Three pieces of advice from Amanda Wright of Wit and Whistle

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting with Amanda Wright of Wit and Whistle, where she creates “pretty funny paper goods” and enamel pins.  Her work is just my style and is completely awesome!

We had a great interview regarding her roles as artist and mother to her 14 month old daughter.  The whole interview was great, which you can read in the book.  Here are a few key pieces of advice that I picked up on from her.

1.  When asked if having a child has changed her work.  She said:

I don’t think it has changed my work itself yet, but it has given me a sense of urgency when I’m creating. I try not to waste a single moment that I get to work. I know I’m a lot more efficient than I was pre-children.
I hear that!  I think it’s completely possible to have a set time to create, instead of waiting around the muse to come and visit.  Busy moms can’t wait for the muse.  We have to make the time for the muse.  I only have a few hours during weekday afternoon to work–creative work, not housework or mom work :).  Sometimes, if an idea hits me during a non-creative work time, I’ll jot down a note to I can visit it later.  I truly don’t believe in waiting around for creativity to strike.  It’s a lifestyle.  I’m constantly thinking and coming up with ideas and then I work on them as soon as I get the chance.
2.  When I asked her if she ever had to say no to a project because of her duties as a mother.  She said:
So far I haven’t had to pass up any projects, but it does take me a lot longer to complete my projects since work time is limited. Caring for my daughter is my top priority, but I’m being very intentional about making my work a priority too. I’ve worked hard to build my business, and it’s important to me that it continues to thrive.  I want to set an example for my daughter as I follow my dreams and build my career and family, too.
I think it’s so vitally important to set good examples for our children.  They pick up on every single thing they see us do and say.  I think a mom running a successful business from home sets an awesome example!
When I asked her what advice she had to pass along to other creative mothers, she said:
Sleep when the baby sleeps is a total fallacy—I say create when the baby sleeps!
It’s true.  Maybe not in the first few months of motherhood, when you are still trying to figure out which way is up.  But, when the world starts to make sense again, definitely.
Thank you so much to Amanda for the inspiring interview.  And, if you want more inspiration or a laugh or smile, visit her website or her Etsy shop.
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It’s been awhile…

And there’s no excuse for that.  But, here’s mine anyway… Since I vowed back in December to work every single day on the book, I really have been trucking right along.  I’ve been contacting women on Etsy for the past month or so.  I’ve been visiting Etsy shops and doing research and sending out emails requesting interviews.  Yeah, sounds rough.  Looking at cute Etsy shops all day.  And by all day, I mean the tiny sliver of time that I dedicate to work every afternoon (if the planets align).  But, I’ve managed alright.  😉

I have to tell you, I sure felt silly that I hadn’t even considered Etsy until I inadvertently stumbled across a list of the top Etsy sellers.  Big surprise, a lot of them are moms.  There sure are a lot of creative mamas there, and I have been getting some great responses.

One such mama is Susan Shaprio.  Her Etsy shop is Susabellas, and she has her own online shop at www.susabella.com.  Susan is the maker and seller of personalized wedding, baby and home gifts.  She has had 37,340 sales on Etsy alone since 2011!  She started her business in her garage at her home in Woodinville, Washington, but has since outgrown that space and now operates out of a 1,900 square foot studio/warehouse.  Susan sums up her experience in a few short sentences:

I moved to Seattle in 2004 and eventually met my husband and when we had our son I decide to take some time off. I missed having a creative outlet and my mother in law suggested taking pottery classes. One thing lead to another and my hobby became a business.

Although, I’m sure there’s a little more to it, that brief story is so inspirational.  It makes me think, “I can do that.” And, you can too!  That’s what the whole book is about–moms inspiring other moms and making us all realize we can do it.

Susan ended our interview with some words of encouragement:

If you are passionate about something and want to turn your hobby into a business, you can do it! Don’t put it off or make excuses. Create a list or quick business plan to help you get started and get to it! Sales always take awhile but persistence and hard work pay off. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice, I still do all the time.

Like Susan, you too can turn a hobby into a business with a little hard work and persistence.  Susan’s entire interview will be one of many featured in the book.  So, stay tuned!

Dejah Leger speaks on being an introvert

Earlier this week, I spoke to Dejah Leger.  You can see my previous post about her here.  She had so many great things to say in our interview, but one thing really jumped out at me.  When asked about what motivates her, this is (part of) what she had to say:

When I need to be musical, I’ll often kick my family out of the house to work on music. I send my kids and husband out of the house to watch a movie or grocery shop or something. I don’t feel guilty about it (usually). I’m an introvert, so my way of recharging my batteries is to be alone, and music is an extra level of self-centering. My family has come to terms with the fact that I’m a much better parent/partner/human being when I have that time of creative solitude, and so I’ve learned to ask for it, which isn’t always easy to do as a parent. Plus, there’s some weird phenomenon where the minute I sit down with my guitar is when my kids need my attention all of a sudden. Or want to make their own music. Loudly.

