Why even bother?

A friend of mine shared this on Facebook this week: “Why on earth did I buy a 2020 planner??” I’ll admit, that got a smile from me, as all of us continually wake up to a world upended. Many people are scared, overwhelmed, confused, and could be thinking “Why bother? Just focus on the status quo for now, because honestly, isn’t that enough?

For the work I do, helping writers create and share their work, this is a question I obsess over. This is why my weekly podcast is called The Creative Shift. Because in order to create and share in a way that matters, you have to make an intentional choice to do so. Sure, it would be nice if the world made it easy for you to finish writing that book and getting it into readers’ hands. But the truth is, it’s a lot of work. Often more work than we ever imagined before we started.

Recently I have spoken to several writers and artists who are making a conscious choice to make their creative shift. To either create disruption in their life to expand their creative practice, or use unintended disruption as a source of energy to reorient where they are going.

I want to share some of their stories with you today.

Last week I wrote about the concept of before and after since all of us are now between those two thing. The “before” is a world where we could leave the house, meet with people, and plan activities days, weeks, or months out. The after is unknown and in between those two things is where we are.

For awhile I have been asking my friend Betsy Brockett if I could interview her. She finally said yes, and there could not be a more perfect moment. Betsy knows before and after.

At age 28, she was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. She needed an immediate surgery, followed by chemo, followed by more surgery. This is Betsy:

Before the diagnosis, she was healthy and living a very active life. She was an artist and photographer and worked at an arts center. This is a small sampling of her collection of hospital bracelets in the months that followed her diagnosis:

Betsy said she does view her life as before the diagnosis and after. But the theme that kept coming up in our talk was what it means to find clarity in what you create and in who you are as a writer or artist. Today she runs a small farm with her husband, and they have a focus on rewilding the property. I had to look that word up, it means: to return to a natural state.

That has been Betsy’s journey with her creative work. To rewild herself — to create and share who she is in a way that feels remarkably authentic. You can listen to my entire conversation with Betsy here.

I find that this is a common theme among writers and artists. To become closer to who they are deep down. To find more honesty in what they create.

I recently interviewed Tony Bonds, a writer who chose to leave his day job a few months ago in order to double-down on growing his own company. I recorded my interview with him via online video, he was in his new “office.” That would be his garage, complete with messy shelves, exposed pipes, and baby carriages hanging from the rafters. This is where so much creative work happens – in less than ideal places, amidst a ton of risk. But as Tony put it: “At least it’s my own desk, in my own garage.” This is Tony:

Tony Bonds

That is a key element of what it means to create and share what matters to you: that you are being proactive and intentional. You aren’t half-baking it from the sidelines, you are… (sorry for the mixed metaphor) um, fully baking while in the game? You know what I mean.

Tony is taking risks, but they are risks to invest in who he is and what can lead to a fulfilling life. You can listen to my full interview with Tony here.

This is a recurring practice. The action of getting more and more clear on your goals. Of honing your creative process. Of investing in yourself.

I recently spoke to artist Megan Carty about how she is leveling up her art and her business. After years or doing this full-time, she is making massive changes. These are not meant to be disruptive, but rather to focus on the art that matters most to her, and on growing her business. Taking risks like this never ends because as people who create, we are always growing and learning. This is Megan:

Megan Carty

You can listen to my conversation with Megan here.

But growth is not always about leveling up, sometimes it is about starting again. Christine Koh did that when she chose to leave a successful career in academia in order to pursue a variety of creative ventures online. I mean, just imagine this… she spent years in school and was in the middle of a joint-appointment postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the Massachusetts Institutes of Technology. She was about to become a full professor. And she left. Why? As she put it: “I wanted to be creative, independent, and make stuff.” This is Christine:

Christine Koh

You can listen to my full interview with Christine here.

I find this theme shows up again and again. When I spoke to award-winning children’s book illustrator Anna Raff, she was in the middle of a successful career when she made a huge shift to become an illustrator full-time. After taking some classes, she said: “I realized I was missing out and silenced a part of myself for a long time.” This is Anna:

I also love her advice on how what you create and share needs to be focused on who you are: “If you are sharing work that is an extension of you, it will be your best work.” You can listen to my full interview with her here.

