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

Barb Short: How a Working Single Mom Found the Bravery to Open a Bookstore

How did a working single parent find the time, energy, resources, and the sheer bravery to open up an independent bookstore? In today’s podcast, I talk with Barb Short who recently opened Short Stories Community Book Hub.

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

In this episode, we discuss:

Barb Short and Dan Blank
Barb Short and Dan Blank
  • The powerful reasons she had to take such a big risk.
  • How she learned to “choose herself,” when searching for someone to fill a gap in her community.
  • The reasons she was drawn to the business challenge of running a bookstore
  • How she found the time, energy and resources to pull it off, and we will explore the very real challenges she faces along the way
  • How the risk of failure gave her focus
  • And how she learned to establish boundaries that allow her to passionately dedicate herself to her job which she loves, her children, and the bookstore

To hear the full conversation, click the ‘play’ button above, 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.

Barb Short and part of the Short Stories Community Book Hub team.
Barb Short and part of the Short Stories Community Book Hub team.

Here are some key insights that Barb shared with me…

SHE IS CREATING EXPERIENCES

Why did Barb take on so much risk by signing a lease, hiring staff, and taking on the responsibility of opening and running a bookstore? As she told me:

“I am a tremendous believer in the power of art and creativity in our lives. My interest in this was around that passion. Becoming not just a place that sells product, but by becoming a creative space. It was about creating a place of experience that brings out the best in us.”

“You can’t even measure the experience that my daughters will get out of this; out of seeing me prioritize something I love in my life, and finding a way to fit it in.”

“Here I am, about to turn 50, and let’s make sure that I’m living. I’ve got a 14 year old and a 12 year old, let’s teach them how to live.”

“The initial financial investment, the vast majority of it was mine. There is this tremendous commitment, which I may never get back. I’ve always been someone who invests in experience. Even in the first week or two we were open, the impact on lives that we have had in just that opening period, with all the people coming together, and building the shelves, and performing in the space, and we haven’t even yet been able to respond to all the interest for the use of the space. That has yielded so much experience and fuel that is immeasurable.”

CHOOSING YOURSELF (AND BEING BRAVE)

When the existing local bookstore was flooded and decided to not reopen, Barb began wondering who would step in to fill the gap in our community — who would open a new bookstore?

“There are clarifying moments in life, where you are grateful for what you have, and I started thinking we have to find someone smart, creative, and brave and somebody really cool should do this. Then I started getting jealous – why would I let them do that, I can do that.”

“What a cool experience to have, why wouldn’t that be me? Why couldn’t I try it?”

“Any friend that I told, told me that I was crazy. they were concerned for me raising two girls as a single working mom. It just felt like the right thing to do. It felt like our community deserved one. I wasn’t just opening a book shop, I was opening up a place in our community for all of us. I had a great confidence in the people who would join me in this.”

“I have never ever felt alone in this. That is the whole premise of it – community.”

TO DO MORE IN LIFE, SHE FOCUSED ON ENERGY, NOT TIME

How did Barb find the ability to open this bookstore amidst a very full set of responsibilities?


“I think it is about energy management, as much as time management. I have a job that I am passionate about, so I can give endless energy to that. I believe in my company, the leaders, the work we want to do out there. When you choose things that fuel you, rather than drain you, there is a lot more time available.”

“For me it’s about focus. In order for me to be a doer, I need to step back and process all of it, organize all of it, and put together big chunks of what I’m going to get done. I can’t always be stimulated, I need to step back away from it. From a focus perspective, I have to protect my mental energy.”

“As I have gotten older, I have protected what I love more aggressively. I love to run — I’ve protected the time to run because it makes me healthier, and gives me more energy to do the job, raise the kids, and experience and enjoy the world. More and more through my work life, I’ve learned more how to draw boundaries, and it’s okay if I don’t respond to someone tonight, or if I don’t do something.”

“It’s about being comfortable with failure, or in not quite succeeding in the way you want to be right now.”

THE WISDOM OF FAILING

That doesn’t mean that she is without limits, and she discovered some of them in the process:


“I underestimated the demands on me once the store opened. By the time we hired our store manager, I was exhausted, fried, and I disappeared on her for two weeks. Just for myself, I needed to just focus on my [full-time] job and focusing on sleep — catching up on the pile of laundry in the hallway. I needed to refuel. I was so overwhelmed by the interest and love for the store, and the time demands of it.”

“[The bookstore] wasn’t becoming its vision or promise immediately. It was hard to manage other people’s expectations of what it will become.”

