Conversation, Walks, and Collaborative Projects

FraidyCat is a freelance writer who works on the blog FraidyCat Finance with her partner, Mr. Blue Sky. 

Every day since mid-March, my partner and I have taken a walk, sometimes two. Our neighborhood is pretty well-laid-out for it, and very few other people walk so we didn’t worry too much about virus spread in that way. We’ve practically worn a rut through the cracked sidewalks and backwoods trails behind the nearby park.

Before COVID-19, our conversations often revolved around work, what he was doing and what I was doing, and household management: when would groceries be bought, who was coming to visit this week, what needed to be cleaned. We also talked about other things, podcasts we enjoyed and such, but it was never enough, him being pretty concise and quiet, to fill seven-to-ten 45-minute walks a week. 

At some point, I came up with the idea for a blog. This isn’t unusual, since ideas for things pop up all the time. But this one had a kernel of utility for me: it’d be a blog about us, specifically about how my partner was willing to dive into aspects of personal finance, and how I was always dragging my feet and deeply risk-averse. 

He’s not a writer, but he does like talking about what he’s learned lately about dollar-cost averaging or donor-advised funds and anything else financially interesting. I pitched him, a freelance writer at my heart, on the idea of me writing a blog that was based on our conversations.

At first, he was unsure, but I reassured him that he wouldn’t have to do 50 percent of the writing. What he’d have to do, though, was research with me: rather than just idly scrolling through the internet feeds on our phones, we’d need to follow our curiosity on personal finance topics more deliberately. He’d report back to me about what he found.

I was not all that interested in launching the blog — I’ve always struggled with committing to projects — but we spent the first two months of the pandemic chatting about what the blog would be like. I would draft up a post and he’d read it when he had the time, and when we were walking, I’d interview him more officially about decisions like why and how we bought our house and why he invests for retirement the way he does.

It was really fun. I didn’t see it going anywhere — nothing in our experience is unique in the wide, wide world of personal finance blogging — but just pretending we were going to launch the site made me look forward to our walks more. It felt like we were getting deeper into our own decision-making process, the household management talks we’d always had, but also coming up with new ideas, feeling more invigorated. It was nice to have something new to think of amidst a lot of sad, difficult news that 2020 brought.

I sometimes wonder what holds couples and very close friends together long-term. Is it inertia, proximity, or actual shared interests? My partner and I don’t have a lot of overlapping interests other than personal finance, so when our social circles and outside-the-home activities shrank, it made sense to drum up some serious shared-project energy.

I don’t know if this is the kind of project that I would have made enough headway on in a non-2020 year to actually launch the site, but in November, I decided to go ahead and launch, since that would push me out of a slump I’d been in about the project and hopefully get me excited again. It worked. In addition to the fun of talking to my partner to brainstorm, I was now able to comment and connect to other bloggers. It was a well-timed infusion of excitement, when the weather was turning nasty and I wasn’t likely to be walking as much.

As the walking aspect faded, since we’re indoors more, I still keep an eye on the weather and try to get us out for a quick stroll somewhere any time the temperature breaks 50 degrees at the warmest part of the day. But we’re in a rhythm as well: talking about personal finance as a subject of study and consideration has become part of our lexicon as we clean the kitchen and cook meals and wrap presents. 

As a writer, I tend to find the process of creation pretty lonely; only one or two times in my life have I felt truly in sync with a collaborator in creative harmony and productivity. With this project, however, the lack of expectations for the final product and the overarching goal of mostly just entertaining ourselves on walks and in the daily spaces of conversation has really worked.

I have high hopes that, after only a few years of marriage, we have more projects left in us. I hope that creative collaboration can be a part of romantic love but also of friendship love, and family love in my life. Certainly, people who don’t live in my household might not share the same schedule as me, so they might not be as immersed as we happened to be this year, but I hold out hope for other low-stakes, creativity-focused projects in the future.

The conversations themselves, it turns out, are the most useful output of our efforts; the blog itself is fine but I can’t spend a whole ton of time writing, promoting, or optimizing it, given my other work. What’s most engaging is the habit we built that takes things we already did (write and read) and turned it into prompts for connection (the chats, on walks and at home). I think creativity at its best often works this way: the more questions we ask, the more questions we generate. It’s a beautiful cycle to be in with someone you spend so much time with. 

