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Underwater Blues: Getting Down into the Second Draft

“You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Junot Díaz

From Becoming a Writer/ The List, O Magazine, November 2009

 

It is easy to write the first draft.

Starting with a blank page means that your characters can be anyone you want.  The story world is yours to build anywhere you choose.  It’s easy to tell yourself that eventually the plot points will line up, the heroine will save the day and maybe end up with a hot guy.  This is because the first draft is essentially a brain dump, the worst version that will exist.  Expectations are low.

By the second draft, however, you are working with something that came before.  There will still be big changes, but they have to fit in with the existing framework.  The blank pages that caught tragic flaws and mistakes so easily before are now filled with words that can be their own sticky web of tangles and snarls.  The layers of story you’ve built might fit together but it’s more likely they’ll run over each other or sit across the widest chasm waiting for the bridge you have to build between them.

It can be hard to feel forgiveness in your own writing.

Even worse, life and world events change your perspective on your own story and what used to look like a battle to save the world is now chick lit where the heroine’s big task is rearranging her closet…in 300 pages.

There is also the fatigue.  In the first draft, you are a fresh-faced, new grad with no mistakes or missteps marring your record.  As the plot winds on, however, every challenge seasons you.  For the most part this is good, but in the second draft, self-doubt can creep in as you read back over your previous pages.  The shitty first draft you wrote turns into its own performance review and your own words tell you that you are, undoubtedly, under-performing.

That under-performance affects what you think you’re capable of writing next or whether you are capable of building the bridge.  The inner critic shows up to explain in voluminous detail how each word is a failure and the tragic flaws of your characters become your own.  Instead of your monumental achievement, your precious first draft becomes the written warning sent by certified mail and you are on notice about your own writing.

This can be a death spiral.

It is important to recognize the inner critic if only to banish it.  Everyone, no matter what they do, has one of these.  Sometimes, it’s your past coming back to haunt you, which is truly sad.   No one deserves being made to feel as if everything they do or write is a mistake, but for too many people, at some stage in their lives, a person exists who does that very thing.  Even if it’s only your own internal pressures, it’s important to learn how to let go of these harsh voices and continue laying down the pages word by word.

Letting go is the key.  Letting go is how your initial draft came to be in the first place. It is the release from your own high expectations or any thoughts that this next draft will be better at all than the last one.  Even if it is worse, who is counting?

So let go of the page count and the chapters.  Let go of the location of your story and your character’s point of view.  Let go of what must be and let go of “the message.”  It’s ok to float and ok to release what you knew about your story.  Let it all go, all of it.

I’m sure that for every story, there are some pieces that float away and won’t return, but there are also the pieces that stay.  This is the kernel of truth about your story and this kernel makes it the story that only you can tell.

When I let go, my characters come back to me.  They take my hand and they walk me back to the story world we created together.

We are walking and I am writing.

Signal Gathering: An evening of talks with Ashe Dryden and Friends

Les Speakers photo credit Lillie Chilen (@lilliealbert)

Les Speakers photo credit Lillie Chilen (@lilliealbert)

 

In my credo, I state that I will always be a writer first.  I’m working on the 2nd draft of a novel, I write everyday and I attend a writing class every other week.  This class is precious to me, but recently, I made the extremely painful decision to skip a writing class in order to attend the event “An Evening of Talks with Double Union and Ashe Dryden.”

 

And so I gathered with others, our reflections co-mingling with the Bay lights in abstract patterns and crossing signals releasing an energy collected  through resistance into the San Francisco night.  The purpose of the evening was to raise funds for San Francisco’s first feminist hacker/maker space, Double Union.  You can read more about that effort, here.

 

The featured speakers were Ashe Dryden (@ashedryden), Valerie Aurora (@adainitiative), Missy Titus (@missytitus), Dr. Kortney Ryan Zeigler (@fakerapper), Alaina Percival (Women Who Code) @alaina, Shanley Kane @shanley, Amelia Greenhall @ameliagreenhall.

 

It was refreshing that:

  • I didn’t have the usual space bubble around me that I normally do at tech events.  Unless I go with someone, I find most meet ups and conferences are actually pretty lonely and there is usually this space bubble of a chair in every direction between me and other people even if I use double deodorant.  Ok, it’s usually guys who are at the outer edge of the bubble.  Although I didn’t know too many people, the crowd was quite friendly which cut down slightly on the terror.  (Yes, I actually am very shy like everyone else in tech).
  • Shanley’s slides emphasized the general state of fucked up-edness in tech and software and it was like basking in the harsh daylight of reality.  We need more of this.
  • There were none of those stupid, heckling, troll-types in the audience discounting the points the speakers were making or trying to play the speakers off of one another.  I get so sick of stupid people saying, “well HER blah blah blah was SO MUCH BETTER.” Like it’s only ok to allow 1 female to be good at anything.  There were 7 people on that stage and they were all awesome.

