Everything’s a (funny) story

Standoff with bad dog and cheese

Well, not everything. But this is: Back in Cambridge for a quick overnight visit, I’m heading down Mass Ave towards Harvard Square. As it happens, my trip coincided with Harvard graduation, and throngs of well-dressed celebrants are heading off to parties and dinners. But I have a different agenda: I’m on my way to a toney little grocery in hopes that some Boar’s Head turkey and Swiss will entice my friend Betsy’s bad dog to let me back in the house.

Wubby growls when I return. I toss her a slice of (fancy, expensive) cheese. She growls again. I back off. She gobbles up the cheese. We repeat this futile exercise another two times. Well futile for me, not for her. I beat a hasty retreat to my car to contemplate next steps.

Betsy’s at a meeting at a Boston law firm and won’t be home for another few hours. Her husband is out of town. I need to get back home to western Mass, but first I need to collect my stuff from the third-floor guest room.

I call our friend Jan, whose Eddie is the dog behind Cambridge Canine.

“Betsy’s dog won’t let me in the house,” I say. I explain the situation.

“I’d be scared too,” she says. “I wouldn’t try again.”

Not the answer I was hoping to hear. I try to look on the bright side. “Maybe I can get a blog post out of it,” I say reflectively. “Though I can’t really get any writing done. My computer is in the house.”

“That’s good for the blog post,” observes pragmatic Jan. She’s a blogger too.

So here’s the thing, the point behind this story: Even as I schlepped down Mass Ave, even as I brandished cold cuts to an inexplicably hostile dog—usually Wubby loves me!—I found myself framing the events as an amusing story. First as a Facebook status update, then as a little essay. And, as I see it, this is a very good thing.

In the pre-social media world, this would not have been my default mode. I would have been seething and stressing, not taking mental notes with an eye to writing a blog post. I would have been focused on the fact that I needed to get home and this shouldn’t be happening. There would have been no upside. There would have been lots of down.

In the wake of Facebook’s IPO, the debate over life online—pro and con—shows no sign of abating. The cover story in this month’s AtlanticIs Facebook Making Us Lonely?—has 18,000 Facebook recommends as of this writing. I, however, just don’t buy it. Take my trip to Cambridge: I was able to meet my California-based friend Marcia for coffee only because I knew—through Facebook!—that our visits would coincide.That Jan and I enjoyed a fantastic southern feast at Tupelo can be traced to the fact that my friend Jen’s husband is the chef there. I first met Jen (I know, it’s confusing Jan and Jen: two different people) on Twitter and often connect with her now via Facebook. And come to think of it, I actually first “met” Jan online as well—the strength of our real-life friendship is such that I can easily forget that.

As I once wrote on Huffington Post, there is no monolithic Facebook. Facebook is what we make it. One of the major critiques often levied at the social media giant is that it encourages a focus on self-presentation at the expense of authenticity. But I see it very differently. Is the funny story about me attempting to placate Wubby less real, less true to my experience than a narrative that would have had me frustrated, anxious, and on-edge? Absolutely not—because as I created the funny story, it became my experience. And, I would add, I am far the happier for that.

As for my story’s coda, I did finally get into the house. Betsy raced home to corral Wubby. I grabbed my stuff and got on the road. The whole episode delayed my travels for maybe 90 minutes. And now I have written this. And you are reading it.

I’m back. Here’s why I was gone.

Free Child Walking on White Round Spheres Balance Creative Commons

It’s been almost a month since my last post. Blogging experts may differ as to the optimal frequency for posting, but on one point, I’m confident they all agree: It should be more than once a month.

That being said, I had my reasons. This month has been breathtakingly busy. Though, admittedly, any such assessment is a relative one. I once marveled at a prolific writer friend’s ability to churn out books while also holding down a full-time job. “I could never do that,” I said. “No,” he agreed, reflectively. “You need a lot of time to hang out.”

He had a point. And while “a lot” may also be a relative term, I definitely do need some. Which brings me to how I made the decision to take a break from blogging.

Here’s the thing: This blog isn’t just about my life; it’s also a life laboratory. I am both subject and object, both creator and data. When I sit down at my laptop to write, I’m not thinking only about the writing but also about the writer. How is she feeling? What is she thinking? How is she relating to this singular act of putting words on paper?

