Your Writing + Readers = Magic

Today I want to share a case study on “going viral,” and consider the deeper value beyond the big numbers. What is viral? When something you share seems to take on a life of its own, reaching more and more people. Sometimes that is because a social media algorithm “chose” it to be shared with a lot of people. Other times someone who has a large audience shares it. Often, these things can play off each other, an algorithing triggering an influencer to share it or vice versa.

Now, a lot of people think, “Hey, I would love to go viral, but it’s luck, right?” Yes. And no.

One thing I want to focus on are specific things that each of us can do to encourage this luck to happen. But here is the key: to have a meaningful experience with your writing and readers along the way. Too much marketing advice out there focuses on tactics that people don’t find joy in, but they do it because they hope for some great reward. I think all of this can happen while also giving you a sense of deep personal fulfillment.

I’ve often said that while it there is tremendous value in the creative process itself, I find that magic happens when something you write mixes with the mindset and life experience of a reader. Something new is created, a combination of the intention in your writing, and the way a reader receives it. In this moment, writing changes our lives for the better. That is the power your writing has. Okay, let’s dig in to today’s case study…

I Went Viral on Substack

About a week ago, I shared a Note on Substack, and it went viral, with 3,159 likes, 304 shares, and 155 comments:
Dan Blank on Substack
In some ways, this is ironic, because what I wrote about in the Note, and what I write about often, is to focus less on the numbers and more on each individual connection with readers. But then, that personal connection to readers is what this experience has been about for me. Let me explain…

Like many people, it’s easy for me to be enamored with the idea of reaching a lot of people. So when I see those numbers, it’s a shock. I have sent out this newsletter every week for close to 19 years. That is nearly 1,000 weeks in a row of showing up, writing what I am passionate about, clicking ‘publish,’ and repeating.

Over the years, I have been incredibly fortunate to have developed a wonderful community of readers. Every single reaction I’ve ever received about my writing has felt special to me.

Yet, there have been plenty of weeks that something I was certain would resonate with people landed with total silence. No emails back, no comments, no reaction on social media. Now, this of course, is totally fine! I get deep value in writing itself, and I don’t feel that anyone is obligated to reply.

So when I opened Substack at 4:55am last Friday, a notification of 77 alerts jumped out at me. I instantly took a screenshot, because I was thinking, “Um, what is happening here?” Usually there are maybe a few alerts in the morning.

Substack alert

At that time, the Note from above had 741 likes, 96 shares, and 54 replies. Each day, it kept growing. Here is a little chart of the growth of Likes over the course of a week:

  • March 22: 741
  • March 23: 1,778
  • March 24: 2,271
  • March 25: 2,581
  • March 26: 2,851
  • March 27: 3,016
  • March 28: 3,155
  • March 29: 3,291

It just kept reaching more people. These numbers are an order of magnitude bigger than what I’m used to for a Note.

Yet, my experience this week has not been about numbers at all, but instead about meaningful connections with real people. Each day, I would spend time reading every comment, replying to each of them, and in many instances, looking at the profiles/Publications of the people who commented. This was a deep gift provided to me, to connect with those who not only resonate with what I write, but who create and share as well. Here is an example from another Note I shared:

Substack comments

In many instances, what I reply back is simple “Thank you!” But one thing I try to always do is include the person’s name. I do this to help people feel seen. I think there is a big difference in hearing, “Thank you, Dan” versus just “Thank you.” Both are wonderful, but in a busy world, including someone’s name helps them feel seen and appreciated. And I deeply believe this:

Helping someone feel seen and heard is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.

Throughout the week, I would sometimes say people’s names aloud as I typed them. This wasn’t a week filled with numbers, it was filled with people:

  • Ruth
  • Praneth
  • Patrizia
  • Jasjit
  • Faye
  • Kristi
  • Chanél
  • David
  • Zipporah
  • Rebecca
  • Temitope
  • River
  • Istiaq
  • Nina
  • … and so many others

I always appreciate when someone has a profile photo, because it allows me to see their lives a bit more. To consider that this person — who is incredibly busy — paused to take the time with me today.

Some people said that my Note encouraged them to keep writing, or publish what they write, or to shift their mindset in some way. These are moments that truly matter in our lives. For me, this week has mostly been about awe — just feeling so fortunate to be connect with writers and readers.

I would imagine there may be someone out there reading this thinking, “I can’t spend my whole day chit chatting with people, my writing needs to support me and my family. Did ‘going viral’ have any other impact in terms of growth?”

So let’s talk about metrics. The one that most people on Substack would want to know about is, “Was this just a feel-good moment for you, or did you actually gain new subscribers?” I did, actually.

From March 20th to 27th I gained 447 new subscribers. As comparison, that same week last month, I gained 104 new subscribers. This is what that moment of conversion from being unaware of me, to becoming a subscriber looked like for one person:

Substack subscriber

But that isn’t the only thing I did this week or that could have impacted my subscriber growth. I posted another essay last Friday (“What artists in their 90s are teaching me”), a new video for paid subscribers on Tuesday (“An introverted writer’s guide to sharing) and a new Note each weekday. Also, the wonderful Jennie Nash mentioned me in a recent post. Plus, years of sharing and engaging with writers would have potentially brought someone to my work on a random Tuesday afternoon this week.

