“Realist shit I ever read: ‘People pray for the cake. Then God gives them the batter, eggs, oil, icing, a pan, an oven, they get frustrated and leave the kitchen.’ Let that sink. Sometimes you have everything in front of you, but how bad do you want it?” – courtesy of The Female Hustlers (via @TheFemaleHustlers on Instagram).
Excuses are so easy to make, aren’t they? Even when opportunities present themselves, we’ll find a way to give up lest we fail. It’s easier not to try something because failing is hard.
Since January of this year, I’ve tried hard to push myself to overcome my fear of trying something new or reaching out to a big-name prospective client or editor because I may not be a good fit. Some months are better than others. And one media outlet (you likely know which one) makes me nervous to pitch because I feel like I have to read every single issue over the past 12 months to *really* have a good handle on what and whom to pitch. Again, dumb. I know I can do it but I’ve already pitched twice and gotten two rejections from two different editors. But here’s the kicker: both responded. One liked my story idea (the other thought it was fun and funny but wasn’t sure it’d be a good fit for his larger readership). I know I can do it. Still, I’ve not pitched anyone at this outlet since January. I need to overcome this fear and get another pitch out there. Sooner than later.
Until then, I’ve explored other things I’ve been wanting to try. Today, I made my very first journal – from scratch! The process couldn’t have been lovelier, from the moment Bari Zaki responded to my email asking about upcoming courses, to her scheduling one around my calendar because I was so excited, to the actual class. Touching the Japanese paper that would become my journal shell, using my bone folder to create the creases, threading my journal using wax thread.
The whole experience was both meditative and stressful because I so wanted to do it right. In the end, under Bari’s careful and patient guidance, I created what I think is one of the most beautiful things I’ve made using my hands. I love it and while I don’t want to use it because I want to keep it and look at, I also want to use it because I want to journal in it. I’m hooked and I can’t wait to take a Coptic Stitch class with her next. If you’re in Chicago and have any interest in papers or journals, do yourself a favor and check out Bari Zaki Studio in Lincoln Square.
Balancing Noise, Silence, and the Novelty of The Light Phone
Finally, if you’ve been reading my blog posts every month, you know I’ve been intentionally trying to be more mindful of my space – physical, mental and emotional. I’ve been taking myself out to Artist Dates, meditating (167 days straight and still going strong!) and journaling daily, and reducing my screen time, especially around social media. I can’t shut off social media entirely since it’s part of the work I do, but I can control how much time I spend on it and I have been.
Cal Newport recommended a phone called The Light Phone in his latest book, Digital Minimalism. There is a wait list for the phone, so I added my name. It’s a $150 phone that makes calls. That’s it. For those of us who feel uncomfortable leaving our homes without the safety of our phones, this is one solution to leaving your smartphone behind yet still having access to your close family members or to whomever you need to stay connected.
The Need To Spend More Time With Friends And Being Silent
There are two things I’m experimenting with right now: trying to find a balance between spending more time with friends in real life and spending more time in silence. I’ve been pretty successful with the former, the latter…not so much. I’m trying. It’s shockingly hard (to me, anyway) to appreciate silence.
What new things have you tried since the beginning of this year? And any advice on how to enjoy the silence? I’m all ears (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it!).
This weekend, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion at one of my alma maters about becoming a communications consultant and entrepreneur and leaving a stable corporate job. When someone in the audience asked how to go about securing new business and focus your energy, I advised to focus on doing what you love because you’ll attract work you want to do. Following my answer, someone else in the audience said something to the effect that while the mantra of “doing what you love” is nice, she wanted to caution people that sometimes reality dictates the kind of work that comes your way.
What I heard is that doing what you love is bad career advice. I think she’s wrong.
To use another too-often used mantra: Life Is Short. So damn short. Why would we want to work on stuff we hate? Of course, we all have bills to pay and work we have to do that we don’t always love. I get that. And when I first began my business 12 years ago this month, I took on work for clients that I wondered whether we’d be a good fit. Some were, some weren’t. But every single one of those clients and editors taught me something – even if it was that I don’t love working on those types of projects and to steer away from them.
