In Seth Godin’s latest book What to Do When It’s Your Turn (and it’s always your turn) he talks about how the radical cultural and economic changes of the past 10-20 years have created room for a very different type of work to emerge. With increased access to tools that once didn’t exist, we artists and dreamers have more opportunities to shine while also making a living.

But with increased digital resources, why do so few of us actually commit to living out these dreams? And I mean REALLY commit to it.

Sure there are the hangers on to days gone by, the ones who refuse to flex to history’s flow and stay rigidly rooted in their ruts, but what about the rest of us?

As with most limitations I think it comes back to fear, fear of the unknown, of failure, or even fear of success. However, there’s another facet: what it actually means to live in a state of tension.

When I think about it, there’s one thing we often run from in our modern society, it’s tension.

We don’t want to endure the tension of waiting to find out if we got likes on that Facebook post so we open the app for the fifteenth time today; we don’t want to wait for the finale of our favorite TV show so we binge watch, and we don’t want to sit through the news to hear the key headlines so we go online and consume, consume, consume.

Seth asks the question, “What happens to your work if you’re able to wait a little longer?”

Think of the last great novel you read or movie you saw, do they work because the tension is relieved in the first chapter, or scene, or because it builds throughout and resolves only near the end?

I’m totally guilty of avoiding tension, or at least I have been historically. I’m the type of person who decides, then does, and wants immediate results. It’s in my nature, or the very least my habit, and it’s part of what makes me a go-getter. But it’s also hurt me when I’m too impatient to see something through. Sometimes I need to pace myself, or remind myself that there’s also value in the in between.

In fact, most of our lives are lived in the in between.

So I ask, what might we miss out on if we only ever take the easier, more immediately rewarding path, or grasp at only low-hanging fruit?


While I don’t think we should view our creative work in too precious a light, I think there’s a lot to learn about the art of living from the natural course of nature.

Me, age 17, at thirty-six weeks along with my son. 1998, Michigan. Also, why did I pose in front of a giant white teddy bear?

When I was pregnant with my first child (my son) a nurse gave me the news that pregnancy isn’t really nine months like everyone says, it’s really more like ten–if you think about the fact that it’s 40 whole weeks, that is. Of course this is wonky math, but when you’re headed down a road where this being inside you hijacks your digestive, hormone, endocrine, and immune system for almost a year, you start counting weeks.

I was seventeen, newly married, and living in BFE—or rather Michigan—far from my family in California trying to imagine just how long nine months would feel. During my first trimester, I was barfing around three times a day and could barely keep the occasional saltine down. I was also working full-time as a preschool teacher, while my then husband went to school and also worked.

At my one of my first checkups, I sat on the crinkly paper atop the table waiting for my midwife to step into the exam room. I studied a nearby poster with illustrated renderings of each month of pregnancy.

At ten weeks along,  I learned that my baby now had the beginnings of little feet and hands and even a heartbeat, though he was the size of a bean. The largest illustration on the poster was a cross-section of a uterus containing a baby so big that it seemed to defy physical probability.  I wondered where the heck would my intestines and bladder go once this monster baby took over my torso. 

I was excited about my baby, but worried about how this long journey, and feats of internal physical contortion would pan out. The thought that grounded me was this: women and babies had been partnering in this dance for tens of thousands of years. We would both be okay.

With a knock on the door, my midwife walked popped her head in. She was a kind-eyed black woman who just exuded the feeling of calm. I felt better just seeing her face. She had this maternal way of being that helped the lonely seventeen-year old me relax a bit.

Asking how I was feeling she pulled out a heart monitor device out, rubbed it against her hand to warm it up and placed it low on my belly. I heard my heartbeat first and then a faster, lighter beat. To that point, having a baby felt mostly like sore boobs and round the clock nausea and not much else. But in that moment, it got real. My baby was real. That was the moment I became a mother.

In the coming months, I worried a lot. About things I had no control over, like first whether he would form correctly, until the ultrasound confirmed everything was normal, then I worried about whether he’d have a giant birthmark across his face or something awful the ultrasound couldn’t detect.

I felt kind of helpless but also in awe that my body and my baby’s body knew what to do. Even if I didn’t.

Of course, I could control what I put in my body and what I exposed myself to, which I did, with vigilance. But everything else was up to the workings of two bodies partnering in a dance that nature itself had perfected.

Just after he was born. Me and my son. You can thank the Nineties and scrapbooking for the beautiful design of my couch and the background, respectively. 😉

As much as I yearned to hold my baby boy in my arms and see his little face, I knew nature must run its course. I knew he had to stay in until he was done baking. And he did, even stayed in an extra week for good measure. Lucky me. Then he emerged fully formed, perfect. Indeed, lucky us.

Maybe our dreams, our goals, the good work we aim to do in this life can be viewed through a pregnancy analogy. Things mature in their own time, or become fully realized as they’re meant to. The problem is, we don’t always know when the appointed time of our dreams birthing. Sometimes you have to push hard at the right time, but there’s also a beauty in the expectation and tension of something truly wonderful materializing through perseverance.

Life is anything but predictable, and sadly just like pregnancy, things don’t always go the way we want. Sometimes, we do our best and things still don’t work. Sometimes, it does.

