And the Punchline Is: Healthcare for Writers!

The problem is, the setup for the joke is this: What’s whiskey and aspirin? Now the reason I find that so uproariously funny (besides the fact I wrote it) is that in the past couple of months, I’ve been denied healthcare coverage by four different carriers. Oh, you perspicaciously say, I must have:

✓ Spondylosis or tachycardia (or another polysyllabic terror)
✓ A large, suppurating wound that can’t be covered by the Sunday paper
✓ Something growing in my mouth that looks like a lionfish
✓ No functioning internal organs

Surprise—none of those! However, I did have hip surgery for a labral tear close to four months ago. Successful hip surgery, followed by successful physical therapy, signed off as “fine and dandy” by my doc and the PT guy. Why, I could briskly walk up to you right now and put a live salmon in your underwear and you’d never suspect I’d had a hip problem.

No, the problem is getting health care after having a hip problem.

Cobra Bites
The complication is that I did have COBRA health coverage, but it expired about a month after my surgery. Silly me, I’d thought that I could just pick up a new carrier post-surgery, since I’m in basically good health, exercise (with delight) six days a week, and don’t have any peculiar conditions (space between ears notwithstanding) as listed above. Wrong!

So, denied, because of my recent surgery (they are most cautious, these vigilant health carriers) as being too risky. Denied even by what’s called “bridge” insurance carriers, who cover you month-to-month when there’s some problem with standard insurance, or if it’s expired. Denied even when I’d applied for high-deductible insurance—$4,000–$6,000—so the insurance companies wouldn’t have to pay a dime until my arm happened to fall off while signaling for a cab. (Of course, if anything is going to drain your health, it’s filling out the forms online, which run to 12-15 pages. No coffee is strong enough to combat that pain.)

That Bitter Socialist Pill
Of course, that damn socialist Obama wanted to prevent carriers from being able to deny people coverage with pre-existing conditions, but that part of his plan probably won’t see the light of day, since many partiers of tea find it an abomination. After all, we do have to protect the insurance industry at all costs; my God, we wouldn’t want their record profits to be undermined by ill people that need care.

It is interesting to be a freelancer, subject to these kinds of insults, particularly when my pre-existing condition is that I’m fine. Gracious, I feel bad for the people who have real ailments, like diabetes, macular degeneration and the like, who are independent of corporate insurance. That’s a real picnic.

Finished ranting now. For a look at an interesting post on freelancers obtaining insurance, check out this from Peter Bowerman’s site. There is some good stuff in the comments there. For now, I guess I’ll go try a dose of my punchline.

One of my bills from the surgery center came in at around $28,900.00. The insurance carrier countered by offering $245.00. The surgery center then said they had a contractual write-off of $27,500.00. They play amusing games, these healthcare providers. Especially since my “supplies” from the experience were bandaids and hospital socks. Oh, but they were nice socks…

How to Find Your Why

One of my most esteemed, smart, good-guy writerly pals, Joel D Canfield (don’t you dare punctuate that “D”) is stepping out on a limb to offer his services and counsel in a new enterprise-cum-enchantment called Finding Why. I suppose this venture is not really stepping out on a limb for Joel, because he has built this philosophical tree of his over time, and this latest branching is sound. Here’s how Joel might have explained it in his own words. (Actually, these are Joel’s own words, pre-trademark violation):

“Too many people spend life stuck, going through the motions; believing they know what to do and how to do it, but never really clear on why. Finding ‘why’ makes ‘what’ and ‘how’ become clear. I want to help folks who are stuck being what the world expected to find their why, to find meaning and joy in life, and show the world who they really are.”

Joel proclaims that there are already 10,000 ringing words on the site. (Joel, these words weren’t selected at random, were they?) There’s also, “… hundreds of thousands to come. Free downloads. Room for conversation. A little insanity.” That “little” is Joel’s first effort at understatement ever. Well done, man!

I do suggest you hie on over to FindingWhy and find out why. Joel’s broad shoulders can bear the weight of the “Renaissance Man” title (while at the same time, I can see him well-fitted for jester’s shoes. But a canny, giving jester at that). He likes good beer, laughs freely and makes excellent pancakes. He will give you good Why.

