Saving your life with books.

May 29th, 2019

“I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.”

—Mary Oliver, “Staying Alive” (via Maria Popova)

[Photo by Janko Ferli? on Unsplash]

Do yourself a favor and see ROMA.

January 2nd, 2019

I watched Alfonso Cuarón’s ROMA yesterday on a 70mm print at the Alamo Ritz in downtown Austin. Rather than tell you more about the movie, I’m going to recommend that you go into it with no more than what you’ll find out by watching the trailer above — or even less than that, as I did.

Suffice it to say: this mostly quiet, intense movie is intimate, at times heart-rending, and impossible to forget. I cried. At moments I had my heart in my throat. I connected with the characters. And later in the day my girlfriend and I discussed the movie for easily an hour.

Cuarón is one of the living masters of cinema, and ROMA is a very personal masterpiece from his hand. Not just worth seeing, but worth seeing on the big screen.

Doing something about my dream every single day.

February 8th, 2018

This is hardly a new idea: if something is important to you, make it a priority to do SOMETHING on it every single day.

Your fitness. Your art. The good order of your life. Your relationship. You’ll know.

Jerry Seinfeld talks about it in terms of “Don’t break the chain.” There’s a whole movement for “non-zero days” (launched in this epic Reddit comment, but also glossed usefully here). Whatever approach you take, just make sure you do at least one little thing each day that moves you closer to your dreams.

I’ve been candid here about the struggle that I’ve been through lately. 2017 was a hard, hard year, and now I’m rebooting my life in many different ways. From that vantage point, it’s easy for me to see how I’ve allowed relationship issues, making a living, and all of the other things that have filled my days to keep me away from my real work — writing books.

Writing books is who I really am, regardless of my relationship status or what day job I have. (Note this post from, alas, 2009.) And yet I’ve been treating it as optional, or as something that can come later. Well, enough of that bullshit. Writing my first novel every single day until it is done is as important as anything in my life, and now I’m acting like it.

The picture at the top of the page shows my buddy Austin Kleon‘s hand-drawn calendar to get you going on the Seinfeld model. (You can download it here.) As you can see, this is day 9 for me of writing my novel. Results so far:

  • Getting well synced with the ideas in the story, which I started cooking up in October but set aside as life intervened. (Or, as I allowed life to intervene; I’m working to take full responsibility for my own actions — which this project also helps.)
  • Yesterday and today, I was able to spend longer periods happily pecking away without feeling the need to check social media, read e-mails, and so on. And during those periods, the ideas just flowed, such that now I see much better how different parts of the book — plot points, characters, themes — will play off of each other. Now there are also more little details that will make specific scenes hum. These are reminders, as a writer friend was telling me a while back, that I’m wired such that I will always be full of new ideas. That, in turn, means that I can afford to freely discard stale ideas weighing me down.
  • In general, I just feel better about my progress. Artists create. Writers write. I’m writing. Pow.

What are you working on that deserves a piece of your attention every single day?

I mean, I do still like a nice drink.

February 6th, 2018


As I reboot my life (context here), I’m reviewing my old hopes and dreams — too many of which have been set aside over time — and then checking my behavior for alignment with them.

(“Alignment” gets way overused as a business buzzword, but I riffed on its authentic use in this Twitter thread.)


  1. I’ve recently declined to bid on some client jobs that I realized weren’t right for me, even though a one-man LLC like me is almost always looking for the next gig.
  2. I recently donated a huge pile of books to the local library, even though I’ve already culled hundreds of books from my shelves over the past few years.
  3. Yesterday I started Instagramming the discards from my old files of draftwork.

The client from #1 wasn’t a bad client — just the wrong client for me at this point in my life. Same with the books from #2 and the draft from #3. Actually, no, that draft wasn’t great at all, but the point remains that it was time to move on from it.

In every case, it’s about discarding what’s not helping you. Which brings me to booze.

I’m not what I would call a “problem drinker,” much less an alcoholic. I never, ever get wasted, and in fact I’m safe to drive 99.95% of the time — with that occasional 0.05% coming when I’m safe at home at the end of the day with nowhere to go.

And yet . . .

Over the past couple of years, three different people I trust have expressed concern that I’m a little too quick to go for another round, or to top up that Manhattan. It’s an easy thing to do: I buy good booze, and I make good drinks. I have many friends who like craft cocktails and craft beer like I do, and it’s great to connect with them over a drink.

