You all know that I’m obsessed with finding clarity in chaos. I still love a good creative mess, but clarity is my north star. I get ridiculously excited about patterns and structures, because they scrub away the grime and let your work shine through.
Clarity is also one of the “principles of awesome content” in my new ebook. To help you create with more clarity, I’ve made a five-step checklist.
1. Use simple language.
You’ve heard this one before. Unfortunately, when most people sit down to write, they try to WRITE with a capital “W.” Formality can defeat the purpose, which is to communicate clearly. Straightforward language with a dash of personality always comes out on top.
Here’s an example from Nest, a great company that makes thermostats. Sexy? Hardly. But they do a damn fine job of explaining how their product works, why it’s needed, and why it’s unlike anything else on the market.
From the Nest website:
“Most people leave the house at one temperature and forget to change it. So Nest learns your schedule, programs itself and can be controlled from your phone. Teach it well and Nest can lower your heating and cooling bills up to 20%.”
Now in jargon-y “business” copy:
“The Nest programmable thermostat includes robust controls that provide mobile access capabilities, significant thermo-electric cost savings and a market-leading ROI. Our innovative technology enables domestic users to adapt the wall unit according to their individual needs.”
My re-write is pretty over-the-top, but you get the point. Write as you speak, and as if you were talking to a friend. Then go in with your best editing eyes and tighten it all up. No excess words.
2. Use metaphors (carefully)
A metaphor states that two unlike things are actually the same. Metaphors promote clarity because they help the brain transition between a known concept and a new idea. Here’s a (fake) example:
“The RocketBean brewing system adds jumper cables to your everyday coffee pot.”
Sketchy proposition and not the most elegant metaphor, but it quickly conveys the idea of enhancing something familiar with a novel twist. Just remember; where there are metaphors, there are also clichés. Every tired, terrible cliché was once a fresh metaphor.
3. Anticipate your audience
Get inside their heads. Once you’ve written a description or an introduction, think like your desired readers. What haven’t you said? If this was the first time that you encountered the product, service or idea, what else would you need to know? What’s the next logical question, and how can you answer it before you readers even get a chance to ask?
4. Apply the party test
You’re mingling, cocktail in hand, when the host asks about your work. It’s time to explain your project in 2-3 concise, yet creative sentences. I know, you’re sick of elevator pitches (yawn). What I’m talking about here is using enough detail, yet enough mystery to spark someone’s interest – a raised eyebrow and the phrase “oh, really?” You want to elicit follow-up questions, not the conversational kiss of death: “That’s nice.” Now apply this principle to your writing.
5. Wrap it in a story
Facts can taste bitter, but they’re infinitely more palatable when wrapped in a story. Here’s another strong Nest example:
“We didn’t think thermostats mattered either. Until we found out they control half of your home’s energy. That’s more than applicances, lighting, TVs, computers and stereos combined.”
Oh, really? Tell me more.
Get my new ebook, Create Awesome Content
Download a free chapter
I have a fun announcement to make today.
My first e-book, Create Awesome Content: Simple content strategy, writing and collaboration advice, is out of hair and makeup. All 101 pages are fully polished, primped and ready for their close-up.
Create Awesome Content is a straightforward guide to engaging your audience – whether you’re an entrepreneur, artisan, freelancer, consultant, small business owner or employee. You’ll learn how to develop a simple content strategy, write brilliant copy, and how to work with a writer if you start sweating when you face the blank screen (no judgment).
I wanted to demystify all the stuff that trips up smart people – from online storytelling to the difference between active and passive voice. In today’s noisy digital world, everyone needs awesome content to stand out from the crowd. This book collects all my best advice into a practical and entertaining package.
The book emerged from a conversation with my friend Paul Jarvis, who is a wildly-in-demand web designer (he built this blog and my professional site). Paul was writing his own e-book called Be Awesome at Online Business and suggested that I write a companion content guide. I filed the idea away in my massive mental “maybe” list (you know the one) and carried on with my day. A couple weeks later, Paul mentioned it again and I decided to start writing.
The book covers the most important lessons I’ve learned in nearly 15 years of working as a freelance journalist and copywriter. It’s fast-paced, informal and blends strategic advice about developing multi-platform content (including social media, newsletters, websites and articles) with a hands-on writing workshop.