The truth is we don’t have control over outcomes, only the grit and work we put in. At a certain point we must dust off our hands and acknowledge when we’ve done our best. We’ve honored our calling. And leave the rest to nature, or the Universe, or God, or whatever you believe in.

I try to bring myself back to this when I feel myself vibrating at light-speed, revving for action right away, or when I’m down on myself, feeling like I’ve failed yet again. Tension isn’t necessarily comfortable, but I’m working on allowing it to move through me as opposed to allowing it to knock me down.

Sometimes it’s better to just take action and get shit done. Other times its worth it to work on something for as long as it takes to get it where it needs to be. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure, or a loser, or lazy. It’s one of those mysteries of life that we must hold with open hands.

As I set my intentions each day, I’m going to be working on being more at peace with the natural tension it takes to create something worthwhile. I hope this idea helps you right at the moment you might need it.

In the spirit of apparently being in almost every pic in this post, here’s me with Seth’s book. You should go buy it. 😉

build your audience for your creative work

You’ve created something amazing—an important book, a stirring song, a cool website, an amazing new service—and now it’s time to build your audience. These days there are more ways to get in front of more eyeballs than ever before. The sky is the limit!

Except of course, that maybe you’ve tried some things and you’re not getting the results you expected.

If I’m honest, there’s always this part of me that wishes against all reality that one of my creations will go viral. I mean, we all do right?

Okay, maybe I’m the only one, but even if you just want to get enough attention to build your business, or change someone’s perspective, or share encouragement, it’s usually going to take some effort. And time.

While there’s no magic approach, I’d like to share three ways that you can get out there and reach your ideal customers, readers, or patrons, more effectively.

Create a Quiz

This is something I’ve been having some fun obsessing over lately: creating online quizzes. We all know how irresistible and addictive online quizzes can be, but did you know they can be a great tool for building your email list? It’s true. And it’s not just Buzzfeed that’s in the game. Smaller brands and larger (like Home Depot and Eventbrite) use quizzes to not only get new subscribers, but better serve them as well. Let me explain.

I confess I haven’t created a ton of quizzes yet, but so far I’m really impressed with not only the options you can provide folks (including an option to NOT have to sign up for your email list). I personally like that you can tailor resource recommendations based on a quiz-taker’s results or answers.  And after all, if someone is nice enough to try out your quiz you want to provide as much value to them as possible. So for instance, you could recommend certain blog posts, downloads, or even products based on what their results were.

The company I use to create quizzes (and totally recommend) is called Interact. Full disclosure, I’m a partner member and an affiliate, but I am because I believe in the fricken product! Not only does their quiz-creation software have a ton of amazing features but they are truly committed to continuing to improve their software and service. They want to be the best quiz creation software out there. And I think they’re doing a helluva job. Check them out.

Here are a few quick ideas of ways you could use a quiz, as an author:

  • Nonfiction: Pick a juicy question based on the subject matter of your book. For instance, “How efficient are you with time?” (for a book like Time Management from the Inside Out), or “Are you a master negotiator?” (for a book like Getting to Yes)
  • Mystery Novel: “How many of these mystery novels can you name?”
  • Novel: “What Kind of Warrior Are You?” or “Which Character are You?”
  • Cookbook: “Which of these ingredients provide the most nutrients?” or “How many of these Food Network stars can you name?”
  • Biography: “How well do you know Jackie Kennedy?”

Of course, it does get a little more challenging with memoir and some other genres, but you just might come up with a great idea based on the subject matter, niche, or genre of your book.

Here are a couple examples of writers who use quizzes: Stephanie Bwabwa and Angela J. Ford.

And here’s an example of one of my new quizzes: 

build your audience with quizzes

Do an Informative Webinar with a Fellow Creative

Toward the end of last year I created a fun and information-packed webinar series with some amazing writers, editors, and entrepreneurs, called The Business of Writing series. It was a great way to build up our mutual email lists, share knowledge, help people, and get to know each other better.

Build your audience

Screenshot of one of the webinars in the series

When you partner up with a colleague to do a webinar (or online workshop) you are both able to cross-promote and build your audiences while also providing high-quality content to your audiences.

I use and recommend Webinarjam, though it can be expensive up front if you’re just starting out. There are many webinar software platforms out there so take a look around before deciding. I know some of my colleagues also like Crowdcast and GoTo Webinar, which bill monthly.

Whatever you choose, keep the presentation, graphics, and process as simple as possible. My biggest mistake when putting together the aforementioned webinar series was spending WAAAAY too much time making beautiful graphics and slides. I mean, I know people liked them, but it ate up too much of my time. Though next time, I’ve now got some pretty great graphics that I may be able to repurpose. So there’s that.

That’s the thing, whatever you try, try it a few times because chances are it won’t be EPIC the first few times. But you’ll learn how to improve things as you go along.

Also note that you can provide free webinars, free webinars where you sell something at the end (no shame in that), or even paid webinar workshops. Every creative or writer is different, so consider what works with your creative work.

Let Them Try Before They Buy

I’m not necessarily saying you should give people your book or paintings or classes for free. In fact, a lot of times it can actually undermine your value.  I’m a big believer in valuing creative work! But, sometimes you can still give them something to offer a taste of what you provide.

Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  • A free worksheet from your online course
  • A free mini coaching session or consultation
  • A free trial size of your product
  • A free weekly quality tips email
  • A free chapter of your book
  • A free reading guide with your book
  • A free bookmark

You get the idea. Give what you can to give them an impression of the value and art that you’re offering, but be sure to follow that up with an offer for them to actually buy your service, product, course, or book. In other words, on your free worksheet you could have a link back to your course with a call-to-action; maybe your free coaching session includes a coupon for 10% off their first twelve weeks; or your trial product has a coupon attached; or the chapter of your book provides a link at the end to buy the whole book; or maybe people have to sign up for your email list in order to get the reading guide for your book; or maybe someone has to leave a Goodreads review (positive or not) to get a free bookmark. These are just spitballs to get your creative ideas flowing.

I hope these three suggestions to promote your oh-so-wonderful creative work have given you some ideas on what you might try next. I realize that you might have questions about some of these ways to build your audience, because honestly each of these could be an entire post unto themselves. If you do, please feel free to leave a question in the comments below, or even email me. I’m happy to help as best I can.

Most of all, I hope your work gets the audience it so richly deserves. Keep on plugging, my friends.

I love a ton of @lewishowes stuff! But this recent “5 Tips to an Amazing Year” Instagram post felt, well, like something geared toward someone who is already well on the path (or has their shit together) and not someone who maybe is struggling with some big life-shattering things, but is still trying to live their dreams. Since I’ve been in that horrid place more than once I wanted to give something to those who find themselves there right now.

lewis-howes-amazing-year-instgram

(Lewis Howes’ Instagram post that inspired this)

So with total mad respect (still think you’re awesome, Lewis), I humbly submit my altered version for those who are just trying to stabilize first, then kick ass:Andrea Guevara 5 tips to better year for people going through it

 

1. One “Big” Health Change

It’s true that when we’re in our best health, mentally and physically, we can do SO much more. But if you’re under a ton of stress, or are sick, or have some big hurdles that just make being in your best health almost impossible, do ONE significant thing this year for your health. And when I say “big” I don’t mean try to do it all. Whatever will help you get on a healthier track—do that. Use it as a stepping stone. Maybe it’s eating meat only on the weekend, or walk three times a week, or go to therapy. Whatever it is, start small, the rest will come later.

2. Shift Focus & Stop Comparison

When you’re under major stress, loss of focus is one of the first things that sabotages your ability to move on, or find solutions. Comparing yourself to others is right up there too. I encourage you to focus on the things that bring you the best results with the least strain. Maybe that’s hanging out with friends who get you, rather than trying to make the other ones to understand what you’re going through; or maybe that’s reading instead of watching TV to calm your brain at the end of the day; or maybe that’s taking a damn nap instead of cleaning the living room. And for F’s sake, don’t look at anyone else’s life in comparison to yours—just keep your eyes on what’s next for you.

3. Two-Step Vent

You have to let your stress, hurt, and frustration out. Make a pact with yourself that you’ll vent to a trusted friend (or therapist) and get it all out and then, when you’re done, find something good in your life that you can grasp back on to. This two-step will help you recover faster and speed up the process of ridding your mind of the negative loop of thoughts we all get caught in.

4. Be a little nicer every day to you

(To yourself that is) Maybe you’re in a marathon situation, one where you must work to keep the roof over your head, or must be there for a loved one at all hours, or whatever. You can’t really take a proper break. If you are in this situation, take micro-vacations. I’m talking 5 minutes here, a half an hour there where you do something completely for yourself. Rock out to a favorite song, do a meditation, get a pedicure, or take a nap. Did I say “nap” again? You get the idea. Doing even a little secret thing for yourself each day can help you keep your head.

5. Follow your dreams

There have been times when I wanted to give up! All I could say for myself is that I didn’t. I felt like shit—like dying, like running away—and boy-howdy did I let some people know about it. But after I threw my fit and bawled my eyes out, I kept going. Your dreams are yours for a reason. Don’t give up, no matter how bleak the outlook is. Sometimes you can’t do much, but do something every day/week, in the pursuit of your dream, whether it’s as big as taking tangible action, or as little as writing down, “I promise, I will not give up on this dream.” You’ll get there.

~

You can be the hero of your life this year by doing your best to keep moving forward, despite whatever it is you’re working through. Sometimes, it’s enough that you fucking survived!

Don’t compare yourself to the person who seems to have it all together. You never know how different your challenges are. Also, you may have noticed, I didn’t have a super cool pro photo of me for this. What I did have is a picture of me happily posing by a trashed old car—metaphor for the personal crap I’ve been through? You betcha.

If you agree, let me know below or add your own insights and share with a friend or two who might be inspired.

Does this happen to you? You’re doing something new, pursuing a new goal or change and it feels like NOTHING is working. Here are some ways this has shown up for me:

  • I pitching or submitting writing all over, but all I hear are crickets in my inbox
  • I market myself, but my social following isn’t growing as fast as I want
  • I’m working on that book and it feels like I’ll never finish it
  • I diet and exercise but haven’t lost weight yet
  • I tell my teenagers to do their chores, but feel like I’m just talking into an echo chamber

Been there?

