Listen to the episode:
Gabriela Pereira, my friend and the founder of DIY MFA, interviews me about creative flow. I share my strategies for building focus and reducing decision fatigue, and we do a major deep dive into one of my favorite topics: how to end the never-ending cycle of burnout and design a sustainable creative career.
More from the episode
- Tips for transforming your creative practice into a habit you don’t have to think about
- What are your “circles of control”? How can acknowledging them help ease your overwhelm and give you more agency?
- How hustle culture negatively impacts creatives and leads to cycles of burnout
- The number one thing you need to consider when designing a sustainable creative career
- We explore alternative paths to making a living as an author, and business models that harness your unique toolkit and experience
About Gabriela Pereira
Gabriela Pereira is a writer, teacher, and self-proclaimed word nerd who wants to challenge the status quo of higher education. As the founder and instigator of DIYMFA.com, her mission is to empower writers to take an entrepreneurial approach to their education and professional growth. Gabriela earned her MFA in creative writing from The New School and teaches at national conferences, local workshops, and online. She is also the host of DIY MFA Radio, a popular podcast where she interviews bestselling authors and offers short audio master classes. Her book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community is out now from Writer’s Digest Books.
Connect with Gabriela Pereira
Click here to view the transcript!
Jessica: You have to start with your needs and be designing around your needs.
And once you design around your needs, you say, all right, well now I have to make some hard decisions about how do I wanna take care of my bodily physical needs and make room for my writing, make room for that daily creative practice become the well-known writer that I wanna become. How do you make space for those things alongside these needs?
Jessica Abel: What does it really take to become successful as a writer or artist?
There are a lot of destructive myths out there about what a creative career is supposed to look like. We’re told we shouldn’t care about worldly success or money. We’re told that if we’re good enough, everything would magically fall into place. That’s a lie and it keeps us struggling, baffled, and hungry for any shred of information that might shed light on how to keep making the work we love. That’s why I get any two artists or writers or any creatives really together in a room. And it’s a foregone conclusion that the conversation will turn to money and the nitty gritty reality of being a professional, creative.
I’m cartoonist and creative business. Coach Jessica Abel.
In my own life. The studio visit back channel conversations with other artists where we share our insights and hacks anxieties and red flags have been critical to any success I’ve achieved.
And now. I’m bringing that conversation to you. This is the autonomous creative.
Jessica: This episode is a bit unusual for us in that for once I’m actually the interviewee. The interviewer is my friend, Gabriela Pereira, the founder of DIY MFA. She invited me to talk about creative flow for a project she was developing. We did the interview, but when Gabriella decided not to publish the project, I thought this conversation was just too valuable to keep it forever in a vault.
So in this episode, Gabriella and I explore creative flow. I share my strategies for building focus and reducing decision fatigue through habit building.
And we also do a major deep dive into one of my favorite topics, how to hop off that treadmill to end the cycle of burnout and design a sustainable creative career that will actually meet your needs. Let’s get into the flow right after this.
Jessica Abel: does part of you suspect that the system is rigged against professional artists, writers, and creatives?
Does it feel like with all the incredibly hard work you do. With all your expertise and experience that somehow success should have…
Hey, I hear ya.
I went through most of my career feeling like success was just one step away. Around a blind corner, and that all I needed to do to get there was. More.
More work, more marketing, more income streams, more… everything.
But at some point, or really, over and over again, I did so much more, I almost broke.
And while I did achieve certain markers of success. The kind of success that I kept expecting to arrive, where I could slow down. And take a breath, really have space to think and do the work I loved the right way. Where I could stop worrying about money for like one minute.
That success kept receding in the distance.
Here’s what I figured out.
Hustle grind. Just keep doing more and more and more. That is the scam. That is the system that’s rigged against us.
What if everything we’re taught in school, everything we absorbed from culture about how artists and writers should live. And the tsunami of advice from online marketing celebs about how to make it as a professional creative. Is just wrong?
And if that’s true, what do we do? How can we fix it?
I’ve got something I think you’re going to want to read about how to escape the cyclical burnout creatives fall into, and how to build a truly sustainable creative career without just piling on more and more.
Check it out at jessicaabel.com/creative-business. That’s jessicaabel.com/creative-business.
Now let’s start the show.
Welcome, Jessica. It is so great to have you here today.
Jessica: I am really glad to be here with you.
Gabriela: I am super excited for today’s conversation, but before we get into all of the juicy details that I can’t wait for you to share, I wanted to talk a little bit about focus since focus is kind of your jam, and I’m curious like, what does it mean to you for someone to be a focused writer? Like what does focus really mean when it comes to writing?
What does it mean to be a focused writer?/practice
Jessica: I’ve been teaching a program called the Creative Focus Workshop now for seven years, something like that. So quite a while. And really that is what we do is we work on executive function, essentially.