Oh, and something that isn’t talked about as much is that every week people unsubscribe! Every single time I click “publish” on a new post, I see a dip in my subscriber count because for some people, they realize, “It turns out, what Dan shares isn’t exactly what I need right now.”

So when a person subscribes, this is the start of a journey with that reader. Someone who subscribes to me from a single short Note is not yet familiar with what I write about each week. It may not be a perfect fit for them. When I click “publish” on this very essay, I know that people will unsubscribe. That is normal, and I (of course) honor each person’s decision about where they put their attention.

Every day, I work with writers helping them develop their platforms, connect with their readers, share what they create, and launch their books. One important aspect for many creators is the moment of “conversion,” which is a marketing and sales term to describe when someone who is aware of your work becomes an actual customer. They pay for your Substack, they buy your book, etc. So in the context of “going viral,” we should also talk about conversion rates.

Earlier this month I was talking with my wife about art in our kitchen, which is super common for us. She’s an artist, and we must have been talking about Instagram because I had the app open on my phone. Then, a video popped up and and I was intrigued. The caption said, “day 4 of showing my art until I find my people.” Since my days are spent helping creators do this, I was curious. But then I saw that her video has been liked by 221,174 people (a huge number!), including someone I know.

Sunlit Sketches

From what I can tell, she is a university student in Australia, and this series of videos that she started went viral for her. You can see her Instagram here. When I first clicked on her profile, she had 23,900 followers, but I could tell that she likely had much fewer — maybe hundreds not thousands — only a few short weeks ago.

I checked in on what she shared throughout this month, in order to include in this case study. Each day, her number of followers jumped:

  • March 17: 23,900
  • March 19: 28,600
  • March 20: 30,100
  • March 21: 31,300
  • March 22: 32,800
  • March 23: 34,213
  • March 25: 36,759
  • March 26: 37,681
  • March 27: 38,155
  • March 28: 38,589
  • March 29: 38,711

On March 24th, she opened her Etsy store to be able to sell stickers and prints of her artwork to her newfound fans. With nearly 40,000 followers, how many of her $2.50 stickers and $5.75 prints do you think she has sold in five full days?

Six items total. Is that more than you thought? Less?

Likewise, Etsy is a major marketplace where people purchase art and prints from creators. How many people do you think became followers of her shop on Etsy (they call it “Admirers”)? 25.

Since she is in Australia, I wanted to make sure that she did indeed ship overseas and that the cost wasn’t prohibitive, in case that was keeping people from buying. I put 7 items in the basket, totaling $42 Australian dollars, and the total shipping cost to me in New Jersey was $14.50 AU. That was less than I expected, and when I converted to US dollars, it was $36.50 total including shipping.

Which is to say making people aware of your work takes time, and developing a meaningful enough relationship to where they want to support you financially takes time as well. This is nothing new. It was difficult in the 1940s, difficult in the 1970s, and difficult today.

If you are a writer hoping to raise awareness of what you create, don’t be discouraged if it takes time for people to subscribe, to become paid subscribers, or to purchase your books. How you share is a craft, how you connect with readers is a relationship built on trust. All of this takes time.

What can you do to help encourage this process? How can you help people become aware of your work? Some ideas:

  • Create. This is always the first step. And I will say this, I have spoken to many writers who desperately want to grow their audience of readers, but who haven’t written in months. I don’t say this to judge them, but to encourage you to infuse writing and creating as a part of your daily life.
  • Share frequently. Show up in the channels that your ideal readers may be. For me, that has been Substack. For the artist mentioned above, that is Instagram. And she did the difficult thing: creating Reels, which are those vertical videos that Instagram really wants to promote. I’m sure that wasn’t easy for her, which is probably why she started that daily challenge to share her artwork. How you define “frequently” is up to you. For myself, I share this weekly newsletter, a weekly video for my paid subscribers, and a short Note on Substack (and sometimes other social media) five days a week. That is the right balance for me.
  • Show up as a real person and connect with people through emotions. You are unique in this world, and who you are and what you experience can be shared. Set the boundaries you need to with this, of course. But if you look at everything I shared above, all of this is about things I was experiencing or thinking about this month. It all began with curiosity and observation. Celebrate what feels authentic to you, because that is what will engage your readers.

Please let me know in the comments: what is one action you can take in the next week to share what you create? I would love to hear about what you are creating or what you are observing in that process. These are the seeds of what will engage your readers!

For my paid subscribers this week, I shared a 19-minute video on “An introverted writer’s guide to sharing.You can see a preview and become a paid subscriber here.

Thank you for being here with me.


What artists in their 90s are teaching me

There always seems to be much discussion about what “the younger generation is doing online,” and how some new viral trend on TikTok is something that “you can’t ignore.” But recently I became obsessed with something else: what we can learn from artists in their 90s. Today I want to share a series of profiles that absolutely stopped me in my tracks, gave me goosebumps, and inspired me to no end.

And the lessons I’ve been taking from this are:

  1. You never have to stop creating. Or rather, it is your choice if/when you stop creating.
  2. You will grow and change as a human being, and your writing and art can grow and evolve with you.
  3. You will never run out of ideas.
  4. Your process can — and should — be unique to you.
  5. Being outside of trends can be the most valuable thing you can do to create a unique body of work.
  6. Being part of a creative community can feel rewarding and be a great support system.