Her answer spoke to me because I, too, am an introvert.  I don’t think that extroverts understand that introverts need peace and solitude to recharge.  Extroverts get their energy from being around other people and being social.  Introverts are the opposite; we often times need time to ourselves to regain our energy.  Sorry folks, but being around people sometimes drains us.

I thought Dejah’s words were comforting in a way.  It was almost as though she was giving me permission to want and need that time to myself to create.  I don’t know about you, but I feel that I live in a world driven by and made for extroverts.  Seeking solitude and quiet is not really praised in our society.  We are supposed to be happy, social beings always, and we are looked at strangely when we need that little bit of alone time.  I feel much more comfortable at home than striking up a conversation with a stranger or at a party.  I feel that most people just don’t get that.

So, thank you to Dejah for giving us permission to and comfort in asking for that quiet time that we introverts need recharge and create!

One things leads to another

A few days ago I contacted Devon Leger.  He is the founder of Hearth Music, which is the PR firm that represents Dori Freeman.  I contacted Mr. Leger in hopes of securing an interview with Ms. Freeman for the book.  I was introduced to her through this article, and I thought she’d be a great fit for my project.  Mr. Leger said he would forward my request on to her and her manager.  Great!  That’s really all I could ask for.  But, there’s more…

He sent me another email pretty quickly after the first telling me about his wife.  He thought I might be interested in interviewing her as well.  According to Leger, “She runs all of our graphic design, does poster and album art, does paper cuts and linocuts, performs French-Canadian music as a musician, runs a blog on Nordic culture in the Pacific Northwest, travels to festivals, and does these really cool old art performance pieces called ‘crankies’ (old-timey story scrolls). She’s one of the leaders in the crankie movement right now. All this with two daughters.”  Yes, I think she might be an excellent candidate for an interview for the book!

Also, here’s a link about Dejah and crankies.  I had never even heard of them before, but the entire video is very interesting.  I CANNOT wait to visit with Dejah!

Meagan Schultz brings people together

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with Meagan Schultz.  You can read my previous posts about Meagan here and here.  She has so many great projects in the works and had lots of great things to share with me.  One of Meagan’s projects is hosting her retreats.  When I asked her about them, this is what she had to say:

I love bringing people together, and especially women. I love creating connections
between people and helping other people realize that they can do great things. These
things don’t have to be big or grand, great things can be small too. I suppose it’s my
way of leaving the world a better place. I believe people WANT to do good in this world, but don’t often know where to start. I hope my retreats can be a stepping stone. I also think the more we know each other, the more we understand each other. I have this theory that you can trace every single problem in the world back to a lack of connection somewhere, somehow, or with someone. I honestly believe that.
I’m a big fan of support systems and connections, and I think they are so vitally important to creative work.  Here are some thoughts from Brian Eno on what he calls “scenius.” Here’s a post from Austin Kleon on the topic.
I’ve discovered the hard way that a creatively connected group of like minded individuals doesn’t just happen.  You have to look for it or create it, and it’s not easy.  But, it is important.  Who wouldn’t love a creative group of people to bounce ideas off of?  I would, and I bet you would too.  Sometimes (most of the time… always…) we need someone in our creative corner to encourage us and remind us how awesome we are.
My advice to you is to get yourself out there and make some connections.  Attend a workshop or a retreat or conference.  Join a book club or a writing group.  And just know that there are others out there just like you who are looking to be a part of a scenius.
Many thanks to Meagan Schultz for a great interview.  I look forward to sharing more from her in my book.  In the meantime, please check out her website www.meaganschultz.com.

Dan Blank talks about finding focus to create more

The following is a share from my inbox today from Dan Blank:

Happy Friday!

If you are a writer or creative professional who works on your craft at home, I want to share my best advice on how to do so. I want to help you find more focus amidst the many distractions you face every single day.

This is everything I have learned through:

  • Working from home full-time for the past 6 years, while running my company WeGrowMedia, and raising a family.
  • Working from home both full and part time when I had a corporate job in the 3 years prior to that.
  • Working with thousands of writers and creative professionals, who themselves work from home, or split their time between a traditional office setting and nontraditional settings of home, cafe, etc.
  • Studying how successful people manage to get stuff done while at home.

Okay, let’s dig in:

Calendar everything.

My life runs on time blocking. This means I open up my calendar application (I use Apple’s Calendar) and block out each hour of the day for tasks.

Sounds crazy, right?

It’s not. It allows me to have clarity about what I need to do throughout the day, reducing decision-fatigue. What’s that? It’s having to think a million times “Um, what is on fire right now?” and rely on my emotions to tell me.

