Betsy Bird: From “Invisible” Introvert to Author, Critic, Blogger and Librarian

How does one go from being a painfully shy child who barely spoke five words per day in school, to being a well-known children’s book blogger, librarian and author? In today’s interview, I chat with Betsy Bird, Youth Materials Specialist of New York Public Library who also runs the blog A Fuse #8 Production on School Library Journal’s website. She is the author of Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, Giant Dance Party, and Children’s Literature Gems: Choosing and Using them in your Libarary Career.

I am a huge fan of Betsy’s, and have profiled her several other times:

We met years ago when I was working with School Library Journal. In today’s interview, we touch upon a number of topics about risk and developing a meaningful body of work. But one topic in particular really amazed me: her experience going from a painfully shy introvert as a child, to someone who shares so much of herself online, and even — unintentionally — courts controversy in the book world.

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.

We spoke in the in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building — otherwise known as the big New York City Public Library, the one with the lions in front of it. She took me into an abandoned wing, and we sat down and spoke in a room that is no longer open to the public, and served as the New York Public Library’s very first children’s room when it opened back in 1911. Here is a brief tour:

Betsy and I:
Betsy Bird and Dan Blank

The famous lions out front:
New York Public Library

The employee-only hallway that leads to the old children’s room:
New York Public Library

Details from the old children’s room — original shelving and lamps that look to be, if not original, at least very old!
Betsy Bird and Dan Blank

Fun fact: this library also contains the original Winnie the Pooh and friends, displayed in a public area:
Winnie the Pooh and Friends

Here are some excerpts from our chat, where we dig into her journey:

“I would have killed to be an extroverted child. I was the introverted introvert. I was the shyest creature you have ever met in your life. I was the kid who never raised her hand in class. Even now, if you watch me in a meeting, you will never see me raise my hand or bring up a point. It’s automatic: sit there and don’t draw attention to yourself. I was invisible through most of my school years. It took me a long time to become social, someone who enjoyed people.”

I asked her about a quote I read where she said she would say less than five words per day in school as a child; her response:
“Five words would have been impressive! My goal was to be invisible, because if you were invisible, people didn’t bother you. Children were wild animals, and had to be avoided, so I did not talk.”

“My dad recently remarked to my mom, “At what point did she get ambition?’ Because I didn’t seem to have any beyond a job that brings a paycheck. That was something I struggled with, a children’s librarian has to perform — that is a performing job. You have to do storytimes constantly. You have to talk to strangers at a desk constantly. Yes, you are talking about children’s books, but they are strangers, they could say anything. Many people do view the captive reference librarian as a free therapist. My mother always said, ‘You should have a social work degree along side your MLIS just because of the people you have to deal with at a public library desk.'”

“Children’s librarianship really changed all of that. I had to do storytimes constantly throughout the day, I had to go into schools and talk to strangers and get them on board with the summer reading plan, and talk to teachers. All sorts of things that were forcing me out of my introverted life. In New York City, if you are forced out of your introverted life, by association with the city, you get ambition because you are in the right place for it. If I started this blog in Minnesota, would it have been noticed? I don’t know the answer to that. I can sit down for lunch with School Librarian Journal, I can go to publishers previews.”

What is so intriguing to me is not just that she shares so much of herself and her opinions via the blog, social media and her own books, but that in doing so, it sometimes invites not just social situations, but controversy:

“That’s when you know you’ve made it, when you get in trouble with a bunch of folks.”

“There are different types of controversy, I have found. I have been lucky, I will criticize something and what people will take from it is usually not a criticism of me, they will take something I am saying and try to correct it. That is wonderful, I love that. Once in awhile, it will get personal, but I don’t post those comments. I don’t mind posting comments that take me to task on certain things.”

