Finding the time to write and share

The other day on Twitter, I asked this question: “If you could get rid of one challenge or struggle as a writer, what would it be?”

I received a range of answers: procrastination, advertising, lack of response from agents, fear, and more. But the challenge that came up again and again was time. Having more time to write and share their work.

Today I want to address that. Too often, people consider time and money as their two most precious resources. They are finite, and we are constantly reminded of their limits. But, I don’t think they are the most important resources you have.

Creative energy is.

If you develop your ability to harness and manage your creative energy, time becomes less of a problem.

Late in the summer, something like this shared on social media, “I always said I would clean the garage out when I had more time. Well, I’ve been home for 170 days in a row due to the pandemic, and my garage is still a mess. I guess time wasn’t the real issue.”

Below I will share five steps to find more creative energy to write and market your work. But first, I want to tell you about one way I am finding more creative energy.

This year, I have been incredibly busy working with writers and being there for my family, and one thing that slipped away in the process is my guitar playing practice. I did pick it up each day, but most days it was literally for a minute or less. If you are a longtime reader of this newsletter you may remember how a couple years ago, I decided to finally learn to play guitar after a quarter century of dabbling with it. These essays share some of that journey:

This year I felt I had zero extra time, and zero extra creative energy. So how am I solving that for myself? With this:

 

What is it? A Martin D-28 guitar. I’m sure it looks like every other acoustic guitar to you, but when I see it, I see this: the many famous players who have used a D-28:

 

But it is also a very expensive object that I don’t need. This is a (mostly) handmade wooden instrument. The design of this guitar is nearly 100 years old, yet it costs more than a new Apple computer.

Why did I say I don’t need it? Because I already have another wonderful acoustic guitar that I really love playing. But I’m not spending the money to buy just the guitar. I’m buying something else.

I’m buying the reason to show up to my guitar practice. I need to live up to this guitar.

To its price tag.

To its craftsmanship.

To its heritage.

To its capabilities.

I will practice more — dramatically more — in order to justify this purchase.

Which means, in reality, what I’m showing up for is my own creative intentions, and my own potential.

In many ways, I feel I don’t have any extra time or energy. Yet, here I am upping my guitar practice by 1,000%

This guitar is a glaring reminder to practice. Too often, it is easy for us to bury our creative goals into the back of our minds, making it the lowest priority in our lives. No one will know if you didn’t write today. Or this week. Or this month. They will easily forgive you, saying, “You are so busy with family and work! Who has time to write?!”

But we each need to make the time for our creative intentions. For me, it is this guitar sitting in my room. It is a big red flashing light to me that reminds me: “Dan, I’m here to ensure that are living up to your creative potential.”

Which leads me to my advice for how you can find more creative energy — and time — for writing and sharing your work:

Hold Yourself Accountable

What I did above is a form of holding myself accountable. Spending money on something I can’t ignore to put me on the hook to my goal. Writing about it here in this essay is another way I’m doing that. By linking to my older posts, I’m reminding myself of my goal. And by publishing this to thousands of people, I will undoubtedly have people asking me how my guitar playing is going for years to come.

Many of you may be doing NaNoWriMo ((National Novel Writing Month) this month, writing tens of thousands of words. This too is a form of accountability — announcing to a friend or family member that you are doing it, and setting a clear expectation.

Find a way to involve others in your creative intention. To set an expectation for what you will write, or what/how you will share that with others.

A more advanced way of doing this is to hire someone. A book coach, an editor, a marketing consultant, etc. In some ways, you are hiring their expertise, their advice, their program. But you are also investing in accountability.

This is why people hire a personal trainer when they want to get fit. Joining a gym or going to a class can be relatively affordable. $80 per month at the gym, or for a package of classes. But hiring a personal trainer can easily cost that for a single hour.

Why do this?

Because that person is waiting for you. When you commit to workout at 8am, and your trainer is there waiting for you, you show up. When you are paying $80 an hour, you suddenly make this a top priority.

You put in the work to honor that intention, and not let that person down.

Prioritize a Few Things That Matter

I won’t belabor this one because I have written a lot about it recently, but finding more creative energy and time for writing and sharing should focus you on a very limited number of high priority items.

For me, my biggest priorities right now are my family, and the writers I’m working with. The next priority? Oddly, it is my guitar practice. To show up for something that gives me joy. That is a craft I am learning.

I am choosing my guitar practice over finishing my next book. Why? Because in a year so focused on attending to others, I want to choose one thing in my life that has no measure of success other than the joy of experiencing it. For me, that is guitar. I’m not recording a song, and have zero dreams of performing for others or releasing an album. My only “goals” for guitar are to be able to lazily sit on the front porch and play.

Are those three things the only things I attend to in a given day? Of course not. But they are what I prioritize. What I think about while doing anything else.

If you need help finding what you want to prioritize, check out my Clarity Card process.

Be Active, Not Passive

This is critical for finding more creative energy and time to create: don’t be a passive participant in your own writing and sharing. Don’t just join an online writing group, and sit quietly in the Zoom calls. Don’t just listen to writing and marketing podcasts, taking notes. Don’t just sign up for an online course or webinar that focuses solely on information.

Instead, take bold action. Focus on tasks that get words on the page, pages published, and where you are connecting with real people who love the same type of writing that you do.

What is the work of marketing? It is sharing. Engaging. Reaching out. And taking a social risk.

It is what leads you to connect with others. Not just to “like” a social media post, but to send an email, a direct message, make a pitch, and collaborate.

Action often requires taking a social risk. I know that is scary for most people. But it is also where the moments of fulfillment come from — when you truly connect with people around what we create.

I mean, my entire podcast is focused on this idea of creative risk. Of being an active participant in our own creative dreams.

Make it Small

Too often, we think of writing and sharing in terms of grand plans. But I want to encourage you to focus on the small actions. To show up to put words on the page. And to take the smaller actions to connect with others that truly matter: show up for other people.

This week a colleague reminded me of this essay I wrote a decade ago: The One Thing You MUST do to Succeed in Social Media. A quote from that piece:

“The one thing that is CRITICAL to you succeeding in social media? Okay, here it is: Care. That’s it. Just be a human being, and actually care about the people you are connecting with online.”

Get involved, and be focused on small experiences that matter. Choose tiny actions that do the most important things.

What have you found helps you to find more creative energy and time to create and share?

Thanks.

-Dan

The people who will support your writing

I recently interviewed children’s book illustrator Veronica Miller Jamison about her amazing creative shift, and how she got her first book deal with Little, Brown.

After spending nearly an hour discussing her career leading up to the book, I finally asked, “How was the book launch?” She replied:

“A lot of anxiety. In the middle of doing this book, I got diagnosed with depression and anxiety. The book was my bright spot.”

Veronica Miller JamisonVeronica opened up more about how the book launch created a deeply fulfilling experience for her. Often, writers and illustrators hope that with publication, their creative work will reach thousands of strangers. In doing so, this attention validates their craft, raises their profile as a writer or artist, and releases that sense of impostor’s syndrome that so many of us deal with.

But Veronica said something different: “What was amazing was to see the people who came out to support me.” She described friends, family, and co-workers, including those she hasn’t seen for years who came to her book reading. “Seeing my community appear in front of me to support my work, was overwhelming and makes me choke up right now to think about it.”

This is what so many writers overlook: their own community that they have spent a lifetime creating. Too often, they can’t see the forest for the trees. They compartmentalize every relationship they ever made as “former co-worker” or “former classmate” and don’t realize that these are people who know you, and care about what you create. These are the people who may just show up for you in your big moment of celebration around your writing.

Instead, many writers want the recognition of strangers. The result? They hide their writing from those around them. They don’t tell family, friends, or coworkers about what they create. When someone in their daily lives asks how they are doing — one of their kids’ friend’s parents, the barista they see every day, the other 10 members of the PTA committee they sit on — they never mention their writing.

They justify that “these people aren’t readers,” or “they don’t read my genre,” or “they don’t have kids, and my book is a kid’s book.”

But these people may want to support you if you give them a chance.

Early success with developing your audience is often about connecting people to your work, and perhaps even to each other. Often, that may begin with who you know already: friends, family and coworkers past and present. Why? Because these are the people who will drive an hour, in the rain, on a busy Thursday night to support you at your book launch.

Again and again in Veronica’s career, she talks about the value of not just knowledge and information, but of connection to others. She talked about the critical importance of forging connections with like-minded creators, and how that has led to her success in multiple industries.

My full interview with Veronica Miller Jamison is absolutely inspiring. You can listen to it on the web, Apple Podcast, or Spotify here.

This reminds me of a blog post I wrote in early 2013, titled: “Focus on the people, not just the ideas and information.” I shared my experience of attending a large publishing conference in New York City. Of course, there were amazing keynote speakers, insightful presentations, and neat innovations shared at the event. But this was the highlight for me: shoved into a booth at Shake Shack, eating lunch with Cory Doctorow, Stephanie Anderson, and Rachel Fershleiser:

It was a conversation around books, reading, libraries, interaction, community. Too many people attend events keeping quietly to themselves and taking notes. Luckily for me, not these people. Cory is a famous author, Rachel at the time was working at Tumblr, and Stephanie had been managing an amazing bookstore and moving into the library world.

And it was completely unplanned and unbelievably amazing. I believe I had spoken on a panel with Rachel and Stephanie, and I asked if they wanted to skip the conference provided box lunch to get some real food. As we were deciding where to go, Cory was near us, so I said something nice to him about his presentation. As we chatted, we invited him to lunch, and were thrilled when he decided to join us.

This moment was such a reminder to be present. To focus on strengthening the connections to those around you. To take risks to make connections with other people.

And of course, to always do that with good food!

Thanks.
-Dan

“I got diagnosed with depression and anxiety, but the book was my bright spot.” My Interview with Veronica Miller Jamison

Veronica Miller JamisonToday, picture book illustrator and textile designer Veronica Miller Jamison, shares how she made a major career shift, and how that led to illustrating her first book. She discusses the value of surrounding yourself with people who appreciate the craft you are learning, and how that community then became major supporters of her work. She is wonderfully honest about mental health, and how navigating anxiety and depression is a part of this journey.

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

You can find Veronica in the following places:
veronicajamisonart.com
Instagram: @veronicajamisonart
Her book: A Computer Called Katherine

How radical focus helps you create and share

So often, when we create and share, we think big. A story that will move a wide range of people. A book that has a large potential audience. An essay that could go viral. A social media post that will get lots of likes.

I’m always talking to writers about how to reach readers. Today I want to discuss the value of not going big, but going small.

Of radical focus.

Limiting your horizons.

Choosing a very narrow path.

And how this can lead to two things that most authors want:

  • To feel a sense of personal fulfillment in what you create and share.
  • To have other people truly care about your work.

This is the opposite of how many think about their own craft, their own potential, or what needs to happen to become known and find success. There is a tendency to expand. To “go big or go home.” Today I want to talk about contracting. Of finding the magic in by focusing.

Our conversation begins with an octopus.

Now perhaps you have seen or heard of the recent documentary on Netflix, “My Octopus Teacher.” It’s a staggering story, but also a ridiculously simple one. Here it is:

  1. A man is overworked, and needs a break.
  2. He returns to his childhood home.
  3. He starts diving in this really small area.
  4. He begins to notice things in the ocean. One day it is an octopus.
  5. He drawn to focus on her more and more.
  6. He decides to return to the water every single day for about a year to visit and observe the octopus.
  7. In the process, he becomes obsessed with what he sees, and learning more about what she does and why.

That’s it. Radical focus.

He focused on a very small area to dive. An area that was at once familiar, but also filled with the unknown. When you limit your focus you begin to notice things that you (and others) may have previously overlooked.

I remember hearing a story once of someone who was given an assignment: go to the edge of a local river and just sit there for two hours. The person did this, and described the first half hour was agony — incredible boredom just sitting there with nothing going on.

But then, after a half an hour, they said the world came alive.

Everything was in constant motion, constant change. He was surrounded by a vibrant array of creatures in this amazingly complex ecosystem. The water, the wind, the plants, the frogs, the birds, the fish were all interacting in different ways.

It was so alive, and the only thing that changes was this person’s ability to stop and see it. To listen.

