The Most Important Thing A Writer Should Never Forget

Iris Chang

 

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

She was a force.

As I looked at her 2 books, The Thread of the Silkworm and The Rape of Nanking, I felt small and foolish sitting among a pile of old photographs from my own family history.

Many people have spoken of the tenacity, brilliance and compassion that drove Iris Chang, an American author and journalist best known for her best-selling 1997 account of the Nanking Massacre, The Rape of Nanking, to achieve so much in her short life. She was a thinker, someone who dreamed big and accomplished even greater things driven by a passion to tell a story that needed to be told.

“Civilization is tissue thin,” Iris wrote. She called this the most important lesson to be learned from the tragedy of Nanking. And she believed her research produced irrevocable proof of Japanese atrocities. She wrote:

“After reading several file cabinets’ worth of documents on Japanese war crimes as well as accounts of ancient atrocities from the pantheon of world history, I would have to conclude that Japan’s behavior during World War II was less a product of dangerous people than of a dangerous government, in a vulnerable culture, in dangerous times, able to sell dangerous rationalizations to those whose human instincts told them otherwise.”

The book hit the stores at Christmas, a tough selling season for serious nonfiction. It became a surprise best-seller. A groundswell of interest in the Chinese American community had quickly spread to booksellers and the broader reading public. Newsweek ran an excerpt, and soon Iris was a familiar face on TV news shows. Reader’s Digest devoted a cover story to her.        

from SFGate

Like others who were in awe of her as a confident young woman who excelled at everything she put her mind to, I feel my attempts to write anything are futile. Especially stories that are rooted in our shared Chinese American background.

Would my stories have the ferocious yet compassionate lens on a human experience?  Could I create something as resonant for my reader?

Something that has the power to comfort the troubled, and trouble the comfortable?

It would be very easy to give up and take up knitting.  To brush off the demon who is dancing on my shoulder daring me to write my story.  To turn away from the story I have been longing to tell.

But I know I won’t because my belief in my story is as strong as Iris Chang’s belief in hers.  She knew how words could bring to life the silent narratives of people with no voice. And that we have to write them.

That is what I tell myself when I sit down to write.

I often wonder if the stars feel like this when the sun rises.

Do they think, “Oh great, now that he’s here we might as well fizzle out.  Who’s going to even see us?”

But sunrise happens everyday.  And so does sunset, which is followed by a dusk, twilight and yes, the stars.  The light of the stars at that moment has its own magic and wonder.

If any of you have ever felt like this, rekindle the passion you have for the story inside of you until it burns bright with an inner flame and tell it.

You may not be a snowflake, but you can dream of being a star.

 

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About the Author: Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer helps artists & creative people grow their careers with great grant writing strategies & mindsets she has developed over 15 years as an veteran grant panelist, grant maker & grant writer. Get her FREE Master Grant Strategy Worksheet and a weekly dose of insights from a grant reviewer’s point of view.

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What’s In Your Pockabook?

the Kelly bag

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

“The bag is at once, the simplest, the most complicated and the most emotion laden of accessories… because in one of its key manifestations, the handbag, it can be deeply expressive of a woman’s life – serving as a companion, a receptacle of secrets, a status object and a means of self display.”

from Fifty Bags That Changed the World: Design Museum Fifty by Robert Anderson

Well, that certainly makes everything in my bag much more significant so I am only going to have things in mine that are the best representation of me, and so should you.

I discovered the mysteries of a woman’s handbag with my Jewish babysitter.  Standing on my tiptoes, I watched her clutch her bag, thrust her solid fingers into the deep silky recesses and emerge with a toffee or a shiny nickel for me.

More revealing than her medicine cabinet, which was a formidable cabinet of curiousities, her handbag was a rare peek into her everyday soul. One that was fed by a scramble of assorted candies, cough drops, tissues, a Helena Rubinstein lipstick – always a brilliant red, loose change and bakery string.

