Advice on Being an Artist

I came across this sage advice from artist and sculptor Teresita Fernández, taken from a commencement address she delivered. 10 tips for artists:

  1. Art requires time — there’s a reason it’s called a studiopractice. Contrary to popular belief, moving to Bushwick, Brooklyn, this summer does not make you an artist. If in order to do this you have to share a space with five roommates and wait on tables, you will probably not make much art. What worked for me was spending five years building a body of work in a city where it was cheapest for me to live, and that allowed me the precious time and space I needed after grad school.
  2. Learn to write well and get into the habit of systematically applying for every grant you can find. If you don’t get it, keep applying. I lived from grant money for four years when I first graduated.
  3. Nobody reads artist’s statements. Learn to tell an interesting story about your work that people can relate to on a personal level.
  4. Not every project will survive. Purge regularly, destroying is intimately connected to creating. This will save you time.
  5. Edit privately. As much as I believe in stumbling, I also think nobody else needs to watch you do it.
  6. When people say your work is good do two things. First, don’t believe them. Second, ask them, “Why”? If they can convince you of why they think your work is good, accept the compliment. If they can’t convince you (and most people can’t) dismiss it as superficial and recognize that most bad consensus is made by people simply repeating that they “like” something.
  7. Don’t ever feel like you have to give anything up in order to be an artist. I had babies and made art and traveled and still have a million things I’d like to do.
  8. You don’t need a lot of friends or curators or patrons or a huge following, just a few that really believe in you.
  9. Remind yourself to be gracious to everyone, whether they can help you or not. It will draw people to you over and over again and help build trust in professional relationships.
  10. And lastly, when other things in life get tough, when you’re going through family troubles, when you’re heartbroken, when you’re frustrated with money problems, focus on your work. It has saved me through every single difficult thing I have ever had to do, like a scaffolding that goes far beyond any traditional notions of a career.
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Pen the Goat

Part of my creative process right now is to start sharing my work with the world.  My favorite (ever) acupuncturist once told me that creating art is only half the creative process.  The other half is giving it to the world.  If you don’t do that second piece, you are blocking your energy…  Felt true enough for me.

It is really tough to get the courage to put my work out there.  Some of it I am really proud of.  I’ve submitted short stories, a novel, and poems, and been met with mostly rejection.  That’s the name of the game, right?  Everyone knows that you have to get rejected LOTS before getting accepted.  And it’s not that my ego is so tender I can’t handle the rejection, it’s honestly that I find the PROCESS OF SUBMITTING so tiring and tedious that I avoid it…  I guess I don’t have true hope that I’ll get published, so I don’t see the point in putting the work into it.

For that reason, I am more and more drawn to self-publish.  My writing, music, and art.  Put it up for free, and let people have it if they like it.  In that spirit, I put my 5 best songs up on SoundCloud last night:  https://soundcloud.com/mstrongheart  …  Then I shared one on facebook…

I immediately starting mentally beating myself up.  “What if those songs are total shit and I’m the only one who can’t tell?”  “Does sharing these songs with my friends make me look like a pathetic attention seeker?”  “If people say they like a song, do they really like it or do they just FEEL SORRY for me?”

That voice, that critic, is a hard one to shut up.  But that critic will ruin EVERYTHING if you let it.  I’ve learned that much so far.  When I hear that critic taking its seat in my brain I say, “Oh, thank you for that.  It’s not your turn to talk, though.”  And I make it go away.  Because that critic EATS your fucking creative process like a goat.  Like a judgmental, red-eyed, critical, insecure goat.  You’ve gotta pen that fucker in.  Or better yet, let it go into the great wild pastures that are FAR AWAY from your art.  It will always come back, of course, but the more you can learn to treat it lightly, with an air of amusement, the more you can stop taking its voice seriously.

Shit and Gold

Obviously I’m not doing a great job of posting on here regularly, and I think I’ve figured out why.  I’m trying to make this blog look like a showcase of “good art”, of finished writing and pieces I feel proud of and want to show off.  But that is not the point of this blog.

The point of this blog is to show my creative process as it really is.  To share the pathetic, endless angst involved in the creative process.  The self loathing, the fear, the anxiety, and the endless mounds of shit that get produced in order to get to a tiny nugget of gold.

