Monthly Archives: March 2016

Why is creative writing important in today’s business world?

Imagine the following scene, in which you play the main role.

Your management decided to introduce a new technical standard into your company’s products. And you have been given the task to research on this standard, approach the community developing it, get involved and introduce this standard to your colleagues and management.

What is your first step? Yes, you research.

Today, most of us research on the Internet. You type in the keywords and get a selection of articles or even books ready for you to read.

You start to read one of them and find an article giving a detailed account of the standard you are interested in. You nod, Yes, I need to read this more thoroughly. You save the article for a later read and move to the next one.

This article talks about advantages and disadvantages of implementing the standard giving some examples of projects and companies, who did it successfully and also those who stepped into traps and lost large amounts of money by implementing it incorrectly. You save this article in the folder titled “Must-Read” and move to the next one.

At some point you rub your eyes from so much information and go to get yourself a cup coffee. Then you sit back at your desk and open the next link.

After a few seconds you laugh out loud at the mishaps and frustration the author of this article tells, how she was frustrated with this standard. How she cursed all those who made her learn it and those who created it, only to find out a few months later that she couldn’t get rid of this thing. And not quite because she had to do it. But because she found herself in the middle of it. She couldn’t stop thinking about the riddles it posed. She started liking it and the people developing it. She found like-minded professionals, who through all the frustration found the fun and multidimensionality of the standard and discovered its power and ability to improve the quality of their products. This standard even allowed to save money, when applied correctly.

After an hour you still read the long article, which hardly tells you the technical details of the standard but rather the human part of it. Then you find yourself researching about this person and the ones she refers to. You find some technical articles by her and start reading them, abandoning those you found in the first place and marked as Must-read.

Did something like this happened to you?

It did happen to me.

After my first maternity leave ended, I was very close to the status of a new employee in the company I worked at that time. Also because I had a new boss. And he had a new task for me in tow. “Learn how to work with XSLT,” he said. “You have about one month to learn it and then you have to develop new stylesheets for our software.”

I knew XML by that time, Extensible Markup Language, a language to capture information in a structured way, where the way can be flexibly defined for the specific context and purposes.

XSLT, Extensible Stylesheets Language: Transformations, is a specific subset of XML, or rather a language in itself, to transform the structure and content of a document from one format to another.

My task was to learn to transform an XML document into HTML format, which is most often used by various browsers to present content.

I love reading books. They are my preferred source of information. So I opened an Amazon window in my browser and search for XSLT books. XSLT 2.0 was latest and greatest at that time (about six years ago) and also applied at our company, so I looked for those. The book by Michael Kay “XSLT 2.0 and XPath 2.0” was highly praised. So I bought it and a couple of other, which were thinner and less intimidating than over one thousand pages long tome by Michael Kay.

When Michael Kay’s book arrived I was both excited and scared. How am I going to learn all this in one month?

I opened the book, found that some of the examples made me smile (”A Hello World” stylesheet, example on music transformation, an example of displaying a poem”) and I found a lot of valuable and well structured information, written without hurry and with the thought of the reader to understand the given topic.

But the most memorable part of this book was for me, where Michael Kay told the difference about how he felt, when he wrote his first book on XSLT (it was XSLT 1.0) and the one on XSLT 2.0. The difference was that he was an “outsider” when he wrote the first one. He was “just” a user, pointing out along with advantages also disadvantages of this specification as it was defined at that time. He said that with XSLT 2.0 it was much more difficult to be as critical as when he has written the first book. The reason was is that now, with the XSLT 2.0, he was inside the community and not only a part of it but also the responsible editor for the standard.

This resonated with me. I’ve been involved in development of a technical standard as well (S1000D®, International specification for technical publications using a common source data base) and I felt very protective of it when someone criticized it.

So this anecdote stayed with me and Michael Kay’s book became one of the first ones I opened, when I searched for an answer about XSLT. I also followed the e-mail forums he participated in and learned from many examples shared and discussed by him and his colleagues there.