 

What I learned:

  • That I need to take stock of my own privilege.  I hadn’t heard about this before last night, but it makes sense.  Before you can understand who is different from you, it’s important to know your own self and the benefits that you’ve had in life.
  • Ashe Dryden suggested wearing a color to a conference and introducing yourself to others wearing the same color so you get a different type of cross-section.  I really want to try this and see what happens.
  • There is a need for a harassment policy at every conference, even ones that are all women because women can be homophobic and/or culturally insensitive.  I’ve reached out to Cascadia.js about their policy and pointed them towards the template on geek feminism.org
  • I’m really really really really done with tone policing myself online, on my blog, etc.  Although I’m already fairly WYSIWYG in my writing and in life, I can do better.  This includes engaging with men I know already in the tech community.  The post I wrote on Medium still stands because I’m committed to supporting people around me when they try to do better.  It’s just that I’m done with people patronizing me or playing me off of other women online.  This will likely require me to educate myself more about feminism, and I look forward to that.
  • I want to write more about diversity in tech AND THAT’S OK.  I can write as many blog posts as I want about being a woman working in tech AND THAT’S OK TOO.  I’m tired of feeling guilty every time I have an idea for a blog post on gender or diversity as if I’ve written too much about it or that the world doesn’t need to hear more.  At this point, I’ve written a few (Links: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and every time I think to myself, “How badly do I need to say this at the expense of looking less technical.”  This is who I am and what I want to write about it.  If you want technical, go check my Github. FUCK IT.

 

The Bay Lights on Bay Bridge, San Francisco

The Bay Lights on Bay Bridge (romanboed)

I feel an awakening in the tech world and in San Francisco.

It’s needed in many ways.  Aside from the misery of the many who are marginalized, tech has been invading San Francisco’s friendly, collaborative culture and razing it to make way for Nerds Acting Like Jocks.  It’s about time some of San Francisco began bleeding into some part of the tech community because we’ve bled enough of our own city.

Ashe specifically mentioned the need for everyone in the room to bust out of our own tech bubble and put more energy into experiencing the non-tech world.  In San Francisco, we live in the heart of the counter-culture and it’s time to be more open to the lessons our neighbors and our city have to teach us.

Even without much of a membership or much of a space, the collective of people that makes up Double Union has already managed to bring us together in a way that reverberates through time and our own static-y channels.  It was a privilege to attend this signal gathering.

 

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A little humor for those conference woes

There is a lot of pain and angst around the topic of the treatment of women at tech conferences right now (which will not be rehashed here).  Opinions are wide and varied and feelings are running high.  In the United States, we’ve actually been here before and on an even wider scale.

In the 1980′s, when Clarence Thomas was the first African American to be considered for supreme court justice, the highest judicial office, he was accused by law professor Anita Hill of sexual harassment.  It touched off a broad national discussion about the appropriate workplace treatment of women (and men). Rather than spend this post, comparing the two events, I’d like to offer up some humor.

One of the most popular American shows in the ’80′s was Designing Women.  It was a comedy driven by the, mostly, female characters in the cast  and took place in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia.  During the furor of Clarence vs. Anita, Designing Women devoted an entire show to examining this topic.

There are times when comedy and fiction are better at capturing multiple sides of a tricky issue than any expert opinion or news coverage.  This particular episode of Designing Women falls into that category.  There’s not much you need to know about the characters or even the larger situation of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill to get the humor.

It is likely that this YouTube link will not stay up forever, but if you’re hurting after the latest series of events, I hope this episode will at least give you a laugh or two.

The Strange Case of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill

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Freedom Writing

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deuts...

Martin Luther King (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Growing up in The South, or, more specifically, in the city of Atlanta, Georgia, I was exposed to plenty of civil rights history.  As someone who considers herself a southern expat, much of that history burned a deep hole inside my chest.  In 2nd grade, I was taken to the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. and taught about segregation.  It came as quite a shock since all of my friends were black and I previously had no concept of race.

 

Racial inequality is a deep thought for a six year old and it really shook me.  I continued my pondering as I grew older and visited the American Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  Walking through the forever tainted air of a cattle car used to shuttle Jewish people to their deaths in Nazi, Germany, the ultimate consequence of racism chilled me to the bone.  Picture it: your relatives are dying horrible, tortuous deaths all around you and you are likely next because of what you all believe or the color of your skin.  It happened in The South too.  It just wasn’t government sanctioned.

