Posts filed under 'Creative process'

Freelancers, what’s your work mantra?


Sunday night, after a glorious weekend on the Olympic Peninsula, I came home to several hours of uncompleted work. Due 9 a.m. Monday, hard stop. After two leisurely days of beach strolls and sunsets, communing with my computer was the last thing I wanted to do. So I picked up the remote, switched on the tube, and landed on an episode of “Deadliest Catch.”

[Flickr photo by madame.furie]

One of the skippers was chewing out a deckhand who’d retreated indoors with a torn stomach muscle. With just a handful of crew on his Alaska crab fishing boat, the skipper needed all hands on deck, pain be damned.

“I’ve worked through torn muscles and all kinds of pain,” the skipper snarled. “Unless you have a bone sticking out, you suck it up and get back to work.”

Obviously, writing is nowhere near as grueling as fishing for Alaska king crab. Still, those were the words I needed to hear. So I switched off the tube, and with “Unless you have a bone sticking out, you suck it up” as my mantra, I slogged through my project and made my deadline.

When it comes to how we approach work, I’m a firm believer that each of us has our own mantra, motto, or credo. It may be a quote by a beloved author or philosopher. It may be something you heard a friend, relative, or reality TV star say. You may even have an entire theme song running through your head while you work.

[Read the rest of this post on Nine to Thrive.]

6 comments July 25th, 2011

Artist at heart? 6 reasons to keep your day job

I’ve always objected to the notion that you need to take a year off to write a novel, paint a mural or record an album. Likewise, I’m equally bothered by the assertion that an artist with a day job is a sell out. Eating is a noble pursuit. So is learning valuable business skills you can apply to hawking your own creative wares.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for creative endeavors, be they full time or on the side. But I’m also for living like a grown-up, as opposed to, say, couch surfing or subsisting on Ramen-ketchup casserole indefinitely.

Of course, the rub is finding the time and energy to practice your craft while doubling as someone else’s employee. Same goes for keeping your resentment of that pesky day job at bay.

Summer Pierre, author of The Artist in the Office: How to Creatively Survive and Thrive Seven Days a Week, knows this dance all too well.

Before becoming a mother this year, the illustrator and writer supported herself with an administrative gig in the academic sector. But rather than view her day job as an obstacle to making art, Pierre came to appreciate it as a vital part of her creative life — and not just because of the paycheck that kept a roof over her head.

“Not everyone does well being isolated,” said the Brooklyn-based Pierre, who plans to return to part-time bread-and-butter work this fall. “I need structure. I need people. So the job for me was really providing that.”

But cash, colleagues and water coolers aren’t the only reasons published authors, gigging musicians and exhibiting artists cite for straddling the employee world. The next time you’re tempted to ditch your day job (or pooh-pooh another paycheck-earning artist), consider the following.

[Read the rest of this column on ABC]

2 comments August 2nd, 2010

New year, new goals

Feels like I’ve been writing holiday-themed articles for weeks and weeks. (Among my favorites: Survival Jobs You Never Thought You’d Be Thankful For and All I Want for Christmas Is a Layoff.)

With 2009 mercifully in the rearview mirror, I’ve joined the fresh-start bandwagon and have been furiously outlining my freelancing goals for the next 12 months. Not resolutions (habits you want to form or change), but goals (stuff you want to accomplish).

Reason I make this distinction is because while writing about how to stick to your New Year’s resolutions yesterday, I learned that humans are hard-wired to fail miserably if they try to change too many habits at once. So I’ve got one resolution for my freelance career this year: leave part of each Sunday open for work on my personal writing projects (books, essays, stories), something I’m doing with three other freelance writer pals for extra accountability.

As for the other stuff I hope to accomplish this year, I’m calling those goals. In the interest of sharing, I’ll list some of the biggest ones here:

  • Give this site a much-needed facelift
  • Finish proposal for book #3 by spring
  • Pursue more custom publishing work (trade publications and the like)
  • Sell an article or essay to the print edition of a certain beloved national paper

How about you? What do you hope to accomplish in this brave new year?

8 comments January 4th, 2010

Open thread: Where do you find your best story fodder?

Newer nonfiction writers often ask their grizzled peers where we get our ideas for all the articles, blog posts*, columns, personal essays, and pitches we’re endlessly cranking out – often on deadline. In an era where computers and phones are exploding with content, links, and commentary galore, this may seem like an odd question to ask. But I thought it would be fun to answer anyway.

On any given week, I’m responsible for turning in at least one career column and three work/life balance blog posts. Then there are the half-dozen or so stories I’m pitching each month to my regular stable of editors, as well as new ones I’m trying to woo. Meaning if I’m not constantly cultivating fresh story and blog post fodder, I’m sunk.

My top sources of content inspiration:

Blog aggregators. YPBLOGS – the Young Professional Blogs Aggregator — is my blog clearninghouse of choice. One, the 225+ Gen X and Gen Y bloggers featured on this site often bring career and work/life balance issues and trends to my attention. Two, all the cool career-oriented bloggers are doing it.

HARO. is the Swiss Army Knife of reporting. Besides being one of the best ways to find sources if you’re in a deadline fix, this e-list gives you a sneak peek at some of the stories other journalists are researching at any given time. And while idea pilfering is pretty unbecoming, sometimes you can riff off someone else’s idea to come up with a brand spanking new story angle of your own.

Google alerts. If you’re not relying on Google’s handy bots to tell you who’s saying what about your pet topics on any given day, it’s time to start. Again, I’m not advocating simply pilfering or rehashing someone else’s brilliant post or story idea. But a Wall Street Journal article about working moms that raises your hackles can make a great springboard for your own post, column, or reported piece.

Twitter and Facebook. I can’t even open Fritter (or would that be Frittbook?) without finding half a dozen links that scream blog fodder during any given hour.

Friends, readers, and real life. I love when I’m at a party and someone tells me about some bizarre work situation they’re experiencing and it’s all I can do to not blurt out, “YOU! MUST! LET! ME! INTERVIEW! YOU!” Likewise, colleagues and readers frequently email me their unique, off-the-wall ideas. If you write about a topic long enough, this will happen to you too. I promise.

So how about you? What’s your holy grail of content fodder?

*No cracks about the infrequent posts on this here blog. Details on what the heck is up to come soon.

8 comments September 28th, 2009

Ask the cubicle expat: How can I lick procrastination once and for all?

photo-from-tara-swords.jpgIn honor of My So-Called Freelance Life “officially” publishing today, I thought I’d post a short excerpt from a great Q&A that fellow freelancer Susan Johnston did with me on the fantastic webzine Women on Writing. It’s on my favorite topic: procrastination. You don’t have to be a writer to appreciate the sentiment.

But first (heh — geddit?), I’d like to thank Tara Swords for taking the day-making photo above, Toni Martin for rocking my world with the book’s first Amazon review, and the Feminist Review’s Brittany Shoot for her kickass write-up of the book.

Okay, back to the question at hand….

Susan/WOW asks: A lot of writers (including yours truly) find themselves procrastinating online when they ought to be working. How do you stay disciplined when you have a deadline coming up?

I answer: As you’ll probably glean from the book, I still fall prey to the dreaded P-word from time to time. (Damn you, YouTube!) When a deadline is dire, I’ll have to shut off the phone and unplug the modem. Otherwise, finishing the project just doesn’t happen, or at least, it doesn’t happen without involving an additional six hours of emailing and IM’ing friends about nothing of consequence.

This probably goes without saying, but if you don’t work, you don’t eat, so there’s always that motivation. I’m single and bootstrapping it all the way, so it’s not like I have anyone to pay my bills for me. Besides, the more deadlines you have on the calendar, the more you learn to just motor through the pile of articles or projects on your plate. When you’re mistress of your own schedule, it doesn’t take long to realize that if you have three 1,000-word articles due in a week — articles that require locating and interviewing sources — you need to start now, not the day before they’re due.

Licking procrastination is all about playing mind games with yourself. These days, I’m loving the piecemeal approach to writing articles (write the intro one day, the middle the next, and the ending the day after that) while I research and edit other articles on my plate. So, instead of having to write 1,000 words in one four- to eight-hour sitting, I may only have to write 300 words over the course of an hour or two. Much easier to face.

Bonus answer: In both my books, I talk about some of the tricks we freelancers have to play on ourselves to lick procrastination. The Pretend You Have To Be Somewhere At 6:00 P.M. approach is currently my favorite. Anyone who’s ever made plans with me during the past, oh, decade knows that, as weird as it may sound, I tend to get stressed if I have too many evening outings scheduled during the workweek (and by “too many” I mean, “more than one”). But that doesn’t mean I can’t pretend I need to leave my office by 5 P.M., a tactic that miraculously lights a five-alarm fire of productivity under my butt. Who knew that kicking the I Don’t Need to Crank Today — After All, I’m Here Till Midnight mentality could be as simple as telling yourself a bunch of lies?

11 comments October 1st, 2008

Who are your working class heroes?