If you are someone who wondered, “Is it too late for me as a writer?” or “Does my work matter?” or “Should I keep creating?” I beg of you to keep reading… I hope you will be as inspired as I was by these artists.

Okay, let’s dig in to today’s topic. Everything I share came from video on each artist, which are linked below…

Will Barnet

Will Barnet at age 99

“At 99, Will Barnet is still very much a working artist,” according to a video taken when Will still had a routine of painting every single day. It was fascinating to hear what he did in the 1920s, the 1940s, and other decades. So often, I find that as a writer or creator, we can feel that it is too late — that we missed the boat. How amazing is it to consider that at age 69, Will still had more than three decades ahead of him of painting every day?

He describes the ethos he and his friends had becoming artists during the Great Depression: “You were doing your art, but you didn’t expect to sell or make money. Art was a form of deep commitment and passion.”

This always feels like the first thing to never forget — that even as we hope our work reaches readers and gets shared, that we do this work first because we believe in the power of creating. The creative act itself, is enough. We are better people for it.

And for those of you worried about what artificial intelligence will do to writing and art, I love how Will’s beliefs speak to this, although unintentionally:

“Being around a long time now and seeing every… school [of art] their is… I just feel that there is nothing better than the human touch. When you look at the work of all the great painters, there is a sense of humanity in it. You can live 500 more years and still enjoy them, I would never lose interest.” [Source]

Dorothea Rockburne

Dorothea Rockburne at age 91

Dorothea Rockburne talks about growing up before World War II and being a sickly child, and how at that young age it taught her to appreciate every day of being alive. Seeing her in her amazing studio, actively creating, shows the fruits of that idea.

She describes being in art class at age 13, and her teacher and fellow students appreciating her painting. She says, “I thought to myself, why does nature do it better? I spent the rest of my life trying to find out.” It’s amazing to me how such a simple question can keep someone curious and creating for so many decades, and likely still feel they are only on the cusp of understanding. That is the beauty of why we create.

It’s incredible to consider that she has worked out of the same 6,200 square foot loft in New York City since 1973. That is the year I was born, which means that every day of my life, she has been there creating. And she isn’t done yet.

Dorothea describes her daily process: “There is a transformation which happens when I begin to work… it makes me feel that my art is a part of the universe. I have to paint. It is like breathing. No paint, no life.” [Source]

Carmen Cicero

Carmen Cicero at age 96

My mom grew up in the Lower East Side of New York City. A few blocks away, 2 years before I was born, Carmen Cicero moved into his studio loft. He describes how different the neighborhood was then — no lights on the street, no traffic at night, and dangerous. Yet, full of characters.

He tells the story of how his friends literally dragged him to galleries to try to sell his work, because they believed in him so much.

As he looks through old photos of himself, he laughs saying that he wishes he was that age again. What age was he in the photos? My age. Your age. He dreams of what you and I have right now.

Carmen told the story of his art as being a part of the very first exhibition at the brand new Guggenheim museum in 1959, and how he met Joan Miró at the show. Joan would have been 66 at the time. The two corresponded via mail afterwards. I love to consider that connection between generations, and how art is the constant. [source]

Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin at age 86

I couldn’t find an interview of her in her 90s, but I was so fascinated by her process, I absolutely wanted to share this interview with her from when she was 86. The photo above illustrates her process… she will sit in a nearly empty studio and wait. Wait for the inspiration to come.

Evidently, a vision would appear to her of the final image she wanted to paint, but at a very small scale. So she would then do math to scale up the idea to the size of a large canvas.

People would question her, asking what her paintings were about, and she would explain, “From music, people accept pure emotion. But from art, they demand explanation.”

You don’t owe anyone an explanation about what you write and create, or why. Now, inherently my work everyday with writers is about connecting what we create to others. But Agnes’s words are a powerful reminder that we get to choose if we share, how we share, or when we share.

She talked about how early in her career, she was frustrated with the work she was creating, saying,“Every day, I painted, and I got closer and closer. It took me 20 years…”

These decades of experimentation lead her to the vision she dreamed of. Living up to our creative vision takes time, but the journey is worth it.

At age 86, she said, “I think of nothing but painting. And the older I get, the more I like to paint.” I love the idea of her being an artist in full bloom at this age and beyond. [source]

Etal Adnan

Etal Adnan at age 96

Etal Adnan describes the totality of how inspiration envelopes us, saying, “It’s more than shapes and color. It’s more than what you see. It is your total inner world… if you look attentively… inspiration is all around us, and it never ends. Even if painting the same subject.”
Her favorite subject to paint was a mountain she could see out of her window. She describes its hold on her: “They would ask me, who is the most important person you ever met? It was the mountain. I discovered that it’s never two minutes the same. You realize, that we are in constant change and turmoil. There is no total rest. Not only for us, but for the world. Nature is constantly changing like we do.”