Like how do you build focus into your day-to-day? How do you focus on the things that are really important to you and make sure those things happen along with all the other junk. And over time, I’ve gone from a very… productivity system checklist, blah, blah, blah, kind of approach to one that’s very much practice oriented.
Jessica: And I’ve started to use the word practice and not habit because people hate the word habit. It sounds awful, but the idea of building a sort of repetitive muscle of sitting down to doing the work without attaching outcome expectations to basically anything.
If you can manage, as much as you can manage, to not attach expectations for outcomes. Don’t say you’re gonna write 500 words.
Say you’re gonna sit down for 30 minutes. So allowing yourself to find your way through your work. And some days you’re gonna be able to write a thousand words in half an hour, and some days it’s gonna be 20. Some days it’s gonna be five. That’s fine. As long as you’re sitting down day after day, the work is gonna get done.
Gabriela: Right. I love that.
There’s something about the word practice. I’m a big believer in the concept of practice. I come from a musical background and so I played the violin ever since I was four years old. I still play to this day. Practice is a regular part of life.
And one of the things that I think is really interesting about practice is how present you have to be.
Like if you think of like a meditation practice or a yoga practice or an instrumental practice or a sports practice. Like when you’re in the zone doing whatever it is that you’re doing for your practice, you’re very present in that zone. You’re very much present in that moment.
And so I’m curious, I feel like that’s also a different mindset than the idea of habits. Like you said, like people are scared of the word habit, but there’s also, I think, a whole other mindset that comes with practice that isn’t captured by the idea of habit.
Jessica: Yeah, I mean, I think that habit sounds very rote.
Jessica: I don’t think it has to be, but that’s, I think what we think of. And there’s certainly plenty of habits in our lives that are rote. I brush my teeth without thinking about brushing my teeth. I don’t wanna think about brushing my teeth.
The habit part of the practice is the sitting down part, and I don’t mean literally sitting. You can use a standing desk. You can walk. But getting started with the practice, that is the habit and that part should be as rote as possible.
Habitualizing your practice, reducing decision fatique
Jessica: The biggest advantage of habitualizing your practice is that you reduce decision fatigue. So I’m sure everybody’s heard this concept by now that making decisions, especially having to make a decision in the moment is very cognitively taxing.
It really tires you out. It really keeps you from being able to just get into the moment and frequently that’s context switching moments when you’re going from one thing to another thing. And that is when distraction creeps in.
That is when you’ll end up on your phone for half an hour instead of writing. That’s when you’ll start folding laundry because you’re having to decide to start and writing is hard.
So your brain is resisting for reasons, you know, it doesn’t wanna expend that energy on writing. And so to create a habit around your practice is an enormous advantage.
Jessica: And I’m actually a big fan of the Atomic Habits book by James Clear in terms of strategies for that. We definitely talk about that a lot in the Creative Focus Workshop as well, like how do you go about doing this? And we talk about the idea of habit stacking is, I think the most important one for me, which is brushing teeth is a thing I do every morning.
I stack other habits on top of that. When I brush my teeth, then I go downstairs and make some tea. When I make tea, I come to my desk, I sit down with my tea at my desk, and I start to work, right? So that is the habit stack.
And the, the, having the thermos of tea and the cup of tea in my hand is the cognitive signal to me that it’s time to sit down on my computer and get to work.
And I have certain things I do usually first when I sit down and get to work. I will go over my day and I’ll check and see what my top tasks are for the day. I’ll look at what I did yesterday and kind of check off with that and then I get started on whatever the main task is. And so all of those decisions are… many of them are pre-made for me.
I already made them months ago, years ago. I don’t need to make them again, and so I’m not using any energy to make those decisions, which reserves my energy for actually doing the work.
Gabriela: Yes. I think of it as being like filters. Like we make these sort of filter decisions that we make early on in our creative process, whether it’s the decision to have, like create the habit stack or however you wanna think of it and that filter decision, then everything else kind of gets filtered through it.
And so instead of having to make 8,000 decisions in a day, you’re making that one big decision early on. And then everything else kind of just trickles through the filter.
Jessica: Yeah, I mean, you’re gonna have a lot of decisions to make as you sit down and work on your writing about what you’re gonna like, how you’re gonna solve this problem, and what is the next sentence gonna be, and all those kinds of things. Those all will come up, but what you don’t have to do is decide to write.
Jessica: You can have decided that already. And so that habit piece is what I think allows for the mindful practice that you’re talking about because your brain is not scrambling in 6,000 directions trying to avoid the work. You’re able to slide into that flow state much more easily. No, it’s not, doesn’t always happen. That’s why some days suck.
Some days you’re not gonna get much done, but if you have that slot of time available, Um, and you are not going to punish yourself for not achieving some random number of words or whatever, then you’re gonna get much more done.
I’m working with somebody, somebody’s in my program right now who’s a novelist who is very much a recovering productivity self-flagellator.