In the course of these twelve years, though, I also learned the kinds of clients and work I love doing and want to attract more – work that focuses on: art, architect and design (including landscape architecture and gardens and trees), environment and sustainability, food and food justice, health (especially mental health), travel and culture, and women’s and children’s rights. It’s a lot, right? I also really enjoy writing profiles and biographies, as well as features. I love interviewing people and learning their stories. I love telling their stories. I find research fun. This is why I love my work. I’ve written and/or worked on all of these topics in one way or another during the last 12 years.
Rather than take on work you don’t love, why not focus on attracting work you do love? And what better way to do that by doing what you love in the first place? Volunteer for organizations you feel strongly about and network within that space, attend conferences or read trade magazines in the topics you’re interested in, connect with people already working in companies that you might like to work with in the future and let them know you’re available if they need someone like you. The work may not come immediately and it could very well take years, but by constantly putting yourself out there and doing work you love, you’ll start to earn a reputation and that becomes your business card.
Recently, I was recently interviewed for Deliberate Freelancer, a new podcast by Melanie Padgett Powers on how to build a successful freelance business. During the podcast, Melanie asked me how I organize my day and stay on task. I’m a planner and I like to plan out my month in advance, then by week, then by day, then by hour and then by 15-minute increments.
Right now, I’m using an excel spreadsheet (you can view a template of it here) because I can drill down that deeply into my day. Similar to a Bullet Journal, what doesn’t get done on one day “migrates” to the next day (or gets saved for next month, depending on the project). The idea is that every project or work on this week-at-a-glance or specific day of the week has to work for its spot. Further, each day has a financial goal attached to it so that by week’s end, I’ll hit my financial goal. If I have a meeting out of the office that isn’t going to generate income (let’s say a networking event), that gets captured on one day but that means another day has to make up for this non-revenue-generating day.
I’m fascinated with how people plan their days and hit their revenue goals. This format works for me but I realize this can put some people over the edge because it’s so specific. They prefer to have more fluid schedules. That’s totally fine with me – but that approach doesn’t work for me. I’m deadline-driven and goal-oriented. If I don’t have a deadline, it won’t get done. If I don’t have a goal, it’s much harder to get motivated to complete something.
Embracing Creative Pursuits
Appreciating the need to give myself more space to be creative, I’ve been intentionally seeking and embracing more opportunities to welcome creativity and the arts into my life.
As the weather improves in Chicago (thank goodness, the rain this week notwithstanding), I’m so excited to get outdoors more. I’ve signed up for a bookbinding workshop at Bari Zaki (come join me!), booked ceramics classes through the Chicago Park District, and bought tickets to see a friend’s improv show with my girlfriends. My friend Katie inspired me to take up drawing (thanks, Katie!). I’ve visited a Chicago arts shop and bought some art supplies to try some new mixed media projects. I scheduled a baby goat yoga session (don’t judge - I’ve been wanting to do this for years!).
All this to say, I’m ready to play. I’m continuing my weekly Artist Dates, which have been truly a delight to plan and do every week. I’m seeing my friends in real life more regularly, which has been a joy. I’m experimenting with new work and clients, with some surprising results. I’m working out more regularly. It’s all good.
When I picked up Gail Sheehy’s book, Passages, Predictable Crises of Adult Life, at my neighborhood’s Little Free Library, I didn’t know what to expect. Reading the synopsis on the back of the book, I was intrigued. It almost sounded like the adult version of What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. While the book was written in 1976, only once I finished it and did some research on Sheehy and the book did I learn it was named one of the 10 most influential books of our times by the Library of Congress. I feel like I was a bit late to this party but I’m so glad I stumbled upon the book and gave it a chance. If you’ve not already read it, I highly recommend it. It’s a fascinating look at what types of experiences, or passages, we all experience at some point during each decade of our lives. Keep in mind, Sheehy wrote this book in the mid-1970s so many of the examples focus on the mores of the time.
