When is it time to stop daydreaming and start doing?
I don’t have an answer to share with you, but I’ve fallen in love with the question. Let me explain.
I started this blog to explore how people transform artistic talents and outlandish ideas into real, viable careers. I wanted to hear about business models and self-promotion, not to mention multiple revenue streams and how to balance creative exploration with paying the phone bill.
All these stories are fascinating – and I still think they’re helpful for anyone who’s reading, scheming and planning. But last Saturday, I was chatting with the owners of a two-year-old Pacific Northwest craft brewery. (Please stay with me; this has nothing to do with hipsters and everything to do with creative business). Between sips of winter ale, I realized that I had one big question for the couple behind the taps: when?
When did you know it was time to stop boiling hops in the basement or backyard and start a commercial business? When did you know you were ready? The tasting room suddenly filled up and I didn’t get to ask the question, but the answer, I suspect, is both personal and practical. Surely, it’s a complex equation with variables like money, timing, bravado, serendipity and boredom. That’s what makes it so interesting.
When new marketing tactics feel tired by Friday, the question of “when” is refreshingly stable. It’s constant. Because really, once you make the no-turning-back decision, you can figure out everything else. Log the endless hours and assemble the puzzle. After, that’s what mentors, sleepless nights and the internet are for.
Bottom line: I’m on the hunt for interesting stories of “when.” If you’ve got one, please get in touch. God knows I’m spotty on social media, but I’m quick to make personal connections. Send me an email. I’d love to hear from you. Oh, and these stories don’t need to feature lightning bolts or lottery wins; just real, true examples of knowing when the time is right.
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If the Internet is a cultural barometer, everyone I know is obsessed with setting goals (and eating “paleo”). We’re frantically sharing work strategies, mood boards, productivity tips and day-in-the-life schedules that explain how to simultaneously start a business and train for the Tour de France (dope-free, of course).
I set goals, too. I like tough deadlines and I’ve never met a notebook or organizational app that I couldn’t get behind. But what’s the result of all this self-reflection? Maybe we’re getting stuff done (a phrase I’ve come to loathe), but are we getting any better?
To be blunt; am I a better writer today than I was three years ago? I hope so, but I can tell you with complete certainty that I am a better interviewer.
I do a lot of interviews, and I’ve yet to find a technology that can effectively transform my digital voice recordings into legible type. I’ve searched and tested and nothing works – and somewhere along the way, I realized that transcribing is more than a necessary evil.
Hearing a conversation again usually reveals something I missed, and at the very least, deepens my understanding of the story. Listening – repeatedly – to your own voice on tape, however, is a special kind of torture. The recording lays bare every high-pitched giggle, nasal tone and unexpected speech tic. It’s easy to get flustered, right there in the privacy of your own earbuds.
During all that tedious typing, though, comes real learning. I realize which questions elicit the best responses and how to make people feel at ease. I also learn when to shut up and get over myself, versus moments where I could actually improve the interaction.
The irritating necessity of transcription has now become my tool for self-improvement. It works – and it makes me wonder what else is possible. Creativity is beautifully messy and intangible, but the skills we use in its service can always be sharpened. Most of us would do well to stop the planning now and then and do some clear-eyed assessment.
I urge you to find ways to measure your progress. Build a personal report card. Score yourself with grace and honesty. Then laugh off your mistakes and chalk it all up to learning.
Now have a drink. You’ve earned it.
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photos by Marnie Recker
He’s an accomplished web designer, musician, llama lover, nut enthusiast (yup, you read that right), blogger (who writes posts like “fuck being cool”) and now, the author of an excellent e-book called Eat Awesome: A regular person’s guide to plant-based, whole foods. Full disclosure: I also edited* Eat Awesome.
Paul and I first met nearly 10 years ago, and we’ve been friends and frequent collaborators ever since. I was lucky enough to have Paul design this blog and my professional website. He’s smart, talented, grounded and very funny. He also lives in Tofino, B.C., which is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and he spends several months of each year traveling with his wife and musical accomplice, Lisa. Sounds good, right?
But back to the book. Paul has the (surprisingly rare) ability to make big plans – and then make them happen. He also has a big following on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. When people started demanding recipes for the vegan dishes on his Instagram feed, Paul decided to write a book. One week later, he finished the first draft. That’s classic Paul: get an idea, dive in and do it.
