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It’s never a fun thing to admit, but the truth is that I’ve been in a creative funk recently. Inspiration is one of those things that—in my experience, at least—comes when it comes. Like any other relationship, the more desperate you are for Inspiration to show its face, the less likely it is to want to hang out.
For me, the feeling of wanting inspiration so badly only to be met with radio silence is kind of depressing and exhausting. Or maybe it’s the brain spiral that comes along with it that’s depressing and exhausting. In either case, I was feeling both of those things yesterday. I simply could not get myself going, mentally or physically, so I finally decided to take a personal day and just let myself shut all of the way down in hopes that I could re-energize.
So it was that I found myself flipping through my library’s e-catalog (greatest invention ever, by the way—talk about instant gratification!). I started scrolling through the list of titles recommended for me and came across a book called Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen. (Let’s not put too much analysis into why I am viewed as the target demographic for YA books, shall we?) The reviews for this book were fantastic, and I decided to give it a whirl. If nothing else, it seemed like a good way to let my brain relax.
The crux of the book is this: Maya, a self-coined “social outcast” of an eighth-grader, stumbles across a book published in the 1950s called Betty Cornell’s Teen-age Popularity Guide. With nothing to lose, Maya decides that she’s going to follow this now-sixty-year-old guide to popularity for an entire school year, incorporating one chapter from the book into her life per month.
What I didn’t realize when I first started reading Popular is that the book is non-fiction. Maya actually did this and documented her social experiment throughout the course of her eighth grade year. Penguin picked up the manuscript Maya wrote based on journaling about the experience in real-time. Maya was published at age fifteen; Dreamworks picked up the movie rights for her story before the book even hit the shelves. I mean, come on!
Maya talks about how she’s shy and kind of a loner but, lemme tell you, this girl has balls of steel. Granted, I’ve got—ahem—a couple of decades on her, but I’m damn sure that even way back in the day when I was in junior high, I would have looked like a complete freak and opened myself up to a lot of mocking and ridicule for doing the things this book prescribed: things like donning a girdle, always wearing a pearl necklace, and busting out a hat and white gloves for church. As the months go by, though, Betty’s advice stops being so externally based and begins requiring Maya to do really scary things—things like inviting herself to sit down at lunch tables with kids who are different and/or more popular than her and striking up conversations with strangers. You know, the kind of things that freak me out today, let alone what they would have done to my nervous system as an awkward thirteen year old. But god bless, Maya, she did them all.
Ultimately it ended up being a much bigger, more transformative, and more magical experience than Maya could have ever dreamed. By the end of the school year, she figured out that we’re all the same inside and that, really, we all just want to be treated with kindness. She figured out that a little self-confidence goes a long way. And she even got in touch with good ol’ Betty herself to let her know how her advice had positively impacted a teenager’s life sixty years after its publication.
Flash-forward to what Maya certainly never expected: a six-figure book deal; a movie rights option; and the coinciding reissue of the book that inspired it all: Betty Cornell’s Teen-age Popularity Guide.
Recently, I was talking to an author who I’m working with about the importance of hanging on to that fearlessness we have in our youth. That innocence of not knowing what we “can’t” do, and how incredibly powerful that mindset is. Because, after all, when there’s nothing you think you can’t do, then you actually can do anything. This morning it dawned on me that it’s this precise thought pattern that’s been driving my inspiration away lately. Over-thinking the things I “can” and “can’t” do or “can” and “can’t” write about. Looking back, every time I’ve found success in my life and achieved those lofty heights of great creative satisfaction, it’s been in a scenario where a chorus of people have told me that something’s impossible—but I haven’t listened because I’ve known that it is in fact possible based on nothing more than the knowledge that I was going to do whatever it took to make it so. How can inspiration truly seep in when it’s being given parameters like this? Spoiler alert: It can’t. But take down those parameters and the world is yours.
Thank you, Maya, for reminding me of this. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that inspiration has come flooding back in today. I just needed a little reminder from someone much wiser than myself.
I don't know about you, but a lot of times it feels to me as if my life has a velocity of its own. There are so many things I want to do and accomplish but, on a day-to-day level, things get crazy and, before I know it, that twenty-four hours is gone.