Developing exceptional content is the single best way for creative people to connect with their audience. It’s part marketing, part storytelling, and part self-expression. It’s worth doing well.
So thank you for reading – and let me know what you think of the book!
In late August, author Ewan Morrison shared his bleak forecast for the publishing industry at the Edinburgh Book Fair. His core premise: If you’re a writer, publisher, photographer, journalist or even a porn star – anyone who earns a paycheque by producing original work for a passive audience – your professional days are numbered.
Morrison begins by predicting that paper books have just a generation left until their inevitable extinction. When 78% of Gen Y readers consume all their news online, for free (according to Bertelsmann CEO Richard Sarnoff), it’s easy to imagine a paperless future. Books as interior décor is not an outlandish suggestion in today’s market.
Next, Morrison cites Chris Anderson’s Long Tail model of niche consumption and his book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Morrison lists eight products and industries that have begun (or nearly completed) the downward spiral to free: home videos, music, porn, computer games, newspapers, photography, telecommunications, and the Internet itself.
According to Morrison, “every industry that has become digital has seen a dramatic, and in many cases, terminal decrease in earnings for those who create ‘content.’ Writing has already begun its slide toward becoming something produced and consumed for free.”
Instead of selling a product or content service, online businesses are selling your demographic profile to advertisers and sponsors. The content is simply what gets you there. Many business strategists now champion paywalls or subscription-based content (a model the New York Times is currently test driving). It seems everyone is filling their bar napkins with charts and scribbles, trying to flip longstanding production models and save the embattled content industries. Morrison, however, suggests all this brainstorming is just busywork:
“… ultimately, any strategy conceived now is just playing for time as the slide towards a totally free digital culture accelerates. How long have we got? A generation. After that, writers, like musicians, filmmakers, critics, porn stars, journalists and photographers, will have to find other ways of making a living in a short-term world that will not pay them for their labour.”
He says the only solution is to demand that writers and authors (and by extension, all professional content creators) receive a living wage for their work – a figure that’s entirely separate from how much they sell, to whom, and in what format. It’s a wage simply for doing the work and doing it well.
I hate that Morrison’s predictions will probably hit the bull’s eye. But, I just don’t know about the “living wage” argument. We’ve all become entitled consumers who demand top-quality free information and entertainment. At the same time, North American culture is increasingly polarized. People struggle to feed their families while we collectively pay the Kardashian family millions to get their nails done and plan blink-and-you’ll-miss-it marriages. It feels like there’s less cultural space to follow tangents, create for the sheer joy of it, or pursue niche pursuits – unless it will pay off in the free market.
So what do we want from art and culture? What does it mean to create? Who’s responsible for footing the bill? These are questions that keep me up at night.
Maybe it’s time to bring back the patronage system.
What do you think?
Inspired by this post from Megan Clark about her favorite people, I thought it would be fun to list some of my most enduring creative influences. These are the writers, artists, ideas and images that have burrowed inside my head and now refuse to leave. We all have them — both accidental and intentional.
Here’s my brief list. I’d love to hear yours.
Like most kids, I loved to draw, but I could never re-create what I saw in my head. That didn’t stop me from trying. In high school, I remember sweating over an oil painting of a couple sitting in a ’50s-style diner. It was terrible. My generous art teacher suggested it resembled a Modigliani painting and encouraged me to look up his work. Wow. While her comparison was wildly exaggerated, I saw in his art the power of individuality. There’s no reason to paint, write or create like everyone else. Do it your way.
Admittedly, these best-selling women are a little touchy-feely. They mix art and spirituality with abandon and in some chapters, you can almost smell the patchouli rising from the pages. Their books on writing, however, remain among the most dog-eared volumes on my shelf. Once you peel back the flowery descriptions of Cameron’s horses in twilight or Goldberg’s spiral Snoopy notebooks, they offer some of the most practical advice I’ve heard about the creative process: Forget your fear, get the F*** to work, and don’t judge it until you’re done.
High Art and Laurel Canyon are two of my all-time favorite films. There’s something intoxicating about the way Cholodenko blends images, words and music together on the big screen. Neither movie is particularly plot-driven, either, which highlights another principle of creativity: The work doesn’t have to be huge; it simply needs to be compelling and true.