I started this post by asking “why even bother?” I am borrowing that phrase from Jennifer Louden who has a new book coming out called Why Bother: Discover the Desire for What’s Next. It will be released later in April, and I’m looking forward to reading it. This is Jennifer:

In our recent interview I asked about when she started her business, and she said it came years after becoming a bestselling author. “For so long, I lived in the story of “Someone has to choose me.” Now she says she never ever wants to wait for someone to choose her again.

You can listen to our full interview here.

I want to end with one more story. This is musician I follow on YouTube, his name is Sam Battle. He actually invents these amazing musical instruments out of things like Furbys and old Nintendos, it’s actually pretty amazing. He usually has this large private studio he works out of, but to keep creating while on lockdown, he decided to move his studio to his home.

He lives in a basement apartment, and out his back door is this little, well, cave. This is it:

It’s small, damp, dark, and claustrophobic. The opposite of his normal large studio. This is the space after he cleaned it up and moved his equipment in, a total transformation:

Normally, Sam would be on tour playing live shows right now. He says: “I’ve been stuck in the cave at the back of my flat for the past week or so, its been a good time just to get down and constantly jam, write and practice for when shows are back on!” Here he is creating music in the cave:

Sam is showing up to his creative work. He is sharing that work, even when he is working within less than ideal circumstances. Every day, we each have this opportunity. To create and share what matters most to us.

Thank you.
-Dan

The transformation of how you create and share

I have been thinking a lot about the concept of before and after. With everything changing all around us, it is becoming more clear that every moment we are in nowadays is a moment of transformation.

We are reinventing how we live. How we connect. How we do the most basic activities.

For writers and artists, this becomes a chance to transform how we create and share. The methods by which you create. How you are able to be proactive in connecting your work and creative vision to others.

I want to share a story — a metaphor, I suppose — to frame this.

In 2010 I noticed a house that was going to have an estate sale later that month. The home was hidden from the road, overgrown with trees and bushes. It was hiding something. A history. A story:

The ad for it was engrossing. I later learned that the home was built in 1908 and a single family had lived in it since 1922. The photos in the estate sale ad showed furnishings and decor from the early 20th century.

I was totally enamored. As if I had found a time capsule from a time long past.

I did an online search to find the name and contact information of the owner. I called and asked something bizarre: “Can I come over your house and tour it before you sell everything off. I want to document it.”

To my surprise, the owner agree, and I went over the next night. Part of me was a little hesitant. Not even a month earlier, our first son was born and here I was leaving he and my wife for an evening to go into the home of a stranger. It felt risky, stepping into the unknown in the dark of night.

The house was being sold. The fortune that built it was long gone, and the family that was left seemed to be hanging onto a home that was much too large for them to adequately maintain, on a very large property as well. The taxes alone were $25,000 per year on a house that hadn’t been updated since before the 1950s. It was being sold to a builder who was going to gut it to the core and modernize it. Here is the house after that renovation:

Stepping into the house was like entering a time portal to the past. This is the entryway:

On the floor is a stack of newspapers, the one on top from 1941. A book from 1947 lays next to it on the floor:

It’s easy to look at this newspaper and feel the same way I do about it as I do about life from anytime before this month. Remember how we used to leave the house. Go to a concert. Have a dinner party? It all feels like this newspaper… a relic of a time now past.

The “before” often feels magical. It is easy to feel sentimental for what is now gone. It is captured in a moment in time, and glows of a beauty that is not easily found today. It harkens back to a time that we perceive as simpler.

Let’s take a look at the before and after of this home renovation. The living room and fireplace before:

And after:

Here is the dining room before:

And after:

This was the office of the owner’s grandfather, who was the president of a bank in 1920s, who managed it through the crash of 1929:

And after, the office would have been the two windows on the right side of the photo, they tore down the wall to make it a dining room:

Here is the original kitchen:

And the new kitchen:

Since they were about to hold an estate sale, everything in it had a price tag attached to it. It’s fascinating to consider how you can take nearly 100 years of a family’s possessions and attach a price tag to each individual item:

Notice the framed photo of Dwight D. Eisenhower on the left:

Every doily and napkin has a price tag:

If you are like me, you see these photos and you feel a little sad. Sentimental for what was lost. For the “before.” The renovation of the home has stripped away all of the grandeur, the intricate woodwork and craftsmanship.

