Listen to the episode:
On this episode, I’m joined by my long-time friend, novelist Myla Goldberg.
In 2000, Myla found breakout success with her best selling debut novel, Bee Season. Myla walks me through the novel’s journey — how it landed in the hands of a literary agent’s assistant and went on to become a major motion picture.
We also discuss the importance of self-discipline, which Myla has in spades. Where does it come from, and is it really necessary if you want to become a successful novelist?
Finally, Myla explains the difference between nurturing her readership and building a client list for her private writing workshops, and how she does both without using social media.
More from the episode…
- How did the massive success of Bee Season warp Myla’s expectations for the future, and what was the key pivot she had to make years later?
- Myla describes her regimented routine for balancing writing, teaching, being a parent and partner, and the importance of setting boundaries around her creative time.
- Why Myla compares her creative cycle to that of a 17-year cicada.
- The illusion of instant success: “You don’t really see all the painful hours and days and years it took to get to that level of mastery.”
- Myla talks about the importance of putting yourself out there, and how she deals with rejections from publishers and potential clients.
- The three benefits of an MFA degree, and why Myla has no regrets about not getting one.
- Myla explains how having an income source separate from her writing has given her more artistic freedom.
More from our guest
Myla Goldberg is a bestselling novelist whose books have been named finalists for the National Book Critics’ Circle award, the Carnegie Medal, the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award, the NYPL Young Lions award, and the Barnes & Noble Discover award. She writes and teaches in Brooklyn. Myla is best known for her debut novel, Bee Season, a breakout success that was eventually adapted into a major Hollywood film starring Richard Gere. You may have also heard about: Feast Your Eyes, The False Friend, and Wickett’s Remedy.
Connect with Myla Goldberg
“Song for Myla Goldberg” by The Decemberists
Creative Writing Bootcamp on Skillshare
Click here to read the transcript
Myla Goldberg: We are a culture that is so in love with the idea of instant success and how like everything is presented as effortless.
Like you just get the final product on television or on YouTube or on someone’s streaming media, blah, blah, blah. And you don’t really see all the painful hours and days and years it took to get to that level of mastery.
AC intro3: What does it take to become a successful writer or artist?
There are some destructive myths out there about what a creative career is supposed to look like.
And we’re kept in our lane by the undermining belief that, as artists, we’re somehow incapable of building autonomous, sustainable careers– if we choose the work that’s closest to our hearts.
So we’re going to tear down those myths and get the truth by going to the source:
Incredible professional creatives who’ve followed every path but the expected one to success on their own terms.
I’m cartoonist, author, and coach for creatives, Jessica Abel.
And this is the Autonomous Creative.
In this episode, I had the pleasure of interviewing my longtime friend, novelist Myla Goldberg. Myla is best known for her debut novel Bee Season, which was a breakout success. Eventually adapted into a major Hollywood film, starring Richard Gere. In addition to writing, Myla also teaches fiction at MFA programs and runs her own private writing workshops.
I’m excited to bring you this conversation with Myla because in some ways she’s a bit of a rarity at 30, Myla achieved what so many writers dream about: her first book was a surprise bestseller. She got the elusive movie deal. But what’s really interesting is what came next, because as it turns out that magical bestseller doesn’t fix your entire life.
You still have to figure out how to navigate everything that comes afterward. Despite her huge early break, Myla faces challenges that are familiar to all creatives, balancing time writing with time with her family negotiating responsibilities with her spouse, and making a living in a way that won’t rob her of all of her time.
Those dilemmas don’t just disappear. No matter how lucky the strike.
So much of Myla’s success has relied on her ability to carve out time for her creative practice alongside her other responsibilities. No matter what life brings, Myla describes herself as ridiculously self-disciplined, but there’s definitely more to the story than that. Let’s dive straight into my conversation with Myla Goldberg right after this message.
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Now let’s start the show.
Jessica Abel: Myla, hi, welcome. Great to see you today.
Myla Goldberg: Hello, Jessica. Nice to see you too.
Jessica Abel: Myla, what is your work life like? What do you do all day?
Myla Goldberg: Well, it depends what day it is. Um, I have a very kind of regimented life, cause I’ve found that that’s really the most effective way to make anything happen at all. So, um, I teach and that’s how I get to feed my children and pay the mortgage. And then I write which when I’m lucky brings in money, but I do that because I love it and I can’t imagine living without it. And so those are two kind of different things that I’m doing.
So if it’s a teaching day, then, um, I spend my time either prepping a class or actually doing the teaching. And if it’s a writing day then, um, you know, as soon as I get my kid off to school, then I sit my butt in my chair at my desk. And, uh, that’s all I do.
I don’t do anything else until it’s lunchtime and then I eat lunch and then I go back to the butt in the chair. And so sometimes that means well looking at work I’ve already written and I’m editing and I’m reading to kind of get back into it. Sometimes it means creating, you know, composing, doing new stuff.
Uh, sometimes there’s research involved. I try to minimize that and be very careful about when I do that, because the internet will suck you away for hours. And then you come back, you’re like, oh, where was I? So it’s dangerous.
Jessica Abel: For sure. So that’s a, that’s a writing day. What does a teaching day look like for you?
Myla Goldberg: Well, lately in pandemic times, it’s been pretty similar to butt in the chair on a writing day, except that I’m looking at my computer at people. Post and pre pandemic, it means, um, you know, getting up and if I’m teaching like an actual class, I go to where I’m- I consider myself a migrant adjunct.
One, one of the choices I made very early on is I, which I had the luxury to make, which I feel very lucky about, is I decided I didn’t want a regular teaching gig. Like I could have gone out to try to get an established teaching gig that would have given me job security and all sorts of great stuff like that, but it also would have minimized my writing time and I didn’t want to do that.
