I was in the library doing research on Viktor Frankl — the concentration camp survivor who went on to write one of the world’s most influential books, “Man’s Search for Meaning” — when I punched his name into the automated inventory system. The titles of  his books appeared on the screen . . . along with a suggestion by the computer. It read:

“Searching for: Viktor Frankl. Did you mean: Victor Frankenstein?”

I was so pleased by the machine’s out-of-left-field suggestion, that I thought of calling over a few random library patrons for a look. Instead, a better idea came to me.

Since one of the principles of freewriting (and improv) is “using what you’re given,” I decided to employ “Frankenstein” as serendipity. That is, rather than devoting the day’s research to Frankl, I wondered if I could derive any creativity principles worth sharing by researching the famed horror story.

Thanks to Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s fascinating volume, “Frankenstein: A Cultural History,” by day’s end I’d found dozens of such principles. In particular, the tale of how the novel came to be written is rife with ideas that would be helpful to any content creator.

How “Frankenstein” Came to Be Written

In 1816, Lord Byron, his traveling companion, John William Polidori, Percy Shelley, and Shelley’s soon-to-be wife, Mary Godwin (later, “Mary Shelley”), were all staying near Lake Geneva in Switzerland.

The four spent much of their time debating controversial issues concerning life and death, particularly in the realm of science. Among other things, they likely discussed Joseph Priestley’s experiments with vegetables and mold, Luigi Galvani’s work with “animal magnetism,” and Luigi Aldini’s exhibitions using electricity to animate dead frogs, oxen heads, and the body and features of an executed killer.

The group also talked  literature. One book they’d brought along was a badly-written story collection about the supernatural, “Phantasmagoriana.”

“After listening to a few of these tales,” writes Hitchcock, “Byron challenged his companions. Any one of them could do better.” An impromptu contest was arranged, Each member of the group would write a ghost story. The result?

Shelley, who’d soon be recognized as a great poet, apparently never wrote a word of his yarn.

Byron, who was already a rising star in the literary sky, wrote a two thousand word piece about two men in a cemetery, and stopped before it was finished.

Polidori, Byron’s traveling companion who had more of a background in medicine than he did as a writer, wrote two stories; the second of which, “Vampyre,” became a sensation in Europe and later helped inspire Bram Stoker to pen “Dracula.”

Mary Godwin, whose parents were renowned authors but who, like Polidori, was not yet considered a writer, struggled for days in coming up with an idea. She was blocked.

Godwin Heeds an Image

One night, as she lay in bed with eyes closed but unable to sleep, a scene appeared in her mind. She saw, in her own words, a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together,” which she soon recognized as a “hideous phantasm of a man stretched out.” Then, “on the working of some powerful engine,” the phantasm showed “signs of life.”

Godwin was so unnerved by the image that she opened her eyes and looked around her darkened room as a means of distracting herself. When that didn’t work, she decided to think about a plot for her ghost story. “O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night!,” she later wrote.

The answer to her ghost story problem suddenly hit her. Hitchcock writes: “Soon the two thoughts merged into one: her waking dream was her ghost story.” Months later, the first version of her novel was completed.

The Takeaways

Some of the lessons I take away from this story, and that might be of benefit to you, include the following:

1. You needn’t be a noted expert to write something that shakes up and sticks with an audience. Lord Byron and Percy Shelley are considered poets of the highest stripe, yet few read their work today. The characters and influences from Mary Godwin’s and John William Polidori’s work, however, continue to fascinate us.

2. When it comes to creating, arrange for a little friendly competition. Godwin did indeed write “Frankenstein” and Polidori’s effort inspired “Dracula,” but the unsung hero of the affair is Byron. Without his good-natured challenge it’s unlikely that either writer would have written a supernatural tale – then or ever. Said differently: Had Byron not been playful and competitive, the world may never have heard of “Frankenstein” or “Dracula.”

3. Learn from other fields. “Frankenstein” is a work of fiction, yet Godwin wrote it by combining the ideas she and her companions were discussing from the fields of science and philosophy. She didn’t limit her interests to poems and novels. She let the whole world in.

4. Pay attention to images. Godwin didn’t know why the “hideous phantasm” image appeared to her, and although she tried to forget it, she quickly learned the power of paying attention to such a vivid and unexplained flash of insight.

Our minds aren’t neatly ordered, and important ideas at times bubble to the surface in ways that are seemingly illogical and non-verbal.

If you want to write deeply about a topic, I can’t give you better advice than to do fast, exploratory writing about the scenes and snapshots that drift through your mind as you consider it.