But there is something else I am considering here that is making me look at these images differently. The transition from before and after can’t just be marked just by the estate sale and renovation. This transition was more than 90 years in the making.

What I felt when I was in the house was a deep sense of neglect. I could see it in 1,000 places in every room. The electrical, plumbing, heating, and other systems were ancient. The walls were buckling and cracking. There was deep wear all over the wood floors. Rust and dust were in every nook and cranny. There were electrical wires dangling all through the hallways as they tried to route electricity to different rooms via extension cords.

For the person who bought this house and considered the next family who would live here, they had to look at the lead pipes, lead paint, knob and tube wiring, cracked plaster, water damage, and potentially mold.

What makes this house magical to me is the neglect, I suppose. It has captured the “before” so well. The way people lived in the 1940s and earlier.

This neglect took time. Nothing was ever sold. So it all built up. I wasn’t allowed in the basement, though I asked multiple times (I love basements!) I can’t imagine what I would have found down there.

This is a house so big, full of so much, that it became impossible to maintain properly without a lot of yearly expenses.

I explored the large first and second floors. There was a former dentist office in one corner, which was active in the 1920s. There was a large gym room that had equipment that was at least 50 years old.

Then I got to the last room on the 3rd floor and found something unexpected: a family. In one room was a makeshift apartment with a young family of three. I believe this was the current owners’ son, his wife, and their child. This would make them the fourth and fifth generation of the family to live in this house. They had a little kitchen setup and offered me rice and beans. There was a couch and TV, and I believe the beds may have been in that same room as well.

Here they were living in what felt like a mansion from 1908 and they were all shoved into living in one room on the 3rd floor. It was amazing, because they were all so welcoming and friendly.

The owner’s grandmother lived to be 106, and by the his account, she ruled over the house. He described her as “fierce.”

But on the weekend of the estate sale in 2010, a group of strangers entered her home. People came to the house for the value of objects within it. As the clock hit 10am on a Saturday morning, people streamed in, eyeing objects they desired, doing quick calculations in their head as to what was collectible, and what wasn’t. They grabbed, they took ownership, they traded dollars for objects.

In an instant, these things were turned from a collective history into a commodity – scattered – bound for other lives, or to be eBay’d at a higher value.

Spending time in the house talking with the owner and his family, my view of the house and objects changed. And I realized something:

The most valuable thing in the house is the story.

This value will never be realized at an estate sale, it will never be calculated into a Zillow ranking. But what this place and these objects were a part of – what they helped represent – is something of a time, of a moment, of a family, of a community. Something unique that identifies who we are as a culture.

As I wake up each day curious of what the world will bring today, something I consider is the choice that we each have to create and share.

How amidst all of these transitions is an opportunity to evolve our own creative practices. To discover new ways to write and make art. To share our voice. To connect with others. To craft new stories.

In every before and after, something is lost. But what I am considering is how we can grow in what we create and how we can come together.

Thanks.
-Dan

Create. Share. Grow.

In looking back at this week, one where each day seemed unlike the previous, where all of society changed at once, I’m considering the small actions we can take to create. And to share what you create with others in a way that inspires and helps them grow.

This is an incredible power that we all hold.

This ability to create something from nothing. A story. A song. A helpful piece of advice. And so much more.

Fred Rogers once said:

“My mother used to say whenever there was a catastrophe: “Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers.”

Around me I am seeing those helpers. Yes, of course the people on the front lines of helping those who are in danger or suffering. But I’m also seeing how writers, artists, musicians, and so many other creators are helping.

They are creating. Sharing. And teaching others how to do the same.

Just this morning I saw artist Samantha Dion Baker launching #DrawYourDayKids to encourage parents and kids to use this time together to draw the world around them.

Too often, people treat creating and sharing like a fad diet. They are either on it or off it. They are either working on the novel or taking a break from it.

But creating and sharing can — and should — be the fabric of your life. A daily action.

Small acts of creativity allow you to grow as a person. To explore who you are and what you are capable of.

These creative moments allow those around you to experience the creative process simply by observing you. You may not notice this at first, but it may trigger something in them. As a parent of young kids, I can’t tell you how often I notice my wife work on art, and then a little while later, the kids mimic her and create their own.

More than all of this, when you create, it helps those that you share it with to experience something meaningful.

You don’t need to have a big plan or goal to create. You don’t need your own hashtag.