You know, she’s like constantly, when we do group coaching calls once a month, she comes to these frequently, and I’ve seen this really beautiful change in her over the last six months, where initially she’s like, well, how do I make sure I finish more this, that, the other thing. How do I enforce these things? Accountability, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
And as we’ve talked about these ideas of habits and creating space and making sure that you ha– you are treating this as a practice. You’re not setting these kinds of arbitrary benchmarks. She’s visibly lightened
Jessica: And has gotten a ton of work done. You know, it’s not, this doesn’t mean that you don’t get stuff done. It’s quite the contrary. All of that self-punishment is what stops you. It’s what puts you into a shame spiral makes you not wanna face your work because you didn’t finish whatever you said you were going to finish. That’s totally counterproductive in every sense of the word.,
Gabriela: Yes, yes. And as writers, we’re already facing so many hurdles and obstacles as it is, which is what I wanted to get to with you today.
Hustle, why creative careers flatline
Gabriela: The big topic that I wanted to talk to you about is, so you’ve recently written this fabulous article all about creative hustle, why creative careers flatline, basically all the things that are broken in the system within which we as creatives operate.
And so I’m curious, like what is that big problem that you’re seeing in the creative system that is affecting writers and creatives of all stripes.
Jessica: I come to this as an author myself a cartoonist mostly, but also prose author, and so I experienced a situation throughout my professional life where I saw a certain amount of success. Certainly I still see a success, but not financial success, right? People were reading my book, commenting on my books, good reviews, lots of great feedback, all that stuff, which I’m very happy about. But it didn’t turn into making a living.
Jessica: And I could never figure out why. I always felt like the next book I would do would be the one that would somehow crack the system and make it work.
And so I got into incredibly difficult sort of burnout situations because I was trying to finish two different books at the same time, plus teach, plus take care of children, plus every other thing.
And so I didn’t understand this at all and it was made really, really mad. I was really upset about it. And around seven years ago when I started the Creative Focus Workshop, that was a big pivot for me where I said, you know what? I have to do things differently. So I’m gonna start a business where I’m gonna be doing teaching and coaching.
And gradually have learned how to have a business, how to run a business, how to be successful at business, which not everybody wants to do, but I was excited about it. I still am. I love doing it. I’ve always loved helping and coaching and so on. But that pivot point, I now a couple, you know, years later have gone back and needed to understand what was going on there.
Like why, why was it broken? And so that’s essentially this new article that you mentioned. This is what I’ve been doing is, is in the last, I don’t know, 18 months or so, I’ve been finally putting pieces together in a way that makes a lot of sense to me and to other people who’ve read it. So what identifies the problem is what I was in, which is what we call, what I call cyclical burnout.
Jessica: People burn out for lots of reasons in all kinds of ways, but I feel like creatives burnout in a very particular pattern, which is you get a cool idea for something, you wanna make the thing. You start working on it, you plunge into it. It’s really awesome and you’re excited about it and you’re doing it. All that’s fine.
But part of your mind is also thinking, and this is gonna be the thing that makes me, money, lets me quit my day job, lets me become a full-time creative.
And, that’s where we run into trouble because we put an enormous amount of time and energy into creating this project without really any idea how the money part’s supposed to happen, and yet, because we’re using up all this time on making the project, we get to the end of it and we need to get paid, like now. Yesterday.
And we have this big income gap at that point. And that income gap you try to do what you can to get your book sold, to bring in some money, do whatever.
But you also, there’s usually just a big gap in terms of how am I gonna pay my bills? And so that’s when you start just chucking everything at it. You take an edit editorial job, you take an adjunct course on, you have a part-time or a full-time job.
There’s all these different things you’re doing to try to make that money issue disappear. And it all leads to burnout. That’s like, it’s just too much stuff and it’s all piled on.
So then you’re in burnout. So then you’re like kind of just laying low, just trying to function, get through it, and you recover enough and suddenly have another idea and you start doing this other idea. But like the previous thing you were doing, you’re still trying to do it.
Jessica: And so they stack on each other and you go through these cycles of like adding on and adding on and adding on and like in 2012 when I had a huge burnout and left the country for that reason partly I was trying to finish, I think, let’s see, I had just published and I was trying to market my second comics textbook. I was working on two different comics at the same time in radically different areas. I had, I think, two or three adjunct courses that I was teaching. I was the series editor for the Best American Comics. I had two children under the age of four, and I was trying to pay for a life in New York. So it was just, it was impossible. It was impossible to make that work.
We were still at a point where we were getting by, you know, my husband was in the same position. We were getting by, but we weren’t, there was no hope of kind of getting out of that hole the way we were doing things. And the only idea I had at that time was like I guess I’m going to pitch another thing, but I was already completely full.
Jessica: So that’s the problem. That’s the problem that we face, and it just builds up and builds up until you crack, essentially, and it just happens over and over again. It happened many times in my life.