Virtue(s) and the Creative Life

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She is also the creator of The PenPal Project, an experiment with community, sustainability, and joy. This is the latest installment in her monthly column about the creative practice.

This morning I took a walk, just a little before full dawn. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading this on a different day than I’m writing it. I will likely still have just taken a walk before dawn. I will likely still have made the following request as soon as I could see the open sky: “Patience. Kindness. Courage.” 

For someone who historically wrestles with the very idea of prayer, I’ve taken to this simple practice of it without premeditation. In three words, I remind myself to cultivate three virtues. 


I’ve had an unusually focused, connected, intense, very physically present couple of days. I find this kind of density over time clears the scattered buzzing of the brain more effectively than just about anything else. Two days is only a very little time to experience such density, but it was enough this morning to prompt some curiosity about my daily request.

Patience, Kindness, Courage. Why these three? 

A) I’m not naturally any good at them. 

B) I admire them when I see them at work in other people. Virtues are not personality traits. They’re something you can practice. They’re habits. 

C) Patience, kindness, and courage are my own application of the cardinal Stoic virtues.* I have a long-standing interest in Stoicism — Stoic like the school of philosophy, not stoic like the modern adjective — owing at least partially to my argumentative acquaintanceship with a dead Roman Emperor named Marcus.** 

It’s a Stoic practice to account daily for the ways in which you did or did not follow the cardinal virtues, since that (and not the rest of the world) is what lies within a Stoic’s own ability.

I’ve been realizing lately that the part of my life where I can most clearly observe and cultivate patience, kindness, and courage at work in me is in fact my creative practice. So let’s take these one by one, and maybe we’ll learn something together. 

Patience

I usually have at least one creative project going that is meant for my own growth or learning or play — something that stays focused on curiosity and not “work.” All of these projects to date have been designed to last a year. Occasionally that gets to feeling ridiculous, especially when they involve doing literally the same thing every day. 

So far, anyway, there’s always been discernible value in sticking it out. I can’t predict what that value might be, and there are absolutely no shortcuts: time in is the thing. Completing year-long projects is teaching me — is allowing me to practice — patience.

As are the fallow times. Between projects, when I’m tired or sick or too busy, I tend to get anxious. It’s hard to shake that cultural+generational inculcation that we should always be producing. I’m learning, though. Non-linearly, of course; the lesson never endeth. This time last year, I finished a manuscript I was completely in love with, and immediately started panicking in the sudden vacuum. A year later, I’m similarly lacking for active, sustained creative project-work — in the midst of a pandemic, which my country is loudly Not Handling. I’m okay.

I mentioned “time in” a minute ago. This is a key teacher of patience in itself. I’ve learned — by doing — that the words will (probably) come. 

Something similar applies to the specific process of writing a poem. Not poetry. A poem. Sometimes I write ten lines I love, that I know are on fire — and a concluding two lines that are… fine. I go back and I poke at those two lines (and the other ten, for good measure), as long as it takes to light them up, too. Once it took two years. An unknown number of times, it’s never going to happen. “Things take the time they take.”

Kindness

Two very dear friends of mine have just moved to Canada. (They are married, and one of them is a Canadian citizen — which is why Canada let them in right now.) As one of these friends said the other day, when we sat masked, 10 feet away, and outdoors in 45-degree Fahrenheit sunshine to say goodbye: “I want to live someplace just a little more kind.

I cannot stop thinking about this. It’s never occurred to me that America, as a whole, might not be kind. Nor that we might be; I’ve never thought about it at all. I was born here, I’m a citizen, and I’ve never lived anywhere else longer than a month. Which makes my understanding of our national character subject to a particular sort of innocent insider’s bias. America is… America, and for the first time I’m thinking about what that means in daily practice. 

I’m on a bit of a mission these days to bring more kindness to my own daily living. I can’t change my country wholesale — I ought not to try if I could; I’d surely miss something critical. But I can shift myself. Creative practice is a useful place for an artist to actually do this. 

I started something a couple of months ago called The PenPal Project. It has multiple goals, one of which is community. I know lots of people. I’m also 37, have lived in one metro nearly my whole adult life, and have a decided social point of view. So I want to make sure I have, and contribute to, authentic conversation with a wider circle of folks than I’ve grown used to. 