I love this reminder that every aspect of what inspires you is infinite in what it can show you, and how that can translate to what you write and create. [source]

Wayne Thiebaud

Wayne Thiebaud at age 96

In my book Be the Gateway, I talked about how our work is like a gateway, and we can move on one side of it to connect with our readers, and the other side to welcome them into what we create. I am reminded of this when I hear Wayne Thiebaud describe what an artist is saying with their work:

“Painting is inert, but painters find a way to bring it to life. Alternate worlds and universes. Great works from imagination… this, for you, is my world to look at.”

He describes what it means to create professionally: “I knew that wasn’t a good career choice. Most of the painters I knew were just barely able to survive, and they had other jobs. I don’t believe in the idea of success. When we surrender ourselves to that, I think we have lost something special.”

And the moment he made his own decision to become an artist, saying to himself: “I want to become a painter. ‘How do I do that?’ I said. With extreme difficulty, and reality, and I probably won’t be able to make a living, but you can make a life. With a kind of calm and ineffableness.”

His reflections ignore what we so often talk about when we consider creating and sharing: “Will I get followers?” “Will I get likes?” That may come, but first, we welcome in what inspiration and creativity provides. [source]

So often, our culture looks to the young to define priorities. All I can say is that these interviews with those who have been creating for decades filled my well with inspiration this week.

My goal in sharing these is not to pressure you to create without ever taking a break. Rather, it is that we are each filled with an unending source of ideas. And it is up to each of us if and how we choose to create and share in our lives.

Please let me know in the comments: is there a writer or artist whose career has given you wisdom that drives how you create, and how you appreciate the life of a writer or creator? Tell me about them and their wisdom.

And this week I shared a 23+ minute video for my paid subscribers where I let you look over my shoulder as I analyze how to get more engagement on Substack. The goal is to focus on meaningful interactions, not hollow data. You can become a paid subscriber and access the video here:

Dan Blank

Thank you for being here with me.


Every reader counts

I realized the other day that it was the 7-year anniversary of publishing my book, Be the Gateway. I posted a note about it on Instagram, and instantly had writers reply:

  • “My copy is full of sticky notes!”
  • “I was literally rereading it last night and appreciating it all over again. The “gateway” is such a helpful and clarifying metaphor.”
  • “I’m reading it for the second time. I’m picking up things I missed the first time around.”
  • “Gosh, I think it’s time to read it again!”

This was an incredible reminder to me: books are alive. They live on and find readers. And every single reader counts.

Be the Gateway by Dan Blank

So often online, we hear stories about growing one’s platform, and there is a focus on big numbers — how many followers or subscribers they have. Something I have been considering is this: there is no “audience.” There are only individuals. The perception we see of an “audience” is simply some data about those individuals collected onto a list. And that information is so thin compared to the depth of what it means when we consider each individual.

Each person receives your writing in a manner that is completely unique to them. Of course, half of this is what you create — the words you write and how you share it. But the other half is how the reader receives it. When someone reads what you write, they bring in their own perspective, experiences, goals, and challenges.

When your intention as a writer and the perspective of the reader meet, magic can happen.

It’s not uncommon for me to be talking to a writer about their newsletter, and them saying something like, “My newsletter is not really working, I only have 60 subscribers.”

When I hear this, I think back to when I managed a bookstore cafe back in the 1990s, where we held events each week such as poetry nights, author readings, bands, and other meetups for writers and artists. 6 people (10% of 60 people) showing up to an event really mattered. 20 people showing up was a pretty full room. 30 meant every seat was taken, and you couldn’t move around the room it was so crowded. 40 people meant they were flowing out the door.

We are still only 2/3 of the way to 60 people. Yet nowadays, it’s not uncommon for a writer to dismiss 60 people subscribing to their writing, citing it as a failure. But these are the people who appreciate what you write. Each of these readers matters. Even if you justify that 90% of this list are not really superfans of your work, what if 10% are? Those 6 people showing up means something. And much like that bookstore cafe in the 1990s, it begs the question, can those 6 people become 7? Then 8. Then, slowly, 20 people. And then, spilling out the door.

For a Substack newsletter, even if I send mine at a certain time, it may be opened and read by different people in different ways:

  • Dawn, 68 years old in Missoula, Montana opening it at 11am her time, and bringing her own lived experience, goals, things she is worried about, and the context of her day to how she reads it. She’s a memoir writer who has followed my work for years, and loves my message.
  • Catherine, 42 years old in Bath, UK, opening it at 7pm her time, reading it after a long day of work, helping to get her 2 kids ready for bed, dealing with a broken dryer, and getting ready to write for a 1/2 hour. She’s a first time novelist, and while she has subscribed for a few months, has only had time to read two of my messages, and is still getting to know what my writing is about and how it may align with her goals.
  • Robert, 54 years old in Tempe, Arizona, reading my email after reading seven other newsletters, while also listing to a podcast. He’s skeptical of marketing, feels he’s heard it all before, and got on my email list almost accidentally. He’s frustrated that is writing isn’t reaching more people, and tired of people telling him ideas he feels he thought of years ago. He prides himself on being a skeptic.

Each of these people is their own universe. Even though Substack will tell me the size of my “audience,” each individual receives it in their own unique way.