The state of the creative income space
Gabriela: It’s interesting too because in the article, at the beginning of the article, you talk a lot about sort of the state of the creative income space. And one of the things that it was really eye-opening for me was when you talked about the fact that only a small slice of people who pursued degrees in creative fields, only a tiny slice, something like 10% are actually working in the creative fields that they intended to be working in.
And so this is sort of a, I guess these are all symptoms, right, of what you’re describing. Because there’s this burnout thing happening, it’s making it impossible and prohibitive for people to be working in the creative fields that they wanna be working in.
Jessica: Yeah. And to be clear, I think, I don’t think I quite made this connection clear enough. What’s contributing to the burnout is that you think that you’re gonna produce something and somehow that’s gonna turn into money, but you don’t actually know how.
Jessica: You don’t know how that’s supposed to turn into money. You don’t have any mechanism for it. You don’t have any influence over it. You just so hope it kind of happens magically and there’s this gap of information, this kind of fuzzy middle place, and you’re like, okay, well I’m doing this now and at some point in my life, maybe not this year, maybe not next year, but at some point things will be fine.
I will be able, things will even out, I will have enough money coming in from… I don’t know, royalties? Something. And it’s gonna all, I mean, I remember having conversations with my husband, who’s also an author and cartoonist, and basically followed the same path for a really long time, saying, “All right, well, so this book’s coming out and this book is coming out.
So when we those like rollover and start earning royalties, that should give us a cushion so that we can kind of take the foot off the gas a little bit. Well, that has never happened.
Jessica: It’s rare for books to earn out and bring you royalties. And if they do, it’s not a lot, you know, it’s not a lot of money. Now, there are exceptions to the rule, obviously, but for the most part, that’s just not the case. And if it does happen it’s very often very much out of your control. It’s a lightning strike. You can’t do anything.
And that, that feeling of frustration of not having anything I could do about it, feeling like it’s, I don’t know, it’s in God’s hands or something, like I don’t, I don’t have any way to do this, was so like crippling to me. It was made me so frustrated and angry. It really, it is that that lack of understanding of how what you’re doing and the results that you’re hoping for are connected. And they are connected, but we don’t know how, we’re not taught how, we don’t learn how, nobody talks about how. And that’s information that we absolutely need to have. We need to understand that.
Gabriela: Absolutely. And it’s interesting you mentioned this idea of being plucked from obscurity, the sort of lightning strike exception to success, right? Like that one exceptional success is something that, like you said, is very much outside of our control.
So control is something that comes up in the article that you talk about, the circles of control. I think that, is that from the Stephen Covey book?
Jessica: I think so. According to my research it is, I have not read the book, but the idea is very compelling.
Gabriela: So can you talk a little bit about this idea because I think it’s really important and we all know sort of the, the saying like control the things that you can control accept the things you can’t control, blah, blah, blah. But at the end of the day it’s one thing for us to sort of know the trite mantra. It’s a whole other thing for us to like actually be able to understand, what does that really mean? Like what are the things that we really have control over?
What do we actually have control over in our creative careers?/circles of control
Jessica: Okay, so let’s go back to what the circles of control is.
The idea of circles of control is you have a circle of control, which are things that you literally have control over.
Your actions, your thoughts are typically put in there, although, I think it’s arguable whether we always have total control over that, but you know, that’s within that area where you can, you can really have major impact on it.
But basically your actions, like what do you do? What are you going to do day to day? Like we talked about creative practice, like what are you going to do? How are you going to make this habit stick? Those are actions that you have control over. Then there’s the circle of influence, which is all the things that your actions can. Nudge in one way or another, but don’t have direct control over.
Jessica: So for example submitting query letters to agents. You have control over submitting query letters to agents you don’t have control over, whether they say yes.
Jessica: But you have influence over whether they say yes by writing better letters, writing more letters, sending them more often, right? That’s your circle of influence.
Gabriela: Right and if you don’t send the letters in the first place, then you won’t get an answer at all.
Jessica: Exactly. So you do have influence, but you do not have control. And then there’s this circle of concern, which is everything else.
So like what’s happening in the war in Ukraine, I don’t have any control over that. I can worry about it, but it’s not gonna do me any good to worry about it. And there are many, many things that we spend time worrying about that are outside of our circles of control and influence.
Jessica: Basically Covey’s, this is Stephen Covey, who Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or whatever. That’s where I think it came from.
But basically the idea is figure out what’s inside your circle of control and focus there.
Look at the ways in which you want to try to influence your circle of influence, like where does it matter and use what’s within your circle of control to make.
As many changes there as possible and to affect those things and then identify what’s in your circle of concern that you really cannot directly influence. The healthcare system is broken. I can’t fix that. Don’t spend your time worrying about that.
Jessica: It’s just not worth your time.
Gabriela: And I guess that’s where we need to, as writers also have some sort of a practice to learn how to handle the things that we don’t have control over. Like for, for instance, one of the things I do that’s sort of a little like personal ritual, I have this thing called the angst jar.
