TED ache

TEDGlobal There’s this thing that happens after a TED conference – it’s hard to return to normal life. It’s taken me awhile to get around to this post. There was a lot to process and I haven’t finished by any means, but here’s a bit about my experience. First off, Edinburgh is a great city and I fell head over heels in love with it. Beautiful, next to the water, friendly, great food, walkable… all good things.

When I returned home, I discovered that a friend of mine attended in 2012 and we had the same reaction during the week, “What the hell am I doing with my life?!” And not in any kind of negative or comparative way, but at TED you learn that you can have a huge ripple effect, sometimes with seemingly small actions, and you want to participate, not for personal or selfish reasons, but to make the world better because there are greater possibilities for good than you realized.

TEDGlobal is a remarkably kind and supportive environment. So many creative, curious, hard-working and innovative people across disciplines. It is also as intense as everyone says. I’ve been describing it to friends as a multi-disciplinary grad school on steroids.

Opening party at Scottish Museum
Opening party at Scottish Museum

There were great talks of course (see Chander’s post below for some of the best). At TEDU, before the main stage talks began, they told us that we would get more from the people sitting around us than the main stage speakers. Yeah, right. Well, yes, they were right! At the opening party, I met Steve Cardinale and we ended up talking about the conscious curation of one’s life and in the course of that conversation, I saw that the umbrella over my life is about the move from unhealthy to healthy. Whether it’s the charitable work I’ve done with others in Dandora, themes in my novels, discussions with friends or my own journey, the unifying purpose or mission for my life is about what it takes to stimulate, inspire and encourage the move from unhealthy situations to healthier ones. I saw this in the Kibera slums when they tried to move people out into nice apartments who would then rent them out and return to the slums, to their work, sense of community and home. I’ve seen it in my move from the mess I grew up in into creating a better situation for my children. Or at work, not only in the roadmaps to emotional recovery in my novels, but the process itself whether in writing or on film sets and theater stages to get productions functioning in kinder, healthier and ultimately more efficient and productive ways. Obviously, there is no easy or simple answer, but the facets of that problem are what I’m exploring. The theme was Think Again and that happened right away for me.

TEDGlobal 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland. June 12-15, 2013. Photo: Ryan LashThe attendees and speakers are fantastic. You could approach any group and be welcomed into the conversation. I was able to put friends back home doing non-profit work in Kenya and Uganda in touch with the speakers doing the kind of innovations that will enhance their work in Africa. And just about everyone I ran across was also so much fun! I had the great pleasure of getting to know professors, scientists, journalists, and more and formed friendships that will continue over dinners in Chicago, New York, perhaps Singapore, etc. There was a lot of fun to be had at TED, including flying quads (wish WordPress would let me post that video!). There’s a great generosity of spirit, too, that I found very encouraging. How will this play out in my own life? Who knows, but I am thinking again, thinking bigger, thinking a lot.

Bruce Bassett gives a great account of what it’s like during and after TEDGlobal, particularly the observation that there was almost no negativity. I didn’t hear any during the week. Here are some other observations by Chander Chawla (includes some of the best talks), Henrik Ahlen and Katerina Biliouri.

And then what if…?

Curiosity is the engine of art. The desire to know or learn and the desire to create come together in the best writing. Probably the two defining questions for the writer are ‘what if?’ and ‘what happens next?’ To which Lisa Cron would add ‘and so?’ (read her book Wired for Story to find out more about that)

The stimulus to trigger your curiosity can come from anywhere: a bit of conversation that passes you on the street, articles, daydreaming, music, museums, the line at Starbucks, you name it. Following any of those questions is the path that takes you into your material. While writing this, I did a Google search on curiosity and found a Tumblr on morbid curiosity.  If that or another site featuring people at their favorite celebrity tombstone doesn’t give you an idea for a story, I don’t know what will. There are so many approaches you can take – who died, how, what was their life like, why be photographed at the tomb of someone you never met, what is the fascination, hobby or obsession? and so on. Maybe it only gives you a jumping off point for a character, but that’s no small thing.

If your curiosity is strong enough, it can blast through writer’s block or fill up a blank page before you have time to be intimidated. All it takes is imagining or encountering a question compelling enough to get you to ask “and then what happened?”

How can you use curiosity to enhance your writing? First, keep a small notepad or recorder with you or use your smart phone so you can makes notes as you encounter inspiration or story ideas, a bit of dialog or an interesting character. Keep reading all kinds of material, including things outside your normal interest, try new things, Google random words, go rock climbing, learn the tango, travel, pay close attention to your environment and see what happens. The wonderful thing about curiosity is that it is endless.

How has curiosity led you into a story?


My artist and writer friends inspire me because they’ve developed the habit of art. That has me thinking about the question a non-fiction writer posed recently: how do you write (or start) a novel? It’s easy to throw out silly phrases: one page a time or the Nike approach (just do it), but that’s annoying. I don’t outline (not ahead of time – it can be helpful after the first draft), so how do I start and keep at it? Most of the time, I have a vague idea and then something will happen – a snatch of conversation overheard and I imagine the circumstances around it or a tangential detail in a news story will spark something…. Sometimes a theme won’t leave me alone. If I go for long walks and allow myself time to ruminate, characters tend to show up. I imagine little scenes, start writing some of them down and a story emerges. I tend to think most novelists have to find their own way. I have met few who write a novel the same way twice, much less feel they have a handle on the process no matter how many they write.

Aaron Gansky has more on observation and what Flannery O’Connor referred to as the habit of art.

Great (and concise!) advice from Rob Roberge on metaphors and similes.

Write a message to your future self and see what happens in a few years. Great thing to do right before college or grad school to have emailed after graduation.

Over the next few weeks or months, decide which five activities are essential to your life as a writer.

What are mine, you ask?

Every day I read

Every day I write

Every day I imagine

Every day I reflect

Every day I ask for direction

There is no secret. It is daily work. You don’t have to sit and write for 8 or 10 hours a day. Some people might, but for me that’s a chore and counter-productive. The amount of time is secondary to daily activity and that’s what keeps me both productive and joyful.