I’ve written before about my love for this Dutch artist’s work. He’s a photographer, film director and all-around creative visionary. His gritty glamour and a slew of high-profile projects (including the 2007 film, Control) draw increasingly hungrier audiences, but he’s been shooting steadily since the early ’70s. I’m continually inspired by his work ethic and singular lens on the world.
These are just a few of the people and works I’ve long admired. Writing this post was a reminder that there are many, many, many more. In fact, I’m going to do another list soon.
Baring these influences is also strangely liberating. There’s a lot of baggage around the idea of creative references and, specifically, the pressure to value what’s exclusively considered highbrow, established or cool. You can and should seek out brilliant work at every opportunity, but you never know what will hit a raw emotional nerve. In the end, that’s what really endures.
photo c/o Division of Labor
It all started when my friend Jo-Anne – a gorgeous lawyer who dances Flamenco – sent me a Sunday Book Review sketchbook called “Snacks of the Great Scribblers.” From Truman Capote’s evolving (devolving?) drink schedule to John Steinbeck’s penchant for cold toast and stale coffee, the piece explores what fuelled the words of our most esteemed writers – living and dead.
I had to know more about Wendy MacNaughton, the artist behind the charming illustration. I followed the digital rabbit trail to her documentary series for The Rumpus and lost a good hour on her website and blog. Talk about talent. Wendy backs up her artistic prowess with a tangible sense of empathy and a journalist’s eye for detail. It’s a compelling, one-two creative punch.
Now based in San Francisco, Wendy has lived in Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Paris, New York and East Africa. She earned degrees in both art and social work and has sold used books, counseled survivors of torture, designed humanitarian campaigns in Kenya and Rwanda, produced a film in The Democratic Republic of Congo, and written advertising copy, among other pursuits.
Just over a year ago, Wendy left her campaign strategy job to work full-time as an independent artist and illustrator. She had been toiling away on freelance contracts in her off-hours for several years and the work was flowing steadily. It was time to make the leap. “It felt like the biggest, but also the smartest, risk I’ve ever taken,” she says. “Everyone was cheering for me – but it was really nauseating.”
The nausea is now firmly under control and Wendy is busier than ever. She draws the regular “Meanwhile” column (an illustrated documentary series on San Francisco communities) for The Rumpus, and her work has appeared in GOOD, Edible San Francisco, 7×7, Longshot, Time Out New York, Gizmodo, The New York Times, and Gastronomica. She sells her prints on 20×200 and Etsy (more on that below), and takes editorial and commercial commissions. Wendy has also turned her pen to packaging, site-specific installations, and several books are in the works. I can only assume world domination is next – one sympathetic commuter, musician and library patron at a time.
1. How has your transition to self-employment turned out?
Super well. It’s crazy. It has been better than I expected. One thing just seems to lead to the next. People always say, “It must be so nice! You’re working for yourself.” But I’m the hardest boss I could ever have. I work a lot. There’s also no distinction between my life and my work. I draw all the time. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, but I’m also happier than I’ve ever been because I’m doing what I love to do. It all sounds cheesy and cliché, but it’s true.
2. What fuels your work?
Just looking at things, like how a line forms in a coffee shop, or the weird ways that women tie sweaters around their necks. The way a woman ties a sweater around her neck has an amazing story behind it. Empathy is critical, and when you look at someone through an empathic lens, there’s a huge story there. It’s never just what you see on the surface. Life is a lot more interesting through other people’s eyes than through mine.
3. How do you balance the different demands of business and art?
I don’t. I’m disheveled. I have all the stuff that would make for organization, but a lot of it’s still in boxes. I’m working on that, and I’ll probably be working on it for the rest of my life.
In terms of the nitty-gritty, I try to keep a file on every client. I’m really good at keeping emails and printing stuff I need to print out. I have a standard invoice that I customize for every client. I make up a contract. I learned a hard lesson recently that I need to bill half [my rate] upfront and half on completion. I wasn’t doing that and I got in a really hard spot. I think a lot of other people have learned that same lesson.
I also have two agents now – a commercial agent and a book agent. It was a challenging decision for me, because I thought I could do a lot of what they do for me, in terms of promotion. Working in advertising, I became good at talking to people and getting new business. Obviously the agents can do it better than I can, and they’ll handle all the business stuff, which will give me more time to focus on my work. So, there’s a tradeoff. They take a large percentage of the money, but hopefully that math will work out for the benefit of my artwork and give me more time to make it.
Are books on the horizon?