And so all of the things that are circle of concern stuff that I don’t have any, you know, that I know I’m gonna angst over and I know I’m gonna stress out about, but I don’t have any control over it. I do have control over putting it in the jar.
Gabriela: And then I can kind of put it in the jar and tell it, okay, you stay in the jar now that’s your spot. Sit there. And I know that it’s safe in the jar. And if I ever want to revisit that thing that I am concerned about, I can always go back to it in the jar. But it’s not in the way of my writing.
It’s not something that’s kind of popping up randomly when I need to be focusing on the things that are under my control, like writing query letters, or writing pitch letters, or actually writing the darn book.
Jessica: Yeah. I agree with that and I think the bigger problem is not identifying what is inside your circle of control and doing the things that you can do. Not taking control over your circle of control, essentially.
Gabriela: Say more about that.
Jessica: Well, let’s get back to what I was saying about my history as a writer and how I felt frustrated by all of these factors.
I was not able to see where I had control and where I didn’t have control. I spent a lot of time angsting about things that I had influence over or concern for, but were not really within my circle of control.
And I needed to be taking more action around what was inside my circle of control.
Start with your needs
Jessica: So the, the main thing for me was I needed to figure out, and this is the big revelation I’ve had over the last two years or something like that is that the way to design a sustainable, creative career, the way, and I’m gonna say this, I’m gonna put the, like a flag in the sand here. The way to do it is to start with your needs.
Jessica: Start with what you need and start with what you need in terms of your uh, financial health, your physical health, your mental health, those are the things that come first.
And if you’re not considering those things first, and you’re saying like, well, those will come somehow, if I do enough work.
If I put enough labor into this career, somehow those things will magically get taken care of. They will not. They absolutely will not. I’m here to tell you
Gabriela: I, I’m chuckling cuz I was right there with you. I mean, there were so many times where I would just sort of imagine that if I followed my passions enough, if I worked hard enough, if my work was good enough, somehow, you know, a fairy godmother would wave her magic wand and all the other things would fall into place and they so don’t fall into place.
Jessica: Right. They just don’t, and I mean, I know people who won like a Guggenheim, you know, like a genius grant. I’ve known people who’ve had bestsellers. They still have to figure this stuff out, like the money ends, you know? So it’s, there’s even those things where you’re like, oh, if only I, blah, blah, blah. Like it doesn’t fix things.
You have to start with your needs and be designing around your needs.
And once you design around your needs, you say, all right, well now I have to make some hard decisions about how do I wanna take care of my bodily physical needs and make room for my writing, make room for that daily creative practice become the well-known writer that I wanna become. How do you make space for those things alongside these needs?
Well, what you don’t, you don’t make space for it just by doing it and hoping the needs get taken care of cause that’s when you get into cyclical burnout.
You shut down. You can’t finish your book. Nothing gets published because you’re not doing the thing because you’re burnt out. That’s, it’s a disaster.
Jessica: So instead starting saying like, okay, how much money do I need to be making in order to be comfortable, in order to pay my bills, in order to save for retirement? Do the things that I need to do for myself. What do I need? What do I actually need?
How much time am I able to put into making this money? What kind of work am I able to do? And you look at all those things and you need to design a life around that essentially.
I teach this idea of, and this is in the article as well, this idea of three paths. There are three different ways you can solve that problem.
3 paths – path 1 mass marketing
Jessica: I’m jumping ahead a little bit here, but like for, this is a particular problem for authors, right? Because for authors it’s a more, let’s say it’s a more difficult problem to solve for authors because authors, the business model for authors… it’s not directly, unless you’re self-publishing, it’s not directly selling individual units at, at a low cost.
But it is dependent on that, you know, it’s, that’s part of a sort of pyramid of relationships where even if you’re getting advances and you’re working with a publisher, your eventual success depends on selling low-cost individual units to individual entities, people, libraries, whatever.
And the lower the cost of the thing, the more things you need to sell, the more things you need to sell, the more marketing you need to do. So this is why we get to author platforms and all the pressure from publishers to be on social media and, and constantly blogging and doing stuff all the time.
That’s your choice. If you wanna do that and you wanna make a an author life that works on selling individual units, you need to get really savvy about your contract and negotiation.
You need to consider whether self-publishing is a good idea for you, and then you need to be really, really good and really on the ball with marketing. And really do all those things.
Spend 50% of your time minimum, maybe more like 80, if you’re starting out on marketing, not on your writing.
Gabriela: And I just wanna pause for a minute, like for folks to think about that for a second. Like 80% of your time on marketing instead of writing. And it’s hard enough for a lot of us to find the time to do the writing. So imagine like now adding that additional amount or, or taking away from our writing time in order to do the 80% of write of marketing.
That’s a big commitment. That is something that you have, you know, you have to go into it with your eyes wide open.