Pausing to observe — narrowing one’s focus — allowed them to see what they were blind to before.

When the diver became interested in the octopus, he decided to film the experience. He was a documentary filmmaker by trade. But you can almost imagine the impostor’s syndrome screaming in his head to NOT pursue this idea of filming an octopus each day:

  • “Thousands of people are specialists in octopi. I know nothing about them, it would take years to become an expert. What is casual uneducated observation really going to teach me?”
  • “I am filming the ordinary. These are things that people have found in nature for thousands of years. Is there really a story here? Who am I to think I will discover something new in something so well known?”
  • “Why limit myself to this tiny area of the ocean? Why not focus on a bigger issue, a bigger region? Maybe something already symbolic of a cause that people are taking about. This alcove is not any more important than a random place in the ocean, why am I looking for a needle in the haystack here?”
  • “How will I support myself and my family with this obsession?”

But in the small places, that is where the stories are. When we limit our focus, that is when we can grow as humans.

When you look for stories, the world comes alive.

How can you use this idea to help you engage a readership? Two critical ways:

Figuring Out What to Share

When I work with writers, they are sometimes panicked at the idea of not knowing what to share on social media, newsletters, blog posts, and podcasts. They feel that they just don’t have enough ideas or content. They err on the side of caution. “I could post once a week on Twitter.” Or “I could do a quarterly newsletter.”

The result tends to be, well, lame. They barely show up online. They say the most expected things about their writing. Then, they are disappointed when that doesn’t some how magically grow and engage an audience.

But when you focus on the small – very specific areas of what you create and why, that gives you permission to dive deep. You let go of the worry of “what trends should I write about?” That doesn’t matter, because you are writing about your own narrow area. You let go of the worry of what hashtags to use, or the absolute best time of day to post, and so many other “best practices.” Why? Because these best practices often often copies of copies of copies of what everyone else is trying. Too often, they don’t produce results, they just have you jumping through hoops, always looking at the next thing you are told you “have to do” in order to engage an audience.

Bleh!

Focus deeply on what you care about. Then, double down on it. More so than anyone else.

Figuring Out How to Turn Sharing Into Meaningful Connections and Relationships with Readers

This is the area that so many writers have trouble with. They create content online, but then… crickets. They don’t get engagement, they don’t grow a readership. They see it happening for others, and wonder, “Why not me?” The result is often they slink away, slowly posting less and less, worried that they are somehow “doing it wrong.”

The value of narrow focus is that you are no longer trying to engage just anyone. You are focused on the people who care most about the things that you care most about.

With all of this, the ideas above apply: when you are open to stories in a very specific area — you tend to find them. But not only that, you find the connections to other people as well. The result is that you share and connect with greater focus, vigor, frequency, and exploration. You realize that it is fun to share and connect.

What does this look like? Let me give you some examples.

Jarrett Lerner is a children’s book author. But he’s more than that, he is an advocate for literacy, kids books, and mentoring students. Sounds like a lot right? The truth is, Jarrett brings two things that are accessible to all of us:

  1. A clear sense of his mission
  2. Sharing frequently and with generosity

I interviewed Jarret Lerner earlier this year. It’s a really inspiring conversation, I encourage you to check out.

It’s easy to look at Jarrett and think, “Wow! He has thousands followers and he’s really talented as a writer and illustrator.” But he started as we all do: feeling like an outsider who just began sharing what lights him up, and being generous to other authors who may have felt distant from where he was. Now he engages his audience of over 25,000 followers on Twitter. He was clear about his focus, and he dove deep.

Another example is from author & artist Kelli Anderson. I mean, this is actually the first line of her bio: “Kelli Anderson… pushes the limits of ordinary materials by seeking out possibilities hidden in plain view.”

Each day she shares her explorations on Instagram to her 80,000 followers. What you see is someone totally enamored with very specific areas of design. She has this amazing Instagram Live series, where she walks you through an old book about art or design. It’s inspiring to see her pull out this obscure book from 30 or 60 years ago, and then discuss it page by page. It not only gives the book new life, but it allows us to dive deep into a very specific area of focus.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelli a couple years back, you can listen to our conversation here.