I just partnered with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office to create a book of the piece “Meanwhile, The San Francisco Public Library.” I titled it “The San Francisco Public Library in its Own Words.” It will be out on September 15th and available in SF bookstores and online.
My partner, Caroline Paul, is a writer, and she and I recently collaborated on a proposal that’s out at publishers right now. She wrote it, I illustrated it. I’ve also met with some publishers about doing a couple other projects. So, yes, hopefully there will be two or three more books in the next couple years. I definitely want to do a book of the Meanwhile columns from The Rumpus. That’s a big goal.
4. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?
There are two – and they’re both great people and friends of mine as well.
The first is Lisa Congdon. She has an interesting background and she’s a self-taught artist. She has great business savvy and has really diversified herself. She does commercial illustration, her own books, book covers, prints, and she does some speaking. She recently had her first solo show at a gallery in San Francisco, which I thought was great. It’s so easy to get swept up in commercial work, so to create an entire body of work for a show at the same time is really impressive.
The second is Jason Polan. He became known for making little books and ‘zines and selling them out of a suitcase in Central Park. He did a series called “Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art” where he literally drew every single piece in the MOMA collection and made it into a book. Now he’s drawing every single person in New York. Those personal projects have led to so many sales, commissions, and shows. He’s booming. I really respect Jason, because he does many things, but he’s focused on his personal artwork. Companies, individuals and publications ask to use his work, but he doesn’t change what he does. He’s also a really good drawer.
5. How many revenue streams do you have?
I do a lot of editorial and commercial illustration. That includes magazines, newspapers, and reports. I’ve also done packaging, I have a couple books in the works, and I’ve done environmental graphics, where a company or store pays me to draw on their walls.
Then I make my own work and sell the originals. I make prints occasionally. I also sell my work on 20×200. They’re great. I love them. They work with both established and emerging artists and give them a great platform and great publicity and financial support. Their model is really fair and good for the artists.
I also do commissions. People will hire me to draw something that matters to them, whether it’s a character from a book or a map of a meaningful location. I’ve had a few people ask me to draw maps of their lives, which is an honour. I’ve also done general gun-for-hire stuff, like wedding invitations and other freelance work when I’ve needed to, financially speaking.
6. What is your bread-and-butter income source?
I have a couple big commercial clients and an ongoing branding project, but it’s mostly a lot of editorial work. My bread and butter comes very quickly in small bites. It’s not like a stable loaf on the table. People are throwing slices at me and I have to catch them.
7. Do you have a passive income stream?
Selling my prints on 20×200 is great. I can’t tell you how nice it is to get a cheque every month from those sales, even when it’s for a few hundred dollars. Those few hundred dollars really help.
I’ve also put some prints up on Etsy. I’m testing it out for a few months to see how it goes. Handling the fulfillment is a pain, but it was pretty incredible to list a few prints and make a good chunk of money in several weeks. I was shocked. Everyone around me was like, “duh,” but I’m still not sure it’s something I want to continue doing if I have to manage it all. I do see the promise, though, and I’m thinking about the books in the same way. It’s a lot of work on the front end, and then it would last over time.
8. What tools or financial opportunities do you think artists and creative pros should consider?
The Internet (as ironic as that seems), and I don’t mean social networking. I think now is a really, really great time to be an old-fashioned artist. With all of the hullabaloo online and the bells and whistles and Photoshop-y Illustrator stuff you see, people are really burnt out on the speed. Seeing something online that’s hand-drawn or painted slows people down. It’s like a breath. I think it’s important for artists to think about how they fit into that realm and how they can take advantage of it. How can artists format their work in order to connect with people using online platforms? The 20×200 site, for example, allows people to have art and buy physical prints – and that model wouldn’t exist without the Internet.
I also feel very lucky to be in San Francisco, because there are so many people involved in cutting edge technical and social media stuff. After I read about Longshot magazine on Twitter, I wrote and asked if they needed an illustrator. They said yes, so I went in at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning and there were all these people who hadn’t slept staring at computers. I walked in with my paints and my paper and some brushes and pens and sat down at the table and said, “Okay. What do you want me to do?”