Jessica: Yeah, and that’s what I’m trying to get at is that’s what I would’ve needed to do when I was in this, in the cyclical burnout to have the results that I wanted.
Jessica: From my books cuz I was a full-time. I mean, I had other jobs. I was an editor, I was an adjunct professor. But what I was trying to do is be a full-time writer, cartoonist.
And that’s what that looks like. It’s not, and I don’t, I don’t wanna bum anybody out. You know? I want people to just, but it’s important that you know that and that it’s not like some made up thing. It’s like if you wanna sell a lot of individual units that are very low cost to a lot of people need to know how many.
How many is enough? Like how many do you need to sell? And I talk about that in that article too. But then like once you know the number, then you’re like, okay, well then how many of them do I sell each time I do X or Y? Figure all that out. Really figure out the sort of mass marketing model.
Now there are two other options, which most authors will take one of these two other options because that life is for somebody with a very particular, personality profile and set of skills and a certain kind of commitment to that kind of life.
Path 2 – opt out of trying to make money from your writing
Jessica: So what most people do is one of two other things.
The second path is basically to opt out of trying to make money from your writing, which doesn’t mean you’re not a professional.
You can still have publishing contracts and publisher books. You can still build your audience, do talks, whatever.
Or you can decide not to, and you can just do it for yourself. All of those things are possible.
But what that means is saying you’re gonna have a day job or you’re gonna get support from somebody else who’s willing to support you. So you’re, you’re married and you’re accepting support from your spouse.
And I know for a lot of people, that is, a lot of people are doing that, but it feels very fraught, feels very uncomfortable to them. I think having an explicit agreement with yourself, with your spouse, like this is what is really happening, and I agree to it is essential to feeling good in this path.
Having a day job and saying, I really, I have so much gratitude for this day job because it makes it possible for me to write and without worrying about the money.
Jessica: The downfall of this path is when you are doing, and this is, most people are doing, are on this path actually in reality, but they think they’re not.
Jessica: They think they’re on the mass marketing path. They think they’re on the I’m gonna get to work on this full-time path. And what they’re doing is not gonna get them there, but they think it is. And so they put all of the decisions about like the crappy job or the not having the conversation with the spouse on hold, cuz they’re like, well, you know, everything’s gonna come together. And so I don’t really need to make decisions about this, but you do. You have to actually look at it in reality and say like, okay, what’s really happening here?
Gabriela: It’s almost like people are, they think they’re on the first track, but really they’re on the second track.
Gabriela: And they haven’t like, made a sort of conscious, proactive choice to say, you know what, second track is fine with me. Like I’m, there is no shame in being on the second track
Jessica: There’s no shame.
Gabriela: shame whatsoever. I mean, there are so many well-respected published authors who have day jobs. Like, it’s just, it’s the way of the world.
Jessica: Yeah. And the vast majority of famous authors are on Path Two. They have teaching jobs. Teaching jobs are Path Two.
Jessica: Or they’re working as editors and they, they write on the side or whatever it is. It’s very rare to see somebody… the most common thing you see on Path One is people who are like super committed to the self-publishing path.
They’re self-publishing. They have like a publishing business and they think of it as a business. They treat it as a business.
Frequently genre authors who put out a lot of books, and they’re willing to put the time and energy into the marketing and that’s fine.
It’s a great path if that’s what you wanna be doing, but it is a full-time, more than full-time job, and it’s really important to just be clear on that.
path 3 – start a business (more money, less time)
Jessica: The third path though is what I’m most interested in and what I did myself, which is to redesign my entire model for making money around starting a business of my own, using a skillset I’m really interested in that is not making my books.
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Okay. Back to the show.
I’ve always been really interested in project management, productivity and all that kind of stuff. I’m good at it. I like it.
And so my initial stage of business was doing that and teaching.
I was, I had been teaching for 20 years, so I took those teaching skills straight into teaching and coaching online. And at first it was not enough to support me.
At this point it is, I mean, I still have a part-time teaching job, so it’s not a hundred percent, but I also have two contractors who work with me, and I’m the sole breadwinner for a family of four. It’s grown a lot and the thing that I’ve been doing over the last, now about a year is I’ve introduced a business coaching program that is specifically for this, because I wanna be working with people who say… I mean, the key to Path Three is to do something that you can make more money at in less time.
Jessica: And I know that sounds like insanely basic, like obviously, but I remember waking up to that idea when I was 45 and going like, wait, what? So do something you can make a lot more money for in less time, and that usually means it’s a service-based business.
It means that frequently when you start, you’re working one-to-one with people, doing something that you can do at a high level. Authors tend to fall into, I’ll do proofreading or something.
That is not probably a solution for this because it is a commoditized field where rates are ridiculously low and you can’t make enough more money in enough little time, right?
So looking for ways to leverage what I call your creative toolkit, uh, your history, your, all the weird jobs you’ve had, your expertise that you’ve grown through being an author through your subject matter, through writing, whatever.