“I have encountered people where it has been awkward because I have given them bad reviews. If I give a critical review, and I’m in New York City, I probably know the editor, I definitely know the publicity team, I probably know the author and illustrator, and if I don’t, I will be seated next to them at a dinner at some point. Thats where this gets really weird. I am a critic – and I consider myself a critic, because if I am not a critic then I am a cheerleader, or a promotional wing of the publisher. There are many blogs who refuse to do anything critical, and they are fine and wonderful but to my mind, they are cheerleaders, and may as well be working for the publishers. I like to be critical once in awhile because it keeps me honest. Otherwise, I may as well be getting a paycheck from these publishers. The downside is that I am going to meet these people at some point, and it is going to b awkward.”

“I once critically reviewed a very very very popular picture book. I pointed out some things I had a problem with. You would have thought that I had shot the author’s puppy dog the way that these people were piling on me. It was really strange for me. If you read the comments, they just spiral into madness. You just have to be ready for controversy.”

“My natural inclination is to be liked, and mostly the blog fulfilled that need, it sets off those endorphins. I write a review about a book I really like, then I get a Tweet back from the author saying, ‘This is awesome!’, and they are Tweeting it to their followers, and I get that happy feeling of, ‘Oh, I’ve made a person happy, and maybe more people are happy too. Everyone is happy happy happy happy.’ That is what a lot of people use blogging for. If you review a book, it makes you happy, it makes the publisher happy, it makes the editor happy at ALA, you get invited to the fancy dinners because, ‘Oh! You are the reviewer who liked this book so much, come to this dinner, the author really appreciated it.’ You get to sit down with the big-wigs and talk about future books and things like that. It’s so alluring. But if you are going to be a reviewer, you have to say when things are bad. I criticize myself, I don’t do it enough. For awhile, with every review, I tried to say one critical thing. I have not done that as consistently as I should, but I still think it’s important. Because otherwise it is all sunshine and rainbows, cupcakes, sparkles and unicorns, and that’s fine, but every book could be better. It’s hard for me – I want to be liked, I want that validation.”

Thank you to Betsy for making the time to meet with me. You can find her online at:

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

Thank you!
-Dan

Andrea Lekberg: Preparing for Success

For the past six years, Andrea Lekberg has run The Artist Baker, a boutique bakery & cafe in Morristown, New Jersey. She graduated from The Art Institute of Chicago and The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, and has worked at a long list of notable bakeries and restaurants. She is also – of course – an artist, who is currently working on a project about her Native American heritage.

I got to know Andrea when she offered to host a series of meetups I helped run with my friend Scott McDowell. I was always impressed by her wisdom, and how she balanced running a business, with growing as an artist and building not just a body of meaningful work, but a community of collaborators.

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.

Andrea Lekberg and Dan Blank
Andrea Lekberg and Dan Blank
Here are some key insights that Andrea shared with me…

On Taking the Next Step

“It’s not that I was tired of working for people, but I was not looking forward to working for another chef or another owner. I felt that I kept finding myself in similar circumstances, so I wasn’t growing. I talked to a friend who told me, ‘if you are managing businesses, you are already doing all the work, caring about the business, caring about the people, worrying about numbers; but the benefit is you own it. It is easier to problem solve because you don’t have an owner. As a middle manager, you always have to answer to the boss. Even though you are problem solving, it is not really your final word, so you are caught.’ What he said was,’you are already there, just take the next step.'”

“There are different ways to grow professionally. I could have gone and worked for a hotel, and ran hundreds of people. Like go work in Las Vegas, and do pastries at a hotel where they are open around the clock, and you have a hundred people working — that would have been a big challenge. But it wasn’t a challenge I was looking for. I was looking for something more personal and more about my growth.”

The Value of Taking the Time to Plan

She spent a year working on her business plan and working out her finances. “It was very helpful writing the business plan, because I was able to see how I could go from selling two cups of coffee a day, to grow from there.”

“One thing I know about making a plan is that you can always change it.”

“I spent a year writing the business plan and looking around at property, and I learned so much. I almost got two pieces of property, and felt like I met every asshole Charleston. I learned so much about leases. I signed a lease on one property, and the person was just using it to get another person to sign the lease. I was used, but I didn’t know. Another time, I almost signed on a property, and the lease was a triple net, which means you are responsible for everything below the roof. Before I signed the lease, I had an inspection done, which I was paying for. I found all these problems, so I didn’t sign the lease. It was interesting learning about what could happen — what you are responsible for.”