Jarrett and Kelli illustrate the difference between vanilla, middle of the road sharing, and truly embracing — finding joy — in focusing on a specific niche. Much like the diver observing the octopus, Jarrett and Kelli are each exploring what they are most curious about, and then sharing that with others. It is about radical focus. They are truly committing to their mission and craft, and sharing it with others.

The question it leaves each of us with is: what will you commit yourself to?

I highly recommend watching the My Octopus Teacher to help inspire you. It’s only on Netflix, but you can see the trailer here.

My friend Jennie Nash is writing about My Octopus Teacher today as well. You can find her post here. We challenged each other to write about it, and see how the story would lead to different types of essays.

Thanks.

-Dan

The courageous act of writing and sharing

This past week, a reader emailed me and asked “Dan, I’ve been waiting for your next book. You mentioned it would be published in June, but I haven’t heard anything since then. Are you still going to finish it?”

Now, first I will say that that is every author’s dream, to know that someone is waiting for what you write. Thank you to Bruce for that.

But of course, this kind of email also brings up other feelings,“Oops! I forgot to finishing writing the book.”

It means you can’t just hide in a hole with your creative work.

My next book is a follow up to Be the Gateway: A Practical Guide to Sharing Your Creative Work and Engaging an Audience. It goes even deeper into how you can best create and share your writing, and infuse that into your life in a manner that feels fulfilling.

In truth, I was diligently working towards a June publication date, even as the virus hit in March. But then my calendar got busier and busier. I have been working with more writers this year than any other, which feels incredible as I celebrate the 10-year anniversary of doing this full-time.

It was a dream that became a reality. Thank you all for that.

So I moved the publication date to the Fall, and then when the Fall came, I made the decision to pause working on the book for now. This was not a “no” to the book, but rather a “yes” to goals and responsibilities that are even more important to me at the moment.

As you know, I talk a lot about Clarity Cards as a tool to set priorities in your life. For me, putting the book on hold was saying YES wholeheartedly to the writers I am working with. To devote more energy to the work we are doing together.

Putting the book on hold was also saying YES to my wife and kids. To recognize that they could use even more support as we do school from home and adjust to the reality of 2020.

I have also been committing myself to my newsletter and podcast, showing up to share more case studies, and more interviews with writers and creators who inspire me. Each week, this requires me to create under deadline and to then click “publish.” Doing so feels like living, to feel immersed in that creative process.

For the book, I have 80,000 words written and total focus on what it needs to be. But for now, those words will have to wait while I double-down on what matters even more to me.

In some ways it feels weird to say this, because I love books so much. But I have to honor my own intentions that I set in my Clarity Cards. For me, right now, my top cards are to be present for my family, to best serve the writers I am working with, and to feel alive in the creative process. While the book is important to me, at this moment in time, it simply falls to a lower priority, and that requires hard choices of where I put my energy and time.

That kind of clarity is what fuels my podcast — the idea of someone making a polarizing choice to follow their own intentions. This week I had the privilege of sharing my interview with author Naomi Jackson. She shares an incredible story of doing exactly that.

Naomi JacksonAbout a decade ago, Naomi had been working on her first novel, but couldn’t finish it. She had applied to Iowa Writers’ Workshop three times, but didn’t get in. Then, on her fourth try, they accepted her. Choosing to go would require her to quit her job in New York City and move to Iowa.

It also meant that she would have to give up her six-figure salary. She described it this way:

“I loved that job, but I was writing more and more, and I wanted to finish my novel. I didn’t want to be 90 years old saying ‘I have this debut novel I’ve been working on.’ So at 29, I applied to graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. On the morning that I got a $30,000 raise, that evening I received a call from the Iowa Writers Workshop — I had been admitted.”

“I realized there will always be someone to pay me to do a job. I have enough professional experience that I can always come back to [this work] if I like too. And I know this opportunity may not always be here.”

“I quit my job, and I left.”

When I asked what it was like giving notice to her employer, she said:

“They were shocked. I had fought for my promotion and this money. I think most people were shocked, but supportive, and happy to see me go off and pursue my dream. I was doing the opposite of what most people were doing. Most people in their early 30s are solidifying their wealth gains, starting families, whereas I was just giving up all of the stability that I accumulated over the years, in pursuit of what? I could just as easily have gone and not finished my novel, and not published my novel.”