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When it comes to business practices, what you’re confident about today may be proven wrong tomorrow. I’ll explain.

When I was a kid, I’d go to the candy store and spin the squeaky, revolving rack of comic books to see if it held a new issue of “Sergeant Fury,” “Captain America,” “Iron Man,” “Spider-Man,” or “Thor.” If I spotted one, I’d stare at its cover for a minute or two to get a sense if the story hidden inside promised to be worth twelve cents (or twenty-five cents for a double issue).

Why didn’t I judge the comic by thumbing through it? If I tried, the store owner would lean over his counter and shout: “This isn’t a library. Are you looking or buying?”

I’d be forced into buying, because “looking” was akin to theft.

When I was growing up, most stores dissuaded you from sampling a product. Their reasoning? Maybe they thought if you got even a taste for free you wouldn’t value the product enough to pay for it. Maybe they wanted customers to absorb the transactional risk and judge the quality of a product on their own dime.

Such thinking now, of course, is considered unenlightened. It hinders sales. Instead of keeping products away from customers, businesses try hard to get them into people’s hands.

Want to play around with a software program? No problem. Go for the free ninety-day trial and see if you like it. Want to know if a certain car hugs the road? Don’t sweat it. Take the auto home for a few days and test it.

Going from the “no sample” strategy to the “try the complete product for free” strategy is a radical about-face. But you and I have seen other strategy reversals just as drastic.

Years ago, it was assumed that the smartest person in most companies was the leader. After all, the leader was in charge of the organization for a reason. In many organizations, that thinking has now changed. They believe in the genius of the group, and think its people are smarter in the aggregate than they are separately. These organizations put collaboration tools in place, so people can more closely work together.

Along the same lines, many organizations used to assume that their employees couldn’t be trusted with sensitive information; the hierarchy, therefore, hoarded data. Now, thanks to the influence of practices like Open Book Management, certain leaders share financial and strategic information with the company, so employees can take responsibility and make better educated business decisions.

I could go on recounting business strategies, like Reengineering and Management by Objectives, which were once thought to be best approach to solving a particular problem, but are now looked upon, at best, as one tool in a diverse strategy toolkit. But I won’t. I know you get the picture.

The point I’m driving at is this: Right now, you and I are using strategies in our business that will, one day soon, be thought of as wrongheaded. We’ll look back and think, “How could I have wasted so much time believing that?” or “focusing on that?” or “doing that?”

Rather than waiting for that day to come, get a jump on uncovering those strategies and on hatching alternate ways of doing things.

Think of it as a game. Look at how you prospect and sell. Look at your products and services. Look at your infrastructure and how you get things done. Look at your pet philosophy and manifesto ideas.

Even if what you’re doing is working, pretend it’s not. Pretend it’s broken and you’ve got to come up with something new – you have no option.

What would you try?

Is there a way, even a small way, of trying it now?

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“That’s a post”

by Mark Levy

The other day I was on the phone with my friend and colleague, Nettie Hartsock, discussing our backgrounds as writers, when I mentioned an assignment I’d worked on that hadn’t turned out as planned.

Fifteen years earlier, a newspaper editor asked me to interview beauty-queen-and-singing-star Vanessa Williams. Although I wasn’t a fan of Williams’ Top 40 style of music, I consented. To prepare for the interview, I researched her music and career for a week. Unfortunately, the singer had a scheduling conflict and cancelled. Suddenly, I was stuck with a somewhat in depth knowledge of Williams’ work, and nowhere to use it.

Nettie laughed. She too had put in days on writing projects that had gotten the axe through no fault of her own. She said, “You should write up that story as a post.”

Hmm, I hadn’t thought of that.

A couple of months before my Nettie conversation, I was being toured through The National Press Club in Washington, DC by another friend and colleague, Sam Horn. I was to give a speech there about freewriting and problem-solving to Sam’s group, and she thought I’d enjoy knowing the club’s history.

As we wandered through the barroom, I broke away and ran to a framed sketch, hanging on the wall, of Dick Tracy. It wasn’t just any Tracy sketch. It was drawn especially for, and autographed to, The National Press Club by the character’s creator, Chester Gould. I told Sam:

“I can’t believe it. I’m inches away from the real Dick Tracy. I mean, Chester Gould drew this cartoon with his own hands.

“Seeing this takes me back to the late ‘60s when I was, like, six years old. My dad was alive, and Sunday morning’s he’d buy the New York Daily News, and it was divided into sections, and must have been a foot thick.