But in the course of my working days, I’m often alone, and when you’re working from a home office it’s very easy to start happy hour at 4:00 p.m. instead of 5:00, and to pour that second round before dinnertime arrives. And then maybe a nightcap. And it’s even easier when you feel sad and tired.

I think that drinking has cost me a fair bit. I don’t lavish funds on any one bottle — $30 is typically my limit — but it does add up, week in and week out. And it costs me even more when it erodes my work productivity.

So earlier today I went downstairs, poured out all of my mixing booze and all of my beer, and took the picture you see above. There was no great plan for this in place, and it wasn’t some decision that had been plaguing me. It just felt like it was time, you know?

I have happy hour drinks scheduled with friends for each of the next three days, and I’ll happily have a pint of something good — but just the one — when I’m with them. You better believe that next time I’m in New York I’ll be hitting up Attaboy or The Dead Rabbit.

But for now: not at home. Not by myself. I have too much work to do to write this novel, reshape my body (those liquid calories weren’t helping), reorient my career, and reboot my life. I feel lighter already.

Is there something you’re ready to cast aside, something that’s been weighing you down?

What’s stopping you?

“I’m sorry.” . . . “Not your fault.”

January 4th, 2018

A language peeve I’ve run into with friends from time to time . . .

Friend: [describes death in the family or other hard situation]

Me: “I’m so sorry.”

Friend: “It’s not your fault.”

Please, no, don’t do that. It sends the conversation in the wrong direction because it misses the point.

“I’m sorry” expresses “I have sorrow.” Yes, often, we use this to convey “I have sorrow for what I did to you,” and it’s a very useful—almost magical—phrase when used as an apology. But it can also convey “I have sorrow for your loss” or “I have sorrow over your unfortunate circumstances.”

Clearly, if someone says “I’m sorry” about a situation they have no part in—the death of your loved one or whatever—they are not conveying sorrow for something they did to you, but sorrow over your situation.

A much better reply is “Thank you.” That might more fluidly lead to their saying “Is there anything I can do to help?” and so on—not derailed by the logical non sequitur.

Starting Over

January 2nd, 2018

It’s a new year, sure, but it’s also a new chapter in my life. The most important relationship I’ve ever had has drawn to a close, so this is a season of transitions, learning, rebirth.

Rebirth is painful. You have to start all over, but without the infant’s naivete that carried you through the last time. You feel it all — or you should, if you want the experience to educate you. It’s horrifying, lonely, and wrenching, but also electrifying, vivid, and rejuvenating.

If you’ll let it be. If you’ll learn the lessons. If you’ll embody the experience without looking away from the worst parts.

You have to live the worst parts, go ahead and live through them, so that you can learn the lessons. That’s what makes it so hard.

This year, then, I’m cleaning the slate. New clients, new projects, new writing of my own; new fitness regime, new mindfulness; new friendships, new habits, new patterns. Questioning the old scripts and the old ways, keeping only the ones that bring me joy or still teach me something new.

In this process, I’m seeking to make amends — not that I was ever an addict, thank goodness, but that, in living through the emotional hardships of the past years, I’ve taken my eye off the ball with too many friends and clients, and with too many projects that would have been worthy had I carried them through.

That is partly — no small part — about making amends with myself. Forgiving myself for my shortcomings and mistakes, and making it right with myself by living through my talents to make the world around me better. Doing my real work, and being a real light to those around me.

When I’m doing it right, I feel grateful, even for the heartbreaks. They’ve brought me to this point, where I’m truly ready to grow into the person I’m supposed to be.

May we all have a fruitful journey.

[Image source]

May I be of professional service to you?

March 19th, 2017

Greetings, friend! Like a proper hired gun should, from time to time I post here to tell people what I’m good at, what I can do for them, and what sorts of gigs I’m looking for. (Plus there’s a part at the end that tells you how you can help!)

What it boils down to:

  • I help companies—especially B2B tech companies—get better at content marketing so they can appeal to their customers more successfully.
  • I help authors and literary agents by outlining, ghostwriting, and editing book proposals and full manuscripts to make them great.

My Two Superpowers

After many years in business, I can tell you that I’m really, really good at two things:

  1. Learning a client’s offerings—even complex technical ones—and their customers’ needs quickly, then helping the client figure out the best ways to talk about how those offerings solve their customers’ business
  2. Writing top-quality prose that conveys the material from #1 with zero jargon, and without sounding like either a marketing pitch or a technical manual.

Note how this applies to book projects as well: pick up the topic on the fly ==> understand the audience ==> help the author convey the right messages in their own voice to that audience.