So, um, I have always just kind of been a teacher catches catch can. I just grab adjuncting gigs as I can. Now this is where the grateful part comes in. Um, because I started out looking for teaching work already as an established author it meant that I could get pretty well paid teaching gigs, and that when I asked for jobs people generally wanted to give me jobs.
That is very different than looking for a teaching gig when you are maybe an emerging writer or just starting out. You’re going to have to work a lot more because you’re going to get paid a lot less. Um, but it’s still doable for sure. Uh, but so I have the, my version of a teaching life is a bit rarefied in that regard, depending on where someone might be in their career.
So if it’s a teaching day, I will prep my classes, which just means being at home, um, or it means I get on the subway or metro north and I go to whatever school Is letting me teach for them on that particular day.
Jessica Abel: You used to have private clients. Do you still do that?
Myla Goldberg: Oh, yeah, I sure do. So they that, that’s another version of the teaching. I run my own private workshops, which is basically, I mostly teach fiction workshops. Um, usually at MFA programs at schools in New York. But yeah, for the past five or six years really now I have been running my own private workshops, both online and in person, which I run just like an MFA workshop, but it’s so people don’t have to spend eight gazillion dollars to be in an MFA program to get serious concerted eyes on their pieces. And so it’s a community of, you know, serious people who want to get to be better writers and we give each other feedback.
I do that and I love it. Um, I really enjoy the private classes and then I also have private students where I work one-on-one with a student in much the same way.
Jessica Abel: Is that sort of book coaching or is it more open-ended than that?
Myla Goldberg: Um, I definitely, I don’t know what to call it. Uh, I’ve never compared what I do to what anyone else does. I wouldn’t call it book coaching. I basically just take an MFA professor approach to working with someone individually. So if someone’s working on a novel, I don’t read the whole novel at once and then sit down and talk them through it.
I just I’ll read 50 pages at a time and I’ll tell them what’s going on with those 50 pages. And then they might bring me the next 50 pages, or I might’ve pointed out enough tendencies that they can just take that and work through the rest of the book, because what I spot in 50 pages is probably what’s happening in like all the pages that follow.
So it kind of works that way. I don’t, I’m not an industry expert. Like I, I don’t know anything about what the market wants. I just know how to make it good, like good writing. That’s what I do. And so that’s yeah, that’s how I put myself out there.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, that sounds great. Um, you have called yourself before re ridiculously self-disciplined. So this thing of dividing writing days and teaching days, and having really strong boundaries around that. I’m just really interested to hear a little bit about where do you think that discipline came from?
How did you get to that point where that works or was there ever a point at which that didn’t work for you? And is it, do you feel like it’s necessary to have that kind of discipline to be able to do what you do?
Myla Goldberg: Well, since I’m only me and I’ve only ever done things the way that I do things, I’m going to say oh, yeah gotta be disciplined because I’ve never done it any other way. Honestly, I haven’t really met other people who can do it any other way either, but they might be out there and it’s so good luck to you guys.
Um, but it does seem to me, but it also depends.
I mean, we’re talking about writing a novel. I’m a novelist. Novelist is a long form, seriously long-form prose thing. So it does require, I think that degree of single-minded focus and discipline. I think if you’re in a different form, if you’re a sh, if you’re a poet, if you’re a short story writer it might be different. Of course, I can only speak for prose because that’s what I do.
So, but yeah, if you want to write a novel, it just, it demands gigantic chunks of your time and so if you don’t set aside those gigantic chunks, it’s just not gonna happen.
I have always been pretty much a self-employed person. Actually, that is not true. I started out, I had one real job in my life when I first moved to New York City, uh, for, I think all of six months. I was the assistant to a literary agent. And I think that actually is where the discipline started, because the only way I could write was to kind of coordinate off a part of my day.
I would get up early and I’d write for two hours I think before I, you know, I did not, my job started at 9:00 AM, so I think I was getting up at like five in the morning so that I could write for solid chunk before starting my day cause I knew that by the end of the day, my brain would be fried and it would be worthless for anything.
So I think that kind of is where the discipline perhaps started. Um, and then when I ended up just being, I was a freelance reader for TV movies for a long time, which um, and I read books and said whether or not they’d make good television movies and that I did out of my apartment.
So that also required me to kind of inculcate in myself a very high degree of discipline because no one was telling me to get it done. I was sitting on the same futon where I’d been like eating popcorn and watching a movie the night before, but now I needed to sit on that futon and get work done. And so I think maybe, yeah, just the nature of the opportunities that presented themselves to me kind of forced me to kind of construct that kind of discipline to make sure I could get the stuff done I wanted to get done.
Jessica Abel: Which makes a ton of sense, but I mean, I can off the top of my head, think of, you know, 10 or 15 people who would love to have that kind of discipline, but just don’t and really struggle with creating those kinds of boundaries. Is it something you feel like you’re naturally, you have a natural tendency toward? Were there any times at which you had to go hmm, let me set a rule, a timer, like some kind of reminder. There- did you have to build the habit somehow?
Myla Goldberg: Um, Honestly the answer is no. Um, and I think in that regard, I might be a little bit of a mutant or a freak of nature because I, like my husband needs to set timers and make lists and like be scheduled and like be super strict. yeah, I mean, I think, off the top of my head, I would guess that I might be the exception rather than the rule, which is another thing I’m super grateful for.
Um, and I guess actually it goes back earlier than that because when I first left college, I knew that I sure as hell didn’t want to get a real job and I certainly didn’t want to go to graduate school. That just seemed awful. I was really done with being a student.