Meanwhile, you look on your Instagram feed and it seems that everyone else is killing it. This is when I usually get a little punchy.

I’m the type of person who, once she knows what she wants, wants it NOW. Of course, as an grownup I’ve had to learn–usually the hard way–that I have to wait. And sometimes that wait is looooong. Or seems like it, anyway.

Trying something new, whether that’s a diet, pitching a book, eating better, or even pursuing your dreams, is a risk.  And risks always bring up resistance.

If we don’t try anything new, we feel safe, comfortable. We know what to expect, even if that’s mediocrity.

When we step out of our comfort zones though, and take a risk, we don’t know what the outcome will be.

And waiting in silence can sometimes feel like failure, or torture.

Our bodies and minds often react to the sometimes slow burn of waiting in predictable ways.  But the good news is that recognizing those predictable reactions can be an effective way to begin digging yourself out of the anxiety or despair of waiting.

A few years back, I had a job I hated. Every day I had to prepare myself mentally to survive the day without slapping my boss and telling him what I really thought. Aside from not being treated like a human being, I think the thing that stung the most was that I was working so hard at something that didn’t matter to me. I knew I was capable of so much more; I knew I wanted to do something more meaningful, to help people.

On top of the shitty job, I had a second job in retail, and yet still could only afford to live at my mom’s apartment, sharing a single bedroom with my two kids. Of course I realize that others have it way worse and I don’t claim to own all the pain. But basically, my prior businesses had failed and I was in a very disempowered mental state.

It was a real banner time in my life. 

My stress levels were near capacity, so much so that I was practically incapable of figuring out what to do next to get back on my feet.

Funny enough though, on top of all that I had recently decided to  commit to pursuing my dream of becoming a writer and speaker.

I figured, heck what else did I have to lose? If I failed at what I thought I should do (being a successful business owner), I might as well fail at what I really wanted to do (be a writer and speaker, inspiring others).

So between two jobs and two kids, I’d carve out 20 minutes each day to do something, anything, even minuscule toward the glimmer of  life I wanted to lead.

Each morning I’d pull myself up out of my twin-sized bed, and with a heavy heart, push myself to reframe my mentality.

My mantra usually looked a lot like this: at least you have work, this won’t last forever, there are lessons to learn in this space.

Most of the time, I believed myself. But sometimes when the tendrils of negativity had dug too deep into my soul, I bawled, cursed, and complained, which if I’m honest, helped purge me, too. In any case, I needed reinforcements–I could not rely on myself alone to be positive.

Yet despite the love and support of those closest to me, I knew the only one who could shift this was me. So I had to reinforce my own mindset.

I listened to motivational speeches, books, and seminars on the half hour commute to the job I hated. When I arrived, I’d take a deep breath before I opened my car door. I’d gather my lunch bag, straighten my business casual button-down, and walk, head held as high as possible, past my bosses’ office windows on the way to the front door. I grasped for a happy thought so I could have a smile on my face when I walked through the door to whatever shitstorm of demoralization was in store for me that day.

I’m not very good at faking it. But I clung to those positive messages I’d listened to in the car on the way to work.

I survived that near year of struggle and moved on to better things, but every day was a push and pull of dealing with crap and doing everything I could to stay afloat mentally.

It felt like FOR-EV-ER!

 

~

Nowadays, I’m doing the work I feel put on this earth to do and there is a deep well of fulfillment that comes with that, but not always such a deep pocket book. Of course I’m still working hard to attain certain further goals, aka building my Empire of Empowerment. **insert non-evil laugh here**

But sometimes I still grow impatient when results aren’t materializing as fast as I’d like. Sometimes I even get in a panic and wonder if maybe I would be better off if I just had a “normal” life and the security that comes with that.

When I’m smart, I go back to those coping tools I learned the hard way. So, here are some tools that will hopefully help you in your journey.

When you feel like you've got nothing left and nothing is working

Weighing the Alternative

As weak sauce as it may sound, the thing that often gets me through a tough waiting period is weighing the alternative. I mean, I could be living a different life–one of predictability and stability, but never get around to writing my books, never help people with their brands, never bring hope to those who’ve had to rise above their circumstances. But I would be miserable.

So as torturous as it is to wait when you’re doing the work and NOTHING is working, it’s still better than not doing what you feel you must.

Listen to Positive People (or People Who’ve Been Through it)

Is that motivation enough, though? Aside from the shadow alternative of not trying, the other thing that gets me through is listening to, or reading, or watching inspiring people.

We can’t always have the perfect mindset, so sometimes we need to rely on someone who’s  not in the pit of despair–someone who can throw us a rope of encouragement to help us climb out of our self-imposed misery.

Did you know that for every negative thought or comment you need to counteract it with seventeen positive ones? Negativity is sticky. Positivity is more hard-won, but worth it.

Don’t Panic

The other thing tendency when you’re trying something new and aren’t getting a response or a reward is to try to figure out what you’re doing wrong so you can quickly change it.

Sometimes this is a valid approach. I mean, we all know the definition of insanity.

Sometimes it is not. More often than not, it takes more time to build this new thing than we realize.