I once read a quote from a writer who said that, in the beginning, what you write is 99% shit and 1% gold.  If you keep at it, over time, that ratio starts to flip.  Eventually, if you write for years and years and get really really good, you might get to a place of 50% shit and 50% gold.  But you will always have to produce that shit to find the gold.

If I try and preserve my posting space for the gold (and, let’s be honest, it’s mostly copper and bronze), I’ll almost never post on here.  This blog is intended to be about the shit.  TRUTH: I am sitting in my bath robe, frizzy hair, my entire life surrounded by half finished projects.  To my right is a graphic novel by a woman younger than me, and it’s inspiring because I know I could write a better one.  But… she wrote it and I didn’t.  To my left is several pages of printed notes for a copywriting job that I could probably whip out in 5 hours, but I have been dragging my feet on it for a couple weeks because I don’t want to feel bored.  And it’s pretty boring to write copy.  But it’s how I need to make my money right now so I can continue to make some shit, and hopefully a little gold here and there.

So, hey y’all, get ready for some shit.

Zero to Sixty as a Freelance Writer

I didn’t get the social work job I was waiting to hear about.  I am relieved because now I don’t have to make the difficult decision of whether or not to jump into full-time freelancing.  And I am, of course, scared that I won’t be able to do this and will end up in a worse situation than if I had just found a job as a caseworker.

I keep coming across testimonies from writers saying they were able to achieve a passable living as a freelancer within 6 months.  I am relying on these folks telling the truth.  I feel that I can do it, too, but I can’t know.  So, I am going to blog about my steps, successes, and failures as I journey from earning $0/year as a writer to $60,000/year.  I don’t believe I can get there in 6 months, but I AM hoping to get to $30,000/year (at least) in 6 months time.  I’m hoping (unrealistically?) to be earning 60K/year before 3 years are up.

So, here are the steps and results I’ve taken so far in switching to a career as a freelance writer.

1. Decide what to call yourself.  Copywriter, Independent Business Writer, Freelance Writer, Commercial Writer…  I went with Independent Writer because I want to write copy as well as articles.  You might need to decide on a niche for yourself, if you don’t want to write anything/everything like I am, until I can afford to be picky.  I recommend Peter Bowerman’s book for help with defining your area and title.

2. Create a writing schedule.  This is something I needed to do, but everyone is different.  If I don’t have my time scheduled and planned, it is too easy for me to jumble my priorities.  In order to have time with my daughter, and time to exercise, I’m able to write for 33 hours a week.  I’m working on being more disciplined about planning those writing days better, too.

3. Figure out your money.  The advice I keep reading is to have 6 months worth of living expenses saved before leaping into full-time freelance work.  This sounds very reasonable… and unachievable for many, including me.  I will write more about my own money planning in a later post.  For now, let’s just say that it’s important to know how you will get by for many months with little to no income!

4. Buy a domain name and create a website.  I recommend doing this right away.  It may seem premature, but a website is the first thing people have asked to see when I tell them I am a freelance writer.  I was advised by a graphic designer that an email address linked to your website looks much more professional than a gmail or hotmail account (i.e. mercy@mercystrongheart.com as opposed to mercystrongheart@gmail.com).  After comparing different companies, I went with ipage.com.  I bought mercystrongheart.com and one year of website hosting for $34.  Cheap.

I have found posts on this blog to be helpful.  I don’t yet know if the woman who writes it is legitimate or not, meaning can her advice be trusted…  I looked at these websites she recommends as good examples of writers websites.  I ended up liking this one and looked at it while creating my website.

5. Decide on your rate/hourly fee.  This has been hard for me.  I’m applying to be a writer in an organization called Scripted (so far I’ve been denied for the two industries I applied to), and I stole their rate sheet as a guide for myself.  Feedback from copywriters I know is that $50/hour is a good starting wage.  It’s high enough for clients to take me seriously, but low enough to be desirable with my lack of experience.  Thanks to Scripted, I can now bid by job as well. (I’ll post my rate sheet later.)