So I, um, I went to Eastern Europe. I lived in Prague for a year. And that actually, if I’m really thinking about it is where the discipline started, because that’s where I wanted, that’s where I started trying to be a writer for real.
And , it was a place that was very easy to be having a lot of fun in all the time.
Like it was 1993 in Prague. You could live really nicely on a hundred dollars American a month, and live well. Beers were like a penny and there was this, all these American ex-pats who were out there having a great time all the time. So I had to really be disciplined there because if I wanted to play, I could’ve played 24/7 and I didn’t.
I sat at home every day and I had a set number of hours where I worked on writing and that’s actually where I got to work on my first novel. So I think that was. And that was kind of the most challenging, hypothetically that would have been the most challenging environment to do that cause I was, I was in my twenties and it was just a paradise out there.
But honestly, I don’t remember it being particularly challenging and I think that’s just because I have always wanted to be a writer so bad, like so hard and so bad that to not do that just feels like shit. Like if I am not writing, I just like, I don’t understand. I don’t know why I’m drawing breath. Like I’m just a waste of space. So I think the imperative to be this structured and to be like, so disciplined comes from the bar being really high for me about needing to justify my existence in the world. And that’s just all inside me and we can get psychological. We can talk about, do you know, what’s happened
as you children?
You know? But, Um, yeah. I mean, whatever damage was done to me that like, that’s how I need to be. I’m grateful for it now cause I work.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. Uh, I mean, you must’ve started with, you wanted to be a writer since forever so you were writing before this too, before you went to Prague
Myla Goldberg: Yeah, absolutely.
Jessica Abel: novel writing, but I can see this being a long progression of developing this skill, but also we’ve been friends a really long time.
We’ve been friends for 20 years probably. And, one of the things, one of the qualities about you that I’ve always noticed is that you’re extremely, self-contained, you know, you have this kind of like you have all of the things you need kind of within. And in a, in a really nice way.
Myla Goldberg: Yeah, I’m probably going to say things that are going to be incredibly unhelpful to most the people, because I basically ignore all the things that you’re supposed to pay attention to.
I have zero interest in social media. I tried to do Instagram for a while. I still do have an Instagram page, if that’s what they’re called. It’s my favorite of the social medias I have seen so far and I diligently tried to post on it, like for while.
I’m I might start doing it again, but honestly I just don’t care very much. Um, and so I don’t try real hard to get myself out there, and I think it’s because I don’t want to perform my life. I don’t want to perform my identity. And I think social media is about that.
Um, and that works. There are, it, I’m not trying to cast dispersions on what is an incredibly amazing 21st century tool.
I have just found that it is not, it does not fit with who I am and what makes me happy and what makes me comfortable. And I felt that when I was trying to work with social media, I was performing my life. And I feel like that creates a distance, or between myself and the world cause I always have to analyze it through, “Ooh, is this worthy to be posted to the world?” And I don’t want to live that way. I don’t want to everyday try to find the thing that’s somehow going to be emblematic of my brand that I can put in front of bleh!
Um, I’d rather just live my life. I feel like as a writer, that’s the way. For me to understand how people work and the world to work. I have to be as close to it as possible all the time. I have to be immersed in it and the distancing that I felt for me was necessary to kind of create some sort of social media persona or a pursuit. I just didn’t like that at all. So I’ve mostly, just pretty much stopped.
So the way that I built, like the private workshops, for example,
Jessica Abel: Right. So let’s make a distinction here because like the private workshops that’s one kind of audience building and one kind of, you know, connecting you need to do. And then there’s being an author,
Myla Goldberg: right.
Jessica Abel: So do them one at a time.
Myla Goldberg: Sure. So for being an author, I just write the books and I figure again, so, you know, I’m a rarity, I’m a special little bird in her little cage because I wrote a novel that did really well. And the way that it got published was kind of just this old fashioned. It went through the transom and an editor read it.
Well, first an agent who’d never heard of me before. I had no special case. She read it. Actually first her assistant read it. Her assistant gave it to her. She liked it. She became my agent. Then, you know, she sent it around and a person liked it. I didn’t have an MFA. I didn’t have, I mean, didn’t have any special connections.
So because of that, like if I have a religion, although it’s a religion that’s been sorely tested in the past 10 years, at base I still like to think that there’s some degree of meritocracy out there. Um, because I feel like that was largely, it was largely the strength of the work that allowed it to get published.
Now, obviously there are all sorts of mitigating circumstances. I’m a white middle class woman. So I had the benefit of going to a good school to give me that kind of training. I had taken, done an internship when I was at that school that got my foothold in New York that allowed me to get to know the city a bit. So yeah. Did privilege helped me? Absolutely. It did. But I also would like to think that it was good. I wrote a good book. And so that also helped it to do well.
Jessica Abel: So let’s, let’s, pause for a second here. We can get back to this question of audience building. Cause what, we probably should just tell the story. So this, this book we’re talking about is Bee Season. This was your first published book, although I think you had something else that was unpublished before that.
Myla Goldberg: I did. The novel that I wrote in Prague was the novel that no one shall ever see, but, um, it
Jessica Abel: Doesn’t every novelist have one of those?
Myla Goldberg: At least one, and that’s the big, that is the big lie! Oh my gosh. Can we talk about the big lie? Like all these people.
We are a culture that is so in love with the idea of instant success and how like everything is presented as effortless.
Like you just get the final product on television or on YouTube or on someone’s streaming media, blah, blah, blah. And you don’t really see all the painful hours and days and years it took to get to that level of mastery. And so in the writing world, you know, people say it their first novel, but what they should be saying is their first published novel because yeah, almost everyone, obviously there’s exceptions to this rule tool, but you know, you have between one and 87 books that you wrote before that, that no one wanted.