What Does Editing Have to Do with Potatoes?

Let’s consider a nice serving of mashed potatoes, hot and buttery. Most cooks probably don’t think too much about preparing their potatoes, so it’s often a rote task, hurried through to get to the entree. But what if those potatoes were served with panache, with some kind of style point or spicy twist? Say you were served potatoes with a tiny derby hat on them. You’d remember those spuds, wouldn’t you?

You’d probably remember them even more, if under the tiny derby was a clump of hair. Wouldn’t that drag an interesting expression of creativity into an unappetizing corner? The reason I bring up potatoes, derby hats and unwanted hair is a point I want to make about editing. Competent editors are able to shape the standard serving of potatoes so that it’s without lumps, smooth and palatable. Good potatoes, but still just potatoes.

Better editors recognize when a piece of writing has a derby hat in it—they would never take that hat out, robbing the writer of a unique angle or voice. They’d find a way to allow the hat to fit snugly in its potato surroundings, fully expressive of its quirk and charm, without it seeming unnatural or foreign. And of course, a good editor would remove that hair—typos, kludgy expressions, dully passive voice, et al—posthaste.

Seeing What’s Missing from the Plate
Another skill possessed by a good editor is recognizing when something’s missing. If you don’t provide the reader with a fork, they can’t fully enjoy those potatoes. Some pieces of writing are strong, but they might have gaps in logic, or need to be buttressed by a few more starchy facts. Good editors notice if the writing meal is missing ingredients, and they know how to persuasively suggest adding them so that the writer chefs promptly step back up to the stove.

Of course, editors should always recognize when that potato serving is too big. I remember one of my first copywriting jobs out of college, writing catalog copy for an outdoor equipment retailer that sold a lot of camping goods. One of our products was the Backpacker’s Bible, which was a tiny book that gathered some of the most powerful/popular Bible verses (no “begats” allowed). My first round of copy for it had the line “The best of The Book with all the deadwood cut away.” [Note: for some odd reason they didn’t use my copy.]

And editors recognize when something’s just off. If you’re serving your potatoes to Lady Gaga, you don’t want her wearing her octopus-tentacle bra tinted some neutral shade of grey, do you? It cries out to be Day-Glo puce! If writing has a certain rhythm established, and the rhythm, without context, goes awry, a good editor will re-establish that rhythm. And the proper bra color.

You Don’t Mean He’s Trying to Sell Us Something?
Why is he going on like this, about potatoes and bras? Easy. I’m getting ready to unleash The Write Word’s Easy Editing and Spiffy Style Guide on the world, perhaps as soon as this week. It’s a 55-page ebook chockablock with editing potatoes and other good stuff. And unlike my first couple of ebooks—available here for free—I’m going to charge money for it. But it’s worth it, because it will keep the hair out of your potatoes, while preserving the stylish hats. The guide is filled with editing tips, so that you don’t have to pay me to be the potato masher. Look for its buttery goodness soon.

Writers Need More Than Their Lonely Keyboards

Yes, I have reached the point where I manipulate you with puppy pictures

The writer’s life can be an isolated one, where you, sequestered near your gnat-swarming compost heap, concentrate on your compositions, in between bouts of bitterly denouncing 14-year-olds who get publishing contracts for writing YA novels about zombie-vampire aliens who look like rutabagas (albeit sexy ones).

Wait, you mean I’m the only writer forced to scribe next to the compost bin? No matter. What I’m actually getting at is that in these cyberspheric times, writers don’t have to be the lonely Kafkaesque wretches that they were in the past. They can be connected wretches, which is so much more sociable.

In that light, I’ve listed below some of the sites and personas from which I get good writerly info, or where I can pull up an electronic chair and sit a spell (to be spellbound), or where I know the site’s owner always provides food for thought. Any thought leftovers I just put in that nearby compost bin.

This list is by no means exhaustive, because that would be exhausting. Nah, it’s just me picking among the URL wildflower patches. Please list any good bouquets of your own if you’re of a mind to.