Whatever you believe, wherever you’re from, and whoever you voted for federally and locally in this last election, I think you and I can exchange mutually interesting letters. I think we have something good to say to each other. I think kindness is based on caring, and caring can be created more easily than you think: by just getting to know folks.

Courage

Of the three, courage is the virtue in which I feel most persistently deficient. How we need it, though!  The practice of patience, and the practice of kindness, require also the practice of courage.

In 2015, I decided to do something about my fear of showing my writing to other people. “Fear” is an understatement, actually. I created my first public project, which I called TrailAWeek

The number and quality of lessons that I have learned since then — about writing, about people, about online presence, about the more-than-human-world — is directly the result of gathering the courage to try something that felt, to me-then, strange and audacious. 

And courage, it seems, begets courage. You learn that you will not die of embarrassment. You start to think — especially as your country’s political situation deteriorates — about what you could die for, and what you are learning about whether and how you could meet that. 

To make art is to stand for something. At the least, it commits your time, your talent, your thought and your conversation toward particular projects, which are never just frozen in paper or stone or pixels. They are living, and they are constantly shaping you back. Art narrows the field of possibility that is your public — and increasingly your private — face. It exposes you: to you, and to anyone else. You learn to be ready to meet that exposure. You learn to be curious about the fresh paths it might show you. You learn when fear is useful, and when it will only hold you back. You learn how to stand for other things than art.


My husband and some of my other friends are pretty into Dungeons & Dragons. They introduced me to the prototypical character alignment chart, where one axis is Lawful—Neutral—Chaotic, and the other is Good—Neutral—Evil. So your character can be Lawful Evil, Chaotic Good, True Neutral (Neutral/Neutral), etc. Simplistic, right? But this very simplicity is a useful model for extrapolating to the complexities of actual living people, and how and why they choose to do what they do.

We got into a protracted discussion once, in which we argued each other into an understanding that’s become a tenet of my daily life: there is no such thing as True Neutral. Neutral trends Evil. 

What does this mean? Neutrality is the attempt not to take sides in a conflict — ideological or moral or physical or whatever. Rarely is a conflict evenly matched; there is nearly always a more powerful party, perhaps because one person is physically stronger (or more skilled at verbal persuasion). Perhaps one point of view has the law on its side, and the other is fighting for legal recognition. By choosing no side, the neutral party implicitly chooses to aid the side that already has more power. Doing nothing is a vote for the status quo. And the status quo — because power corrupts, and corruption fears justice — trends evil.***

Your job, as an artist, is to resist evil. I realize this is a controversial statement. Remember, I have learned some hills I’m willing to die on, figuratively and also possibly otherwise. Your job, as an artist, is unequivocally to resist evil, and to co-create good. 

Paying attention to the virtues of your regular creative practice is one way to learn how to resist evil and work towards good. Giving some thought to the virtues you want to cultivate****, and how you might practice or explore them in your art, sets you up with solid coordinates. Once you know what those are, you might find they’re far away, over difficult terrain. But you’ve got a map: your art. 

I’ve found that having specific virtues to navigate by gives my art a better chance of spotting neutrality, interrogating its intentions, and bending it toward good. Which teaches me how to pay attention and uplift the good in the rest of my life, too. 

I’m going to mess up, my friends. Maybe every day. Working hard to find a thing does not necessarily deliver it into our hands.

There’s a walk tomorrow morning, though. There’s always the chance to step under the open sky and remind myself: Patience. Kindness. Courage.


*The more usual translation of the cardinal Stoic virtues is Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Moderation. Wisdom and Justice are part and parcel of spending enough time with Patience and Kindness, as far as I’m concerned, and I end up kind of lumping Moderation in with Patience. Translation! It’s neither exact nor simple, between languages or between minds!

**At one point, Marcus references “poetry, and other such lapses of taste,” and it makes me laugh at both of us every time.

***Justice in the deepest sense, which is not to be mistaken for mere adherence to Law.

****They don’t have to be Stoic virutes. Equity is a fine one, for example. Simplicity. Truthfulness. Conscientiousness. Et cetera. You probably already know what you value. If not, ask yourself what you admire, what you wish you could be like. You probably can. 