 

Even today, what I know about the history of my family’s small town in south Georgia is a white history.   The monochrome shade of it makes me wonder what has been boarded up in so many of the tumble-down, tin-roofed shacks you will pass if you journey there.

 

As a writer, I work at making everything I write a work of honesty, and what I’ve found is that the best writing always comes from the deepest feelings.  Great writing is not about the good times in life.  Great writing happens when you feel wronged or hurt or marginalized.  Writing is not a pedestrian activity.  It is the emotional equivalent of fire-breathing, flames dancing and the residual smoke that permeates for a long, long time.

 

Thus, I’m celebrating the 50th anniversary of the “I have a dream speech,” written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a writer who swallowed more than his fair share of flames. Here is a sentence of his that has been on my mind lately:

 

“…when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

 

I first read this sentence in the book that currently tops my Goodreads shelf, “How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One” by Stanley Fish. It’s an example of a sentence built up with dependent clauses.  Whatever.

 

Even without an analysis of its grammatical brilliance, this sentence is a wildfire, and you might think that Dr. King agonized over this sentence at a desk in a nice office as he planned out his next protest, but that is WRONG.

 

Dr. King wrote this sentence on toilet paper while he was sitting in a jail cell after protesting to end segregation.  This is what happens when a brilliant writer and thinker has something to say and manages to get it down on paper in the moment.

 

While today we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech,  the letter Dr. King wrote in a Birmingham jail certainly fanned the flames which led to his march on Washington.  Godspeed, sir.

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Getting through the first draft

 

See the Australian Vampire?

The first draft: A visual

 

First a character shows up.  You see them in the shower or as you are getting yourself to work.  Some details are fuzzy, but some are plain as day.  They become someone you greet in the morning, before you rise from your bed or someone you turn to on a really bad day when it seems the whole world is against you.  Eventually, you realize that they aren’t going anywhere until you make them real on a page.

 

 

 

Thus I began my journey with just a few pages.  I typed them up, then put them away thinking, “so that’s done.”  Little did I know that my protagonist had other ideas.  I kept looking at my pages, re-reading them, adding to them and even having a couple of people read them.  The point at which they turned from pages into a “novel” is lost to me.  Perhaps it happened on the day I completed the first scene and asked myself, “now what?” or perhaps it was when I looked at it and realized I needed a writing class.

 

 

 

At this point, I was back in the U.S. from Australia, living in Mountain View, California.  As luck would have it, I had a job which allowed for easily sneaking off early once a week to drive up to San Francisco.  I found some classes at San Francisco’s Writing Salon and signed up, eventually landing in a 6 month Novel Continuation Class.  Aside from teaching me some basic elements of fiction writing, the classes taught me how to build my own writing practice and week by week over a year I managed to keep going.  I finished up on July 4th, Independence day in the U.S.

 

 

Here are some of the lessons I learned as I worked my way through:

 
You MUST lower your standards
Ira Glass, host of This American Life, hints at the conundrum of working on a first novel when he talks about beginning creative work:  You have more taste than skill.  In my case, I told myself that this first draft was supposed to be the “Twilight” version of my novel and no better.  If my pages wanted to be cheesy and awful, I let them.  If a character had an urge to do something completely “out of character,” I let them.  There are run-on sentences, phrases which are repeated too many times and I can’t even tell you what’s going on with the point of view.  For your imagination to work, it has to go where it wants to go and there’s very little steering involved when writing a first draft.  In fact, I found it useful to acknowledge that the craft side of writing exists, and to then ignore the bulk of it.

 

 
Once you get through the pages that set up your novel, you will need help with mapping the plot
Eventually you will have some vague sense of your characters and the world that they live in.  At this point, it is likely you will have to map out some of the plot.  There are different ways to do this.  I chose to read John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story which was written for film but can also help for novel planning.  Another suggestion that I might try as I work on my second draft is to read the second half of The Art of Story Engineering.  When mapping a plot, expect your page count to go down.

 

 
There are people who can write a whole novel in 6 weeks.  Screw them.
If you have a job and/or children, this will not be you.  If you manage to consistently write 5 pages a week, you’re doing great, and some weeks your page count will be as low as one or two.  If you’re sick, just give it up and get better.  The pages will be there.

 

 
Other areas of your life will suffer
This past year has seen me withdraw somewhat from blogging, and very much from attending conferences or even working on tech projects at home.  It’s been painful letting all of that go, but it needed to happen.  I don’t even promise that I’ll be picking those things back up because there’s more work for me to do on the novel.

 

 
Don’t write about tech unless you have no other choice
We’ve got 3-d printers, robots helping the elderly and cars that drive themselves.  Good luck staying ahead of that curve.  Since I began writing, the name I chose for a fictitious company has turned into a real company and meanwhile, “mobile first” is here.  After reading this interview with Warren Ellis, I made a conscious choice to stop writing in technical details because they change too quickly.  The bottom of all conflict is always inherently based on people and their relationships so I tried to focus on that as much as possible and leave the technical details for later.  It is no accident that my other ideas for novels are as far away from tech as I could make them.

 

 
You will be a different writer when you finish than you were when you started
This was something Karen pointed out in one of our classes.  As I progressed through the pages, I found myself digging into my characters more and finding that some of them were different than I had initially imagined.  In fact, some of the main plot points in the novel changed in front of me in ways I had not expected at all, yet if I go back and read the first pages, the bones were there.  My mental archaeological digging uprooted ideas buried so far down there is no way I would have seen them in the beginning.

 

 
The end of the first draft is just the beginning
So, here I am with my bag full of bones.  The next step is to assemble this Pterodactyl.

 

 

 

 

digi.lit – ism

Was the last book you read a printed book?  I’m guessing it wasn’t.  Maybe it was a book on the kindle or a graphic novel on your iPad or a novel in serial form you read on your phone from any of several vendors.

As a blogger sitting on the first draft of my first novel, it’s never been a question to me of “if” I will self-publish, but when and where.  I’m still working through craft issues and I know that there is more work ahead before I release, but even outside of that, I find what is happening in publishing to be completely fascinating.  For these reasons, this past Saturday I attended the digi.lit conference on digital publishing put together by the organizers of San Francisco’s LitQuake literary festival.

The saying is typically that things change by the minute, but in publishing, it’s changing by the nanosecond.   The amount of time between the word hitting the page and the reader having it in their hands is drastically shrinking even to the point of writers releasing their work in a more serial format.  In the case of many of peers in Software Testing (Hello Elisabeth, Mike, Alistair, Cheezy, and Alan) they are publishing on Lean Pub and iterating on their work.

With the game re-arranging itself at such a fast pace, I’ve had a lot questions as I’ve been working on my draft and I’ve even seen some of those questions answered or change over time.  Here are some of the questions I had during the conference today.  Not all of them have answers, but I’ll leave those unanswered questions as a place marker or invitation for a blog comment.

Q:  I have a draft.  I wanna e-publish.  Now what?

A:  You could hang that draft out there for all to see, but it would likely be caught adrift in the tubez.  Literary agent April Eberhardt is of the opinion that 95% of e-books are not edited or layed out well or have crap covers.  Having read more than a few these, I tend to agree.  April suggests that you need to at least:
1.  Engage an editor so that you don’t have typos and so that your sentences flow well
2.  Get yourself a “good” book cover.  As an example, she suggested Holly Payne’s “Kingdom of Simplicity.”

Q: Should I plan on having some printed copies?

A:  This question gets to the heart of what is currently a huge tension within the world of self-publishing.  Fact: E-books require far less work to publish and market than printed books.  However, if you want your book to be reviewed, or if you want to engage the community that is physically around you to read your book, you will likely need some that are printed.

In all of the discussion I heard, the conclusion I came to about ebooks and independent booksellers is that the relationship between ebooks and independent booksellers is very murky waters.  A major and, I believe, unintentional theme of the conference was the hate-hate relationship between independent booksellers and Amazon.  It was emphasized that if you want an independent bookseller to carry your book, you shouldn’t be telling people to only go to Amazon on your web-site.  Ultimately, this is one of the questions that I haven’t answered for myself yet, but I also expect more change in this space before I have to worry about it.

Q: When should I start marketing my work?

A: The suggestion was repeatedly made that the time to start marketing a book is yesterday.  So much was said in this particular session about “building your marketing platform,” by blogging and tweeting, but, by all means “do what makes you comfortable.”

I couldn’t help but listen feeling very tongue-in-cheek about it.  On the one hand, I’ve been working on my novel for over a year by getting up every morning and writing.  I’m definitely interested in doing what I can to sell it when the time comes. OTOH, social engineering makes me throw up in my mouth a little.  I think every blogger will know what I’m talking about.  So far, I’ve always erred on the side of authenticity and I don’t really think that’s going to change, although I can see putting up a badge and blogging about a book I’ve published every now and them.   As a whole, the conference did inspire me to blog a little more.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Q: How much should you really shell out for a cover if it’s just an ebook?

A: Aside from getting your book edited, the other standout piece of advice that was mentioned over and over was to invest in a book cover that doesn’t suck.

In the panel discussion, “Judging a Book by its Cover:  The Potential of Graphics,” Geary Zendejas said that you have 6-8 seconds to sell your book on a web-site.  He also mentioned that research indicates book covers for ebooks that sell are very, very different from covers of print books that sell.  For ebooks, large typography draws the most attention but for printed books it’s more about photography, detail, texture and feel.  In the session on marketing, independent bookstore owner Christin Evans mentioned that for printed books, it is not just about the cover, but it’s also about the spine.  My personal philosophy is that you can sell anything with a cat on it, so maybe I’ll just stick with that.

My takeaways

  • It’s time to get back to the basics of blogging.  This isn’t even about blogging more.  What people forget about blogging is that it really is a two way straight where you’re participating in a community.  For myself, I plan on reading more of other people’s blogs and leaving comments.  It might sound cheesy, but I believe in having a shared pool of knowledge with active participants.
  • It’s time to get to know some of San Francisco’s independent booksellers.  I’m privileged to live in a city that is rich in indie bookstores and a few of the owners were present at the conference.  Something that was mentioned in one of the panels is that now that the American “big box” bookstore chain, Borders, is gone and Barnes & Noble is hanging on by its fingernails, indie bookstores are experiencing their own renaissance. I’m planning an upcoming post about this.
  • Expect change.  If you think things move fast in tech, try publishing.  I mean, who knows, the ebook market could collapse in a year!  Amazon could descend into chaos!  That ok.  If everything goes south, I’m sticking to my philosophy that you can sell anything with a cat on it.  I’ll just switch all of the hackers in my novel from humans to cats.  It’ll be great!

Community Learning in San Francisco

On Top of Nob Hill

On Top of Nob Hill

My process of learning code originally went something like this:

  • Find a book with lots of examples.  Favorites are Kochan & Wood’s Unix Shell Scripting, Head First Java and Kernighan & Ritchie’s C Programming, and I’m finishing up Head First Javascript.
  • Work through as many of the examples as possible.  It might take a year but that’s ok.
  • Make my own crappy stuff.

This strategy went to hell for several reasons when I decided to get more serious about learning web development for the following reasons:
1.  Any half-way useful web-stack has many pieces and a considerable amount of time can be spent just getting those to work together.
2.  The pace of the web typically outstrips any book.
3.  I’ve gotten serious about a novel I’m writing.  Every morning, I spend an hour writing creative fiction.  Between that and working 8 hours a day, when I get home, I am usually D.O.N.E.

But I’m still serious about learning more web development.  Since I work at Pivotal Labs in test and support on Tracker, when fellow Pivot, Sarah Mei mentioned a Railsbridge workshop, my ears perked up.  Railsbridge is an intensive Friday evening installfest plus all-day Saturday learning extravaganza.  Recognizing the opportunity to commit to myself with a date, I signed up and have attended a couple of Railsbridge sessions.  The thoughtful detail put into Railsbridge shows in how they divide people up by skill level, how they make sure you have what you need installed on your computer, how they have a great student:teacher ratio and do a retro at the end of the Saturday.  I honestly wish I’d had the benefit of an experience like Railsbridge in college.

Oh yeah…college
There will always be a debate about whether people should get a CS degree or not.  I have one.  Many successful people I know don’t.  Many places require them for employment, but a lot of places in San Francisco don’t.  While I believe there are benefits to college, specifically, liberal arts degrees, I’m becoming a believer in the community education system I see emerging here in San Francisco.

In the case of Railsbridge, while the program doesn’t cost money, it is a sacrifice of a Friday night and most of a Saturday so there is an opportunity cost and some commitment involved.  It’s true that there are many beginners, but I’ve met plenty of people there who are beginning to get pretty effective at building Rails apps.  In fact, at the last Railsbridge I attended, I was greeted by someone who got a job after attending and learning from Railsbridge.  I’m sure she worked really hard on her skills outside of Railsbridge as well, but she did the work and got results.

One argument I hear about meetups is that they’re full of people who don’t know how to code or who aren’t serious about their programming skills.  While there are plenty of people at these Meetups who are learning on their own schedule and may never work as a programmer or even in tech, there are plenty of people who go to Meetups such as the Javascript one and will spend the better part of 2 hours on a Wednesday night writing some code.  I’m routinely impressed whenever I show up at these events by the focus of my fellow attendees.

If you think that these types of group learning only cover a few “beginner” topics, what about Algorithms or Scala?

Part of what’s fueling this ecosystem is the proliferation and refinement of online learning.  I remember when the M.I.T. open courseware was a bunch of syllabi.  I also remember the agony of pre-millenial online classes.  Those were definitely the dark ages.  Now we have Khan Academy, Code Academy and CourseEra.  Between these and the ease of setting up a gathering with Meetup, the SF tech community is turning into it’s own community college, and I’ve learned a whole lot more about Rails.

What I like about this system is that it’s not just the students who win.  If you’ve ever taught someone how to do something you’ll understand the benefit the instructors are getting out of it too.  As a bonus, I can see that anyone who learns something out of this community system is also likely to turn around and give back.  I dream of the day when I’m good enough at web development to be the one pointing out CSS and Rails typos.

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Never volunteer…

These words were on my mind as this year’s Telerik Testing Summit kicked off.  They were advice my grandfather, Ed, frequently imparted to me amongst other life lessons such as, “Don’t act too smart.  It can scare a guy off.” (I married a firefighter I met volunteering.  Heh.)

 

Despite his advice, there are plenty of landmarks in Atlanta, Georgia such as the Fox Theater, that would not be standing today if he hadn’t raised the alarm and helped start a campaign which saved the Fox and resulted in the formation of Atlanta Landmarks, Inc.

 

But this isn’t all he did and isn’t, in my mind, his greatest accomplishment.  In the 1960′s when most people in The South were finally waking up to the fact that segregation is inhumane and not to be tolerated, he volunteered, as a restaurant owner, to be the spokesperson for the voluntary integration of Atlanta’s fine dining scene.  I’m proud to say that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dined at Herren’s.

 

Sometimes, as a child, I got to hang out with Ed downtown as he managed the restaurant.  I guess it was the old-school version of take-your-kid-to-work day.  I always noticed that he seemed to know and say hello to everyone we saw on the street and treated his customers like gold.

A Hug from Ed

And then there was his sense of humor.  Ed lived for corny jokes, goofy smiles, red socks and the beat of his electric organ.  I can still hear echoes of “Strangers in the Night” as he sang at the top of his lungs to his wife whom he referred to as “Beautiful Jane.”  I can still feel the wind in my hair as he drove us down the street in his orange convertible chevelle with a fat basset hound wagging her tail in the back.

Ed was a master collaborator and new how to bring people together for good.  Although I do my best to be as engaging, it can be hard sometimes.  We live our lives at such a fast pace these days.   Sometimes it’s easier to tell someone “no” and keep on trucking with my own agenda rather than to stop and listen to what someone has to say.  Ed was the greatest example of a person who knew how to slow down and listen to others.

 

The Telerik Testing Summit takes place yearly in Austin, Texas and I was lucky enough to book a few relaxing days in Austin ahead of the conference.  My flight for Austin left the Sunday before the conference. Unfortunately,  after I cleared security and was having a pre-flight beer and garlic fries, I got word that Ed passed away.  Let’s just say it was an interesting flight to Austin and I’m glad the lady sitting next to me was so comforting.

 

Although sad, it’s not like this was totally unexpected.  Ed was 91 and suffering from Alzheimers.  Also, Beautiful Jane passed away a few years ago and he was definitely a boat without a rudder without her.

 

It’s just… he was such a force for good in the world and so lighthearted about it.  Perhaps this is why I prefer surrounding myself with lighthearted people.  I married a man who makes me laugh when I least expect it.  At work, I’ll often try to move my desk next to someone with whom I know I can tell jokes and maybe act a little stupid. (Okay, a lot stupid.)

 

There I was, in Austin for a week while my complicated family gathered for Ed’s funeral in Atlanta.  There were a few times when I almost called the airline to ask about a flight home, but family members told me I was much better off following through with my plans.  I floated in the pool, drank some margaritas and had a cry, then it was off to the Testing Summit.

 

Ed was my role model for engaging the community I live in, engaging other people and, above all, keeping a sense of humor and humility about it.  All of these were important themes at the Testing Summit this year and I thought it a great unspoken tribute to Ed that I was able to take part in these discussions.

Over my shoulder in Austin

Hanging out at Lake Travis

I like to think that Ed was hanging out over my shoulder as we talked about the new realities of testing in the wider context of software development and how we can all get our community more positively engaged.  These are things I’ve started making notes and writing about, but I wanted to take a post to reflect on someone who meant so much to me and who I’d like to make an unofficial member of the #expectpants crew.

 

I’m ending this post with a link to Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks.” One of Ed’s favorite jokes was to say, “follow me” or “walk this way” and commence with his own silly walk.

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Too Far

Painting image of Joan of Arc

Painting image of Joan of Arc (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s the breaking point:  the moment when someone has pushed you too far and you know that the rest of your time with that person will be spent managing as you find a way to make your exit.

The moment you realize you’ve had enough is so awkward because, usually, in addition to feeling angry and possibly embarrassed or ashamed, you are asking yourself “how the FUCK will I get out of this.”  (If this is happening in your head, how censored are you really going to be?)

So then you start assessing how this is going to go down, how you’re going to make your escape and possibly let the other person know that you are D.O.N.E. This is when ideas of revenge start flooding through your head and you make a list.

Contemplating the list gives your rational brain a split second in which to punch through the other side and keep your anger from boiling over.

 

It’s a split second that can determine how much longer you will live with someone, how much longer you will continue in your present job or how much longer you will sit in a chair at a conference.

These situations usually involve a compromise in dignity.  Professional life seems especially rife with personal indignity because the stakes are high.  If you have a mortgage or aren’t sure how you would otherwise make money…yeah.  Work or even peer situations in our industry can require checking your dignity at the door and putting up with some awful shit.  Maybe you hate yourself for it and maybe there really isn’t a good way out even after you assess all of your options.

 

And then you get to that moment with a boss who keeps pointing out what they feel are your numerous personal failures while you’re sitting in the middle of a crowded open office with people swirling all around you in oblivion as the insults fly or you’re stuck listening to someone at a conference on or off of a stage who is saying things that offend you so deeply you just want to jump up and scream, ENOUGH!!!

 

What happens next?

 

Here is what I did:

 

I had just moved to the Bay Area and was attending my first tech Meetup in San Francisco.  It was exciting to finally talk to some people and to participate in the San Francisco “tech scene.”  I noticed that there were even a few women in the audience which made me happy.  There were 2 speakers on the schedule and the second speaker was in the middle  of his talk when he cut to a slide of naked male parts.  You know what he said?

 

“This is San Francisco, I’m sure we’re all ok with this.”

 

I was not ok.

 

I was disgusted and embarrassed.  I looked around at everyone else looking around.  My internal conversation went something like this:

 

Angry Marlena: I’m gonna stand up and scream at that motherfucker that IT IS NOT OK!!!!!!!!
Friendly Marlena: Shut up!  You came here to make friends!  Who will want to be friends with you if you shout down a speaker at this tech talk where you don’t know a soul?
Angry Marlena: (Heavy sigh) Fine!  But I’m gonna stand up anyway and just STARE HIM DOWN!
Friendly Marlena: Would you shut up! That’ll just make you look crazy.
Angry Marlena: $%^^%$$%^&(&%$%^&*(*^%$#$^&**&
Friendly Marlena: %#$%^&J#$@#$#&^((^$#&*^%$#%@#%^%^&*&$

After another 2 minutes of mortification, I noticed that the bus I needed to catch would be arriving directly across the street in 15 minutes, so I got up and quietly exited.  It was a while before I came back to San Francisco for a Meetup.

 

But that’s not my only example.

 

A few months later, I was at an internal corporate conference (for someone other than my current employer), sitting in one of those “seating areas” with some co-workers.  The conference had just wrapped up and we were all sitting around being pretty quiet as our energy was at a low ebb.  Through the thin veil of fake-conference-plants behind me, I overhead a conversation.

 

“But how do you get the motion of them so that they’re nice and bouncy?  Like you just want to grab ‘em?”

“Oh, there’s a library for that.  I love using it for 3-D tits.”

 

People who know me will know exactly the look that was on my face.

 

The conversation continued and I kept doing my best to let it go.  I was not in the best place with my job at the time, and it would have been horrific timing for me to rock any kind of boat.  This made it hard to have a realistic perspective in the moment.
Also, as an aside, I’d just like to say that I LOVE California for making people at larger companies take an online workplace harassment course created by the state.  With the B-movie actors and the hysterically cheesy script, I laughed my way through when I took it, but there have been so many times when I’ve been glad that I took it and glad that my co-workers have also taken it.  It set the right baseline.

Back to the conversation about how to create the best virtual female parts.

 

I tried to be quiet. I did. But I wasn’t.  I jumped up, turned around and screamed, “WOULD YOU STOP TALKING ABOUT ME???!!!!!!!”

 

The guy turned around with the most freaked out look on his face and he screamed back, “NO, NO, I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT YOU!!!!”

 

That was the end of it.  Was there a better way to handle this?  Of course there was!  But, the split-second opportunity for my rational brain to make a better assessment was not long enough.  I guess this was me finding my voice, and even though I’m not 100% proud of what I did, I’m glad that I did something because if I hadn’t said something, I would have been bottling my rage at this incident for the next unfortunate person who told an inappropriate joke in a professional situation.

 

And that’s the double-edged sword that gets plunged through your heart when you’ve been pushed too far:

  • If you don’t do anything and stay quiet, you bottle your emotions up for later which means you’ll be even more rage-tastic the next time something similar happens even if the offhand comment isn’t as cut-and-dried or your boss is making the only fair point he’s ever gonna make.
  • On the other hand, if you do say something, plenty of people will say you’re a crazy paranoid freak on a rant and you just might get fired (in Joan’s case, burned at the stake).

At this point, I’ve been through enough to know that no matter how bad things get immediately after you say what you need to say, even if you lose your job or popular opinion is not on your side, at least you’ve said your peace and let it go.

 

My thoughts are with Adria Richards.

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Welcome to the Walled Garden: When leadership is really just bullying

holes in the garden wall

holes in the garden wall (Photo credit: Badly Drawn Dad)

There is a person in tech, let’s call the person Engineer X, who thinks I am a blight on the industry of software and that my opinions deserve to be seen nowhere other than inside of a black hole.

 

This happened after a really awful conversation on twitter that I won’t be talking about here.  Let’s just say that it happened, and it doesn’t really matter if anyone was right or what either of us said.  For Engineer X, this culminated with blocking me from their twitter and removing the link to my blog from their much viewed blog roll.

 

For me, it began a genuinely awkward couple of months.  I got in trouble at work as my then-boss thought and still thinks Engineer X hung the moon.  I showed up at a small conference typically attended by Engineer X (Engineer X was away that year) and had to introduce myself, for the first time, to people who knew ALL ABOUT the whole twitter fight.  Between my boss’s anger and my own personal anxiety, there’s not much I remember from that conference that wasn’t awkward, and it was no one’s fault but my own.

 

Eventually, though, I moved on and realized that it didn’t matter that much because there is a whole community of people who have been left behind in the wake of Engineer X publicly denouncing them, even threatening physical violence in public against them for the opinions they have expressed about software.  One of my friends tweeted to me, “Welcome to the Walled Garden.”

 

In this age of extended contact through blogs, twitter and other social sites, it’s much easier for anyone to interact with someone they view as a “leader,” and we do.  I’ve actually become pretty close friends with some of the bloggers and people from twitter I followed and originally, idolized.  Sometimes, however, it can be much harder to get a real picture of the people we idolize, and sometimes that picture is vastly different in reality from what we think it will be as we build a pedestal for our uninformed perceptions of these people.

 

I’m a big believer in forming my own opinions about things, but when you start following people on twitter and they start following you back, not to mention having conversations with you, it can be easier than you think to relinquish control over your own thoughts and opinions.  Twitter is always on and fairly asynchronous.  Thus, while I initially thought Engineer X was amazing and a thought leader, when things went so far downhill, so quickly, it hurt even worse because here was someone I had really looked up to telling me that my opinions were worthless.

 

It was upsetting for a while.  Having a harsh conversation in public is unsettling, but everyone has their own personal tipping point.  When this happened to me, I went back over what happened and found that while, in some ways, I had acted rashly, there were good reasons for doing what I did, and I wouldn’t take it back today, even if I could.  There was even a point at which I tried to apologize for my part in it to Engineer X and it didn’t work out at all.  I guess there are some people in this world I’m not meant to get along with and this person is one of them.

 

We all have favorites on twitter and in the software industry.  We all have our false idols.  We hold them up as better versions of ourselves.  Maybe they are who we want to be “when we grow up.”  The truth is, they are all humans.  They say things they don’t mean, they talk out of turn and I’m sure that there is a time, every now and then, when they take out anger and frustration on someone undeserving, just like every human does when we are at our worst.  In this age of blending professional life with personal faults and idosyncracies, where do we draw the line and how much should we be willing to forgive?  How bad is it ok for Engineer X to be?

 

Personally, I’m happy to have this person out of my life, but it still hurts when I see them dump on other people I care about.  What’s even crazier is that there is this weird silently understood reaching out that happens when Engineer X dumps on someone.  This is how often and how widely the person is known for dumping on people.

 

I hope we’re on the edge of a polar shift in software and in social networking.  The “No Asshole” rule has been read by plenty of people and we even have industry segments such as conferences beginning to recognize the importance of emotional safety.  This stuff matters and it makes me happy that it is slowly, but surely infiltrating our culture.

 

It’s time to recognize that we live in a world where our personal and professional lives mix more than ever and that this usually happens in a good way.  But, also, we deserve better than to have bullies in charge of thought leadership in software (or anywhere really), (and before you hold up Steve Jobs, I’d like to remind everyone that there was exactly one Steve Jobs, he is deader than a doornail and you are not him).

 

This blog post comes with an ask.  My ask is that you, dear reader, commit to standing up when you see someone getting bullied on twitter, at a conference or wherever and, even if the bully is someone with influence, letting the bully know that you don’t approve and that IT IS NOT OK.  If you end up being the person who steps out of line because you’re human like the rest of us, at least make the effort of a sincere apology when you are ready.  It will be humiliating and it might not be well received, but it is important to try.

 

As for people like Engineer X who don’t seem to understand how to not bully others, I believe they are in a slow process of building their own walled garden because, eventually, they will block out everyone who’s opinions don’t seem as perfect as their own.

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