“I was looking around, and even though everybody was telling me how great the area was, how business was growing, I was not seeing any other businesses come into that area, and I was actually seeing businesses close. If you go by just walking around the street, and see what business are there, that really tells you everything about the town. That is the best thing to do. Ask yourself: what is not here, and why isn’t it here. You start asking all of these questions.”

I asked her why people skip such a foundational concept such as observation and asking questions, and she mentioned that sometimes people are just so driven by their concept, that they are essentially blinded to any other context or factors that can affect it.

When personal circumstances opened an opportunity to open her bakery in an unexpected place: Morristown, New Jersey, she put boundaries to help reduce the risk:

  • “I’ll give myself through the summer to find a space.”
  • “I wanted to find a landlord who would work with me and was excited about the project.”

These limits helped her focus, and find a place to open The Artist Baker.

Preparing for Success

Her theory of how you sign a lease always astounded me: “People would sign a year lease, and I thought they weren’t preparing themselves for success. They were first looking for a way out. Sign the longest lease they will give you. You can always get out of it, if you are smart about it. When you setup a business with lawyers, everybody is protected. It is key to have lawyers and contracts.”

“When I was first looking for financing for the business, I had a lot of people who would say ‘Oh, I’ll give you $1,000 or $5,000′ – these small numbers for a business – and they would want a small percentage of the business. I had a lawyer who said, “DON’T TAKE THEIR MONEY. If it is that small, they shouldn’t ask you for a piece of the business.’ She was an eye opener about the value of getting a bigger amount from one or two people, than having all these people who are involved in your business.”

Andrea listed all the people she hired and staff she brought on board to open the shop. When I asked her why she didn’t just open up the shop with zero staff, taking on the role of baking herself, and serving herself, she said this, “If you have a business so small that you are doing everything, then you don’t have time to think about growing it. You can’t grow. You are always behind and overwhelmed. We started out so that we could hopefully succeed.”

Compartmentalizing What You Can Control

“I opened this business just after my stepfather died; I was in such a different place. I wasn’t trying to control things as much. Had I opened it earlier, I would have been so frustrated. But I was ready now, everything was just problem solving. I slept great the whole time we were opening up the business, and the reason was because it was so awful. I knew the next day would be a whole new set of problems, but I couldn’t do anything about it now. Besides, the problems are never what you thought they would be, they come out of the blue, so you couldn’t even prepare yourself mentally for dealing with the problems of the next day.”

“I had no idea it was going to be like this.”

She said that the best marketing for her business has always ben word of mouth. People coming, then coming back and bringing others. It took a year for the bakery to be financially viable on its own. “I originally thought it would mostly be a pastry shop, but now mostly what we do is lunch. Our business has shifted. There was a point where we had a lot of staff, people were working, the restaurant was full, everything was moving like this nice machine, and I remember thinking: ‘I had no idea it was going to be like this.’ I had no idea it would be more of a restaurant.”

Dealing With Other People’s Expecations

“Every day, people have [their own] expectations. You get new customers coming into the shop, and let’s just say they heard from somebody that it was good. So they have their ideas of a good bakery, maybe one they went to in Vermont, and they come in, and they want it to be like that experience. It’s always funny with new people, to try to help them understand what we are doing. It’s definitely a business, but it’s also a creative place. We do a lot of stuff that I know most shops don’t ever get a chance to do. This is to push the staff to do things they aren’t used to doing. When you talk about expectations, you are trying to fulfill customer expectations, but also your own expectations, and I don’t feel like we are just food service.”

“I just want to be good at being me. That is what good artists are, they are good at being themselves. That is the role of the bakery is to be good at what it is. Not be what other people want it to be.”

Thank you to Andrea for making the time to meet with me. You can find her in at http://theartistbaker.com.

