A simple method for combatting writer’s block

© klikk - fotoliaWriter’s block is so pernicious, it once prompted Ernest Hemingway (a war correspondent, mind you) to say that the scariest thing he ever encountered was “a blank piece of paper.”

From Mark Twain to Maya Angelou to Stephen King, writer’s block seems to afflict even our greatest literary minds. In Hollywood, Barry Michels has had an extremely successful career as a therapist for blocked screenwriters. He’s considered an open secret in the industry.

But let’s say you can’t afford to hire a Jungian analyst to help you through your latest block. What’s a frustrated writer to do?

“The easiest thing to do on earth is not write.” — William Goldman
Undoubtedly, starting is the hardest part when it comes to writing, with finishing coming in a close second.  I’ve found that to be painfully true — but I’ve also found a method that helps me stop thinking (What should I write about? What if it isn’t any good?) and start writing when I’ve got a deadline to meet or I’m staring at a blank screen.

It’s a fairly well-known method called the Pomodoro Technique. Despite the commercialization of the name, the technique is free and it doesn’t require you to read any self-help books. Here’s the premise: You break down your work into 25-minute blocks. During that 25 minutes, you can’t answer your phone, check email, raid the kitchen for a snack, run out to grab a cup of coffee or play Words With Friends. (Yeah, I’m really good at procrastinating).

“Writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.” — Charles Bukowski
The deal is, you have to use your 25 minutes to write something — anything. Write about having writer’s block, if you have to. I often treat my first 25-minute block like a free-write or brainstorm session where I can throw away whatever I write. If I’m starting work on a piece, sometimes I cover my monitor for 25 minutes so I can’t edit myself or worry about making it perfect when I’m trying to get momentum.

Set a timer so you know when 25 minutes is up. I use a timer app that I keep open while I’m typing because for me, seeing the minutes count down spurs me into action (you can hide it, if you prefer).  It works for me because it’s “just 25 minutes” — it’s not a novel, a screenplay, an article, or a dissertation. After 25 minutes, your timer app will ding and then it’s time to take a quick break, typically for 5 minutes. Get away from your computer — walk around your apartment or make a cup of tea. Repeat until you’ve done a string of these (take longer breaks as needed), and you’ll be surprised by how much you get done.

“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” — William Faulkner
Critics say that this technique prevents us from developing the ability to focus over long periods of time when necessary — who’s going to hire a lawyer who takes breaks in the courtroom every 25 minutes? Personally, I think this criticism misses the point. The Pomodoro Technique isn’t supposed to apply to all aspects of life. But if you’re having trouble starting a project that you’ve always wanted to do (or HAVE to do), it can help you establish a sustainable routine to get it done. For example, “Today I’ll do 10 pomodoros.”

The sad reality is, doing a single task for 25 minutes without any distraction is actually a lot longer than most people are likely or able to focus nowadays. (If you want more detail on why that is, you should read “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr.) I’ve found that establishing the habit of working in a series of 25-minute blocks without interruption has actually been a great way to train my brain to focus for longer periods of time — and understand the importance of taking breaks and getting some perspective before you can truly finish major projects, whether they take hours, weeks or years.

Hey, if taking breaks ultimately helped Mark Twain finish “Tom Sawyer,” then the method’s good enough for me.

Why words like lolz, ridic and mwahahaha make it into the Oxford English Dictionary

© artenot - Fotolia.comLast month, the Oxford English Dictionary revealed its latest buzz-inducing list of new words to enter the revered reference guide. This time, words like lolz, hackathon, ridic, and group hug made the cut (see the full list at Oxford Dictionaries Online).

Every time this happens (which is four times a year, FYI), there’s a slew of articles, blog posts and quippy TV pieces that express a mixture of outcry, bafflement and sheer amusement at the latest additions. How could mwahahaha become a real word… in the dictionary?! We tend to think of dictionaries as the end-all and be-all of language. If it’s not in the dictionary, then it’s not a real word… right?

Well, it turns out dictionaries — like language itself — are dynamic and very much alive.  Rather than being rigid and prescriptive texts, they’re a reflection of humans’ relationship with language.  As some words fall out of favor (so long, growlery), others make their way into daily usage (hello, sexting).

In previous years, OMG-worthy entries have included jiggy, bling, woot and <3. We get bent out of shape because we feel these words haven’t yet proven their staying power to enter something as venerated as a dictionary. But nothing compared to the uproar caused last year when cassette tape was ruthlessly slashed to make room for words like retweet. Did this mean that the cassette tape was effectively being erased from our language — and our history?!

