What I’m learning from writers and artists…

I’m wrapping up the current season of my podcast, The Creative Shift with Dan Blank, and today I want to reflect on what I’ve been learning from the writers and artists I have been talking to. Each conversation is a deep look into not only what it means to effectively share your writing and art, but to also feel a sense of personal fulfillment and purpose in the process.

Rebecca GreenIt is appropriate to end the season with an interview with artist and writer Rebecca Green. This is the third time I’ve interviewed her. With more than 270,000 Instagram followers, Rebecca has forged an amazing career writing and illustrating books, and with a wide array of other artistic projects.

In our first conversation back in 2018 we talked about creative burnout.

The next time we spoke in 2019, we discussed how her work was evolving and the creative process.

When we chatted recently, we discussed the risk involved in changing her creative direction. You see, she has done well as an illustrator of other people’s books, but what she has realized is that the book she wrote and illustrated herself delivered the kind of long-term value she wants more of. She says:

“It’s scary to say no to picture book projects because they are so big. On the flipside, I know how big they are, so it gets easier to say no to them. Because I’ve said yes to enough ‘no’ projects, to know that I shouldn’t have taken this on. I know what those projects entail. I know that I can put all of that energy that I would invest in those into something else that will take me farther.”

What would take her farther? She referenced the 2017 book she wrote and illustrated, How to Make Friends with a Ghost, and how being the illustrator of her own writing has lead to more overall creative and career growth. She mentioned that she just spent more than 1.5 years developing a proposal that she recently submitted to develop as a book. These things take time, they are more uncertain, yet… they could have more overall value than short-term work that has a clear start and end date, and a negotiated paycheck.

She also wants to focus on more 3-dimensional artwork, and mentioned doing window displays and menus for small businesses. This was fascinating to me, and I mentioned to her that this may be surprising to many artists who are just trying to get their foot in the door of a viable career in the arts. Why? Because many of them dream of illustrating books, or doing paid editorial illustration, or teaching workshops — all things Rebecca has done many times. These artists may say they feel “stuck” taking small projects to illustrate a menu, or do a local store window display, as if this work is what they will take just to pay the bills, but not really see it as their goal or even enjoyable.

As always, I loved Rebecca’s honesty in this conversation. She described it this way: “I love for my work to exist in the real world, the tactile world. I like for everyone to be able to react with that. It’s world building. It may not be the best career decision, but it allows me to create different projects.”

She also talked about giving herself permission to follow her creative inspiration and not feel too much pressure to always be “the artist.” She has enjoyed just feeling like a human being exploring her inspiration. My favorite quote from her during our conversation:

“I just want to go to a salvage yard, find an old doorknob, and clean it for 4 hours.”

What does the doorknob represent? Perhaps it is being immersed in the creative process without worrying about productivity. About being a person, not a brand. Of feeling you have the space to pursue your vision when you don’t know where it will lead.

Earlier this year she announced that she was taking a break from social media. I asked about this, and she said:

“I was scrolling mindlessly [on Instagram], and it felt awful every time I did it. I would feel jealous of everything I saw, even if it wasn’t something I wanted. My life is wonderful, so why am I scrolling through and feeling jealous of everyone else’s life, and like I’m not doing enough? It always feels like not enough. It’s very overwhelming. I just needed a break. I felt like a lot of my identity and work was wrapped up in it, an app and a community. Since taking a break, I feel quite light, and feel a lot better and can reassess how it fits into my life. I feel more human than machine – than artist.”

But, before you read into this that you can just give up on social media, she also talked about the value it brings to her life:

“There is no way I would have the career that I have without Instagram and social media. The way I have connected with people all over the globe, how when I move I am able to find and connect with local artists. When I have teaching opportunities, I know that a person wouldn’t have found me or trusted me to sell workshop spots if I wasn’t on social media. I know it is a huge part of selling a book that comes out, or getting future contract deals. Actually, now my contracts include social media requirements. I understand it sells books. I’ve always done that anyway, but it’s part of my job.”

She also talked about the value of being a part of an artistic community…

“In moving so much, I’ve realized that it’s really the people in your life that matter. Having an artistic community is important. Having those people is a really big part of your day to day. Every place has an artistic community for sure, but I wouldn’t say that every artistic community is the one that everyone needs.”

Angela AbreuThis is something that came up with another recent guest I spoke with, Angela Abreu. When she launched her book, she turned it into a performance, and sold 100 tickets. How did she attract an audience? She said:

“I had the supportive community, because I had been supporting them for all these years.”

She talked about how active she had been in her local writing community, helping her local bookstore and other writers. She said, “The doors to my apartment were open to creatives in the community.” She also found new ways to help other writers create and share their work by founding the Dominican Writers Association.

It was amazing to hear how she took this personal passion of being involved in the literary community, and found bold new ways to organize to support the kind of writing and writers she wanted to help succeed.

Emma GannonFor so many writers finding the way in to their own community, and even their own voice, is a difficult path. Emma Gannon told me how she pursued becoming a writer, turning rejection into success:

“I would get rejected once a day pretty much, from all magazines. No one wanted to publish any of my writing. What I would do is publish the articles on my blog, all of those rejected articles. All this writing, that for most people, might have just sat on their desktop. And people started reading it. Then the numbers grew. Then I had like 100,000 page views. People wanted to read it. I thought, this is so weird that some of the magazines I pitched were closing down, and yet people were reading my work.”

Since then, she has not only published multple nonfiction books, but recently released her first novel. She is also the host of the successful podcast, Ctrl Alt Delete. So much of what we talked about was how to turn your creative vision into a viable career path. She said, “I had so much creativity waiting to come out.”

Donna HemansEvery writer has their own version of this. As author Donna Hemas put it, “I had to figure out how to make writing the central part of my life.”

Her first two books were published nearly 20 years apart, and in our interview, she describes the difference in launching each. She also shares the journey between them, where she began two manuscripts that are still unpublished, only to find that her next idea was the one ready to be finished and shared with the world.

Overall this year, I kept thinking back to these conversations and others I have had recently. The words of Julian Winters, Andrea J. Loney, Naomi Jackson, Skeme Richards, and so many others been in my head again and again. I’ve always been inspired by the creative journey, and each of these people shared stories that I kept going back to — big decisions and wise lessons along the way. Here are just some of the people I have interviewed recently:

Every conversation has changed me in some way, which is why I continue to do the podcast. It truly makes my life richer. I hope the podcast has helped you in some way. If so, please consider two actions:

  • Let the guest know. Even if one insight helped you, email them and let them know.
  • Leave a rating or review for the podcast on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Thanks!

-Dan

“I had to think, what kind of artist am I, and what do I want to be doing?” My interview with Rebecca Green

Rebecca GreenThis is the third time I’ve interviewed artist and writer Rebecca Green, and each time we have tracked how she is transitioning her career to find more personal fulfillment in the creative process, as well as greater success. Today we talk about the risks she is taking in focusing more on certain kinds of artwork, the pros and cons of social media, why she loves her email newsletter, and the importance of an artistic community.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking ‘play’ below, or in the following places:

You can find Rebecca in the following places:
myblankpaper.com
Instagram: @rebeccagreenillustration

My mom and Muhammad Ali

Today I want to talk about a key skill that any author or artist needs if they want to share their work, develop a community of supporters, and establish their platform. No, it’s not some special button on Amazon, or the secret to social media ads.

It is how to ask.

Ask for what? For anything. For attention. For someone to buy your book. To attend an event. To review your book. To be there for you when you need them the most. This is work I do every day with writers.

In considering this, I realized I learned this skill from my mom and dad. So I would like to start with an example of asking, then dig into practical tips and advice for how you can do this for yourself.

In the 1980s, my family and I had a small baseball card business. On the weekends we would set up a table at card shows and buy and sell cards with collectors. One weekend we did a show in Manhattan and one of the people signing autographs was Muhammad Ali. My mother paid for the tickets for us to meet him and waited on line with my brother and I. I was maybe 9 years old, and my brother around 13.

When we got up to the table, Ali signed autographs for us and shook our hands. I was in total awe. He was gracious and fully present.

But then, my mom, did something unexpected. She asked, “Can I take a photo of you with my boys?”

This was more than two decades before selfies were a thing, and in an era where sports shows didn’t offer photos with the celebrity guests. Ali said that there was a long line of people he didn’t want to keep waiting, but he would see what he could do later on.

Sure enough, a couple hours later, we heard an announcement over the PA system, “Would the woman who wanted to have her kids’ photos taken with Muhammad Ali please come to the front, he has to leave now.”

They took us into an empty corridor, and there in a random corner of the hotel, we began to pose to take a photo facing the camera. But then Muhammad stopped and said, “wait a minute,” he turned to me, and pretended to be throwing a punch as a pose for the photo. Here it is:

 

Okay, that is a (slightly) edited version of the original, which had my brother in the background, see below left. Plus he got his own photo with Ali:

 

My mom did the unexpected in the moment. She took a risk and the results created one of the best moments of my life. Nowadays, this type of thing is more expected. When I met Brené Brown, I asked for a selfie and she was quick to agree:

 

So did Amy Tan:

 

So much of marketing is not about doing the expected — the same practices as everyone else – but about doing the unexpected. I’m not talking about shock and surprise tactics, but rather, efforts that are authentic and meaningful.

Where might the skill of outreach and simply asking come in handy for a writer? Some ideas:

  • Emailing another author who writers in your genre to just say ‘thank you’ and perhaps establish a connection.
  • Asking for a book blurb.
  • Asking an author to be a part of a virtual or in-person book event with you.
  • Asking readers to subscribe to your newsletter.
  • Querying an agent or publisher.
  • Pitching yourself as a guest on the podcast.
  • So so so so so many other aspects of what it means to be public, share your work, and develop a platform around your writing.

Too many authors wait to do these things. They wait until just before book launch. They wait for a “perfect” ask. A perfect credential. But by then, they have often waited too long to really develop the connections they need. It’s the difference between:

Opening a restaurant in a town you have lived in for years, where you have developed relationships with other business owners, town officials, and neighbors.

Vs

Flying into a town you have never even visited, and later that same day, you begin walking around town to promote a brand new restaurant you are opening.

The first way is not only more effective, but it simply feels better.

As I considered my mom and Muhammad Ali, I remembered the many ways that my parents taught me to focus on outreach, connection, and relationships as being the core of what it means to share one’s work and find success.

  • My mom sold Tupperware in the mid-1970s
  • My mom sold Avon in the late 1970s to early 1980s
  • My parents had a stamp business in the 1970s
  • My family had a baseball card business in the 1980s and 1990s
  • My mom was a realtor in the 1980s and 1990s

It’s funny to consider how much of my childhood was spent behind a table at a show, watching my parents prepare orders, and joining my mom and/or dad on visits with customers and colleagues. Infused in every part of this was how they established a sense of clear communication and trust with the other person. My parents pursued these activities because they truly enjoyed them. And that meant that everything was more fulfilling when you cared about the people you were engaging with. I was able to observe thousands of asks during this time. My parents making deals, and ensuring that both they and their customers felt it was a fair trade.

Here is my family behind our table at a show (I’m on the right):

 

My family developed friendships that lasted years and years with customers. I can still see their faces and hear their voices; the specific customers I would expect to see at different shows we went to year after year.

These were businesses built on connections between people, and their shared appreciations for the product they were there for. I’m actually getting emotional as I write this, which means there is a strong likelihood of you seeing an upcoming post of me titled, “What Authors Can Learn About Book Launches from Selling Avon in the 1970s.”

🙂

I would imagine that in your history, you have your own versions of this. Perhaps not in side businesses that your parents ran, but with someone you knew growing up who seemed to get stuff done because they knew about the value of how to engage with other people.

While that isn’t why a lot of people start writing, I do think it is a critical part of how writing gets shared: how readers engage. With the examples above, my parents weren’t selling random goods just to make a profit. They really liked what they sold and understood how these things helped people. They were businesses built on joy, appreciation, and connection.

How can you effectively ask other people for things that support your writing? Some tips:

  • Be clear. Too many people try to make the ask without ever actually asking. That usually leads to confusion and frustration.
  • Focus on one ask at a time, when possible.
  • Don’t hide the ask – put it up front. In other words, don’t write a 7 paragraph email, just hiding an ask in the middle of paragraph 6.
  • Understand if the ask is reasonable. Is it a small, but meaningful action? What steps would the person need to take and do they understand them?
  • Consider the objections the other person may have, and address them. This is not about “talking them into it,” but about empathy.
  • Consider how what you are asking could align to the goals/preferences of the person you are asking. How it would be something they truly want to do.

For instance, there is a difference between emailing a friend and asking:

“I was told I have to ask people to post reviews for my book on Amazon. I know it’s a pain, but I’m trying to get a hang of this author platform thing. Anything you could post would be great.”

Vs.

“You have been such a big supporter of my writing thank you. I want to ask if you could do something important: post a review of my book on Amazon? Doing so helps potential readers know if this book is for them. It means more people who will love this book may find it.”

The first one sounds like a chore, and the second is filled with purpose for both the person asking and the person being asked. Of course, asking works in both directions. You can also reach out to a writer you know and ask, “How can I help share your writing?”

Thanks!

-Dan

“I had the supportive community, because I had been supporting them for all these years.” My interview with Angela Abreu

Angela AbreuAngela Abreu is a writer, and founder of the Dominican Writers Association. She shares her own story of launching her poetry book, and how she turned it into a performance, selling 100 tickets with huge support from her network. She talked about the value of being a part of a literary community and how that forges the relationships you need to share your own work in a meaningful way. She also shares how she created the Dominican Writers Association and how that has grown to support so many writers.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking ‘play’ below, or in the following places:

You can find Angela in the following places:
dominicanwriters.com
@angysgotit
@dominicanwriters
Facebook
DomWriters

This isn’t easy, but…

In the past few weeks, I’ve been observing the book launches of Jessica Lahey, Laila Tarraf, Jasmin Darznik, as well as others. Jessica published nonfiction, Laila memoir, and Jasmin a novel.

I happen to know each of those authors, but even if you don’t know an author, you can watch their book launch in real-time, just by following the author on social media. It’s a great way to reverse engineer some aspects of the launch process. But there is a side that the public doesn’t always get to see. When I speak to writers via phone, or interview them in my podcast, they often share what you don’t see on social media: all of the ideas and efforts that didn’t pan out.

When I observe how successful authors share, I find that they show up again and again for their ideal audience. They try new things, and through these thousands of tiny efforts, comes a career.

This, of course, doesn’t just apply to book launches. I recently saw this series of Instagram Stories from author and podcaster Emma Gannon:

Here she is encouraging people to sign up for a newsletter that is about to go out. Then the next day she shares the newsletter itself, and then a reminder to subscribe if you want to see future issues. Why do this? So many reasons:

  • To communicate about what she is creating and sharing this week
  • To encourage you to join others in her readership and not miss out
  • To give you an opportunity to engage with her around her writing

I love the before/during/after of the three images above because they illustrate how the many opportunities we have to share our work.

Perhaps you look at authors I’ve mentioned here and think, “Sure Dan, but these people already have established audiences, that’s why they can do this. I’ll share like Emma does when I have an audience.”

But how do you think you get an audience?

You show up and find new ways to communicate about what you create and why. You experiment, you engage, you repeat as you learn what feels authentic to you, and what truly connects with readers. What I have found is that you have to learn these skills as early in your career as possible. For a writer, this means don’t wait until you are ready for a book launch, start years earlier if you can. What you want time to learn is:

  • How to talk about what you create and why
  • How to reach out to people you don’t know and ask them questions
  • How to find sharable moments in your creative process
  • How to not be shy about showing up even when you feel you have nothing to promote
  • Through experimentation and repetition, learn what gets attention with your ideal readers.

What I find again and again is that in order to find success, even the smartest and most talented people have to keep trying again and again to hit upon the ideas that truly work. I want to share two examples of creators doing this outside of the writing world.

I follow a lot of guitarists YouTube, and one of them, Steve Onotera, shared video talking about his path to becoming a full-time guitarist on YouTube. He is an amazing player, and it may be easy to look at his incredible skill and think, “Well of course he is successful, he’s got so much talent and skill. He would succeed regardless.” But of course, the reality is always much more complex. He joined YouTube in 2014, now has more than 750,000 subscribers, and this platform is how he earns a living. Along the way, these are the music industry job ideas that he tried and “failed” at (that’s the word he used):

  1. A session musician for live events. That didn’t offer sustainable opportunities or income.
  2. Anything inside the music industry — he applied for jobs at music stores, record labels, and teaching guitar. The only job he could get turned out to be an unpaid internship. So he moved back home to live with parents.
  3. Staff songwriting, with the goal of getting a publishing deal and writing music down in Nashville. He couldn’t get his foot in the door.
  4. He started a music/sound production company with a friend of his. They didn’t earn a penny from this, and the company folded.
  5. He tried becoming the co-leader of a mainstream country band with his friend, again with the goal of making a permanent move to Nashville. This too didn’t work out.

What did work? Well, as a part of trying to get attention for that band, he started a YouTube channel. It turns out those videos he created began to catch on. So this thing that was never the goal — YouTube — somehow because an enormous opportunity for him.

In my research, I come across versions of this again and again. This year I have been listening to a series of interviews with Leonard Nimoy. Whether or not you care about Star Trek, you likely know of Spock, the role that Nimoy played in the original 1960s TV series.

In watching hours of interviews and profiles on Nimoy, it was astounding to hear about his path to success.

He arrived to work as an actor in Hollywood in 1950. Yet he says, “Prior to Star Trek, I never had a job that lasted more than two weeks.” Star Trek went into production in 1965. That means for 15 years, all of his acting work offered him little security or sustainability in a specific show or role.

Yet, in those years, he was in more than 60 different movies and TV shows, usually in a small non-recurring role. To support his family, he worked many odd jobs outside of film, such as working in a pet store.

When he got the role on Star Trek, he said it was the first role he landed in 15 years where the name on the door of his dressing room wasn’t written in chalk — meaning it would be easily wiped away the next day to be replaced with the name of another actor.

When Nimoy was filming an early episode of Star Trek a childhood friend who was an actor came to visit him on set. After watching him film a scene, his friend pulled Nimoy aside and said, “No matter what you do, you have to get out of this as soon as you possibly can. This is a treadmill to oblivion.”

That kind of story always sticks with me. We don’t know what will work. This is exactly the reason that I encourage writers to share early and often, to learn what feel authentic to them, who their readers may be, and what engages them.

This is why we show up to create.

I work with writers everyday on book launches, platform building, and integrating creativity and sharing into their daily lives. If this work seems difficult to you, that is because it is. Because it asks you to stand up for who you are. For the vision of what you want to create. And to connect it with the lives of others.

That isn’t easy. But it is worthwhile.

Thanks!

-Dan