After I read it, I wondered: who put it in our Little Free Library? What’s this neighbor of mine like? Do I know this neighbor?
This whole experience reminded me of Blockbuster Video and why I miss it. I miss stumbling upon films I might never have considered had I not read their description. Sometimes I’d ask complete strangers hanging out in the aisles, looking for their own evening entertainment, if they’d seen whatever movie I was considering and if they’d recommend it. Sure, you can read descriptions flipping through Netflix and Amazon Prime or whatever your streaming service preference, but often these are curated for you based on past viewing decisions.
That’s not to say I didn’t choose some bad films, but the whole experience of going to the video shop, perusing the selections, talking with others in the store, choosing one and watching it was still fun. It’s like the experience of going to an independent bookstore and reading the backs of books you’ve not heard of because they’re not on any sort of bestseller list but they’re still outstanding books. Or asking the bookshop owner for a recommendation based on a book you enjoyed.
I’m all for advancements and technology and all that. But I feel as though we’re losing some real tangible opportunities to strengthen our communities when businesses close their brick and mortar businesses for the more efficient and cost-effective online presence.
I miss my local Blockbuster Video and the opportunities to choose a movie based on a random person’s recommendation. At least I have our Little Free Libraries and the opportunity to chat up with neighbors about the books they’re dropping off and recommending.
Every now and then a friend will ask how they can break into freelance writing and quit their job. Or the person is a writer and wants to step up their game and make a living from their craft. I’ve been invited to present and be part of panels on how to success as a freelance writer, some with titles such as “How To Become a Six-Figure Freelance Writer” or “How To Quit Your Job and Freelance Write”. Tonight, I’m on a panel with other freelance writers talking about successful freelance strategies to Columbia College Chicago students and alumni.
As I was preparing my material for the panel discussion, I wanted to share seven things I did (and continue to do) that have helped me get better at this freelance writing game over the past decade.
1) Join & Be Active. It’s not enough to pay your dues. If you’re going to be part of an organization or association, be active. That’s how you’ll meet others and learn from them. If you can’t attend the conferences, be active on the forums. This is often where you can meet with editors, content managers, etc. In many of these conferences, you’ll have time to pitch them directly, too. There are associations for almost any niche you’re interested in, from health to science writers, writers who write for online news outlets to travel-focused writers.
- American Society of Journalists and Authors
- ASJA Chicago event in November (including info on freelancing and ghostwriting)
- Association for Women Journalists – Chicago
- Association of Writers and Writing Programs
- UPOD Academy
- Freelance Success
Start your own Writers Accountability Group and commit to meeting regularly or connecting regularly online
2) Continue to Learn & Improve Your Craft.
a. Read books.
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- Six-Figure Freelancing by Kelly James
- Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writer’s Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books by Kelly James
- On Writing by Stephen King
- The Art of the Book Proposal by Eric Maisel (if you’re working on a book)
b. Listen to podcasts
c. Take classes.
- StoryStudio Chicago
- Writer’s Studio at University of Chicago Graham School
- The Fifth Semester (if you’re working on a book)
3) Get Out There.
- Let everyone you know you’re a writer. Not an “aspiring” writer. You’re a writer. Own it. Assume your place at the table. You’ll never know who might need content for their blog, help writing their bio page on their website, or a profile piece for a local print magazine.
- Also, talking with others helps you discover stories to pitch. Your neighbor might have a scoop, your dry cleaner might have heard something, your local public school might be doing some neat things and the teacher might be happy to share details. Letting people know what you’re doing will help you in the short and long-run because people will keep you posted of news they hear!
4) Become Friends with Writers.
- One of the biggest myths in this business is that you need to pitch editors in order to get stories assigned. While technically that’s true, editors (or clients) are the ones who assign the business, it’s often through your network of friends/colleagues that you FIND the business to be had.
