Craft and Connection (and David Bowie)

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I’ve been hearing a lot of advice from successful creators recently that I think may be chilling for you to hear. Like this from musician G.E. Smith:

“It doesn’t matter if you are talented. The most talented people probably don’t make it. [Success is based on] an endless series of coincidences and luck. And having the natural ability to be able to get along with people.”

That’s terrifying to hear, right? Well, today I want to dig into this topic:

  1. Craft comes first.
  2. But… who you are connected to matters if you want to find success.
  3. Then I share specific ways to connect with like-minded people that feels genuine to who you are.

Okay, let’s dig in:

Craft First

There is no question, that your craft comes first. Your ability to write what matters to you, and to do that well.

Your craft is your ability to create.

Your craft helps you develop your voice.

Your craft becomes a body of work.

Your craft provides a sense of personal fulfillment in the creative process.

Your craft helps others see and experience the world (and themselves) in new ways.

This always comes first.

But Having a Professional Network Matters Too

I read about this study that was conducted of early abstract artists, and the finding was interesting:

“While past studies have suggested that there is a link between creativity and fame, Ingram and Banerjee found, in contrast, that there was no such correlation for these artists. Rather, artists with a large and diverse network of contacts were most likely to be famous, regardless of how creative their art was.”

They created this visual to show how the artists in this time period were connected to each other:

Wow! For many writers, you may feel distant from anyone else who creates work like you do, and it may feel like yet another impossible step to find these people and then somehow tend to those relationships.

But this study from the art world is aligning with advice that some young musicians are sharing online about how to become successful:

Musician Rhett Shull (48,000 YouTube subscribers) says this:

“You gotta be around, you have to be in the scene. No one is going to hire you if nobody knows you exist… strike up conversations. Don’t be overeager. Just be around in the scene and develop relationships. Develop friendships.”

“You want to be the kind of person that someone wants to hang out with, that someone wants to have a relationship with. That is more important than your musicianship, your chops, your knowledge of theory, what kind of gear you have, your tone.”

Here Rabea Massaad (220,000 YouTube subscribers) gave this advice on finding success as a musician:

“Most importantly be a great live band and really nice people. You just gotta be just got to be a good person. You just gotta be cool.

“It’s the thing with the music business or any business or industry, it’s about people. If you’re a people person and you can just get along with somebody, find common ground, have a good old chat, then it’s more likely to turn into something else.”

I mentioned musician G.E Smith above. Over the years, he has played with Bob Dylan, Roger Waters and countless other famous people. He tells the story of how he first came to work with David Bowie:

“I met David at a party. The next day he was filming the video for the song “Fashion,” and he needed some weird looking people for the video. He saw me at a party, I had a crew cut, everybody else had long hair then. David saw me and he thought, “Now there is a weird looking guy.” He said to me, “What are you doing tomorrow? Come down, we are filming this video.” Later that night, someone told him I played guitar, so he said, “Bring your guitar!”

He later played with Bowie on the Tonight Show (here’s the clip, G.E. is on the far right.)

Imagine that, getting to play with David Bowie and the initial connection happened without him even knowing you played guitar. You just happened to be someone who looked interesting at a party.

Blending Craft and Human-Connection

Last week I mentioned that I define a writer’s platform based on two things:

  • Communication
  • Trust

This is your ability to effectively communicate with your ideal readers, and in the process, establish a trusting relationship.