Eat Awesome is ultimately a handbook for the “vegi-curious,” so it doesn’t matter whether you’re a vegan, a committed carnivore, or you land somewhere in between. No judgment. Just fresh, plant-based foods and delicious photos by Marnie Recker. I wanted to know more about Paul’s creative process and his experiences with self-publishing, so I asked him all kinds of nosy questions. Here’s what he had to say.
What inspired you to write Eat Awesome?
I had written Eat Awesome a bunch of times in emails to friends and family. They all asked the same questions about what I eat and wanted recipes for the plant-based food that I make. I didn’t want to keep writing that same email, so I thought I’d write a book.
Why were you getting so many questions about food? There are lots of other plant eaters out there…
Mostly because all I talk about is food and eating. I post a lot of food photos and I talk about food all the time on Twitter and Facebook. People often said, “can I have the recipe?” or “that looks good… how can I be vegan?” Strangers started asking the same questions that I got from my friends and family.
Were you always so obsessed with food?
I’ve always enjoyed good food, and for me, the point of traveling is pretty much to eat and try new things at restaurants. But in the last couple years I’ve been getting more and more into whole foods and clean, vegan eating and eating gluten-free. It just keeps snowballing.
Now that it’s summer, I’m getting all my produce from Vancouver Island or B.C. farmers. I just keep going further and wanting to know more and more about my food. It’s gotten to the point where I need to know where all my food is from and who, for example, picked these berries that I just bought.
When did you become vegan?
I’ve been vegetarian for eight or nine years. One day I realized, “I haven’t eaten dairy or eggs or anything like that for about a year. I guess I’m vegan.” So, I’ve probably been vegan for about three or four years.
Why publish Eat Awesome as an e-book?
I’m a nerd, so I like to do digital stuff and I know that world really well. I didn’t necessarily know anything about writing a book, but I do so much online and on the computer that it seemed like the best way to go.
I created a full e-book, though, because there’s still cachet attached to that form. I could have written all these recipes as blog posts and people might not even read them. But because I made it a PDF that you have to pay for and download, more people have been interested. And I do tons of writing. I write lots of guest posts and blog posts for other people, and I have a newsletter where I publish recipes that aren’t in the book or anywhere else online. The e-book seemed like the best way to get it into as many people’s digital hands as possible.
Why do you think books – even digital ones – have that cachet?
To be honest, I don’t have a clue. But I think it’s cool. I like that even though you can’t feel the pages and smell the paper, there’s still something about having it all in one place, formatted how the author wants it to be, and the content flows more like a story than on a blog.
What was the most difficult part of the project?
Learning how to do it. I did everything on my own, basically, like figuring out how to publish it and how to handle the e-commerce and the marketing. Writing the book probably took less than a week. But then there was the photography, getting the editing done, figuring out the marketing plan, and submitting it to all the different blogs and online review sites. All that took way more time than writing it – and I did it myself because I wanted to learn how to do it. For me, that was the most difficult part, but also the most interesting and fun.
What’s the best response to the book that you’ve received to date?
Every time I hear that somebody has thought more deeply about what they eat. That’s why I wrote it. I don’t really care if somebody is vegan or not, but obviously it’s cool if someone tells me, “I went vegan because of you.” People are seeing the connection between food and their bodies and their health and how their lives work. To me, that’s the biggest thing – hearing that people are questioning food and thinking about it.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about self-publishing?
Everything takes a lot of time. I had the idea to write book at the beginning of the year, and I thought, “I can get this done in a week or two.” That didn’t happen at all. So, you need to have patience. Even when you send the book to iTunes or Amazon, it takes 3-4 weeks for it to show up on their systems. The delay gave me time to really think about the book promotion, to get review copies out, and to build the buzz. I built a big mailing list, too, so as soon as the book was out, I could send an email blast and generate lots of interest. I didn’t expect the whole process to take so long, but I’m glad that it did.
Have you recouped the money that you invested in creating the book?
Basically, I spent 10 bucks on the domain name and 100 bucks to get it on all the online e-publishing platforms. So, yes, I’ve definitely recouped that cost!
I also bribed the photographer by saying, “you can eat every single one of the recipes if you help me with this.” All of my friends and neighbours were really stoked when we did the food photos. We finished the photography in about three days and we shot every single meal in the book. So there was a lot of food!
I’m lucky that I know lots of people who are really good at what they do. I could also build the website by myself, because that’s what I do, and I could build the newsletter and set up the e-commerce functions. I was lucky that I could cover everything that might cost money, other than getting it onto the publishing sites.
In your opinion, how viable is self-publishing as a revenue stream?
