On Tooting My Town’s Horn (Or…On Writing What You Know)

There are lots of opinions about the adage “Write what you know.” Some think you should. Some think you shouldn’t. Some think it depends on what you mean by “what you know.” Personally, if you’re wondering, I think you should write what you know, otherwise you are just contributing to the confusion in the world, and that is a very, VERY bad thing for a writer to do. BUT, part of the fun of being a writer is learning about new things and then writing about them. Which is basically writing what you know even if the thing you now know you didn’t know yesterday.

All of that is to say (and here’s where this post comes around) I love to write about my town, Austin, Texas. There are cool people worth meeting, awesome places worth finding out about and things worth experiencing–and then shouting about. I’ve gotten to be Austin’s cheerleader in a number of different ways the past few years…

In just a week or so, Expedition Austin: A Kid’s Guide to the Weirdest Town in Texas will be hitting the shelves, literally and virtually. While I stopped tallying the number of hours I spent researching the kid centric part of my town long ago, I can safely say I wrote about what I know, and loved every minute of it.

(Another thing I know is that I love the first silly paragraph of this post.)

Proofing the Proof of the Proof of the Proof

Proofing the proof

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re just about ready to publish Expedition Austin: A Kid’s Guide to the Weirdest Town in Texas. We’re really proud of it, and super excited to get it out there into the world.

Do you hear the enthusiasm in my voice? The unfettered joy and pride? No? Well, that’s because I’m on my fourth round of proofs. I’m proofing proof after proof after proof so I can send off for a REAL proof. I find things to fix every time, which is why I keep proofing proofs.

My question is, when do you call it done? When do you just say “good enough” and put it out there. I know people who are frozen in their tracks, incapable of finishing anything at all because they can’t deem their project “perfect.” Those tracks are a maddening place to stand.

I heard a Malcolm Gladwell Revisionist History podcast that touched on this, though it was primarily about how genius is achieved; how it evolves and different approaches to creative pursuits. The episode was called “Hallelujah” in reference to the gorgeous Leonard Cohen song (covered here by Jeff Buckley).

Apparently, Cohen wrote more than 80 verses over years and years before ever bringing it out. The result is pretty damn close to perfect. But, what if he’d gone with an earlier version? Would he have saved himself years of frustration and angst? Would anyone have noticed but him? Would even he have noticed after some space? How much better, really, was the final take?

Not that I’m comparing this book to a Leonard Cohen masterpiece, but many writers can probably relate. At some point, you have to put it out there, even if it’s terrifying. Even if there’s a lowercase “a.m.” when it should be uppercase and all caps. Even if I forgot to mention a super awesome place to park near Home Slice pizza. Even if there’s a spare comma on one (or more) of the 120 pages. Even if it’s not perfect.

I’m practicing with this here blog post. Forget proofing–I’m not even going to reread it. It’ll be like one of those awesome OK Go one-shot videos. Of course, you can’t publish a book done in a single take, but surely there’s a balance between first draft and a soul crushed by one too many proofs.

The Thing About Drawing Boards

ExpeditionAustin_HOPE Gallery

 

I’ve written before about the importance of flexibility in a writer’s life, and was recently reminded of that truth. My colleague, Virginia, and I are just about ready to put our Austin guide for kids out into the world, but learned that one of the places we highlighted in the book is closing soon. The HOPE gallery is awesome, and thankfully will reopen somewhere, but the 4-1-1 isn’t known yet. As a result, we’re going back to the old drawing board for a new location to highlight. It’s an unexpected delay, but we know the book will be better and more accurate if we make the change, so we’re rolling with it!

If you are able to get to the great graffiti park before it moves to its new digs, here’s a little piece of Expedition Austin to take with you. While our book is “officially” for kids, we say there’s no shame in letting childhood last a few extra decades. We’d love feedback if you do use this page–and we promise to take it to the drawing board.

Our New Austin Guide is On Tweak

Look how cute our new book is going to be! (I can’t help but share, even though the words are still rough.)

Austin_Barton Springs

 

 

 

 

 

Last year, my colleague, Virginia, and I published a pretty, witty little book about traveling to Paris with children. It’s super cute, and super niche.

This year, we’re working on another guide, but decided to tweak our original idea a bit. While the Paris book was targeted to parents, this one is being written about Austin for kids. It will look and feel much like Paris When It Giggles, but the text is written for young travelers rather than their parents. Like PWIG, the new book will have gorgeous illustrations of kids doing cool things around town, but it will include a much wider set of children, have fun facts about Austin sites and small missions for kids to complete, and provide tips they can share with the adults responsible for carting them around.