What are practical ways to do this that feel authentic to who you are? Some ideas:

  • Develop a practice of creating and sharing. Honestly, this is the heart of my Blogging and Newsletters for Writers program that begins Monday — consistently sharing what lights you up as a writer and using that to connect with potential readers. I say this from experience of having my own newsletter and blog for around 14 years, sending out one post per week that entire time. But also from working with hundreds and hundreds of writers in this process. If you aren’t sharing with authenticity, then how are people going to know what you write and why? I encourage you to develop that practice.
  • Be nice and support others. Flip how you think about social media. Don’t think of it as a way for people to follow you. Instead, consider how you can use it exclusively to support other writers and celebrate their success. To support booksellers and libraries. To show up where your readers do with the same enthusiasm. To not try to be selling, but instead harken back to why you began to write in the first place: a deep love of certain kinds of stories. Don’t make it about you, make it about support those who share this passion too.
  • Just show up. Show up where readers show up. Where writers who write similar work as you show up. G.E. Smith didn’t go to that party courting David Bowie’s attention. G.E. just showed up, and that opened the door for a powerful connection to happen. Just show up and have conversations. That will teach you more about the marketplace you want to publish into, the authors your ideal readers love, and what engages those readers.
  • Ask for help. Don’t pretend that you can figure all of this out on your own if you just read enough how-to articles. Seek out others who can help you, not just by giving you information, but by truly collaborating with you. I’ve talked about this a lot in my blog and podcast recently for my mission to learn how to play the guitar. Everything changed when I hired a guitar coach. (Here and here.) I would also recommend this powerful book by Amanda Palmer: The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help.

I’m always curious to hear about the challenges you feel in this process. Please feel free to reach out to me and let me know.

Thanks!
-Dan

Writers: own your connection to readers

My friend Sean Blanda has this expression he’s been using:

“Always Own Your Platform.”

He even has this adorable graphic that he uses when referencing it on Twitter:
Sean Blanda - Always Own Your Platform

This is general theme I talk to writers about a lot. People can define an author’s platform differently, but I’ve always defined it as:

  1. Communication
  2. Trust

Your ability to effectively communicate with your ideal readers, and in the process, establish a trusting relationship.

I really appreciate the way that Sean frames “owning” this process:

“Always own your platform. Build your audience deliberately and on your own terms. Be in charge of the relationship with your audience.”

Part of his message is that when you develop your connection to your audience on platforms that are owned by others (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.), then your platform is always at risk. You are one algorithm change, or one marketing change away from completely losing your connection to your audience.

This has been on my mind a lot recently for a few reasons:

  • I have seen writers flood social media in the past decade, leaving behind the idea of blogs. But more and more I hear people talking about a blog renaissance. A return to sharing long-form content on your own website, instead of being beholden to the latest trends and algorithms of social media. For a writer, I’ve always felt as thought blogs were particularly well attuned to their craft.
  • I have sent out a weekly email newsletter for something like 14 years. I still find it to be one of the most powerful ways I connect with people. Chances are, anyone who is reading these very words is doing so because of my newsletter.
  • All I do all day is talk to writers, and I find that they keep telling me how overwhelmed they are in trying to manage all the things they are told they have to do in sharing online.

Perhaps this Onion article headline sums it up: “Guy With 10,000 Tweets, 15 Followers About Ready To Hang It Up.”

In order to really dig into these themes in a useful way for writers, next week I’m going to run a free video series called: TAKE BACK YOUR AUTHOR PLATFORM: WHY BLOGS AND NEWSLETTERS MATTER.

Each day, I’ll share a video and open up discussion on these topics:

  • Day 1: Why blogs and newsletters matter.
  • Day 2: The difference between a blog and a newsletter.
  • Day 3: Why start your blog/newsletter before you have a book.
  • Day 4: How blogs/newsletters help define your author platform.
  • Day 5: Q&A video.

To be a part of it, simply join my Reader Connection Project group on Facebook. It’s free. There are already 600+ writers in there, it’s a wonderful group.

Thanks!
-Dan

P.S. My newest podcast talks about how to develop a non-negotiable creative practice. Listen here.

Why I stopped writing

For a very long time, I had established this daily writing habit. First thing in the morning, I would work on my next two books. Often I took a photo of it, which ended up looking something like this:

But last summer I stopped this practice. I stopped working on both books.

Today I want to talk about how this week I started writing again, and how a daily creative practice is the foundation for:

  1. Improving your craft
  2. Living up to your creative vision
  3. Growing your audience
  4. Getting published
  5. Earning revenue from your craft (if you so desire.)