I didn’t publish this book to make money – and that’s why I only charge five bucks for it. I just wanted to get it into people’s hands. But, I think there’s definitely some value in original content. Unfortunately, it’s not as much as it used to be.
I didn’t look for a publisher and I didn’t write a proposal, because I knew I could do it myself. That way, I can get 100% of the revenue, and my costs to write it and produce it were low. So, I think it’s kind of viable, but unfortunately, as with anything in the arts and the creative realm, you’ve got to really work at it and you’ve got to really hustle to make money doing it.
What’s your best advice about promoting a project like EA?
Be genuine about it. I use social media as the main source of promotion for the book, and a lot of people on social media just talk at everybody. I don’t think that works and I don’t find that engaging at all. I think it’s good to have conversations with people. I probably tweet “my e-book is available” about once a week, but in that week, I’m still tweeting and talking and sharing photos on Instagram and engaging with people. When I do have something to promote, they’re more likely to pay attention, because they’re invested in our conversation.
You always describe yourself as an introvert, yet you’re very active on social media. What gives?
I’m much better at written communication. I have done public speaking, but I would never do it in the future, and playing music is about the only thing I’m going to do in front of people. But I can tweet and share a photo with thousands of people, and I can set the interaction that I want. I can reply or not reply, and I can engage or not engage, and if I don’t feel like “talking to people,” I don’t need to put anything out that day. For somebody like me, I think it’s perfect.
What advice would you give to people who have ideas or content they want to share (potentially in an e-book) but don’t know how to start?
There are so many free and relatively cheap services out there. For example, anyone can create a site with WordPress, pick from a bunch of free themes, and just start writing content. If you’re creating a book, you can write in whatever program you want, save it as a PDF, and there are a ton of shopping cart systems that are simple to set up (I use Sellfy) – even if you don’t have any programming knowledge.
Bottom line: There are easy ways to do everything that I did, without having the technical background that I have. It’s just a matter of finding those services. It might not look 100% perfect right away, but there are so many pro WordPress themes and templates in Pages (the Mac app) that can make all your stuff look good.
Did you have any goals or targets for the project?
I had no goals. I just wanted to do it. I thought it would be cool if a couple hundred people bought the book, and now a couple thousand people have bought it. So, it’s doing better than I thought it might, but I wasn’t trying to sell a certain number of copies or recoup a certain amount of money. It was a project of love and interest for me.
Any other advice or words of wisdom?
I know lots of people who want to write a book or an e-book, but they think, “I don’t know how.” You can learn as you go. If you make mistakes, just own them and move on. People aren’t expecting perfection. They’re okay with a process, so don’t get hung up on doing it right. Just do it.
What’s next? Do you have more creative projects up your sleeve?
So many. I wish I had more time in the day. I’m working on an iPhone app about being vegan and eating awesome food. I’m also doing a website that interviews vegans, but doesn’t touch on anything related to food or animal rights. Plus, a couple more cool things that I can’t share yet.
*I love editing big, meaty (no pun intended) projects like Eat Awesome. Send me an email if you want to chat.
I’ve long admired Vancouver’s In the House Festival. Born in 2003, this creative performance series transforms private homes and living spaces into temporary theatre venues. The eclectic, intimate shows often fuse music, dance, storytelling, film, theatre, spoken word, acrobatics and burlesque to create unique cultural experiences for hosts, audiences and artists alike.
Yesterday afternoon, I got a sneak peek at their third-annual haunted theatre installation. Just in time for Halloween, the House of Faerie Bad Things is a mash-up of puppetry, opera, aerial circus, belly dance, film and music. The one-hour tour takes you through 14 different faerie environments in a labyrinth-like space. Eight shows run nightly from Oct. 29-31st with an after-party for all ticket holders following the last tour.
“It’s a very different kind of scare than ‘here’s a dude with a chainsaw,'” explains In the House artistic director and show co-producer Myriam Steinberg, who suggests the eerie tour is best suited for visitors ages 12 and up. All the scenes pull their dark, often gruesome and macabre content from old faerie tales. But, “there are a few moments that are hauntingly beautiful,” adds Steinberg.
So why faeries? What’s so frightening about Tinkerbell, Ariel and her winged sisters — and what’s the connection to Halloween?
“It’s all linked to the same culture,” says artistic director and co-producer Chris Murdoch, whose studies in comparative mythology revealed that nearly all pre-Christian societies had faerie-related celebrations around harvest time, during the period we now mark as Halloween. People believed that the veil separating the earthly world from the supernatural grows thin as winter draws near. The stories and fables passed down from early civilizations provide a cautionary tale for the season. “I really enjoy faerie mythology and the tongue-in-cheek, dark humour in it,” says Murdoch.