The editors handed me an article to illustrate. I finished the illustration in a couple hours and they were blown away – and it had nothing to do with my artwork [ed. note – yes it did]. It was the fact that someone could create a painting right there and hand it to them. It was a physical object on paper, ready for publication. It was such an epiphany for all of us. It was exciting for them to see something handcrafted specifically for the project right before their eyes, and it was exciting for me to see how valuable that was to people working online. My new business brain said, “Here’s an untapped space.”
The first big client that really helped me switch to being a full-time artist and illustrator was Gizmodo, which is a tech site. The job came directly from working with Longshot. Gizmodo hired me for one month to draw five days a week. They gave me an assignment every day and I had to develop an idea, illustrate it, scan it and adjust it, and send it back to them so it was ready to roll by 6 a.m. east coast time. It was like illustration boot camp.
9. What has brought the most opportunities and attention to your work?
Gizmodo and 20×200 were great. I also created a map of San Francisco for 7×7 magazine and they used the map as the cover. That was big for me, and it created another passive income stream. We ended up printing posters of that map and selling them in bookstores, online, and in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. We just sold out and I decided not to go into another edition or do any more reprints. I’ll draw a new one in the future. But we sold hundreds of those. It was good money for a while, and it was incredibly helpful, in terms of publicity. I still get requests for it.
My focus now is Meanwhile on The Rumpus, which is something that I feel really strongly about. It’s keeping my head on straight about the kind of work I want to do, and it has gotten some good attention.
10. What is the best investment you’ve made in your career?
The time I’ve spent creating Meanwhile. Financially, building a website was a big investment. I had to bite the bullet and work with a web designer and pay what, for me, was a lot of money, but you gotta do it. It’s just so important – and I’m going to be re-designing in the next year or so.
What hasn’t paid off?
You know what doesn’t work? Cold calling. I should have known that. After I quit my job, there was a lull, and that was so scary. I had finished some big jobs and there’s always a lull. You do a big job and then there’s a pause and then more work comes in and then there’s a pause, and I had never hit a pause before. I didn’t have the experience to know that was temporary, so I wrote blindly to agents. That’s just stupid. Getting work is like anything else – you do one thing and it leads to the next. It doesn’t happen out of the blue. There’s nothing that’s less effective and more depressing than making a cold call.
11. What does “selling out” mean to you?
I’m kind of over the idea of selling out, meaning that if a company wants to pay me a lot of money to do something that I think is cool, that’s fine.
If a company wants to pay me a lot of money to do something that I don’t think is cool, then the math gets kind of hard. Is it something I don’t think is cool because I don’t like the idea, but I really need the money? I’ll consider it.
But if I’m asked to do something that I don’t believe in – like I actually think it’s ethically wrong – then that would be selling out. And I’ve done that. I did it when I made this transition. I needed more money to carry me over and I was offered a big sum to work on a project for a company whose practices I don’t agree with. I took it. And it was surprisingly easy, very lucrative and even kind of fun – although I purposely didn’t tell a lot of people about it and felt ashamed when I did.
But, I can see how saying yes to one job like that can lead to another. It can be a slippery slope. Hopefully I won’t have to make that decision again, and if I did, I believe I’d turn it down. But I’m not certain about things like I used to be; there’s all this grey area. I am certain I can do my best work in the world through my artwork, so that’s my bottom line.
Whew. I just wrapped several big, highly technical projects. It’s satisfying to emerge from a dark tunnel and I’m happy with the finished products, but I’m also feeling a little burnt out. Drained. Empty. In fact, my head is a test pattern.
So, I started thinking about what builds (and re-builds) creativity. In her classic book, The Artist’s Way (What? You haven’t read it?), Julia Cameron describes creativity as a deep well that needs constant filling. In order to enjoy that blaze of inspiration, you must actively seek new fuel for the fire.
Straightforward, right? But it’s not always easy to do. Our culture prizes action, results and measurable gains. We’re supposed to stay constantly in motion, striving earnestly toward a series of lofty goals. I love juicy projects and daunting to-do lists. I’m happy when I’m in hot pursuit of something big. But, I also know creativity requires regular pruning to stay healthy.
And here’s where I had a moment of (admittedly primitive) insight. It’s not wasteful or indulgent to spend time seeking inspiration. Getting immersed in music, magazines, books, galleries, dark bars, forest trails, complicated recipes and long conversations is, in fact, part of my job. It’s essential. Editors, clients and readers will be bored silly if I’m dried out. I owe it to myself and to others to keep that well filled.