I’ve considered this when standing amidst 50,000 people, most of whom are singing along word for word with Bruce Springsteen on stage. Back in 2012, I sat on the pavement for 12 hours waiting to get into one of his concerts, with the goal of getting a spot close to the stage. Here is a moment when the entire audience is singing along to Bruce on stage:

Bruce Springsteen

Turning around, look at the size of this crowd:

Bruce Springsteen

Yes, we are each singing the same words. But to each of us, they mean something different. Songs about failed prospects, big dreams, lifelong loves, loss — each person has their own worldview and life experience in their minds. Without question, something is happening with all of these people together, but there is also something happening separately. Bruce himself explained this well in a 2012 New Yorker interview:

“We hope to send people out of the building we play in with a slightly more enhanced sense of what their options might be, emotionally, maybe communally. You empower them a little bit, they empower you. It’s all a battle against the futility and the existential loneliness. It may be that we are all huddled together around the fire and trying to fight off that sense of the inevitable. That’s what we do for one another.”

Your readers see themselves in what you write. I remember working with a memoir author years ago, and her describing how nearly every conversation she had with someone about her book, ended with that person in tears. Why? Even though her book was about the death of her mother, each reader saw their own experiences while reading it. They would tell her about the death of a loved one, and how her book helped them see it more clearly. She brought half, they brought half. And for each reader, that experience was unique.

Recently I was talking with artist Megan Carty, and we discussed how her paintings can have a personal connection with the person who purchases it. She shared how birds in particular seem to be powerful symbols for people, and how someone who sees one of her paintings with a bird in it may say:

“That cardinal is my grandmother.”

Even though Megan painted it with one intention, that person saw the bird in the imagery and was confident that it clearly represented her grandmother who had passed away. Here is a sampling of some of her bird paintings, as well as current works in progress:

Megan Carty art

Megan Carty art

Of course, critical in this conversation is to not focus as much on “how many” people show up, but instead on “how engaged” someone is. When the focus is put too much on numbers alone — more subscribers, more followers — we forget that engagement deeply matters. To have fewer truly engaged readers matters more to your writing than a lot of people who don’t really pay much attention to what you create.

Please let me know in the comments: can you remember one moment when someone appreciated what you write, create, or share? Yes, this can be a book you published, but it can also be something you shared on social media, or a conversation you had. Tell me anything about what you remember about that moment, and why it was special.

For my paid subscribers this week, I shared another behind the scenes tour of my studio, this time focusing on specific changes I’ve been making to make creating and sharing even easier. You can get a preview here, and become a paid subscriber if you like:

Dan Blank studio tour

Thank you for being here with me.


Honor and preserve what you create

Today is my birthday! As a gift to myself, I am allowing myself to talk about one of my favorite topics: creative maintenance! What’s that? Creative maintenance is how we preserve what we create, and develop simple systems that encourage us to create and share. We do this to protect the work we do, and honor our creative vision.

I obsess about this, but tend to resist writing about it for this reason: maintenance sounds boring. Like a chore. But I fear that every day, we put our writing and creative work at risk. We wrestle with distractions, we get caught in the same cycles that prevent momentum, and we don’t backup our work.

Having grown up as an artist and writer, with my days filled with unfiltered conversations with other writers and creators, I find that without creative maintenance, we risk so much:

  • Not knowing what to create
  • Not feeling we have the capacity or resources to create
  • Not knowing the path from idea to done
  • Not sharing what we create
  • Losing our work while creating
  • Losing our work after creating

Having worked with thousands of writers, I notice those whose work persists — who create and share consistently over time — attend to creative maintenance. Today I want to talk about exactly why that matters and how it is done.

Before we dive in, I’m excited to announce my next workshop for writers and creators: Find Your Next 100 Readers! Cultivate the Craft of Connection. Join me on March 22nd for a live workshop with Q&A. All who register receive a full video recording. $49 for access. Full information and registration here.

Okay, let’s dig into to today’s topic…

Preserve What You Create

This is one of my favorite collections of books and paperwork:

MGM Books

Yes, I have weird hobbies. So on the right side of the photo is a set of original auction catalogs from the 1970 MGM movie prop and memorabilia action. This is literally one of my favorite possessions. In the rest of the photo are my books on the history of MGM and the making of The Wizard of Oz. On top is one of my all-time favorite books, The Ruby Slippers of Oz, which recounts the long history of what happened to the movie props of the slippers from the movie.

Why am I writing about this? Because to me, this embodies what it means to maintain and preserve what you create. What can take years to create can be wiped away in an instant. 75% of the silent films ever made are lost to history. In 2008, a fire at Universal Studios destroyed more than 100,000 original recordings. But here is the story that I have obsessed about for years…

In 1969, someone bought the MGM movie studio, and decided to liquidate a lot of it. Their focus was more on leveraging the brand name for their ventures in Las Vegas. So the following year, MGM auctioned off its entire history of costumes and props. Warehouses of items including costumes from The Wizard of Oz, and countless other items worn by stars such as Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Susan Hayward, Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, and others in some of their most famous roles. Dorothy’s dress? $1,000. Cowardly Lion’s costume? $2,400. MGM also sold off their historic back lots, and flattened sets used in classic MGM films. That land is now filled with condos:

MGM Backlot

Here are some other images from the auction:

MGM Auction

MGM Auction

It took decades to create and collect these items, and a few days to scatter it all to the wind. Some of the famous costumes and props have later resurfaced, but many have never been seen again.

