I’M STILL UNDER DEVELOPMENT – Marilyn Armstrong

One of the many things I learned while working for a living was “never let them know how good you really are.”

It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. Moreover, I’ve always been more fond of family and friends than my work, except for the year I ran a newspaper in Israel. I totally loved running a newspaper. I was busy all the time, either editing, writing, looking for material, helping design the physical paper.  This was before they had software to design magazines and newspapers, so you had to literally cut and paste the pieces into place.

I wrote three regular columns under three names: the lead story as me, a cooking column, and an astrology column under various names. And if we were needed another article, I wrote that, too.


I got to interview the big guns in 1980s Israeli politics including Netanyahu who I think was Education Minister. Pretty sure. We did a very long interview about how important it was to stop using the money for “other stuff” (settlements, for example) and spend it on education. He certainly has changed a lot since the mid-80s.

Other than that, I did what I could with the skills that I had. There was only one English-language newspaper and everyone who wrote in English wanted to work there. On the other hand, there were dozens of advertisements for technical writers.

I wasn’t a technical writer, but if that was what they were hiring? I was one.

And so I got my first got a job as a technical writer working with the group at the Weizmann Institution who were designing DB-1, the predecessor to all DBs since. The first real, multi-lingual database. Except I didn’t know anything about databases. In fact, when I got the job, it was the first time I’d heard of one. I hung around the office for a few days, realized I was useless unless I got some training and ‘fessed up.

After six weeks of having database design force-fed into my brain, I could use the database and design something simple that worked. Sort of.

I learned system analysis rather than computer programming, so I never knew how to write programming though I could read it. I learned how software is designed and understood why and how it works. During my three years there — until they sold the product to IBM — I found my technical writing legs.

I was a bit of a pioneer. Breaking new ground was exciting and professionally risky. I was known, by the time I left Israel, as its best tech writer in the country. Israel was a very small market and when I went back to the States, I was a little twitchy about testing my skills in “the big time.” But it was fine. Maybe better than fine.

Except for one thing: I discovered the reward you got for being very good and very fast was more work. Not a raise or a promotion. Just work. Not even overtime.

In my first job in the U.S., I started as “the junior writer.” Eventually, the other 5 members of the department were let go or moved on until finally, there was only me. Doing the whole thing that had previously needed (?) six people.

I was handling the “work” four writers and an editor had done before me. I finally asked how come I didn’t at least get the title of “manager” and was told I was too good a writer to be promoted. Too good to be promoted? Okay, how about a raise?

I got 6%. I changed jobs and made more money. That was when I realized that I should never have let them know just how good — and fast — I was because there was nothing in it for me except more work.

I eventually got really good and ultimately got a good salary. This is exactly when the dot com market blew up. The company for which I was working went out of business between Monday (when we got the news that our backers had lost all their money and thus we had lost all of our) and Friday. A lot of small investment companies disappeared that year.

It was also the same time when big companies decided \they didn’t need tech support departments that knew enough to offer tech support. Simultaneously, they concluded no one needed a manual since customers could call Pakistan and ask questions … and get the wrong answers.

I was already getting sick and working was difficult. Garry had lost his job and Owen’s company blew up on 9/11. My income mattered. But the industry decided I and the work I did was obsolete. Ironically today, the tech writing business is resurging. It turns out that people who buy expensive stuff — like cameras — feel they are entitled to a manual. Sadly for me, I’m 20 years out of date, lack the ability to work a full-time job, and live in the middle of nowhere.


Why am I writing all this? Because Garry and I were talking last night. He said he had a burning need to succeed. Virtually nothing else mattered to him. How did I feel about work?

I said no one has a burning need to succeed as a technical writer. It’s just not that kind of job. So what DID I have? I was an incredibly good writer and insanely fast. I was a better writer than anyone else I had worked with and at least twice as fast. They got paid more, but they were men.

If I’d had the drive and business sense to move out into the big wide world and build my own company? Could I have “made it big”? I don’t know, but I didn’t do it so I’ll never know. I never liked the business side of the business world.

But damn, I was good.

THE GIFT OF WORDS – Marilyn Armstrong

And thus shall I bestow upon you the gift of gab, the talent of words, the ability to write with clarity and precision.

Congratulations. You are a writer. But — how do you know?

Because you write. Could you be a better writer? Probably. We can all be better writers. I’m a much better writer now than I was when I started blogging and I was a pretty good writer before that. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write because as soon as I could read, I could write.

Every style of writing has special ways of handling issues.