I’d love to hear how you get and stay creatively engaged. Please spill your best secrets!
photos by Lissa Cowan
It’s 3 pm on a Tuesday afternoon. Heavy rain (or worse, snow) is flying sideways past the window, whipped into a frenzy by late-winter winds. Someone dented your bumper in the parking lot. A series of inhuman deadlines loom large. Lunch was tuna salad on pasty freezer bread, washed down with a mug of anemic coffee from the communal office pot.
Who wants to chuck it all and go to Tuscany?
Lissa Cowan, a writer, consultant and all-around literary talent, recently did just that. She and her partner, Sanjay, sold their Vancouver home and are traveling and working overseas for at least four months, and possibly more.
We’ve all seen a similar storyline unfold in movies like this and this and in this wildly popular book. But what strikes me about Lissa’s adventures is that she’s a full-fledged adult with a complicated life and real responsibilities. This isn’t a post-college backpacking trip. She’s not looking for love or trying to “find herself” in an olive grove. Instead, it took bravery and careful planning to (temporarily) leave everyday life in search of peace, creativity, mental space – and some very delicious food.
Today, Lissa’s sharing the details from her rented cottage in the Italian countryside. How did she make it happen? That’s what I wanted to know, and I’m sure you do, too.
1. Describe what you do for a living.
Professionally, I am a copywriter, editor, social media storyteller, communications strategist, translator and media relations specialist. My company is called Go Small or Go Home and our clients are mostly non-profits looking to make a positive social and/or environmental impact. The name for my business comes from my philosophy that working in small, unsuspecting ways with social media tools can be more cost-effective and have the greatest impact.
Creatively, I do all the above, and I’m also a writer of fiction and creative non-fiction. I have a literary agent in the UK and have been working with her on a novel project, which is finally nearing completion.
2. What are you most excited about right now, creatively speaking?
I’m excited that I’m on the last leg of this novel journey and that after this I’ll be able to follow up on other ideas I have for stories, other novels and a blog. Being able to see my work take shape in the way that I envisioned – after an incredible amount of hard work – is definitely a thrill.
3. How are you spending your days?
The trip to Tuscany, Italy just fell into place for me. I was planning to go to Bali and Vietnam, and then I was told it wasn’t the best season to be there. I started looking for somewhere to stay in Italy and found the perfect place right away. I’d been here six years ago and managed to write a non-fiction book proposal and see many places as well. I remember it being very peaceful, stunningly beautiful and easy for me to get into the ‘creative zone’ I needed to write.
Typically I wake up, do yoga, meditate, have breakfast and then start writing. I usually write for about five hours and then focus on client work in the late afternoon and evening. Though I also have about two or three days a week where I write all day, stopping partway through the day to go for a walk in the hills.
4. How were you able to leave “regular” life for so long?
It took a good three or four months to prepare to leave for four months, and a couple years before that to consider how it might be possible. My partner, who is also a writer, and I shared a home, had a cat, family responsibilities, a number of clients, and so on. Then there were lots of details to consider. For example, I needed a new, more lightweight computer with better capabilities. Because I work freelance and much of what I do is solitary, I figured that as long as I had an Internet connection, I could pretty much go anywhere. I have had some difficulties with Wi-Fi, though. For instance, last month I was on Santorini Island in Greece and had to leave a bit earlier than planned because the connection wasn’t good.
5. What were the most challenging pre-trip preparations?
I’d say the most difficult part was simply making the decision to leave. Once the decision was made, it was just a matter of making it happen. It’s not over the top to say that our lives have been turned upside-down. We were homeowners for seven years and it was hard to give that up. Yet we decided that living in a beautiful home in an expensive city was not as important to us as writing and following our dreams. The way I look at it, things come into our lives and they go out. When we have these things, we need to give thanks and accept the joy they bring to us, yet not have them rule our lives.
6. What has been most rewarding (so far) about your trip?
Definitely having the time to be more creative with my work and the time to write without worrying about all my deadlines. I still have deadlines and interruptions and I enjoy my professional work very much, but at least I’m in a place and a situation now where I can play more. To me, writing is all about having fun, exploring, and keeping that window of possibility open.
7. Any standout moments to date?
Arriving at this cottage in the Tuscan hills is definitely up there. It was pouring rain, the birds were singing. The house overlooks a valley of olive groves and dense forest. On the other side of the road, behind the cottage, I could see the medieval village on the hill. The whole setting was truly enchanting.