I recently did a Q&A with Cat Morley of the UK-based online craft community Cut Out & Keep. Cat asked me who my working class heroes are, and I liked the question so much (it was a first for me!) I thought I’d post my answer here.

I love the same funny writers everyone else does: David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, Anne Lamott, Steve Almond… But I’d have to say my real heroes are the freelancers on the rise whose work I’ve come to know and love in the past few years, several of whom I’ve come to know personally: writer Judy McGuire, who’s as snarky and funny as they come; writer/illustrator Ellen Forney, whose performances of her work impress the hell out of me; writer Diane Mapes, whose ongoing news of book deals, newspaper columns, and assignments from enviable publications keeps me reaching for more too; writer/instructor Angela Fountas, who got a couple of kickass grants [last] year and does a tremendous job of giving back to emerging writers; writer/blogger Ariel Meadow Stallings, who’s got the online social media thing down; illustrator Nina Frenkel, who’s one of the most talented and prolific thirty-somethings I’ve ever met; erotica writer/editor Rachel Kramer Bussel, who besides being mind-bogglingly prolific is pretty dang fearless — I mean, if writing erotica isn’t literally putting your ass on the line, I don’t know what is.

I don’t think someone has to be a stranger who’s been pulling in six figures for the last decade to be a hero. The successes all these women have achieved feel accessible and within reach to me, which I find all the more inspiring. It’s not as daunting as comparing yourself to, say, Michael Chabon or J.K. Rowling and thinking, “Will I ever be that brilliant or rich, will I, will I?”

What about you gals/guys? Who are your working class heroes? Your mom? Sis? BFF? Fave blogger/designer/photog/coder/translator? Let’s hear it. And if you want to read the rest of my Q&A with Cat, it’s here.

4 comments March 24th, 2008

The upside of the writers’ strike

rudy.jpgA freelance writer pal and I were talking the other day about all the reading we’ve been getting done now that half of Hollywood’s on strike and network TV reruns are beyond unwatchable (except for Rudolph, of course). And while I wholeheartedly support a writer’s right to not sign crappy contracts and to get paid what she’s worth, in some ways I’m kinda sorta somewhat selfishly glad the strike is on — even if it means I’m going to Freelancer Hell — because it’s left me no choice but to unplug the tube. Truth be told, my remote and I had been getting a bit too close for comfort in recent months.

Add my change in work schedule to the mix and you’ve got a gal who not only can hear herself think but can retain a creative thought for more than a fleeting nanosecond. So in addition to doing some extra writing, I decided to amuse myself with these goofy new pastimes:

  1. Read the bible. Not because I’m born again or anything, but because I’ve always wanted to. Besides, I’m a sucker for stories filled with family feuds, heaving bosoms, and natural disasters. And who knows? Maybe when I’m done with god’s word, I’ll tackle all of Shakespeare. Maybe. Unless I get lazy and/or the writers’ strike ends.
  2. Listen to my CDs in alphabetical order. The other day my beau bought me two new CDs. As in, CDs just released in 2007. At first I looked at them — then him — in horror, because everybody knows I’m stuck in my 1970s jam and prog rock rut. Which is precisely why my schmart beau bought me these two fabulous CDs, both of which rocked my world. This prompted me to then declare that instead of listening to the same CD over and over while I write, I will make my way alphabetically through the couple hundred CDs I own but haven’t listened to in ages. Of course, if I was really ambitious, I’d listen to them in autobiographical order a la John Cusack in High Fidelity. But I shot my memory doing things I probably shouldn’t have in my twenties, and anyway, I had all my CDs stolen a couple years back and don’t have a “true” lifetime collection.

So what about you? Any unexpected new hobbies or creative endeavors you’re taking up now that prime time’s all but imploded and the new year is upon us? Do tell.

5 comments December 16th, 2007

Heeding my own advice: Structure, dammit!

Last week I talked about swallowing my own medicine by creating a detailed spreadsheet to help me wrap my brain around a big fat deadline. Somewhere between the holiday turkey and stuffing this past weekend I realized that when it came to getting reacquainted with working toward a beefy, long-range project deadline while sitting home in my union suit, I still had miles to go before I could consider myself a lean, mean well-oiled machine.

Suddenly the expanse of time I now enjoyed each workday seemed more like a curse than a blessing. The ABC daytime lineup beckoned, as did the half-dozen half-read memoirs on my nightstand. The dirty dishes in the sink taunted me, and the disorganized bedroom closet became an irresistable siren song. I realized I needed to add some structure to my writing day — and quick — or come deadline day, all I’d have would be (1) a Jeopardy-like command of General Hospital trivia, (2) a scarily impressive Goodreads page, and (3) an uncharacteristically immaculate house.