I waited for those moments.  The ones where she would peer through her glasses and sigh, “Kindeleh, gib mir mein pockabook.”  And I would stand on my toes to peek into the deep universe of her handbag.  Her pockabook.

Pockabook!

How I longed to have one of my own.

And what would I put in my pockabook?  What precious items, things I wanted near me, things I would feel incomplete leaving the house without?

I consider everything I carry in my bag as urban survival tools.  They are everything I need to navigate my way through my daily jungle.

Here’s what I have in my bag today and why:

  • keys – can’t drive without them
  • wallet – can’t buy coffee or get into buildings in the city without little pieces of plastic with my name and face on them
  • phone – can’t deal with the ridiculous anxiety I get when I don’t have my phone. I know, that’s hardly a good reason but I can’t help it.
  • pencil case – yes, i still carry No. 2 pencils.
  • sketchbook – I love to draw people. And trees and conversations and attitudes.
  • a story to work on – there are always those unexpected snatches of time – sometimes just a few minutes, sometimes a 25 minute train ride – where I can get some thinking and writing done.  It adds up.

That’s it.

These are things I carry through my day but they actually carry my artistic vision closer to reality everyday.

Some people carry earphones to listen to music.  I will carry earphones to block out any sounds that distract me from what I am doing.

Some people load up their phones with games and movies to entertain them.  I load up my drawing apps with sketches.

Some people read e books.  I write ebooks.

I carry only what I need to get through my day and to capture it at a moment’s notice.

I am not a carrier of stuff.  I am a gatherer of images.

I do not need toys.  I need tools.

I am not a consumer.  I am a creator.

What are you doing and what is in your pockabook?

 

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Hoong Yee

20140603_142704

About the Author: Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer helps artists & creative people grow their careers with great grant writing strategies & mindsets she has developed over 15 years as an veteran grant panelist, grant maker & grant writer. Get her FREE Master Grant Strategy Worksheet and a weekly dose of insights from a grant reviewer’s point of view.

How to Write a Proposal that Gets to YES

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

She stared at the envelope in her hand.

With a deep breath, she closed her eyes and slowly pulled out the letter.

Her fingers told her the paper had a nice weight to it, a linen finish, 2 or 3 paragraphs of text, an embossed logo.  Impressive.

Her instincts told her nothing.  They were wrestling with conflicting outcomes, each one invested with tremendous emotions.

If I get the grant, my life and career as an artist will be successfully transformed.  If I don’t get the grant, I will be crushed, dejected and consumed with self doubt.

If you are an artist who has written grants for your work, chances are you have been in this moment of truth situation. Anyone who has put together proposals or pitches knows that this is simply part of the territory of fundraising and awareness building of who you are.

Getting grants is important for more than just the cash award that comes with it.  A certain validation and recognition comes with grant awards. Some artists have developed long lasting relationships with their funders who have grown into loyal fans and collectors.  And in some cases, getting your first grant can open the doors to getting grants from larger funders.

This was actually my path to becoming a grant supported artist in the beginning of my career. Now, after spending over a decade in the arts as a grantmaker in Queens, NY, a grantwriter and a grant reviewer for many foundations and corporate philanthropies,  I know that the ability to put together a clear and well written proposal is the most powerful skill an artist needs to build a successful career.

 

Rejection is tough.

No one likes spending a lot of time and effort putting a proposal together that gets shot down and feeling that your work isn’t worthy of funding. This is the time all those pesky demons start coming around to fill your head with self doubt and thoughts of giving up.  But you keep wondering, “How do other artists get grants?  What are they doing that I’m not doing?”

Here’s what you may be thinking

“I’m an artist, not a writer.”

Yes and no. This is an excuse. Being an artist does not exempt you from being to communicate clearly whether it is about your work or directions to your studio.  That knowledge, insights and a deeper understanding will emerge when you spend some time asking yourself clarifying questions about your work.  You can write with confidence once you know what it is you want to say.

“My art can speak for itself.”

