7 Hard Truths on Writing, Publishing and Getting Creative Work Done

Today I’m fielding 7 questions that I’ve received this year on writing, publishing and getting creative work done.

Even as a writer who talks a whole lot, I know that talk can be cheap. Action is required.

For creatives, that means doing your creative work, sharing it, and sometimes even selling it. Why?  Because we don’t have all the time in the world to start pursuing our goals, dreams and inner truth.

We can spend hours and hours consuming strategies, brainstorming ideas and plotting out our methods before getting into the actual work of making your goals and dreams realities–but it’s only ever the action that produces them.

As we say in yoga, “Yoga is skill in action.”

Action, choice and practice are how we start to create momentum. Acting–even before you’re ready–is what tells everyone around you that you’re going for it. In action, we begin to maneuver alongside the Universe, which rewards our strides and efforts with hints and clues about our path, the journey, and where we might be heading next.

My hope is that this advice will help you start to act on your dreams by making smart commitments that invite new (even scary) responsibilities, and get people on board with your mission, and start serve your readers customers or clients in impactful ways.

I hope that by the end of reading this piece, you’ll switch from a mode of consumption to one of creation. I hope this advice motivates to write as you wish, publish as you wish, or get whatever creative work done that you feel called to do.

Ready to act? Let’s dive in.

1. “To MFA or not to MFA? Does it really matter to a successful published author?”

I’ve honestly never heard a question about how a Masters of Fine Arts affects an author’s success. But after a touch of research, I’ve discovered that there is a semi-controversial book touting one of two ways that an author can become “a success” within the literary industry: attaining a Master of Fine Arts degree, or sidling up to the literary industry in New York City and working your way into that industry through relationship building, networking and authorly-hustle.

In my opinion–this coming from someone who’s not an MFA, and has gone the “untraditional” route of building a platform for himself through blogging and authored his books through self-publishing–I believe that an MFA has absolutely no bearing on your success as an author.

In earnest, I can’t tell you which of my favorite authors or writers are Masters of Fine Arts. Not one.

In fact, I can’t tell you anyone I know who is a Master of Fine Arts except for my talented sister Bianca Ursillo, who graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for Dramatic Writing. She’s on the path to becoming the greatest television writer since Aaron Sorkin.

But back to your question.

Why do you want to become a successful author? And how do you define success?

Will your success hinge upon positive critical acclaim from the New York City based literary industry?

Do you want to be a member of that industry? Is it about being a part of that literary community?

I imagine that many aspiring authors who have a love of books, writing and literature do indeed dream of being a part of this industry. Maybe it’s a romantic idea, maybe it’s the belief that this “is the only way to become a successful author,” I’m not sure. Me, I’ve never given that idea a thought.

In my biased opinion, no, you don’t need an MFA to become a successful author.

I’ll tell you what you need more than to be in debt with a Masters Degree: you need to earn yourself a masters in “doing.”

Do more.

Write like a maniac, publish works that aren’t brilliant yet, and start cutting your teeth that way. Build relationships with readers and writerly peers. Join a writers’ group that will build you up while challenging your writing skills to improve.

This is what most people can do, but don’t do. They’re too afraid to do it.

They don’t understand that starting too soon and failing fast is how we first learn our own creative process. It seems obvious enough: by creating, we learn how to be a creative person–how to be a creator. Creation is the only process by which we can learn how to create well.

Start to maneuver and remember that you’re learning as you go. And I believe that you will find your way as a successful author. I have.

2. “What do you do when the ideas keep rushing in and you’re trying to focus on one project?”

It sounds like your creative state-of-being is begging you to pour: to express, write, explore without judgment and unload the many pent up thoughts, ideas, emotions and energy that you have within you.

Unburden yourself by releasing the creative pressure that has been building up. Express it. Write it out and make your goal to be the act of expression (what I like to call “pouring,” as if from a full bucket).

Here’s what I recommend:

  • Don’t beat yourself up for having ideas. Ideas are your gift. Just look to completing projects as the true measure of progress and momentum in your creative or professional life.
  • Create a simple system for managing your ideas. I use Evernote. Whenever you have an idea, create a new Note in a Notebook called “Writing Ideas,” jot a few sentences about it, and let it go–unless this idea is calling to you desperately. This way, you can focus your attention where it needs to go without feeling like you’re losing out.
  • Focus on one project at a time to ensure that you’re not skirting the responsibility that’s required of you to give yourself to this project and these words, entirely. Your job is to open your heart and pour your soul on the page. You cannot achieve this by dabbling in many projects at once. Practice completion, execution, and the art of finishing.

I understand feeling like your many ideas can be a constant distraction that derail your ability to effectively find a mode of creation.

In the end, your many ideas are a product of your imaginative, creative mind. They are a benefit to you. Not everyone thinks in this way. Honor your creative mind, keep track of your ideas, but focus on one at a time.

When in doubt, remember: playing with 1,000 writing ideas at once is a sneaky means of avoiding the responsibility, commitment and dedication to getting one piece of writing done. And getting something done is how you learn, grow, and repeat.

3. “Any tips/suggestions for breaking into freelancing? What about those content mills? I have heard some horror stories.”

Let’s discuss this with a simple analogy.

There are farms across America that undertake brutal, inhumane practices to harvest animal products. They make plenty of profit. But their products are immorally produced, and often contain unhealthy byproducts or harmful ingredients.

What’s a person to do? If you’re the consumer, you choose certified organic foods and produce. Your motivation might be moral, it might be for health reasons, it may be because you want to honor your body and your one life.

It’s no different with writing and freelancing. Companies do indeed outsource their freelance writing work for cents on the dollar to people in developing nations and receive a lackluster product. That doesn’t mean it has any impact on you as a creative.