I am incredibly sentimental and love old things. I mean, just look at many of the objects in my studio:

Creative Tools

These items remind me of how we used to create and communicate. They are also stark reminders that to create and share takes time. Back then, even more so because of the limitations of the tools and mass communication at the time.

Years ago, you had to save up hundreds of dollars to record a video that didn’t even have sound, you couldn’t record more than 4 minutes at a time. Plus, you had no way to distribute it. On the typewriter, every typo would require you to dab on Wite-Out, wait for it to dry, then correct it. I have to imagine that a significant portion of my readers don’t even know what Wite-Out is! Yet it was such a big part of my childhood, with little bottles of it a staple on my dad’s desk, always being swiped by someone in the family in a writing emergency.

The tools we have at our disposal are always rudimentary compared to our imagination. If you are a writer, you are creating worlds and concocting inspiring ideas in your mind. Years ago, we would use a pen and paper or typewriter to capture what we created. Today, lots of writers are more likely for a writer to use a 6-year-old laptop with outdated software that hasn’t been backed up.

For what you create, I encourage you to preserve it. To consider the body of work you are developing slowly over time.

Creative Maintenance

I know you are busy and that to even find time to create each week feels like a huge accomplishment. And it is, yay for creating!

Here are some ways that I perform creative maintenance each week. Do you have to do them all? Nope! Do what makes sense. And forgive yourself when you fall out of the habit. With so much of maintenance, it is a constant ebb and flow of creating the habit, falling out of the habit, and then starting it again. That’s fine!

  • Establish a system. Any system — including the most basic — is great! For each of the items below, I tend to have a simple system each week that I repeat. I skip some weeks, because as I mentioned, life is busy. But when you have a system, you have something to fall back on. You aren’t constantly recreating the wheel.
  • Organize to-do’s. When I consider short term goals and medium-term goals, I like to get them all down on paper. Then, I break the larger goals down into their simplest possible steps. It’s common for me to use a spreadsheet for these tasks, because by its nature it allows me to break things down, and put in notes updating my progress. What I might start out thinking is a 10-step process, often turns into a 30-step process. Did I add 20 more items? No! Instead, I realized that “Step 3” can actually be accomplished through performing 3 smaller tasks. For instance, I have been doing a lot of technical maintenance to preserve my past writing, my website, and my client work. So I created a spreadsheet to get really specific about how I can attend to this work each day, without overwhelming myself. Each day the tasks seem tiny, almost insignificant. But over the course of a month, they really add up. And when life gets messy and I shelve the project, I now have a spreadsheet — and system — to return to.
  • Actively Manage the Day. I use a calendar to clearly define my days ahead of time. I have two young kids, a 100+ year old house that needs constant repairs, and run a small business that is the sole income for my family. This means I am the world’s luckiest human being, but also that there are 100 things that can derail my days. To ensure I do the work that matters most, I plan each day ahead of time, blocking out large chunks of time for my clients, my newsletter, and other critical tasks. Do these blocks of time move around a lot? Sure. But again, they give me a system to start from as a foundation.
  • Weekly cleanups. Every Friday, I ensure my computer desktop is clear, I go into Dropbox where I manage my files and ensure it is organized, I make sure my email inbox is empty, and I clean my studio. Too often, we try to squeeze all of this cleanup into the 10 minutes before we leave the office on a Friday, which isn’t really fair; this work takes time. These weekly cleanups allow me to feel a sense of accomplishment and refreshed for the next week. Do I skip some weeks?Absolutely. Do I always organize everything perfectly? No way! But I attend to this as best I can, and over time, that is more than enough.
  • Create backups. I have multiple redundant backups of my writing and work files. Some are obvious like using a backup system that comes with my computer. But as an anxious person, I begin thinking of scenarios like hacking and fires, and create multiple redundant backups in different locations. I also consider the importance of hardware backups. If my computer died today, how would I not only access my files, but perform my work? So I have redundant backups of almost all of my work hardware. Is that overkill? Maybe. But if my camera dies just before doing a live workshop, I like knowing that I can replace it — or any part in my system — in moments. Or if the power goes out at my studio, that I can be up and running again at my home office within 15 minutes.
  • Actively manage inputs. So many writers I speak with are downing in, and overwhelmed by, email and similar inputs in their lives. I find that we tend to prioritize these channels because often someone is waiting for something from you. So our creative goals get put on the back burner. I encourage you to not treat your inbox as a to-do list. Instead, I move tasks from email to another system (see spreadsheets and calendars above!) so that my inbox is always clear. This also allows me to communicate quickly with anyone who emails me, even if that reply back to them is, ‘I will get back to you on this within 72 hours.’ I find that good communication is a craft, and one that helps us each feel heard and connected. So quick replies matter to me.
  • Set and honor boundaries. I keep saying this, but it bears repeating: I know you are busy! To the best of my ability, I try to set boundaries and keep them. For instance, I may schedule time to read the newsletters I subscribe to, instead of allowing myself to be constantly distracted when a new one is published. Or I may not check or answer email after 4:30pm because that is family time. Boundaries are a way of attending to mental health, and focusing your attention on what matters most to you in a moment. I encourage you to set boundaries that feel right to you.