This is the second part of the first excuse.  The only thing your art will do is open up a million reactions, none of which you will have any control over.  People are drawn to the back story of the art as well as the actual piece.  In a grant proposal, it is the story that is important.   The art illuminates your artistic process and thinking.

“I don’t know where to begin.”

You start by asking yourself some important basic questions to understand the why, what and how of your project.  The answers will help you understand why your work deserves to exist.  In a grant environment, this is what builds passion and support for a proposal to be funded.

Mastering the art of proposal writing will give you a powerful tool to benefit all parts of your creative career.  These skills impact how you talk to people about your work, how you pitch your projects to funders and donors, what you say in your elevator speech or while you are waiting on line at the bar during a reception.

Most proposals are written close to the vest.  Just you, your project and your computer.  You are the best person to give life to this project and at the same time, that closeness can make it hard for you to communicate that in a compelling way that rises to the top in a competitive grant review process.

After spending over a decade around grants as a grantmaker, a grantwriter and a grant reviewer for foundations and corporate philanthropies around the country, I have seen certain things that grantwinners do that reflect a distinct mindset and focus.

There are some things you can control and some things that you cannot control.

You don’t know how your proposal will land.  Your proposal may be the first one out of the gate to be read, it could be the one after the morning coffee wears off, it could be the last one of the day.  This is something you cannot control.

There is something that can be your superpower if you use it well, or your worst nightmare if you don’t.  This is something you engage when you think about how your proposal lands.

You need to write as if you are going on after the Beatles.

How do you do that?

By engaging your superpower: Readability

This is your most powerful weapon against panelist fatigue, panelist rage (yes, this can happen, but I will show you how to turn around to work in your favor), and will position you ahead of your competition.

I have 6 time tested strategies to sharpen your readability skills:

  • White space
  • Shorter sentences and text blocks
  • Bullets
  • Consistency
  • Clarity
  • Kill your darlings

White space

MASTER MINDSET: YOUR EYES NEED AIR

When I am faced with a stack of proposals that look like walls of text, I can feel overwhelmed and less than ecstatic about trudging through them.  I get tired and frustrated when I have to dig further or navigate through a seemingly endless sea of sentences to find the answers.  My eyes seek places to land and anchor myself.

With e grants and their specific word counts, writing becomes a challenge for you to distill your thoughts into a highly skimmable and readable form, not a place to dump everything you want to say.

Use shorter sentences.  Choose a simple word over a ten dollar word. Avoid jargon.

This is a place where you can turn every answer to the questions into a compelling reason why you are the best candidate for the grant.

Many fiction writing teachers tell their students that each sentence they write must exist to do one thing – to move the story.  In a grant, the purpose of every sentence is not to present yourself as the best artist, but to position you as the best candidate for the grant by answering the questions.

Answer the questions.

If you do this well, you will be way ahead of the game.  The narrative is not a soapbox for your artistic statement or vision.  It is not a place to present yourself as the best artist but as the best candidate.

Your eyes have to come up for air. White space around text has this curious effect of compressing importance and urgency into a space that we can focus our attention on.

When you section off your responses, you make it easier to find the information we are looking for. It makes things look less daunting, less confusing.  The breaks in your text, which I love, set the pace for an easy to read, clear and balanced flow of information.  It gives our brain a moment to absorb what we have just read and retain what you want us to remember.

E grants often have set word counts and other limits.  You will be doing yourself a big favor by using white space in your narrative where ever possible.

Bullets

MASTER MINDSET: BULLETS ROCK

They don’t call these things bullets for nothing.

Bullets make your data pop. Bullets make you look professional.

They make it easy to take in and remember key points.  Use bullets to highlight important data that support your answers.

I have heard other grant panelists easily make a case in support of a proposal by simply rattling off bullet points to support their opinion.

Consistency

MASTER MINDSET: CONSISTENCY IS ATTRACTIVE

The mind loves patterns.

Patterns make it easier to navigate and remember information.

To be memorable, be consistent.

