How Do I Know?

Fountain Pen image copyright Dre Schwartz, iStockPhoto #000005330500
Fountain Pen © Dre Schwartz iStockPhoto® #5330500

A friend asked today, “How do I know if anyone wants to read what I’m going to write?”

Great question!

Here are my first three thoughts about that:

1) You don’t. Is there something you want to say so badly, you would write it even if no one else cared? Writing requires that kind of dedication, and it’s generally unsung. So consider yourself the most important audience. Writing will change you! It will focus your thoughts, show you connections you never noticed before, and train your mind in new patterns. Even if no one ever read it, it would be worth doing for the personal growth alone.

2) Your competition is a great teacher. If you have none–if you’re the only one writing about your subject–then there’s no market for it, yet. But everything ties in to something everyone cares about–like love or money. So read what everyone else is writing, become an expert on the conversation, and make your own addition to that.

3) Multiply the interest. It seems like the dark ages when authors wrote books and marketers sold them. Now authors are blogging and micro-blogging, exchanging expertise, increasing knowledge and interest in their topics, and attracting followers before the book is ever written. If you’re lucky, these readers will even ask you great questions which you can then answer to improve your project.

See? Thanks for asking!


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Photo © Dre Schwartz iStockPhoto®  #5330500


Cultured Men Healthier and Happier

A Norwegian study has suggested that people who attend cultural events are healthier and happier, and that men may benefit most. Norwegian support for the arts already stands on the assumption that cultural events benefit health, so researchers sought evidence by surveying almost 60,000 Norwegians. Two studies had shown positive correlations between health and happiness and respondent’s cultural, sports, and religious activities–pretty much everyone who has a life–while this study focused on the cultural events, in both spectator and participant varieties.

This study concluded that “participation in receptive and creative cultural activities was significantly associated with good health, good satisfaction with life, low anxiety and depression scores in both genders. Especially in men, attending receptive, rather than creative, cultural activities was more strongly associated with all health-related outcomes.” (Abstract: Cuypers et. al. in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health) 

Even a minimum of about one event per month showed positive results. (Randy Dotinga at

Further studies are planned. As another observer pointed out, this study might also show that healthier, happier people get out of the house. (Dotinga quoting Shigehiro Oisha)

I also notice that researchers included both viewing and participating in sports as “cultural events.” Here in the United States, those categories are mutually exclusive. So before you get your hopes up, Cultured Women, it’s premature to claim that symphony nights produces healthier and happier men than football games–this study didn’t compare types of events–but any activity is a start. And you’re welcome to test my hypothesis that Cultured Men are fifteen times more attractive.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Have you seen this woman?

Photographer Bruce Davidson took this photo of a teenaged girl holding a kitten 50 years ago. Now as he receives the Outstanding Contribution to Photography award, he would like to find the subject. As he was interviewed, the line that made me smile was this first sentence of the life he imagined for her:

“Let’s hope she became a writer or an artist. Hopefully, she has a full life, and not a life on the street. She was carrying a sleeping bag with her when I met her. I don’t know. Maybe she has a daughter, or even granddaughter that looks just like her and is holding another cat. . . . ”

Did anyone hope you would become a writer or artist? And was that person a successful artist proving it can be done? If not, enjoy his encouragement. Let’s hope you do grow up to be a writer or an artist.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

More about it:

Lisa Mullins interviews Bruce Davidson at PRI’s The World PRI

Sean O’Hagan article in for Guardian

(Remember Steve McCurry’s photo of a green-eyed Afghan girl, a 1984 National Geographic cover? She was found again 17 years later.)
National Geographic Afghan Girl Found

Composing Language

Every time I see my composer son, he raves about and demonstrates some new tool in his repertoire: something about counterpoint, some chord he picked up from another composer, some skill understood in theory but finally mastered. And almost as frequently, he reports what he said to that day’s would-be composer who wants to get there without studying composition, or even basic music theory.

Recently he compared it to learning a spoken language. Some musicians learn by immersion; they might not be able to teach it or explain what they’re doing, but they are fluent. And the great composers thoroughly understand theory. Those who revise new versions understand the traditions especially well.

So I asked him, “How long do you think it takes to become fluent in composing language? Is the basic four or five-year Bachelor’s program enough? Does it take a Master’s?”

Drew said, “It depends on what you bring to the program and these two things.” He immediately revised that to three:

1) The frequency of getting your music performed by real musicians. Crucial.

2) The amount of music you expose yourself to.

3) Writing above that which ye are able. Being willing to stretch beyond what you already know will sound good.

You know what I’m going to say. It sounds strange to say there’s a writing language, a meta-language behind the language you think you already know because you’ve been speaking a form of it all your life. But to become a fluent writer, try his advice:

1) Get your work read by real readers. Blogging, writing groups, mentors, classes, editors, publishing!

2) Read great writers. Read their work and what they say about their work. (You don’t even have to like them both at the same time.) Subscribe to journals and magazines to join the tribe.

3) Stretch. Dare to flop.

As I write this, Drew is at the piano, playing with chord patterns. He forgot one:

4) Practice privately. (Journal! And that’s really number 1.)


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Friday Flick: Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Sir Ken Robinson TED 2006
Sir Ken Robinson TED 2006: Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Sir Ken Robinson, author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, and The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, spoke at TED a few years ago about how we’re born creative until we unlearn it. If you know a child who can’t sit still (and which of them can anymore?), you’ll love the story of Gillian Lynne.

It’s time to unlearn our unlearning. Even Robinson’s second edition of Out of Our Minds turned into a far more extensive revision than he expected because the world had changed so dramatically. We can’t even imagine what’s next, and yet we’re preparing children for that future.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Photo: screenshot from YouTube.

HBR on Hiring Humanities Majors

Second Road’s Tony Golsby-Smith writes for a Harvard Business Review guest blog, “People trained in the humanities who study Shakespeare’s poetry, or Cezanne’s paintings, say, have learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways. Here are just a few things that the liberal arts crowd can help you with” [and he describes each in some detail]:
  • Complexity and ambiguity
  • Innovation
  • Communication and presentation
  • Customer and employee satisfaction

Naturally, a bit of debate ensued–humanities and science majors are both well trained for that. And I found myself relating to many angles discussed.

While I agree with most of Tony’s observations, I wouldn’t suggest that I might have prevented the BP oil spill.

But on the other hand, I never dreamed as a baby English major, even while taking turns on our academic journal’s dedicated typesetting computer, that my work would become dependent upon technology, and that I’d even become a passionate contributor to it. Maybe we can’t be classified by majors anymore.

We’ve always had our Renaissance examples. When I was sixteen, I visited a friend’s American-on-sabbatical family in Germany, where the physics professor dad designed my itinerary like a course in humanities, his true avocation. It seemed remarkable at the time.

Now what else could we be? How could we not be interdisciplinary, constantly learning, collaborative beings?

What a great era for creating–on as many canvases as possible!


Harvard Business Review: Want Innovative Thinking? Hire from the Humanities

Bilingual Brain Advantage

During the decade politicians were banning bilingual education, I was in graduate school studying linguistics, including language acquisition–even bilingual language acquisition–and wishing we could all have bilingual (or trilingual) education. Children raised by parents with different native languages had the easiest time of it, especially those who conversed with each parent almost exclusively in their own languages. Next best would be learning any language while the language acquisition system was still open, as when children learn one language at school while speaking another at home.

And then there’s our system, where we not only discourage such home native language learning, we native English speakers postpone intense second language study until our brains have already pruned out the acquisition system that supports full fluency and native pronunciation. We’ve been robbed.

Fluently multilingual speakers have obvious career, travel, cultural, and social advantages. Many of you paid a social price as you developed these skills, along with the intellectual effort involved, but you end up with wider opportunities and, it stands to reason, amazing brains.

Now there are studies suggesting that you bilingual speakers might even delay the onset of Alzheimer disease. That’s how good a brain workout you’re getting, no matter which language you’re using. Psychologist Ellen Bialystok said in an NPR interview, “Even if you are in a context that is utterly monolingual, where you think there is absolutely no reason to think about Chinese or Spanish or French, it is part of the activated network that’s going on in your brain.”1

The study, published in Neurology, included 211 Alzheimer patients, approximately half bilingual, and it concluded “that the bilingual patients had been diagnosed 4.3 years later and had reported the onset of symptoms 5.1 years later than the monolingual patients. The groups were equivalent on measures of cognitive and occupational level, there was no apparent effect of immigration status, and the monolingual patients had received more formal education. There were no gender differences.” It confirmed findings of a previous study. 2

NPR’s Gretchen Cuda-Kroen reports that 20% of American homes speak another language at home, while around the world, there could be as many as two-thirds of children being raised bilingual.3

The economic advantage of a multilingual population hasn’t inspired our educational policy. Maybe it’s because we’re lacking that brain advantage in the first place.

  1. Ellen Bialystok, PhD, interview by Gretchen Cuda-Kroen. “Being Bilingual May Boost Your Brain Power” NPR. April 4, 2011
  2. Fergus I.M. Craik, PhD, Ellen Bialystok, PhD, and Morris Freedman, MD. “”Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease: Bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve.”.” Neurology. November 9, 2010. (accessed 04 04, 2011).
  3. Gretchen Cuda-Kroen. “Being Bilingual May Boost Your Brain Power” NPR. April 4, 2011

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.