Well, no. Casette tape actually got removed from the Concise OED — this is a mini version of the full OED that’s meant to represent the current vocabulary of the English-speaking world.The full Oxford English Dictionary continues to be one of the most respected, comprehensive, and expensive guides to pretty much every word in our language. There, words like casette tape and video jockey continue to live on (and of course, the ’80s continue to live on in our hearts)…

You can also still find these words in the Oxford Dictionaries Online, what TIME Magazine called “the hipper and more adaptable young cousin of the venerable OED.” Its role is actually tracking language trends and adding words as they reach a tipping point of daily usage. There are even different editions for U.S. English vs. British & World English. If you’re interested in how words make the cut, you can see the ODO’s infographic explaining the process. A word doesn’t actually enter the “real” OED until after it’s proven itself worthy over a long period of time.

The OED has long been considered the premier dictionary of our language. And while some of the new entries to the online edition seem silly (personally, I don’t think “getting voted off the island” deserves an entry) I respect that they continue to stay on the cutting edge of language. To be fair, other dictionaries like Merriam-Webster also regularly update their word lists (this year they added f-bomb and mash-up, for example). But for word nerds like me, the OED remains the ultimate. For a better understanding of why, I highly recommend Simon Winchester’s book, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Turns out you have to be a little loopy to want to create a record of, well, the meaning and history of every word in the English language… ever.

So, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em — the Oxford Dictionaries Online is sponsoring a contest for the best 50-word story inspired by the most recent additions (you could win an iPod Touch). That’s right, an iPod. Because while Walkman may have entered the OED in 1986, it got the Concise OED kibosh long ago. Who knew a dictionary could make you feel so old?

The Romney campaign debacle and the evolution of a ‘shitstorm’

© Ben Chams - Fotolia.comYou’d have to be living under a rock to have missed the secret video showing Mitt Romney wailing about how 47% of the country will never vote for him. Poor Mitt. The video made me think a lot of things about America, but in particular, it reminded me about a very special word in the English language.

Earlier this year, linguists in Germany voted the word ‘shitstorm’ one of English’s greatest gifts to the German language. As German newspaper The Local reported, “Shitstorm fills a gap in the German vocabulary that has become apparent through changes in the culture of public debate… Established German words, such as Kritik (criticism), were simply not descriptive enough.”

Apparently scheisse, German for ‘excrement,’ just didn’t have the same “oomph” when it came to talking about the European financial crisis. But as Michael Lewis noted in his 2011 Vanity Fair piece on Germany, “the German word for ‘shit’ performs a vast number of bizarre linguistic duties—for instance, a common German term of endearment was once ‘my little shit bag.'” It’s no surprise, then, that they were so taken by the word ‘shitstorm.’

So what is a shitstorm? Well, putting the literal definition aside, the jury of German linguists defined it as “a public outcry, primarily on the Internet, in which arguments mix with threats and insults to reach a critical mass, forcing a reaction.” This adds a new spin to the older Oxford Dictionaries definition, which is simply “a situation marked by violent controversy.”

Indeed, regardless of your politics, the current brouhaha surrounding the Romney campaign fits both definitions of shitstorm. It is undoubtedly a situation marked by fury and controversy (that is, Romney verbally spewing a big pile of scheisse about 47% of the electorate that even many Republicans have to disagree with). It’s also a shitstorm in the German sense, in that the Internet played a major roll in causing public outcry to reach a critical mass, forcing a reaction from Romney.

Still, despite the German adoption and evolving of ‘shitstorm,’ in my mind, it’s still very much a word unique to the English language. One of my favorite aspects of American (er, and British) culture is the flexibility of the language that allows us to create compound words to describe new phenomena with ease — like cybercast, brainstorm, or hellcat. This gives us the ability to make up words with nuanced cadences and connotations that say just what we mean. For example, a shitshow (a display of incompetence) is not the same thing as a shitstorm (widespread outcry and controversy that’s difficult to control).

We’re constantly making up compound words like this in our daily lives, even if they don’t have formal definitions. For example, we’ll add “-fest” to the end of anything to indicate “a gathering or celebration” — nerd-fest, food-fest, tech-fest, etc. It’s no wonder, then, that our compounds make their way into other languages, where they express concepts for which there are no single words. The Germans also took a liking to “stresstest,” and France’s L’Académie Française tried unsuccessfully to strike “le week-end” from daily usage (it just flows off the tongue better than le fin de semaine). Of course, we have a big debt to German, French, and a host of other languages for some pretty choice words, too.

So while critics might say that Romney lacks foreign policy experience, at least now he can say that thanks to his ‘shitstorm,’ he’s participated in a German-American cross-cultural exchange.