Generally speaking, buying local is a big thing for me. Almost everything I’m eating is produced here: the prosciutto, the cheese, honey, bread, wine, olive oil. It’s been a joy to talk to farmers at the Saturday market about their passion for what they do. And, of course a joy to eat!
I’ve also met some wonderful people since I’ve been here. In Florence I stayed in a 15th-century villa where the owner had weekly potluck dinners for her guests. I met a photographer, academics, an artist, writers… It was interesting to talk to them about how they managed to live creatively. A woman who was an art historian said to me, “Do whatever brings you joy.”
David Downton is one of those prolific artists whose work just seems to pop up everywhere. His illustrations have graced the pages of Vogue, The Financial Times, Harper’s Bazaar and V Magazine, and he draws for commercial clients including Chanel, Barney’s, L’Oreal, Dior, and Tiffany & Co.
In 2007, Downton started an international fashion illustration journal called Pourquoi Pas? Printed on heavyweight paper in a limited edition of 1,500, the periodical is intended to “celebrate drawing in our digital, disposable, point and shoot world.” Pretty fantastic.
He also published a glossy coffee table book last year called Masters of Fashion Illustration, which celebrates some of the world’s most outlandish talents (himself included). Light on text but heavy on eye candy, it looks like a gorgeous source of inspiration — whether you work in a visual field or not.
photos courtesy Molly Watson
I live on the West Coast and love seafood, so you’d think I’d be intimately familiar with mussels. Right? Wrong. For years, those delicious little devils scared the shells out of me. I feared the de-bearding and most of all, serving my guests an unexpected side of toxic encephalopathy (look it up – actually, on second thought, please don’t).
That all changed when I discovered Molly Watson and her lovely blog, The Dinner Files. Molly makes simple, seasonal foods that are easy to replicate. Even the most basic recipes, like a cherry smoothie or chickpea salad, get a unique twist in Molly’s deft hands. She’s also got a subversive sense of humor that gives her writing a delightfully cranky edge.
After earning a PhD in Modern European History, the reality of teaching French history failed to live up to her ideal vision, so Molly channeled her love of all things culinary into a career in food writing. She landed her first gig with Epicurious – in the early days when friends repeatedly asked “epi-what?” – and interned for Citysearch San Francisco. When the economy turned sluggish and 9/11 blindsided the nation, Molly decided to don her apron full time. She completed a professional cooking program and joined Sunset magazine as the staff food writer from 2005 to 2008.
Today, Molly is an independent writer. Her words have been published in The New York Times, Edible San Francisco, the San Francisco Chronicle, and she contributed an essay, “Scrambled Eggs” to the best-selling anthology, The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image, and Other Hazards of Being Female. She also writes a guide to local foods for About.com, works as a recipe developer and teaches food writing through Mediabistro.
Oh, and the mussels? Thanks to Molly, they’re now a (perfectly safe) staple dish in my kitchen.
1. What fuels your work?
Some of my work is fuelled by the fact that I like to get a check on a regular basis. But, I try to make sure that everything I do is informed either by my interest in food or my drive to write. That’s how I make sure that I don’t get too far afield.
Overall, what really fuels my work is craft. I love the craft of writing, I love the craft of cooking, I love the craft of quilting – which is one of my hobbies – and I used to be a historian, and I love the craft of history. That’s the connective thread between all of my work.
2. How do you organize the business side of your career so it doesn’t intrude on your creativity or productivity?
I try to sequester it. I try to set aside a time each week where I deal with those tasks. Now, I don’t always follow through with that plan. I’ve been quite busy this year, so I usually deal with the administrative stuff at night when I’m not as fresh. I also tend it to do it when I have a movie or a podcast on, because I find it’s so boring that being slightly distracted is helpful. I try to turn it into a reward.
3. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?
I can’t think of anyone specifically, but there is a type of person. I admire people who manage to turn their creative endeavors into their day jobs. So much of that is luck, but I really admire the people who keep their creative work in the forefront, even when they’re doing other kinds of work. To me, that’s really the goal: to make sure that my creative work comes first.
4. How many revenue streams do you have?
Four: writing for publications, editing, teaching food writing and recipe development. But, my short answer is: too many. I’m doing too many different things right now and I’m stretched a little thin.