How YouTube Launched My Creative Career

Ariana Burrell is a writer and poet living in Southern California. When she isn’t writing, you can find her directing plays and spending time in her garden.

I know you read the title of this post. Let me warn you now. I never became YouTube famous or became an influencer. Most of my videos have less than one hundred views. I didn’t build a media empire. You’ve mostly likely never heard of me. However, I did land a few jobs because of my experience making YouTube videos. 

The year is 2008. It was before everyone had smartphones and Wi-Fi internet was slow. I’m obsessed with film and TV but I don’t realize yet that working in entertainment is a real job I could have. I’m in high school and I post unedited clips of outings with my friends to YouTube. I thought it was so cool. 

I’m in college now, studying technical theater and film. I feel inadequate in film school because I don’t know how to edit and I’ve never made a feature film. Everyone in my class has. 

Four years later, I graduate from college and have no idea what the next steps are. How does one start a creative career? I desperately want to make things but am afraid of judgment. My imposter syndrome ran SO high in film school. I have a smartphone with a mediocre camera. Because I want to explore film without anyone else involved, I become my own subject. I turn the camera on myself and start talking… and the videos are terrible. Grainy footage, bad audio, choppy editing. But I keep going. 

Over the next few years I make over 150 videos. I learn to edit and speak confidently to the camera. I start to figure out what I want to make and most importantly what I want to say. 

Through YouTube I meet some amazing people all over the world. I am now active on social media and love that I could connect with anyone. I talk to my favorite authors on Twitter. I make video responses to people. People leave a handful of comments on each video I upload. I feel less alone, a little less lost. I start to feel like maybe my ambitions aren’t too big. 

I attend multiple VidCons (a YouTube convention). I participate in The Bridge Exchange, an exchange program between VidCon and Brave New Voices, the poetry slam convention. Through the exchange I was able to professionally film one of my poems (see below). The Bridge Exchange is the brainchild of rapper/poet George Watsky. Through meeting him, I saw what could be possible in my career. He successfully melded together a career in creating YouTube videos, music, poetry and writing. I fell in love with poetry and I started posting my own poetry online. I even enter the YouTube poetry slam (unaffiliated with YouTube). At the end of one of the poetry slams, a survey is sent out. In the comments section, I offer to help with their social media. Eventually I work for the company that put on the slam. I work as their social media manager and occasional writer for their blog. There was no job posting for a social media manager. 

Through YouTube, I learn about the Geek Girls Pen Pal Club. It’s exactly as it sounds: a pen pal club where you get matched with someone and write each other snail mail. They have message boards and a blog. I write book, film and tv reviews for their blog. Even though this existed mostly online, I did meet several of the woman involved with the pen pal club in person. 

Next I work for a YouTube channel as a ghostwriter, video editor, and social media manager. I am hired because of my experience running my own YouTube channel and the work I did with the YouTube poetry slam. At this job, I write over 100 articles, edit over 300 videos, send out a weekly newsletter and create the company’s instagram page. This job was listed as a part time, 10 hours per week video editing job that turned into a full-time job. My past skills with YouTube allowed me to expand my role at this company and turn it into really meaningful work. 

I know past me has read articles like this one and still wondered HOW someone accomplished this. The short answer is time and reaching out to people. I gave myself permission to start my own YouTube channel. I reached out to people even though I was nervous. I applied to things like The Bridge Exchange even though I didn’t feel qualified enough. This does take courage but it is completely doable. Teenage me posted random clips of her friends on YouTube and many years later, has a creative career that I really love. I don’t know where I would be without YouTube but I know I would have missed out on some really great experiences. All of this happened with fewer than 100 subscribers on my YouTube channel. I am so grateful to YouTube and past me for picking up a camera even though she didn’t feel good enough.

What Freelance Writers Can Do When They Don’t Know How to Pitch

Olivia Walters writes articles, blogs, and essays about life after higher education, take-aways from traveling, family relationships, and inspiration for other writers.

I’m a lifestyle writer, which means I’m in the business of digital journalism. Writing about events, unknown travel destinations and beverage products helped me get my feet wet in the freelance world. Like others who write for the internet, I understand that the conversation is always changing and the job requirement is to stay on brand and relevant — otherwise, there’s little chance of getting an editor’s attention. 