Content Marketing

For some years now, I’ve earned most of my living as a content marketing consultant, primarily for B2B hardware and software companies. I consider myself a “full-stack” content marketer, meaning that I can help you with:

  • Content Strategy — Do you have your brand messaging worked out, but don’t know how it translates to your ongoing content needs? Are you having trouble getting all of your company materials (website, white papers, blog posts, video scripts, sales decks, . . . ) to sing from the same hymnbook? Maybe you’re rebranding, or introducing a new product line, and you realize that it’s time to evaluate and refresh your content across the board? That’s where I come in.
  • Editorial Planning — The best strategy in the world won’t help you until it’s translated into tasks that can be assigned and tracked week to week. This is especially helpful if you have people in-house (marketers, product managers, engineers good at writing, et al.) who can do some of the content creation . . . but you don’t have anyone on board with the time and the know-how to bring it all together. I can help you turn content strategy into an editorial plan with a clear editorial calendar that allows your team to deliver great, relevant material on time.
  • Cornerstone Pieces of Content — Maybe it’s your new corporate video that needs a better script. Maybe it’s an exemplar e-book. Maybe it’s a series of posts to set the tone for your blog. I’ve helped many clients clarify their approach to content by writing initial pieces that hit all the marks and serve as examples for what their own staff members can write going forward.
  • Ongoing Writing — And then sometimes clients just need high-quality articles, white papers, blog posts, and so on month after month. I’ve been writing and editing for publication for almost thirty years, and I’m always happy to help out with these nitty-gritty details.

I have no interest in running marketing campaigns, analytics, or SEO for anybody, much less in serving as a marketing director, but I love helping devise, organize, and create the content that will serve all of those other functions. In my best client relationships, I’m able to act as an extended member of the marketing team and help clients punch above their weight without needing to bring on new permanent employees. (I don’t come cheap, but contracting for a slice of my time is still a lot less expensive than hiring a full-time employee, much less one with my background.)

Ghostwriting and Editing

Lately I’ve been doing a lot more work on other people’s books. This includes:

  • Editing — I do developmental editing in both fiction and nonfiction, as well as copy editing across all genres.
  • Ghostwriting — I enjoy working with authors who have expertise and stories to share, but who need a pro writer to tune up their prose and help them get their voice onto the page.
  • Outlines & Proposals — One of the best ways to get started on nonfiction books, I find, is to do a limited engagement to nail down the outline or proposal. Happy to talk with authors or literary agents about what I can do for them in this vein.

My Ideal Gig

Given my omnivorous curiosity, my long experience bridging print journalism, academic research, business analysis, and marketing, and my fascination with storytelling, I’m game to consider just about any project in the categories above that piques my interest and pays at a premium rate.

My perfect corporate client would be a small B2B tech startup, or a small unit within a bigger tech company, that offers something genuinely innovative for solving customers’ problems. My clients often have marketing leadership and even content programs in place, but they know they need help unifying and clarifying their approach and then spreading that across various genres and media types to support their business goals. Given my range of experience, this often goes well beyond typical editorial work into, for instance, heavy revision of enterprise sales decks and scripting for webinars.

Ideally, I like to work with a handful of ongoing clients at a time, typically in the range of mid-four-figures to low-five-figures per month. That said, I’ve operated under all kinds of arrangements—by the project, on retainer, and so on—and I’m happy to discuss what would work best for you. Sometimes, a quick, lower-commitment starter piece or a bit of consulting billed by the hour is just the thing for us to get to know each other and figure out how well we fit for bigger projects.

Need Something? Know of Anything Relevant?

“But, Tim,” I can hear you saying, “how can I help make gigs and paychecks rain down on you?”

Aren’t you nice? I’m so glad you asked!

First, please think about the work to be done in the coming months by you and any organizations you work with—certainly including your employer, but extending to professional associations, nonprofits, and so on. What are the projects on your horizon that would benefit from the work of a writer, editor, and marketer with my skill set?

Second, please take a minute right now to think of two—just two—people you know well who I don’t already know who might be in the market for what I offer in the coming months, and then introduce me to them. A three-line e-mail copying us both and pointing to this post could be just the thing.

Third, please feel free to reply privately with any other ideas you have about my work, how I can market myself 1-on-1, or even how I could refine or clarify what I’ve said in this post. (My e-mail address is there in the sidebar.)

And, truly, . . . THANK YOU. I really do get by with a little help from my friends.