5. What is your bread-and-butter income source?
6. Do you have a passive income stream?
It’s something that’s definitely on the horizon for me. I have a lot of ideas and I just need the time to follow through on them.
7. What tools or money-making opportunities do you think creative pros fail to leverage?
I think some people are ashamed to admit how they make money, or they think they’re supposed to earn it purely through their creative work, or they think all the creative people they know or have heard of make their money that way, and it’s just so rarely the case.
It’s important to get a sense how other people make it work – just to get ideas and to feel better about how difficult it is, because it’s really hard. It’s really, really hard to make a living in a creative field, and everyone comes to their own conclusions about how to do it.
8. What has brought the most opportunities and attention to your work?
Going to professional conferences. I find that meeting people in person makes a big difference in terms of the opportunities that will come to you.
Writers, in particular, tend to be such reclusive creatures. Part of what we like about writing is being by ourselves. And I would say that’s one of the fine lines of difference between journalists and writers. Journalists tend to enjoy being out in the world. I think writers really don’t. I know I don’t, not really. I’m a perfectly socialized individual, but I thrive when I have a lot of time to myself.
I think a mistake writers often make is thinking they can do everything over the computer or over the phone. Sometimes it’s good to get out and meet people. Certainly all the opportunities I’ve had in my career have come from people that I’ve actually met in person.
9. What is the best investment you’ve made in your career?
Spending the money to attend food writing conferences.
Is there anything that didn’t live up to your expectations?
Sometimes I question my time in culinary school. On one hand, I feel like I didn’t get that much out of it, because of how culinary school is set up and what I wanted to learn. But, I had a big break when I got a staff job at Sunset magazine. I don’t think I would have gotten that job if I hadn’t gone to cooking school. Even though I had already developed recipes for the magazine as a freelancer, I think having that stamp on my resume made a big difference.
10. Where do you stand on the “selling out?” debate?
To me, it’s about staying true to what you want to do. As long as you feel good about what you’re doing, you’re not really selling out and other people can throw all the rocks they want from their glass houses. I don’t judge people on that kind of thing. I figure everyone has different goals. I don’t know what someone’s goals are – they’re going to be totally different from mine. And even mine change over time.
At the beginning of this year, I made a professional New Years resolution that any work I would take needed to be fulfilling or lucrative. It had to be at least one of those two things. It has made a real difference in the kind of work that I do. I found myself taking work that at one point I might have considered “selling out,” but taking that work has freed up time I used to spend chasing marginally paying magazine articles and allows me to work on more creative projects.
Is there anything else you’ve learned and would like to share?
My biggest lesson is that no one is going to invite you to the party. You have to just show up. You can’t sit around your house waiting for someone to call you up and ask if you’d like to write this book or get this job. Maybe that will happen eventually, and it does happen to some people, but for the most part, you have to go out into the world and show up and do it.
Today, people worry that there are so many food bloggers and all these people who want to do food writing, and I say, “yeah, and most of them aren’t very good and most of them aren’t going to follow through.” I don’t mean that in a nasty way or that most people aren’t any good. I mean there are a lot of people who say they want to be writers or painters or artists, but they don’t do it. They don’t show up. It’s important to realize that it’s unusual to show up and actually do the work. Persistence really is at least half the battle.
April is always a brighter month for my inbox. Each day, Knopf Poetry sends out a free poem from a diverse roster of writers including Marge Piercy, Mark Strand, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edward Hirsch. It’s Knopf’s way of celebrating National Poetry Month and bringing some well-deserved attention to the genre. The program also offers bonus features such as downloadable broadsides, audio clips and signed books.
This beauty by Anne Michaels arrived one April morning last year — right next to the cell phone bill and news of a Dutch lottery jackpot — and took my breath away. Hope it fuels your creative fires, too.
There is No City that Does Not Dream
There is no city that does not dream
from its foundations. The lost lake
crumbling in the hands of the brickmakers,
the floor of the ravine where light lies broken
with the memory of rivers. All the winters
stored in that geologic
garden. Dinosaurs sleep in the subway
at Bloor and Shaw, a bed of bones
under the rumbling track. The storm
that lit the city with the voltage
of spring, when we were eighteen
on the clean earth. The ferry ride in the rain,
wind wet with wedding music and everything that
sings in the carbon of stone and bone
like a page of love, wind-lost from a hand, unread.