Blogging, Copywriting, Writing and General Good Info
Men with Pens
All Freelance Writing
Freelance Folder
Write to Done

Idea Sparking and Entrepreneurship
Seth Godin
Jonathan FieldsArt of Non-Conformity
The Fluent Self
Chris Brogan

Publishing and Such
There Are No Rules
Guide to Literary Agents
Query Shark
The Rejectionist

My Pals (Who Have Gotta Lotta Soul Savvy)
Below are some personable folks who are all smart cookies, and I’m happy to be their friend; many of these are their business sites, where they can help you with copywriting, marketing, presentations, graphic design, world-changing, and of course, dentistry. Some of them I’ve only exchanged electrons with (wearing protection, of course), but I have intuited from the lovely letter choices they make in their writing that they are good folks.

Jodi Kaplan
Megan Morris
Becky Blanton
Rick Wilson
Joel and Sue Canfield
Michael Knowles
Jule Kucera
Chris Landry
Ricki Schultz
Rich Luhr
Annie Dennison
Mary Louise Penaz
Marcos Gaser (Brush up on your Spanish)
Bob Poole
Jai Joshi
Pace & Kyeli
Bernd Nurnberger
Sue Greenberg

If I forgot you, it’s not because I don’t love you any more. It’s the pain pills (plus the cocktails) from the hip surgery. Remind me and I’ll add you. For $100. And a new compost bin.

And I would put my mother on here too, but she just won’t start her damn blog. Sheesh!

Chopping the Copywriting and Creative Writing Salad

Copywriters that have a clearly defined niche—”I write sales letters for mid-tier businesses selling nuclear-powered rabbits”—are both constrained by their choices and freed by them. They are constrained in that they may have always dreamed of writing sales letters for nuclear-powered goat companies, but instead they are known as the rabbit guy, and thus they don’t want to dilute their focused offering, and potentially blur the boundaries of their defined space.

However, they are freed from casting their “I-need-new-work” lines in the thistle-tangled fields of businesses small, medium and large, who might peddle soap made from recycled comic books, or tongue scrapers for denture wearers. Generalist copywriters tend to a casual work garden of mingled (and sometimes flopping) stalks, colors and scents, while the specialist might have a sturdy monocrop of clients and cutoff dates.

You might guess that I’m a generalist.

The 360-degree Rotating Exorcist Head
I’ve thought about trying to restrain my 360-degree rotating Exorcist head (minus green spewings) of writing endeavors, but it’s just not my nature. While I can admire the ferocity of focus some copywriters employ, I can’t join their ranks—I don’t think I could breathe. And, genial bigot that I am, I have to sing the praises of the generalist’s keys, because polymath writing pursuits are inherently interesting for their variety. This month alone, to wit:

  • I finished an article for Fine Books and Collections magazine on the makers of exquisite and zany handmade books, touring the U.S. in their gypsy wagon.
  • Finished editing a book on social media for nonprofits.
  • Edited the first in a series of short books on Nonverbal Communication in Dentistry.
  • Wrote logo taglines suggestions for a home design and remodel company, and begin writing their brochure copy.
  • Discussed writing “replies” for a company that’s developed an advanced virtual personal assistant chatbox app; the replies will cover the branching potentials for suggested questions that users might want answered.
  • In discussion with a company that needs someone to update the documentation for the new version of its novel-writing software.
  • Am writing my two monthly articles (a recurring gig) for the Airstreamer, Airstream’s email newsletter.
  • Sending out queries for a variety of articles, many of them travel-related (though a few are about whiskey and one about old cars).
  • Sending out short older short stories of mine to some lit magazines.
  • Berating myself for pausing in what had been a steady (and productive!) half-hour of writing per day on my novel, having used Thanksgiving and then Christmas and then my father’s death for an excuse for not doing the work. Get after it, man!

Building Expertise, by the Paragraph and by the Project
Now, I have varying degrees of expertise in the areas above, but having written and edited nonfiction books, having written question-and-response dialog for software products, having written a novel (unpublished), having written travel pieces, having written brochures, heck, having written lots of grocery lists, I’m confident I can deliver what each organization needs, granting the many iterations of review and rewrite that some projects necessitate. For many writers like me, once you write website copy for a company, they may call you later to write headlines for an ad.