6. Create and/or gather samples for your online portfolio.  Apparently it is essential for a freelance writer to have samples of their writing available online.  (I have also been reading The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman as a guide for getting to self-sufficiency as a writer in 6 months.  Again, I can’t tell if his advice is legitimate, or if he has just found a way to make money by promising other writers that they can make it, too!  Anyway, I have been following his advice, including creating a portfolio.)  My friend G, who is a graphic designer, also told me that if she doesn’t know a writer’s work, she won’t even bother with them if they don’t have samples available on their website.

I had no samples.  I checked craigslist everyday and applied for a job to write articles for a sports website.  I now publish articles with them every week, and can use them as samples of published work.

For samples of business writing for my portfolio, I posted on Facebook that I was available for pro bono writing jobs.  One friend, a psychologist, asked me to write her bio for her website.  Another friend offered me the chance to write a PR piece for her pizza restaurant.  I’m working on them both now.  When I told G that I wanted to launch my writing business, she passed my name and email on to a couple writer friends, one of whom sent a job my way within a few days.  I’m working with that client now, writing content for his web page.

7. Check Craigslist everyday, and snag opportunities to write and publish.  I actually almost never see anything, but I still check it almost everyday.  It’s how I got the job writing for portlandsports.com, and I am in the process of applying to two others.  What I’ve found is that the writing jobs are very low paying on Craigslist, but if you can get one that regularly publishes your work, you’ll be earning a lot in exposure and credibility.

8. Create a Twitter account, a blog, and a Facebook page.  So many writers tend to be introverts, like me, and feel averse to spending much time writing about ourselves.  However, we live in the times we live in, and writers are now expected to have a social media life, eventually a following, and be actively building their “platform“.  I struggle with what to tweet and blog about.  I know that if I do it more regularly, I’ll get into the groove.  Facebook felt awkward for a long time, and now I have to restrain myself from posting too much on there.

9. Get a timekeeping app.  Maybe not something everyone wants to do, but I want to keep track of how long different jobs are taking me so I can adjust my rate and pace as needed.  I like the look and features of TimeWerks, but I’m trying Hours Keeper for free to see how much I use the app.  You could always just write down how much time you’re spending on jobs, but the time keeper apps let you clock in and out, and keep track for you.  I find this really helpful.

10. Order business cards.  I really like the designs on moo.com, but I ended up going with vista print because they are so much cheaper.  I just ordered 500 cards, with a  little calendar printed on the back of each (I’m a calendar geek), and a leather card holder for $45 with S&H.  I plan on handing them out as much as possible.

11. Consider joining Lynda.com.  I joined this online tutorial site to teach myself SEO, HTML, and marketing basics.  It has a good reputation and great user reviews.  It costs $25/month for unlimited video access.  I found that I don’t have the time right now to take advantage, so I canceled my membership.  I am going to try teaching myself skills as I need with mooc’s (massive open online courses).

I’ll keep writing posts like this as I go along!

Career Decisions

I am waiting to hear if I got a second interview with the nonprofit I last applied to. I’ve been distraught over the decision of whether to accept a secure job doing work I feel pretty good about, or plunging into full-time writing with no clients yet, but doing work I am thrilled about. I’ve decided that if I get a second interview, I’m going to interview the hell out of them and see if they can offer me a quality of life that will make up for the loss of writing hours.

What is making this decision so much harder is that I have a daughter who is almost three. On one hand, the responsible thing for me to do is take the secure job and focus on meeting my daughter’s needs. On the other hand, in her short life she has not yet known me as the happy person I truly am. I want her to grow up with a happy, thriving mother if she can. Plus, the freelance writing has the potential to earn me lots more money than the nonprofit jobs I currently qualify for, so there’s that.

I should know by next week if I’ve got a second interview. I kind of hope they don’t call me back, just so I won’t have to make this decision! In the meantime, I do have one client I am currently working with. I did some writing and consulting work to help him improve his real estate website ($100, cheap!), and he wants to use me for a second writing project.

I want to share all of the information I’m turning to, and what I’m learning on this road to freelance, but I’m holding off until I’m really on it. Until then, I am loving the book The Well Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman.

Lost in Learning

I have just been immersing myself in learning about business writing. I am waiting to hear back about one last job I applied for in the social services world. If I don’t get it, I am going to pursue freelance writing full-time.  I’m totally excited and totally freaked out!

The web is full of articles by freelance writers who claim you can earn millions of dollars. I’m not saying that wouldn’t be nice, but it’s challenging to find direction out there that seems trustworthy.