Many beginning freelancers mistakenly assume that that the work they publish at the start of their careers will lock them into a certain niche forever. Those with larger portfolios and higher word counts understand that a freelance writer can evolve their career by developing different interests over time. 

While I continue to grow as a lifestyle journalist, let me tell you what’s happening to culture and travel news during the pandemic. Travel writers are, in theory, supposed to write uplifting pieces that might distract and put readers in a dreamy bubble for three to four minutes. Now, social distancing is the major trend — not just because it’s a government mandate, but also for the social stigma that comes to those who aren’t. A lot of publications are pushing for stories about virtual tours, listicles of things to do at home and resources to keep readers both ready and willing to stay indoors.

In response to the coronavirus, the media had to change course. Stories about festivals, art exhibitions, date-night spots, local business launches and anything or anywhere that brought people together no longer interested lifestyle editors. My pitches were getting squashed left and right.

This is an adjustment for all kinds of writers. Finance journalists now need to cover ways to make short-term income, while fiction writers must push their book releases back or turn to YouTube for virtual promotion.   

On top of worrying about lay-offs, publication freezes, and budget cuts, freelance writers also need to try and stand out by uncovering new angles to the global discussion. The trouble is that the internet is saturated with coronavirus stories. Despite the immediate need from editors to publish stories they know will keep readers interested, editorial calendars are drowning in copy about the pandemic — and they might not have room for your idea, no matter how good it is.

So if you didn’t know what to pitch before the world turned upside down, there’s no shame in admitting that you’re completely lost today. Despite these challenges, you should not stop brainstorming — but how are freelance writers supposed to pitch ideas that are unique but still mainstream? 

After a couple of days living with writer’s guilt (you know, that feeling when you’re not writing), I turned to one of my favorite sources for ideas. Twitter is a gold mine for daily news from working editors and writers in all kinds of genres. My research revealed surprising advice that will guide down-and-out freelance writers on how to change their approach. 

  • Dozens of Twitter users are calling on writers to write about anything besides the coronavirus. It seems as if the best way to get ahead as a freelance writer is to pitch stories with the mindset that anything is possible. Again, people are craving distraction, informative reading material, and — above all — an escape. 
  • When you don’t know what to pitch, search the latest Twitter threads about what editors are accepting. Many editors tweet details about their publication, contact info, and pitch guidelines. While many of them are still accepting coronavirus stories, a growing number of editors desperately want non-pandemic pitches. 
  • You can also look for Twitter writer accounts that retweet these editors’ requests. It’ll take some digging, but the hashtag and keyword search options are freelance writer-friendly. To make it easier to know which publications have cut freelance budgets, there’s an active Google Doc that lists which publications are (and aren’t) still accepting pitches. Freelance writers are encouraged to share it with their network. 
  • Outside of Twitter, you can start from the bottom up by reaching out to old contacts. Even if you’re a beginner, you have to know someone in the writing world. Get back in touch, because asking for a referral is a common strategy freelance writers use to find work. 
  • I’ve also known writers to re-pitch old ideas that didn’t get accepted the first time around. This might not work for everyone, but if you’re organized and can refer back to old pitches, you might be able to clean them up and fine-tune the idea to fit in the current media dialogue. 
  • Another tactic is to turn to guidance from newsletters about writing — there are tons of them out there — but bear in mind the influence that sources other than yourself can have on your creativity. If you read too much bad news, whether in The New York Times or in a freelance newsletter, you might find yourself too anxious or discouraged to pitch.

I’ll end this with one more thought about how freelance writing sometimes strips originality and freedom from writers, leading to uninspired work or total burnout. 

We’re always trying to cater pitches to a publication’s audience — but if we get too focused on writing for other people, it’s easy to lose sight of why we love to write in the first place. If you don’t feel particularly inspired right now, maybe you’re not giving yourself enough of a break (from writing, from pitching, from the news cycle) to allow new ideas to emerge. As we all know, sometimes it’s just best to step away, take some “me time,” and come back to the keyboard tomorrow. 

