The How-to of How-to (and a bit of why-to thrown in for good measure)
We all know that life in the 21st century is busy. There are so many choices of entertainment and distraction that it is hard to get any work done. And of course there is the Internet, a powerful tool that provides a sense that the whole world is right at our fingertips. But when we go off line, the same drippy faucet is dripping its drip, the deck is in dire need of refinishing, and there are countless other things that need fixing or making or are just about to break.
There are great writers that we all know and love who have the power to whisp us away through time and space, distracting us from concerns, and placing our consciousness outside our own bodies, into the lives of created characters far removed from the real situations of our own lives. Those are the writers that get the big bucks… the ones who entertain and distract. Their words carry us into feeling states from which we ultimately reawaken to lives unchanged.
How-to writers are a bit different. We write about small things that empower others to cope, to fix, and to make. We inspire readers to get up, put down their remotes, head for their basements and garages with eyes, hands and imaginations directed toward improvement, change, betterment and growth.
How-to really has to do with the hands, and here are three things that I’ve noticed. The first is that the use of the hands makes us smarter. This is an idea proven by modern research as well as being observed by scientists and educators as long as there has been science and education. Yuo can even test it for yourself.
Secondly, the use of the hands makes us feel better. You all remember Cinderella, the wicked stepmother and ugly stepsisters, and you may recall in the Disney version, Cinderella singing joyously in the garden and kitchen as she served her unappreciative and demanding family. The simple untold story is that that is what happens when you are aligned with the universe. Neurohormones triggered by engagement in creative activities brings forth a sense of joy. That joy is noticed by others. It may make them jealous.
You noticed that in the Cinderella story, there were magical things happening with fairy godmothers, pumpkins, mice and the like. We often use magical beings as a means through which to explain inexplicable phenomenon. The most important part of the Cinderella story is not something that is told, but it is something you can discover for yourself. This isn't just something I'm making up. Check out Kelly Lambert's theory of "effort driven rewards," and you will find that joy arises from the simple tasks we might be twisted toward believing are beneath our dignity. While the stepmother and stepsisters were poisoned by self-importance, Cinderella worked with her hands and expressed joy.
Here in Eureka Springs we live in a community of artists and craftsmen, and each and every one will tell you that they feel better when they are engaged in their work. But you won’t have to take their word for it. This is something you can test for yourself in the garden or in the kitchen, without loading up on new tools, or having a wood shop.
Third, working with your hands puts you in touch with the vast expanse of history and human culture. Can you imagine what a visitor to a museum would think if they had never had a chance to make anything? Would they look at the real Mona Lisa and marvel at brush strokes made by the human hand? If they’ve never held a brush, have only engaged the world through a mouse and keyboard, will they have the power in their own souls to connect with the vast human legacy that only clicks-in when there is texture, the warmth of the human touch, and a sense of one’s own power to create?
How-to writers carry a great deal of power in our own hands. We, more than most, know the wonders of our own creativity. We, more than most know the forces and means inherent in the human soul to improve the reality of the day to day and the here and now. So, I want to point out the value of who we are and what we really do. We empower. In the face of a consumer culture with the masses driven to consume we inform and instruct: how-to, why-to, encouraging others to build and make better. Perhaps some of us may feel compelled by the unrelenting forces of fantasy to write the great novel instead, but perhaps we should remember there is no more important calling for today’s age than that of the how-to writer.
So, how to get started?
Being a how-to writer is very much like being any other kind of writer except for two very important things. First is that you have to have some level of non-literary skill and direct experience in what you are writing about. You don’t have to be the very best in the world at something, but you do need to know the processes well enough to explain things clearly because what you write will be tested in the hands of those who are tempted to follow your instructions.
Secondly, The how-to author is required to be completely honest. Other writers, both fiction and non-fiction have the pleasure of making stuff up or distorting information to twist the readers opinions to their own perspective. But the lying how-to author gets himself and his or her readers in a peck of trouble and won’t last long in the market place.
The first thing the prospective how-to writer must do is begin watching and taking note of his or her own life. Every good writer uses personal experience to frame what he or she wants to share with others. This is like having an editor, except the editor is in your own head. And the editor will begin asking questions. Is this interesting? What story does it tell? And a good internal editor leads you into exploring more and more options in the ways through which things can be done.
I had an important realization that everything I do is narrative. In my case, I use a chisel to cut wood. The wood records the motions of the hand and arm, the shape and size of the chisel, the quality of its cutting edge and the amount of force applied. Once you come to the awareness that you, in everything you do, use a variety of tools and materials to tell the story your own life, then you find that it is easy to transition from narration in wood or whatever other material you choose, to documenting your work in photographs or video, and in written word.
Adding your own editorial component, you then ask, “Is what I do of compelling interest?” If you come up with the answer, “No.” Then it is time to make adjustments in what you make or even in how you live your life.
I want to talk for just a few minutes about my own processes. In the selection of what I am going to write about, I ask myself, "Is there anything particularly interesting about this process." If the answer is yes, then I gather the materials and begin work. Sometimes I’ll clear a project first with an editor from one of the magazines I work with before I begin. I take photos of each and every step, and for me, the photography is crucial to both keeping my narrative in order and reminding me of each step as I am writing so that nothing is overlooked. I use a digital camera on a tripod and use the self-timer to control the shutter. For very best lighting, I have the studio well lit with daylight fluorescent bulbs, so that wherever I am shooting, I don’t have to bother setting up lights.
When the project is finished, I’m left with the finished object and take beauty shots of it that can be used either for the first page of the chapter, or the opening page of an article. Then I go through my photos and put them in step-by-step order, selecting the ones that best illustrate the processes used. When I’ve finished organizing the photos I write the main text and photo captions, and create a materials list and scrap art that will give the illustrator all the necessary information required to do drawings.
So how to get really started? Where can you test and develop your how-to writing skills? Fortunately these days, you don’t have to be discovered by a national magazine. There are on-line newsgroups and forums where you can share your tips and processes. In addition, Google has set up a new home for how-to knowledge. Called knols, for discrete units of knowledge, these make your first efforts at writing how-to easy and accessible to others by following a simple template. You can insert your photos, texts, step-by-step, slide shows and video. I set up my first knol on the subject of making your own spoon carving knife. And while you don’t get paid directly for writing knols, they can be a way to direct attention to other Internet based content you have created.
Best of all, writing knols can provide the experience and feedback required to refine your writing and photographic skills.
Now I would like to take a few minutes for questions.
Saturday, May 02, 2009
How-to of How-to
We are having awful weather, rainy and cold, but rain or shine, we make time for readers and books. In case you can't attend, the following is my presentation for tomorrow's Books in Bloom Literary Festival: