Podcast: Becoming Who You Are

So much of the work I do with writers and creators is to help understand how they can effectively share their creative work and their mission with the world. To those who will be moved by it. Helped by it. Feel less alone because of it. Today, I simply want to reflect on the journey between those things. How what we create and how we share helps us become who we are. I’ll share this through the stories of writers and performers I have been thinking about this week.

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

Or you can watch me talk through this here:

Becoming who you are

So much of the work I do with writers and creators is to help understand how they can effectively share their creative work and their mission with the world. To those who will be moved by it. Helped by it. Feel less alone because of it. Some of this is the internal work of understanding what we want to say and having a system to know how to share it in a manner that feels authentic to who we are. Another aspect of this work is to understand who you hope to reach as a real person, not a faceless audience that will be measured in a numeric value like a “follower” or “subscriber.”

This is where how we create and how we share come together. To me, they are not uniquely separate tasks where one takes off the “writing” hat to put on a “marketing” hat. How we share is representative of who we are and how we connect.

I care less about following trends, and more about the lifelong journey of better understanding who we are, how we can best create, and the way that magic can happen when someone discovers your art.

Today, I simply want to reflect on the journey between those things. How what we create and how we share helps us become who we are. I’ll share this through the stories of people whose work I have been thinking about this week. We can kick it off with a quote from Questlove’s book, Creative Quest:

“If you’re feeling like things aren’t going anywhere, hang out with people from different disciplines.”

Growing up, I was the art kid, and always found myself gravitating towards anyone who creates. It’s a powerful way to find inspiration and connection. So below, I’ll share insights from writers, comics, dancers, and more. Let’s dig in…

“I kept writing because publishing wasn’t my goal. Writing was my goal.

 

Yang HuangI recently spoke with author Yang Huang about her journey as an author. She has published two novels, a short story collection, as well as essays. Every writer’s path is difficult in some way. For Yang, she grew up in China, in a culture that didn’t allow for her to consider writing as a pursuit. I asked her if she had a sense of permission to create when she was a child, and she replied:

“Actually never. I grew up in China, and back then we were always taught what to think and how to feel at home. I wasn’t even allowed to cry or my parents will mock me. It wasn’t a lack of love, but sheer force of conformity, there was always a right and wrong way to do things, a right or wrong way to feel. The censorship took away the power of imagination. I always knew what people want me to think and say. It got to a point that I knew language was almost pointless because I just give them what they wanted.”

“As I got older… I turned to writing because that’s a private language. I don’t have to conform exactly. Writing was a way for me to have a little bit of space that they [her family and culture around her] can’t quite invade.”

As a child, she was not encouraged to create, yet there were stories inside her.

Yang moved to America to pursue a degree in computer science, and her studies took her from Florida, to Boston, to Seattle, to Arizona. Along the way, she began to write. As her career in computer science became established, she pursued getting her MFA.

Every single writer and artist has their own unique challenges. What inspired me about Yang’s story is her diligence in forging her own path to become who she was all along, even if those around her didn’t see it or encourage it.

You can listen to my full interview with her here, or watch our conversation here:

 

You can find more about Yang and her books here.

Celebrating Those Who Inspire You

I’ve been watching and rewatching the 1990 video from Janet Jackson for her song “Alright.” It’s a highly choreographed visual story that features entertainers from the golden age of Hollywood. We get a dance routine from Cyd Charisse, who at age 69 moved just as she did decades earlier:

 

Fayard and Harold Nicholas appeared as well, and much like Cyd, moved just as they did back in the 1940s, even though they were 76 and 69 at the time of filming:

 

At age 82, the legendary Cab Calloway not only appeared in the video, but is the focal point of the entire storyline:

 

And of course, there is Janet Jackson herself, doing it all — singing, dancing, acting — with a sense of ease that is just incredible.

I spend a lot of time on Wikipedia and YouTube researching performers from different eras of the 20th century. It has me considering the zeitgeist — how there are times in one’s career when the culture recognizes their work, and times they do not. These performers had been out of the limelight for many years, but Janet wanted to showcase them to a new generation.

Remembering and celebrating the work of those who inspire us is an opportunity we all have. To recognize creators whose work may be somewhat forgotten, or to be inspired by it and help their work grow through your own. So much of what we create is inspired by the experiences in our lives and those who have touched us.

On your social media, or as a part of a marketing campaign for your next book, could you use it as an opportunity to celebrate the authors or creators who inspired you? Or, could you look around at other modern day creators whose work you love, and celebrate them? To use your platform and your voice to not only share their creative work, but to truly make that creator’s day?

Imagine what Cab Calloway must have felt in 1990, when at age 82 he learned that Janet wanted to feature him in her new video. His last major media appearance was 8 years earlier, and it had been a full decade since he was prominently featured in the movie The Blues Brothers. Could you help provide that feeling to someone now?

You have the power to make someone feel seen. To have their work feel relevant and validated. Regardless of whether it is someone who has been creating for decades, or is just trying to get their first book published. Why not use that power?

A Lesson from Comedians: Creative Work is Surrounded by Failure.

I’ve watched a series of interviews recently from successful comedians who talked about how much failure is a part of their daily work, and their career overall. In hearing this again and again, I felt like the idea of accepting this opens up huge possibilities. Instead of being concerned about the validation from others, knowing that failure is part of the process may help you feel motivated to create and share even more. Some of what I heard:

  • Seth Green talks about all the failed projects he’s been a part of, and how very often, you have no idea which projects will fail or not, regardless of how you feel about them.
  • Jerry Seinfeld talks about the famous note from an NBC executive turning down the concept for the Seinfeld TV show. He reflects that at that time, he had been on the Tonight Show 3 times per year for 7 years, and each time he was wildly successful. Yet he was surprised that NBC reacted as: “Who’s this guy?! This guy wants a show?” No matter how hard he worked, how successful he was, he still found people who wouldn’t take him seriously.
  • Tina Fey and Conan O’Brien talked about how they still have anxiety about their time at SNL, and that the experience working there pushes people over the edge. She shared the routines she formed in those years, saying to herself as she commuted to work: “When you get off the train you have to get off on the same side, and walk around this pillar, otherwise your sketch on the show will tank.”
  • Chris Rock shared how he felt his career was over in the years between SNL and then succeeding as a standalone comic: “In 1995, I was washed up, I had no career. I was out of the business. Nobody would talk to me.”

It’s easy to look at the Wikipedia page for each of these people and only see success, yet they talk about how much of their life has been filled with failure. An idea not working, a project going nowhere, people not picking up their calls, them not getting chosen. But they kept working and through that, things worked out.

Fitting In

I sometimes find that when someone is trying to establish their platform, they are vying to fit in to the marketplace. They want to learn the “best practices” so that they can use social media and be online just as other writers and artists are. And of course, there is value in that. But I would encourage you to take a different approach: to become who you are and learn to share that with authenticity online.

I have shared the following video many times over the years, and I always come back to it when I consider what it means to be public with your creative work. It’s an old video by Ze Frank called “Fitting In.” You can watch it here:

 

He states in the video:

“When I was younger I had this feeling that there was this handbook that I’d never gotten,
that explained how to be, how to laugh, what to wear,
how to stand by yourself in a hallway.
Everyone else looks so natural, like they’d all practiced together and knew exactly what to do. My experience was pretty much the opposite.”

“So I tried to pick up the patterns.
I wore what they wore, and said what they said. I even wrote “smile more” on a sticky note. And over time it sort of worked in a way. I made a version of me that fit in.”

“As I grew older the patterns kept changing, and it took so much effort to keep learning them. I was still stuck with the problem that it started with, being terrified of the moment when my tricks stop working.”

“I think it took me too long to learn something: that even though there is a thing called “fitting in,” that it’s something that you can learn and practice,
those pages or so thin compared to who you are. That the way to become natural like I wanted to be so badly, is by forgetting what you’re trying to be to other people. And if there is a handbook, you probably get to write it yourself.”

Thanks!

-Dan

“I kept writing because publishing wasn’t my goal. Writing was my goal.” My Interview with author Yang Huang

The title of this podcast is The Creative Shift, and today I am excited to share the story of one author whose life has been filled with creative shifts! Yang Huang grew up in China, came to America and moved to four corners of the country as she trained to become a computer engineer at University of California, Berkeley. But then, she pursued her lifelong passion to become a writer. She has published two novels, a short story collection, as well as essays. Her journey is such an inspiring story.

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

You can watch our conversation here:

You can find Yang in the following places:
yanghuang.com
Her books
Twitter: @yangwrites
Instagram: @yanglindahuang
Facebook

Podcast: “Who Will Take Care of You?”

Today I want to talk about the value of having collaborators and mentors as a part of how you create and share. This week I have been considering something I think is critical to how we find success as writers and artists: that we tend to thrive when we collaborate with others, and failure is more likely when we try to go it alone. What this means is that having colleagues and mentors is something I encourage in terms of how you create and share your writing and art.

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

Or you can watch me talk through this here:

“Who will take care of you?”

The other night my 4 year old son asked me where my books are. I told him they are in my studio. He asked who was there right now, and I said no one, because I am home with him. He said, “When you go, is it you and one other person?” I clarified, “No, it is just me.” Then he replied:

“Then who will take care of you?”

This was a reflection of the life he leads, where he constantly has a parent or teacher who is present with him to ensure he is okay. But it had me considering something I think about a lot when it comes to how writers and creators find growth and success: that we tend to thrive when we collaborate with others, and failure is more likely when we try to go it alone. What this means is that having colleagues and mentors is something I encourage in terms of how you create and share your writing and art.

For writers, I have seen this apply to every kind of publishing path, from traditional, to self-publishing, to hybrid. When we collaborate, we are not only more effective in reaching our goals, but it also helps us manage the difficult parts of what it means to create and put ourselves out there: the sense of confusion and overwhelm that people often feel, the mental health struggles we each go through when considering if we are doing enough, or doing the right thing, or on the wrong path entirely.

Too often, people have a resistance to collaborating with others because they have this sentimental sense of “I’m making it on my own.” They believe that great art comes from one person struggling alone. That if you share the process with anyone, you are watering down the singular vision of the individual creator. I will say, there is no one right way to create and share. Find the way that works best for you.

But even though so much of creative work can happen in isolation, the fact is, we succeed together. I regularly think back to this 2013 video from author John Green where he talks about how his writing and publishing is a group effort, and how he wouldn’t have any books (let alone bestselling books) without a wide range of collaborators.

This very essay is a great example. I am sitting here alone in a room by myself, with the door closed and locked at 6:19am as I write this. I could easily trick myself into thinking, “Here I am, creating alone!”

But that isn’t the truth.

I can only be here because my amazing wife is home with our kids. She is an artist, and through our conversations each day, and through me observing her creative process, she endlessly inspires me.

I can only be here because my landlord has rented me this studio and allowed me access during the early morning hours that I like to work.

I am writing on a computer designed and built by someone else. Listening to music that inspires me (the track I’m listening to at this very moment is appropriately called “Partner” by singer Ada Lea. I can thank Spotify for making me aware of her.)

What I’m writing about today was inspired by both my son’s comments, and also by author and artist Nikki Grimes. More on her in a moment.

I am writing this to an audience, to a reader. You. My subscribers have stuck with me on my email list every week for 15 years. I’m aware that after I publish this, I will share it to thousands of newsletter subscribers, 10,000 Twitter subscribers, and to many others. They are a part of this as I write too.

I am thinking of the writers I speak to every day as I write this, because they help me understand the reality of the many different experiences of what it means to create and share.

I am staring at a wall across from me that is filled with photos of creators who inspire me. I spend all day looking at their faces and considering their journeys.

Behind me is a bookshelf of books on creativity and biographies of creators whose stories help me.

Because of my wonderful clients, I am in the trenches every day working with them and learning so much from that collaborative process. Their engagement and support is critical to all of this.

The conversations I have each week with my creative collaborators Jennie Nash and Lori Richmond are a part of this. Each week, we dig into deep questions about what it means to create and grow a business.

Sure, in one sense I’m here alone. But I’m not alone at all. My name will be the one on this essay, but so many other people are a part of it. These people, whether they know it or not, are taking care of me. Are inspiring me. Are giving me the fuel, the permission, the accountability, the sustainability to create and share.

This week I released the first interview of the new season of my Creative Shift podcast. It is an incredible honor to share with you my conversation with author and artist Nikki Grimes. You can watch our conversation here:

 

… or listen to it on my blog, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and elsewhere through this link.

She shared so much inspiring advice, and one thing that jumped out at me is how she talked about the value of having creative colleagues and mentors:

“[Writing] was my private thing. I didn’t even think about sharing it until the end of middle school, early high school. I started publishing in school, literary journals and that kind of thing. That was the point at which I started thinking in terms of writing as career. People just laughed when I told them what I wanted to do.”

“I decided I needed to surround myself with other young people who had dreams that they wanted to pursue. They became like my posse. I started seeking those kids out and they became the people I surrounded myself with. I am sure that made all the difference. Once I decided this is what I wanted to do, I just kind of shut everything else out.”

“I started thinking about building portfolios, looking for opportunities to write with community newspapers, literary journals, and building up from there. And again, keeping myself surrounded increasingly with other artists, visual artists, dancers, whatever.

“I was doing poetry workshops and was in poetry workshops. I was in a poetry workshop with Quincy Troupe. I was in a writing workshop at Columbia, which is where I met [Nikki] Giovanni and a few other writers. I was like the kid in the group and I was hanging out with her and, Jayne Cortez and Sonia Sanchez, and Toni Cade Bambara, that whole group.”

“My first mentor was James Baldwin. And the one thing he taught me in talking to me about was the importance of not compromising on my gift. You want to compromise in any of the areas which you need to financially, I understand that, but don’t compromise in the area of your gift. You always want to be able to look in the mirror and be proud and happy with who you see… and that’s not going to happen if you compromise in the area of your giftedness. Just, don’t do that. And I, took that in.”

Nikki shared so much that is inspiring and instructive for writers and creators. She has published more than 80 books, and created so much else. You can listen to our interview here, or learn more about her on her website. (You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram!)

How can you develop a connection to other writers and creators? Some ideas:

  • Use Amazon and Goodreads to research and identify 10 books published in the last three years that are comparable to yours. Books that would be on the shelf next to yours at a bookstore. Then, read those books. Email each author a thank you note, telling them what you liked most about their books. Make a small mention at the end that you write as well and how their book has helped you.
  • Then get in the habit of emailing one person a week a similar letter. These could be comparable authors, but also anyone who supports the books you love. People who speak at events, who organize events, who run bookstores, who are sources for your work, who are readers of that work. There are more than 10 people who are working in your genre, topic or niche. Identify one of these people per week, then send them a thank you email.
  • Flip how you use social media. Don’t worry about gaining followers or likes. Instead, focus your efforts on how you can make someone’s day. Focus on one person at a time. As you research and identify the other writers in your field, celebrate them publicly. Do a series of posts about their books. See what they share and amplify it. Literally give their books away.
  • Find an excuse to collaborate. Why have I had a blog and newsletter for 15 years? Why do I do a weekly podcast? It’s all an excuse to meet the people I am most inspired by: writers and creators! Consider ways that you could collaborate with others. Could you do mini-interviews with these people on a blog or podcast? Or could you even do that on an Instagram feed? This is not about a content strategy, it’s about finding meaningful reasons to go deeper with these people. To have a conversation or interaction.

If you are wondering how others will care and support you, I would encourage you to consider that this begins with you caring and supporting others first. That isn’t a rule by any means, but I find it an encouraging way to consider actions I can take right now to develop a community around creativity.

Thanks!

-Dan