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

Thank you!
-Dan

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!
-Dan

Rachel Fershleiser: A Career Built on Enthusiasm

Today I’m speaking with Rachel Fershleiser, who describes herself this way, “I’m someone who gets really psyched about books on the internet, and I help others do it too.” I am so inspired by not just the scope of Rachel’s work over the years, but how much she is an enthusiastic champion for others.

Rachel Fershleiser and Dan Blank
Rachel Fershleiser and Dan Blank
In this interview, Rachel talks to me about:

  • How her career has been driven by enthusiasm, not blindly pursuing job titles
  • The role that volunteering for organizations and championing others has played in her life
  • How she collaborated with others to organize hundreds of live events
  • The story behind crafting a “feisty” voice online, and where her boundaries are
  • When she knew the time was right for a big career move
  • The value of embracing individual connections that are meaningful, not ‘going viral’

Some background: Rachel Fershleiser works on Tumblr’s outreach team, specializing in publishing, nonprofit, and cultural organizations. Previously she was the community manager at Bookish and the director of public programs at Housing Works Bookstore Café, where she now serves on the board of directors. She is also the co-creator of Six-Word Memoirs and co-editor of the New York Times bestseller Not Quite What I Was Planning and three other books.

Her Kickstarter campaign for Stock Tips: A Zine about Soup earned 13 times its initial funding goal. She also runs The Reblog Book Club which is Tumblr’s Official Book Club.

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 Rachel shared with me…

When Pigeonholed in Jobs She Didn’t Love, She Said, “Let’s Recalibrate”

“I did PR for broadway shows, I didn’t necessarily want to do PR, or even knew what PR was. I wanted to make people excited about theater.”

“Then, when I was unemployed, all I wanted to do was read books. But I wasn’t one of these people who wanted to work in publishing my whole life. When I went to look for publishing jobs, I was applying for editorial assistant. They were like, ‘Oh, you have PR experience.’ I went in for an editorial job, and was offered a PR job.”

“So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll make people really excited about books!'”

But PR isn’t all about enthusiasm, you are given books to work with, not all of them you are genuinely excited about. Rachel continues…

“I quit my job without another job lined up. But I was living in a 6-floor walk up with 3 other girls; I was paying $700 rent; I did not have a lot of debt; I was not taking money from my parents, but knew I could if the situation got desperate; I had no kids or responsibilities; so I figured: let’s recalibrate.”

Volunteering

Rachel chooses to volunteer; chooses to get involved; chooses to champion things. This is a thread throughout her career.

She started at the most basic level at Housing Works Bookstore, and worked through the ranks and got more involved. “I was a volunteer (four hours per week), then I was a part-time bookseller, then I was a full-time bookseller, I was director of public programs, and now I’m on the board.”

Rachel’s other volunteer work includes:

Collaboration Mastermind: Organizing Hundreds of Events

At Housing Works Bookstore, she crafted events with others in a collaborative manner, and didn’t just book basic readings. She crafted readings, book launch parties, poetry, dance events, music concerts, and more.

Her specialty? “My passion is like, okay, we’ve got four different debut novels with a thru-line, and if we get all of those writers together, and get this band to play, then we show this animated short, then we have a cafe special that is on-theme, then we have a photo booth, then we put clips from the event up on the internet… that whole mishmash of different literary-ish things.”

She would ask, “What can we do to bring together different fan bases? We did crazy things like have Salman Rushdie read with a progressive rock band that had written an album based on one of his essays. We put him in this big leather armchair, and then there are these punk boys behind him. That was the kind of thing where some people came for the writing, and didn’t know anything about the band; some people came for the band, and didn’t know anything about the writing. We were like, ‘Let’s all get together and see what happens.'”

How did she collaborate on so many events across such a broad range of fields? “A lot of it stems from knowing what you don’t know. I don’t know anything about music; I don’t know a lot about pop culture; I don’t know a lot about comics; I don’t know a lot about poetry; I can go on for a long time. So the ability to be like, ‘You know a lot about poetry, come here. Who do you think should read with this band?’ that isn’t me being generous, that is me stealing other people’s brains. It’s benefiting from all different kinds of expertise.”