I have to confess I’m usually a Halloween killjoy. Save for the occasional set of Mickey Mouse ears or the year I played a vampire victim, I usually let the day slip by without celebration. The House of Faerie Bad Things offers a new way to explore the dark holiday without resorting to the usual clichés. You’ll get an excellent dose of local theatre culture — and hopefully a good scare, too.
To buy tickets (they’re going fast) or for more details, visit the In the House Festival website.
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.
“Success comes from being the exception to the rule.”
These are words to live (and work) by, according to Megan Clark. A sought-after graphic designer and owner of three affiliated businesses, Megan lands firmly in the exceptional category. She’s also developing a busy sideline gig as a keynote speaker, and loves to share her hard-earned lessons about art and commerce. I was eager to get the lowdown on this inspiring woman from Vancouver, WA (the other, less riotous Vancouver, just up the I-5 from Portland). She didn’t disappoint.
When the ad agency Megan worked for suddenly went bankrupt three years ago, it was the kick in the pants she needed to turn her off-hours freelancing into a full-time design firm, Studio M, which she recently incorporated as Clark & Co. The studio offers branding and design services for startups and big-name clients including Simple Shoes, Disney, WebMD Health Services, Nike, Tourism New Zealand, Waggener Edstrom, Razorfish, Levi’s, Holland America Line and Travelocity.
Last year, Megan and Jen Mele also launched hi, friend – an online boutique featuring printed goods and custom stationery, all designed by Megan, of course. If that wasn’t enough, Megan recently unveiled her most ambitious project to date, The Exceptional Creative. Both a downloadable toolkit for designers and a brand-new online hub, The Exceptional Creative (TEC) is built on the principle that when all else is equal (talent, work ethic, etc), the most successful creatives have exceptional communication and organizational skills. They’re professional and they’ve got it together.
Megan’s got big plans for the EC community, but her first product is A Toolkit for Designers, which includes customizable templates, questionnaires, invoices, a client contract drafted by a business attorney, and more. She’s already done the legwork. For designers just getting out of the starting blocks, or anyone who needs to ratchet up their business tools, it’s a valuable package – and it makes you wonder, why didn’t someone think of this sooner?
And when does this woman sleep?
1. Tell me more about The Exceptional Creative.
I first came up with the idea last summer. I was co-directing a program for entrepreneurs, and we were focusing on products. I kept thinking about how I was working and what I could offer to other designers, and someone pointed out that I work differently from many other creatives. I’m very Type A, kind of a control freak, and pretty darn organized. Then I thought, “How can I offer what I do naturally and spent the past five years creating to people who are just starting out?”
I created a toolkit for designers – particularly entrepreneurial designers – that includes invoices and client contracts and other necessities. I developed the product first, but then I needed a way to introduce and launch it. I was asked to speak at a university and when I was working on my presentation, I came up with the phrase “the Exceptional Creative.” I wanted to share with students the idea that if you want to get ahead as a designer (or in any creative field), you have to act differently. You have to be exceptional and be the exception to the rule. That’s when all the pieces came together and it became a platform that I’m very passionate about.
2. What was the most challenging part of building it?
Just getting it done. I had a hard time staying motivated, and I think it was because there weren’t clients tapping their toes waiting for it. There was no deadline. So, I asked a couple people to create a core accountability team for me. I put together a timeline and asked them to hold me accountable. They didn’t have to review all the materials at each checkpoint, but I wanted them to keep asking me if they were done.
Simply keeping up the momentum from the first spark of an idea and that initial excitement through all the tedious tasks was really challenging. But, there are an increasing number of designers working on their own as free agents. The more that number grows, the more people are going to realize that they need to get their business tools in order. This really drove me to finish the toolkit.
3. How will you help people understand the need for these tools?
I’m offering a free download that outlines the client experience, and I think it’s really enlightening for designers to see the stages that they should be taking their clients through. It helps them realize that these tools can save considerable time and energy, given that they go through the same process with every single client.
Personally, I didn’t realize that I needed a lot of these tools and documents until I made mistakes because I didn’t have them – especially the client contract and some of the disclaimers in the invoices and estimates.
4. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?
Anyone who is working on a national level and has a publication, a speaking circuit of some sort, and still does studio work is intriguing to me. Someone like Seth Godin, who has created an empire for himself, is really inspiring.