Earlier this week, I opened the file for my book which said “Last Opened August 9, 2018.” Just that simple act felt kinda momentous. Like I was opening the door to some strange new place that was exciting, but terrifying.

Why did I stop writing? Well, I was overwhelmed by editing. You see, writing isn’t a problem for me. I have loads of ideas, and I’m good at living up to a daily writing habit.

What stops me cold is editing. Editing is my kryptonite. That moment when you look at the 70,000 words you wrote, and your pages and pages of notes and research, and you realize: it’s all in the wrong order.

This winter, I felt kinda bad that I had halted work on my next book. To get started again, I looked to my daily guitar practice. Last year, I began by playing at least a minute per day. Now I practice for an hour every day. How do I fit that in? I break it up into 15 minute increments.
I find that 15 minutes is long enough to get value, and short enough to squeeze in throughout the day.

When I considered my writing habit, I asked myself, “Can’t I fit in 15 minutes of writing?”

The answer is clearly “yes.”

To make it even easier, I scheduled those 15 minutes first thing in the day. Before email. Before I attend to the writers I’m working with in my mastermind, my programs, or private clients.

What can come of a simple daily creative habit? Well, let me tell you what happened for one creator who did this…

Meet artist, illustrator, and author Samantha Dion Baker:
Samantha Dion Baker

Like all of us, Samantha’s life was super busy with her career, her family, and attending to 1,000 things screaming for her attention each day.

Even though she had an arts background, she found herself tired of looking at screens.

One day, she decided to open up a journal and draw. What did she draw? A moment from her day. Then she did this the next day. And the next. Here is a page from one of her sketch books:

What could this possibly lead to? One small drawing per day? Well, this:

More than 30 sketch books filled. Pretty amazing, right?

But this daily creative practice lead to so much more for Samantha:

  • By sharing her process online, 80,000 people started following her on Instagram.
  • She got a book deal to publish not only her illustrations, but her share her process.
  • She also self-published several other books of her sketches, each of which sold out.
  • Illustration and design clients began seeking her out for private commissions.
  • She created an online store to sell prints and stickers of her work.
  • She began teaching workshops.
  • She now works on all of this as a full-time career, from her private studio in Brooklyn.

She and I sat down this week to chat, and I share our interview in my podcast. You can listen to it here.

The idea of investing in your creative practice has become an obsession of mine. If you would like help in developing your own creative practice, please considering joining me and a small group of other writers and creators in my next Creative Shift Mastermind, which begins April 1.

In the Mastermind you will experience:

  • Daily mentorship from me.
  • A clear step-by-step program to help you establish clarity and habits for your creative process.
  • Accountability with regular check-ins.
  • Collaboration with like-minded writers.

Register now to join us!

What is the smallest action you can take to start your own daily creative practice?

Thanks.
-Dan

Even successful writers struggle with this…

Something I obsess about is this idea of a ‘creative shift’ — how someone takes their writing and craft to the next level.

In the past week or so, I shared podcast interviews with three successful authors, and each shared something that may surprise you:

  • Seth Godin: Before he became the bestselling author we know today, he published hundreds of books for others, and launched multiple companies.
  • Rebecca Green: Even though she has more than a quarter million Instagram followers, she has a love/hate relationship with social media.
  • Miranda Beverly-Whittemore: Having her novel land on the New York Times bestseller list doesn’t remove the possibility of despair, exhaustion, and doubt in the creative process.


(Links to these podcasts below.)

These were each long conversations, and they are wonderful reminders that there isn’t a simple path to success with your creative work. For what Seth, Rebecca, and Miranda each shared, they (each in their own way) highlighted the value of:

  • Having collaborators to help you stay focused and work through difficult decisions or challenges.
  • Continually reassessing the creative clarity that drives you.
  • Establishing creative routines, even amidst your otherwise busy life.

None of these things are one-and-done decisions. They are creative practices that you need to attend to each day, each week, each year.

Earlier this week I ran an online workshop for the attendees of University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writers’ Institute. They are such a wonderful community of writers!

One person asked a question in the Q&A portion (I’m paraphrasing):

“If an author just finished writing their first book, aren’t their efforts better spent learning the craft of writing for the 2nd book, instead of focusing on marketing?”

My reply was: “I love the idea of focusing on craft first. Except what I find is that many authors struggle to establish a writing practice. Instead, they “kinda” write. They write when they have spare time. When everything else gets done first: the dishes, that new series they are watching on Netflix, when they feel confident, when everything is just right. In the end, they end up not focusing on the foundations of marketing (communication and trust with their ideal reader), nor do they really get the writing done. They get stuck in creative limbo.”

Now, all I do all day is talk to writers and creators. I literally sit in this room from around 6am – 5pm and talk to them on the phone, on Skype, in email, on Slack, on Zoom, and through social media:

What I hear is their struggle to establish a creative practice. Not just beginners, but those who have created for years. We work through strategies and tactics to make writing and creating central to their life, and then connect their work to readers via human-centered marketing.

Honestly, a lot of this has become the foundation for my three-month Creative Shift Mastermind program as well. We dig into:

  • How to establish rock-solid creative habits.
  • How to define your creative identity.
  • How to get radically clear on your priorities of what to work on and why.

Instead of struggling alone with these things, I work directly with you as mentor — every day — and you are joined by a group of 9 other motivated writers and creators just like you.

I’ve run this program again and again, and have found that it makes a profound difference on people’s ability to create and connect with their ideal audience.

The doors are now open for Creative Shift Mastermind session that begins on April 1st. If you are curious, check it out here.

Also: the links to the podcast episodes I mentioned are below.

Thanks!
-Dan

P.S. Here are the links to the podcast episodes mentioned above:

I was stuck. This is how I got unstuck.

Today I want to talk about the practical steps you can take to actually take your writing to the next level. By this I mean:

  • Establish rock-solid creative habits.
  • Define your creative identity.
  • Get radically clear on your priorities of what you want to create.

If you are like many writers I speak to, you feel stuck for some of these reasons:

  • You are busy amidst a day-job, managing your family, attending to your health, and a heap of other responsibilities.
  • You have been trying to trying various tactics to focus on your writing, but for whatever reason, the habits never stick.
  • You feel alone in your creative work. You have no colleagues, no feedback, no accountability, and no one who shares your creative vision.
  • You have too many ideas for what you want to write. So you get stuck in analysis paralysis, unable to move ahead, or you hop from one thing to the next, but never really finishing anything to your satisfaction.

You have a deep passion for what you write. Yet, you feel distant from your goals of writing, publishing, reaching readers, and feeling fulfilled as a writer.

I want to share an example of how I have been using the following things to solve this for myself, and radically shift one of my own creative habits. I want to talk about:

  • Coaching
  • Mentorship
  • Accountability

And how these things helped me develop powerful creative habits, and a sense of radical clarity in my goals.

Then I want to tell you about a program I’m running that can help you get these things for your writing life. Let’s dig in…

I was stuck

A few months ago, I wrote about my goal of finally learning how to play the guitar, after a quarter century of dabbling with it. The post was called “What Practicing Guitar Every Day for a Year Taught Me About the Creative Success.

In truth, as I was finishing up that year of playing guitar every day, I was losing steam. Here I was, practicing for months on end, but I found that I:

  • Got stuck in the same bad habits.
  • Had so much advice from the internet (videos, lessons, articles) on what to practice, I didn’t know how to choose. I would bounce from one idea to the next.
  • I felt like crap about my playing because all I could see was how much I didn’t know, and because I only practiced alone, I wasn’t sure how to break out of the rut.
  • I worried if I was committed enough to really achieve my goal. I had no idea how other guitarists were doing this, and how one moved from one milestone to the next.