So far, I have bought a domain name and web hosting through ipage, which cost me $34 for the year. I’m going to join Lynda.com and start teaching myself SEO (which stands for Search Engine Optimization), copywriting, Adobe Suite, HTML, etc. ($25/month, supposed to be well worth it). I’ve also reserved some books from the library that are supposed to be good, so I’ll let you know.

I just submitted my first two articles to portlandsports.com, so I am excited to see them go up!

VOICE

I really want to post on here everyday. But here’s the thing (or, one of many): I want to find my VOICE. And I don’t think I have, and so I’m hesitant to post.

My natural voice, the one I’m writing in right now, feels carefree and off-the-cuff. It also feels chic-lit, irreverent, slightly hostile, deeply cynical, poppy (not poopy, though that too), and too clever. So I avoid it. It FEELS TOO EASY. It has all the qualities that critics pinged “Eat Pray Love” for. What to do?

On the one hand, I could write in this natural voice and risk alienating all my smart, fancy-pants friends. (Okay, I only have one. But I have a major crush on him, so it’s a big risk.) On the other hand, I could write in my smart, fancy-pants voice and risk not having anything to say, because nothing is smart enough for that voice. I have a sense that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. That my easy, natural voice feels uncomfortable because it is not digging deeply enough, and my fancy-pants voice feels stifling because it is too far removed from real life.

How to solve this dilemma?? I don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is that I want to be posting everyday, so even if I have to do it in my chic-lit voice, I will do it.

Don’t Ignore the Voice!

Tonight I had a great, long conversation with a friend about vocation and passion and inner voices.  I’ve written about the inner voice that has followed me since I was nine-years old, saying “But… You want to be a writer!”  Turns out my friend has had one, too, since she was about 15.  Hers says, “But… You want to get a PhD!”

I am wondering tonight, what happens if we ignore those voices? What happens if we reach 50 or 60 years of age and that voice has gone unanswered all those years?  I don’t want to find out, because I don’t think it’s good.  It’s taken me 30 years to realize that this voice isn’t going anywhere, and that’s just pathetic.

Two nights ago I went to a friend’s reading.  He just published his second novel.  I feel so happy and proud of him (Benjamin Parzybok, “Sherwood Nation”).  He did this super cool thing after the reading, where he told the audience which bar he would be at, if anyone wanted to continue the conversation. Of course I went, because I really like Ben and because I am a bit of a lush.  It was a wonderful time of good, intelligent conversation and writerly company.  Affirming.

Since I am not producing enough at this time to share, and since I want to keep posting regularly with less rambling, I am going to share, bit by bit, the journey of my inspiration as a writer/creative.  This brings me to Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.  I assume most folks have heard of her by now, but if not, this book is a must read for aspiring writers.  I read it so many years ago that I really can’t speak to any specifics of what I liked, but let me just say that Goldberg’s book dispelled any doubts I held onto that I wasn’t a writer.  The book is so jazzy, motivating, inspiring and fun, you can’t help but want to jump up (or sit down) and start writing.  More than that, it really just tears down the whole snobby idea of Writer and gets you putting pen to page.

Here is a sketch I did of myself and my siblings, as cartoons:

Photo on 2014-09-18 at 22.59

website work

Oh man, what a busy few days. I got word back from the sports website that I’m hired as a freelance writer. I was SO excited when got the email. I haven’t felt so thrilled since the last time I fell in love, which was many years ago. So I’ve been cramming to get my Weebly website up and looking okay. It’s a really easy site to use, walks you through everything. But I’ve also been trying to enjoy the last bit of summer we’re going to get up here in the PNW.

I played my guitar for a few minutes today, which was fun. I’ve been thinking for a while that there are hardly any female musicians performing kids songs around town, but lots of men. Sometimes I think about going out to hustle up some gigs. I’d have to learn a bunch of kids songs, though, and my lazy self always stops there.

A while back I made up a creative schedule for myself. I figured out how many times a year/month/day I want to put out X (blog post, album, story, comic strip), and how many hours I can set aside a week for creative work. I need to start following this schedule! I would like to do that tomorrow, which means going to bed now so I can get up and write on my memoir before the kids I watch show up for the day.

Buona sera!