Pitch ideas come to freelance writers who are persistent, but the scale will only balance for those who know when to walk away for a little while. There is still a market out there, so keep pitching and keep the word count flowing. 

How Getting Fired Ignited My Creativity and Made Me a Writer

Rachel Carrington is a freelance writer and fiction author. She also teaches fiction writing classes for Women on Writing. Find her on the web at rachelcarrington.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram at rcarrington2004.   

I’ve considered myself a writer for over thirty years. I’d write a book here and there, submit it to various agents and publishers, and wait for a response before I’d invest more energy in another book. A dozen or more rejections would have to occur before I’d flex my creative muscle again and begin another story. Looking back now, I see that I wasn’t a writer as much as a dabbler. I didn’t even tell people that I was a writer. If asked, my response was always “I’m a paralegal.” I wanted to write, but I didn’t have that consuming need to write. And I was comfortable with what I now realize was nothing more than a hobby.

My first book, a romance novel, was published in 2002. I patted myself on the back and took some time off to celebrate my victory, and I didn’t miss writing. Because I was officially an author, and I could be proud of myself for achieving my dream. But I hadn’t really. My dream had to consist of more than a few paltry royalty checks and a book that barely hung onto the bottom rung of the sales ratings, or it was nothing more than a bland wish. But I was published, and that had to be enough. After all, it was the Holy Grail for many struggling writers. So, with that feather in my cap, I could legitimately say I was a writer, a creator of fictional worlds and characters I’d brought to life from my imagination. That had to mean more than money. At least, that’s what I told myself.

I still had a full-time job that paid the bills, so I wasn’t too concerned with income. I might not be the next breakout star in the literary world, but I had reached a level of comfort in my writing. By the time 2004 rolled around, I’d even gotten another book published and an article or two. After another glass of champagne to celebrate, I went back to my career where I had a cushy office, solid income, and even cushier benefits. I was needed there, and I could see myself working until retirement. There were certainly worse jobs to have, and I could write on the weekends if I wasn’t too tired. So my plan was in place. 

But one car accident later forced me to reduce my hours at work. Then my body revolted, and the good health I’d enjoyed faded away. I ended up in the hospital where I had several major surgeries practically back to back. I soon learned I wasn’t as indispensable at work as I thought I was. Because my boss, who needed a full-time paralegal, hired another one while I was still in the hospital. The day I walked into my office and came face to face with my replacement is still etched in my mind. The sun blistered my face as I carried my box of belongings to my car and left the parking lot for the last time. 

With my world crashing around me, I went home and cried. I wallowed in bed. Ate more ice cream than I should have and tried to lose myself in television. But nothing tamed the anger inside. So that night I began writing. About getting fired. About my fear of getting evicted from my apartment. About my health issues. My fury over my body betraying me. How I juggled bills. All of it was fodder for essays which enabled me to spill out my despair over the next few weeks. 

When the electricity bill came due, and I had to borrow money from friends, I decided I should try submitting what I’d written. Because writing was all I could do at the moment to earn income. So I submitted my first essay, and it was accepted by a small literary ezine. The pay was minuscule, but I still remember how excited I was. More so than even when I’d gotten my first book published. Here I was writing words that had meant something to me. Experiences that had changed me and the world around me. 

When the well of bitterness ran dry and the checks began arriving in my mailbox, I discovered that fear had given way to confidence. I was paying my rent, keeping the lights on, and as much as I hated to admit it, I think I owed it to the attorney who no longer wanted me as his paralegal. He forced me out of my comfort zone. If he hadn’t terminated my employment, I don’t know that I would have discovered why I wanted to write.  Or that I could shape emotions into words. 

Soon, those emotions found their way back into my fiction writing, and I saw a difference in the creation of new books. And I couldn’t wait to see where my imagination would take me. I no longer wrote because I thought I was a writer; I wrote because the need was too strong not to. A craving I’d never felt before drove me to my computer each evening. 

It’s been fifteen years since I was fired. I’ve written hundreds of articles and dozens of books since then. But essays are still a large part of my writing process. They help me express my emotions without losing my temper or collapsing in a puddle of tears. And they brought me fully into this crazy, wonderful world of writing where words mean more to me than sitting in a courtroom or drafting legal documents. 