Instead, I have clarity in my day, and I’m allowed to work on some immediate tasks, but also work on projects that won’t have a pay off for months or years down the road. When you run every moment of your schedule based on emotions, you are going to spend all day reacting. It’s hard to build something meaningful over time when you are too busy reacting all the time.

I use three different color codes in my calendar: green for meetings, purple for focused creative work, and blue for non-work stuff. Yes, I schedule that too. Today I have scheduled what I’m eating for lunch and when I take my nap. Oh, I take a nap every day too. (More on that here.)

For important tasks, I schedule twice as much time as I think I need. Why? Because I have found that I will try to “squeeze in” an important task, when it truly requires more space. I want to be honest with myself about how long craft takes. This applies to so much of what I do, including writing. This morning I spent an hour editing 2 pages of a book I am writing, and that was with notes to guide me. That hour felt like 100 decisions to find clarity, to craft prose, to move things around, and to ensure it fit within the larger context of that chapter.

Schedule everything that requires your focus, including when you will get to email. Too often, someone will schedule meetings on their calendar, and just assume that email will be managed in the cracks in between meetings. It won’t. Instead what happens is that person’s day is spent constantly “trying to catch up,” and can’t effectively communicate with others because of it.

Does time blocking sound too rigid for your tastes? I keep it flexible by constantly moving blocks of time around on my calendar. Why? Because life happens. My schedule needs to honor the important work that needs to get done, but also that we are human beings living in a complex ecosystem where things change all the time. We are all managing family, relationships, physical and mental health, and our responsibilities to work, home, and our communities.

But maybe time blocking won’t work for you. If that is the case, I encourage you to take the same strategy, but apply it to different tactics. Perhaps instead you wake up every day to a hand-written to-do list that you made out the night before. Or you wake up to an intention that you wrote out the night before — a single thing that you need to ensure gets done each day.

My point is this: have a system.

If you feel that you are drowning every day, and can never find the time for your creative work, I strongly encourage you to consider new ways to manage your daily calendar.

Have a door. That locks.

If you work from home, even if just for what you feel is a “hobby” of writing, find a space that can be truly private. And this is the important part: the door should have a lock on it.

Since I run a little company, I have an office at home that is 100% dedicated to work. When we bought the house, this was the first space I defined when divvying up the bedrooms because it needed to have a sense of privacy in terms of the layout of the house. I also installed a lock on the door — a signal to myself and to my family that there are times when work is more important than whatever the interruption is.

Perhaps you can only find a tiny desk in a spare bedroom for you to use for your work. Or a section of the basement. Whatever it is, take the time to go to Home Depot, buy one of those cheap locks with keys, and install it on the door.

That key is a symbol that your creative work matters.

Learn to create in sprints, not marathons

I know, there are some full-time writers or artists who can devote 12 hours a day to becoming lost in their work. I think that is truly awesome.

But for the rest of us, we can’t.

Our days are spent juggling 1,000 things: the litter box has to be changed, you have two kids about to come home from school, you work part time at the post office, and as a crossing guard for extra cash, and the dishes are piled up in the sink. Oh, and you want to write today.

I would encourage you to develop the skill to create even in small increments of time: 10 or 20 minutes.

You may tell me that it takes you longer than that to “get into” writing, and that once you are in the zone, you lose track of time. That’s fine, but if it the result is that you can never find that kind of time to write, then I encourage you to work on the skill of smaller sprints of creative work.

Buy a timer. One of those kitchen timers, or a cheap timer on Amazon. Set if for 20 minutes to give yourself little bouts of work in between moments of your otherwise busy day. For many of you, you will never have a spare 2 hours where you can write. BUT… you may have 20 minutes. Set the timer so that you can feel freedom to write for those 20 minutes.

Connect a task to a place

Sometimes “working from home” really means not working in the home. I spend the first 4 hours of the day working from my local Starbucks.

That means I never schedule meetings first thing in the day, because that time is dedicated to writing and to doing client work. When I come home, that is when I catch up on other tasks and take calls. Starbucks is a place dedicated to doing focused work.

You can create this for yourself in a variety of ways; perhaps you go to the library where you will only work on your novel; then you will go to a cafe where you will only do business planning; and then at home, you will only do admin, email, and take calls.

Each place has their own mood — experiment and find what works for a given task. I have found that I focus really well when working amidst the chaos of morning rush hour at Starbucks.

Develop tiny habits

Everything I have shared above comes down to creating small habits. The bottom line is that I understand that you are likely struggling to make ends meet financially; that you are taking care of a family; that you may be going through a health crisis; that the time to focus on your creative work never seems to be “right now,” because important things come up.

