A writer named Yvonne Kohano reached out to me recently and told me this was her biggest challenge:
“I’m feeling scattered. Too many ideas for novels and nonfiction writing, all screaming for attention. I get distracted by marketing and outreach to develop an audience. Focus, which has never been a problem for me before, is suddenly a huge issue.”
Does that sound familiar? So many writers I speak to feel an overwhelming drive to create, but feel stuck in the mud. They have a difficult time choosing a project, finding time to create, and developing anything that could resemble an audience for their creative work.
Last week, Jennie Nash told the story of a writer who told her this, “I finally received Dan’s book, “Be The Gateway,” as you recommended. I was so excited to read it. Instead, I threw it across my family room, in tears, because there is no way I can do what Dan suggests.”
At first, I bristled at the story. I poured so much love into the book, it’s difficult not just to consider that it was thrown across the room in disgust, but that it made someone cry.
Then again, I’d rather have tears than apathy. Tears we can work with. Tears express a deep caring and a clear problem. We can use that to better understand the problem and work towards possible solutions.
Why were there tears from this author that Jennie knew? Why was Yvonne feeling scattered? Perhaps because they want what so many of us want:
- To feel clarity in our creative work. To feel that there is a clear path towards creating the work we dream of, and to growing as a person because of it.
- To feel that our work affects people in a meaningful way. That our work has a purpose that is realized in someone’s enjoyment of it; in opening new doors for others. That holds true for memoir, novels, nonfiction, art, music, dance, crafts, and so much else.
For many who create, this is what they dream of… it is a scene from the movie Almost Famous. The movie follows a young band in the early 1970s at a moment when rock and roll was become controlled by big corporations. As they struggle to not “sell out,” we see the biggest fan of the band dancing an empty concert hall after everyone else has left. She is still entranced by the world that their music created for her:
I want you to imagine someone finishing reading a story your wrote, and then lost in a dance like this, as they try to hold that moment of joy as long as possible.
Which brings us back to that author Jennie wrote about and Yvonne. If their challenges resonate with you at all, then let’s dig into some solutions. I’ll start with this: earlier this year I shared a post, “Craft vs. Platform: Which Comes First,” where I concluded that craft always comes first. I also included scenarios where you don’t have to worry about platform at all! Where you never need to have the slightest thought about how your work can reach an audience.
But I’ll bet that you do care about your work reaching an audience; I want share four key ways to do that. To honor craft first, while also ensuring it reaches an audience. For each of the suggestions, I will share a specific example. All of these come from the mastermind group I have been running for the past few months. This is an intensive collaboration where we truly get in the trenches together and work to forge a clear path to success with their creative work:
#1: Commit to Craft
One of the members of the mastermind, Colleen Waterston has a family cabin where she loves working from. Another member of the group, Amanda Zieba mentioned she was hoping to go on a writing retreat this summer, and Colleen offered up her cabin. Then next thing I knew, the two were sharing photos of their creative retreat! Here they are:
But then they took it a step further. Others in the group who couldn’t travel to the cabin joined them via Skype! Here is Flora Brown chatting with Amanda and Colleen:
I would like for you to notice something about these photos. They are social, yet not “social media.” Too often, when people consider the idea of developing an audience for their work, they immediately assume this means social media. But it doesn’t need to. Here is a group of people coming together around their craft that is entirely social, and has nothing to do with Twitter or Facebook. And I guarantee you that these people will be supporting each other’s work and creating word of mouth marketing for each other.
#2: Experiment in Order to Clarify
The nice thing about a small group collaboration like this, or even an in-person workshop, is that it is a process. In the past few months, individuals would experiment again and again with different ideas, prompted by me, and with support from the rest of the group. You can imagine this in an in-person writing workshop as well, a “safe” environment where you are pushed slightly past your boundaries, but in a way that is nurturing and caring.
The goal is simple: to honor your craft while helping ensure it reaches other in a way that feels meaningful.
I think key here is that you don’t do this alone. Maybe you can’t join a structured group for some reason. If you can’t, then get an accountability partner. Someone who shares similar goals to you, who can help you explore new ideas, try little experiments, and ensure you don’t slack off.
Remember how I mentioned that crying is better than apathy? That applies here. Most of our creative dreams don’t die because others snuffed them out. The dreams die from apathy. From letting the busyness of life get in the way.
#3: Use What You Have
One writer I have been collaborating with has been identifying ways to reach readers who will appreciate his writing. As we worked through ideas, he found that he was able to leverage his years of experience in sales.
Time and time again, he would consider how the process of learning about his ideal audience was not unlike the process of developing relationships with customers in his sales career. This was never “selling” in a way that felt spammy. He would talk about the nurturing process, learning about the problems that a customer may have, and over time, truly becoming a trusted friend who provided real solutions.
Is it different for an author? Sure. But was he able to leverage decades of experience to better serve his writing career? Yes! For many of you, you have experience in a career that feels unrelated to writing, or experience coaching your kids sports team, or raising a family, or caring for a friend. Your experience in each of these scenarios has given you tools of empathy that you can use to develop your audience. To carefully consider who they may be. What they care about. Where you may find them. How to become someone who brings joy to their lives through your creative work.
Which brings us to this quote by Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
This week I watched this college commencement address from filmmaker John Waters. One line jumped out at me:
“You must participate in the creative world that you want to become a part of.”
In the past few months, as writers and artists I have worked with have pushed their craft forward and tried to find their ideal audience, they did so by participating. Not just with me, but with as John states, the creative world they hope to become a part of.
They sent emails to people they hoped to learn from. They asked questions of others. They attended conferences and craft fairs. They volunteered to help out others.
Woody Allen put this as “80 percent of success is just showing up.” Show up in the creative communities you care so much about.
I opened this piece by sharing Yvonne’s challenge. In the past few months, I have seen her work through aspects of the four steps listed above. The other day, she shared this with me:
“I FINALLY feel like my good creative self again. It took 2 1/2 months in this group to reach this point. The sense of overwhelm is gone. It’s nice to feel good again!”
If you have ever felt scattered in your creative work, or as though all of the advice you ever heard about social media or platform made you frustrated enough to throw something (e.g.: my book) across the room, I would advise you to work through some of the ideas above.
If any of this resonated, I would love to hear how you have worked through similar challenges in your life.