It’s the thing that, it’s the beast that doesn’t speak its name, and I just wish, I wish that we’d talk about that more. It’s just, it’s work. It’s work to get good at something. It is work to, you know, claw your way up to some level of recognition and success. It takes time.
Jessica Abel: Well, that is literally why I’m doing this show so I’m glad that we’re on the same page about that. But counterpoint your first published novel was a huge hit. It was a bestseller. It got made into a movie with big movie stars. Tell us a little bit about that.
Myla Goldberg: Yeah, it was. So that was a big surprise. Um, I, so my first novel nobody wanted. It was the one novel I had written in Prague. It was
Jessica Abel: Tell us the title, tell us the title.
Myla Goldberg: It was called Circus and it’s about the last seven days in the life of an Eastern European circus at the dawn of WWI.
I got beautiful rejection letters for that book. I, we sent it, you know, I had an agent, she sent it around. First she sent it to the really big publishing houses. And then when all of those rejected me, she sent it to the middle sized publishing houses. And when all of those rejected me, she sent it to the little teeny tiny publishing houses. And like everyone said, no.
But I got this letter, you know, like I love this book. I kept it by my bedside and read a little bit every night before going to sleep, but we’re not going to publish it. Um, and I still have all those. I kept every rejection letter I’ve ever received. I’ve got them in a big, old, thick Manila folder. But so, yeah, so after it was determined that really no one on the planet wanted to publish the book I had written, I was like, okay, time to write another one.
And yeah, I mean, I was sad, but it didn’t change anything for me because I knew that writing was what I wanted to do, and if I would just keep doing it, you know, and eventually I hope maybe one day I would write enough things that someone would trip over one of them and so they’d have to read it.
Jessica Abel: And that happened a lot sooner than you thought it would.
Myla Goldberg: Yeah, it just, it happened a lot sooner than I thought but like I was, you know, reading biographies of people who didn’t get published until they were their forties and their fifties. And I was ready, you know, it didn’t matter. Like I was already beginning to think about how to construct a life that allowed me to do what I love and also allow me to eat and pay rent. And so, I was already thinking along those lines.
And structuring a life that allowed me to do that and already realizing that, you know, a job can either make you money or a job can make you time. And what I needed was a job that made me time because that’s what I needed to do the thing I cared about, which is a thing I should just assume would never make me any money.
Um, and so I was already thinking that way when I wrote Bee Season. And so when I first, when we first learned it was going to get published, I was like, oh good. My mom can give it to her five friends. And they won’t think that their daughter is a total, you know, reject who can’t do anything.
So I was just shocked when it was a best seller and then it got made into a movie and all of that stuff. I was thrilled about it, and obviously in, in my heart of hearts, like when I was first trying to write, did I want to be a big famous writer?
Yeah, sure. Of course. Who doesn’t, who gets into writing? But at base, the thing that all- the biggest most important thing I wanted is I want to be able to see a book of mine published on a shelf in a bookstore someday. And that was kind of the baseline fantasy. And I kind of really hadn’t dared to fantasize past that. I just wanted to be a published author. And I hadn’t really attached degrees of success to that, beyond that. I mean, yeah, I would have been happy just to have a book published someday.
Jessica Abel: But, so to get back to this question then of, so you have this giant best seller, it’s ha- you know, it’s out there, it’s happening, all this stuff’s happening. You’re then in demand, I remember you went on a tour, um, maybe a couple of tours where you were talking to lots of people.
And to sort of relate this back to the self-contained way in which you go through the world and not wanting to build social media and not wanting to kind of maintain those, like an ongoing dialogue with those fans and readers.
How do you think about your readership and your fan base and, and your connection with them?
Myla Goldberg: Sure. I mean, I write to be read so I’m, while I am not interested in like promoting myself on a daily basis, I am writing because I want people to read what I’m writing. So forming relationships with readers is completely essential. When a book comes out, I adore touring. I mean, it’s not that I don’t like people.
It’s not that I don’t like connecting. I just want to- just like I segregate my work life, where I have the teaching day and the writing day, my larger kind of cycle, artistic cycle. I have a period in the cycle where I am connecting with the readers. And when I’m in that cycle, yeah, it’s great.
I enjoy giving readings. I love talking to people and like hearing what they think and connecting, an doing interviews and all that great stuff. But, um, I guess in my own mind, I’m hoping that the work is strong enough so that people, it will tide people over. And then, you know, it’ll take another five or seven years, but then when the next one comes out, they’re like, “oh yeah, I remember. Yeah. Okay. I’ll take a look at this one.”
So I’m less important. I’m less, I’m less invested in making sure my name is on people’s tongues every day of the week, then just that when I’m there I go deep, and I’m deep enough so that when I come back, there’s something, there’s a chime that rings. They’re like, “Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Her. Yeah. Okay. I’ll take a look at what she’s done next.” And I guess that’s more how I- it’s like, I’m like, I’m like the 17 year cicada, you know, like I’ll go underground and like, I’ll be un-, and they’ll come up. It’ll be like woo! And then I’ll go down again.
Jessica Abel: So contrast that to the way you think about, if not promoting at least, you know, making sure that your private workshops are populated, that people are coming.
Myla Goldberg: Right. I think that comes less from me being a big famous author lady than it does from, I’ve been teaching in a very concerted dedic- I love to teach. I, it’s really fun for me. Um, it’s really gratifying for me. I don’t do it begrudgingly. I do it because it makes me happy. And so I’ve been doing that now for ooh, how long? 15, 17 years?