“I’d grab the comics section, it was in full color, and there on the cover, every week, was Gould’s Dick Tracy strip. I read it, kind of, but not really. I was more interested in playing with it.

“I’d spread the pages across the floor, take a hunk of Silly Putty, flatten it into a pancake, and smash it onto Dick Tracy’s face. When I peeled back the putty, a duplicate of his face would be stuck to it.

“I’d pull the putty wide, and Tracy’s face would expand. Then, I’d squish it into a ball, and his face would bunch up like a walnut. That Silly Putty was my seventy-nine cent version of Photoshop.”

When I finally wound down, Sam said to me: “Mark, that’s a post. Readers want to learn good, solid information they can use, but they also want to learn about the writer. You should write up that story.”

The idea hadn’t dawned on me.

Because of Nettie’s encouragement, the Vanessa Williams story appeared as my previous post. Thanks to Sam’s counsel, you’ve read the Dick Tracy anecdote here.

If you know a content creator, consider lending a hand by pointing out intriguing ideas and stories of theirs as they mention them. The immediacy of your remarks can be of  help.

If you yourself are a content creator, consider asking colleagues to do the same for you. If they think something you’ve said might interest a wider audience, suggest that they point it out.

We, of course, need to be the final judge as to what we create. Still, at times we get locked into our own theories as to what constitutes a useful and entertaining post or video. Getting a fresh perspective can shed light on an idea that we might have otherwise overlooked.

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In the mid-1990s I conducted interviews for a small entertainment newspaper. The editor was a friend who knew my tastes, so he gave me assignments I’d enjoy. I interviewed a pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio, a rapper-turning-actor named “Marky Mark” Wahlberg, the art-house rocker Jim Carroll, and other artists who whose work was at the time considered edgy or who hadn’t yet made it to the top.

One day the editor called me, because he was in a bind. The newspaper had committed to doing an interview, but there was no reporter free on the day it needed to be done . He asked if I could do it.

“Sure,” I said, assuming I’d be meeting some up-and-coming Method actor or a rock ‘n’ roller who shunned the public. “Who do I interview?”

“A star,” he said. “Vanessa Williams.”

I rolled my eyes.

It wasn’t personal. Vanessa Williams is, in fact, a gifted performer. I’m just not a fan of Top 40 dance music and ballads.

I’d grown up listening to The Plasmatics, Sham 69, and Killing Joke. Raw, angry, bracing, countercultural noise. My friends and I would slam-dance to those groups in crumbling, dimly-lit, Manhattan punk clubs which violated every safety code on the books. Slickly orchestrated love songs performed by beauty contest winners and me just didn’t mix.

Still, my friend was in a jam, so I took the CD Vanessa Williams was promoting and got to work.

I had a week to prepare, so I listened to her album a dozen times. I doped out the lyrics, and studied its musical progressions. I also did my scholarly research by searching the Internet, and paging through back issues of People and Us. All told, my Vanessa Williams studies must have added up to twenty-five hours. It was time-consuming, but I drafted my interview questions and was ready. I’d become a Vanessa Williams expert in a week.

The morning of the interview, though, the editor phoned with bad news. Williams’ PR person said a scheduling conflict had arisen. Williams was sorry, but she had to break our meeting. There’d be no interview.

Here I was with a head full of Vanessa Williams knowledge, and nowhere to use it. I felt like the professor of a dead language who had no one to teach.

Of course, I was able to use my newfound expertise to  review her album (I gave it an “A”). Yet I was still disappointed I’d wasted so much time cramming for a subject that’d be of no future use. I vowed never to let that happen again.

In my mind I called it “The Vanessa Williams Rule.” Simply stated, the rule read: “Don’t take on a project unless you’re going to love the process, because the expected endpoint may never come.”

In other words, the journey better be worthwhile, because the destination may vanish before you reach it.

I got the chance to invoke the rule the following week. The editor called me with another star interview. I held my breath and prayed it was with Mitch Hedberg or one of the Coen Brothers. Alas, it was with Shannen Doherty.

Like Williams, Doherty is talented at her craft. But I’m not a 90210 guy, and I didn’t want to study to be one — especially if the objective might unexpectedly pop like a soap bubble.  I passed, and instead interviewed Marshall Crenshaw. Not as glamorous, but more my style.

Since then, I’ve used “The Vanessa Williams Rule” as a business rule. If I’m asked to write a book or work on any type of project, I divide it into “process” and “result.” For me to take the gig, both parts have to be meaningful and fun.

It’s a good rule, I think. Try using it yourself, and tell me how things go.

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Nick Corcodilos is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Present him with a knotty problem, and he’ll figure it out in minutes.

Nick’s writings on how to get a job, no matter what the market conditions, have garnered him millions of readers. In particular, his site, Ask the Headhunter, is one of the web’s most widely-read spots on job hunting.

Now, you might not be looking for a job. You might, in fact, be self-employeed. No matter. Nick’s insights on how to present information intelligently and ethically are so good, that you need to read his material anyway.

Nick also consults to individuals and organizations. I asked for his best consulting tip, and this is what he said:

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Developing a Thought

by Mark Levy

We’re told attention spans are shrinking, so if we want people to read what we write for the web, we have to be concise.

That’s sound advice . . . up to a point.

Lately, I’ve coached some bloggers who each suffer from the same dilemma: They want to write longer works — more fully realized posts or even a book — but they’re not sure how. They’re so practiced at condensing their thoughts, that they can’t, out of habit, bring themselves to expand them.

If you’re in that situation, consider the following exercise.

Grab a pen and print out your last post (or any piece of your writing). What I’d now like you to do is mark spots where you, or another writer working on the same piece, could have expanded the work in a different direction.

You might, for instance, have described a scene using one or two words when someone else would have described it in five hundred words.

Or, you presented one argument, and neglected mentioning any counterarguments.

Or, you spoke about an idea without giving an example of it in action.

Once you’ve marked all the potential development spots, pick one and write about it.

That is, write it as if you were going to insert it into the post, or use it as a way of writing a new standalone post.

Remember, for the most part, writing is an unnatural act. Whatever writing style you have is learned. If you want to take your writing in a new direction, you have to force yourself in that direction so you can learn as you go.

To expand your writing, practice expanding it.

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When I was 25 years old, I hadn’t yet learned to drive, I ate Cap’n Crunch three meals a day, and my friends and I would sit in Greenwich Village cafes for hours at a time writing zombie film scripts that would never get made.

Shama Kabani, right now, is 25 years old. She, though, is leading a slightly different life than I did at that age.

Shama owns her own Dallas-based, nine-person online marketing company, The Marketing Zen Group.

BusinessWeek named her one of the Top 25 Entrepreneurs Under 25 Years Old.

Fast Company calls her a “master millennial of the universe.”

And, she recently released her first book, “The Zen of Social Media Marketing.”

I guess you could say she’s . . . accomplished.

I was excited, then, that Shama sent me this video for my series, “Best Blogging Tips (Told in Under a Minute)”:

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On Wednesday, July 21st, the wonderful Lolly Daskal and I will be hosting a party in Manhattan to celebrate the release of the expanded edition of my book, “Accidental Genius.”

There, I’ll be signing books and talking about freewriting and creativity.

A bunch of cool people from the worlds of business, publishing, social media, and entertainment will be stopping by.

If you’re in the area, I’d love to meet you. It’s a meet up/tweet up type of thing. Informal, and should be lots of fun.

The details:

Date: Wednesday, 7/21/10

Time: 6 pm to 9 pm

Place: Lily’s Bar at the Hotel Roger Smith (501 Lexington Avenue, New York City, which is 47th Street and Lex.)

A cash bar will be available

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“The two drummers settle in behind their kits. One sends out a cosmic boom from a bass drum, and we in the audience feel it as much as we hear it. A cheer for the boom!”

— David Meerman Scott & Brian Halligan
“Marketing Lessons From The Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn From the Most Iconic Band in History”


If you take a look at the one hundred bestselling rock ‘n’ roll singles of all time, you’ll see songs by celebrated performers, like The Beatles (“I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and “Hey Jude”) and Nirvana (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”), as well as songs by one-hit wonders, like Zager and Evans (“In the Year 2525”) and Mungo Jerry (“In the Summertime”).

What you won’t see on that list are any songs by The Grateful Dead. No “Truckin” or “Casey Jones.” You won’t even find the group’s highest charting single, “Touch of Grey.”

The Dead obviously didn’t suffer from that lack of a multi-multi-multi platinum single. Their commercial accomplishments, not to mention the adulation of their followers, have eclipsed the success of most other performers on the list.

How did they do it?

Many fans, of course, would point to the group’s music as the sole reason for their success. Others believe that The Dead elevated themselves from gifted musicians to cultural icons by helping to create an uncommon way of life around their music.

Two people who have studied The Dead’s music and culture-building methods are social media gurus and Deadheads, David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan.

