What your work is missing

“A part of good science is to see what everyone else can see but think what no one else has ever said,” Amos Tversky says to Don Redelmeier (via The Undoing Project). That’s certainly true; it’s also part of good storytelling. Van Lathan writes in his latest book, Fat, Crazy, and Tired:

“I grabbed the first scale I saw, and I started toward the men’s room. I almost made it, but it wasn’t meant to be. Just as I put my hands on that germ-filled door, I heard a deep voice yell out, “SIR, YOU CAN’T TAKE MERCHANDISE IN THERE.” 

I turned around and saw a Walmart employee. And not just any Walmart employee—one of THOSE Walmart employees. You know, the type that takes any infraction of store policy as a threat to freedom everywhere. Granted, I have to admit that it was a weird scene. Here I am, a huge Black man in a Best Buy uniform taking a scale into the bathroom. You certainly don’t see that every day, and this stalwart protector of retail integrity wasn’t having it.”

One of the aspects I appreciate most about writing—including memoir, comedy, or songwriting—is how you can literally write about anything and take a shot at making it interesting. In this passage, Lathan writes about the day he discovered how much he really weighed, and his odyssey to Walmart and L.A. Fitness to figure it out. You’ll also learn why he didn’t just buy a scale. I shared such a short excerpt because the actual story in its entirety is powerful, and incredibly riveting—something you’ll want to read on a Saturday—but a Blinkist summary of it would probably suck.

If you’ve ever run out of ideas about what to write about, just write what you’ve lived. Make a listicle of the top 10 best or worst days of your life. Or if you’re up to it, your most shameful experiences, what it felt like, and what you learned from it. Write in a huff.

There’s a similar idea I picked up from comedy writing: When you don’t have anything, you have to share who you are. Comedians aren’t really experts at anything, except making people laugh; their raw material comes not from exclusive backstage access or confidential secrets, but from moments that you and I have probably experienced as well.

Sasha Chapin writes about this, in his post with the great title, “If You Have Writer’s Block, Maybe You Should Stop Lying.” I can’t tell you how much it resonates, not because I’m deliberately being dishonest, but a lot of times I’m making decisions on what to omit:

  • What details do I want to remain private about? 
  • How vulnerable do I want to get with you, the person reading this, who I may or may not know? 
  • What am I open to being judged on? How can I make myself not look stupid?

Not to mention, all the nasty personal branding tendencies I picked up working in marketing: wanting to sound authoritative, wanting to look smart, wanting to sound important or like I matter. 

This is why most “thought leadership” sucks so much, because so much of it is contrived and is just another form of lying, or deception through new buzzwords and superficial category creation.

“But I’m not writing a personal blog,” I protest to myself. I once approached a young, bestselling, author for advice and told him I’d planned on writing a memoir; he told me that was a bad idea, because memoirs only sold well for famous people. (He was living his own advice and never wrote a memoir.) 

I’m not saying he’s wrong, but I definitely don’t think that I’m just writing just to sell books anymore. Let me be clear here: Of course I want to sell books, make money, speak to crowds, and such. But I’ve realized that all of that means nothing if I’m not writing that I find particularly interesting, because it wouldn’t be fun. I would just be going through the motions and creating my own job that I’d end up hating.

One final point: In The Empathy Diaries, Sherry Turkle writes of Samuel Beer’s Social Sciences 2 course, “Western Thought and Institutions” at Harvard, “The course had a message: Use concrete events to think about large ideas. Use large ideas to think about concrete events.”

If I randomly brought it up, you may not care about my current religious stance, or even how I grew up in the church (18 years, spending 6 days there for much of it!), but if I tied it into the current trends of millennials and Gen Z’s leaving church, or secularization, it might establish the context of why you should care (it’s a trend), but also draw in the other people who already are part of the same movement.

Inspired by one of my favorite graphics on the internet. Click through to see it at the original artist’s site. When you buy a book using a link on this page, I receive a commission. Thank you for supporting my work.

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