For pretty much all of my life, I’ve been an achievement junkie. Degrees. Jobs. Books. You name it. I’ve been really really good at getting things done, at erecting whatever psychic dams are needed to stem the emotional tides. You might say my motto has been: Act now; feel later.

But while this strategy may have its place, it also has its limits. I see this more and more. Like adrenaline, it’s good for emergencies, not so good for the long haul.

I’m still figuring out where to draw the lines—still following breadcrumbs—but in the meantime, a few salient markers are starting to emerge.

For one thing, my life works best when I hold my plans lightly. To put it diplomatically, this is not my usual M.O., which tends towards command and control. The metrics for this are simple. Accomplish your goals, and you have succeeded; fall down on the job, and you’ve failed.

Predictably, I began the month with this idea in mind. Even with my other projects-in-waiting, two posts a week struck me as a fairly modest target. But in the days that followed, my stress level grew, and something started to shift. A single question presented itself: What is the real point? This didn’t feel like edging towards procrastination or squirming out of work. Rather it felt like a small first step towards taking care of myself.

So what is the real point? Why did I start blogging? Last fall, at a particularly difficult crossroads, I went in search of ways to feel more grounded, more connected, and well, happier. Blogging has given me all these things, which is why I keep at it. Would strong-arming myself into twice-weekly posts really build on this foundation? It seemed to me that the blog could wait. And so it did.

“There comes a time in life when you have to stop doing things for instrumental reasons,” my first-year moot court partner told me, explaining why he had no intention of trying for a spot on the Harvard Law Review. More than two decades later, I still recall those words. They seemed important at the time. Now I understand why.

On breadcrumbs & basket weaving (aka Life Experiment #4)

Young bird

So if you think I haven’t been blogging as much: you’re right.

Over the past few weeks, my personal Plan B Nation has become an increasingly busy place, and while that’s mainly a very good thing, it’s also entailing some readjustments and recalibrations.

As you may have read, last month’s Life Experiment—taking a photo everyday as I learned to use my new digital camera—came to an abrupt end only days after it began.  I realized I simply couldn’t add another thing to my plate. While at first I saw this as a failure (bad!), I ended up realizing that it was doing what any good experiment should: Giving me useful information.

In that spirit, I’m taking this month’s Life Experiment in a somewhat different direction. Instead of focusing on an activity, I’ll be playing with metaphor and shifting perspective.

I recently wrote about how I’m trying to bring more playfulness into my life—to still get things done but to have more lightness in the doing.  For much of my foray in Plan B Nation, Getting Things Done has felt like accomplishment enough. On some days simply getting out of bed felt like a pretty big deal.

But lately, I’ve come to wonder if things have to feel so grim. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the role of metaphor. Which brings me to breadcrumbs and basket weaving, aka Life Experiment #4.

On Breadcrumbs . . .

Instead of marching through a to-do list, I’m a bird following bread crumbs.  Breadcrumbs are: Nourishing.  A bird doesn’t order itself to follow a trail of breadcrumbs. That comes naturally. A trail of breadcrumbs invites you on. You don’t have to think about it.

I’ve been playing with this over the past few weeks, and I like how it’s feeling.  Looking for the next breadcrumb is way better than pushing myself to Be More Productive.

and basket weaving

Another big challenge has been feeling that I’m moving in too many different directions. By nature and habit, I go for depth rather than for breadth. I like to focus on one thing, to give it my full attention.

Of course, that isn’t always possible—it isn’t for me right now—so I’ve been mulling over how I can keep doing lots of things but feel a little less stressed. The answer, at least for now, seems to be basket weaving.

Instead of seeing life as pulling me in disparate conflicting directions, I’m thinking of my various activities as strands in a single  basket. The challenge is weaving them together. The challenge is creating a whole. What I was viewing as a source of stress has become a creative project.

Which isn’t to say that I really like being all this busy. I’m hoping (expecting) that by April’s end, things will have settled down. In the meantime, I plan to do what I can to hold the situation lightly—to follow the trail of breadcrumbs and practice basket weaving.

Note: My interest in how metaphor can shape experience was sparked by The Fluent Self‘s Havi Brooks–if you’re interested in reading more, she’s written loads on the topic.

Basket Weaving

The magic of cause & effect

low gravity

Years back, when I first found my way to AA, I used to roll my eyes at old-timers’ earnest promises that “things will get better.” Don’t get me wrong. I loved AA from the start and didn’t ever think seriously about going back to drinking. (I was lucky that way.) Still, it struck me as absurd that people I’d never spoken to thought they could predict my future. What made them so certain? How could they possibly know?