For children’s books, much is made of making sure kids never have to look at a word that’s too “hard” for them. With which I disagree because that’s how I got a vocabulary. You see a word you don’t know. You ask someone or look it up. Now, you know a new word.

Technical writing, when I started doing it, was a wholly different. With a few other people, we sort of invented it since it was a new field and the “rules” didn’t yet exist.

I learned to write tightly using few adjectives or adverbs unless those words provided a specific definition. It produced something that has served me well — an extremely clean style of writing that is easy to adapt — except as fiction. Non-fiction, mostly.

The baseline for technical writing is making complicated information easy to understand for anyone with any background, technical or not. That includes old people, little kids and everyone in between. It also means I give good directions.

You are a working writer, even if no one ever sends you a check.

Maybe now you want to join a writing group or take a seminar. As you are already a writer, you are many steps ahead of where you were. Writing classes can be useful, though I’ve never had the patience to deal with them. They can help you focus on refining and organizing your work and most importantly, help you find a publisher. Seminars won’t teach you to write, but they might teach you to market your product.

I never took courses, per se, but I needed to learn a lot about style and design. I read books. I also read many other documents to see how other writers handled this kind of material. I also needed to learn to design books the physical book. In big corporations, they hire designers to do that, but I didn’t work for people who had that big a budget. Instead, I did it all.

It turned out, designing was the most fun I ever had while getting paid.


As for whether or not blogging “is writing?” What a silly question.

Writing is.

Blogging is very much like writing short features for newspapers or magazines. All kinds of writing are writing including advertising, for radio, television, and the Internet. We give them different names, but it’s all the same creative process. How you apply your talents has a million applications.

Ignore the people who feel like they need to put everything in a box. Keep doing what you’re doing!

You GO!

ONCE UPON A TIME, WE WROTE LETTERS – Marilyn Armstrong

Garry was saying he was taping an old movie, “A Letter to Three Wives.” He thought the whole concept of writing letters was kaput. No one writes letters anymore. We may dash off a note on a card, but a whole letter?

“When,” I asked Garry, “Was the last time you wrote a real letter.”

“When I wrote to you, in Israel?”

“Yup,” I said. “And the letters I wrote to you from Israel were the last personal letters I ever wrote.”

“Funny about that,” he said.

“Sure is,” I answered.

That was 1987.

POPULARITY – Marilyn Armstrong

We bloggers are endlessly in search of answers. All kinds of answers. I am, in particular, forever seeking an answer to the ultimate blogger query.

What makes people follow me? Why are some posts popular while others — which I think are better — are not?

I think I’ve got it part of the answer. Not the whole one. There are just some posts that, for reasons I cannot fathom, become wildly popular and I never figure out why.

The more typical answer became obvious while I was reading someone else’s post titled “Excellent Demo.” It was about a software presentation to a prospective client that goes horribly wrong. The WiFi connection doesn’t work. The hot spot tool doesn’t help.

It’s humiliating and the kind of experience we have all had. It’s painfully universal. I can remember at least two horrible professional moments, both involving cameras. After more than 30 years, they remain cringe-worthy and painful to the touch.

His company got the contract anyhow. He wondered why?

I realized the answer was probably simple. Everyone in that room — at some time or another — had a similar experience. That the demo went badly generated a visceral empathy with the audience. The disaster didn’t sell the product, but it didn’t unsell it, either.

Back on Serendipity, I noticed the two posts that did better than usual were both about the kind of stuff that happens to everyone. What was the common thread? I looked at other popular posts.

I looked at the list of my all-time most popular posts. Not including camera, movie, television, and technology reviews which have an evergreen cycle, all Serendipity’s most popular posts have a universal theme, something to which anyone and everyone can relate.

I don’t write this way on purpose. I’m betting most of you don’t design your style. It comes out of you. It is you. I can control my subject matter, but I have little control over my style. When anyone asks about my “process,” I come up blank. What’s a process?

I don’t have a process. I get an idea. I write about it. It may leap out of a conversation with Garry, a comment I make on someone else’s blog, a book I’m reading, a TV show I’ve watched. A dream I had or what the dogs did. Many are anecdotes … things that happened here and elsewhere. Often, the interesting part of the story isn’t the event, but how it affected me or others.

There are blogs that deal with issues. Some special interest web sites which talk about current events, news, politics, religion, archaeology, history, the power structure, education. Some are all about history or literature. Or talk only about movies. They have their audiences, people who are interested in the things these bloggers write about. I and many of you reading this have special interests too, but mostly, we are interested in life.

That’s what we write about it. Sometimes, it’s a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Nice and tidy. As often as not, it’s a memory, a string of thoughts wrapped around something that happened. A wish, a wisp, a wistful moment. And strangely, other people enjoy reading it.

Go figure, right?

SNOOPY AS A ROLE MODEL – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I read a unique article in the Washington Post by a writer talking about something from her childhood that inspired her to be a writer as an adult. Her name is Ann Patchett and her title names the motivating force in her career choice. The article is called, “Snoopy taught me how to be a writer.”

That’s right – the Snoopy from Charles Schultz’s beloved comic “Peanuts”. The perpetual loser, Charlie Brown’s dog. Ann says she read Peanut compilation books, as I did, in her formative summers and was smitten by Snoopy. She says that she was a nerdy, uncool kid who saw Snoopy as the essence of cool. He even raised the totally uncool status of his ‘person’, Charlie Brown, just by being so quintessentially cool himself.

Snoopy was confident enough to let himself become totally absorbed in his fantasies – WWI Flying Ace, Soldier in the French Foreign Legion, figure skater, tennis star, astronaut, and so on. He brought everyone else along with him in his fantasies to the point that they too heard the imaginary bullets flying by and the roar of the imaginary crowds.

Most important, Snoopy was a writer. He let his imagination run wild here too and then he sat down on the top of his doghouse and typed. He sat at his typewriter and plinked the keys to form hackneyed and repetitive paragraphs that he knew needed ‘editing’.

He had confidence and sent his manuscripts out to editors. He got lots of rejections, like all writers, yet he kept on trying. The best thing about Snoopy was that even when he failed and his doghouse was riddled with bullets, he lost in sports or his manuscripts were rejected again, he was still cool.

His superpower was that he remained cool in failure as well as in success.

Snoopy at his typewriter

Anne says that Snoopy taught her how to survive the publishing process; to deal with rejections and then get over them; to ignore bad reviews and move on. Snoopy turned out to be her perfect career mentor and he also led her into a life with dogs who enriched and fulfilled her. She says she always assumed that her dogs have an active inner life and are always cooler than she is.

I was never inspired to write. I just always did and so did my parents. My school required creative writing and analytical writing as well as research papers from the third grade on. My high school papers are indistinguishable from my college ones.

My father published seven books and numerous articles in the field of psychiatry and anthropology, many before I was born. He spent every summer locked in his study, writing, Every day he would present his writing to my mother who would edit it and encourage rewrites when needed. There was a lot of heated discussion about content, organization and writing style throughout my childhood.

My father in his fifties

When I was around fifteen, I joined my mother and we became my father’s editing team. As he got older, his writing often rambled and went off-topic and it was our job to keep him focused. We often had to outline material for him and even rewrite sections ourselves when he resisted our ‘advice’ and insisted on his now more stream of consciousness style. That may work for fiction, but not for an academic treatise.

Writing has always been a part of my life. I went through a period of anxiety and insecurity in my own writing when I was in high school and my mother did for me what she did for my father. She helped me figure out what I wanted to say and the most effective and persuasive way to say it. She taught me how to organize my thoughts and present my ideas cleanly and clearly.

Me at seventeen

When I started writing short audio theater plays with my husband, I had to learn how to write dialogue, which is a totally different kind of writing. I was used to writing analytical prose, which is not the way people talk. Dialogue has to sound like someone is actually speaking, not reading aloud from a non-fiction book.

So my writing evolved and expanded to encompass a new format for me. It is amazing and gratifying to hear actors bring your words to life. It’s even more awesome to hear audiences reacting to your words by laughing and applauding.

Title page of one of our scripts

I loved Snoopy too growing up, but I identified more with Linus and Charlie Brown than with the fearless, adventuresome Snoopy. I can imagine that if Snoopy ever wrote short plays, he would picture the adulation of audiences and bask in their approval. I’ve had that experience, so in a way, I’ve had my ‘Snoopy moment.’

Even a nerd like me can feel cool. But never as cool as Snoopy.

THEY WROTE THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE WITH A QUILL

Written with a quill pen, the founding documents of the United States. On parchment. 


Before rolling writers and ballpoints — or even fountain pens — there were quill pens. Goose feathers, though I imagine those without available geese worked with any feather which might pick up ink and scratch along the paper.

Writers with quills had to be sincere. There are a lot of words in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and both were written on parchment with quills. To carefully write all those words … and make corrections when a correction meant starting over from the beginning … required a level of dedication that makes my wrists hurt in sympathy.

A quill pen. A split feather from a goose. With hand-made ink. And from this primitive beginning, we built a country. How many kids in school today have read either the Declaration or the Constitution? How many adults read it and how many remember what it said? How many still think the first amendment sounds like socialism?