Of course this happens to all of us sometimes, but I'm realizing more and more how dangerous it is if it happens all of the time (or even a lot of the time). It's those days that ultimately stack one on top of the other to constitute our life. If enough days go by seemingly out of our control, without us doing what we really want to be doing, then it becomes months of that, then years, then decades. It sounds kind of dramatic ... but it's also true.
While I was in Bali, I took a great workshop with life coach Leannah Lumauig. For years, Leannah had high-powered jobs in the Bay Area. She was successful but not fulfilled. Her dream was to give it all up, travel the world, and to help other people create their own dream lives in the midst of living her own. Well, she did it. And, throughout the course of the workshop I took with her, she gave us tips for doing the same.
One of the great things I learned about from Leannah is the Wheel of Life. It's simple, really. Each of the eight spokes on this wheel represents an important facet of life: personal growth, significant other, friends and family, health, money, career, physical environment, and fun and recreation. For each sector, there are corresponding horizontal lines, numbered one through ten. Basically, you go through and shade each sector according to your level of satisfaction in that area of your life, with one being the least satisfied and ten being the most.
This is a simple exercise, but it also a great way to take a moment and see a visual representation of where you're at in life right now. What areas of your life are satisfying? Which could use a little help? And which ones do you ignore altogether?
This is a great opportunity to pause, refocus, and (if necessary) redirect.
One of the things I struggled with the most during my in-house publishing house days was the number of clever, well-written non-fiction book proposals that I had to throw into the reject pile. As a bookworm and a writer, this killed me. The reason these proposals never made it anywhere can be summed up in a single word that, to this day, makes me cringe: Platform.
More than a decade later and I still spend a lot of time chatting with authors and agents about platform. Like it or not, it’s a fact of life in this business.
So what is a platform and why does it matter? Think of it like this: At the end of the day—much as book nerds like me hate to admit it—publishing is a business, not a labor of love (although it is in large part both from the author end). The publisher’s ultimate goal is to sell your book. And, of course, you want this too, even if you have other goals besides that.
Gauging the potential success of a book isn’t a science, but one of the big predictors publishing houses rely upon when making their selections is the author’s platform. How visible are you? How large is your social media reach? Do you have friends in high places or with a large social media following who will help you promote your book? Do you regularly appear in front of audiences, say, as a speaker? Do you have articles published?
Publishers look at all of these things and, combined, they are your platform.
I don’t love having this conversation with clients who come to me for proposal writing. I want to encourage and to promote creativity and big dreams. Writing a book and getting yourself out there is a brave endeavor, and I want to be a voice of support. But it’s also my job to be a voice of reason. And part of this is letting would-be authors know what to be prepared for and, if they’re not, what work needs to be done to get them to that point.
I do believe that, in every sector of life, anything is possible and, specifically, that getting a book published is an achievable goal. Sometimes it just takes some time and legwork up front to get to that point. And, in fact, I’ve come to be such a strong believer in this based on my years of experience that I won’t write a proposal until an author has built their platform to a certain degree. This is for the simple reason that I never want people to pay for a service that I know they’re not ready for.
In cases like this, I do send these writers off with some tips. They’re not rocket science, but they work:
- Build your social media following.
- Publish regularly, both on your blog/website and in the greater media. If you’re new to this, start small and build from there. You may not be published on goop right off the bat, but get some less high-profile articles under your belt, refine your craft, and you can get there.
- Get as big of a reach for these publications as you can, whether that’s building your own viral reach through social media or getting your writing in front of people who have the ability to get your voice out to a larger audience.
- Keep pointing your audience back to you. Lead them to your website by getting lots of valuable, high-impact information up there. Train them to keep coming back to you by (again) regularly posting new content.
- Build a newsletter mailing list (but don’t abuse it!).
- Actively seek out speaking engagements.
- Be consistent about all of this.
This may not be the most exciting work you’ve ever done (although, some come to find out that they love it). But what it is doing is setting you up for success and the ability to accomplish your Big Dream.
When I used to run for student council as a kid, my slogan would always be the same:
Just do it. [insert Nike swoosh] Nikki. Clever, right? C'mon! It was the 90s.