And so, it’s been about slowly accruing a mailing list of people. I teach at, um, I I’m, I’m located in New York City, which has the great advantage of having lots of kind of cultural centers that do sort of offer classes. So I started out in addition to teaching at MFA programs I also taught at and still do at the 92nd street Y.
And so through the 92nd street Y I was connecting with people who just want to, you know, take classes for fun. Um, and so I’d done that enough years that I had enough people who had taken classes for me, that when I started to then offer my own classes, they’re like, “Oh yeah, I would take a class from you.”
And so that has been, it was a very, like I, I taught through the 92nd street Y and through various MFA programs for probably 10 years before I had even attempted to strike out on my own. And then from there, and I’ve continued to teach in the 92nd street Y, but also through, you know, the people I have now had my classes, I get people through word of mouth.
Like they’ll tell their friends and their friends will tell their friends. And so now, and I’ve also, and so I’m also, um, always looking for other kinds of organizations to partner with. So for the past, maybe three or four years, I’ve partnered with, um, Paragraph, which is a writer’s space. And so in pre-pandemic times I was holding my classes at the Paragraph writer’s space.
They would promote my classes to their mailing list, and I would promote them to my mailing list and say, “Hey, here’s Paragraph, here’s this great space.” And so there’s, yeah, I guess I’ve always been trying to find people that I can connect with or cultural places that I can connect with to make it all kind of work out.
Jessica Abel: Right. So this is what I wanted to hit foreground is that, I think the general, and you’re saying that when you started talking about this right at the beginning, you’re like, I think I’m going to disappoint everybody by not, because I don’t follow the advice, but for the kind of thing you’re trying to do.
Working with referral based marketing, essentially, where people are just talking about you, and having a small, devoted mailing list that you contact regularly. It’s kind of all you need,
And that’s the big secret I think. That people think you have to have this big brand on social media, but like to do something like what you’re doing, which is quite sustainable.
It’s about, I mean, that’s, it’s much more. It’s much easier, frankly, to do it that way than to try to do it through social media because people don’t know who you are. Right.
Myla Goldberg: Yeah. And actually one, one thing I, I do shamelessly do is I am very proactive. Like when I want something I figure out a way to try to get it. And I just put myself out there. Like, so I was just saying how I now, um, I’m kind of, I pair with Paragraph, this writer’s space. So I, that started because, um, the woman who runs Paragraph, I met her at a party and we talked and I learned that she, you know, has this space.
And I was like, oh, that’s cool. And then the next day I thought, oh wait, she runs a writer’s space. I could teach there and she could, she could tell, tell her people about me. So I was like, okay, I have to write her an email now and propose that. And so she did, it’s not like people coming to me and say, Myla, we’d love to give you a job or Myla, we’d love to have you at our writer’s space.
In fact, I, I can count on maybe a couple of fingers, how many times that’s happened. And all the other fingers are taken up with me having written emails to people saying, hey. Like most of my teaching jobs I got because I sent someone an email saying, Hey, I would love to teach here.
You, you wanna, you want to give me a job? And so that’s how I paired with Paragraph is I wrote her an email. I said, Hey, I teach these classes. What do you think about me teaching these classes in your space? And she was like, oh, that’s a great idea. We were just thinking about starting to have teachers in our spaces.
So yeah, it is very, very much about being proactive. Being just fearless and putting yourself out there, cause like the worst that’s going to happen is they say no. Okay. Whatever. You know, that’s like, and especially these days where everything’s online, you’re sending an email. Oh then you either never hear back from them or they send an email that says no. Who cares? So yeah.
Jessica Abel: Again, the voice of self-containment like some people really care. I mean, I think that that’s a, one I absolutely agree with you have to put yourself out of. You have to be willing to take those kinds of risks, but as you point out, they’re not big risks. They feel big sometimes, but they’re actually not all that big.
But the other thing I remember you talking about in the past is that you were like, you had an email list, but you’re, you’re sort of like, how do I add people to this? Is it okay to continue to be in touch with people? It seems like you’ve made that transition where you’re like, this is what I do. This is how I do this.
Myla Goldberg: Yeah, no, it absolutely like if someone has worked with me, then clearly they are interested in me, so I don’t have to worry “Oh, do they want to hear from me?” Because if they don’t you know, I figure I use MailChimp. There’s an unsubscribe button. Someone can just choose to unsubscribe and you know, an email in someone’s inbox is just not really an imposition. It’s just, it’s really quite small. So if they don’t want it there, they have it within their power to get rid of it.
And so, yeah, I am totally zen with the whole idea of just assume they want to. And then if they don’t, it’s like ask for forgiveness, not permission.
Jessica Abel: Well that, but I would actually push back on that because you, you have permission because they already signed up to work with you in the past. You know, they’re not, it’s not, you’re not emailing random strangers like, “Hey, do you want a writing course?” like, that’s not a thing
Myla Goldberg: That is definitely true. I am only emailing people who have already taken classes with me.
Jessica Abel: Right. Okay. So that, I love that. I love the way you went through that because I feel like there’s so much sort of chatter about how one has to build a brand. And like you’re saying, you know, there’s for very legit reasons people don’t want to live their life through social media and have a lot of resistance and feelings about that.
And you don’t have to. You know, there’s other ways to do it. I think that’s really, really great.
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Okay. Back to the show
Jessica Abel: so let’s switch gears a little bit. Let’s go back to Bee Season being this huge success when you were, how, how old were you when that happened?
Myla Goldberg: I don’t even know anymore. Let me, I want to say. Okay. Uh, I think it came out in 2000 or 2001, and that would’ve made me 30. 29 or 30. Somewhere around there.