“It was a moment where I had to ask myself, ‘what’ve you got in there to deal with this challenge? This is about character. You need to help others become comfortable, and make time to ensure you are communicating how grateful you are who made it possible to get to where you are, when you are feeling exhausted and depleted. I needed to re-center, rebalance, get my energy and strength back.”

“I saw this as my leadership moment. There are lessons that will help me become a better person, and help my girls. It’s one of the richest experiences I’ve had, to feel like I was failing and say, “Okay, what’ve you got?”

I loved having this conversation with Barb, and I hope you will enjoy it too. You can find out more about her store here:

During our chat, Barb mentioned Cali Williams Yost and her book Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day.

Thank you!
-Dan

What a 17 Year Old Can Teach You About Building an Author Platform

Nikhil GoyalWhat can a 17 year old teach us about building an author platform? A LOT! Today I want to profile Nikhil Goyal, a 17 year old high school student who will be releasing his book on education reform this September: One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School. I met Nikhil back at the Writers Digest Conference in January, and was immediately impressed with him. When In the months that followed, I was floored by how professional he was and how quickly he is growing his platform. Recently, he and I chatted about the exact ways he has grown his following and built his credentials, which include mentions in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NBC, Fox Business, and others. He has also spoken at more than a dozen events and conferences this year. He has more than 13,500 followers on Twitter, and amassed this following by discussing series issues in education reform in an intelligent manner.

You can listen to my chat with Nikhil at the bottom of this post, or read the recap below where I outline the big lessons we can take away from his experience in developing his platform over the past year and a half. Let’s dig in…

IT’S NOT ABOUT MARKETING TACTICS, IT’S ABOUT ENGAGING IN CONVERSATION

“The way to build your brand and get people to notice you is to post intellectual things and controversial things, provoking a dialogue.” This is how Nikhil describes his process for the past year and a half.

When I asked how he distiguished his voice among the thousands who are discussing education reform, he told me: “In any field, you have to find a way to distinguish yourself, you have to find your niche. The niche I found is that I am a student, I have been in the system for 13 years, and my voice should be heard. You should be putting your views out there, even though you might get criticism. This allows all different sides to come together.”

The thing that stumped me on the face of this is: there are thousands upon thousands of 17 (and 18 and 16 and 15, etc) year olds out there who are students, whose voice should be heard. Why does anyone care about his voice in a broader sense – why is The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and major conferences getting his viewpoint on education reform? What is his credibility?

He told me how the writing, research, and building an audience for his book provided him a reason to interview people and engage with those active in this field. But it went beyond that. People were interested in a student giving ideas because oftentimes you don’t think of high schoolers engaged in social media in a productive manner. “Age can get you only so far. Your ideas have to be solid, backed by evidence; you have to talk to experts. I engaged with some of the most important people in education,” he told me.

DO YOUR RESEARCH AND TAKE THE RISK TO BE REJECTED
Nikhil and I met at the Writers Digest Conference in January. He attended my session, and came up to me after to introduce himself. This is something I always recommend people do at conferences, but only a small percentage of attendees do. This is how you differentiate yourself, make valuable connections, and turn generalized tips into personalized advice from the speakers. Nikhil was well dressed, gave me his business card, and told me about his book. He was well spoken and brief, being respectful of my time. I know, this seems like a simple thing, but most adults don’t want to wait on a line to chat with a speaker, and freeze in that moment when it’s there “turn” to describe what they are about. So they find excuses to not do it. Nikhil took that risk. From there, he followed up with me via email again and again, and now here I am featuring him on my blog. Risk = reward.

But what really impressed me when we met was this: I told him about an event a week later, Columbia Journalism School was having a “Social Media Weekend” event, and I recommended he attend it. Sure enough, a week later I saw him there. That made me realize how serious he was.

He describes his process of reaching out to others for his book:”I just started researching and spoke to all different kinds of people on all different sides.” He told me how he spoke to authors of books on education reform, those featured in articles about the topic, and the journalists who wrote them.

“People like being reached out to, they like being interviewed. These are simple emails. People ask me the secret to my success and there is no secret sauce. You just have to find something you are good at and engaged in a way that you reach out through events, via blogs, write about them, interview them, and make yourself known in the field.”

This is a huge differentiator for him. 99% of people who want to do what Nikhil does, won’t. Essentially, he is cold calling people. He is forcing himself to be uncomfortable to try to get folks to return an email, do an interview or get on the phone.

He says: “One of the things I try to live by is the question: ‘What is there to lose?’ Okay, they reject you, they ingore your email. So you move on. That is one of the things I have learned: overcoming failure and rejection. Move onto the next person, there is a plethora of different people to talk to.”