Every single creative micro-action helps. What is a micro-action? It is the simplest action you can take to move an idea forward.

Do you want to write an epic novel? Think of one character. Boom, you have started. You are now writing a novel, even before a single word hit the page.

As I look back on my week, I am considering the micro-actions I took to create and share:

  • I wrote my next book every single day.
  • I recorded and published a podcast episode.
  • I sent invitations to 5 people to invite them onto my podcast.
  • I played guitar every day.
  • I had 16 long phone calls with writers.
  • And I’m writing this very piece that you are reading now.

Each of these actions were small in the moment. But they add up. I also worked out almost every day of the past week, which is a great example for how health happens: one small workout at a time. Your ability to create and share happens the same way, one micro-action at a time.

Next week I will begin sharing a video series to help you take more micro-actions to create, share, and grow. They are free and I’m going to be posting them on all of my channels so that they are as accessible to you as possible. To be a part of it, simply follow me on your social network of choice:

Instagram: @DanBlank
Twitter: @DanBlank
Facebook

Thank you so much.
-Dan

The durability of a book

Books last.

In an era when so much seems ephemeral, swept away by trends or news of the moment, there is something about a book that endures.

Three years ago this past week, I published my first book. One of the most striking things I’ve experienced with the book is its durability. Nearly every week, I hear from people who just purchased it, read it, recommended it to a friend, or even just re-read it! Writers I speak with reference it in small ways in conversations I have with them. It’s just incredible.

Dan Blank

Here is this thing I created three years ago, and it just keeps going. It just keeps helping people.

This is why books are amazing. Magical, really.

When I wrote Be the Gateway felt like a small book in my mind, 170s pages sharing a single concept around what it means to create and share your creative work. That sense of smallness of it was part of why I published it. You see, I had been working for months and months and months on a different book that I had big expectations around. It kept getting longer and more complicated. In truth, I became crushed under the weight of it.

Amidst this, the idea for Be the Gateway came up, and when I shared the concept with writers, they loved it. I decided to create a little book around the concept, and set my expectations ridiculously low. I would give myself 30 days to write the first draft, and then publish it within 6 months (after much editing!) This was meant to be a small book not to limit its potential, but to ensure I could get it done and into readers’ hands.

That smallness allowed me to consider the exact message I wanted to share. The specific thing I was helping with. The ideal reader. My clarity made it all so much easier.

As I read reviews of the book that people have posted on Goodreads and Amazon, I can still hardly believe it:

“Be The Gateway gives us a new way of looking at marketing our creative work.”

“I not only ordered a print copy for myself, but also one for a friend. I’d give away a truckload, if I could.”

“To my mind this book is a must read for budding, debut and established authors, as well as every other creative out there.”

“This book changed me.”

(If you have read Be the Gateway, it would mean a lot to me if you could post a review of it on Amazon.)

That other book — the one that I was crushed under the weight of? I’ve been working on it, and am preparing for a Fall 2020 publication. In terms of scope, it is physically bigger (80,000 words right now), and I view it as a sequel to Be the Gateway. All of the advice in the book comes from the practical application of its ideas with my clients, mastermind group, podcast, and my total and utter obsession with the topic of how we can create and share our work in a meaningful manner.

The book is called Share Like It Matters.

This is the work that we do each day. We create like it matters. And for that work to be complete, it needs to have a meaningful connection with another human being.

I have the absolute joy of spending every day with writers and creators who do this. If you are reading this, I absolutely assume that is the work you do as well. So I’ll say this:

Thank you for what you create. Thank you for your unique creative vision. Thank you for trying to brighten someone’s day with what you create.

And thank you for all of the support you have given me over the years. It means so much to me.
-Dan

Surround yourself with writers (and readers)

So many writers struggle to stay motivated to write, to navigate the publishing process, and find an effective way to market and share their writing. Today I want to talk about a compelling solution to these challenges:

Surround yourself with writers. Oh, and readers too.

I’ll explore how you can do this, even if you work long hours at a day job, even if you don’t know of a single other writer living within 100 miles of your home. Even if no one you know seems to read many books, and certainly not in the genre or topic you write about.

What is the value of doing this? I think it’s huge:

  1. You will be more likely to establish — and keep — a solid writing habit. Writing will become infused in your life.
  2. You will learn how to share your work in a meaningful and effective manner.
  3. You will encourage word-of-mouth marketing with people who truly care about what you write.