You might not have written headlines for ads before, but the good generalist will always pipe up with a merry “Yes!” when asked about their ability to write a heady headline. Many fundamental writing skills translate across boundaries—cross-writing is often more comfortable than cross-dressing. (High-heeled pumps just don’t work well with my size 13s.) So, if you are breaking in to the copywriter’s fold, and you’re thinking that you could write sales letters not only for the nuked goats and rabbits, but perhaps for radium-isotope gerbils too—go for it. Next thing you know, you’re a reptiles-with-battery packs specialist too.

How to Make Your Writing Word Wishes Come True

This is an IDEA (though it resembles a butterfly)

I’m a guy whose wishes are words. And whose wishes are FOR words. By the clock, the wished-for words are straight-spined and modest, assembling in tight, orderly rows. But when work gives way to whimsy, that’s when words can stretch, flop, and peep around corners to see who’s looking.

The division is due to the fact that I’m both a business writer and a fiction writer, and not only do the twain not meet, but the twains don’t even arrive at the same station. And that pun is not nearly as painful as trying to reconcile the two worlds of words.

Sometimes, there is a truce of sorts: a brochure on streaming video might have a little stream of consciousness, or a character sketch might call for a pencil tipped with the driest of logic. But most of the time, when I have to travel between the word-worlds, it’s a difficult, deliberate journey—an enterprise that requires even more than Thoreau’s dreaded change of clothes.

However, I want to avoid the sense that being a painter or writer or sculptor confers any elite status or implies some exalted perspective. I’ve been a staff copywriter, freelance essayist and fiction writer for years, and it’s often more a matter of managing deadlines than swooning in inspiration. Keeping the queries fresh. Being thick-skinned about the seemingly inevitable “no” that you get from most publishers. I’ve learned to just shrug and go to the next query or project.

Words for the Plucking
However, there are some moments in the writing process, where words seem to be bright objects that can be plucked out of the air and strung together in serried ranks of complement and charm. Out of nothing, a paragraph that prances—or one that cries and bleeds. In those moments, it’s less the affected pose of practiced art, but rather a kind of verbal husbandry, a farmer grateful for an unexpected crop.

This isn’t precious wordsmanship, it’s grace—and I’m grateful when it occurs.

What I’m getting at, is that at some times in the creative process, it’s less a “me” than a “Wow!” (Conversely, it’s more often, “That’s shit!”—but that’s realistic, not wallowing.)

But perspective is king: there can be beauty in the way a bus driver weaves her route, how a seventh-grader whistles a made-up tune, where the making of a good sandwich is an artful act. Those moments of grace can be fleeting, but a good sandwich is forever. Well, until lunch.

Consider this:

“It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. 
How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the
moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone;
life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his
fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.”
— Vita Sackville-West

Keep hopping, and snap a net on that nervous mind.

Thanks Mr. Lennon: In His Own Write (and Mine)

I was insane about the Beatles as a kid. I even used to read some of those candy-colored drugstore fan magazines that had compelling facts: “George doesn’t like to ride on buses.” I had a HUGE plastic Army set—that even had exploding bridges!—with tanks, trucks and soldiers galore, and I traded the whole thing for a Beatles wig, which looked like a giant, black, eyeless Maltese. I felt that I got the better end of the bargain. The wig, cleverly, matched my Beatle boots.

So it’s no surprise that the Beatles were my inspiration for my first literary endeavors. I hand-wrote a Beatles newspaper; my handwriting, which is similar to what you’d get if you put a full inkwell up your nose and sneezed it out on paper, wasn’t helpful, but I didn’t know how to type. The newspaper was filled with the kind of thrilling things I’d read and heard about the Beatles, as well as some of my original Beatles poetry. I still remember the line, “The Beatles like to sing and dance, even in their underpants” like it was yesterday.

I made 15 or so copies of the 4-page paper and sold it for a quarter on the street corner of my block, shaking it enthusiastically in the faces of strangers passing by, a few of which would part with a quarter to rid themselves of this bewigged menace. After four issues, I shut the enterprise down, because the public wasn’t ready for my poetry.