It reminded me of that line in the theme song from Friends:

“It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear…”

I actually just Googled this, and read this wonderful explanation of that line from a mechanical engineer:

“Second gear typically covers the range from about 5 MPH up to about 25 MPH… If your transmission malfunctions and can’t shift out of second gear, you can get around town, awkwardly, but can’t get up to highway-cruising speeds. This situation is used as a metaphor for the feeling of [being] unable to make progress on the bigger and better things that they dream of.”

I decided to invest in a guitar coach. Now, this was not an easy decision because, truth be told, a big part of me preferred to use that money to buy a shiny new guitar.

One that would look amazing. Play amazing. Hold it’s value. Something I could look in the mirror and say, “I’m a guitar player!” And then do this massive air guitar motion.

But I didn’t do that.

Instead, I invested in a coach, and this simple chart will illustrate why. It tracks the number of minutes I practiced guitar each month before hiring the coach, and after:

October was an average month for me before I hired a coach. I was playing about 15 minutes a day. But it was all over the map. Some days I played 4 minutes, other days 30 minutes.

In November, I was hitting a slump, and feeling less and less motivated. I played maybe 10 minutes a day on average.

Then I hired a coach. He’s a guy who shares loads of instructional videos on YouTube. His name is Mark McKenzie, and he is known online as “Mark the Guitar Guy.” I checked out his website, and found out that he offered lessons via Skype. Now, I live in New Jersey. Mark? He lives in New Zealand. This is what our first lesson looked like:

This is what it felt like:

Having a mentor and accountability changed everything. In December I doubled how much time I spent practicing. From there, it just grew.

Each week I met with Mark. Each week, I found myself:

  1. Doubling down on my guitar-playing habits
  2. Having more clarity on what I should focus on.
  3. Having accountability to push ahead and reach new milestones.
  4. With an outlet to discuss any confusion or doubt I had.
  5. Celebrating my progress, instead of worrying about feeling stuck.

This past month I spent a full 24 hours practicing guitar. An entire day! What’s more, I feel a sense of momentum. My current guitar practice routine is to play for a minimum of 45 minutes per day. Just the other day, Mark and I were discussing how to get to an hour a day. It sounds small, but think about that: what if you practiced your craft 25% more often, but that only required an extra 15 minutes of time. What would the cumulative creative growth be over the course of a year?

Taking Your Creative Practice to the Next Level

For the past three years, I have been running small mastermind groups. What is that? Basically: I bring together a small group of 10 writers and creators. Over the course of three months, I act as a mentor, leading you through a program to break through roadblocks in your creative life. We dig deep into your goals, establishing strong creative habits, and getting the work done. This is all 100% personalized to you. The group is filled with accountability, and a sense that you are no longer alone with your craft. You have a team of people by your side, providing feedback and celebrating success.

The results have been astounding:

Rachel Barry“Dan and the Mastermind of creatives helped me get out of this tremendous slump and into the most productive creative period I’ve ever experienced. I’m writing, I’m submitting, I’m confident. I can’t say enough good things about the Mastermind. It’s a priceless experience.”
– Rachel Barry

Ruth Franklin“Dan is truly expert at understanding the creative process. I was amazed at his ability to encourage and challenge writers and artists in many different genres to grow and transform their work.”
– Ruth Franklin

“In the first Mastermind I was a part of, Dan had us establish one small habit. Eleven months later, I’m still writing every day.I can’t believe the change in my work habits over the year. Dan knows how to lead you to reach your goals.”
– Beth Chardack

Leigh Stein“I loved the Mastermind! It helped me gain clarity on where I wanted to spend my time and creative energy, and ultimately I finished a draft of my novel. The weekly accountability and support allowed me to accomplish more than I would have going at it alone.”
– Leigh Stein

If you want to take your writing habit to the next level, whether you are just starting out, or a seasoned pro looking for rejuvenation, check out my Creative Shift Mastermind which begins April 1. It’s a three month program where you work directly with me and a small group of 9 other writers.

Full details here.

Thanks!
-Dan