Behind the Scenes of My Podcasting & Interview Process

Since I announced my book Dabblers vs. Doers a few months ago, I have been in a process of research for the book that includes interviews with various creative professionals. I decided to share that primary research live as it happens via a podcast and accompanying blog posts. Just look at these awesome people I have spoken to so far:


Today, I want to give you a behind-the-scenes look at that process.

Who I choose to interview

When I first considered doing interviews as part of the research for my book, a few names popped into my head right away. Some were people I knew, others were not. In general, I find myself focusing on creative professionals who are mid-career; those who have found some success and are working hard to balance the drive to create meaningful work with the difficult demands of that process. These are also people who have figured out how to live a healthy life outside of work itself.

In other words, I wanted to talk about their struggle in that place where these things break down. Because “doing it all” is a process, not a destination, and the reality of that is what my book is all about. How we take personal risks in our professional journey.

I sought people from a wide variety of fields, each broadly defined as a “creative professional.” So far, I have spoken to:

In reviewing this list, what becomes immediately apparent to me is how difficult it is to define each of these people with a single role. Each person, even just professionally, assumes many roles.

As I conducted each of these early interviews, I found that we went deep in so many ways, but that one narrative seemed to jump out at me for each. Some have discussed coping with deep depression, or working through their experience of being an extreme introvert, with learning disabilities, among so many other deeply personal topics.

After I did about 10 interviews, I began asking a handful of friends who else they recommend I interview. That immediately produced a list of 5-10 suggestions (which I am still working through).

But then those names produced even more recommendations. I nearly always ask an interviewee if they have suggestions for someone else I should interview. So now I am working three degrees away from where I began: asking a friend who I should interview, interviewing that person, now interviewing someone that person recommends.

It’s so cool to dig in deeply with these people, but also to make so many new connections! I created a spreadsheet to track ideas of who to reach out to, and my status of each of those leads or requests.

How I reach out to them

I created an invitation template that I send to each person I hope to interview. It covers the following:

  • The “ask” – would they be willing to be interviewed on a certain topic, and why I asked them in particular
  • A request for an hour of their time, either in person or via Skype
  • Full disclosure that my interview will be recorded via video and audio
  • Explanation of how this will be shared in the near term (podcast, blog post, social media)
  • Connection to my book, that this interview will ideally be integrated into that

When inviting someone, the barriers I am most concerned about are:

  • The ask is too convoluted. So I try to keep it short. One line on my book, one line on why I want to chat with them, short but specific bullets outlining what I would like from them.
  • That they will think this book (or I) am irrelevant to them and their work.

Generally, people respond to me and most have said ‘yes.’ There are a few people who never replied back. Which is a bummer, though I understand that they are busy, and likely have a long list of incoming emails.

What has surprised me is that some of the people I reached out to are pretty much famous, and they are the ones who have responded to me the quickest. Like, within hours of my request.

From this group, the ones who answered yes sent me replies that were short and filled with action. Literally a single sentence without a greeting or signature. Something like: “Would love to, as long as we can do it at my office during lunch. May 5th works.”

This surprised me, and what I find is that people who are busy are used to making quick, action-oriented decisions. They manage a lot of decisions, a lot of people, and are simply in the habit of checking their phone while waiting for coffee — making a decision, communicating it, and managing their ever-changing calendar.

Those who are very well-known, but said ‘no’ to my request, clearly had a process in place, and a pre-written messaging. For example: “Hi Dan, Thank for the kind offer, but I’m saying no to everything right now while I finish my current book. Good luck with the project, it sounds interesting!”

Again, this surprised me because they are clearly so proactive in dealing with their limits. So many people I meet say they are overwhelmed, and I think that embracing and coping with limits is a key way to not feel that as much.

One very cool part of this process is that I am learning from these people — the ones who say yes, the ones who say no, and even those who don’t respond. I will absolutely follow up with the ones who don’t respond, though. A single email could easily get lost, or arrive at exactly the worst moment. I have loads of empathy for how much each of these creative professionals juggles in their personal and professional lives.

As for why people say yes, I’m never fully clear about that. My gut is that it’s nice to have someone ask you for your wisdom. For instance, there is NO REASON why Tina Roth Eisenberg should have said yes to me. I asked her about this, and she said that I did a good job of connecting with her via social media, and she made a split-second decision to just invest in karma (my words, not hers). That she knows spending an hour of time with me could, in some way, have a wonderful, serendipitous effect months or years down the road.

When I reached out to Jeremy Chernick, the special effects designer, I was well aware of how busy his life is. He got back to me within hours, and met up with me just a week after I reached out. The day we met, he was incredibly busy, and literally running into our meeting, and running out of it. RUNNING. Yet, he gave a gracious and deeply personal interview in the 50 minutes he did spend with me.