Just because it’s taking time doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong track.

We’re so used to immediate gratification these days, so if we don’t get thousands of followers, or millions in sales, or immediate recognition right now, we think we’re doing something wrong.

Often, we just need to stick with what we’re doing, make minor adjustments, and trust that the Universe will meet us halfway. Either that, or trust that miracles are possible.

One way to decipher whether you need to change your approach or just keep sticking to it is to have a group of trusted, knowledgeable peers (or a mentor), to be honest with you.

It’s not over

I think the most important thing to remember though, is that there is virtue in the work itself, even if the outcome isn’t what you’d hoped for. As cliche as it sounds there is always something to learn. Usually a lot more from the things that didn’t work than the things that did.

Trust me, I’ve been there. I’ve had many ventures, ideas, tries and fails. I’ve learned a ton.

Even if you’re trapped in a soul-sucking job, eventually there will be a way out if you keep your eyes open. Even if you’re not seeing results yet from your new workout regime, you will. Even if you’re not hearing back from publications on that essay you’ve been pitching, you will; or you won’t and then maybe you’ll just publish it on your own blog. 😉

We humans always forget that nothing is permanent (well, except death, but until then…). Change is inevitable, so if you’re going through a period of struggle you have to remind yourself it will end.

It’s also important to be realistic and not expect to be the next bestselling author, or Steve Jobs overnight.

Watch this:

Your WHY

Finally, the thing I go back to when I am questioning everything, including whether or not I should press on, is my WHY. I ask myself two questions to determine if I’m feeling like shit because I’m following the wrong path, or if it’s just a bump on the right road:

  1. Why am I doing this?
  2. Do I really believe in it?

We can have all of the right tools in place, but if we aren’t sold on the reason we’re wanting to lose weight, or start a business, or build this brand, we likely will not have the follow through. So if your “why” is not good enough, either figure out a better “why” or perhaps it’s  time to change routes.

While the first question prompts you to remember your goal, the second question activates your own well-developed bullshit-o-meter.

We often ignore the wisdom we have deep down. Asking ourselves if we really believe in what we’re doing can often reveal clues to whether or not we should keep going.

Here’s a tip: when you ask yourself these questions, pay attention not only to your mental response, but to how your body feels in that moment. Often, our bodies reveal what our minds are sometimes incapable of telling us.

~

Listen, I know it’s hard to keep walking the path when you can’t see where it will end. There are only a few guarantees in life, and most of them do not ensure that you will be the victor. But one guarantee is change. So if you’re doing the work, things will change. It may not happen according to the timeline you set, but it will come eventually.

I keep going, despite the times where I’d rather curl up in the fetal position and never get out of bed. I remind myself that to think that I wouldn’t be met with challenges when trying something new is just delusional thinking.

I believe that: good things are coming to those who are striving for good.

Music

Finally, one of the best ways to quickly shift your emotional state is through music. So here’s my little gift to you, my own personal badass-good-mood-kick-ass-take-names playlist. I hope it makes you dance toward your vision of success!

 

 

Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. -Chuck Close

I realize this is a funny thing to say given that my work is largely infused with inspiration/motivation, but you’ll see what I’m really getting at. As writers and/or artists, we know that 90% of the battle is just putting your damn butt in the chair to write, or picking up the paintbrush (or pencil), or whatever implement you use to create. Yet all too often we expect this flash of inspiration to hit us like a gift from the gods.

Sure sometimes that happens, but more often than not it’s a slow build.

For me, creative writing, especially nonfiction about my life, is often an arduous process. There’s the occasional moment where the clouds part and the Universe says, “here you go, honey,” as they hand me a nugget of flow.

But usually, it pretty much goes like this:

 

As a kid I was a good student. I hated disappointing anyone almost as much as I hated being anything less than perfect. For the most part I got straight A’s. I was highly disappointed in myself if I didn’t.

Classmates would often remark that I was “so smart” or how they wished they could get A’s like I did. Frankly, this kind of pissed me off. Sure, on the surface this was a compliment, but underneath was the assumption that I just had some special gift that they didn’t. Bear with me, I know I sound like a bragging asshole right now.

I spent hours studying, doing drills, and practicing to earn those grades. In fact, in fourth grade when I got my first D ever (ironically, in spelling), Dad and I worked every night for months to bring that up to an A.

I was lucky that my parents definitely passed down their genetic propensity for traditional intelligence (make no mistake there are many different types of intelligence), but after that, it was up to me to get the grades even in subjects that felt like my brain was being torn apart. I’m looking at you math and conceptual physics!

In seventh grade this girl Mary and I competed for the best grades, we were often neck-in-neck for who had the best percentage A. This was when I realized there were smarter, harder working kids than me. She wanted it more and maybe she was smarter than me, too. I backed down a bit from my quest for perfection and sometimes settled for B’s or C’s (conceptual physics, you bitch). If I couldn’t be THE best, I’d get by with my reasonable best.

The thing is, I never applied this drive to physical activity as a kid. When it came to sports of most kinds, I was riddled with self-doubt and self-pity. If I couldn’t hit the ball, run fast enough, or catch often enough I just gave up. I needed to be at the top, and if I couldn’t I bowed out. It didn’t occur to me that hard work might just get me to “decent” eventually. I understood how to apply hardwork to school, but not as much to other things.

