Category: Writing

November 5th, 2013

Yesterday, Sierra picked up a book on the stained glass windows of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Though the book was in English, the captions were still in French. She read them anyway.

“Less troys rosettes noter dayme dee paris est lun dess grands chefs dee lah churn-ten.”

Sierra is six, yet here she is, fearlessly hacking through incomplete French sentences as if they were just another set of words she hadn’t yet learned in first grade. To her, she’s simply learning to read, and these are new words. She doesn’t know it’s a new language because every word is part of a new language.

In each new incarnation of my professional career, I’ve been dropped into a new language, and I’ve pushed forward with fervor. When I first tasted call center middle management, I was eager and ready to work. When I became a copywriter, I devoured every resource. Now, in the impossible to contain web industry, I still find myself going off on tangents, assuming I’ll need to know everything about everything.

These early days allow us to work without history. They allow us to do what we think is right, without censorship, because we haven’t yet been proven wrong.

This happens with films and books and music. We launch ourselves into genres without regard to what’s considered “legitimate.” We fall in love with bands like Coldplay and Pearl Jam before we hear the negative reviews and backlash. We take it all in, because it’s all new to us.

Each failure tempers our exploration. We cut back on tasks and narrow our vision. We stop taking chances, because we know what we’re supposed to do.

But maybe we should just keep reading on, regardless of the content, regardless of whether or not it’s within our bounds. Of course we should learn from our mistakes, but maybe we should spend less time trying to prevent them in the first place.

Maybe we should pretend we’re French, even if only for a caption or two.

Category: Career, On..., Words, Writing

June 13th, 2013

This blog post has been deleted three times in the past five days. Each time, it was close – close to being publishable, which is ridiculous, because anything is publishable. I have a blog. I have a submit button. I can make anything live.

But I don’t. Instead, I try again. I stop. I rewrite. I kill my darlings through massacre. We’re having a fire sale. Everything must go.

Internal Monologue

We read a lot. Every day. It’s paralyzing to see the amount of emotionally charged and culturally relevant writing that gets poured onto the web each day, each author with a unique voice, each piece an original place.

It’s hard not to want to be involved. It’s even harder to be involved. Because now that writing you used to love has shifted from leisure to benchmark. When you care so strongly about writing something amazing, it’s impossible to see other great writing as anything but necessary competition.

I have always been jealous of the writers for sites like The Pastry Box Project, who are asked to bare their souls to an audience eager for enlightenment, where raw emotion is turned into life lesson. I’m jealous for how easy they make it look. But this ain’t easy, people: the line between navel gazing self-flagellation and genuine personal insight is thin. It’s stepped over and brushed aside and it takes a genuine voice to keep things civil and free from pity.

Some of us try and fail. Not because we can’t do it, but because our internal monologue – familiar with this specific brand of personal emotion – says its all tired and go ahead just stop because jeez you’d be happier just eating another grilled cheese sandwich.

I’m one of these people. This is where the self-flagellation starts.

On Fear

My writer’s block story is typical, boring and expected. Yet, it feels like a revelation to me – a classic case of forests and trees and not being able to see either for the blindfold.

For me, writing was never supposed to be about visibility. It was my way of making sense of things. I wrote because I wanted to. I wrote because it felt like a skill I could take advantage of.

But somewhere along the way, I became visible. I struck gold. Once. The audience expanded, and my work was thrust into the public. I became more careful. I started thinking things through. I saw my audience – you, the public – and I wrote consciously, with purpose. I tried to write things that would hit people emotionally. Then, I stopped writing anything but emotionally. I questioned each new piece as relevant. I didn’t write anything that wasn’t meant to strike a chord. I fact-checked too much. I threw away every idea as superfluous. I stopped having fun.

I stopped having fun.

I had answers for every situation. People don’t want to read some whiny kid talk about feelings, so I won’t do that anymore. People don’t want to read about sports, or music, so I won’t do that anymore. People don’t want to read about boring dad things, so I won’t do that anymore.

As my small scope of influence grew, I found myself less willing to offer any real kind of influence. I went safe, or I didn’t go at all.

The larger the audience, the more I withdrew. The riskier the subject, the more I held back. Which brings us to where I am today: I’ve stopped saying what I want, and I’ve started being afraid of being wrong.

I am afraid of being wrong. I am afraid of being trivial. I am afraid of publishing something that will be seen as unsatisfactory.

So I publish nothing at all.

The New Rules

When I started this blog in 2005, I did so as a hobby. I was going to teach myself to write by writing every day. The daily publishing routine kept me honest and kept me thinking – every topic was worthwhile as long as it interested me. As long as it fueled some kind of passion.

Somewhere along the way, I forgot what I was doing here. I forgot who my audience was.

That audience was always me.

And, as pedantic as it sounds, I am those things I stopped writing about. I am a whiny dude with feelings. I love basketball and music. I love my kids. These are major parts of my life, and I can write about them if I want to.

But I can also write about things that make me angry. I can state my immediate feelings without worrying about which people feel differently. I can write small posts about whatever the hell I want, because damn it why shouldn’t I?

Starting today, I’m becoming the audience again.