Developing something out of that, out of who you are and how unique you are and how what this like, this amazing skillset that you bring to the table that connects with things that the clients really need and that you’re gonna be able to help with.
Gabriela: So things like coaching, editing, that sort of thing.
Jessica: I mean, coaching more than editing, cuz again, editing can be this, but editing is frequently also like, it’s, it’s devalued, right? It’s really tough.
So for authors, it’s frequently, it’s coaching. It’s actually book coaching or it’s coaching about something that you are an expert in, in some way,
Jessica: That you have taught before, whatever. Like for me it was productivity. It wasn’t book coaching. And now it’s business.
It’s not book coaching, but it could be good book co, you know, I know about narrative. I could do that, but it’s not what I’ve chosen to do. So that’s one way to go. You could be a consultant. I know several people who are doing sort of story consulting of various kinds.
So you’re developing assets for businesses or for individuals in that way, and delivering those assets.
You can have a service-based business where you’re actually doing something for people. So certainly copywriting fits in that category. Possibly ghostwriting fits in that category.
For me, I feel like anything where you’re doing a lot of writing during your day, if your actual service is writing, that may take your energy for your own writing.
And so often I look for something that’s complimentary when I’m trying to help people develop a business model and develop like what they’re gonna do, I look for, well, what are you really good at that isn’t the exact thing you wanna do yourself.
Jessica: That you can help somebody else with. That they, they have a strong need for it. They’re willing to pay for it. And people are like, oh, who’s gonna pay me that much money and why would anybody pay me? And it’s like, man, you bring so much to the table.
You are so cool. You have so much experience. There’s tons you can do. And I, I definitely understand that feeling of like, how could I possibly be able to charge enough?
Jessica: But there’s so much room for this kind of work and bringing this kind of expertise, the kind of expertise that authors bring to the world and to other people.
The advantage of that as opposed to a day job is it’s potentially more money depending on the day job. It is potentially a less time, like a lot less time. I have a client right now who is a book coach, sort of creative project coach, cuz she also does visual art and she keeps her coaching time to one day a week. So she’s working like one and a half to two days a week on her business. And then otherwise she’s in her creative practice.
Gabriela: That’s amazing.
Jessica: Yeah. And it’s possible, you know, she doesn’t have a high income goal or a high revenue revenue goal. And now we’re trying to figure out how to increase her revenue without increasing her hours ridiculously.
That’s something we’re actually gonna be, I’m gonna be doing a little event about in the coming week, which will probably be done by the time this goes live, but we can certainly link to it.
Jessica: I’ll be talking to her directly and asking her what are, like brainstorming with her about how to do that. But the, the main point is like, you know, it all depends on what you’re offering, what kind of people you wanna be working with. It depends on what your revenue goals are, but this is a solvable problem. It’s figureoutable.
Gabriela: Hmm. Yeah. And you know, it’s interesting too, what you were saying about figuring out this problem and the people that you wanna be working with, because I think as writers we sometimes get tunnel vision and we think, oh, as writers, our skillset is around writing,
so we can only do things that involve editing or copywriting, or ghost writing or writing articles or what have you.
And then we forget that there are so many fields out in the world that need writing and that need writing expertise and that need writing consulting and that need story consulting.
Companies need stories because whenever they put together testimonials, that’s, those are stories that are coming from customers. Advertising and marketing is all about storytelling and it’s all about crafting that narrative.
So there’s so many different fields, like even the blog posts that go up on like copywriting for corporate websites.
Like somebody has to write those and they might not be somebody in house. It might be somebody that’s hired as a consultant that’s hired from outside.
Jessica: Yeah. And a lot of the things you mentioned are still writing, cuz I think there’s also like, what else can you do? You know, where do you come from and what’s your background?
I know writers who are really great at visual design. They’re great at developing apps, they’re great at spreadsheets. Like people come from all over the place.
And so whatever you’re doing as a business to support yourself does not have to be directly based in the fact that you’re a novelist.
Jessica: It has to be something you really enjoy, cuz I’ve definitely talked to people who are like, oh, I’ve been doing whatever it is for corporate and I hate it and I don’t wanna do it anymore.
And I’m like, well, but are there parts you love? Are there like some parts you love? And they’re like, oh, I love this part, but I hate when this happens.
And I’m like, okay, well why don’t you do a business, start a business where you do the part you love and you just don’t do the part you hate?
Because then you’re not forced to do that out of corporate stupidity. You get to choose.
Gabriela: Right. Exactly. And you’re so right too. I mean, as writers, there’s so many skills that we have, even just project management and being able to like organize things.
As writers, like we have to be able to organize ideas because that’s part of what writing is, but that same sort of organizational brain can translate into any type of consulting or advisory type work as well.