~

Fast forward twenty-some years to when I started out at UCLA X Writers Program. I entered thinking I was a pretty good writer who just needed to learn some tools in order to write better. From my first class, I realized I was an amateur. I was not even close to the top tier. Again, I wanted to be THE best. 

I secretly dreamed of being the next Joan Didion, or Mary Karr, until I realized I would likely not only would have to work for decades, but also was not born with their level of talent either.

Something had shifted. After a brief mourning period around not being born a golden child, I was able to better fight the urge to be perfect. I cared so much about becoming a better writer. Writing was something I’d wanted to learn since high school, and now I was finally doing it. I wanted to learn as much as possible, and push myself to my best, but not THE best. 

The initial momentum of my dream to become a writer propelled me, but it was the revisiting of it that got me through the hundreds of edits and thousands of hours of writing. I still feel as if I have a long way to go, but now just being on the path is enough to keep me going.

~

I liken creative work to walking. When you’re doing the work, you often feel as if you’re just staring at your feet as they step over the earth. You’re not sure where things are going, or even where you’ve been. There’s beauty in that presence, but if you don’t look up occasionally you’ll likely fall off a cliff or wander into a bad neighborhood.

On the other hand, if all you do is look up and around and your surroundings, looking for inspiration or motivation, you’ll never effectively see the path that leads you to your goals. And we all know the path is always a winding one.

I think then that our best bet is to do both. Observe what’s happening in our world, look forward toward our goals, our ultimate vision, as we call it in my personal branding course.  But we must also remember to look down at our feet, be in the moment, so we don’t stumble over that rock, or we can step over that brook, or clear out those branches that have fallen to block our path.

The rewards are all around us and even within the work of our path. But it’s that combination of steps, moving forward–the daily work–that leads us closer to our dreams, while that looking up that reminds us why we’re here.  

The more we do the work, the more inspiration follows. We don’t have to be the best, but when we are relentless in the pursuit of our calling, dream, or purpose, our most inspired work bursts forth.

In a market of ideas, why do some take off while others don’t? Why do some authors have mega status while others continue plodding on in obscurity, or with only moderate success?

The literary market fascinates me. There’s this vast ocean of books, ebooks, audiobooks, etc.  published each year and just a handful of them hit it BIG. I won’t pretend to guess that I know the reasons, but thinking about this got me wondering if there are some common traits among bestselling authors.

I think if there was a magic formula we’d know. We’d know because only be those who fit that formula would get books published. But as a writer trying to make it–and by that I mean support myself with my art–I do keep my eyes peeled and my ears open to what seems to set wildly successful authors apart.

Here’s what I’ve learned in the past few years or so in my work with writers, and participating in writing seminars, networking, workshops, and of course, my own research.

To be sure, this kind of mind-blowing success–I’m talking JK Rowling, John Grisham, Elizabeth Gilbert level–is not likely to just happen to most of us, but it can’t hurt to know what these authors have in common.

So, let’s dive in, shall we?

#1 They write a lot. And often they have been for a while. One of the big fallacies that I wish that some successful people would stop perpetuating is the idea that they just tried something and it worked. Sure there are those lucky ducks who get rich quick. I’m not saying luck never has anything to do with it.

But read enough success stories, or listen to enough podcasts like How I Built This or Being Boss and you’ll notice a pattern that successful people worked really hard for it. Whether it was practice, trial and error, or getting a degree, more often than not, it takes time and commitment.

There’s a reason they say “building” a reputation and not “sprouting” a reputation.

Neil Gaiman offers this advice, “Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.”  (Here’s his full commencement address at The University of the Arts: http://www.uarts.edu/neil-gaiman-keynote-address-2012)

But before you go quitting your job, please read on.

#2 They submit/pitch a lot and are in it for the long game. One of the stories that has encouraged me the most is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted Talk where she shares how she submitted her writing to publications for almost SIX YEARS before getting something published. That’s a long fucking time to wait. And that’s real commitment.

#3 They believed in their project(s). We’ve all heard certain authors say that they didn’t think anyone would actually publish their work. This is one of those moments where I wonder if their hindsight is really 20/20.

Who writes for so long and submits proposal after proposal if they think they have absolutely no hope?

It’s likely best not to have expectations, but I have a hunch that they believed someone would say yes, eventually.

When asked about her faith in her first Harry Potter book, before it was published, J K Rowling said, “You know, I can say this now, I was quite diffident about saying it for a long time. But I did have a belief, with Harry, that the difficult thing would be persuading someone to take it, because it didn’t fit. People said children’s books had to be half the length, and what an old-fashioned subject, a boarding school. I did have this feeling that the difficult thing would be persuading someone to publish it – but that if it was, people would like it.

(Read the full interview here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/28/conversation-lauren-laverne-jk-rowling-interview )

#4 They stood for something. Often something different/unique. These famous authors have instant recognition in our minds. We know them for their style, their voice, their subject matter, or persona of writing. I think a big reason many authors don’t get there is because they aren’t deeply rooted in who they are, what they offer, what/who they stand for, or what they seek to understand. Aka they don’t know what their brand is.