John, of course, was my favorite, because he was a wise guy, and because he wore glasses, like me. Imagine that.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lennon. Dreamers make a difference.

Writing: Wrangling With, Warbling About, and Wobbling After

Writing Quills for Desert Conferences

I came back yesterday from Wrangling with Writing, a 3-day writing conference in Tucson, AZ put on by the Society of Southwestern Authors. I got a full ride for the conference (hotel and meals too) on the virtue of penning a variation of this Why I Write essay for their scholarship contest. Of course, the real reason why I write is because I’m so fond of the closing parenthesis mark (the open-parens glyph is too glib for me), but it was fun to be in the company of so many writers.

Because I write such a fruit salad of stuff, my workshops were all over the place, from short-story essences, to how to pitch agents to mastering point of view to “all about ebooks” and more. There were a couple of entertaining keynotes, including one where Stephanie Elizondo Griest essentially did a slam poetry reading, including dancing out her book excerpts with bossa nova moves and other vocal and visual atmospherics. (I checked her site and it says she studied “tribal gypsy belly dance” for six years, which is undoubtedly helpful for contract negotiations.)

Hey, Faulkner Used the Juice Too
I had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out a bit with Chuck Sambuchino, an author and the editor of the Guide to Literary Agents, and someone I’ve written for in the past. It was also jolly to meet another of his writers, Ricki Schultz, who demonstrated how to drink a cocktail on her birthday. (Sadly, there were no lampshades involved.) Writers do like to take a drink now and then (mostly now), which is probably why a couple of the guys seemed to want to show their dangling participles to a few of the fetching agents and attendees. I don’t think there are any lasting psychological scars, though.

Besides making some helpful contacts, I came away from the conference with new angles on and motivations toward editing—and then submitting—some material I’ve been sitting on for a while, as well as a nice feeling of writerly collegiality, but then again, it may have been the martinis. Here’s a good list of writing conferences from around the country. Check ’em out—it might only take you submitting an essay to nab an invitation. I think “How I Used Tribal Gypsy Belly Dance to Elude Freaks at the Bar” might be a good topic.

Writing—and Twinkies—Have a Long Shelf Life

Twinkie or Dead Sea Scroll—You Decide

I’d like for you to think of your writing as Twinkies—not for its abysmal nutritive content, but for the extraordinary vitality of its preservative army: your writing can continue marching on, even after it has bivouacked for a while. Twinkies, of course, have a reputation for staying soft and squeezy long past their recommended consumption date (if anyone recommends consuming Twinkies). Such is the less-sugary substance of your writing—you can achieve successes with writing that has been gathering hard-drive webs, by sending it out anew after its slumber. You can also redirect writing that you thought was a fruit, but really turned out to be a vegetable. (Note: Twinkies are not vegetables. Or fruits.)

Here’s what I mean: This past weekend I received an email telling me that I’d won a scholarship to the Wrangling with Writing conference in Tucson, Arizona, held this coming weekend. The award, which includes the hotel room, was given to me on the strength of an essay I wrote some time back—not for this conference, but for another online contest. Though the topic of the conference essay was pretty close to the online contest essay, I had to trim out some fat and slant it a touch to make it fit their guidelines. I really didn’t think I’d win, but I had the piece snoozing on my hard drive, so why not wake it from its nap?

Slot Machines on Ice: Melt Them
Another roll of the dice: I wrote a short story about Las Vegas in the 70s years ago. I’d prodded and poked that thing a bunch of times, sending it out to magazines and small literary publications. No jackpot. So, it sat with its slot machine unplugged for a while until I thought, what the heck—I sent it out earlier this year to the Labletter, and they were happy to publish (and pay for) it in in their annual journal of arts and literature.

And just one more example of how you can shave the grizzled beard of your writing to reveal the fresh face below. I wrote a short story in grad school about some high school shoplifting hijinks that was never published. Years later, I heard about the National Steinbeck Center’s short story contest. I thought it was a real longshot, but again, why not? I was shocked to have won, and still cherish the lovely glass plaque that was given to me. I cherished the $1,000 prize as well.

Naturally, I haven’t emphasized the bajillions of rejections I’ve received over time for my Tantric poetry muffin recipes, or that little matter of the novel that can’t seem to fit in any agent’s ear. But I don’t need to emphasize those, because they don’t matter. What matters is that you can’t succeed if you don’t keep sending the stuff out. Once in a while, those old Twinkies will still have a twinkle.

Bonus Twinkies Story
Many years ago when I lived in Seattle, I dated a nice woman whose high apartment windows faced out on a warehouse district in the city. One late evening, staring out at the cityscape, I notice some huge trucks—with big cylindrical carriers like gasoline trucks use—lined up against a factory building, with giant chutes attached. When I asked my pal what was going on, she said that those were sugar trucks, and that they were unloading their white wonder into the Twinkie factory! That gave me quite a thrill, since I have been a lifelong fan of sugared objects, and it was rather a hallucinatory sight to witness the eerie glow from the wee-hour factory lights, dumping massive amounts of sugar in the semi-darkness, destined to torque the brains of young children all over America. There was something criminally poetic about it all…

Writing Jobs Delivered to your Door (er, Screen)

For all of you freelancers who toil in your treetop aerie, serenaded by regal raptors, and even for those who might subject their verbs to subjective verbalizations in an old Airstream, you might wonder where your next crust of bread (or better yet, bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve) is coming from. Fret not.

That old series of tubes dubbed the Internet will whisk job listings straight to your screen, so that you can continue to work your magic behind the home keyboard like the great and terrible Oz. You won’t have to go out into society job-hunting, where you might expose those accidental dreadlocks you’ve been cultivating. There are all manner of job sites Netwise, but I’m talking here about listings of writing jobs delivered directly to you—and they have the bonus key lime pie of being wrapped in a writer’s newsletter, full of the newsiness you writerly types are keen on.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Writer’s Weekly – This is the handiwork of Angela Hoy, and it gets around: as stated, “The highest-circulated freelance writing ezine in the world.” Angela sends out a weekly newsletter that has a range of contract job listings for telecommuters of every stripe. The mailing also has her reports about personal travails and triumphs, a lead writing article, warnings on deadbeat publishers and more. On the deadbeat publishers issue, if you contact her about a venue that hasn’t paid you your due, she reports it online in her Whispers and Warnings column, and will write (for free!) a series of letters to the offending party, acting as a liaison between you and the crumbbum who stiffed you. She does get results.

Writing World – Lots of good stuff on the site itself (many helpful articles in the Business of Writing section), and sections on all writing genres—what, no haiku? But I go for the free newsletter, which also has a lead article on the business of writing, a Inquiring Writer column where readers help readers on writing requests and issues, and the Jobs and Opportunities portion, which has freelance work and submissions listings. Delivered twice a month.

Funds for Writers – No, they aren’t just going to dole out dough to you—I already asked. But the free newsletter lists lots of writing grants and retreats, writing contests and job markets. And Hope Clark, the woman who runs the joint, is charming. Her column is personal and always worth the read. Delivered once a week.

I’m also a member of The Writer’s Bridge, a paid site that sends out a daily compendium of job listings from across the U.S., including gleanings from all the major Craig’s Lists. I have gotten a couple of juicy contracts from these listings (though there are some clunkers in there too, as any Craig’s Lister knows). Ten bucks a month, and like I say, every day. Darrell Laurant, the fellow that runs the site, is a long-time journalist, and a good guy.

Sites (and Sights!) Galore
Those are the only sources of writing jobs on the whole Internet. Wait, did I hear you grunt in disdain? OK, true, that isn’t even a quivering bacterium’s ecological cloth grocery bag’s worth (say that ten times, fast) of the job listings for freelancers on the net, but dang, who’s got the time to list them all?

But if you absolutely lust to look at other lists of contract writing work (and associated writing advice and resources), here are a few other job site conglomerates I flip through now and then:

Journalism Jobs

Freelance Writing Jobs Network

About Freelance Writing


If you see anything there about writing songs for lovelorn squirrels, buzz me—I’m a pro.