Start with the state houses.

January 17th, 2017

Yesterday I opined that, no, Americans—and American progressives—are not “doomed” by the incoming Administration. We’re certainly not helped, but it’s not the end.

Where, then, do we begin? I suggest that, while remaining vigilant and activist about what’s happening in Washington, progressives would do well to focus on local and state races.

This is hardly original advice on my part, and it’s hardly new. Here in Texas, Democrats have gone 0-for-the-21st-century in capturing any of the statewide electoral seats. (Y’all please correct me if I’ve overlooked some stray winner in there.) And it hasn’t been any better in the Texas Lege.

That trend applies nationwide, as Amber Phillips explains in this informative Washington Post article written just after the 2016 general election:

These 3 maps show just how dominant Republicans are in America after Tuesday

Note that the G.O.P. has this dominant position—such that about 80% of the country’s population lives in states whose governments are controlled by Republicans—even though Democrats win just as many votes, or even more votes, in the aggregate. (Exhibit A: Hillary Clinton’s large but ultimately irrelevant margin in the popular vote.)

So, what to do? Put more effort and money into the grind-it-out work that needs to happen at the grassroots level. Support and cultivate local candidates; take back seats.

It’s a long road, especially because movement conservatives have been focused on these efforts for decades (see the Phillips article for more details), and their entrenched position puts them in control for redistricting that benefits them after the 2020 Census. (The same thing happened after the last two rounds of the Census, too, which helps explain the bigger problem.)

But what else are we going to do—give up? No.

Long road. Lots of work. But worth it.


January 16th, 2017

The other day I had a discussion with a Twitter acquaintance who’s of the opinion that the United States—and especially any progressive agenda within it—is doomed.

Though I wasn’t able to shake his pessimism, his take on this is wrong, for at least two reasons:

  1. Mordor, this ain’t. (Compare current conditions to the picture above.) Not to make light of the political situation or the cruel steps being taken by the President-Elect and the majority in Congress, and not being any kind of a Pollyanna, but: have some perspective.
  2. Even if it were Mordor . . . that’s not the way to think about it, for important psychological reasons.

Cynicism tends to breed doubt and inaction. After all, if we really are doomed, then why even try?

Realism tinged with an optimistic openness to good things that might happen if we try—which is another way of invoking the Stockdale Paradox—is the right approach.

Yes, things are bad. Bad enough that we can’t sit back and wait for them to get better, or take for granted even those cherished institutions and norms that seemed the most entrenched up to now. (Can you even imagine Eisenhower, Reagan, or Obama shouting down a reporter at a press conference? It’s sickening.)

But also . . . there are things we can do. There are. There ARE.

My Twitter interlocutor said something about holding out for Michelle in 2020, by which I take it to mean that he hopes Michelle Obama will run for the Democratic nomination then. As much as I respect Mrs. Obama, my friend’s wish should hardly be the centerpiece of anyone’s approach, because it relies on a singular political savior (long odds on that) and puts off the next inflection point for action by four years.

It seems fitting to be thinking about this on the day we choose to commemorate Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. There’s a reason he titled his 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait.

And remember, those of you who are fantasy buffs, that it was within the bowels of Mt. Doom itself that Frodo destroyed the One Ring.

If we have reached Mordor, so be it. Let’s continue the work.

My Year in Reading: 2016

December 31st, 2016

It wasn’t great. While I did read some really nice books this year, plus lots of rewarding shorter stuff (mostly in The New Yorker and The Ringer or via links encountered on Twitter), I only finished . . . thirteen books. In fact, it’s been eight years since I read as many as twenty books in any calendar year.

That’s just not cutting it.

As I look back at the reading notebook I’ve kept for the past twenty years, it’s not hard for me to recall the prevailing conditions that have led me to read more books (graduate school, daily bus commutes) or fewer (social media).

For 2017, I’m creating my own prevailing conditions for reading more, starting with a commitment to spend much less time—and radically less grazing time—on social media. Here are some other things I’m doing:

  • rearranging my office slightly
  • setting calendar reminders
  • creating a specific “Read These Next” list for my computer desktop, with separate categories for research, fiction, general nonfiction, and other things like poetry and graphic novels
  • moving my Kindle and Goodreads apps front and center on my phone and tablet

And now I’m reinforcing all of that by telling all of you that my goal is to average reading one book per week for 2017.

What’s your reading goal for the new year?

Photo by Hernán Piñera, shared via a Creative Commons license