This of course, is of utmost importance in the stories we write as well. Depth of plot and character, as well as intimate knowledge of themes and what both you and your writing is about is key.

#5 They are as tenacious as fuck. They made time for their writing, they got agents, they created book proposals, they wrote essays, or stories, or whatever. The point is, they didn’t make excuses for finding the time to finish their work. They did the work. Stephen King wrote every night after his two day jobs, in the laundry room, on a makeshift desk his wife made for him.

#6 They are focused. Maybe this one could be combined with the point just above, but I want to emphasize it. Perhaps because I need to remind myself of this so often. I love ideas, always have. But the problem is, I find myself jumping on too many of them and doing way too many disparate things, which makes me fall behind on finishing the things I’ve already started.

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” –Ray Bradbury

What is clear is that all of these fabulously successful writers carve out time to write, consistently. They make it a priority.

#7 Most of them had day jobs, so there’s no excuse. JK Rowling was a single mom with a low-paying job who was on state assistance while she wrote the first Harry Potter book. I try to remind myself of this when I’d rather be working out a storyline than getting my other/paid work done.

Besides I think writing in a vacuum often produces navel-gazing, academic, philosophic work, whereas having other obligations while writing, however you do it (doesn’t have to be a day job), produces richer writing and more interesting work.

Here’s what Maya Angelou said, in an interview with Harvard Business Review:

Interviewer: “When you were working at those early jobs, did you ever envision what you would become?”

Maya: “No, but I didn’t think I wouldn’t. I somehow got the feeling early on that if human beings did a thing, I could study it and try to do some of it too. And one thing led to another. If I had not studied Latin in school, I wouldn’t have found it as easy to comprehend the structure of language. Had I not danced, I might never have really listened to music and known I could compose something. You see? I understood early that not everything I did wasn’t going to be a masterpiece, but I would try to do it the best I knew how. I’ve listened to an inner voice and had enough courage to try unknown things. And I think everything in its time.”

And that brings us to what I think is one of the most important points of success.

#8 They had really great ideas/stories that were usually well executed. It seems to me that more often than not their stories or ideas were not only great, but were well crafted. How many times have you read a book, seen a movie, or watched a TV show and thought, well it was a good premise, but it lacked [fill in the blank]? These BIG successful books, essays, screenplays, etc. are (with definite exceptions) excellent ideas, well played.

I think we often underestimate the power of great ideas.

#9 They often felt a higher calling to write. One more quote from Maya Angelou, to sum this point up: “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”

Whether you or I ever get to the top of our mountains, I think Ms. Angelou’s advice is always good.  If you love what you’re doing, even if you’re making your money elsewhere, you’ll enjoy this life more anyway.

Here’s hoping that someday, your name will be in lights. Or at least that you get to do more of what you love.

artist sitting on the street with paintings behindThere’s this unspoken longsuffering ethos in the literary world that writers must suffer for their craft, always look at their work as inadequate; and be relentless in their pursuit of the grand art of it all. And the ultimate reward for this holy work? Being a part of a literary elite culture of back-patting and back-stabbing.

I’m calling bullshit.

Of course this rationale is also prevalent in the art world at large. When I was a child with a natural penchant for drawing and art, I was told at every turn how I could never make money with art. So I gave it up for a long while and became a preschool teacher (another high paying option, ha!).

As an adult writing student, most of my writing teachers encouraged us to submit to literary journals with readerships of hundreds and maybe thousands. It was rare that we’d talk about writing for a big commercial publication with readership in the millions.

The self-publishing deluge and mass of crappily written books out there would seem to support this higher literary calling mentality. But I can’t help but wonder why we writers must choose between these extremes. Isn’t there some middle-ground?

Look, I truly do believe that being critical of one’s own work is a great way to improve. It’s essential. And the relentless pursuit of art for art’s sake is worthwhile. But I would guess that many of us want to not only share our writing, but share it with the widest audience possible. So that tired writer narrative doesn’t serve us so well in the real world.

If all you want is to be in the great literary journals and perhaps be looked back upon as a literary genius of your time, that’s awesome. There’s no shame in that. Again, the world needs this high art  writing. I’m not saying I don’t want to be published in literary journals. I do, for sure (though I’m no literary genius).

But can we be honest in saying hardly anyone actually reads these literary journals? Many of them don’t even pay their writers and have six-month long acceptance cycles.

Can we stop holding this up as the ultimate in writerhood?

If I’m trying to sell a book–a book that I’d like to be commercially successful and of literary quality–it seems more likely to get a better deal if I’ve been published in the New York Times and O magazine, not just literary journals.

I don’t want to sacrifice quality, but if I’m going to spend my time honing my writing, doesn’t it make sense to get some commercial success out of it as well?

I want my writing to change minds now, and as controversial as it might be to say, I would love to have bestseller (let’s all stop pretending we don’t want this), and to someday support myself with my art (gasp). Maybe you do too.

I think the relentless self-bashing, pining for awards to give us  a sense of worth, and comparing ourselves to each other, does not serve our art, or each other.