Why did Jeremy say yes? I have no idea other than that I came to him via a mutual friend. Jeremy had every reason in the world to say “No thanks, I’m busy,” or even to cancel our meeting the morning of.

But what I observed was that a big part of Jeremy’s life is to make meaning around the work that he does, to help others understand the reality behind special effects and the work of the company he works for. Perhaps he was asked three years ago to be in charge of public relations for his company. Perhaps he just enjoys that role. Perhaps it was another reason. Regardless, he left me deeply impressed at every moment of my communication with him. The speed and the depth.

How I research interviewees and prepare questions

My research process can be described in one word: OBSESSION. I obsess over these interviewees. By the time I actually speak to them, I have not only become a fan, I have read every word about them that I can find, and have nagging questions about portions of their lives that were opaque to me in the research.

It’s weird, but I feel like I’m sitting down with a celebrity, because I have ‘lived with them’ for days in my research, and now here they are, just across the table from me, and I’M ALLOWED TO ASK THEM ANYTHING!

As I research, I begin with basic Google searches on their name. I explore every link I can find, every rabbit hole I can possibly fall into. So if that person has a website, I click every single link on it that I can find.

I will do Google searches that have date limits on them, such as ONLY looking for mentions of their name online prior to 2006, before social media, or before their most recent job.

If I find other interviews they participated in (text, audio, or video), I study them. I read every article about them I can find, and as much as possible, every blog entry and social media update. More on that last one below.

It’s worth pointing out that the themes I am focused on are very particular. I want to explore the personal/professional challenges they navigated as they embraced the idea of risk in their career.

I don’t focus on how they create their work. If I am interviewing a painter, yes, it is nice background to understand their painting process, but I won’t be asking any questions about this in my interview.

I don’t focus on stories I have heard before. I always ask for a 40-minute interview, and I want to use that time to explore themes and stories I have not heard them discuss elsewhere. I will sometimes take a single quote from another interview, and use that as the basis for an entire line of questioning.

I don’t focus on accolades or big achievements. Again and again, I find myself focusing not on their biggest success, but about a period of their lives that was much earlier in the journey. For instance, when I interviewed Jeremy Chernick, I focused very little on his most recent work in the new Broadway musical Aladdin. Instead, I was SUPER excited to hear about a road trip he took when he graduated college.

In short, in my research I am looking for the gaps, for the things that aren’t often discussed.

For instance, in researching artist Eric Wert, there were PLENTY of great articles on his artistic process. Not only is it not the focus of my book, but because of these articles, that itch has been scratched. I want to dig into areas that others haven’t.

I try to read every social media update that is available, and tend to find the gold when I go as far back as possible. I will friend them on Facebook and scroll back, post by post, year by year. Same with Twitter, Instagram, etc. It’s not enough to just quickly scroll through Instagram photos; I read the updates.

Oftentimes, I dig even further, not just reading all the old Facebook posts, but reading the comments as well. The Facebook status update may mention them feeling creative anxiety, but the comment thread with friends may be where they provide more useful context.

Recently, I realized I need to do even better at this. For one interviewee, Tammy Greenberg, she had blogged since 2005 — a huge archive. I didn’t go through every post and sure enough, something from years ago came up in our interview. She said “I blogged about it,” and I missed it in my research. It was SUCH a perfect example of the topic I am exploring, I am just thankful she brought it up. I now spend even more time researching because of this.

What I find is that for each person, there is one channel that seems to deliver more gold than others. For some, it is their Facebook updates, for others Twitter, and for others, it is listening to interviews they recorded or shared with other media outlets. Every time I hit a dead end in research, I keep looking and nearly always find a thread that leads somewhere good. That is often at minute 39 of listening to an interview with the subject, after hours of research. They say something that aligns with the topics I am focused on, and a light bulb goes off.

What is the result of the research? To ask better questions, to have a literacy of the person and their experience so that my time with them is not spent asking questions that have already been answered. It is my goal to dig deep into the emotional stuff that often isn’t talked about publicly. I can only do that if I have as complete an understanding of that person as possible.

How I prepare for the interview itself

I have shared in-depth posts about my podcasting equipment here and here.

In preparing for the actual interview, a big focus is to set expectations with the interviewee. I let them know any technical details they need to be aware of:

  • For Skype interviews, close all other programs so that we have more bandwidth for audio/video.
  • For in-person interviews, please don’t tap on the table when making a point, because it comes up as loud noises in the microphone.
  • Please turn off their cell phone.
  • I test audio levels, and ask them to be sure to speak directly into their microphone.

I have a checklist, and a big item is to indeed remember to click the ‘record’ button. I do backup recordings as well. Checklists are a critical part of a process such as this. If I am interviewing someone in Brooklyn, it will have taken two hours to reach them, days of research, and it is entirely possible that I could miss that single — but critical — step of pressing the ‘record’ button.

I also restate other expectations with the interviewee. That this interview will indeed be recorded via audio and video, and that the master audio file will be shared publicly in a week or two. I confirm that we will chat for 40 minutes. I review the topic focus again (navigating risk in their career), and I let them know that — at any point — if I ask a question that is too personal, they can just redirect me. I also tell them that if, once the the interview is over, they shared something they now regret, that I will gladly edit out of the final interview.

For the interview itself — the moment after I click ‘record’ — I have found that it is good to engage them in the topic early on, because they also give me signs of opportunities for further exploration around the topic. For example, I would rarely bring up a topic like depression with someone unless they bring it up first. I do NOT want to pry where my queries aren’t wanted. So I look for topics, but also for where they are WELCOMING me to open up lines of questions.

When I arrive to interview someone, I immediately begin setting up my equipment, and can have it all prepared and ready to go within five minutes. When the interview ends, even though the person is usually still having polite conversation with me, I rush to pack up my stuff and leave. I always want to be respectful of their time, and never ever take up more than an hour total for the interview, including setup and saying farewell.

How I prepare for the interview dialog itself

I do not have a set list of questions, even for an individual interview. I have COPIOUS notes that have general topic areas to explore, but no specific questions.

The conversation itself is an exploration, and it often goes wildly off-script, which is exactly what I want.

As I move through an interview, I am looking for that one quote, that one topic, that one insight that exposes a challenge with incredible honestly. I can feel myself exhale when that moment happens. And to be honest, in most interviews, that feeling happens multiple times. When someone shares something so REAL, so honest, that I know that this will resonate with others.

How I review the material to glean key insights

As I said at the beginning of this post, all of these interviews are research for my book Dabblers vs. Doers. I have found that the act of sharing the interviews via blog and podcast has helped me better consider how stories from the interviews can be integrated into the book.

I transcribe the interviews myself, and I’ve found that this has a dual focus:

  1. Making it useful and accessible to others via a blog post and podcast.
  2. Reviewing the material for use in the book itself. It’s nice to do it days after the interview, instead of waiting months and doing this later during the writing process.

It is also really useful to see which interviewees and which topics resonate with my audience — those who listen to the podcast and read the blog post. That is the kind of real-time feedback that will only make the book stronger in the long run.

Okay, that is nearly 3,000 words on my research/interview process, and I still feel as though I have left stuff out!

Please let me know if you have advice on how to improve my process.

Thanks so much.

Angie Pickman: The Artist Who Answered the Question, “Why can’t I be doing this for a living?”

Angie Pickman took a big leap, and completely failed. She opened a restaurant in Brooklyn that bled money, and closed six months later. What she did after that moment is inspiring: she turned that failure into a new opportunity, and then made a massive shift to do the unthinkable: make a living as as a cut paper artist.

Dan Blank and Angie Pickman
Dan Blank and Angie Pickman
In this interview, Angie talks to me about:

  • How opening a restaurant and bakery made her comfortable with risk
  • The person she met who prompted Angie to ask herself this question with regards to her art, “Why can’t I be doing this for a living?”
  • How she made a massive life change, and built a runway long enough to get her art career off the ground
  • As she found success, how she finds herself needing to pull back in order to balance work and personal needs

Some background: Angie Pickman is a cut paper artist who operates under the moniker, ‘Rural Pearl’. This has been her full-time gig since 2009. She exhibits at galleries and art fairs nationally, does illustration work, and teaches various classes and workshops. She is a member of the Lawrence Art Guild and the Guild of American Paper Cutters. You can find a full list of her exhibits here.

Click ‘play’ above to listen to the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes, or download the MP3.

This podcast is part of the research for a book I am writing called Dabblers vs. Doers, which is about working through RISK as you develop your craft and build a meaningful body of work.

Artwork by Angie PickmanA sampling of Angie’s art is to the right. Here are some key insights that she shared with me…

Becoming Comfortable With Risk

I asked her how she found the ability to take the leap to focus on her art full-time, she responded, “Having opened the restaurant and the bakery, I was like ‘There’s no fear, I can do this.’ I at least have to try.”

The restaurant and the bakery were no walk in the park:
Artwork by Angie Pickman
With the bakery, “there were a lot of failures along the way where we had to back up, redo.”

Her biggest challenge in opening the bakery: “The budgeting. We had no idea the type of money this was going to take. We got a bum deal with a terrible building and landlord. We jumped into it, and didn’t have the attorneys we should have had, we thought we could read the lease and interpret it on our own. We had to close the place down six months after we opened it, it was just eating cash. We really tried, and we failed. I have never been embarrassed about the failing part. Now, if I would ever rent a retail space, the first thing I would do is get an attorney, and pick through that lease. ”

Artwork by Angie Pickman
“We definitely couldn’t express our creativity with what was happening around us with our landlord.”