We’re racing along, hoping to finish the book by May. It’s another labor of love to be sure, but we think the tweaks we’re making will give it broader appeal. There will be around 30 vignettes like the rough draft of Barton Springs above. So. Much. Tweak!

One Issue, Many Voices

I’ve been working with human trafficking survivors for many years now, and it’s been gratifying to see public awareness of the issue grow. When I first got involved, many people had never even heard of human trafficking and, if they had, were shocked to learn it happens in the US. Now, most people know it exists, which means the goal of an anti-trafficking op-ed has evolved from simply raising awareness to spelling out how to prevent trafficking in the first place, and how our government and society can help survivors.

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and you probably read, watched or listened to at least a few stories about men, women and children who have been affected by trafficking. There are so many facets to this issue, and so many ways to convey the stories. Each of the op-eds below are told by brave human trafficking survivors who are now determined advocates, but their priorities and reasons for sharing their stories are very different.

Evelyn Chumbow argues on CNN.com that it’s time to turn compassion for survivors into action: Human trafficking survivor: ‘We need jobs, not pity’ 

Harold D’Souza explains in his local paper how to recognize signs of trafficking in your everyday life:  Opinion: Know signs of labor trafficking

In an op-ed targeting political leaders, Bukola Oriola provides insight on how the new US Advisory Council on Human Trafficking will only be effective if it is fully supported by Congress and the Obama administration: Great step, but only first, for trafficking survivor empowerment

On Opining, Travel and Empathy

A few weeks ago, I read this opinion about opinion fatigue. Let me repeat that. I read an opinion about opinion fatigue.

Moving right along while that irony sinks in…

I did think the article was interesting, in part because (as you probably know if you occasionally read this blog) I write a lot of op-eds for other people. Earlier this month, though, I got to write one that was actually signed by me. I am an enthusiastic traveler, and my first opinion piece is about how traveling with kids can help them develop empathy–a topic that interests me because I’ve seen it on occasion in my own child and read anecdotes about it on other blogs.

Nothing bugs me more than “experts” making claims backed up only by their own experience, however, so I decided to do a little digging into it. It was a more time intensive project than I expected, because there is a remarkable dearth of research on how travel affects us.

Given how small our world has become, how much people travel these days, and travel’s importance as an industry, it seems an area worth studying and, over the past decade or so, there has been more research into the subject. Happily, much of what’s out there does support the idea that travel has the potential to make us more compassionate humans. You can read more about it here, in Giving City Austin, an awesome online magazine that promotes philanthropy and community in my town. Also, if you’re interested in more of my writing about family travel, please check out my travel blog, or my book, Paris When It Giggles. In my opinion, they’re both worth reading.

On McSweeney’s, First Drafts and Putting Yourself Out There

A few weeks ago, I entered McSweeney’s Internet Tendency’s Column Contest. I love McSweeney’s in all its forms, but have never pitched there (maybe because of the insecure jackass who occasionally moves into my head). It was a fun exercise to try and come up with a column idea, as opposed to a one-off feature, because you think about things differently when your job would be to write 12-24 smart, witty posts on the same basic topic.

If you’ve ever read Internet Tendency, you know that pretty much anything goes, and I played around with ideas like “The Spiral of Silence” and “How to Go From White Trash to Eurotrash in a Single Generation.”

(Because it’s worth mentioning for the good of humanity, I digress for a moment here to talk about the Spiral of Silence.)

If you’ve never heard of the Spiral of Silence, Wikipedia explains it like this: “The spiral of silence is a political science and mass communication theory propounded by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. Spiral of silence theory describes the process by which one opinion becomes dominant as those who perceive their opinion to be in the minority do not speak up because society threatens individuals with fear of isolation. The assessment of one’s social environment may not always correlate with reality.”

In August, the Pew Research Center released a report showing how the spiral works in social media, and I thought it would be funny to write about the things I catch myself clamming up about. Really important hot-button issues, like whether or not Sofia Vergara’s Emmy skit was funny or sexist.

The column I settled on, however, was called “The Neighborhood.” Because I would be writing about life in my central Austin community, I thought long and hard about how to approach it without offending my friends and neighbors, but being honest and funny at the same time. In the end, I probably thought too long and hard about approach, because I was left to write the overview, first column draft, and three additional column pitches all on the day submissions were due. I wrote most of that day, and pushed “send” around 6:30pm, with my husband and daughter puttering around the kitchen trying to keep quiet while I finished.