Another book on XSLT drew me to it due its creative title, “XSLT Cookbook” by Sal Mangano, and as creative and honest content of the book.

If I find dialogue in an business article or book, I immediately draw it closer to me and read.

In today’s flooding with information world, we disregard, and also must disregard, a huge amount of the information pouring on us, and find something that captivates us and helps us experience epiphanies on the given topic. We can best memorize the information, which finds its way into our brains through “Aha” moments or those when we smile, when our eyes glitter with curiosity and eagerness to learn more.

But how do you captivate a reader in such a way?

Creative writers know the secret. That’s why they are able to “steal” many free moments from readers’ time, keeping them awake with a book in hand until dawn.

And the secret is not only in their creativity and imagination. The true secret is that they “split open”.

Here is what Natalie Goldberg suggest to creative writers in her book titled “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within”:

“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”

This what happens when you start following a particular author on a given topic. It means that he or she “splits open” on the topic they are passionate about and they sweep you away with their honesty and generosity. They are so passionate about it that they become brilliant in what they do and write about, and because they truly and deeply enjoy what they do and talk about.

They put all their creative force into conveying their passion.

Yes, this is the secret and the reason, why you can’t succeed in sharing information about your business without showing that you are passionate about it, without “splitting open” over it, without being creative when you write or talk about it.

What are your experiences in reading new information? Did you notice the creativity of the business articles in LinkedIn? Which was the one that grabbed your attention, captivated  and didn’t let you give it up until you finished?

Picture: some of the textbooks that captivated me.
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© 2016 by Victoria Ichizli-Bartels

Cheerleading for Writers: D – Descriptions

This will be another tale about labelling.

I used to think all descriptions longer than one line were boring. In the books I read, I longed to skip them, at the same time making myself to read them and victimizing myself that I had to do this.

In writing I tried to skip them too. And more than that, an idea formed, I am not able to write descriptions.

Then two things happened. First one was with reading descriptions.

This is what I have written almost two years ago in a blog post called “A discovery about descriptions”.

 

One of the things I used to dislike in books were long descriptions. Even descriptions by such masters as Leo Tolstoy and Jane Austen made me sometimes become quite impatient and my brain thinking, “When will the story continue?”

I am sure this just shows my impatience at those moments, not the lack of virtue of the pieces I read. But still, these experiences made me afraid writing descriptions as soon as I started writing fiction myself.

And then several months ago I have read “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert and became completely dumbfounded. This book is full of descriptions! And many of them where pages and pages long. How could this be?

Last week I read an article in Writer’s Digest from January 2014 by Elizabeth Sims. The title of the article is “Miscalculations and Missteps”. And there in Section 6 named “The Great Undescribed”, I found the following:

Take a risk and go long. The value of a relatively long description is that it draws your readers deeper into the scene. The worry is that you’ll bore them. But if you do a good job you’ll engross them. Really getting into a description is one of the most fun things you can do as an author. Here’s the trick: Get going on a description with the attitude of discovering, not informing. In this zone, you’re not writing to tell readers stuff you already know – rather, you are writing to discover and experience the scene right alongside them.”

This passage revealed the secret of the SOAT (as Elizabeth Gilbert calls her book), which was hidden for me. SOAT is full of descriptions, but each description is full of discoveries: of love, of own body, of lust, of science, of secrets of universe and its origins and many more. The whole book is continuous discovery. And you can hear this wonder in the voice of the narrator, who mirrors the wonder the main character, Alma Whittaker, experiences through her journey.

The book covers the period of time of more than 50 years! This again goes against the advice I learned: “The shorter the period of time your story takes place the better. Backstory can go further back, but the plot itself should unfold in a short period of time. Otherwise, you will bore the reader.” But SOAT proves this advice completely wrong. It starts with Alma’s birth and finishes with her death.