Anyway, my point is that apparently I haven't changed much since then because I still throw that phrase around all of the time, generally in conversations about writing.
Case in point: If I had to pick one conversation I have with would-be writers the most frequently, it's this:
Wendy Who Wants to Write: I really wanna write. But I just don't know where to start.
Me: Stop thinking about it. Just do it. Every day, sit down and write. It doesn't matter for how long or how prolific it is, just that you do it.
Frankly, I have this same conversation with myself all of the time. Some days I am successful and other days I am not.
Our lives are all crazy. The world is increasingly noisy. Not to mention the insiduous voices in our heads that tell us we're not good enough or we don't have something important to say. I've lost track of how many books I've written at this point, and I still have these thoughts. In fact, every time a new book deal rolls around, I still wonder, What the f*ck have I gotten myself into?
One of the most important bits of information I've ever heard was doled out by one of my writing heroes, John Irving. With great disdain clearly painted upon his face, he talked about how horrible first drafts are. "You just have to vomit it out," he said. "Then you go back and make it pretty."
Word up, John. It doesn't have to be pretty--you just have to get. it. out. The way to get big things done is little by little, on a constant basis.
If this resonates with you, I implore you to start writing. Just start. Not tomorrow, not on January 1. Right. Now. Just do it.
As a freelancer, the idea of travel can be a bit loaded. For most of us, if we're not actively working, we're not getting new gigs or getting paid. It's awesome being your own boss, but one of the downsides is that it’s (generally) not like there’s someone there to pick up your slack when you don't clock in for the day. Even though vacation, downtime, and exploration are unquestionably healthy things to do, it’s nonetheless a bit more of a stretch for us self-employed types.
Last week, I bit the bullet and went to Bali. It’s one of those places that’s been on my bucket list for pretty much as long as I can remember. When I had the opportunity to go there on a “workcation” with a group called Hello Adventure, I couldn’t resist. It was my perfect scenario: creative workshops, yoga up for offer, plenty of time to be creative, and, well, Bali. With just two weeks’ notice, I went on overdrive to finish up some deadlines, corralled my mom on board, and we were off for the adventure of a lifetime.
I’m so grateful that we went. Bali is a largely Hindu island, so every morning my mom and I joined the locals in offering prayer baskets (canang sari). Throughout the day, we would see these baskets scattered around everywhere—on the streets, in cars, in businesses, on the beach. No matter what your religion is or is not, these gorgeous flower offerings were just great little pause point reminders to stop for a second and be grateful.
I woke up right before the sun broke every day to the sounds of chanting echoing throughout the land as owls and morning birds sang back and forth to each other, as if to hand over shifts as night gave way to day. We dashed in and out of the waves of the warm ocean water as incense wafted over to us from the temples on the beachside; monkeys climbed all over us at the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud; we wandered through traditional Balinese village houses (gorgeous!); we watched the sun set over the Tanah Lot water temple; we bartered at the markets; every day was full of yoga on this gorgeous teak platform, lined with prayer flags and surrounded by thick foliage—it was the best when it rained.
Every night, I returned to this incredible, authentic village house imported from Java that was nothing short of enchanted. It was made of beautiful hand-carved wood teak and dated back to the 1900s. That house was alive. Especially at night, it was as though all of the energy that had built up in it over the years seeped out to say hello. Perhaps I should have been scared, but it felt friendly … just very, very present.
My particular village house, Rumah Toer (rumah is Indonesian for "home") was named after Pramoedya Anata Toer, an Indonesian author. It was aptly named because everything about my temporary little teak-wooded corner of the world made me want to put pen to paper. I went through a struggle that I think many writers do between sitting down and writing and going out and living life to acquire things to write about. I did a little bit of both but, in the end, I gave in to Bali and all it had to offer. I’m glad I did because I now have inspiration for days.
As tough as it can be to get away as a freelancer, it’s something we should all do. It’s healthy, it’s inspiring, it’s a re-set. I’m now back with fresh eyes, ready to take on the world, and with the muse on my shoulder.