“I got lucky. Yes, [Iowa Writers’ Workshop] is one of the better programs in the country, but there are also many people who I went to school with who haven’t published anything. That’s just the reality of it. There were 25 people in my class, maybe 10 of us have books. Writing is an incredibly difficult thing. But what I know is that I didn’t do something kind of courageous and bold in that moment, I knew I would always regret it. I knew regret was something I couldn’t live with. I could live with disappointment, with failure, with shame. But I couldn’t live with the coulda, woulda, shoulda, if only I was braver, line of thought.”

“Hang out with old people. You will start to see what regret looks like when you are in your 80s and 90s. In a way, my early 20s hanging out with my grandmother helped shift my perspective. My perspective is somewhat of my generation, but also deeply influenced by older people. I think if you spend time with older people, most of them will tell you that they regret the things they didn’t do. The relationships they didn’t have, the jobs they didn’t take, the places they didn’t move to. Those are the things that haunt you.”

Naomi was so intentional about what she wanted, it’s inspiring. She didn’t wait until things were easy or convenient. She pursued her goal and took the risks that would lead her to the life she wanted.

The result was her 2015 novel The Star Side of Bird Hill from Penguin Press. It received starred reviews in Library Journal and Kirkus, and was featured in Oprah, Entertainment Weekly, BBC, and many other places.

When I asked her about finding her agent and the road to publication, she shared this advice:

“It was helpful to be in a community of writers thinking about the same kinds of things. The community of people you meet along the way is really important. You never know where you will end up.

“You only need one person to like you. You want one person who really gets you, and is a champion of your work. You want someone committed to your career.”

“The most fun part of the launch experience was all the opportunities along the way to really connect with readers. The things I thought would be super important, like reviews and press, didn’t turn out to be.”

I think it would be easy for someone to read Naomi’s story and think, “Gosh, she is such a success story. But you know what, I can’t do what she did. It just isn’t as easy for me.”

But Naomi is on a journey, just as each of us are. She talked about her next novel:

“It’s really difficult to be a novelist, because for a long time it looks like you are not doing anything. I started this novel that I’m working on in December of 2011. It’s almost Dec 2020, and I’m not done. Every year I’m like ‘it’s almost finished!” And I’m not finished, clearly.”

If you are struggling to create, to finish, to share, just remember that you are on your own journey. And that this journey isn’t over. You get to choose the path you take, and who joins you along the way.

As Naomi did, be intentional in that process. To commit to the work. To have patience with yourself. To connect with others, and find fulfillment in the process. She went on to describe part of her experience that we often don’t see:

“To be quite frank, it’s been hard to see other novelists who I came out with in 2015 publishing their next novels. The process of constantly talking yourself down from these spirals, is actually part of the work of being a writer. It is so easy to see other people and see what they have and wish it was yours, to beat up on yourself for not being quick enough, or smart enough, or whatever enough. My stepmother is Jamaican, and there is this Jamaican saying of ‘Whatever is for you, can’t be un for you.’ It’s so simple, but I come back to it all the time. It is really just saying that whatever is yours is yours, and whatever is for other people is for them. It really helps me. I’m not someone overcome with envy, but it’s real. Ambition is a healthy thing, and comparison is something human beings do, but it really doesn’t yield much good.”

“I had a severe mental health crisis in 2018 that really took me out from my writing for about 2 years. I just couldn’t write for the first year. It was a really difficult period. I want to say that is not something I was comfortable talking about on social media because I was at first experiencing it, then recovering from it, then figuring out how to move forward with my life afterwards.”

“But I want to say to people who have been slowed down or rerouted by personal mental health crisis, that there is life on the other side of it. In a way, I feel like having that experience of getting really sick, makes me very much appreciate what I have now. Because for a moment, I wasn’t sure if I would have all of those things. Those experiences — peak and valley experiences — all are valuable in terms of shaping the kind of human you become, the kind of writing you can step up to, in terms of making you more courageous.”

You can listen to my entire interview with Naomi here.

Thanks.

-Dan