So many writers worry that their newsletter or book doesn’t matter, or that their voice doesn’t matter. It does. And we preserve these things because they matter. You are unique in this world, and how you share your ideas, perspectives, and experiences with others creates a richness in how we understand who we are.I simply encourage you to honor your creative vision through creative maintenance.

Let me know in the comments: how do you attend to creative maintenance? What has worked for you? What challenges get in the way?

And please consider joining me for my next workshop: Find Your Next 100 Readers! Cultivate the Craft of Connection. Join me on March 22nd for a live workshop with Q&A. All who register receive a full video recording. $49 for access. Full information and registration here.

And here is a link to the video I create for my paid subscribers this week: What do you want people to feel? Content doesn’t matter. Human connection does.


Writer regrets (and how to avoid them)

The other day I shared a 16 minute video for my paid subscribers called “Creative Success Often Feels Like Failure.” It explored how oftentimes we will reach a creative milestone or goal, only to feel a sense of emptiness and being let down. I talked about why that is, and shared specific strategies to reframe how we think about success in order to feel a sense of satisfaction, momentum, and meaning in how you create and share.

In the comments, readers shared their own stories around this, and one really jumped out at me, and I want to explore what she said today.

In 2017, Maria Maggio Fisher published her first novel, The Summoned Guest. She describes how fulfilling the process was of writing and completing this book:

“How I felt upon completion DID surprise me. It felt like I was meant to write in a way that even having a meaningful career never felt for me. When readers contacted me or local book clubs read my book and invited me – I felt a deep sense of satisfaction and alignment with not only the readers (which was great) but my life’s work or purpose.”

That’s such a huge moment in life! She underscores how important our creative work is to who we are.

In my video, I talked about “lottery ticket thinking,” which is the concept of hoping that a small action on our part will lead to outsized results. With a lottery ticket, we spend a buck or two, choose random numbers, and hope for the chance of receiving millions of dollars in return.

Maria then described the other side of her experience of how she shared her book with the world:

“In writing my novel, which I found very fulfilling, I put in lots of hard work No lottery thinking. But I didn’t allow the final product and launch the respect of this same hard work. Here I had lottery thinking. This came about partly by having followed stories, like you mentioned, of the “overnight” big successes of some self-published authors. Partly I had limited energy leftover from working in my career and was impatient to turn the page on my first novel, which had been a 3 year passion project.”

“You can guess how little traction my novel got by the way I went about publishing it. I felt very disappointed in how quickly things quieted. I felt regret that I didn’t get any pro help (team) for editing or launching. At the time I thought this could never be undone. I was surprised how disappointed I was in myself and the self doubt that followed..Had to get honest with myself about the mistakes I made that contributed to the results. But also be proud of what I did accomplish, all I learned, there was much good.”

“Eventually I admitted to what failed, let go of the first novel success dreams and moved forward. Knowing I was a writer. Not just someone who wanted to write, which I had been for years.”

Of course, I love the wisdom she shares, celebrating what she accomplished here. But she touches upon other concepts I want to explore today about how we share our work, and the possible regrets that a writer may feel in the process.

The Pressure of Sharing

There is risk in writing. And there is risk in sharing. I encourage you to embrace these both.

It is so difficult to share what you write, whether that is in a book launch, or publishing a newsletter. For many writers, they did the brave act of giving themselves permission to create, but when confronted with the idea of sharing, they demure.

They may hesitate to take action, playing narratives over and over in their mind, which prevent them from sharing:

  • “I wrote it, isn’t it someone else’s job to promote it?”
  • “I mean, who’s to say if what I wrote is even any good. If it’s good, people will find it. Great work rises to the top.”
  • “Besides, it will look desperate if people see me promoting my own work.”

But I have found that something magical can happen when we share our work. We learn how to find that connective tissue between why we write, and how to talk about it. We find unexpected connections in how people receive it, and how it inspires them.

For a book launch, it is often accompanied by massive expectations because most writers spend years on the journey to create a book. They want to feel it was “worth it” in some way that is apparent in the world.

So many people tell me they work with me because they want to feel they gave their book their best possible chance. They want to be intentional and strategic, and make the process fun and meaningful. However you choose to share wha you create, I want you to honor the actions you take, and let go of the potential guilt of what you can’t do. This should be a process infused with joy and fulfillment.

Time and time again I have heard people express regret that they didn’t try. In some cases, they offloaded their expectations to others, and hoped that somehow “the marketplace” would work some kind of magic to connect the book with readers.

I believe that each of us has a unique creative voice. I grew up as an artist, and can think of thousands of conversations I have been a part of with those who create — where they talk about their work not out of some self-promotion, but because they love talking about what inspires them.

I encourage you to be intentional about what you create, and to celebrate these actions. This isn’t something you are obligated to do. Instead, it is something you have the opportunity to do. To have a life filled with conversations and connections around the themes and craft that inspire you.