Let’s dig in…

Surround Yourself With Creators

The other day, I was listening to a successful producer and musician explore the question of whether other musicians should move to Nashville. One of the points he made is that when you surround yourself with other serious musicians, you level up your playing and expand your network.

He described how you will end up in a conversation with someone who you have no idea is wildly successful or even famous. Those chance meetings may lead to friendships and professional opportunities. At the very least, it means you are learning from those who are far ahead of you. You get to be among them, and you just don’t know where that kind of access can lead.

It reminded me of the feeling I get when I’m in Manhattan. The moment I step off the train, I can feel the energy of people striving to create. This is one of the reasons why artists, writers, and creators move to New York City. I was thinking about all of the performers I have seen just walking around on the streets of New York City when I used to work there. These are people I saw randomly on the street or in an everyday situation mixed in with the crowd:

  • Sting walking with a guitar case on his back
  • Emma Watson standing outside a restaurant waiting for a friend
  • Adam Yauch kissing his wife and daughter goodbye, then skateboarding away
  • Ric Ocasek walking past a restaurant I was eating in
  • David Byrne riding a bicycle right in front of me
  • Christian Bale walking out of a hotel

While these are fun highlights, the real people I was surrounded with were working writers, artists, designers, editors, people who are obsessed with creating and sharing. Every cafe, every event, every meetup would be filled with people who were immersed in the creative process.

Imagine what that would feel like in your life, if you were surrounded by people who write. Who are always thinking about stories and books and reading. What would that experience be like?

Immerse Yourself With the Creative Process

When you surround yourself with people who write, you immerse yourself with the creative process. These are positive role models, those who in subtle ways validate the idea that you have permission to create. That making your writing is a priority. That ensure the creative process is a daily practice that must be attended to. That, even though it may be difficult, you keep at it.

When you only surround yourself with people who have said “yes” to their creative dreams, it encourages you to double-down on your own.

In doing so, you will be able to observe what works for other writers. How they find the time and energy to create. The methods by which they share their work. You may get a clearer understanding of how multifaceted the life of a writer may be. There is no one “right way” to do it, and truly seeing that may allow you to more easily find the writing life that works best for you.

Immersing yourself in the creative process of others also allows you to see what they struggle with. That may quiet any anxieties that you may have about your own creative process. You will realize that you are not alone in these struggles. When you surround yourself with others, you learn that this is difficult for everyone. I mean, imagine feeling totally comfortable with how you create and share your writing.

Of course, in situations like this, you would be doing more than just observing. You would be interacting. If you are an introvert like me, those interactions can be slow, perhaps you focus more on 1:1 conversations than big group engagements. But imagine if every week you had a conversation with writer or reader in your genre or topic. Or 5 conversations. Or 10. What could you learn in that process. How would that help you feel fulfilled as a writer — someone who is immersed in a community of people who celebrate the type of work you do?

Frequency matters here. I think there is a difference between going to a monthly meetup with writers vs engaging with other writers every day. You observe different things, and you are able to form a different kind of professional relationship.

How to Surround Yourself With Writers and Readers

I’m going to assume that your life is super busy with important responsibilities, so you don’t have the time or even the access to physically surround yourself with writers and readers. Maybe you don’t live in a region where you have a thriving writing or arts community, there are zero local meetup groups for writers, few arts organizations, and almost no bookstores or other places to meet writers and readers.

What to do?

This (or your own unique version of it):

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

None of this requires you to leave the house. None of this requires you to have amazing credentials. None of this self-promotion. It is all creating experiences to surround yourself with writers and readers who love the same kinds of things you do.

Are you wondering how any of this connects back to effective marketing for your writing? Well, I can tell you that I have met a lot of successful writers. And every single one of them had a thriving network of people who create. They did not write and publish and share in a vacuum. They were a part of an ecosystem of people who love this work.

That creates word-of-mouth marketing. It creates a fulfilling experience of how you share your work. And it creates the possibility for luck to happen in the process.

This begins with you reaching out. With finding a small but meaningful way to establish connections to other writers and readers. This is a first step. When you invest in a connection to other people, you are investing in a fulfilling experience.

Plus, it’s fun!

Thanks.
-Dan