Jessica Abel: Okay. Um, and then you were, it afforded you a level of, uh, margin, you know, for the next things, the next steps and so on.
I remember you thinking about whether you wanted to teach or not at that point, things like that. How did that early success affect your understanding of how you were going to run your career?
Myla Goldberg: That’s a really great question. And it, yeah, it deformed my vision horribly because the thing happened to me that doesn’t happen. I basically, I won the literary lottery. Right. I had a book that did really well and I didn’t have to work for like, I don’t know, three or four years? Maybe, maybe as much as three or four years. Maybe not as much. I I’d have to go back and look.
But yeah, I was just able to be a writer because you know, the book was selling so well and I was just getting royalty checks. And I even had my agent at the time, even during that time said to me, you will never have to worry about money.
Note to any, never tell. Note to agents out there ever tell that to your clients because you don’t know.
Jessica Abel: That is not a responsible thing to say.
Myla Goldberg: She meant well. So yeah, I was like, cool man. I can just be a writer now forever. Happily ever after. That no. I mean, the fact that I got to do it for any period of time at all was astonishing. But then I wrote my second book and no one gave a shit, you know? I mean, it, I was proud of it, but, um, it never even made back its advance. You know, and no, and honestly, okay.
I have now published four novels. No book other than the first one ever even made back there advanced as far as I know. Um, maybe, I mean, it could still happen
Jessica Abel: Yeah, this is actually, my father is a literary agent and he’s told me that early on, fortunately, that this is typical. That authors, you know, you get an advance and that’s what you get. So just, you know, like it’s very, it’s, it’s unusual to make back your advance.
Myla Goldberg: Yeah. Um, and so I didn’t really, and so it’s the same, like, you know, at the period in most people’s lives where they’re trying to figure out how to make it work I wasn’t cause I didn’t have to. And then all of a sudden I had to. But by the time, by that time I had kids and a mortgage and it was just terrifying because I was like, oh crap, we need to make money and I don’t know how to do that.
And I don’t want to like lose my house and I don’t want my children to be hungry. How does that work? So it was a very, I had to kind of very quickly, I think the word now is pivot. I had to pivot. Um, and I had to figure out how to make that work. And so that’s when I jumped into teaching and I just started like asking everyone.
I was like, okay, I’d like to teach now. And so this is the lucky part. This is because I had, I did have the name recognition and I had a book that had done so well when I did start asking for jobs, I got them. And so thank, I thank goodness, because otherwise I would have had to come up with a plan C or D. But, um, teaching was teaching happened and I, I really enjoy it.
And so then that’s what I just really fully committed to. And then from there on out, it was a way of, okay, how do I make teaching work so that it supports me enough so that I can then also continue to do the writing. And so I basically had to evolve, and this was a period of many years where I thought, okay, I’ll make half my income with writing and half my income with teaching.
And now it’s like, I’ll make all my income with teaching. And whenever I happen to make money writing, that’s icing on the cake and maybe we’ll go out to dinner.
So I had to, I had to really adjust in my mind how I thought about those two things and what they would do for me and my larger, my larger responsibilities.
You know, my responsibilities as a partner, you know, of running a household. Um, and so that was a big, a big shift. But the relief of making that shift, like when I thought I had to rely on my writing to basically support my family, it just felt awful because there was so much pressure. And so kind of the, the, the upside to kind of just knowing from the get go that it’s not going to come from, you know, the income’s not going to come from the writing is you write whatever you want.
You know, and that’s how it should be anyway. Like art. Art should be an expression of who you are and it should be a pure expression of who you are, and if you’re trying to second guess what’s going to get you the advance and what’s going to get you the money and the readers, at least for me, for the kind of work that I like to do that ruined it.
I just, I want to write what I want to write. And so this way of doing it allows me to do that. And I’m just so grateful to be at peace with that and to have a, be a working model.
Jessica Abel: I love that. Thank you for saying that, that it’s actually a relief that you think it’s going to be terrible. Like it’s, you know, you want to have it be that you’re writing for your full living, but then you’re doing it. And it just, there’s so much pressure. And then taking that pressure off is just like, I can breathe now. That’s pretty amazing.
Myla Goldberg: But I mean, the challenge then is you have to find the time because if, if the writing or the whatever, whatever creative pursuit that you’re pursuing is not what is going to be, allowing you to make your mortgage or your rent, not allowing you to put food on the table, then it becomes more complicated because yeah then you have to find the thing that pays the mortgage or the rent, and also pays for the food, but then allows you to still have time for the creative pursuit that you love.
And that’s where, especially in this culture, America, not very friendly about that because like you’re at a party, and this really is unique to America. Like if you go to Europe, the first question isn’t oh, what do you do for a living?
And it’s, it’s just so because of our Protestant work ethic thing, where like, we are the money that we make, um, it’s just, it deforms our views of ourselves. It deforms our views of what’s worthwhile.
Um, and so that’s for me the whole, what makes I needed a job that made me time rather than made me money. And so when I was a freelance reader for TV movies, that allowed me to work three days a week and have just enough for ramen and for rent. But then I had the other four days a week to do the writing.
And with teaching too. I teach, that’s more seasonal. I, I teach more in the fall and just it kind of worked out that way. So in the fall, I’m lucky if I have one or two writing days a week, but then in the spring, I’ll have three or four writing days a week.
Um, and again, that’s because of the nature of the teaching I get to do. But I tell my students, you know, find that time. And so if you have, you know, if you’re working just, you know, a steady normal, full-time nine to five job, then if you can get up early to get in time to do your work then, great. Maybe you can’t, you know, you’ve got kids, you know, you can, the thing you do before you get to work, as you make their lunches and you get them out the door.