You want to be the small-scale, local, organic farm of freelancing.

Your product is higher quality–it yields better results for your clients. Your clients benefit by knowing that what they’re paying more for is better for them, better for their community, better for their own customers.

You can entirely frame your freelancing work around this concept. Get better and better at producing your “high quality, certified organic” freelance work and you’ll reap the benefits.

4. “How to even get started? I’m in Australia so our media is significantly smaller here. And also as a freelance journalist if anyone knows…”

Are you implying that a small media is a bad thing? You can use a smaller media to wild success. It means there’s less competition; it means the barrier between you and the media is smaller.

But don’t deceive yourself into thinking that media opportunities are your golden ticket. They’re not.

You don’t need mass media attention–even local media attention. You need to start producing and showcasing work that speaks for itself. No amount of media attention can achieve for you what quality work, satisfied customers and word-of-mouth recommendations can.

Besides, it’s a slippery slope when hoping that media attention will give you what you want: it’s a seamless, frictionless, ego-boosting desire.

Don’t get me wrong, I used to think the same way–until what media attention I found yielded not a damn lick of business.

5. “Some tips to get started in freelance work?”

I largely skipped the freelance stage of being a writer. I call freelancing a “stage” because it happens in between a writer emerging for the first time and ultimately evolving into a stage of producing art, not just SEO blog posts for $15.

What tips I can recommend here come from working intimately with dozens and dozens of freelancers since 2012 in my private writers’ group, The Literati Writers:

  1. Pitch yourself. Don’t take no’s personally. A common theme among freelancers is that many are still fighting to build a sense of confidence in who they are and what value they provide. There’s often an element of shame in freelancing–like you’re picking at scraps, and charging cents on the dollar for work that takes you days. Pitch your services clearly and confidently, and make the pitch as a human being offering help–not a telemarketer hawking weight loss pills.
  2. Turn every business opportunity into a learning opportunity. Whenever you have a business opportunity come up, turn that opportunity into a learning opportunity as well as a chance to earn some money. Rather than just trying to make the sale, see if you can’t place some processes or systems around your work (and your interactions with your clients). You can start too soon and figure out the process as you go, but having an idea of average time of turnaround and client intake forms can be huge in helping you do what you do best.
  3. Request constructive feedback, client referrals, and a testimonial. Once the work is done (and done well), ask for constructive feedback (“What’s 1 thing I could have done to serve you better?”), ask your client to keep you in mind if any friends or peers are in need of similar services (“I’ll extend a 10% friends discount to anyone you send my way,”) and request a testimonial if that client feels that they would like to recommend the experience of working with you.
  4. Keep practicing (ie, by writing for yourself every day). Don’t forget to write for yourself. Freelancing is great, but maintain a personal practice to cultivate your own voice and skills–beyond the client work.

Oh, and don’t forget to charge enough for all the work that you do.

6. “How do you know if you are good enough to make a living as a writer? There are so many amazing writers out there that make me want to close my Mac and become a used car salesman. How do you block that out and focus on what you are doing, which is writing your own way in your own voice?”

Do you know what you’d find if you became a used car salesman? Great used car salesmen.

Know what you’d feel then?

Like you’d want to quit and become something else.

Think of another profession, job or career. When you get there, guess what? You’ll find more people who are excellent at what they do. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about artistry or flipping burgers, hawking Hyundais or practicing law.

I say this to say that you’re good enough to make a living as a writer by first believing that you’re good enough, and second by really wanting to be YOUR best. Not someone else’s best.

Stop comparing yourself to everyone else.

This isn’t about them. This is about you and making your life your damn own.

Fall in love with the idea of your journey–and your artistry–becoming the best, most fulfilling and rewarding artwork of all.

Believing that you’re good enough and that you’re worthy of earning your keep is what separates those who don’t from those who do.

Self-belief doesn’t promise you a damn thing from success, but you can’t start to get anywhere without it first. Self-belief is the foundation; your legs to stand upon. You have to start with belief. Then, add the will, drive, desire, and relentless determination to do your best and be your best at what you do.

When you carry that inner faith into the work that you do, the service you offer others and the very life that you lead, you will start to discover that being “your best you” is all that you require to make a big difference in the world.

7. How do you deal with switching off the distractions (social media, email, life)? I keep hoping there is some magical solution.

Oh, come on! You know what the magical solution is–to suck it up and turn off the distractions, of course!

I don’t believe in using online tools or apps or toys to help me practice simple self-discipline. It seems counter-productive to me. But I know there are apps and resources that minimize your distractions when you’re working online, for example.

To me, that feels like the equivalent of using noise-canceling headphones when you’re trying to work at a unbearably loud cafe, instead of just removing yourself from the unbearably loud cafe.

Here are a few tips:

  • Turn off all Push notifications on your phone. Stop checking your phone. Or, you can even switch it into Airplane or Do Not Disturb mode.
  • Stay off Facebook. Duh. But a good way to avoid any of the one-click temptations is to stay logged out of social media so that you have to manually log in every time you want to check in. Even 10 seconds of typing your username and password is enough of a hassle to stop you from doing it 15 times a day.
  • Close your email. Add two-step verification via text message, not only for security, but to add a layer of nuisance to stop you from one-click logging in.

In the end, you need to be self-disciplined. So suck it up and just do what you already know you need to do.

If you’re serious about your goals and dreams, self-discipline is one of the only things you’ll be able to rely on throughout your journey to discover the life you want to live.

The trick is that you don’t have to know where the journey is going to take you to start walking there today.

Start walking. Invest yourself. Do what you say you want. Small actions today yield fruits tomorrow.

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