Locally, there are some great people who fit that description. Frank Chimero is someone I’ve been following for a while. He’s a Portland designer who does illustration work for large corporations and magazines, but he also writes. He’s publishing a book, he’s got a fantastic blog and he also sells his studio art. That diversity is really smart.
People who have a diverse business model can express their passions in a lot of different ways – and it’s obvious that regardless of the medium, they have something to say and will find a way to say it. Those are the type of people who get my attention.
5. How many revenue streams do you have?
Currently, four. In my studio (Clark & Co.) I work on project and hourly rates, plus I’m often hired as a contractor for other branding and advertising agencies. Then there’s product sales from hi, friend and The Exceptional Creative. I also created some online business templates for INKD.com from which I receive commissions.
6. Tell me more about your passive income streams.
Building hi, friend took a lot of time upfront, but now the product sales can be considered passive income – except for customizing wedding invitations or any other personalized stationery design. Now that it’s launched, TEC offers straightforward digital downloads. That’s a completely passive stream. The business templates for INKD.com are also passive income. People can purchase the identity systems online and I receive a commission.
7. What is your bread-and-butter income source?
Ongoing clients. I work with a lot of startups at the beginning of their journeys that return to me as regular clients. I have a client who just spoke at a TEDx event in Silicon Valley and is featured in Wired magazine this month. We first worked together at a coffee shop a couple years ago. So, my bread and butter is people who’ve had a good experience working with my studio and decide to come back. It’s a lot more efficient to keep your current clients happy than it is to try and get new ones.
8. Talent aside, what’s been the secret to your professional success?
I really think it has a lot to do with being responsive. Everyone can learn how to be responsive. Acting differently from what people would expect from a designer is the biggest reason I’ve succeeded, in my opinion.
Acting differently? What does that entail?
Communicating well. Knowing how to write, how to speak, and how to pick up the phone when email might not be the best way to talk something through with a client. And if something does go wrong, which it will, you make it right – whatever it takes. Even if you make no money on the project, but your client walks away feeling like you treated them well, that goes beyond talent. It’s easy to be selfish and get wrapped up in your cash flow and forget that you need to be generous and selfless to stay afloat.
9. What’s not worth the time and energy?
I’ve been reading a lot of Seth Godin’s recent books, like Linchpin and Poke the Box. He describes how you can have the best idea in the world, but unless you actually execute it and let it out into the world, it’s not worth much. As designers, part of our training is to pay attention to detail and keep pushing a project until it’s perfect, but at some point you cross a line and the things you’re perfecting don’t really matter. It’s more important to get it out there – whether it’s for a client and a deadline or a personal project. Get it out there and let the world interact with it.
As Godin says, “Anything beyond good enough is called stalling and a waste of time.” Part of me is offended by this, but deep down I know it’s true and agree completely. In this mindset, perfection is what’s not worth the time and energy most of us spend working toward it.
10. Where do you stand on the “selling out?” debate?
I have to make a living doing design and making money is the point of business, but the reason I do what I do is because it helps people. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. If helping people doesn’t satisfy anymore and I do it just for the money, I will have sold out. There are days I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of that line, but then I get a shout-out from a colleague, a thank you note from a client or have a meaningful conversation about the work I’m doing and I remember what it’s all about.
11. Any other advice you’d like to share?
Find a mentor. Whether it’s an informal relationship or it’s someone you hire as a coach, find a mentor. Mentors can make all the difference; I know they have for me. I also have a lot of colleagues that I consider mentors. I like to collect mentors.
Also, respond to every email – even if you don’t have the answer. Just say, “I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out for you.” I think people can hide behind their email. I consider unresponsiveness a sin. I think it’s really horrible. I make a rule to respond to every email, unless it’s spam. It’s a super practical detail that can have a huge impact. The times I’ve run into trouble with my clients is when I haven’t been in contact with them often enough.
paintings by carolyn stockbridge / images courtesy elliott louis gallery
The very best thing about the Internet (in my humble opinion) is the chain of inspired connections it promotes. Have I written about that here before? It’s definitely one of my obsessions, and I think it goes far beyond the immediate links of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. I love stumbling into fresh ideas and creative work online, just as we used to rely purely on bookshelves, gallery walls and local clubs for new discoveries.
photo by RAD Studio
Today, my friends, you’re in for a treat, because Vancouver-based painter Zoe Pawlak is sharing her well-earned wisdom on art, persistence and strategic creativity.
