chore I wish would go away or be done by someone else.

Maybe Cain has some ideas that I can explore and leverage for what I do in my day job and how I experience "the real me."

Anyone out there have other books you think should be on my list?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Imposter Syndrome is Alive and Well

Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
The last presenter for day two of the recent Write the Docs conference was Heidi Waterhouse speaking on "Success is More Than Not Failing." She wasn't the only one at the event to discuss impostor syndrome, but she's the only one who talked about it that made it into my notes.

Up until the conference, not only did I think I was the only one suffering from the malady, but I didn't even know it had a name.

Fortunately, the Wikipedia article says it's not so much a mental disorder but rather "an ingrained personality trait." Great, but why me?

Or should the question be "why technical writers?"

I can't speak for anyone else, but more often than not in my career, I've been the lone wolf writer in a room full of software developers and network engineers. It's easy (for me, at least) to feel like an uneducated idiot when rubbing elbows with people half my age and even younger who write complicated lines of code for highly sophisticated and competitive products like most people write out shopping lists.

Even on those very few occasions when I've worked with groups of other writers, our skill sets for so diverse that there was no easy basis for comparison so again, I felt like the lone wolf in search of my pack.

Interestingly enough, even software developers suffer from impostor syndrome. I never realized that...
Pair-programming can be particularly stressful but also writing open-source software and activities which push you into being genuine.
While Waterhouse's presentation and the Write the Docs conference was reassuring, it also presented challenges that actually heightened my particular "syndrome." The company handed over a sizable chunk of change for me to go to Write the Docs and they're entitled to some return on that investment.

I didn't take all those notes just for my personal edification. My outfit is in the process of not just changing documentation platforms but reconstructing the way we think of things like information and collaboration.

I'm content to sit at my desk and, having worked with the relevant developers, create content for customer consumption, but what happens when I start making suggestions, particularly to department heads, about changing our collective documentation process?

Actually, I've already done that since I spearheaded the effort to change how we document our product, but I learned things at the conference that had never occurred to me before and that I think would be valuable additions/changes to what we do and how we think. I'm not suggesting we change horses in midstream, but I think we'd get a lot more mileage out of re-equipping that horse and reorganizing the riders.

I know there were a number of practical suggestions on how to manage impostor syndrome made at the conference that didn't make it into my notes. However, advice on the Internet is cheap and lists "21 Ways to Overcome Impostor Syndrome." Looks like I've got some reading to do.

More than a week has passed since the end of the conference, and I've created some mental distance between me and that experience. This is making it easier to review my notes, but now I need to organize them and cobble together some sort of presentation, then schedule it, and then give it to a specific audience.

I can't weasel out the commitment because I've already told my boss that's what I'm going to do.

I suppose this blog post would be more meaningful if I had already done all that and successfully came out the other side, but blogging is part of how I process information so it's more cognitively and emotionally manageable.

Put another way, part of blogging for me is managing the "impostor" inside and encouraging that competent writer to acknowledge himself. This is how I prepare myself to go into "battle."

I keep asking myself, "I wonder if any other people in my field feel this way," which is an insane question since the conference already answered that query with an abundant, "Yes!"

The syndrome is alive and far.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Lone Wolf Writer in Context

At the recent Write the Docs conference, I had the opportunity to briefly speak with one of the keynotes, the gracious Marcia Riefer Johnston. I wanted to thank her both for her wonderful presentation and for being of a "similar age" to me. Not having any idea about what to expect, I imagined I'd be the oldest person attending, probably by decades.

Fortunately, the level of diversity present at the conference included a wide age range, so I didn't feel terribly anachronistic.

I also had an opportunity to share with Marcia something of my background and current working circumstances. In most places I've worked (such as HP, Micron, and the little-known EmergeCore), including my present job, I've been the "Lone Wolf" technical writer, the only person who does exactly what I do in the shop. While that makes me unique, it can also be kind of lonely. From developers, to operations, to support, to testing, to management, no one completely understands the nature of my process or my pain points.

The flip side is without access to a community of technical writers, I don't know what's supposed to be "normal".

All that changed, at least in potential, when Marcia mentioned the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and specifically the Special Interest Group (SIG) Lone Writer (personally, I prefer "Lone Wolf Writer" but I guess you can't have everything).

I'm still exploring STC and Lone Writer online, but even the possibility of belonging to a larger group of people like me, and particularly a group of "Lone Wolves," is exciting.

In addition, I'm already beginning to dialog at the new Write the Docs Forum. I know that at the conference, we were all strongly encouraged to organize meetups within our communities, but knowing so little about the technical documentation community, either locally or globally, makes that idea seem incredibly intimidating at present.

I think I'll start out with my contacts being virtual before summoning the chutzpah to make them material.

I'm still sorting through all of the notes I took during the conference in order to develop a meaningful summary to present to the support manager and staff, but in order to flesh out any changes I'm going to propose to their team and the other related departments, I'll also need to acquire a sense of who I am among my community of peers, even if they are peers at a distance.

Then I can suggest how to better develop and manage our documentation process and how we conceive of information. Joining STC and the Lone Writer SIG will make me a "Lone Wolf" among many "Lone Wolves," and as a technical writer within the larger technical writing community, I'll become a Lone Wolf Writer who has finally found a context.