One way to solve for this? Normalize the idea of talking about what you create. There are two ways of doing that:

  • Practice talking about what inspires you and why you create, in the context of your everyday life. I help writers do this all the time, finding the exact language. This process creates a gateway into your creative world, a “way in” for those around you. What is a simple example? Maybe I see a neighbor at a local cafe on a Monday morning and they ask, “Hey Dan, how was your weekend?” And I reply, “Good! Went to New York City with my oldest, and spent a few hours on Sunday working on an essay about how writers can navigate creative expectations — and regrets.”
  • I encourage you to develop connections with colleagues. Creative work often starts alone, but as it develops I find it always benefits from having others in your creative circle. Those who create as you do, who you can hear about their experience sharing their work, who you can ask questions to, and who makes you feel less alone as a writer. Having colleagues normalizes the idea that we are allowed to talk bout what we create, the creative process, and what inspires us.

I don’t want you to regret that your work didn’t reach readers simply because you never made a strong effort to share it. The good news is that you get to define what that looks like, where you dive in, where you set clear boundaries, and how it connects to why you write.

Overwhelmed by Too Much Information

The internet has given writers access to so much information about things they could possibly be doing to share their writing. In many ways, this is amazing, the gift of knowledge.

However, there is a downside to it, where a writer can find themselves drowning in information. They compile lists of hundreds of potential ways to share their work, and end up feeling that they can’t get to it all, and that no matter what they choose, they will regret having not tried a different tactic.

Likewise, information gathering, research and analysis can be a great way to prevent action. I see this all the time, the person who refuses to talk about their writing because they want to wait for their website to be ready… six months from now. Or because they feel there is one perfect way to launch a book, and they are still figuring out what that is, so they delay talking about their writing until book launch is upon them.

How to solve for this? Take small simple actions. Experiment! Then, repeat.

This sounds scary, right? When I work with a writer, we find this balance between a clear and concise plan, but also ensuring that the process feels infused with authenticity, meaning, and joy. No one can predict success, so we embark on a discovery process to identify what feels right, and we adjust along the way.

What I find is that this removes the pressure and regret people often feel. Having a plan can make you feel prepared, and it can also give you clear direction. The consistency of taking small meaningful actions teaches you so much not only about what works, but what feels right to you.

This isn’t always about identifying the “best practices and maximizing ROI.” Instead, it is about identifying a process that makes you feel great about being a writer, and how you connect with readers.

I have this quote hanging on the wall of my studio next to a photo of Fred Rogers (from the TV show, Mister Rogers):

“I am very concerned that our society is much more interested in information than wonder. In noise rather than silence… How do we encourage reflection?… Oh my this is a noisy world.”

Fred Rogers

While we can’t always control the world at large, I feel we can control how we approach our own craft in writing and sharing. We can get clarity on specific actions to take, and encourage an ethos that fills you up, instead of overwhelms you.

No One Knows What Works

I read this post the other day from Kate McKean and it resonated:

“When writers ask about the market, especially writers newer to the scene, they think editors and agents have some kind of specialized knowledge to analyze and synthesize what we see in market trends to avoid the dips, to stay afloat, to come out the other end unscathed. And we do not! I mean, we have experience. We know what happened last time and what maybe worked or didn’t work. But very little of that can be extrapolated to predict future trends or outcomes. We can try! We can look back at the cycle paranormal romance took in the 2010s and see how long it’s taken to come back as romantacy and that might help you figure out if you should write that romance about weregophers this year or next. But that doesn’t mean I can definitely sell a romance, or your romance about weregophers. The market is going to do what the market is going to do, and we only know anything in hindsight.”

I have shared a few posts in the past using the phrase: “No one knows what works, but doing stuff works.” This is wisdom that Jennie Nash and I repeat to each other often:

I tried to fill those posts with useful examples that embrace this idea. To me, this concept is meant to be freeing. That if no one can promise success, then it should encourage you to make the best effort you can, to have fun in the process, and to be satisfied with what you learn along the way.

It is meant to prevent the regret people feel of “doing the wrong thing,” or the disappointment they feel in things outside of their control, such as “the market.”

I spend so much time researching people’s experiences in how they create and share, and I look across creative fields. I want to end with two stories that I have been thinking a lot about in the past month:

  • Actor Kumail Nanjiani was reflecting on the trauma he felt when the movie he had high hopes for (Eternals) ended up not performing as expected. He concluded: “I realized, I can’t be so results based in my work anymore, because I can’t really control it. I can control my experience, I can control how I am with the people around me, I can control what I learn from it, I can control how I work. But I can’t control what people will think of it.”
  • Dee Snider of the band Twisted Sister, talked about his life after his success waned. He had huge success in the mid-1980s, and says, “By the early 1990s, I was broke… I remember in 1991, riding a bicycle to a desk job answering phones in an office for a couple hundred dollars a week… No one would believe that the guy from MTV would be sitting here at a desk answering the phone. But it was the best thing that ever happened to me… It made me start over. This time around I was more appreciative and respectful of people around me and what it takes. [To appreciate] the delicacy of success… I went into radio, movies, acting, and voice over work. I did well in these things.” Why did this resonate with me? Because again, it makes this point that there are always things outside of your control. But you get to focus on the craft of how you create, how you share, and how you connect with others.

Let me know in the comments: do you have regrets in how you have shared what you create? Or, to ask the opposite way: what are the regrets you desperately want to avoid!

Thank you for being here with me.