It took a long time—months, in fact—before it finally hit me: “Hey! Maybe if you stop pouring gallons of a toxic depressant into your system things are likely to look up! Maybe, if you stop ingesting a substance that wreaks havoc on your relationships, life will (as a general rule) tend to run more smoothly!” Amazing. Who knew?

These thoughts came back to me the other day when a Very Nice Thing happened. Brazen Careerist founder Penelope Trunk—who, of all the bloggers on the planet, is probably the one I most admire—commented on the post I’d written about the benefits of blogging (or more specifically, about how research suggesting that blogging may help new moms could well also pertain to the newly unemployed).

Here’s what she wrote:

Amy, I really like this post. I started blog­ging when I had my first baby. I didn’t do it inten­tion­ally as a way to con­nect. I did it as a way to make sure my career didn’t tank while my emo­tions were tank­ing. But I totally under­stand how blog­ging could help new moms.

The other thing I love about blog­ging is that blog­ging gives me a way to share all the inter­est­ing research I come across. I’m with kids most of the day, and believe me, they really don’t care what I’m read­ing about. The blog is a way to keep my life intel­lec­tu­ally stimulating.

And, I love the research you have in this post. It makes me feel con­nected to read it and talk about it :)

Pene­lope

I was so excited! Not just a pro forma “thanks for linking to me” but a real live genuine comment reflecting on what I’d talked about and how she liked what I’d said.

And what had I done to spark this happy development?  Okay hold on to your seats. After linking to her blog on mine, I told her that I had done this.

Could anything be simpler or more obvious? And yet, I almost didn’t do it. Here’s why: In the world in which I blog, Penelope Trunk is a celebrity. I thought about the zillions of emails she likely gets each day. I didn’t want to be tedious. I didn’t want to push. I didn’t want to annoy her. (And she can be annoyed.)

But in my deliberations, I’d somehow overlooked two crucial facts: First, if you don’t tell someone you wrote a post about them, they most likely won’t find out.* Second, if you do tell them, there’s a chance they will actually read what you wrote and turn out to like it.

Give how universal this cause-and-effect stuff seems to be, it’s remarkable how often I have to remind myself to pay attention to it. True, if you make an effort to connect with someone it’s possible you’ll annoy them. But if you don’t make the effort, chances are good you won’t connect at all. Yes, you’ll avoid the downside risk, but you’ll also miss the upside. Cause and effect, it turns out, tends to cut both ways.

* Unless you’re Penelope Trunk, and then they most likely will.

How blogging changed my life–and how it can change yours

I´m blogging this.

Earlier this month, the New York Times Motherlode blog featured new research suggesting that blogging may make new mothers happier.

It got me to thinking about how this is also true for us denizens of Plan B Nation—and for much the same reasons.

The cited research—a small research study by Penn State Ph.D. candidate Brandon T. McDaniel—suggests that blogging counteracts new mothers’ feelings of isolation. It found a positive correlation between “blogging and feelings of connectedness to family and friends—which in turn correlates . . . with maternal well-being and health,” writes Motherlode blogger KJ Dell’Antonia (who, in another lifetime, practiced law with me, but I digress . . . .)

Feelings of isolation are also a hallmark of life in Plan B Nation—and one of its most dangerous potential side effects. Long-term unemployment, in particular, has been repeatedly linked to a downward spiral in personal relationships. Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton sums this up succinctly in his new book The Coming Jobs War: “People who have been out of work for 18 months or longer lose engagement in their network of friends, community, and families. The worst things in life start showing up when people experience extended unemployment.”

Speaking from personal experience (hello readers!), blogging can go a long way to help with such feelings. Two months ago, when I started Plan B Nation, I was in a pretty demoralized place. I’d been un- and under-employed for more than two years and was having a hard time imagining a light at the end of the tunnel. I didn’t really think blogging would help, but I’d been thinking about doing it for a while and finally took the leap. If nothing else, I figured, I’d at least learn some new skills.

Flash forward to today, and my whole outlook has changed—and largely because of this blog. Simply put, blogging about my story has transformed my relationship to it. It’s gone from being a source of suffering to being my subject. When I step back to mine it for material, I start to find it interesting. I start to see what it has to teach me (and how, in sharing it, I can maybe even help others).