David, of course, wrote “The New Rules of Marketing & PR” and “World Wide Rave” (full disclosure: David is a friend and client).  Brian, who authored “Inbound Marketing,” is the CEO and co-founder of Hubspot.

Together, they’ve written a book called “Marketing Lessons From The Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn From the Most Iconic Band in History,” which ships from Wiley next week and will be in all stores by early August.

In the book’s introduction, David and Brian call The Dead “one huge case study in contrarian marketing. Most of the band’s many marketing innovations are based on doing the exact opposite of what other bands (and record labels) are doing at the time.” A few contrarian examples:

  • While other bands protected their songs from illegal taping by fans, The Dead set up “taper sections” at their concerts, where fans could openly record music. Later, the fans would share copies with other Deadheads, as well as with people who had never experienced the music before. The pool of Dead fans grew exponentially.
  • While other bands saw touring as a money-draining evil that only served to get word out about their albums, The Dead turned the model on its head and built up their live shows into their primary revenue-generating vehicle. In many ways, the 45s and albums now served to promote the shows.
  • While other band treated their fans as an undifferentiated mass, The Dead would accommodate the niches in their fan base. For instance, one niche, referred to as “The Spinners,” enjoyed whirling to the music during a concert. Rather than ignoring or having them ejected, The Dead erected speakers in the concourse, so that the Spinners could congregate there and gyrate without restriction.
  • While other bands left the responsibility (and profit) of selling concert tickets to the venues they were playing and to other middlemen, The Dead built their own mailing list and sold tickets to fans directly.

The book cites forward-thinking strategies like these, distills them down to their essence, shows how businesses are using these strategies today, and then teaches readers how they might use these ideas in their own business to build an active following.

I’ve seen only the first couple of chapters of this book, but I know David well and have seen his ideas change lives. And, though I’ve never spoken with Brian, I’ve heard raves about Hubspot. I’m guessing, then, that this book should go to the top of any serious businessperson’s reading list. I’m certainly going to read my copy with pen in hand, so I can jot down notes on how I might use the tactics in my business.

A final note: To promote the book, David and Brian have scheduled a “Follow the Band Book Tour” (hashtag #GDbook).

That is, they’re going to be doing book signings and virtual events as they follow Furthur (fronted by Dead musicians Bob Weir and Phil Lesh) and Rhythm Devils (fronted by Dead musicians Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann) to  Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, and Las Vegas.

The book tour starts on July 26th and ends on September 22nd. To find out more, visit David’s blog, webinknow.com.

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Yesterday, straight from the bindery, I received a couple of hundred copies of my latest book: the revised and expanded second edition of “Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content.”

Here’s me opening a box. (My wife, by the way, hates that I take photos in our kitchen. I’ll remember next time.)

The book, which is published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, hits bookstores over the course of the next two weeks.

Early readers enjoyed it.

David Meerman Scott said he devoured it “in one sitting, even though I had to pee really badly near the end.” He went on to say that he “couldn’t work without the ideas in this book.”

Michelle Davidson, the editor of RainToday.com, got caught up reading it, too. She told me she was on an airplane, and planned on watching her favorite show on the miniature TV embedded in the back of the seat in front of her. She started reading my book, though, became absorbed, and forgot to catch her program.

What’s the book about? It teaches readers a liberating, freestyle form of writing, called freewriting, that does two things for them:

1. It acts as a problem-solving tool, which helps them think through business problems.

2. It serves as a tool of thought leadership, which enables them to write one-of-a-kind books, posts, speeches, and anything else they need to stand out.

Here’s a piece of the introduction:

“Freewriting is one of the most valuable skills I know. It’s a way of using the body to get mechanical advantage over the mind, so the mind can better do its job.

“As expansive and impressive as the mind is, it’s also lazy. Left to its own devices, it recycles tired thoughts, takes rutted paths, and steers clear of unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory. You could say one of its primary jobs is to shut off, even when there’s important thinking to be done.

“Freewriting prevents that from happening. It pushes the brain to think longer, deeper, and more unconventionally than that it normally would. By giving yourself a handful of liberating freewriting rules to follow, your mind is backed into a corner and can’t help but come up with new thoughts. You could call freewriting a form of forced creativity.

“The technique will work for you even if you don’t consider yourself a gifted writer or thinker. The writing itself generates thought, which is why some refer to this technique as automatic writing. It often produces intriguing results without labored effort on the part of the writer. At times, the thoughts seem to pop up on their own.”

I’ll be writing about “Accidental Genius” and its techniques in many of the upcoming posts.

If you get a copy and try freewriting, please let me know how it works for you.

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