- Friends writing for editors and clients sometimes get asked if they have any other friends interested in picking up new work. If they know you’re looking and feel you have the skill sets, they’ll recommend you. Ninety percent of my work has been secured through networking and/or referrals. And the ten percent I cold pitched, I ended up referring others to those editors so they got work out of my cold pitch, too.
- Sometimes my editors are looking for writers with a specific type of expertise or I can’t write about something because it poses a conflict of interest to me. For example, an editor asked me to write about clean energy for a print magazine but one of my clients is active in this space. I ended up referring a friend who I knew was well-versed in the subject and she wrote about the topic. Happy editor because I referred someone to her + happy friend because she’s now working with a new editor = win for everyone.
5) Know Your Worth & Treat It Like a Business.
- Track your time (see 6e for recommendations)
- Set up a spreadsheet or some other system to track your clients/editors/work by client and month. Track your expenses like a hawk. Track your revenue by month.
- Set aside money for taxes.
- Set aside money for retirement.
- Set weekly/monthly/quarterly/annual goals and review them weekly/monthly/quarterly/annually.
- Negotiate rates. Ask if there is any wiggle room with the rate/fee you’re offered. Often editors and clients have the ability to increase their rate. You won’t get a higher rate/fee if you don’t ask. Sometimes they don’t, and then you can decide whether the rate is worth your time and investment or to walk away.
- Write a Letter of Introduction (LOI) and have it handy to send to potential editors and/or clients with whom you’d like to work.
6) Get a Handle on Your Time Management.
- How much time does it take for you to write an 800-word article with sources and without?
- How much time does it take for you to interview a source?
- How much time are you on social media?
- How often do you invoice and how long does it take you to get paid?
- Use resources like RescueTime and Toggl to track your time.
7) Learn New Tools To Help You Improve.
In an old interview with The Paris Review, John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, shared how he focused on writing for one individual person instead of addressing a large audience. According to the article, it provided Steinbeck with a sense of freedom when beginning a new project. The idea to focus on one person has been key for me throughout the process of drafting my book proposal for my memoir. I have another man to thank for pushing me to start when I didn’t know where to begin.
He won’t remember this exchange but I asked Robert Elder at the Chicago Writers Conference last fall his advice on how to start a book when so much of the information I felt I needed to access was still filed as classified by various governments. He’d just finished discussing how he approached the puzzle of writing Hidden Hemingway and I thought he might have some idea on how to begin writing something when I didn’t have all of the answers. His advice? “Just start writing. See where it goes.”
Then a friend of mine referenced Steinbeck and I came across this interview on how to get started and between Elder’s prompt and Steinbeck’s comment to write for one individual person, it clicked for me.
And then, of course, you are faced with the blank page once you’re ready to start. For this, too, Steinbeck has some advice and it’s similar to Elder’s: just start.
I share this because now that the proposal is complete and I’m in the process of researching agents, several people have asked me about my process. Several things worked for me, including developing a consistent writing practice where I tackled specific parts of my proposal at any given time and blocking out hours at a time on a weekend morning at the library where there were few distractions. I also took to heart both Elder and Steinbeck’s recommendations: start writing and consider your audience of one.
From The Paris Review, here are more of Steinbeck’s recommendation in the form of a letter to Robert Wallsten in February of 1962:
“Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.
1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day; it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theatre, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”
Steinbeck’s thoughts are meant for a writer but they needn't to be limited to that demographic.
When I’m pitching a story to a reporter on behalf of a client or marketing a product, it helps to think of that one person who is receiving your message. It makes your message that much stronger and authentic.
Right now, I’m thinking of someone very important to me as I continue this process. Who knew Steinbeck would play such a pivotal role in my work and life.
While I can’t raise a glass and enjoy a nice cold cocktail with Steinbeck right now, I hope he’ll accept a virtual cheers, wherever he may be.
