Last Sunday, Stanford’s graduating students listened to a speech given by Felipe Calderon, the President of Mexico. He told us of how, when he was a little kid, he would help his father distribute fliers advocating for democracy. He would knock at people’s doors, tag alongside his father, and shout slogans into a megaphone tied to one of those large, clumsy trucks you see in old movies. In other words, he would try his best. Yet nothing seemed to change.
Frustrated, little Felipe went to his father and, with the bluntness of a child, asked him: Why are we doing this?
His father could have probably lied, but he treated Felipe as an adult and said: we are doing this because it’s the right thing to do. We might never see anyone from our party become President, or even Governor. But we will keep trying, because it’s the right thing to do.
Felipe took his father’s words to heart, and worked hard at doing the right thing. And he achieved his father’s dreams – he became President of Mexico.
Seated in the stadium, my own father close to my side and Felipe’s words on my skin, I felt a surge of hope for the untold dreams I foster somewhere deep inside, hidden under the fingernails, in a corner of my pupils, on my lips.
I was enchanted.
Yesterday, I resigned from a summer internship with a proper newspaper, and decided to go for something more risky, but which felt right: this website. We don’t make any real money, but Write-A-Holic is a project in which I believe deeply. It’s what I need to be doing. It enchants me.
Whenever we step outside of our safety zone and into the scary territory of The Calling – that esoteric, mysterious inner instinct that tells us, this is what I was born to do – we desperately need to enchant and be enchanted.
This is why every writer should read Guy Kawasaki’s book, and why I want to outline some of his suggestions in this post today.
How To Enchant Your Reader:
1. What are they thinking/feeling?
In his post about perfectionism, Timothy confessed that he often told himself he didn’t care if other people appreciated his work, or even understood it. He wasn’t writing for them. He was writing for himself. It took him a considerable amount of courage to admit that this was really just an excuse. He wanted to communicate through his writing; he was simply scared of not being good enough, so much so that he didn’t even try.
I might be too much of an idealist, but I like to believe that writers are generous creatures, that we feel the need to write because we want to share a precious discovery with the rest of the world, even when that world might just be one person. If this is the case, then you will want to read your work and stop to think about how it would be perceived by others. Proofread it, make it as understandable and inviting as you can. Try to say what you really want to say, ask a trusted friend or mentor to read it, and be open to their feedback. You want your writing to stay true to itself, but you want it to be accessible, too. I receive pounds of criticism all the time, Marc, our assistant editor, being one of the most vocal in this respect. As long as it’s constructive criticism, at least listen to it. Then you can go your own way, but you may be surprised to find the suggestions materialize on a later page, the following day.
2. Accept Others, Accept Yourself
If you want to enchant people, you have to accept them first, writes Kawasaki.
If you want to be a good writer, you have to accept yourself first, writes Vale.
As I mentioned in Nobody tells This To Beginners, sometimes we just have to accept that our writing will initially not be very good, and still keep going. Write-A-Holic has been a valuable learning ground in this respect, since every day I am confronted with the work of other people who hold themselves to truly high standards. Sometimes, this causes me to question my own ability and to keep asking myself – am I really any good?
But the truth, like Marc so wisely told me, is that I should just keep writing, and not let my perfectionism get in the way of my work.
3. Learn from other writers
If you want to learn from writers, you have to learn how to accept them first. Kawasaki says you should always remember that “everyone is better than you at something.” By the same token, I keep realizing that every writer, even those whose work doesn’t necessarily float my boat, can teach me something. However, to learn, I have to suspend judgment – become uncritical enough that I don’t feel a need to put the writing in boxes labeled “art” and “crap.”
Because the truth of the matter is that writing often falls into the principle of Ying and Yang: a masterpiece may contain a typo, and even the worst, crummiest book might be redeemed by one beautiful image. By keeping an open mind, you become more receptive towards beauty, even when it is hidden in the most unlikely of places.
4. Help Someone Who Can Be Of Absolutely No Use To You
Kawasaki makes the case that, in the business world, helping people always ends up benefiting you in some way, even when you don’t expect it to. For a writer, this means that you should offer to edit other people’s work, even when it’s just a boring essay, someone’s personal statement or a cover letter. The more disastrously hopeless the original text is – the more effort you have to put into turning it into something decent – the better. You will have performed a good deed, and you will have gotten precious exercise in the art of word-saving (similar to saving a person’s life, and not always that much easier).
5. Be Close
Like Timothy explained in 8 Ways To Untap your Literary Genius, a large part of being a writer is experiencing life as it unfolds. Too often, we get so caught up with the day-to-day practical problems of paying the bills, getting the car fixed, studying for a test, looking for a job, that we don’t notice the man sitting on the corner of the street, handing out newspapers. His name is Abhik, which means fearless, and he used to be a well-known writer and politician in his home country. He could tell you stories that would make your eyes dilate with wonder. And then there’s your grandma. She barely talks, and you rarely have time to visit her. Sadly, you don’t know that she could entertain you with the tale of how she once cut your great uncle’s hair with the kitchen scissors, and it was so uneven that he got a sonorous beating. But he didn’t care because your grandma and he had used the money they would have spent on a real hairstylist to buy three pounds of candy, which they had eaten all in one sitting. (Happiness was such an easily attainable thing then, when people had nothing, and something meant everything.)
But you aren’t there. You don’t see. You don’t experience. And, consequently, you miss out.
6. Embrace The Nobodies
Perhaps my favorite takeaway from Kawasaki’s book is the idea that “the nobodies are the new somebodies.” There was a time when writing was an elitarian endeavor, a privilege for the rich, the nobles and the clergy. Even today, it’s easier to choose to be an artist when you have a source of disposable income to support you in case what you earn as a writer won’t suffice. However, you don’t need to be backed up by a powerful agent or a notable publishing company to write. Not anymore.
All this is possible because of the internet, the great equalizer that enables each and every one of us to self-publish our own work with no money and little effort. Today, more than ever, it doesn’t matter who you know. What matters is who you are, and what you can offer to your fellow nobodies, the readers who choose you, follow you, support you. They become the advertisers, publishing companies, agents and mentors of today.
Some writers see the internet as a threat to quality, and it most certainly is. Every time you give power to someone, that person can abuse it. Because we now have the power to publish our work, we can “pollute” the internet with pieces that have never been proofread, are filled with typos, and would probably have better been left unwritten. But if we embrace the concept that, with more power, we also have a greater responsibility to deliver high-quality content, we will be able to delight the new somebodies (like the readers and writers of Write-A-Holic,) thereby turning a potential threat into an invaluable opportunity.