When I first went freelance, I essentially never took a break. I worked long, long hours every day, seven days a week. Holidays meant nothing to me. I was a working machine. The truth is that I was happy to do it. Coming from the world of publishing, I was used to working long hours, so it just felt good to be dedicating those hours to my own cause. And what an incredible position I was in to be able to do what I loved ... in my pajamas, to boot!
The pace only picked up when I went from freelance writing and editing to writing my own books a couple of years later. For years, it was go, go, go. I was either on the road interviewing and gathering information or writing until all hours. I would quite literally stay up all night writing, arriving at Starbucks as they opened to continue writing there.
After I finished my second book, I remember feeling very depleted and wondering why all I wanted to do was sleep. As I was discussing this lethargy with my friend M., I realized that it had literally been years since I'd had any time off. Of course I was experiencing a crash.
I started becoming more mindful about my work: getting in yoga in the middle of the day for a re-set and taking at least a day off every week. As the years have gone by, I've tried to pull myself more and more into a regular five-day workweek. When I do this, I'm more efficient and more present for my clients. Of course, this isn't always possible with the pressure of deadlines, but it's a good general rule to abide by.
Lately things have been busy (always a good problem to have), and I've been working with a lot of international clients, which means working late hours because of timezone differences. The other night, for the first time in several weeks, I had the opportunity to go to my favorite evening yoga class (my favorite time to do yoga) and meditation after. I was so relaxed that I decided not to check my email as I walked home around 9:45 that night. It was glorious.
I don't think it's a coincidence that I felt both physically and creatively rejuvenated the next day ... which better serves both me and my clients. So I'm getting back in the saddle with halting meetings at a normal-ish hour (for the most part), allowing myself to do the things that refresh me, whether that's meditation, yoga, or spending time with my husband and our farm of animals, and going on an electronic blackout between nighttime and morning.
This feels like an almost revolutionary, scary thing to admit in this day and age of constant connection. But the truth is, I think that we would all lead happier, more productive lives if we did this. If we gave ourselves the time to recharge and set aside time for those things that make us feel alive. And that, in turn, allows us to enjoy our work more and to be better at it.
I have had two great strokes of luck in my career as an author and freelance writer and editor, both of which sound innocuous, but have made all of the difference. The first one is the chance meeting I had with two other editorial assistants, M. and C., when we all started working at Random House at the beginning of our careers. We bonded like war veterans, and our friendship has lived long beyond our tenure at RH. In the ensuing years, we have all branched off into our own freelance editorial niches and personal writing projects. The second stroke of luck is the fact that one of my oldest and dearest friends from childhood, A., went on to become a freelance graphic designer and creative director.
Why does this matter? It means that even though I've gone it alone in my writing career, I have a constant support system of like-minded creatives who understand where I'm coming from. Yes, I work in an office alone, but I can call any of these three at any time (and in some cases many times in a day) to kick around ideas, ask procedural questions, or get a read on my current project. This off-the-cuff think tank has been invaluable to me, both logistically and emotionally.
I often hear from creatives that they have experienced jealousy and competition among their peers. This is always somewhat confusing and sad to me. The beauty of being creative is that it's a signature thing. There will always be other creative people--and, yes, sometimes you will be in competition with them for certain gigs--but no one else will ever be you, with your voice, your brain, and your way of viewing the world. It may sound trite, but I truly believe we all win when we support one another. Creativity multiplies when we combine forces, whether that's in conversation or in craft. At the end of the day, if you work hard and continue to hone your craft and stay passionate, the projects that are meant to come to you will. And those that are better served by someone else will land with that other person (and, let's be honest, you'll be lucky they did!).
I'm sharing this because that's what I want this blog to be: a voice of solidarity for those writers, editors, and current and would-be authors out there. I will offer some tips that have worked for me and some insight into my own experiences. But also know that just because something works for me, it doesn't mean it will work for you. I think one of the most awesome benefits of being a creative is that we get to go through this process of discovery, figuring out what works for us and what doesn't. And, so often, figuring out what doesn't work for us is an integral step along the way to figuring out what does.
I'm so excited to start this discussion, and I'd love to hear your feedback moving forward. Always feel free to leave a comment or drop me an email!