I first met Zoe through Loaded Bow – a venture she co-owns with Genevieve Ennis designed to connect and support women entrepreneurs. Zoe’s one of those people who can turn strangers into allies in five minutes flat. She’s warm and driven with a ridiculously sharp mind for business. Most importantly, her paintings draw you deep into the canvas with vibrant, vivid colors and hypnotic images.
Zoe studied painting at Concordia University and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. She’s the rare artist who enjoys both a thriving critical practice – including solo and group shows across the continent – and a successful career painting commissioned, site-specific works. She also served as Head of Community Relations for the 2010 Cheaper Show and writes for the Art Toronto blog, impression / expression.
As the mom of two kids under five, Zoe’s determined to follow her creative instincts and support her family. She also talks about painting with a sense of excitement that’s surprisingly rare. Zoe’s downright giddy about spending her days in the studio and sees sales and marketing as a welcome challenge – and a great adventure. So sharpen your pencil or power up your iPad and prepare to take notes. There’s so much to learn from this lovely and talented lady.
1. What fuels your work?
I started painting because I love people, so I painted the figure for a long time and I practiced figure drawing and portraiture, because I wanted to tell the story of what people physically look like and how they move through the world. Over the last few years, my work has been emotive landscapes that are either physical or emotional places, and the paintings are made from memory. I arrive at them through experimentation and intuition and I just sense when they’re complete.
These days, I’m moving back into figurative work and trying to combine the figure with partial narratives and stories about women, specifically, and what we’re experiencing.
2. How do you balance the different demands of painting and business?
There’s a natural intrusion that occurs and I actually really enjoy it. It’s the spontaneity that drives my work. When I’m painting, I have a lot of time by myself and ideas just come to me about how I could sell work and move it through the market. I actually enjoy the peace and the rest that painting gives me. It fuels creative ideas and innovative ways of doing business.
I’ll paint for about an hour, hour and a half, put on music and get into it. If an idea comes to me about a client that I have to follow up with or a really beautiful blog that I forgot to write down, I’ll stop painting. I have my laptop in my studio and I’ll work for 20 or 30 minutes and pursue certain ideas. I’m a strong believer in always putting your work out there, so for the past three or four years, I’ve always spent a minimum of 15 minutes a day putting my work out into the world.
I feel like being in business drives a lot of the ways I think about painting. I have a responsibility to make honest work, but I also want it to be relevant to people.
3. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?
Martha is very persistent and she’s built an empire. She paved the way for us. We get to do what we do because women like Martha Sturdy have pushed through. I was fortunate to have a phone interview with Martha once and she ended by saying, “make sure that you’re always having adventures.” But throughout our the conversation, she kept saying that you have to be persistent, make what you want, put it out in the world – and if you love it, people will love it. Well, sometimes they won’t, but as a creative person, you have to continue to make the work that you really want to make.
I’ve recently gotten to know Jane and I respect the fact that she’s worked hard and shaped the company based on her strong philosophical beliefs. Jane is very attentive to what she thinks is going on, what people need, and she’s behind so many great cultural events in the city, like the introduction of Pecha Kucha in Vancouver. She’s taken Vancouver up as a calling. I think she’s very wise and innovative, and I feel that Cause+Affect thinks farther into the future than many other companies.
4. How many revenue streams do you have?
I make my money only through painting and drawing, but I do so in two ways. One is selling my original paintings and the other is commission work, which I’ve really pursued and tried to carve out as niche for myself by providing clients with a service. I say service, because people do receive an original painting. I believe in that originality and I don’t make prints.
Last month, for example, I worked with a clinic that needed art for their interiors and I sold them five paintings. Three were commissions based on their space. They sent photographs and I took elements from the pre-existing colour scheme and other details and I made them into original paintings. They also two bought two of my original pieces. I always make sure to bring the work right into the client’s space. Nine times out of ten when I bring work into a space, it doesn’t leave.
I’ll give minor discounts and I offer payment plans – I try to make it accessible – but I pay real attention to customer service. I think of myself as a people person and customer service is of the utmost importance.
I applied to participate in a recent city mural project with RUF Project and for Brief Encounters, as well, which are dependent on grant funding. I’m really interested in the public and performative aspects of painting.
5. What is your bread-and-butter income source?
Commissions probably represent 60 percent of my income. The sale of original pieces accounts for the other 40 percent.
How do people – especially other artists – react to your focus on custom work and the idea of customer service?