Jessica: And we don’t wanna scare those writers who do not have organizational structure. You can still be a writer without
Gabriela: You can still be a writer without organizational brain, but many of us, I guess what I’m getting at is that there are a lot of skills that we have as writers that we don’t realize that we have. And that those same skills, you know, like you might have attention to detail because you’re really good at proofreading.
Well, that might also make you really good at writing code for all you know. And that same sort of detail-oriented brain that you have that serves you well as a writer might also be something that serves you well with the business side of what you wanna pursue.
Jessica: Yeah. And you know, I’ve met people who are, they have been doing DEI like diversity, equity, inclusion stuff at work.
They could become a consultant doing that on their own. People who do stuff like they’re really outgoing and love being with people.
Not that common for writers, but it does happen. They might start doing event consulting, helping people organize and run events, uh, running retreats.
There’s so many different ways that those skill sets might manifest and it’s so individual. It’s a fingerprint. There’s no template for what an awesome creative business would look like. It real– and again, this gets back to the beginning here.
You start with your needs and what of your needs, some of your needs, have to do with expressing your creative self in multifarious ways, not just by writing your book, but like what are the things that you love doing that you wanna spend your time with that are both writing and not writing? And look for ways to use that to develop something brand new.
Gabriela: I love that. And I love that you circled back to the idea of the needs because I think as we, we started this conversation by talking about focus, and I think that the needs are the lens that focuses the way you look at how you’re gonna go about pursuing those needs and how you’re gonna go about actually serving those needs.
Jessica: For sure the idea of focus for me is… it has to do like, focus can sound like you’re sort of like deep in the work and you’re inside it, but there’s another level of focus, which is the strategic focus, and that is what interests me the most. The idea of, again, if you wanna develop a creative practice, pulling back and getting strategic about how do you create a habit around your practice that is going to remove all of this friction, this additional friction that’s unnecessary.
When you think about your creative business, when you think about making money, taking care of yourself, instead of being in that scarcity mindset and face down in the, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, I’m broke. I gotta make money. Finding a way to pull back and look at, all right, strategically, what am I trying to do here?
What am I trying to achieve? Do I have the tools at hand to do it? Is it in my circle of control? What can be in my circle of control?
How can I move forward with this and meet my needs that is not following this completely broken model that’s been offered to me from every side since I was a child?
Gabriela: Yeah. Yeah, I feel like you and I could keep talking about this for like hours and not run out of things to say, but I’m curious, what else have you got going on? What would you like to share with our listeners?
Jessica: Well, I would be happy for them to read the article we’ve been discussing, which you can find at jessicaabel.com/creative-business. And my site in general, I have a lot of resources there for creative focus as well as for creative business.
And my program is called the Autonomous Creative Incubator.
It’s a cohort-based program and if anybody’s interested in learning more about that, I would be more than happy to answer any questions they might have.
Gabriela: Awesome. And we will also make sure to link to the article in the notes that go along with this interview.
Gabriela: So I always like to end with the same question, and if you could go back in time and give newbie writer you, or I guess in your case, if you wanted to go back in time to that pivot moment, that moment where you were in the creative burnout and hadn’t quite made the shift to where you are now.
What piece of advice would you give yourself at that point?
what advice would you give your younger self?
Jessica: Well, that’s an easy one. There’s, I mean, I went through major burnouts multiple times, and if I could go back before my first burnout and basically walk through this whole strategic understanding of starting with your needs, making sure you’re meeting your needs, that there are ways to meet your needs that are not pre-scripted for you, that I have the skillset, I have the brain power to solve it.
That it’s figureoutable. And that, here’s the sort of basic way you go about figuring it out. That would’ve been life changing for me.
Gabriela: I love it. So folks, you now have the whole system in this, the form of this article from Jessica. So go and read it. It’s gold.
Seriously, I’ve been digging through it and just taking it in nugget by nugget and it is just, there’s so much juicy, awesome insight in here that you guys need to read this article.
It’s really fantastic. Jessica, it has been such a pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you so much for being here.
Jessica: it’s been an absolute pleasure. We always end like, can we just keep going?
Gabriela: I know.
Jessica: Every time.
Gabriela: I know.
Jessica: Thanks for having me as a guest again. It’s been a great pleasure and I look forward to next time.
Gabriela: All right. Word nerds. Thanks so much for listening. Keep writing and keep being awesome.
Jessica: Thank you so much for joining us today for the Autonomous Creative.
Our show is produced by Matt Madden, our production coordinator is Lousine Boyakhandjyan, and our production assistant is Rhiannon Sunday. Music is by Matt Madden, and I’m your host, Jessica Abel.
You can find all our takeaways as well as any links and extras we mentioned today plus transcripts, in the show notes. Find everything you need at acpod.show.
If you enjoyed this episode, I hope you’ll subscribe. And it would help us immensely if you would take a second and pop over to apple podcasts and leave us a rating and review. It just takes a few seconds, but it’s actually a huge help to us and to our guests to get this podcast suggested to new listeners.
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