And there’s a huge additional potential bonus to blogging in Plan B Nation: It can be a terrific source of paying work. That’s certainly been the case for me and—a quick Google search reveals—for many others as well.

Iconic blogger Penelope Trunk—if you haven’t read her, you should; you’ll either love her or hate her—is a big proponent of blogging as a career strategy. For doubters, she lists the following five reasons to embark.

1. Blogging makes career change easier.

2. Blogging lets you skip entry-level jobs.

3. Blogging opens up the world of part-time work.

4. Blogging makes it easier to re-enter the workforce.

5. Blogging builds a network super fast.

I can’t say everything in this post will be true for everyone, but for me, it’s come pretty close. (For more evidence in support, check out blogger Jen Gresham’s post on blogging as a career tool—part of BlogHer’s ongoing series on career reinvention.)

Will it be true for you? You’ll never know if you don’t try. (Penelope Trunk also offers tips on how to get started.)  You might consider, as I did, that even if your blog doesn’t fly, you’ll still have learned a lot.

Need more inspiration? Try checking out other blogs that explore life in Plan B Nation. A few examples:

  • Brett Paesel’s darkly hilarious Last of the Bohemians (about a family vacation to India in the shadow of bankruptcy)
  • Wharton M.B.A. Sharon O’Day’s blog about women and money (which evolved from her own experience of starting over at age 53)
  • From Prada to Payless (“The life and times of a once glamorous NYC fashion industry insider, to a mother of three girls, living paycheck to paycheck , facing foreclosure, and trying to find humor, and sanity in it all, while looking (trying!) deliciously chic in her Payless shoes”)

Plan B Nation takes lots of things away from us, but it also fills our life with amazing (if painful), strange, intriguing, and unforgettable stories. The trick is to see them, to lean into them. Blogging can help with that.

Do you have a favorite Plan B Nation blog? Please share it in the comment section.                                                  

Should you write for free? One author says yes. Here’s why.

Tapping a Pencil

Years back, when I had a full-time job within the not-so-hilarity-filled walls of Harvard Law School, there was one thing I could always count on to brighten my day: 3L Jeremy Blachman’s humor column in the law school’s student paper. (Here’s one of my favorites.)

As it turned out, I was far from the only reader eagerly awaiting Jeremy’s next offering. Unbeknownst to us all, even as he schlepped from class to class in Cambridge, he was (fictionally) thousands of miles away, spewing withering, operatic rants as a West Coast law firm partner—and drawing in thousands of readers with his “Anonymous Lawyer” blog. (One law professor, who used the blog in his class, called it a “cultural phenomenon.”)

“I was just writing satire,” Jeremy said, when he finally revealed himself to the New York Times in late 2004 (and shortly thereafter garnered a major book deal). “In a way I’ve been disappointed that I’ve been able to pull it off. I’ve painted a picture based on a few months of observation and the worst things I saw, heard about, or could imagine about law firms, and experienced lawyers are chiming in, saying: ‘This is exactly what it feels like.’”

Some seven years later, Jeremy continues to write, now from his home in Manhattan. He’s at work on a second novel, as well as a film adaptation of the first, and has written for McSweeney’s and the Wall Street Journal, among other venues.  (And lest there be any doubt, he hasn’t lost his talent for skewering the world of law firms, witness this fictional partner’s memo dating from the economic downturn.) Here, he shares some thoughts about writing, both on and off the clock.

By Jeremy Blachman

Amy e-mailed me last week to ask if I’d write a guest post for Plan B Nation. In her e-mail, she said she felt bad asking me to write for free. She linked to this musician’s post in an online forum:

And, indeed, a quick Google search leads to an endless number of online posts telling people not to give away the milk if you want someone to buy the cow. (Of course, many of these posts seem to either be about actual cows or the raw milk debate, but still, the point is clear.)

I would like to offer hope. In the Plan B Nation economy, a lot of things that might sound silly are not in fact all that silly. In the Plan B Nation economy, I believe writing for free is an actual, legitimate thing to do, even if you have actual, legitimate bills to pay. And I don’t think it’s just about writing. I think the more things you can do for free—the more proof of work you can throw out into the universe—the better off you’ll be. After years of writing things—for free and not for free—I still can’t predict what’s going to bring attention, followers, and potential opportunities, and what isn’t. You don’t know what is going to turn into something real. (And by “real,” I mean useful in paying for actual food.)