When I asked how long the gap of time was between closing the restaurant and opening the bakery, she responded with a shocking answer, “Two weeks. Even crazier is I had a baby in the middle of it. I became a mom, I’m running this failing restaurant. Two weeks before my daughter was born, we closed the restaurant. Within a week – we were out peddling wholesale baked goods. We had this restaurant, we had these bills mounting up, we couldn’t get out of the lease, so we had to think of something. People weren’t going to come to us with what we had to offer; we didn’t really know how to bake; we started baking little cakes and stuff and taking it out to coffee shops around Brooklyn and Manhattan. It really expanded, and it was definitely paying off after a year or two.”

The Spark: “Why can’t I be doing this for a living?”

Artwork by Angie Pickman
Even though the bakery was doing well, she realized something: “This bakery thing isn’t really working out — it’s not MY dream, I had a partner in it. I just realized I putting forth so much effort into this thing that was not really something that I wanted to be doing. The art just felt right.”

“I met some creative people who were making a living as musicians, and I just thought to myself, ‘Here are these people doing exactly what they want, this is what I want to be doing.’

“I met somebody who reminded me of myself. I was at this breaking point where I was like, ‘What do I want to do? I don’t think the bakery is right for me, I don’t think New York is right for me, and I made this trip to Kansas and met this person who was doing this for a living, and I was like, “Why can’t I be doing this for a living?”

Artwork by Angie Pickman
Up until that time, she did cut paper art as a distraction from her heavy workload: “Insane hours, so much work, and I went back to paper cutting as my way to stay sane. Something in the midnight hours to do to make me feel like I’m not going crazy with this business. This is my reprieve.”

But now, she began to envision the art as the main focus of her professional life.

“I always wanted to be an artist, but I was like ‘I will never make a living as an artist, so I’ll open a restaurant. I’ll make money that way, and do the art when I have enough money to relax. It kind of worked out the opposite.”

Finding the Space to Create

Artwork by Angie PickmanWhen I mentioned it was intriguing to me that she found an inspiring person in Kansas, not Brooklyn – a hotbed of creative individuals, she said, “I didn’t have the time there. I had to work all the time, just to make ends meet. I didn’t have time to go out and meet any creative people. I was constantly in the bakery.”

This really struck me, because it reminded me of the day to day reality I see with people in and around New York City. They live in this amazingly creative place, but due to how expensive it is to live in that area, they have zero time to pursue anything beyond just surviving.

To bridge the gap between one version of her life, and the next, she built a runway, “The first two years I lived in Kansas, my mother was kind enough to let my daughter and I live with her, while I tried to get this off the ground. For a long time in the beginning, she was like, ‘Well, maybe you should get a job at the local bank.’ and I was like, ‘No, I can do this, just give me a chance.’ I moved back in April, and by September or October, I was making enough money to live on. I started making art and doing art shows. Definitely having her there helped a ton, or else I would have had to go out and get a job to pay rent. She and my grandmother helped a lot.”

For some reason, I expected her story to be one of finding success because of online sales channels, such as Easy. But it actually worked the opposite, “I was putting stuff on Facebook, Flickr. I started an Etsy shop. I think I made one sale in the first eight months on Etsy. I did an outdoor art show, I ended up buying the tent and all the panels to hang my artwork on, and it was like, ‘WOAH! I got lucky. People loved my work. I sold so much that first show, that it was this huge confidence booster. Even now, Etsy is good, but I don’t make a living off of Etsy.”

Right-Sizing Her Life

Artwork by Angie PickmanFor revenue: “I usually set a goal. Two years ago, I far surpassed my goal, which was awesome, but then I was so tired. I’m pretty much doing this alone. It was like, ‘I’m losing leisure time here. I’ve got a child whose life I very much want to be a part of, and I feel like I’m spending too much time working.’ So I scaled it back last year. That’s my struggle now. As progressive individuals, we want to expand, to see that constant progression. I’m trying to figure out how to do that without knocking myself out.”

I asked her how she balanced daily professional responsibilities vs. personal needs; her response, “It’s really hard, I won’t lie. I think that is the biggest hurdle in my life. There is a balance that I have to find. I’m a binge worker – I’ll get into these rhythms where it is work, work work from 8am – 10pm; that will go on for a month, then I have to just not do anything for a week or two. I don’t know if that is healthy or not. When I work, it’s not moderated, it is full on.”

Thank you to Angie for making the time to meet with me and share her wisdom. You can find her in the following places:

For more interviews and behind-the-scenes stuff on my book Dabblers vs. Doers, click here.

Thank you!

The Benefits of Talking About My Book 1+ Years Before Publication

This post is a part of my behind-the-scenes series on a book I am writing called Dabblers vs. Doers.

When I announced that I am writing a book last month, I did so at a time that is likely two years before it is published. I have not yet queried agents, not yet signed with a publisher or started any element of that process. Even if I signed with an agent and publisher tomorrow, it would likely be 12-18 months before the book itself would be published.

Which begs the question: why talk about my book so publicly 1+ year before publication?

Let’s explore this topic in a number of ways…

Why Some People Wait to Talk about Their Book

I was chatting the other day with a friend who whose publisher requested they not say ANYTHING about the book until publication, for fear of competitive titles being developed and released. In that case, I completely understood their reasoning.

I have heard many authors and marketers advise against talking about an idea too soon – because it either sets false expectations, or raises awareness too soon. That, by the time the book is released, interest will have dissipated.

While I can definitely understand scenarios where it makes sense to not talk about a book so far ahead of publication, but in my case, I am finding many more reasons to support talking as openly as possible about the book. Here’s why…

My Goal is to Affect People’s Lives, Not a Publish a Book

Inherently, what I am exploring in this work is about more than the book itself. This is an effect I hope to have in the world, where the book is the epicenter, with many extensions. The book itself is a wonderful artifact to share. It is a milestone to reach that will embody everything I am doing, and will be the primary way by which the core of my work is communicated. But… there is so much more.

Writing This Book is an Experience I Want to Fully Embrace

Writing the book is an experience I am creating for my life. Thousands of hours, hundreds of conversations, and a major shift in my identity. It is something that my wife and son will have to live with day in and day out with me. I want to understand the depths of this topic and shape it as best I can. I believe I will learn more about this topic and experience it more fully by talking about it every day than I would if I were to silently slave away with the hopes that the artifact will somehow create this for me on the day of publication.

The book will be stronger if I explore these topics openly than if I covet and hide the work.

I am Testing and Honing the Message

I’ve announced the book, but the truth is that I have no idea what it really is. It exists in its absolute WORST form right now — a 60,000-word draft that I am editing and still doing primary research for. Truthfully, the draft itself is a mess. When I gave it to my editor, she promptly sent it right back with a deep analysis of what it needs before I present it to her for an edit.

It was as if I invited you to dinner at my house, and you walked in to find big vats of raw ingredients overflowing in the kitchen, and not a single recipe in sight. You would politely walk out and tell me to call when I’d at least found the stove.

Yet every single week, I am learning more and more about WHY the topic of the book resonates, and the specific ways that it resonates with those I hope to reach.

I announced the title and the description of the book after testing it with a group of those I am close to. Dabblers vs. Doers seemed to resonate. When I shared it publicly, I found that it still resonated. Now, I’m not married to that title – but what I am finding is that it is efficiently creating interest. I mean, what more would I want a book title to do?

Will a publisher eventually want to change or modify it? Maybe. And if that discussion does happen, I will have months and months of experience on the ways the title works, and the ways in which it doesn’t. I won’t be clinging to it out of pride, I will be able to intelligently talk about reactions from the core audience I hope to engage.

Since announcing the book, I have had to describe it to people dozens of times via phone, Skype, online, email, and in person. I notice which words resonate, which stories resonate, and how my own description has evolved even over the past few weeks.

Many authors only experience this rapid-paced learning AFTER their book is published, when they are on a book tour. At this point, what you learn comes mostly too late. All of the book’s messaging has been defined and printed. I want to learn these insights before the book is published.

Even though this book does not really exist yet, I have had the pleasure of hearing others describe it already. I pay attention to the words they use, the phrasings, because if I want the message of this book to spread, it has to be in the language that people fully embrace.

A core part of research for the book has been interviews that I have turned into podcasts. Something that these interviews are forcing me to do is TALK about the book a lot. It is one thing to do so on paper, another in conversation, especially with people I respect and admire.

I am interviewing people who I feel do great work, so if I can have the confidence to describe the book to them, I can do it with others.

By the time I get to a proper marketing plan once the book is slated for publication, I will have months and months of honing the messaging, identifying what resonates and why.

And let’s face it: this process gives me confidence. I have heard from so many other creative professionals who are about to launch their work to the world about that deep anxiety they feel. They second guess everything because they genuinely can’t predict how their work will be received.

While I’m sure I will be filled with anxiety when my own book launches, I at least want to have months of experience knowing that people seemed to think this was a good and valuable idea. Because, as I spend a few years on this project (including time after publication), wouldn’t it be nice if my wife and son experienced me as someone who was confident and learning, instead of someone who was simply terrified that I have made a foolish mistake?

People Caring About This is Motivating

I can’t even describe to you how encouraging it is to see feedback like this so early in the process. Here is a Tweet from Sean Blanda after I announced the book:

Sean Blanda 2015-01-16 at 2.42.55 PM

(Thank you Sean!)

After I interviewed Julia Fierro, she shared this on Facebook:

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 6.47.12 AM

(Thank you Julia!) I am blown away by this generosity, and that fuels me to find MORE time to research, write, and edit this book. I know that this process will be difficult – I have heard that from thousands of others. What I am finding already is that this kind of feedback early on is making the process feel wonderful, even as I devote hundreds of hours to it.

Awareness and Caring Take a Long Time to Develop

Why does Coca-Cola spend billions of dollars each year on marketing even though their company is more than 125 years old and their products are iconic? Because to get people to remember things takes a certain amount of frequency and effort.

I explored this back in 2012 in this blog post about the value of repetition in marketing. What experienced marketers know is this: it takes a long time to get people to know what you are doing.

Even when I launched my company five years ago, it took months and months for even my closest friends and colleagues to fully understand and accept what it was I was trying to do.

Now that I am talking publicly about the book, I am finding that when I meet someone for lunch, they almost immediately ask, “So you are writing a book?” That is proof that awareness is growing, at least with those I am already friends with.

What I also find in these casual conversations is that we touch upon themes of the book as we talk about life and work. When we hit upon key topics around risk and developing a meaningful body of work – I mention that this is what I am exploring/researching for my book. It gives the topic of the book a real sense of context.

Bottom line, this makes the book stronger, and the experience of crafting it more nuanced.

The Journey — and Who Joins Me on It — Deeply Matters

Already – 1+ year before publication – it feels as though I am not alone on this journey. The people who have said kind words, or whom I have interviewed for it, feel as though they are on this journey with me. It feels social, and that makes it all the more meaningful to me.

Addressing My Own Ignorance

Honestly, I don’t know what will work. Talking openly about the book is my way of finding out. In the past, I shared profiles of authors such as Eric Ries and Rebecca Skloot who spent years experimenting to understand how to ensure their book finds an audience.

I am not doing this – talking about my book a year before publication – just as some marketing tactic. I am doing it because it most honors the work itself, making the book stronger. And it honors the audience, by ensuring their voices help make this work better, and can potentially help others in that process.

Every week, I am feeling a greater sense of focus of what the book is, what I hope to achieve with it, the value of the experience it is creating for me, and who it can likely connect with. Will that help the book itself succeed? I like to think so. Will it create a deeper, more meaningful experience for me and those who my work connects with? Most definitely.

For more information on Dabblers vs. Doers, and all the behind the scenes stuff I am sharing, click here. You can subscribe to my podcast on iTunes here.


Julia Fierro: Working Through Anxiety to a Wildly Productive Creative Life

What Julia Fierro has accomplished is astounding. She is the author of Cutting Teeth and the forthcoming The Gypsy Moth Summer, she runs the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop which has had more than 2,500 writers pass through it in more than 12 years, she is a teacher, has been published in many prominent magazines and media outlets, and is a wife and mother of two. What makes her accomplishments so much more intriguing is how open she has been about her struggles with anxiety and OCD. She described it this way in Poets & Writers magazine:

“The Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder I’d struggled with since childhood, pushed me into a cycle of episodes, both depressed and obsessive, that would make it difficult for me to leave the house, socialize, write, and even read for years.”

Julie Fierro and Dan Blank
Julie Fierro and Dan Blank
In this interview, Julia talks to me about:

  • How she started The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, beginning with a simple personal goal.
  • How (and why) she runs the organization without an administrative assistant.
  • How her obsessive compulsive issues and anxiety have at times hindered her creative work, and at times helped it.
  • Why she couldn’t write for years and years as she taught other writers, and how she was eventually able to write and publish her novel Cutting Teeth.
  • Her own unique “balance” of teaching, writing, running the workshop, and raising two kids.
  • How she loves and embraces social media, but puts firm boundaries on it to ensure it doesn’t become debilitating.

Click ‘play’ above to listen to the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes, or download the MP3.

This podcast is part of the research for a book I am writing called Dabblers vs. Doers, which is about working through RISK as you develop your craft and build a meaningful body of work.

Here are some key insights that Julia shared with me…


“I am not your typical business-woman. My clear intention was not to start a business. I put an ad on Craigslist in 2002 because I was lonely, and I wanted to have a workshop in my home. I had this big disappointment in my first novel being rejected by editors. I was just feeling so broken and lacking in confidence. I needed to remove myself from the literary scene in New York, because I wasn’t feeling good about myself. I think there are times you have to remove yourself from the intensity of the world of your work, so you can find yourself again and become more centered. So I put this ad on Craigslist for writers of all levels, I didn’t screen them, I had no idea who was showing up to my house, and it was just so comforting to be working with a tiny community. Then it grew and grew, I was teaching four nights a week in my home, and people started calling me a “school.” I realized legally that I had to incorporate.”

“I’m the only administrator, because I can’t afford to hire an assistant because life in New York is so expensive. And also because I am a micromanager. I really feel like I am the person who will answer emails with a personal stake in the exchange. I do get 50-80 emails a day. I do get behind on email now. To write the next book, I have to LET myself get behind. I can’t just answer emails as soon as thy come in, which I feel like a lot of people expect you to do.”


“It’s really unhealthy. Because of my lifelong obsessive compulsive issues, I have been able to cope with well these last couple of years because of Zoloft, which I’m starting to be more open about. I need to be busy. I find I’m happiest when I’m like a workaholic. This busy age that we live in is great for an obsessive person.”

“It’s hard for me to run the business, and write, and teach.”

“I still can’t believe I have accomplished even a tiny bit of what I have. I have such debilitating anxiety for so many years. Even when I was first starting Sackett Street, and all those years of teaching, students would be like, ‘you are changing my life,’ and I just couldn’t congratulate myself. I really just felt like a failure because of the OCD, anxiety and depression. Plus, I had two children during that period, it was very hard to get by financially in New York. I had to keep teaching, teaching, teaching with the small babies and my husband would lose a job, start a job, we were in an economic depression — it was hard. When it comes down to it, for me, when my second child was born, I had terrible anxiety. After she was born, my OB practically begged me to try Zoloft. And for me, that changed my life. Obviously, I’m not pushing drugs on people, but for me, it alleviated a lot of the anxiety which allowed me to focus.”

“Learning to feel good about myself that wasn’t based on external praise. I could see that I was working hard, and that affect was visible through Sackett Street.”

“Becoming a healthier person – being able to afford babysitting after not having help for so many years – that was huge. After my daughter was born, I finally could afford my babysitting hours, which was doubled to 20 hours per week, which was ridiculous and not even much time – but that’s how I started writing again.”

“My husband works until 7:30 every night, and that was when class started. He would come home just in time to grab my son and bring him to the back room, so I could teach class [in the living room.]”


“My story is really one about ‘failure,’ creating an amazing reward in the end. I think it is really about, whether you are a writer or different kind of creative person, figuring out what you need in the different phases of your life. As a young writer, I thought my style, my process, my attitude, my focus, would be the same for the rest of my life, it was so ignorant. It wasn’t until I went through all those years and came out the other end, into a completely different phase, with a new process – where I wrote much faster, much more efficiently, in a completely different style that was much more like my voice, that I realized that you have many different phases in your creative life, and sometimes those phases involve being patient with yourself.”

Thank you to Julia for making the time to meet with me and share her wisdom. You can find her in the following places:

There are also several other amazing articles on Julia to check out:

For more interviews and behind-the-scenes stuff on my book Dabblers vs. Doers, click here.

Thank you!

Calculating the ROI (return on investment) of Why I Am Writing a Book

This post is a part of my behind-the-scenes series on a book I am writing called Dabblers vs. Doers.

How can I justify the time, energy, and money to write a book? We all know the common reasons that people write books, from basic validation and expression, to the drive to share, entertain, and educate, as well as dozens of other reasons. At one time or another, many people dream of writing a book. I have as well, and even started writing several times in the past. So how am I justifying the expense in time, energy, and money? Let’s explore…

The process of writing, publishing and sharing the book will take a minimum of two to three years of effort. That is time and energy taken away from the work of running my business — which is the sole way my family is supported — and from other creative projects. Beyond money that I overtly spend on the book creation process, I can likely calculate potential revenue lost as I put time and energy towards the book instead of creating new courses, new partnerships, serving clients, and other business strategies.

I even recently wrote this post: It is Insane to Write and Publish a Book. There, I Said It.

When I first began writing the book, I hoped I could just power through, get it written, edited, and into the publishing process super fast. But it wasn’t long before I began to question my own intentions. What did that really serve, other than trying to reduce my own fear around the process by running over it like it was a bed of hot coals. What would suffer in the process? Perhaps the quality of the book itself, or perhaps the potential for it to connect with readers if I skimped on the time need to really develop a platform around it.

Applying a deeper level of craft to every aspect of the book process comes with added expenses. For example, I plan to do more primary research via interviews, which will double as a podcast. Because I love high-quality audio, that meant that to produce these audio interviews with a high degree of quality, I would likely buy another $600 worth of audio gear, on top of the $800 worth of podcasting equipment I purchased a few years back. Is this additional $600 of gear required? No, but when we talk about craft and quality, it becomes something that almost feels like I can’t not do.

So what is the return on investment of writing and publishing this book? Some thoughts so far:

It’s not about money I will earn directly from the book.
I haven’t done any calculations as to what I can earn from the book itself — not for an advance, number of book sales, or potential royalties from them. My gut is that these numbers alone would not be big enough to justify the investment in time and energy of writing and publishing the book.

Note to future agents, publishers or partners: This doesn’t mean I won’t negotiate for a nice advance or great cut of book sales! 🙂

But I know that — bottom-line — writing and publishing this book, in and of itself, is likely a money-losing venture. How much could I lose? It’s hard to say, and if I calculated overt costs of research, writing, publishing, marketing and beyond, I’m sure it will be tens of thousands of dollars all said and done. Does it have to be that high? NOPE! I could do most of that for under a thousand dollars. But I know myself, and just as I feel compelled to buy another $600 in audio gear for my podcast interviews, I know I will want to make each part of this process special, as high quality as I can, and with a high degree of craft.