Most adults step cautiously, as if they have everything to lose. But Nikhil only seems to see what he has to gain. I’m sorry, but a lot adults spend there whole life trying to get over rejection they felt in high school. Here is someone who doesn’t worry about rejection. That’s rare, and another way that he will find ways to succeed when others just find obstacles.

BUILD A PROFESSIONAL BRAND; THINK LONG-TERM
Nikhil is clearly thinking long-term: “One of the main things I focus on is that anything I put on the internet
is not going to be erased, it will be there forever. You have to watch what you say in Tweets, in Facebook status updates, in articles. When somebody says your name, you want the first thing they say after it to be ‘This person gets stuff done, this person knows how to solve problems, they are a major player in the industry they are involved in.’ You have to have a Google trail, when someone Google’s your name, they have to see your latest blog post, or some articles you were featured in.”

His website and photos of himself are professional – and what he shares on his blog or social media is strongly focused on the same topics. When you see him anywhere, you quickly know exactly what he is about. You know his brand.

BE EVERYWHERE
Nikhil only started going to events in late 2011, and he used social media just “for fun” before that as well. Then he began speaking, and it snowballed from there.

When you look at the Appearances page on his website, you see the list of events across the US and internationally that he has spoken at or attended. I asked how he ramped up his speaking so quickly: “I have a lot of different favorite speakers. I had no idea what the best conferences were before January of this year. So I made a list of my favorite speakers and where they have spoken and various places I am speaking at. I have a proposal that I tailor to the place I want to speak at, and it’s just a quick email. Most people are pretty receptive. When I started off, I applied to events a few weeks later, but I quickly realized that you have to apply months and months in advance, sometimes a year. So I learned how to understand that market, because you want to go to the best events and attract those in your field.”

But he took it a step further. For the mentions he has received in major media outlets he told me: “I meet a lot of journalists at these various events, and I just ask them to connect me to the Education editor or someone who is lifestyle or culture and I ask if I can write a quick guest post. They are usually receptive.”

He has 13,500 followers, but he has only focused on Twitter in the past year and a half. How did he get so many followers so quickly? Education chats – those weekly hashtag chats on Twitter. Evidently, there are 10-15 chats per week: #EdChat, #StudentVoice chat, #SSchat (reforming curriculum in social studies), etc. So he participates and gets his name out there in a place where very few students are.

Nikhil Goyal's Twitter feed Oh, also this… to the right is a screenshot of his Twitter feed from last night, where he takes the time to thank individual people who shared an article that featured him.

How does he find the time? During the school year, he does a lot of article writing during class, finishes homework during class so he doesn’t have to do much after school. He Tweets during school, pulls up The New York Times on his Kindle and Tweets out interesting articles he’s read. After school and weekends, he devotes his time to the book, which includes lots of interviews.

When I asked his final advice to my readers, he said: “Everyone should have a blog.” When I first met him, I was surprised he didn’t yet blog, and was thrilled to see he began taking it so seriously. “It just helps get your message out there. If they Google your name, they go directly to your blog.”

Again and again, you see that Nikhil focused on the basics: knowing his audience and engaging with them in a meaningful manner. A lot of people have this viewpoint that someone who is 17 that is a “digital native” and grew up on social media lives in some kind of new world of social engagement; that it’s all about texting and Tweeting and Pinning. But Nikhil has leveraged email, knowing how to present himself, his intelligence, and just plain showing up at in-person events and talking to people.

The other day, I had someone pressing me to find a “secret button” (my word, not theirs) in social sites such as Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook that allowed them to essentially blast their message to not just their followers/connections, but to those people’s friends and followers. They wanted to scale without any effort, at the push of a button. There is this impression that is what social media has given us, but that is inaccurate. The basics still matter, and seeing what Nikhil has created in such as short period of time illlustrates this.

You can find Nikhil in the following places:
http://www.nikhilgoyal.me
@TalkPolitical
And here is his recent appearance on Fox Business.

To hear my chat with Nikhil, click ‘play’ below.
Thanks!
-Dan

We Grow Media Podcast #1 – Why We CHOOSE To Be Overwhelmed

In this first episode of the We Grow Media podcast, I will be reviewing why many people CHOOSE to be overwhelmed, the effect it has on their lives, and what each of us can do about it.

Click PLAY below to listen to the podcast, or listen/subscribe in iTunes.

After listening to the podcast, please let me know: HOW ARE YOU OVERWHELMED? HOW DOES IT AFFECT YOUR LIFE?

Thanks!
-Dan