This was an incredible insight, that she saw the gaps she had in knowledge as an opportunity to ask questions, to collaborate, and take chances. I feel like so many people stop pursuing creative ideas with the phrase ‘I don’t know.’ But for Rachel, that was the instigation to keep exploring.

“It’s an interesting idea, the ‘voice’ of a bookstore, because theoretically it is a physical space and a small business. And this is what I will take full credit for is that before I started at Housing Works Bookstore, there was no social media, very little web presence, and there was basically no way of communicating with our patrons and wider community. I was not very digital and not very into internet culture. But what I had was a zero dollar marketing budget, and I was supposed to turn this place from a ‘best-kept secret’ into a city-wide institution with no resources to get the word out. What resources did I have? Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare. We were the first bookstore on Tumblr. And the voice was me, basically. I certainly exercised care and realized I was speaking for a larger institution, but the ability to put personality into it makes a huge difference. People want to show up and hang out. Housing Works values and my values are very much aligned.”

“I’m a woman on the internet. Yes I get hate mail.”

She describes her public voice as “feisty.” I asked her how becoming more honest online has affected her ability to be employed; in other words, so many people are afraid to be themselves publicly because they fear it may offend a potential employer. She responded, “I can’t imagine where I would want to work, that doesn’t value the things that I value. At this point in my life, I am much more likely to get hired for my public persona, than to not get hired because of it.”

She does have her own boundaries for what she shares. She never says anything bad a bout a book, and is never “unkind” to people to come to events and communities she is a part of.

When I asked if there is a flipside, if she gets hate mail, she responded, “I’m a woman on the internet. Yes I get hate mail.” She then referenced this episode of This American Life, where Lindy West has a conversation with her biggest online troll.

On Making a Big Career Move

After years of working at Housing Works, which she loved, she decided to leave. Why?

“There are the very real practicalities of working for a small nonprofit… you don’t have resources to do anything. A lot of my creativity stemmed from not having resources, but I was there till midnight every night stacking the chairs, taking out the trash — you don’t have your own life.”

She moved on to a startup called Bookish, which she described as “using the internet to bring readers together,” how that perfectly aligned with what she wanted to do. It gave her a growth opportunity, even though the site turned out to not live up to its promise.

Then, Tumblr came to her. To work with publishers, authors, libraries and bookstores in a community that she understands and loves. “I had been an author, at publishers, a bookstore, nonprofits, so I had a sense of what these groups needed from a platform.”

Embracing the Small

On engaging directly with readers online:

“A lot of writers are terrified of people saying ‘you have to do this brand new thing that is nothing like you have ever done, and nothing like you have ever wanted to do.’ That is not how I look at it, at all. You are a reader, you are a writer, you are a person who likes books, and probably likes talking about them. Here is one more step on how to do it. That is what I mean with start small. The idea of starting a ‘social media platform’ is terrifying. But, Tweet the last book you loved, and some people will fav it, and one person will write back and say ‘I loved it too,” this is human interaction that an author would enjoy having. Just seeing it as another way for readers and writers connecting.”

“That is my whole vision of this. I’m not promising you 100,000 new fans. I’m saying that you will find the four people who already love your book, then you’ll find the six people who listen to the books they recommend, then you’ll find the 12 people who read one of their books, then you will get to do an event because one of those people invited you to it, then 50 people will come to it… you are collecting, over your career, more and more people who are just like in your boat. And those people have an audience, even people who don’t think they have an audience.”

We ended on this note, which was so perfect: “I am trying to have a career that I am genuinely passionate about.”

Thank you to Rachel for making the time to meet with me and share her wisdom. You can find her in the following places:
http://rachelfershleiser.com
https://twitter.com/RachelFersh

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

Thank you!
-Dan

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…

STARTING & RUNNING THE SACKETT STREET WRITERS’ WORKSHOP

“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.”

HOW SHE MANAGES IT ALL

“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.]”

EMBRACING THE DIFFERENT PHASES OF YOUR CREATIVE LIFE

“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!
-Dan