For instance: I interviewed Tina Roth Eisenberg (Hello Tina!) as research for the book. While could have conducted that interview via Skype for free, I instead asked for an in-person interview, requiring me to travel out to Brooklyn. What additional “expense” did this cost me?

  • Half a day of work to get out to Brooklyn, and figure out all the travel arrangements from New Jersey. Unlike a Skype interview, I ensured I showed up early. So a 1-hour interview now included three hours of travel and 30 minutes of me just waiting around prior to the interview.
  • The moment Tina said “yes,” I ordered a new camcorder to record our chat via video. This is one of those moments where I felt so much gratitude at this opportunity, that I wanted to ensure I captured it.
  • Travel expenses: $22 train ride, $5 subway fair, and a $14 cab ride.
  • Let’s face it: there is some amount of emotional stress around ensuring every piece of equipment will work, that I won’t be late, that I look presentable, etc. I brought an entire podcasting studio in my backpack, with two high-quality microphones, a digital recorder, the video camera, my laptop, and lots of stands and cables for everything. I had also practiced how to set all of this up within five minutes to ensure I didn’t waste any of Tina’s time. I kept going over check-lists in my head because I have such respect for Tina, that I wanted the experience of the interview to represent that level of respect.

Does any of this sound obsessive and paranoid? Perhaps some of it is, but it just underscores the 1,000 tiny decisions around craft and quality in the process of research, writing, publishing, and sharing this book. Could I have gotten 80% of the value by interviewing her via Skype? Yes. But that final 20% is where some very good stuff is, and I didn’t want to miss that opportunity.

Why else do the interview in person instead of via Skype? Because the depth of experience of meeting her in person; of where that personal connection may take the conversation; of experiencing her life in the context of her office — this is one of those rare opportunities I wanted to experience fully.

So for this interview – and every local interview, we are talking about an overt cost, plus the time and energy.

What if I could get an interview with Hank Green (which I would LOVE)? Yes, I could do a Skype interview there as well. But, what if he would agree to do an in-person interview where he lives, in Missoula, Montana? He could give me a tour of the DFTBA warehouse, introduce me to his staff, show me where he records his videos, etc. I would not just get an interview, but spend time with him, experience his process. Would that be worth $700 (flight, car rental, hotel) and two days? Plus the energy to plan and prepare, and the emotional energy of doing something I hate: flying?

I often hear rallying cries online of QUALITY and CRAFT, and I love that. But these are not static things — they are thousands of decisions at every step of the process, and not all of them clear cut. I could obviously do a “good enough” interview with Tina or Hank via Skype.

I’m writing the book for the experience of researching and writing, and the new relationships that provides. It’s one thing to say, “I interviewed Tina and Hank,” and another to have the memory of an experience with them. To get a tour of Studiomates by Tina, to hear about her challenges as I sit across the table from her, not just via Skype. Or to meet partners in Hank’s process of building a small empire, and seeing how he interacts with his team – there is so much to be gleaned from that. And like most memories, they are so deeply rooted in in-person experiences.

The act of creating and sharing this book pushes me to new places, which is worth nearly any amount of investment. It pushes me creatively to tackle a project that is somewhat terrifying; it pushes me socially to reach out to new people and put myself out there publicly; it pushes me professionally to reach new people and expand the effect of my work.

The truth is that I do not know where any of this will lead me, and it may very well lead to some unforeseen dead ends. Perhaps the book will have a wildly difficult time finding an agent or a publisher. Perhaps I will find both, but it will be a commercial failure – it will fail to find an audience and be read.

I suppose that is why I am focusing so much on the craft of how I create the book to ensure that what is created – the value that it creates for myself and others – is an inherent part of every stage of the process, even this blog post.

That is what I am investing in.

Friend and former client Doug Sundheim wrote a book where he talked about finding that place where you feel alive. In a professional, and even personal, context, that is often experiencing the FEAR inherent when you are pushing yourself to try something scary and new. Pushing yourself to grow and experience, usually via relationships, and developing a meaningful body of work.

These decisions affect not just my ability to provide for my family, but to make me the person that they experience every day. It is part of how I develop a lifetime of experiences whereby I can potentially look back on the day I spent with Hank Green, or the afternoon I spent visiting with Tina Roth Eisenberg.

I would love for this book to lead me to experiences like those, and to become an inherent part of what the book brings to those who eventually read it.

The ultimate return on investment of this book? Potential.

As you explore your own creative projects: How do you justify the ROI?

Thank you.

For more information on Dabblers vs. Doers, and all the behind the scenes stuff I am sharing, click here.