Monday, July 20, 2009

The Write Stuff

Most of my work as a process consultant entails my traveling to the client, working with the group in situ. While it's not uncommon for me to do some significant prep or follow-up work from the comforts of home (via email and/or phone), I've been doing steady work from home this year for a group that's trying to effect a graceful break-up.

This is hard to do in person, and even trickier with a dispersed group with tenuous trust. I've never had a job quite like this before and it just occurred to me the other day that part of why I'm successful at it is because I'm a decent writer, and can capture in words both the letter of the agreement and its spirit—which is no mean skill.

• • •
These days, I'm essentially authoring at least one report a day. If I miss a day, it means I'll have two the next. To be sure, some are relatively minor—perhaps a page or two long, taking only 30-60 minutes to compose. Others are more substantial. When I write a follow-up report after a weekend of consultation, it typically runs to 8+ pages and takes all day.

Musings about the Muse
My career as a writer didn't get out of the starting blocks until my junior year in high school, when I was accepted into English III-J, where English (a required subject) was interspersed with an introduction to journalism. Essentially, that meant the 30 or so juniors who'd been accepted into that program were the gophers for the dozen or so seniors who had survived III-J the previous year and become the staff responsible for producing the award-winning high school newspaper, The Lion. The crucial element that made this setup succeed was the newspaper's sponsor, Miss Kay Keefe. She pioneered this offering from the English department (neatly guaranteeing a steady supply of "volunteers" to crank out the newspaper) and was the only teacher of III-J in living memory. As far as anyone knew, she lived in the newspaper office. And by the time I was a senior, and Editor of The Lion, I came to live there, too.

Miss Keefe taught me to write directly, and sparingly (I cherish the epistolary Twain remark where he apologizes for the length of a letter, because he didn't have time to write it short.)
She was my first acknowledged mentor, and much of my laboring as an author and as an editor—I'm a switch hitter—is about ordering things for clarity and trimming the fat. Brevity, it seems, is perhaps the subtlest skill for an author to acquire.

At Carleton College, as a freshman, I was required to take Rhetoric. For the term, I was expected to produce at least one piece of writing every week. While I thought it torture at the time,
it nudged me along in on my uncertain journey as an author. English professor Wayne Carver was my instructor, and I came to love both his gravelly voice and his instructive comments about my writing. He was the first person who encouraged me to think that I might become a writer.

While this prospect seemed dim to me at the time (I was known during my college career for the success I had in convincing professors to allow me to present "papers" orally, relieving me of the chore of laboring with pen and paper, and them of the chore of reading it), I recall with amusement (and no little astonishment at the time) that when I was hired fresh out of college to work for the US Dept of Transportation in DC—ostensibly because of my background in mathematics and sociology—that I was essentially employed as a writer.

I was expected to summarize what occurred at meetings; I was asked to rewrite poorly crafted drafts of other people's reports; I'd frame the questions that my superiors would pose at hearings; if a report contained any significant amount of numbers or number analysis, I was invariably called upon to assess whether it "made sense." While I thought my skills in this regard were average, I gradually came to understand that I was viewed as exceptional. While it was nice to be regarded as special, I was alarmed that the bar was so low. (What had my fellow bureaucrats been doing in school, if not at least mastering competency in all of the three Rs?) It was deeply troubling to me that fully employed adults were so inept at expressing themselves in writing.

Well, I retired from DOT (and from regular employment in general) at the ripe age of 23. Setting aside my pursuit of a career, I turned my attention to the search for community. While this was one of the best choices I ever made (along with having kids, marrying Ma'ikwe, and not going to law school—roughly in that order), my heretofore steady progress as a writer was arrested. Leaving aside my drafting the occasional statement of purpose or community description for the New Age Community Guidebook (the forerunner of Communities Directory), I wasn't writing much until I got involved in community networking.

I first dipped my toe in this water circa 1979 (about five years after launching Sandhill, when I realized that my community in northeast Missouri was not going to be a large enough sandbox to play in). Now, of course, to continue the metaphor, my involvement in networking constitutes whole body immersion, and I have trouble recalling what the non-community world is like (or why anyone would choose it). But this was a progression and didn't happen all at once.

My initial involvement was with the Federation of Egalitarian Communities and I twice compiled minutes for Assemblies—the semi-annual multi-day meetings at which delegates gather to map out FEC strategy and make policy decisions. Keep in mind that this was the early '80s: we took notes by hand and did the final minutes on stencils. I typed really slowly to avoid mistakes. In addition, I'd sometimes write proposals and dabble with job descriptions (you can get the man out of the bureaucracy, but can ever
truly get the bureaucrat out of the man?)