So then what I tell people is then you’ve got a couple options. You’ve got the weekend. If you have a partner, you make some trades. You say to your partner, “Hey, I need Saturday morning to do the thing that I need to do because at what’s makes living worthwhile. And if you give me that Saturday morning, then on Sunday morning, I’ll take the kids and you can go do whatever you want to do.”
And so you barter and you find your time that way. Or if you are at the end of the year of your job and you have all this, you know, vacation time, that’s not going to roll over. You’re going to lose it or sick days that you haven’t had to use. That’s when you use them and you give yourself a residency. You take those sick days and you get yourself a cheap Airbnb and you go stay there and you work there for those sick days and they’re yours.
And so sometimes you’re gonna need to get creative with how you find the time to do the thing you love, but it can be done. And so that’s, that’s I think for me how it works.
Jessica Abel: Totally agreed. And I feel like too, there’s people tend to have a very narrow view of what that, um, money or time making job can be when they come out of creative training of some kind. It’s like barista, work in a gallery, whatever it is. That paid, that things that pay so low, that you have to work a lot of hours to make the money.
And so really looking at what your skillset is and trying to figure out if you can do something different with it seems like it often doesn’t occur to people. You know, it’s like this, I can only do this and, uh, this really narrow view, I think can be really restrictive and then and har- make it hard to solve that problem, essentially.
Myla Goldberg: Sure. Although that’s something that I would know, nothing. I don’t know the first thing about, about that. Um, because I didn’t have to look beyond teaching to find my thing. And because, because I had a book that had done well, I was able to get the high paid teaching gigs instead of the crappy teaching gigs. .
Jessica Abel: Um,
So getting back to students then, I mean, you teach in MFA programs. You teach and you say you teach your private workshops like MFA programs. It’s sort of the same approach, but you didn’t go to an MFA program.
And you said just a little bit ago that you didn’t, you’re like done with school, you wanted out, you wanted to be doing the thing. How did that decision come about? Did you ever feel like you wanted an MFA or missed anything? And then how do you look at the value of an MFA?
Myla Goldberg: So I consider myself very lucky in that I came from a family that weren’t artists.
They weren’t, um, my father was an engineer, so they didn’t even know what MFA programs were. Like so I grew up within, you know, a household or a community that, that just wasn’t even a thing. So I didn’t grow up thinking that that was a possibility for which I’m so grateful because it wasn’t until I was maybe an undergrad, maybe even then it’s just, it wasn’t a conver- it wasn’t a conversation that I was having with anyone.
And so I didn’t really think about it as something I wanted to do because I didn’t see it as a value. And I just knew I wanted to write, and it didn’t occur to me that I would need to go to an MFA program to do that. And so all I wanted to do when I got out of college was find a way to just start writing a lot.
Um, and so that’s what I did and I didn’t have anyone to tell me no, don’t do that because I wasn’t, I wasn’t a standout. Like I took a couple. So in undergrad I was an English major. I took a couple of creative writing classes.
I was not a creative writing major and no one that I took creative writing class, like said yes, Myla, you have a future. You should do this, this and this. I mean, they were all nice and all, and I took some really great classes, but I’m no one said, this is the path that you need to take. And I’m just so happy that that was the case because it meant that I was just kind of figuring things out for myself.
So, yeah, I was not a big fan of school. I mean, I did all right in school. But I was pretty sick of it by the time I was graduating from college. And the idea of having to take more of like standardized tests to like get scores, to like do that, blah. No.
So no, didn’t really figure I would go do that and never regretted that for one second. You know, when I was in Prague, though, I was, was when I was in Prague that I found that I was part of a writing community.
And so, I mean, that’s the thing like for, to my mind an MFA program can provide a couple of different things. One thing it can provide for you is structure. Another thing it can provide for you is community.
And another thing it can provide for you is mentorship. Oh, and then the fourth thing it can provide for you is crippling debt.
And so that’s kind of huh. Um, so those first three things are all incredibly valuable. I was able to get two of them on my own. I never really had mentorship, honestly. Um, and I so that I missed out on, but at, in Prague was my first kind of, uh, experience of finding community, a writer’s community.
I was part of a ad hoc writer’s workshop. We met once a week. There was a read- a reading, um, series that English language reading series that was also once a week. And so that was my life in Prague as being part of this very vibrant artistic creative community. And then I moved to New York straight from Prague where I didn’t know a soul.
Actually, I knew two people, neither of them were writers. Um, and so there again, it’s about being .Proactive and this is, these are the days before the internet. We didn’t have, you know, the Craiglist or the.
So I was, um, I remember I walked into a cafe in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, and I just saw on a bulletin board, a little flyer saying writers’ group meets here once a week. And I was like, okay, I guess I’ll start going to that. And those are the first people to give me feedback on Bee Season. That’s those are the people that gave me, you know, and they were immensely helpful. And so I was able to find community in this new city, you know, among these new people.
And, um, it just went from there. Um, and then the structure part. I had to provide that for myself. And we’ve already talked about that a bit. It’s just about being disciplined and building things in very, very deliberate kind of thoughtful, organized way. And so, you know, when I first started teaching at MFA programs, I had the total imposter syndrome thing.
I was like, “Hello, I am a teacher because they said I could” but like, I didn’t feel particularly qualified and I might not have, I don’t know if I was any good the first couple of years. Not that you get teachers training at an MFA program. Hello. By the way. So I probably wasn’t any worse than anyone fresh out of an MFA program, trying to teach.