Before you fight over its contents, find out what the contents are. Read the amendments and figure out how things have changed — and how maybe they still need to change even more. Curiosity can go a long way to figuring out the ways of the world. It’s not hard to find a copy. Here’s the Declaration of Independence.

It isn’t written with a quill. It’s printed so everyone can read it.

It isn’t difficult to get a basic education in the fundamentals of this nation’s backbone. It doesn’t require a high IQ or a special degree in education … just curiosity and an interest in learning. Even if you’ve read it dozens of times, one more reading won’t ruin your life, will it?

Take a little mental trip to the National Archives where we keep copies of all the important documents involved in the founding and maintenance of this nation. Discover what the fuss is all about. It won’t cost you a penny and a lot of things will make more sense if you read where they began.


Transcript of Declaration of Independence (1776)

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only. 

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures. 

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: 

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offenses

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighboring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. 

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands. 

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.


The NATIONAL ARCHIVES also has the entire Constitution available for your reading pleasure, including the amendments and a great many other documents that might be of interest. It’s too long to include here. But at least you won’t need to write the whole 7,000 words on parchment with a quill pen. That’s a good start!

BLOGGING – IT’S A NEW YET SOMEHOW OLD WORLD – Marilyn Armstrong

I’M NEW. WHAT SHOULD I DO?

It’s interesting, looking at an earlier post and realizing how many “givens” have changed since you wrote it. It was just a few years ago. But oh my, how times have changed.

Maybe I’m just getting a bit beat up from having hung around the blog world too long … or maybe it’s the endless pressure of political reality that is making me crazy and mentally exhausted. Maybe it’s everything.

I think it’s harder to blog now than it was. We used to be able to have fun –without feeling the responsibilities of the world. Funny, light, and airy have become harder to find. Some elements of humor have gone out the window. It’s not that I wanted them to go away, but it has been hard to let go of the awful developments going on around us.

That being said, I can’t talk about the “issues” all the time. I can’t even think about them all the time. In that direction lies madness.

Everyone knows that there are dangerous developments in the world, but we can’t think about them every minute of every day. The world is undergoing a bad turn. We are atop that evil pile. I often wonder if I’m still living in the same country. Is this America?

And it’s international too. Is this my world or have slipped into a parallel reality?

Nonetheless, the basic rules still apply — with a few caveats. WordPress is no longer providing any kind of support to bloggers. No prompts, no awards, no nothing. They ply you with endless advertisements to join up with their “business plan” even if you don’t have a business. They pay no attention to what we ask for. Instead, they give us what they feel like giving us … IF they feel like giving us anything. And they do not believe in beta testing their software.

Don’t count on WordPress to give you a hand. They won’t. Do count on fellow bloggers to give you a hand because we will if we can.

So:

    • Do what you love. If it’s writing, write. Photography? Take pictures. Excuses are boring. A lot of people spend more time explaining why they can’t write or take a sharp picture than actually writing or focusing the camera.
    • Don’t whine. We all have problems. (Remind me I said this.) If you are going to whine, try to be funny too.
    • We are all entitled to a good online rant. Just not every day.
    • Funny is good.
    • Keep posts short or at least as concise as you can — given the subject. Some things need more words than others, but when you’re running over a thousand words, put the post away and read it again later or better yet, the next day. I bet you’ll find at least 500 (or more )words you can cut.
    • Don’t post blurry, bad pictures. Learn to look at your work and appraise it as if it were someone else’s.
    • Work on improving your craft(s). Write better. Take better pictures.
    • Proofread! If, like me, you’re a terrible proofreader, use whatever free proofing device you can find. I’m using the free version of Grammarly. I hate to admit it, but it has helped.
    • Follow your gut. If your gut isn’t telling you anything, try your brain and imagination. If that’s not working, read a book.
    • STICK WITH IT. You don’t build a following in a week or two.
    • PERSEVERE! You need to post regularly and often. If you don’t post regularly and often, your readers will wander away.
    • Many followers will wander no matter what you do. They have their own lives and their own reasons. It isn’t about you. Every two or three years, with some important exceptions, you’ll find you have a new group of followers.
    • You never know who is reading you. Many folks read, but many fewer comment. Most won’t even drop a “like.” I’ve been shocked at who reads my blog.
    • Don’t let other people’s stats make you envious. If you stick with it, you’ll get there too. 
    • Check your facts if you are writing anything that contains facts. It’s called credibility. You need it no matter what your government is doing.