During my FEC days I gained a reputation as being a stickler for clear writing. At one point I remember receiving as a gift a red pen from Jonathan Bender (at that time the delegate from Tekiah, a now-defunct community in Floyd County, Virginia). He had circulated to all the delegates a draft of an official letter he wanted to send out on FEC letterhead. According to Joanathan, every other delegate said the letter was fine. However, he described the marked-up copy I had returned to him as "a sea of red ink." He gave me the pen because he knew I must go through them fast. Somewhere, Kay Keefe was smiling.

In 1986 I wrote a 40-page proposal for a Federation-wide self-insurance program as an alternative to commercial health insurance. It took me more than a week in February and served as a nice contrast to cutting and hauling firewood. (It had enough legalese in it to suggest why I would have been successful as a lawyer, that scary thing I didn't do after college. It also had enough word play in it to suggest why I needed additional outlets for my writing—if nothing else, to relieve those around me from having that tendency leak so readily into my everyday speech.)

The next year I helped establish the Fellowship for Intentional Community, with which I've been involved ever since. I was the Editor for the first edition of the FIC's Communities Directory in 1990 and also the second in 1995. That gave me license to write a few articles. The pace quickened when FIC took over as the publisher of Communities magazine and we got that quarterly back into regular production in 1994. For the last 15 years I've authored almost all of the Publisher's Notes, plus myriad other articles (mostly on group dynamics and/or observations about the Communities Movement). As the main administrator for FIC, I regularly put together proposals, assemble reports, draft agendas, concoct fundraising and marketing letters, and edit minutes.

About this time, my part-time career as a group proces consultant was also gaining momentum, and it came in handy that I was once again in the writing saddle. After several years in the field, I came to understand that most clients fail to digest a significant portion of what happens in the course of the live work we do together and are greatly benefitted by a written report afterwards, in which I tell them what happened and give suggestions about where to devote their attention for future improvements. After more than a decade of practicing this skill, and listening to client feedback, I am confident that I give good report.

When I started doing two-year trainings in Integrative Facilitation in 2003, I upped the ante again. At the conclusion of training weekends (of which there are eight per course), I typically owe about 10 reports: one to the host community, and one for each student who did live work facilitating a meeting for the host. While I apsire to get these into the students' hands within a week (while the memories are fresh), it can be a logistical challenge finding the time to crank them out.

[This need for thorough and prompt reports, by the way, is one of the main reasons I'm fiercely devoted to traveling by train. Trains are slow, and there are no interrupting phone calls—excepting from the cell phones of the passengers seated near me. If I'm on Amtrak long enough, I can have the reports done before I get back home (and have to face the pile of mail that's accumulated in my absence).]

Not content there, I cranked up the intens-o-meter one more notch in December 2007 when I launched this blog. I apsire to post something every three days, all of which is on top of what else I'm writing. It's now 170+ blog entries later, I am finally comfortable styling myself as a writer.

The challenege is relatively simple and constant. I don't start composing a piece unless I have a positive answer to three questions:
1. Do I have something interesting to say?
2. Am I inspired to say it?
3. Can I say it in a clear and entertaining way?

Of course, there are times when I look back and realize that I only thought I had a good enough answer to some of these questions. Yet, on the whole, it's a worthwhile bar to try to clear en route to the keyboard. The hardest question is the first one—how, after all, do you know when you know enough about a topic to start writing? It's analogous to the question teachers must face: how do you know when you know enough to put yourself forward to instruct others?
• • •
Now let me return to where I started, with the forming community that has sorted itself into two camps who are no longer compatible in the same community. All parties desire a peaceful separation with a minimum of pain and agony, and they have turned to me to assist in the surgery.

Since April I have facilitated five conference calls for this group, carefully helping them find the path to an honorable disentanglement. While I don't recommend this professionally, I have also drafted the minutes for these calls, as the relations between subgroups has gotten so frayed that the one side does not trust the notetaking of someone from the other side.

On the last call (just last week) we were working through the details of a Buyout Agreement, where one subgroup would purchase the rights of the other. It was a measure of the how far I've come on my journey as a wordsmith that when the talking was done, I knew I wanted the job of drafting that agreement. Of course, I also knew that both groups would be more open my work simply because it didn't come from "them" (I have, after all, no dog in this fight). Yet I also knew that this is a skill I have. Not as the lawyer I didn't become, but as a person who can think through the morass of potentialities and see how to lay out a clear path that is fairly balanced. It's art work (as well as heart work).

I've become, after all these years, the amanuensis to community.

No comments: