Giving Thanks

Tomorrow is a day for sharing dinner with extended family and giving thanks for the abundance in our lives.

The U.S. celebration of Thanksgiving is also famous for a big parade of balloons in New York City, an endless exhibition of college football bowl games, overindulging, long naps, and sneaking a second (or third or fourth) slice of pumpkin pie, among many other traditions.

Before joining the festivities, I’d like to offer a heartfelt thank you to everyone who’s helped me this year as I began learning about social media, especially you, the readers of this blog, which launched almost nine months ago.

I’m profoundly grateful for your willingness to come along for the ride with a blog that veers from discussions about corporate communications and PR to reading and the value of public libraries to Twitter, blogging and Facebook. I recognize that it’s hard to leave comments or join a discussion on this blogging platform (and I’m working over the holiday season to make that a lot better for you), but I appreciate those of you who’ve reached out to me via email to share your thoughts, which have guided many of my choices.

One solution has been to create additional spaces where No Bad Language lives; you’ll now find pages for the blog on Facebook and Google+, which should give those of you who are members of these networks more options for discussion and comments minus the onerous log-in process.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say thank you to the following pros who have been generous and gracious in sharing their expertise and insight about social media. I’ve included links, so you can meet these amazing folks, too:

Rita Wechter, author of the beautiful One Day in America travel and photography blog, and Tracy Fox, writer and creator of the Good Green Words blog for those interested in eco-solutions to everyday life – you were there at the start of this journey; thank you for your encouragement and continued cheerleading!

@rockieshapiro, editor and communications pro par excellence and good friend, who, as all good friends should do, pushed me to dig deeper and learn more – thank you!

Erik Deutsch, media and marketing strategist and principal, ExcelPR Group, who packed more social media insight into six weeks than anyone could possibly imagine. In addition to supporting PRSA in Los Angeles, Erik teaches the essential “Best Practices in Social Media for the Communications Professional” course at UCLA Extension. I’m grateful for everything Erik has to teach.

Chris Lam, social media marketer, PR pro, and animated blogger – thank you for your inspiration!

Serena Erhlich, executive director at Attention, and Dr. Natalie Petouhoff, president of the Social Media Club Los Angeles chapter and author of Like My Stuff – thank you for encouragement and continuing education.

Eric Snoek, new blogger, old and wise friend. We started this journey (oh, so many years ago) as fellow journalism students and professional radio broadcasters and have both grown into blogging. Eric shares his expertise in institutional advancement and so much more at Advancement Synergy. Bang a gong, my friend!

Social media is evolving so fast, I find it’s important to keep an open mind about it all and find good sources of knowledge to help gain perspective and ensure standards in the practice. I’d be at the start of the journey without a compass if it weren’t for all of these wonderful people and you, and that is something truly to give thanks for.

Do You Embrace Happy Accidents?

Maloof's “Happy Accident”: The hard edge.

I attended a lecture about fine furniture-maker Sam Maloof on Saturday, the Huntington Library and its botanical gardens a calm oasis after the ferment of BlogWorld.

Describing Maloof’s practice, Harold B. Nelson, curator of the elegant new exhibition “The House that Sam Built: Sam Maloof and Art in the Pomona Valley 1945 – 1985,” displayed a chair whose finish glowed like honey. Its lines seemed purposeful and true.

But, that purity was born from a mistake.

Maloof, who hand-carved many of his pieces, rather than use the lathe, was in his workshop one day, bringing life to a chairback. The Californians deviated from their east coast and European artistic colleagues by creating a rounded-over aesthetic. According to Nelson, as Maloof worked the wood, his hand slipped, carving a hard edge into the round-over.

Instead of chucking the chair, Maloof stood back to consider. Although it wasn’t what he’d meant to do, the hard edge added something to the soft line of the California round-over style. The hard edge, a “happy accident,” became part of the Maloof signature.

Now, you can bet that Maloof’s original accident didn’t look like the hard edge in that photo above. It could easily have been an ugly, squiggly gouge, a wound to the wood. It would’ve taken time to truly find the hard edge and perhaps even a few more accidents – happy or otherwise – before he perfected it.

The hallmark of an artist is the ability to see the potential and the willingness to let accidents happen.

We Need a Bigger Boat – and More Time

There are some classic stories of happy accidents in creative fields. One of the most famous is the failure of the mechanical shark during the filming of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Day after day on the watery sets around Martha’s Vineyard, “Bruce” the mechanical shark failed to slice through the waters on command – or he sank to the sandy bottom. Out of almost complete failure, Spielberg conjured cinematic magic: it was the unseen menace that created such breathtaking tension. Had Bruce swum back and forth across screen from scene to scene, the audience could have embraced his familiarity and relaxed. Not knowing – and letting the audience’s imagination take over – made “Jaws” far more powerful than seeing the shark.

Some happy accidents have become our apocryphal tales, like the one about Newton and the apple.

It takes patience to give space to possibilities like these. Patience and space require time, and that’s something many of us have precious little of these days whether we work in creative fields or corporate offices.

Still, happy accidents can be encountered as long as we’re in the frame of mind that embraces the idea that even mistakes teach us and sometimes turn out to be rather spectacular.

Have you discovered a happy accident in your writing or other creative work? How did it transform the final piece? What surprises did you encounter along the way? Do you think accidents are truly mistakes or just the creative mind searching for new possibilities? I’d love to hear what you think in the Comments section.

“Waste Land” Demonstrates the Transformative Power of Art

Photo by Vickie Bates.

Last night, I watched “Waste Land,” about the catadores who work day and night picking recyclable materials from Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Gramacho landfill.

The documentary explores what happens when renowned artist Vik Muniz returns to Brazil to photograph the catadores and winds up collaborating with them on works of art – portraits composed of thousands upon thousands of items pulled from the dump that function like pixels in a digital photograph. Fifty-eight minutes into the film, the camera pulls back, and we see the enormity of the portraits the catadores are creating with Muniz, and the effect is mesmerizing.

The portraits are made of throwaway junk from the disposable culture of Rio’s suburbs, the artwork is swept up in the end and disposed of, but the people are never treated by Muniz or the filmmakers as disposable.

The documentary is all about the transcendent power of art. Through the course of the film, you’ll see people’s lives transformed by the act of creation – and by the faith that Muniz had in their ability to be true artistic collaborators.

The Rigdzin Duepa Sand Mandala, created by four master Tibetan mandala artists at Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

Watching this film was akin to witnessing the creation of a mandala, which is a work of art, an act of faith, and a willingness to let go of the ego that wants to claim individual authorship and ownership. Like Muniz’s portraits, mandalas require a team of artists, daily renewal of one’s faith in achieving the final vision, and the strength to sweep it all away in the end and trust that the meaning will survive in the hearts and memories of those who’ve participated.

What happened for Muniz after the creation of these portraits transformed him, too, and it’s a fascinating story to follow as his life and the lives of the filmmakers and catadores intertwine and they take on responsibility for each other’s fates.

Rio will be closing the Jardim Gramacho landfill in 2012, according to the filmmakers, meaning that even these subsistence-level jobs will be lost. As a result of “Waste Land,” which was nominated for an Academy Award and won the 2010 Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award for Best World Cinema Documentary, funds have been donated to the organization representing the catadores to provide retraining and upskilling, as well as education for their children.

You can learn more at the “Waste Land” website or rent or purchase the documentary at places like NetFlix, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

Is there a film, book, artwork that transformed your life, either in the creation of it or the viewing or reading? What was that experience like?

Can You Spare 20 Minutes to Be Inspired for the Rest of the Week?

Caught a short video of a March 2011 TED Talk by Sarah Kay on the plane back to Los Angeles and, despite jet lag, the stiff discomfort of sitting for six hours, and airline food, found myself buzzing with energy and inspiration and itching to write.

Also, wound up surreptitiously wiping away tears in the middle seat of the cattle-car section surrounded by 200 passengers. Kind of an odd sensation, but Kay’s talk is filled with such wonder and joy, it’s infectious.

Notice I’ve waited till the third paragraph to tell you that she’s a…brace yourself…spoken-word poet. Before you say, “This won’t apply to me. I don’t write poetry; I write corporate communications/novels/speeches,” here’s a cheat-sheet detailing why it’s worth your while to watch:

You’ll learn how to write a speech that inspired two standing ovations
Effective writing is not simply a matter of Beginning-Middle-End, notes Kay. Sometimes creating a speech involves mixing it all up. You’ll see what she means as you follow the course of her speech, which earned its first standing ovation just a few minutes in.

If you’re uncomfortable giving presentations to large groups or support a senior leader who’s nervous about public speaking, you’ll see how passion for your subject can override shyness
“My knees still buckle every time I step on a stage,” Kay told the crowded auditorium. She was so excited and nervous about appearing at TED that it almost overwhelmed her ability to speak. But, her passion for her subject and deep respect for the audience carried her along on a wave of enthusiasm that enveloped the audience and made everyone in the room breathless with excitement. This talk doubles as a great training video for anyone who has to regularly give public presentations.

You’ll learn Kay’s list of four things that are key to making writing and messaging great
It starts at the intersection of what you (or a senior leader you support with your writing) are passionate about and what others (your audiences) are invested in.

You’ll find out – for work and life – how writing can help you problem-solve
“It’s not just the adage ‘write what you know,’” Kay said, “it’s about gathering up all of the knowledge and experience you’ve collected up till now to help you dive into the things you don’t know.” Kay uses writing to figure out things (and not just problems she’s having with writing, but everything) she doesn’t understand. Try it with a business problem, you may find you have a solution when your hand has finished moving across the page or keyboard.

Now, here’s your 20 minutes of Monday morning inspiration with Sarah Kay at TED 2011.

Sarah Kay is the founder of Project V.O.I.C.E., which teaches poetry in schools.