Artists want to make a living from their work, but a lot of them don’t want to alter their art to meet the needs of clients, or they don’t even think of the people who buy their art as clients. So, sometimes it’s met with suspicion. Most artists believe that they’re doomed to carry another job and few believe that it’s possible to make a living independently. But when you go through traditional systems, such as galleries, you’re still subject to other people’s ideas of what your art should look like and how it should ultimately be.
I’ve seen a lot of artists who think they’ve arrived after securing gallery representation and then they’re either disappointed or surprised if they don’t sell well. They just assume “Okay, now I’m in this big gallery, now I’m going to sell,” but if they’re not making a living, their studio practice suffers. At the end of the day, my mission is to support my studio practice, which affords me the ability to make new ideas happen. I get to advance my career and I work full-time in the studio. I don’t take that lightly and consider it a huge blessing.
6. Do you have a passive income stream?
I’ve done other things, such as teaching, and I’ve let my attention become very divided in the pursuit of making a living. But time and time again, my husband always says, “you pay yourself the most when you’re painting.” At this point in my career, I’m very committed to doing what is the most lucrative. I only have to sell one big painting in order to make my monthly income, for example, so why would I do 15 other little things and run around like crazy? But you still have to do a lot of work to ensure one or two sales.
photo by RAD Studio
7. What tools or money-making opportunities do you think artists and creative pros should consider?
Right now, I’m really excited about video. I think video and YouTube are a great way to give people a glimpse into your studio practice and who you are. Essentially, I believe that people are looking for connection – across the board. Through Oprah, through yoga, through everything, we’re looking to connect with each other. So, anything that allows you to touch your customer and connect with people is going to make you more prosperous.
I also believe in follow-up. My last 50 clients have come from following up on leads. You have to be first-of-mind for people. I often meet people who don’t have any money – they’re students, they have debt, whatever – but I know that in seven years when they have $2,000 in the bank, I trust that they may buy a painting from me, because they’ve responded to the paintings, I’ve planted that seed and I’m authentically building that relationship.
I feel honored, too, when I sell a painting, because that means you’re leaving a piece in someone’s home. They live with that painting every day and they’re giving you a huge piece of their interior physical space. It’s a big responsibility. People wake up in the morning, they’re drying their hair and doing their thing and I feel honored that they let me live permanently in their homes.
8. What has brought the most opportunities and attention to your work?
Design*Sponge. In 2008, Grace Bonney featured my work on her blog and I sold over 20 paintings in three days. It also led to a commission with Chloe Warner of Redmond Aldrich Design. She hired me to create a piece in San Francisco, which was my biggest commission to date. I also got to travel down there and the piece was photographed for Martha Stewart Living.
Building visibility in my hometown, Vancouver, has also been valuable. I’ve done that through the Cheaper Show, IDS West, and a couple wedding fairs. I also send free thank you cards (with my website on the back) for real estate agents. They give the cards to clients who have new homes with empty walls. I’ve also offered agents a deal on a commission and they, in turn, give their clients my card with the gift of a custom painting. When the agent knows their client is an art lover, it connects me to the client, the homeowner gets a commissioned, one-of-a-kind piece – and they always have more walls to fill.
After the first Design*Sponge feature, I wrote a story for the site’s Biz Ladies section and provided a PDF of my thank you card. Anyone who reads it can take the PDF to a printer and, of course, the card has my website on the back. That led to about 300 email requests and now those cards are living out in the world. There are all kinds of ways to do things for free.
From a business perspective, I never see selling one painting as good enough. If someone says they want one painting, I bring three and show them more. Or if they say, “I love that, but it’s sold,” I say, “I’d love to do a commission for you. Let me come over and I can customize it to your space.” I work hard to meet people’s needs. There’s no such thing as a dead end.
I’ve also done a lot of business with women through Loaded Bow. I give work to charitable auctions, which has been awesome and ultimately, very lucrative. I make sure to attend the auction and talk to people. You can’t let your piece sit out in the middle of nowhere. I also promote emerging Canadian artists for impression/expression, which is the Art Toronto blog. When I write for others, I always ensure that my name is hyper-linked to my site and I get a lot of traffic back that way.
Is there anything that hasn’t been worth the effort?
I’ve done so many things that aren’t worth it! I did a joint show during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. At the end, we realized, “oh, so people were here for the sports and the beer!” That was an expensive mistake. We rented an empty space and took a month out of our studio practice to be present and the show, but no one came. The South Granville area was like a ghost town.
Still, I wouldn’t discourage people from trying new things. Make small, thoughtful investments and do them really well. I’ve made this mistake a lot – and I keep making it: Appearing mediocre because you’re too cheap or unwilling to go all the way to fully realize an idea. That is a weakness.