So I once again sought the counsel of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide and quickly honed in on page 104, where I found this tidbit:

“If you’re self-employed, setting ‘office hours’ will help you stay on top of your workload and better compartmentalize when you’re off duty — something that’s infinitely harder to do when your office is ten feet down the hall. Without set hours, it’s far too easy to fall prey to the ‘I’ll just take the afternoon off and then work late into the evening or get up before dawn to finish’ line of thinking. Half the time you’re too tired to do the work justice after dinner, let alone drag your sorry, procrastinating ass to your desk. And setting your clock for 4 AM to finish the work you blew off yesterday is a surefire recipe for oversleeping.”

Ahem, and amen.

Since I’m a fan of lists, I created this one, which I promptly hung on my fridge:

Structure, dammit!

8 AM wake
8:15 journal and morning dance*
9 eat
9:15 walk Buddy
10ish to 4ish write at least 1,000 words for bigass project**
4ish to 5ish catch up on email and errands
5ish walk Buddy
6ish make/eat dinner
8 to 10ish evening activity: playing, slacking, reading, blogging, marketing***, editing day’s work, and/or writing something else****

*Journaling about my project’s progress helps me clear my creative throat each morning. And rocking out to some 70s jam band or other helps get my blood pumping and gives me a morning ritual to signal that the workday’s about to begin.

**Obviously I break for lunch in here. Works best if there are leftovers from the night before that I can heat up in a flash. Also, I discovered in 2006 that (a) everyone strives for 1,000 words/day when working on a bigass writing project, and I can crank out this amount in 3 to 6 hours (or so), polished, depending on how much reporting is involved.

***The other day someone asked for my bio and clips for a potential ongoing career advice gig. Sending them the requested material and following up on other similar opportunities is what I mean by marketing.

*****The something elses I am writing are a couple of non-fiction essayish stories on topics I’ve been wanting to tackle for quite some time. In all likelihood, I will have to put myself on a writing schedule for these too. But first I need to get my hands around the beefier project’s schedule.

Because it’s officially permanently gray in Seattle, with a whopping six hours of daylight available, I discovered I have to set my alarm — yes, even to rise at 8 AM. Otherwise, I’ll sleep clear till lunchtime. So far I have yet to ace this schedule, but I think I’ll have it somewhat close to licked this week. If not, I’ve resigned myself to showering and working in a cafe next week. For some reason, I am resistant to doing that. I like to choose my own background noise/music and visual distractions, I suppose.

How about you? What scheduling tips have worked for you when you’ve seemingly got all week long to chip away at a far off deadline?

9 comments November 27th, 2007

Heeding my own advice: Getting your arms around a fat deadline

My life has changed a lot since the month began. From July to November, I was burning the candle at both ends, jugging a contract gig with freelance writing deadlines, which I realize is ironic for someone who wrote a book with a hefty work/life balance theme. But sometimes you need to bring home a little extra bacon, so I bit the bullet and toiled a little more than I should. And now I am free. FREE.

First thing I did to decompress was go here, then here. Then I read this, and this, and even took in a bit of this. Along the way, I taught a class, applied for a grant, and turned in a couple short articles. But it still felt like a vacation.

After two weeks of this luxuriating, I realized it was time to face the music. What I haven’t told you is that I have a Very Large Writing Project due in a few months, and while that’s quite exciting, the time management aspect of it is a little scary to me, especially since I’m essentially home in my jammies with zero structure whatsoever for the first time in many months. So I decided to crack open The Anti 9-to-5 Guide and take some of my own medicine. In particular, this tidbit from page 59:

“Use a wall calendar, notebook, or spreadsheet to measure your progress: how much time you spent on your project each session and what you accomplished. This will help you see the bigger picture come into focus.”

I suspected that making a list of all the components of this Very Large Writing Project and their deadlines, target word count, state of done-ness, and final word count would be freeing. So I cribbed a spreadsheet template that my friend Ariel, who completed this Very Large Writing Project a while back, used to help her feel calm about the whole thing. (Thanks, lady!)

I’m excited to move the project management aspect of this beast from my head to my laptop. Not only do I feel more organized, I already feel less stressed about the whole thing. Rather than having to wonder where I am in the project, if I am on schedule, if I’m over or under the desired word count, and how much writing/editing I have left to go, I can just crack open my spreadsheet and feast my eyes upon the data. Of course, I have yet to add in the deadlines as that would move me from a state of denial to one of reality, but I plan to force myself to go there today. Good luck to me.