Almost a decade ago, I was about to start law school. I was mostly going to law school to buy myself three years—albeit at an astonishingly high cost—to figure out how to be a writer. I had written sketches and songs for the Princeton Triangle Club while an undergrad—and then, having no clue how to turn that into a job as an actual writer, I spent a year and a half working in marketing for a software company. I continued to write on the side—some television scripts, a musical, and some very long e-mails about working in marketing for a software company—and  continued to have no idea what to actually do with my life. To a great extent, I was too risk-averse to move to Los Angeles, be someone’s assistant, and hope that developed into an opportunity to be a writer. Partly because I would be terrible at answering someone’s phones, and partly because I had no idea how the entertainment industry worked.

Having deluded myself into believing that going to law school would open all sorts of doors, I decided, hey, at least I’ll have a degree at the end of three years, and if I can’t figure out how to be a writer, I can be a lawyer. Anyone with any knowledge about anything would have tried to convince me this was a terrible idea, but fortunately I didn’t know any lawyers, had no idea what a law firm was, and didn’t want to spend $25 for the Vault Guide to Corporate Law Careers.

Before starting law school, I happened to read an article about blogging. I decided that starting a blog would be a neat experiment to force me to write every day, and the blog would give me a place to try and turn the law school experience into some sort of comedy. I had never read any blogs, and I knew nothing of the blog world. On August 8, 2002, having received my 1L course schedule in the mail, I began writing.

Cut to a year and a half later. The first e-mail I’d sent with my Harvard Law account was to the Crimson to see if I could write for them. Grad students, they quickly informed me, were not allowed to write for the storied college paper. Instead, I pitched a humor column to the law school paper, and started writing there weekly. My blog had about 700 readers a day, which seemed like a nice number. But it hadn’t gotten me any closer to being a writer for real. My roommate had no idea why I was wasting my time writing for free on the Internet. I could pretend I had a plan, but I didn’t.

I had spent my 1L summer working for eight weeks for a small publishing company and six weeks for a political media firm—both jobs I had found entirely outside the law school career services system—but I figured that over my 2L summer I would try out a law firm, so that at least I would be making an informed decision about what to do post-law school. I interviewed, I got an offer, I accepted the offer. I hadn’t blogged much about the interview experience, for the (sensible) fear that it would hurt my chances. On a whim, 2L spring, thinking maybe there could be some funny blog posts to write in the voices of some of the partners who had interviewed me, I started a second blog, an anonymous blog about an over-the-top, evil lawyer, playing on all the stereotypes I’d heard, and exaggerating the details I’d seen in the interview process.

Now my roommate had no idea why I wasting my time writing two blogs for free on the Internet.

I was not entirely sure either.

The first blog ended up being a year and a half of practice for the anonymous one, which, thanks to some beneficial links early on, quickly grew a larger audience than the blog with my name on it. For a brief moment, I found this irritating. “Why are more people reading my anonymous blog than my real one?” Eight months later, after having used my summer associate experience to obtain more details I could grossly and unfairly exaggerate, the New York Times wrote a story about “Anonymous Lawyer,” revealing that I was the writer behind it. I got over 500 e-mails that weekend, including a bunch from agents and publishers, and I ended up with a book deal to turn the blog into the Anonymous Lawyer novel.

I was, of course, very lucky—I am certain that I benefited a great deal from the accidental timing of my blog. It hit just as blogs were becoming mainstream enough for publishers to start getting interested, but not so far along the curve that bookstores were filled with books built off blogs. I sold a television pitch based on the book to Sony and NBC and worked with them for two years on a sitcom adaptation. I’m currently working on a film version and have other scripts I’ve been writing, along with a second novel. All of this emerged from writing I was doing for free, without any idea about where it would lead.

That’s what’s great about this Plan B Nation economy. Sure, perhaps no one is going to pay you up front. But the Internet makes the world where people do get paid accessible to anyone, and you never know if—or when, or how—you’re going to be found, and what your free work might lead to.

I still write for free because I don’t know what might next hit. (I also write for pay, if anyone out there is open to pitches; feel free to e-mail me.) As it happens, the most e-mails I’ve gotten recently have been after pieces I’ve written for the humor site McSweeney’s, for free. There is no shame in writing for free. Amy had nothing to feel bad about.

Jeremy Blachman is a freelance writer and the author of Anonymous Lawyer, a comic novel about corporate law. He welcomes e-mail.