If you are using numbers i.e. “2”, be sure you do not spell out “two” somewhere else in your narrative.  If you are using the third person voice, maintain that voice throughout your writing.  If you capitalize your captions, capitalize all of them.

E grants offer limited formatting options, sometimes you will only be able to capitalize or use numbers. Still, strive to create a pattern of consistency in your writing with what you are given to help grant panelists read and retain information.  They will remember you for that.

Clarity

MASTER MINDSET: DON’T MAKE ME WONDER

Write as if the person reading your proposal does not know who you are.  Chances are, they don’t.

If you are writing about an organization with a long name, identify it with an acronym the first time you mention it.

For example, Queens Council on the Arts (QCA)

Focus on answering the questions.

If the question is really several questions, you can set off each response to make it easier to find the answers.

Remove anything else that does not support positioning you as the best candidate for the grant.  Unless specifically requested, remove quotes and testimonials.

Kill your darlings

MASTER MINDSET: GIVE ME ONLY WHAT I NEED

Be brave.

This is your next best step.  Be ready to kill your darlings.

Grant writing is best done with many eyes.

Write your first draft and let it sit.  Ask other people to review your work and be a ruthless editor.

To avoid writing that is weak and ineffective, be ready to, as Stephen King famously said to aspiring writers, “Kill your darlings.”

This way, you deliver exactly what a grant panelists needs, that and only that.   Take out whatever doesn’t clearly answer the questions so that you are left with a proposal that is well written, lean and powerful.

Follow these 6 strategies to write a proposal that places you in the top 10% of the field and delivers what a grant panel needs to know to say YES to your proposal.

Deploy readability, your superpower, to avoid panelist fatigue, panelist rage and to position yourself as the best candidate for the grant.

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Hoong Yee

20140603_142704

About the Author: Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer helps artists & creative people grow their careers with great grant writing strategies & mindsets she has developed over 15 years as an veteran grant panelist, grant maker & grant writer. Get her FREE Master Grant Strategy Worksheet and a weekly dose of insights from a grant reviewer’s point of view.

How Music Can Rekindle Your Creative Sense of Wonder

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

I spent an entire weekend in Miami among thousands of people who claimed to be music lovers.

And they behaved in many ways like music lovers – gathering with excitement, talking about the artists, getting dressed up to go to the concerts, etc.

Over dinner, I overheard some talk about the concerts.

“Dude, those fireworks were awesome!”

“You gotta follow that band now, they crushed it last night.”

“There must’ve been a couple of thousand people that showed up.”

I think of myself as a music lover.  But there is an enormous difference between them and me.

If I shut the sound off in my head, what I see are crowds of people eagerly chasing something that will dazzle them, wow them and take them to a heightened sensory experience of life.  Something that is anchored by 3 days of solid music, but to my eye, is designed to stimulate the senses, and does not engage them beyond encouraging stadium sized frenzied crowd responses.

Is that music, really?

While I do share their love for music, I am drawn to another kind of experience.

I pulled out a playlist I have been working on to hear the music that never fails to open up a world of wonder for me.

After many years of not listening to classical music, I discovered recordings and photos of Vladimir Ashkenazy, a Russian pianist my piano teacher adored.  In my memory, he was one of a group of older pianists, always pictured in a grand concert hall by an elegant grand piano.  And always playing Chopin.

Something in one of his photos fascinated me.  He was not by a piano, he was simply looking up at something and smiling, as if he was about to laugh.

It was his eyes.  I wondered what he was seeing.  And what he was hearing.

I found a few Youtube videos of him talking about music, about Rachmaninoff and the mysterious Russian soul of his music, about Western music, what great music gives us, and finally, his recording of a Chopin Ballade I have been tinkering with on and off since I was in music school..

What I heard brought tears to my eyes.  It changed my world.  Again.

What moved me?

He delivered on his promise.  To bring out the highest expression of what it means to be human through music created by great composers.