The Challenge: Write a story about a U.S. president in 600 words or less

© Georgios Kollidas - Fotolia.com

Every few months, All Things Considered on NPR hosts a wildly popular writing contest called Three-Minute Fiction. It starts with a simple prompt, created by a respected writer who’s invited to serve as the judge. It ignites listeners, who feverishly write stories that must be 600 words or less (so they can be read out loud within three minutes).

Then the waiting game begins… entrants post obsessively on the 3MF Facebook page, where they find support for horrifying realizations like, “My story actually came out to 601 words…. !!!” Finally, the finalists’ stories are posted online and read on-air — but weeks later, only one lucky writer is named the winner.

Round 9 is currently underway, and submissions are due on September 23rd by 11:59pm ET. This year’s prompt? “Story entries must revolve around a U.S. president, who can be real or fictional.”

So what makes the U.S. president such a compelling character to write about? Well, from the birth of a nation and the New Deal to Watergate and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, presidents give writers the kind of meaty material you just can’t make up.

Bestselling novelist Brad Meltzer (who also happens to be the judge for round 9) put it this way for NPR: “There is nothing like meeting the president of the United States,” he says. “Anytime you even see the president, you have a story to tell for the rest of your life.”

From The West Wing to Air Force One to pretty much every Tom Clancy novel ever written, works of fiction about the American president have a way of capturing our imaginations. (Even works based on history that might not sound all that riveting — you know, like an HBO miniseries on John Adams — end up being mind-blowingly fascinating.)

If writing fiction is something you’ve always wanted to try (or something you love to do, but let too many “buts” get in the way), then this is a great project for you to crank out in the remaining 6 days before the deadline. Just don’t let the word length fool you into a false sense of complacency — writing short isn’t always easier. Remember that famous quote often attributed to Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

From Apple to Ikea, product names that get lost in translation

Apple announced the highly-anticipated iPhone5 yesterday, along with a slew of other new products, sending gadget geeks into a tizzy.

Before major events like this, the Apple store is always taken offline — and restored immediately after the launch of its shiniest new toy, complete with all the sexy specs and details. It’s a smart practice for a company whose every move is watched, analyzed, debated, criticized, or romanticized, depending on whom you ask.

Apple last announced a new iPhone (the 4S) in October 2011, when we were introduced to Siri — the voice-activated virtual assistant with eerily profound answers to “Where can I get a burrito?” or “What’s the meaning of life?” Still, critics pounced on the fact that “Siri” sounds awkwardly similar (though not exactly the same) as the word for buttocks in Japanese. Oops.

The fact is, product names don’t always translate well across cultures, and these kinds of blunders are becoming a growing trend as consumer goods spread across the globe like wildfire.We latch onto these examples because they’re a simple, funny way to illustrate the challenges we all face with language and understanding as the world becomes smaller. Certainly, Apple’s not alone in trying to tackle this.

Another famous example you may have heard is the Chevy Nova. As the story goes, the car was a huge flop in Latin America in the ’70s because no va means “doesn’t go” in Spanish. It’s even been cited in marketing textbooks as a classic example of a product name that doesn’t translate well in foreign markets. More recently, this has been debunked as something of a myth, and while the Nova may not have been a hit in Spanish-speaking markets, it wasn’t exactly a flop either.  Of course, what is true is that Toyota changed the name of the MR2 to MR for its French market, so it didn’t sound quite so much like merde.

These examples pale in comparison to Ikea, which has had so many product name mishaps, you could practically write a book on them. You almost have to wonder if at this point, it’s a conscious part of their marketing strategy to garner attention. After all, the Fartfull workbench and the Jerker desk haven’t seemed to stop consumers from flocking to their stores.

There are so many examples of translation pitfalls in today’s global economy, it’s impossible to list them all here (Huffington Post has a good roundup of the top 11, if you’re curious and in the mood for a chuckle — not even Pepsi and KFC are safe). The phenomenon’s even the subtext of the Broadway play Chinglish, which tells the story of an American businessman from a sign company, trying to win business in China. It highlights the hilarious, confusing, and occasionally offensive translations that happen from Chinese to English (and vice versa) despite our best intentions to try and understand each other.

It turns out there’s a reason why cultural communication firms are on the rise. Before breaking into a market, the smart thing for companies to do is consult native speakers who’ve been fully-immersed in the culture in question. For example, I might speak decent Hindi, but I can’t possibly understand the cultural context of northern India in the same way as someone who’s grown up there and can identify potentially embarrassing slang, double meanings, or homophones.

The way I see it, it’s better to swallow your pride now rather than find out later your translation has accidentally caused a major scandal.