Contest judges John Warner and Christopher Monks are masters of the mass cull, because they managed to plow through 820 submissions and announce winners within one week. That’s pretty darn amazing…as well as exceedingly kind to hopeful writers with McSweeney’s dreams. When I read in Warner’s Twitter feed that there were 820 submissions, however, I knew my half-baked column was doomed. There would only be a handful of winners, and my guess is the chosen ones had been tweaked and retweaked countless times. Mine, I discovered too late, had a typo and needed at least two more revisions to be considered “final.” Still, I think there are glimmers of good writing and compelling ideas in my submission, so hopefully I’ll find some way to use it…aside from running it below. 

“Can You Please Define McMansion?”

The neighborhood is a complex place, and neighbors are demanding relations.

Growing up, I feared that the muumuu-clad woman smoking in the carport down the street was a witch. As a college student in Austin, I lived next door to a sexy waiter/musician who eventually stole my bike, then I shared a duplex wall with a dreamy philosopher who taught me to love John Prine. In my early-twenties-cohabitating-in-an-Amsterdam-anti-squatter-flat days, swarthy Sjoerd would knock on the door each morning in his grubby underwear, wondering in his guttural accent if he could borrow the newspaper. In my newlywed Cambridge era, our fourth floor walk-up was providentially situated directly above Julia, a frail, scholarly and ethereal former nun who had been obsessively writing her beautiful and astonishing five-volume poem for more than 30 years. More recently, as a mother in East Dallas, the meth addict down the block inspired me to wave enthusiastically from the porch as well as deadbolt the door.

I felt connected to them all.

Last year, I began the awkward process of connecting with a whole new set of people when my family moved back to Austin. While there’s still plenty keepin’ #ATX weird, it is definitely a different town than the one I left in 2003, and the 100+ per day influx of people, “Californiacation” of home prices, escalating property taxes and citified traffic problems are making it a bumpy evolution for those who revere Austin’s slacker culture.

I first learned how those issues are playing out in my own urban pocket when I got my first edition of the neighborhood list serve and spied messages lamenting of “downtown encroachment” and “McMansions.” We’d moved here, in part, because downtown was encroaching. And our house was definitely not a 900-square foot cottage. (Rule of thumb: If you’re not sure if your home is a McMansion, it probably is.)

As it turned out, a pariah’s life wasn’t so bad. I walked my daughter to school, and my dogs around the block. I bought, cooked and ate groceries, worked solo in coffee shops, jogged to the lake and drank margaritas. Along the way, though, I met some of my neighbors…the baby-faced tech CEOs, hipsters, hippies, retirees, yoga instructors, tow truck drivers, professors and musicians that coexist in this crazy neighborhood. I posted things to the list serve, took in dogs, bought birthday presents and looked after other people’s children. I, like, made connections, man.

Still, there are plenty of real problems here like drought, affordable housing and those damn property taxes. There’s also a lot to disagree about, like impervious cover rules, urban coyotes and the genetically modified ingredients apparently used in Pirate Booty. But there are cool things, too, like 75-year-old piano teachers, bona fide rock stars, and the Mayberryesque en masse walk to school. It’s awesome stuff, and somebody needs to write about it. -30-

While it’s no fun to lose, I’m glad I tried. If you don’t try, my husband is fond of saying, the answer will always be “no.” You learn something from trying, and you certainly learn something from losing. And, hopefully that makes you a better writer. With about 10 months to think about and perfect another submission, maybe I’ll try again next year. In the meantime, I’ll be reading my McSweeney’s. 

Paris When It Giggles

ParisWhenItGiggles_cover 

Well, I wrote about the Labor of Love way, WAY back in February 2013, and finally, FINALLY it’s just about done. There are many wonderful travel guides for Paris, but I don’t think there’s anything quite like this…travelogue, picture book and city guide all rolled into one pretty little package. I’m waiting on the second proof as I type, and hopefully I’ll be able to say I’m a (self-) published author by next week. It’s very exciting, and it’s been great fun working with awesome illustrator Virginia Shurgar Hassell to create something we are both proud of.  I’ll write more soon about the process of getting here, our hopes and professional goals in a post-bestseller career phase, and how soon we expect book sales will enable us to retire.

Nothing Personal

The pitching process never surprises me anymore.

My ideas have been ignored, rejected, accepted within minutes, ignored then accepted five months later, and approved by one editor then turned down by her replacement a few weeks later. I’ve been asked for more information then hired, asked for more information then ignored, accepted with modifications, and even offered something in lieu of my own idea.

When pitching an editor I have never worked with, I choose to believe very little of these interactions are personal and, in fact, most are completely impersonal. I’ve never analyzed my pitch:acceptance ratio, and doubt it would be good for my self esteem. A successful pitch is exceedingly good for my self esteem, however, and I guess I’ve had enough of them to keep me at it. 

I recently submitted an idea to a top tier women’s magazine that was accepted. Since I’d never written for them before, my initial pitch was to write a short piece, and I was thrilled when the editor assigned my idea as a 150-word sidebar to accompany a longer feature (proving that timing is almost everything). It was an interesting subject, paid well, and might be a gateway into a hard-to-tap market.

And so, I researched, wrote and submitted the article, received feedback, turned in a revision, got the okay and was paid. A few months later, I bought the issue expecting to find my published path to glory, but it was nowhere to be found. I contacted the editor, who explained that my article was snipped in design due to space issues.

Obviously, this was a disappointment, and I spent at least 24 hours whining about my bad luck. Then, I reminded myself that even this was not personal, and to try and view the entire process as a positive one. Some days, when I’m pitching, I cop an attitude based on the simple fact that I pitched, wrote and got paid for that little 150-word piece. Whatever it takes to get your mojo running, I say.

It was also a conundrum, however, because the magazine owned the content. After contacting the editor and re-reading my contract, it is still not clear to me whether I have the right to sell the story elsewhere. Therefore, I’m publishing it here, so maybe I won’t be the only one who knows how fabulously I can write a 150-word sidebar/menu about food and brain health. Isn’t it cute!

Brain Health à la Carte
A daily menu designed to keep you sharp.
By Jill Coody Smits

Breakfast
Cinnamon toast: Cinnamon is a powerful antioxidant, and early research suggests it may inhibit plaque formation that can lead to neurodegenerative diseases. If you don’t like how the pungent spice tastes, try taking a whiff of your officemate’s cinnamon-spiked oatmeal. At least one study found the scent alone can boost your attention span.

Coffee break
Trail mix: Raisins, dates and granola are chock full of potassium, a vital electrolyte that sparks communication between the brain and the rest of your body. Pub quizzers take note: a deficiency can adversely affect memory.

Lunch
Hummus wrap: The sesame seed tahini lovingly stuffed into your pita pocket contains zinc, a mineral recent research suggests is the big boss when it comes to regulating brain cell communication and memory formation.

Afternoon snack
Apple slices: Forego the microwave popcorn. Apple juice concentrate has been found to boost the brain’s production of the essential neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which may, in turn, boost your memory.

Dinner
Rosemary pork tenderloin: Research shows that carnosic acid found in rosemary guards against free radical cells that contribute to normal age-related brain deterioration, as well as more malevolent conditions like Alzheimer’s.

-30-

Generally Speaking, You’re Special

There is more than one school of thought about whether journalists should be specialists or generalists. Some argue that specializing is really important–for marketability of the journalist as well as their ability to cover a particular subject. For example, a lawyer would have special insight into the Supreme Court; someone with a science background would have more aptitude for reporting on global warming.

Obviously, if you’re someone like Ezra Klein, you need to be an expert in politics. Or, if you’re Dylan Byers, you need to know the media. Those guys are beat reporters (in addition to being semi-celebrities), though, and if their brains weren’t about to explode from all the knowledge they have in one area, they wouldn’t be good at their jobs. If their heads weren’t about to explode, someone else would have their jobs.

There are also well-known freelance writers who are pretty specialized. Karen Asp’s health-centered articles can be found monthly in one or more women’s magazine, for example.

Others argue, though, that generalizing is the way to go. At least, you need to know a lot about a lot in order to be a good journalist. Think about the small-town  reporter who must cover City Hall, public schools, crime and education. If they’re good at what they do, they’ll develop a pretty solid understanding of everything their readers need to know. Think about Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition. He can talk engagingly about pretty much anything.

As a person who does not have semi-celebrity status in any particular field, I have always thought of myself as a generalist (by necessity as much as anything else). Until recently, if I had to explain what kind writing I do, I might say I write about health-mental health-psychology-human rights…at least most of the time. 

About a year ago, I learned a good lesson in the importance of thinking of myself very, very generally when an editor asked me to write a business article about company culture. At first, I was hesitant because I didn’t think of myself as a business writer. He pointed out that an article I’d written for Psychology Today about overachievers was very much a business story, though I hadn’t thought of it in that context.

Since then, I’ve written six “Biz Idea” articles for Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine, most recently about managing time wisely and mentorship. I also contribute to a blog about collaboration in the workplace.

I guess the point is that I wasn’t thinking of myself in general enough terms. As a freelancer, it was an eye-opening reminder that you can tap into new markets if you just think about how to apply your ideas to different outlets and audiences. Now, if someone asks what I write about, I say health-mental health-psychology-human rights-business…at least most of the time.