I will write for you, yes. I will write for you because I like you. I want you to like me. I won’t make that a secret. We all want to be liked.

But if you don’t, that’s no big deal anymore. That’s not the point.

Sorry in advance. Things might get a little noisier over here.

Category: Blogging, Meta, Writing

May 14th, 2013

My greatest flaw is my memory. I’d wager that it’s our greatest flaw as a species. Our inability to remember certain things. The stress and hurt and confusion that comes from those lapses in memory.

Life in Folders

It’s because of my memory – and in spite of my memory, probably – that I found such affinity with the web: its organization, its structure, its ability to remember everything. Technology has replaced the sticky parts of our memory with a kind of semi-permanent record – a rolodex, a record collection, a calendar, a life connected by data and stored in a mythical cloud.

That’s good, right? Or are we losing something by depending on artificial knowledge like this?

The fine people at Offscreen Magazine asked me to write about something – anything – and this is what I landed on. It’s about photography. It’s about information architecture. It’s about my faulty memory. It’s about organization, its place in our life, and why it matters.

It’s one of the things I’m most proud of, too, this short essay.

You can’t read it online – not yet. When Issue 6 goes live, I’ll post “Life in Folders” for you. But out of respect for the magazine – and because, seriously, this magazine is fantastic and you should just buy it already because Nicole Jones‘ very short but very awesome thank you letter to the web is everything I’ve wanted to say for a long time – you’ll just have to purchase it or wait a bit.

It’s worth the purchase. I hope it’s worth the wait.

Category: Meta, Writing

May 6th, 2013

Through one major project and two conference gigs, I’ve spent the past two months being pressed under the weight of responsibility, my thoughts rarely wandering from my workload. It was an albatross. It was always there. And now that it’s over, I am at a loss.

Which is not to say I didn’t look forward to being finished. I did. I did very much.

“Finally,” I thought. “I’ll be able to focus on something else.” Get back to writing. Get back to taking care of months of photography, of taking up all of the hobbies I had abandoned, to release my mind from the grip it had around projects and speaking and let go a bit. Exercise. Get some sleep. Kill the anxiety.

But I’m frozen. I’m stunned. I don’t know where to start.

I’ve spent the past two months being pressed under the weight of responsibility. I dug myself out from under it. I forced a tunnel out of the stress, and emerged at the other end, bathed in freedom, ready for the sun. Instead, all I can do is blink my eyes and ease back. All I can do is hunker back into the tunnel until I’m used to feeling normal again.

Category: Career, Writing

February 19th, 2013

Writing is not inexhaustible, just as any creative skill is not inexhaustible. We can run out of words. This is a writer’s way of knowing that it’s time to stop – that nothing else is going to come of this, and that the cup of hot tea is more important than pushing the issue.

Looks like I’ve run out over the past few months.

Yet, there’s nothing that warns us about this. Call it fatigue – the fatigue that comes from writing for work and writing a column and writing about an industry – or call it blind fear – the fear that comes from making deadlines about very large projects. It’s bound to happen.

The words stop.

It’s a battle to make them start again. But they have to start somewhere.

I know. This writing about writing schtick gets tired, but it’s also how some people break out of the doldrums. When every possible post looks like an unscalable wall, the only thing that breaks through writer’s block is talking about writer’s block.

So forgive me for this writer’s block. If you’re still around, your patience will be rewarded – even if only a little bit at a time.

Category: Meta, Writing

December 7th, 2012

Though we hate to admit it, we’re all, in some way, defined by the tools we use. The stuff we do and the things we love and the legacy we create is all deeply tied to the tools we use to get the job done – to embrace our inner neanderthal and the extensions we pick up.

Tools are specialized. They are created as a response to a problem, and they solve a very specific issue. Plumbers have specialized tools, and if you use those tools on a regular basis you are more likely to be defined as a plumber. Even those of us who use tools with wide use – laptops, or pen and pencil – are further subdivided by the solutions we use within that larger tool’s ecosystem – apps, programs, styles, brands.

I think the differences in toolsets – and the reasons why we choose them in the first place – is really fascinating, and for that reason I’ve always been drawn to The Setup – a site that focuses on what people use to get stuff done. There’s a definite focus on tools, here – equipment, apps, hacked-up solutions – over method, which, admittedly, can be dangerous. (There’s nothing worse than those moments when you realize you’ve spend hours getting a THING set up so you can actually begin doing the STUFF you want to do.)

Some of my favorite people have been featured, including:

Knowing I’m just some punk web strategist, I’m making the assumption that I’ll never be asked to submit to the site and, instead, I’m going to just lay it all out right here. This is my bootleg version of The Setup. (Without the cool URL, unfortunately.)

Who are you, and what do you do?

I’m Corey Vilhauer. I am a web strategist who still pretends he’s a writer. Sometimes I take pictures. I also blog about beer.

What hardware do you use?

I’m currently on a year-and-a-half old 15″ MacBook Pro. On the go, it’s just the laptop, but when at my desk at work it’s accompanied by two Samsung SyncMaster PX2370 23″ monitors – the better to cross-reference spreadsheets and style guides with, of course. My backups are also all handled at work through a 1TB Western Digital My Book external hard drive. I have a Magic Mouse, and my keyboard is wired.