But even at her death, Alma was discovering. As the Amazon review of SOAT says, Alma is “the insatiably curious“. And I became more and more curious with every sentence I read.

I am very grateful to both Elizabeths (Gilbert and Sims) for lifting my fear from descriptions, for showing me that I can love long descriptions and wish for more, and for giving me a great clue of recognizing a really good one.

And all this led me to a thought which applies to everything: One of the clues to having fun, along with being in the moment, is to be in a constant discovery mode, walking through life “with an open mouth” and being in awe of everything around and inside ourselves.

 

Fast forward to the second half of 2015. By now I was sure there were brilliant descriptions that could captivate me. So I started approaching each book with curiosity to both dialogs and descriptions. But still there was a problem. I didn’t believe I was capable to write good descriptions, not to mention the brilliant ones.

Then one evening I went to a meeting of the writer’s club, I am a part of, here in Aalborg. I didn’t manage to write something complete new for that particular evening, therefore I took with me chapter 1 of a story I started posting on-line shortly before.

This story, which is growing now into a novelette, is called “Nothing is As it Seems”. It came to life after I watched my writing teacher and friend Menna van Praag sharing her one-minute writing class with an idea to develop a story, which starts with the first paragraph of her best-selling book “The House at the End of Hope Street”. You can find the full account of this inspiration here.

So, I sit there in a comfortable arm-chair in a cosy atmosphere of the living room of two of our writing club members and read this first chapter. And as I read it, I realize, The chapter is full of descriptions. And they are good!

I finished reading and looked up with still unprocessed shock of this discovery. I can write good descriptions?!

The feedback from my fellow writers added to the shock. They liked the chapter too. The only correction made was to the way I pronounced the word “wrapped”. My thoughts went wild. Really? Only this? And all the rest is good?

Then I was pointed out the especially good parts of it. And I had to agree. They were good and I liked reading them aloud.

Of course, there are still places I could tweak here and there, and I will do this before sending the whole story to my editor, but this piece is something I wouldn’t be not ashamed to read out loud again.

My advice here to you, dear writer, whether you have problems with descriptions or not, watch out for those labels you give yourself, your writing, your reading abilities, and anything you do. Observe them, lift their edges and peek underneath. You might discover that those labels are long outdated, and might not have been true all along.

At this point I would like to tell you one of my favourite jokes. A man is asked whether he can play a violin. His answer is, “I don’t know. I’ve never tried!”

So approach everything with this attitude. Don’t say, you can’t do something, until you try, and try again. You might discover that you can, that you are very good at it, and that you enjoy doing it.

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Picture: beautiful tulips I got along with purple roses from my mother and my sister at my author talk last week.

Happy Mărţişor!

It is the 1st of March today. The day when in Moldova friends and family give each other a small sweet sign of love and friendship, a Mărţişor (pronounced [mærtsishór]).

Last year, when I posted about Mărţişor and quoted from my very first book “The Truth About Family”, I was yet to publish my books. Now, one year later, I have self-published three books. And tomorrow I will read publicly from them and talk about my way of becoming a writer. Wow, what a year!

Mărţişor was always a special talisman, a sweet sign that made me smile and remember those days when I was in a trolleybus in Moldova surrounded by many people heading to school and work, with these little red-white pins on their jackets, and trying to hide their smiles about something so seemingly ridiculous, but so wonderful. It is still cold in Moldova on the 1st of March. But only according to the thermometer. Whatever the weather is, this is one of the warmest and sweetest days you can experience in the beautiful country I originally come from.

I’ve had a sweet chat with my sister this morning. I wished her Happy Mărţişor. After a small pause I asked her whether one says something like this, and she answered, “Yes. You just invented it.” You can guess that she made my day with this statement. 🙂

That is why I would like to start a new tradition and wish you all Happy Mărţişor, Happy March, Happy Spring, Happy Year and Happy Life!

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Picture: my Mărţişor creations this year.