My final pieces of advice:

  • Forgive yourself. Let go of the guilt you feel in feeling that you can’t do it all.
  • Find joy in the process. I listen to music while I work, and that helps me stay focused and inspired.
  • Reward yourself for the tasks you do accomplish each week, even if you feel you dropped a few balls. The reward can be simple, such as food or a beverage.

What helps you get your creative work done?

Thanks.
-Dan

Well, I definitely felt that this email was written directly to me today.  It’s been 22 days since my last blog post.  22!  There’s no excuse for that, even though I’ve thought of several during those 22 days.  I’m definitely feeling that my creative work needs to become a priority instead of the first thing shoved to the back burner when something else (anything else) comes up.  Dan’s words could not have come at a better time for me.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mother by Holly Arsenault

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mother

Lots of artists have kids. But our popular concepts of what makes a good parent and what makes a good artist are at odds. We talk about a supposed tension between two competing identities, as if being a parent and being an artist are antipodes. Artists are supposed to be selfish, mercurial, drunk and, ideally, at least a little bit crazy. Parents are supposed to be selfless, reliable, sober and sane. One might hope to balance these two opposing selves, but never combine them.

Even if these stereotypes don’t reflect anyone’s reality, they fuel a powerful, if unspoken, perception: You can’t be both a good artist and a good parent. Because if you’re truly devoted to your art, how can there be space for familial devotion? And vice versa?

One particularly dumb essay on this topic, written by Lauren Sandler and published in The Atlantic last year, buys fully into the construct of dueling identities. It concludes that a successful writer may have one—but only one—child, without ceding too much of her artist self to the invading horde of motherhood. In a bald display of selective data gathering, the author cites Susan Sontag, Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood and Joan Didion—all parents of only children—as proof of her theory, conveniently omitting the legion of successful writers with multiple children, like Zadie Smith (who shot back a terrific rebuttal in the comments on the piece), Toni Morrison and Charles Dickens. (He had 10 kids, and, as Smith pointed out, nobody questioned whether his fatherliness diminished his writerliness…but that’s a topic for another essay.)

When people ask me about how I manage playwriting and parenting, they usually focus on the seeming logistical and financial impossibility of it, but that’s not really the mystery, is it? Lots of people work multiple, low-paying jobs in order to help support their families, as I do. That one of mine happens to be writing plays doesn’t distinguish it much from all the other kinds of work that parents do around the edges to make ends meet. Though it should be acknowledged that my ability to pursue something as time-intensive yet minimally compensated as playwriting and still have a kid depends on there being a second, wage-earning parent in our household.

I’m not saying it’s not hard. A room of one’s own is a rare commodity in the life of a parent, and for art to happen sometimes compromises are made. I’ll be playing trains with my son or sharing a meal with him, and a character will walk into my head and start talking. And I start listening. Whole scenes compose themselves in my brain while I’m ostensibly parenting. I never wrote seriously before he was born, so maybe this is just how my process works, or maybe it’s a neural adaptation to becoming a mother and a writer simultaneously. I find the time to write by stealing it from my son while I’m supposed to be playing with him. When I finally sit down at the computer after he’s gone to bed, it’s basically transcription.

I came into my identity as both an artist and a parent at the same time, and it wasn’t a coincidence. My artist identity is not subsumed by my mother identity. In fact, being a parent makes being an artist possible for me in a way it never was before my son was born.

This truth revealed itself at 3:45 in the morning, five weeks after I gave birth. I was sitting in the darkened dining room in our quiet house writing my first play. Bleary, sore and leaking, with one ear tuned to the baby monitor, I typed. My compulsion to write was a little sleep deprived and a little sadomasochistic (See! I am a real artist!), but mostly it was fueled by a motivation I’d never known before: the tiny person sleeping upstairs.

Before my son came along, I could always find a “good” reason to defer writing. Like a kid avoiding her homework, the effort I wasted on dodging my inner artist—because I was afraid of what might come out of her—could have produced an epic. Having a child forced me to get my artistic shit together. Because what was I going to say to him? “You should fearlessly pursue your dreams! I have no earthly idea how that’s done, but good luck!” No.

As parents, we’re compelled to try to teach our children what we’ve learned, futile though the effort may be. That happiness and fulfillment require walking toward fear is the hardest-won lesson of my life—a lesson I probably can’t pass on to my child, as much as I’d like to spare him the pain it took for me to get it. But, if I can teach him to embrace fear as a friendly, guiding force, it won’t be through anything I say to him. It will be through the extent to which I am willing to let him see me expose myself, over and over, to the near certainty of humiliation and failure.

My hope is that my son will grow up watching me struggle with my writing privately, fail publicly and, most importantly, continue on. I write for him, not in spite of him.

Holly Arsenault is a playwright and executive director of TeenTix.