So yeah, I have never regretted that one bit. I used to have a recurrent nightmare where I was attending an MFA program at whatever age I was having the nightmare, whether it was in my twenties or my thirties or my forties. Mercifully that nightmare has gone away. I don’t know when it went away, but it finally stopped.
Um, but no I’ve never, ever, ever wanted to go to an MFA program. And I don’t think anyone, I honestly don’t think anybody has to. Let me just say that right here and now. MFA programs, they have buttered my bread, but let me tell you, you don’t have to go. You really don’t, there’s lots of other ways to do it. And that’s why I enjoy my private workshops so much. I think being a part of creating an alternative infrastructure for people who want to pursue their creativity and don’t want to spend eight gazillion dollars. Um, yeah. I like that. I like being a part of that.
Jessica Abel: Preaching to the choir over here. I believe it.
One other thing I wanted to ask you about is your family. So you have two kids and I know that, uh, being a parent and, you know, spouse and all that stuff is really important to you. And it’s always been a really big part of balancing out this whole structure. So did, did you also have cordoned off family time? Like days, days, or hours that were like now the writing stops and now, you know, how did you balance those things out?
Myla Goldberg: Yeah, absolutely. It’s always been extremely important to me to be very present, you know, for my kids. Um, and so, and that was something I I’m extremely lucky, very fortunate. Although also this was deliberate too. Like I found a partner who was a feminist for real. Like not wore the t-shirt and then like called it a day.
Like, this is a guy where we split everything. We split the labor, we split the parenting, we talked about how it was going to work. And so when our kids were real small, we took turns with who would be with the kids. Like he’s a cartoonist. So we would take turns with the kids, one of us would go be working and the other one would be with the kids.
And that was real. We take turns right now, we’re in a phase where he’s doing most of the cooking. And I put the dish , you know, I clean out the dishwasher and I make sure the kitchen is ready for him to cook. And I’ll like, do prep for him or do the grocery shopping. But, um, it has always been a working arrangement where we figure out what each of us needs to do to make sure that the other one can get what they need.
Um, and that’s, it’s so essential. And it’s still mind boggling how much that still doesn’t happen here in the 21st century. How much there are still people who have mid, mid 20th century gender relationships in their marriages and their partnerships. Um,
Jessica Abel: Again, it’s being bold and asking, right. It’s saying it’s, , being willing to have that conversation and even it feels a little awkward and feels a little weird to ask for what you need, being able to do that is really important.
Myla Goldberg: Yeah. And if you’re not getting what you need making a change, you know, it’s not going to happen any other way. So yeah. So that’s the first thing. That’s the bedrock on which my life has been able to work is having a partner who shares my values in terms of believing at the time that needs to be created.
But then, yeah, so when my kids, you know, when my kids get home from school, you know, my work day, my work day stops at five o’clock. And then I am present for my kids. I do not work on weekends. Weekends are family time all the time. And that was something, that was actually a, that was a conversation I had to have with Jason because before, you know, we became, you know, were together.
He would just work seven days a week. And I was like, Hey, guess what? Mhm. There needs to be a time when you’re not working. And he was like, oh, okay. And, um, he was cool with that.
So yeah, I very much, I very much segregate my days into personal time, family time, work time, teaching time, writing time.
So what that meant in terms of the kids is you know, they, when they were small in elementary school, um, and still now, but to a much, much, much lesser degree, You know, you’ve got a kid in elementary school, and if you, someone knows that you have a part-time job or that you kind of have an alternative work pattern, they’re going to be like, oh, great, come be a class parent, come do this field trip, come do this, this and that.
And part of, I mean, and in a way you’re in a really privileged position in that you can actually maybe participate more in the life of your, your kid then a normal person could, or someone pursuing a more conventional work path.
However, it is also important to be protective of your time and to say no, and to say, you know what, hypothetically, I could go be a class parent three days a week because hypothetically at my time is my own, but you know, you do that and then you’re not going to get the other stuff done. So learning to say no and not feel bad about saying no and not feeling bad about people maybe judging you because they’re like, oh, Ms So-and-so has to go be an artist now. How nice for her that she can’t bring the snack to kindergarten every day, five days a week. So. Yeah, there’s a bit of that. That’s going to go on too.
You need to say, no. You have to protect that time because no one’s going to protect it for you and no one’s going to give it to you. Only you can give it to you.
Jessica Abel: I don’t know of a better place we could leave this than that. That seems like absolutely perfect. Can you tell us where people can find out more, um, are you offering your classes online? Can people sign up for your mailing list?
Myla Goldberg: Absolutely. Um, so yeah, it’s my name’s Myla Goldberg. The website is mylagoldberg.com. It’s pretty straightforward. Um, and you can sign up for my mailing list there. Yeah. If you’re a writer, um, prose, fiction, actually memoir. If, if you are writing narrative prose, basically it’s all the same underlying principles.
If you’re living in New York City, I conduct in person things that starting in January back to in-person. But, um, I also am going to continue to do, um, online stuff for people who are shut-ins in New York or for people who don’t live in New York that want to, and it’s really cool. Um, I’ve had classes with people from Korea. And as well as Texas and California and Washington, DC. And so, yeah, it’s super fun and it’s a committed group of people and it’s about giving constructive, uh, constructive critique. We have a good time.
Jessica Abel: That sounds amazing. I’m sure a lot of people are going to be very interested in hearing more about that.
Thank you, Myla. Thank you so much for spending time with us.
Myla Goldberg: Yeah, thank you for having me. This was totally fun.
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 the links and extras we mentioned today, Plus transcripts in the show notes. Find everything you need at acpod.show.
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