Even if you only have a bit of money, do it 110%. Really commit. People recognize quality and they’re looking for quality – and if you’re not good at the little details, ask for help. I outsource all the time. I’m always asking to do trades with people. I trade for yoga and haircuts and massages, but also to promote my business. Try and outsource that which is not your strength. Again, I pay myself the most when I’m painting.
9. What is the best investment you’ve made in your career?
Ever since I had kids, I feel strongly that you need to do what you’re meant to do. The biggest investment is actually the time you give up to work. You have to be apart from your home and the people who matter to you. I spend a lot of hours in the studio in pursuit of this thing that I could be wrong about and that I’m often wrong about. It takes faith to commit your time and energy. I was out four nights last week promoting my work. I feel very fortunate that I can do it, but it’s still a sacrifice and an investment. I really want my children to do exactly what they’re meant to do in the world – whatever that is.
photo by RAD Studio
10. Where do you stand on the “selling out?” debate? What would selling out look like to you?
Why are we creating this polarized conversation about selling out versus purity? I’m so excited when I experience art that comes from a clear vision. Someone like Rothko, for example. When I look at his work, I’m so grateful that he never deviated from the “purity” of his vision. He never sold out, so to speak. I think there’s a stronger cultural impact if someone is true to his or her art. But can you afford that in this capitalist world? I’m unwilling to suffer in the ways so many artists have and still do. I want to have a balanced life more than I want to have my ideas completely manifested through my paintings.
Ultimately, I know when I’ve sold out. I know when I’ve sold something and I thought it wasn’t really done or very good or it deviated from my true style. But you can only find your compass by messing up. I hear that from a lot of entrepreneurs. Cut ties with the things that you know are wrong, right from the beginning. You knew it six months ago. You knew it a year ago. Then when you’re free, you have space for other things to come in.
The concept of passive income really trips people up. I always ask artists whether they have a passive income stream, but I’m continually surprised when they call it laziness, or a form of cheating on their “real” work. Not true. Here’s my definition:
Passive income is anything that can (theoretically) earn money while you sleep. Once you’ve created and/or arranged this revenue source, it continues to pay dividends – without your direct time, attention or effort.
Now for a new example.
Kendi Skeen writes a charmingly candid fashion blog called Kendi Everyday. After moving with her husband to a small Texas town, she started the site as a creative outlet, explaining, “Many people use words to journal, I just use my clothes.”
Recently, Kendi launched the 30 for 30 challenge, where she and her readers vow to wear and remix just 30 items of clothing (including shoes) for 30 days. It’s a way to flex your fashion muscles and appreciate what you’ve already got — much like the six items or less movement, without all the laundry.
Smart cookie that she is, Kendi also created a 30 for 30 Remix Workbook. The $4 downloadable e-book helps readers to navigate their closets with style. It’s a perfect example of passive revenue – and it’s a natural extension of her online conent.
I wanted to know more, and Kendi was kind enough to answer my questions.
1. Why did you decide to write the 30 for 30 Remix Workbook?
A few months ago, I had a conversation with a close friend who asked me what I wanted to do in my life. In jest, I answered, “I want to write a book.” In jest, mind you. With that, she told me to do it, to start small with an e-book, just to see if I could do it. So when we started talking about it I figured that I should start with my upcoming 30 for 30 remix challenge. Since the remix was my brainchild, the possibility of everyone understanding the idea behind it and the process is slim. And who better to write a guide than someone who came up with the idea? So after much pushing from my husband and friend, I penned the 15-page guide.
2. How long did it take you to create it?
The guide took me about a month to create, design, and write. A very long month. I had never done this before and really I hadn’t seen many of these guides on other blogs, so it was kind of a trial-and-error process. I now know many things that I would do better and differently. So I hope to write a few more to post on my blog.
3. How has the response been so far?
It’s been good! Like I said, I’d never done this before so if I sold five, that would have been successful in my mind! There was no real benchmark for the guide; I just wanted to create something to help someone with the ins and outs of their closet.
Passive revenue was not the ultimate goal, but it has been a great perk. I certainly could not work on something for a solid month and send it out in the world for free. I consider myself an artist after all, maybe not with a canvas and paint, but with words and design. And no artist should give their art out for free. I hope people have received the guide and felt the hard work that I put in and that it has helped them in their day-to-day closet matters. If it has helped even one person, then I think it was worth the work.
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.