I know it’s not popular to say, but I’m rejecting the idea that writers should be self-loathing, humble-braggers who are content with a hand-to-mouth existence in pursuit of their higher calling.

This is one of the reasons I am involved with BinderCon, because attending their LA conference was the first time I ever felt like I could actually do this writing thing and maybe even make some money at it.

Anyway, that’s my rant. Keep on going with your art/calling/passion/project/business! I hope this encourages you to make your own path, the one that suits your life.

Another Rejection. The third that week. It came with a one liner of feedback (a rarity):

“Your work is stronger when relaying experience and specifics as opposed to relying too heavily at times on bromides.”

I paused. I was being rejected by a word I had to look up. Some writer I was.

You probably know the word, but just in case:
Bromidenoun
a trite and unoriginal idea or remark, typically intended to soothe or placate.
“feel-good bromides create the illusion of problem solving”
or
a statement that is intended to make people feel happier or calmer but that is not original or effective

Ouch. Of course my first inclination was self-flagellation, both for apparently having lackluster ideas AND for having to look the damn word up.

The bitter pill of Rejection is a common subject in the writing world. I used to find it boring. That is, until I started swallowing those pills wholesale.  I’ve tried my best to steel myself, but sometimes it just gets to me. When I thought of the hours I had put in to applying for and submitting my work, over and over, to publications and fellowships, I wondered if I would ever hear a “yes!”

Then I thought about my work, the pieces I submitted.  Maybe the feedback is true, or maybe it isn’t. It sure didn’t feel good to have something I’ve spent a lot of time on, laboring over, crying over and bleeding on the page–equated to trite platitudes. As a new(ish) writer I’ve struggled with a lot of self-doubt, a little of which is warranted.  It can be hard to know which criticism to listen to and which to ignore.

In those moments, after I freak out,  I have a few go-to moves:

  1. I ask the opinion of someone I trust and respect, someone who will be honest with me, and “gets” me too.
  2. I take a moment to pay attention to my gut–is there a grain of truth to the criticism, or not? How much of it will I own?
  3. I remind myself that no matter how compelled I am to be perfect, my work doesn’t have to be 100% perfect to be valuable. Just because my work is rejected doesn’t mean I’m a reject. Nearly every successful person’s path was paved in failures. It actually means I’m on the right track.
  4. Take a time out. Sometimes it’s best to just get some time from the piece. There’s a magic that happens off the page, in your mind.
  5. There’s always a lesson to learn: whether it’s improving on my own work, or learning when to brush off unwarranted criticism and trust my own judgment.
  6. Ask myself what I can be grateful for. Even if my work is being rejected, it’s being read. And that’s miles ahead of where I was years ago when I was only playing at becoming a legit writer.

I know a lot more rejection may come. Some likely to be more harsh. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop, or even slow down. It means I’ll keep going, improving, clinging tighter to what rings true and finding my own footing.

There will be moments in writing, and in life, where some don’t pick up what I’m laying down. That’s okay.  I know there are others like me–people who will get something out of my writing. Ultimately that’s what it’s really about anyway–not recognition, money or status, but connecting with other human beings, making something of this life.

So I’ll keep writing and pitching my work and one of these days it will find its place. Things will fall in as they are meant to. In the meantime, its my job to keep doing the work of it.
Keep on going friends!
Swallow those bitter pills of rejection and shit ’em out, taking only what you choose from it.

I am reading Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please right now [love]. I especially enjoyed the preface, entitled “Writing is Hard: a Preface.”

amy-poehler-yespleaseThis year more than others I’m intimately aware of that statement. Writing a book is a bitch, but one that is worth it.  The thing is it’s not about the result–it’s about the work. There is beauty, bloody guts and somehow magic in it. And when you are doing something you love, even when it’s hard, it fulfills like nothing else.

Here are some words, better than what I have for you, from Amy Poehler’s preface:

“So what do I do? What do we do? How do we move forward when we are tired and afraid? What do we do when the voice in our head is yelling that WE ARE NEVER GONNA MAKE IT? How do we drag ourselves through the muck when our brain is telling us youaredumbandyouwillneverfinishandnoonecaresanditistimeyoustop?

Well, the first thing we do is take our brain out and put it in a drawer. Stick it somewhere and let it tantrum until it wears itself out. You may still hear the brain and all the shitty things it is saying to you, but it will be muffled, and just the fact that it is not in your head anymore will make things seem clearer. And then you just do it. You just dig in and write it. You use your body. You lean over the computer and stretch and pace. You write and then cook something and write some more. You put your hand on your heart and feel it beating and decide if what you wrote feels true. You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing. That is what I know. Writing the book is about writing the book.

So here we go, you and me. Because what else are we going to do? Say no? Say no to an opportunity that may be slightly out of our comfort zone? Quiet our voice because we are worried it is not perfect? I believe great people do things before they are ready…”

Keep it up my friends! Find that thing you believe in doing and do the hell out of it! Happy New Year.  Here’s to many wonderful years to all of us!

“There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this:  It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.  What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.”

I’ve just dipped my toe into the great book, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield.  This quote is from the book.  More on Resistance later.

Incidentally, this applies to all arts and acts of creating something worthwhile.  So insert your chosen craft into this quote and feel the words sink in to your soul.