He understood his purpose.  He could play a piece by Chopin, Beethoven, or Rachmaninoff a hundred times, and there will always be something he will find that he could express in a new and different way.  Something he insisted on doing with a freshness in his approach each time to share with people.

He knew who was listening.  

“For some people, it means nothing.  You try to bring something to them and they say, ‘Oh, that’s very nice, but I like this one, I like that one, I like some popular piece, this or that…’ ” he said, “Nothing happens.  So it is not everybody that would and will respond.

But those who do, will never regret it.

Those who begin to understand how much it offers you from a person whose height of our existence – of knowledge of our existence – was so high, so important, those people, say from Bach to Shostakovitch, they gave us so much of the understanding of what we are, what we are for, what is it in us, what we are trying to do with our existence.

People become musicians or go to lots of concerts, become music lovers, because it gives so much to our lives.”

What brought tears to my eyes?

I also found myself feeling a sense of despair.  Of wondering if I was doing what I was destined to do with as much clarity and success as he did.  Of sensing regret for making decisions that led me away from what my purpose is.  Of doubting myself.

But here’s what changed my world.

Vladimir Ashkenazy spoke very simply about music and the beauty in his life.  He practices the piano every day.  He is married for a long time to his wife, also a pianist, with whom he has a wonderful family.

“My wife is Icelandic.  We’ve been married 55 years by now. Not bad, 55. Good number.”

And his eyes are always open to discover new depths, new expressions of the fullest human experience with all of its emotions in the music he loves to share with people who are listening.  Even if it is one person, what a wonderful gift that is.

That person, in this moment, is me.

And rather than be despondent about what I think I should be, could be, would be doing if only……. I am grateful for this beautiful music illuminating the beauty that is in my life, my daily art practice, my family and sharing my rediscovered creative curiosity as a gift every day.  Like Ashkenazy and all creative people, my work is to share that experience of wonder with someone else.

This is my purpose and it is for you, who are listening with an open heart.

Here’s the Chopin Ballade, No. 1 Op. 23 from my playlist. Close your eyes and let it light up your soul.

Share it with someone you love.

 

 

…And Why is That Important?

Why does your art matter? . #hylsnaps #hylsketchbook #hylartboss #animation

A post shared by #hylartboss #hylsketchbook (@hoongyeelee) on

 

Most of us don’t know what to say when faced with this question.

Especially for the 4th or 5th time.

Most of us have never thought to ask ourselves more than once.

I suspect it is because we haven’t really figured that out ourselves so this question would expose that.

The reason to ask yourself this over and over is to make you think deeply about why you are doing something and reveal what you are thinking.  And why your work is important enough for other people to pay attention to it, fund it or buy it.

Your answer to this question is the seed of your mission.  From this, you build your tagline, your pitch, your grant proposal narrative.

I asked one artist to tell me why his art was important.

“I create art because I have a message to share with the world,” he said.

“And why is that important?”  I asked.

“Well, I have something important to say,”  he said.

“And why is that important?”  I asked.

A moment passed.  Then, he said, “It could help people, maybe show them something new.”

“And why is that important?”  I asked.

He shifted restlessly in his seat, thinking.  “Seeing something they never saw before, or even imagined… it could change them, make them experience things differently…”

“And why is that important?”  I asked.

“If my art could give people a new experience, it could change them, make them feel and connect on a deeper level.  They would change how they go through life.”

“And why is that important?”  I asked.

“Life,” he paused, and finally said, “is too short not to live every single moment deeply and fully.”

Now that is very different from his first answer.

Millions of people have something to say, a message they want to share with the world.  If we allowed ourselves to receive all of these messages, we would be in a constant state of bombardment and overload.

We decide what we are going to pay attention to.

To get a grant as an artist, it is not enough to have passion, skills or a message.  But by asking yourself this question over and over, you will discover something else: impact.  You will know why your work is vital, why it has to happen now, and why the world will be better for it.

You will have a reason for someone to take note of what you are doing.

And this is important because…