7 comments November 20th, 2007

Roberta Browne, how’d you land that killer gig?

Since many of you work or aspire to work in creative fields, I thought you’d get a kick out of my latest “How’d you land that great job?” Seattle Times story, which profiles Roberta Browne, lead animator at Bungie Studios, maker of Halo. I think Roberta’s career path is particularly interesting because (a) she initially struggled with how to turn her talent/love of illustration into a viable career, (b) she tried her hand at freelancing and realized it wasn’t for her, and (c) she has an enviable position in what’s traditionally been an ultra-male field. So, without further adieu, some excerpts from my interview with Roberta…

07_1107_browne.jpgThe job: Roberta Browne grew up on what she refers to as “a steady diet of Looney Tunes cartoons and ‘The Wonderful World of Disney.’” All her spare time in high school was spent drawing cartoon characters, all her notebooks were covered with doodles. After getting a commercial illustration degree at Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, she tried her hand at freelance illustration for two years — and wound up earning the bulk of her income by waitressing and bartending. Feeling off her game, she returned to school for animation and, upon graduating, landed her first job as an animator. A decade later, in May of 2007, Browne joined Bungie Studios in Kirkland, Wash., where she works as a lead animator, a job that involves everything from 3-D software to brainstorming sessions to pratfalls.

Q. How did you land your first game animation gig?

A. I studied animation at Sheridan College, located in Oakville, Ontario. Every year the school would hold an open house to showcase the work of the graduating students. There was usually a big industry presence, with representatives ranging from small post-production shops to big movie houses to game companies from both Canada and the United States. After graduation I was offered a job at a small post-production house in Toronto, creating animations and effects for various TV shows.

I was contacted a few months later by Broderbund, a game company located in the San Francisco area. One of their lead animators had attended the open house and seen my reel. I was offered a job. I have to admit, the initial draw of living in California overshadowed the opportunity to work in games. I wasn’t really sure what was involved in being a game animator, but I thought I could figure it out. What I discovered is that animating for games is an exciting, challenging and extremely rewarding job.

I worked at a couple of game companies in California before moving up to Seattle in 2003. Over the years I worked my way through the ranks, starting as an animator, working up to senior animator and then finally to lead animator. I have worked on seven released games in my career, as well as a few prototypes that did not make it to market. Some of the more notable titles are “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (Xbox), “Shadowrun” (Xbox 360/Vista) and, of course, “Halo 3.”

Q. What does a lead animator do?

A. My role has changed from creating animation content to managing. I oversee a team of five animators. Most of my time is spent planning, problem solving, coordinating with other functional groups and working with the animation team to ensure they have everything they need to create animation content. I sit with the animation team and participate in [their] reviews of content so far, brainstorming, and acting sessions. Acting sessions involve falling onto mats, jumping, punching and so on. We hand-animate, so there’s no motion-capture technology involved. We’re old school in that regard.

I try to get in a little bit of animation here and there, but it is very limited. It was an interesting transition going from creating animation to helping others to create animation. But I have found it extremely satisfying.

Q: How does game animation differ from film animation?

A. Games are different than films in the sense that the animators create a bunch of smaller pieces of content that are then combined in the game engine. In film, animators work on shots or scenes and animate all the motion from start to finish. So a game animator needs to collaborate with other disciplines. That’s what I love about working in games — it takes art, design and engineering working together to fully realize and bring a game character to life.

Q. Are you a gamer yourself?

A. I do play games outside of work, about three to five hours a week. But I do not consider myself an avid gamer. My passion lies with animation and bringing characters to life. A lot of my free time is spent taking figure drawing and figure sculpting classes at a local art school. This keeps my observational eye sharp, which is a skill I use on a daily basis as an animator.

Q. What advice can you offer hopeful animators?

A. There are so many schools offering animation courses. My advice to those looking to pursue a career in animation is put your focus on learning how to animate. Many schools focus more on teaching different software, and it is fairly easy to get a character to move around. But to have that character act and emote is the real trick. Look for the schools that offer training in animation principles and acting. Having a solid understanding of the basic principles of animation and acting is the key to being a successful animator. Once you accomplish that, you can work in any area of animation production.

You can read the rest of my Q&A with Roberta — complete with recommended resources for aspiring game animators — on

6 comments November 13th, 2007

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Hi, my name's Michelle Goodman and I've been freelancing since 1992. I'm author of My So-Called Freelance Life and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. Read my full bio here.

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