My second screen is an iPhone 4S, which is what I now use as an iPod despite also having an older Classic 80GB iPod. I used to use an iPad 1, but ours has gotten so slow it’s difficult for me to use if for anything but reading from the Books app.

I write in a Moleskin because they’re wonderful. I use Energel Liquid Gel Ink pens. It’s all contained in Incase products – an Incase iPhone 4 Slider Case, an Incase 15″ MacBook Pro messenger bag that they don’t sell anymore – because I like Incase a lot.

There was a time I fashioned myself as an amateur photographer (I’m really just a hobbiest now who takes fancy pictures of his kids) but I still use an older Canon Rebel XTi (a.k.a. the EOS 400D) which is an entry level DSLR released in 2006. I’d guess 95% of the time I’m using our Canon 50mm 1.4f prime lens.

And what software?

This is where things get fun. I’ve already posted about how I write, but since then the tools have changed slightly. I write in Markdown using BBEdit as my text editor for posts that will end up as HTML, and I’ve begrudgingly turned back to Pages for documents and deliverables that require an extra level of formatting. (I used to be a MS Word guy, until it started taking minutes to open up.) My files are sorted by a weird combination of client, deliverable and version number – CLIENT DELIVERABLE YYMMDD. This helps my computer keep different versions of a document in chronological order.

To organize my life I use a sync of OmniFocus across my iPhone and my laptop. I use and often hate BusyCal when it comes to calendars, and the revolving door of calendar apps on my iPhone has landed – for now – on Fantastical. I still use Sparrow both for Mac and iOS, even after the Google purchase. I no longer know where things live on my computer because I’ve become an Alfred devotee. I also can’t remember a single one of my passwords because I use 1Password.

At work, we use a combination of a time-tracking system called Redmine and an newly minted intranet built on EPiServer. File sharing and internal discussions happen almost exclusively over Skype. When I need to edit graphics I’ve got a copy of Adobe Creative Suite 4, and when I need to mark things up and illustrate problems I’ll snap a screenshot with Skitch, which I’ve just learned is a part of Evernote.

Most strategic deliverables, as mentioned above, happen in Pages, but wireframes are created in OmniGraffle and presentations are hammered out in Keynote. In the rare case that I’m fooling around with code on one of my three WordPress blogs, I turn toward Expandrive and Smultron.

I’d talk about browsers, but my allegiance changes based on how much trouble I have with the current one. I love things about both Firefox and Chrome, and find myself ditching one for the other every four or five months. It’s a problem.

When I’m not doing work things, my software skews almost exclusively toward iOS. I use Tweetbot for Mac because I love Tweetbot for iOS, and the same is true for Reeder as an RSS channel on both devices. I use Instacast for podcasts, Pocket for time-shifted content, Lose It! and Runkeeper for the times when I’m trying to be healthy, and I use the official apps for Facebook, Instagram and Foursquare.

I read in Books because that’s where all of my books are. I listen to music with iTunes because I have a lot of music there, and when I do it’s with Bose AE2 headphones. I use Adobe Lightroom for editing pictures, and they all end up on Flickr because Flickr is the best place to host images for Much More Sure.

What would be your dream setup?

I don’t know that there’s more I’d need compared to my current set-up, though I imagine someday I’ll get the upgrade to a retina display. My work is a lot of meetings and documents, so as long as I have a fast text editor and a way to export documents to .pdf I’m set. I love the idea of the MacBook Air, but I also cherish a larger screen – when the two become more viable, I’ll jump toward that.

September 20th, 2012

Over the past month, I’ve started a side project with help from the local Argus Leader called Beer I’ve Been Drinking, a more alcoholic version of the old book articles I used to write on this site. Back when I used to read books. Back when I used to read anything, really.

An excerpt from my most recent article about Autumn Brew Review:

Surly Brewing’s line is a two-headed snake, one serving a combination of standard drafts and old favorites, while the other releases special offerings every hour. I skipped their lines the first few times I walked by because I don’t hate myself enough to spend a half hour staring at the back of some guy’s Schell’s hat, but since I now realize I might miss out on the always popular fresh-hopped Surly Wet, I take a chance.

The line’s running smooth. It’s fast. I got some Wet (it is wonderful) and now find myself in the second line, where I finally get to try Surly’s yearly numerical-themed big beer, SŸX. SŸX is also wonderful, except now I’m saying “wonderful” like someone might offhandedly say “sure” to a new car or a million dollars. Syx is beyond wonderful. It’s complex, tart and delicious.

At the Great Lakes booth, I sample the Rye of the Tiger – a rye beer that’s classy and fresh. I love it. It’s getting hot, and I’m impatient. I want to try something they’re tapping at 2:00, so I jokingly ask the guy behind the booth if he could tap it a bit early. He reminds me that the festival’s only been going for 50 minutes.

I realize what this means. I go look for some food.

Between that and a recent design refresh and addition of media queries to make this site look much better on mobile devices, the word flow has been quieted. That will change.

Until then, read about beer. I like to drink it, but I like to write about it even more. For now.

Category: Meta, Writing