I’m a visual learner so paper planners have always worked better for me for scheduling and planning purposes. I’ve tried online versions but the hand/eye and tactile experience of writing something down helps me process a project better. I’m not alone. Science shows that those who handwrite their notes rather than type them retain information better.
Over the years, I’ve found several that have worked for various reasons. My Passion Planner was great and it was when I realized I needed the vertical landscape to best schedule out my day. As a marketing and PR consultant who works with several clients at a time, I need a good way to keep track of my billable hours. While I use a tool online to track my hours when I’m on my desktop, not all my work happens behind a computer (in-person meetings, for example). Having a paper calendar allows me to block out that time so I can keep accurate records.
I graduated from my Passion Planner to Planner Pads and, I’ll admit, this layout made a lot of sense to me. The inverted pyramid approach lets you lay out ALL of your projects needing completion at the top of the 2-page spread, then you filter those items into each day you want to complete them in the second section of the page before you finally drill down and plot them by the hour in the bottom section of the page. The layout lets you start with big picture first then progresses to helping you plan it out by hour/day.
GoalDrvn is a powerful planner, packed with possibilities and bells and whistles, despite its digest-sized shape. What makes this different than the other planners I’ve tried is it makes you focus on your goals in a very analytical way, rather than amorphous. Some planners, like the Passion Planner, encourage you to daydream about your goals. To be sure, there is a time and place for that level of introspection. I would take a Passion Planner to a silent retreat, for example, or use it to help drive exercises around big picture dreams like what I want out of my life, what makes me happy, what I’d like to learn or do more of, that sort of thing. GoalDrvn’s front-of-book exercises encourage that kind of thought process but its format was created to support big goals you’ve pretty much figured out you want to achieve.
The leather-bound book encourages users to identify their Master Goal first and then walks the user through various exercises to help you create action goals. Those action goals should include steps to accomplish as well as a deadline.
Here’s where I think the planner is genius: it includes a very practical yet overlooked exercise. Before you tackle the details of each goal, there is a page that asks you to share what skills sets you need to learn to achieve this master goal, whose help you might want to enlist and what obstacles might you need to overcome.
This simple exercise helped me overcome a major stumbling block.
I used GoalDrvn to plot out the work I needed to get done to successfully complete and publish my memoir. From completing various sections of my book proposal to securing an agent and building a platform, I’ve identified my top goals. But then I hit a stumbling block. This project, as much as it means to me, meant I needed to siphon off time from other projects and my family and that’s not easy when you have two little kids who want your attention and are out of school for the summer, you work full-time for clients who expect you to deliver, and a husband who is constantly training for a marathon or triathlon.
When I looked at this page, I realized I needed to enlist some help to overcome an obstacle. I needed permission to carve out much-needed time to complete this proposal and that help had to come from my husband. He and I agreed to take the kids for chunks of time (and even days) while I holed myself up in a Wisconsin cabin for uninterrupted writing time.
Guess what happened? I finished my book proposal. I knew it needed a few more tweaks before I could send off to my beta readers but it got done.
The rest of the planner is great, too. You can use as much or as little of the bells and whistles as you’d like. It has a section on adding more balance in your life by including a habit you want to develop (such as making it a point to meditating daily or drinking enough water). It also includes little cliff notes version of things so you can move over action steps like a Bullet Journal (which helps since the planner is digest-sized).
Another thing I like about this planner is it gives you 30-minute chunks of time, starting at 6:00 a.m. through 11:00 p.m. While I can’t jot down my 15-minute admin stuff easily in 30-minute spaces, I can make note to “admin stuff” in that space and just try to tackle two things.
Since we’re at the mid-year mark, I’ll need to start thinking of which planner to use for 2018 since I have deliverables, events and conferences planned for next year. I’ve been using GoalDrvn for just over a month now and really like it. I’m going to see if I can use it exclusively for the next month and see how it fares against my Planner Pad, since I’ve been using that for more than a year now.
Do you have a favorite paper planner? Which one do you use and what about it do you feel works so well for you?