Looking back, I don’t wish I’d kept my job or my comfortable way of life. The removal of my safety net ignited a spark within me that, in turn, fanned the flames of creativity. My office isn’t as plush as the one I had, and the income isn’t guaranteed or necessarily steady, but this is the career I was meant to have. I became the person I was meant to be. Now when someone asks me what I do, I tell them I’m a writer because that’s what I am.

Collaborating Couples: How to Share a Writing Life (and a Byline) With a Significant Other

Hart Fowler is an independent journalist. S. Noelle Lynch is an incendiary nocturnal fiction writer and journalist.

There are many relationships in which both partners write, but true writing couples are few and far between. For every Joan Didion and John Dunne, there are other ambitious, talented, and romantically involved writers who have tried integrating their work in a collaborative effort only to fail to find a balance—or, even worse, fail to maintain their personal relationship.

As a writing couple, we have collaborated on six published articles over the past six months. This experience has had a significant learning curve, and we are here to share what we have learned from our collaborations.

Two heads pitch better than one

Having two independent thinkers conjuring up story ideas expands your realm of expertise. If you read our previous collaborative guest post, The Power of the Shower Curtain Whiteboard, you already know that we keep track of our pitches on an 6’ by 8’ transparent shower curtain pinned to a wall in our writing room. When either of us encounter a breaking or topical news story or an interesting juxtaposition that is in one of our wheelhouses, we write it on the board. We are fortunate in that we have both similar and contrasting interests, so having two heads to generate pitches doubles our idea-generation regiment. 

For example: Hart was recently interviewing a musician on speakerphone for an article previewing an upcoming concert for a regional magazine. When Noelle overheard them discussing a shared passion for recreational game, she mentioned she’d seen a sports magazine in the library that focused on the game. Hart pitched the sports magazine on a profile piece about the musician’s love for the game and the piece was accepted.

Knowing what turns your significant other on is key to a successful relationship—and being able to help them find a place to write about their interests and passions can help your partnership in more ways than one.  

Use your partner as an in-house sounding board

One important skillset a freelance writer must quickly develop is the ability to work to meet the needs of different clients and editors. The first draft is just that, and having a second pair of eyes on your work helps you hone in and whittle down your piece into something more lean and focused—and gives you more confidence when you finally press the send button. This increases the chances of the piece coming back with fewer edit requests from the client, which is a good look for everyone involved (especially in an industry where time is money). 

When the edit notes do come back, your partner can serve as a sounding board and help ensure you fulfill your editor’s requests. One example of how this worked for us was with the piece Joystick Fantasia: Inside the Spectacle of Video Games Live for Electronic Gaming Monthly. After investing many hours on the researching, reporting, and writing of a piece, it can be frustrating when the piece comes back with significant feedback. That can get to you, affecting both your confidence and your workflow because rewriting often takes a substantial amount of time.  

But your partner’s emotional and intellectual support can be a godsend. When the edits came in around 11 p.m., we dove in, worked through the night, and had a rewrite back to the editor by that morning. The editor was pleased not only with the new shape of the piece, but also with the piece being turned around so quickly. It was a win-win, as we both could enjoy the satisfaction of not only making the work better, but also knocking it out before it began to over-ripen—which can happen if you sit and brood on a piece too long. 

It is important to note the difference between helping your partner edit a piece and encroaching on their writing voice. This is definitely an acquired skill, and we have found this to be a fine line that, when crossed, can lead to tension. While it is important to accept criticism if you ask for it, it is similarly important to not try to rewrite their work in your voice. This can be detrimental to not only how you approach collaborating on future pieces, but also to your relationship in general. Tread lightly and have thick skin.

It is, after all, a team effort. 

Develop a singular voice

While we’ve put together many collaborations where one of us does the writing and the other serves more of an editorial role, we have also begun working together as co-authors using a singular voice.

We are still learning the skill of developing a shared voice, and understand why there are very few co-authored works out there. We marvel at Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the husband-and-wife showrunners of HBO’s wildly ambitious and successful Westworld. They are one of the most successful collaborative couples of all time, and somehow manage to have maintained a singular vision over three seasons working hand-in-hand on the acclaimed series. 

For our recently published Love on the Rocks for Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, we first brainstormed ideas of what we wanted to include in the piece, and made a shared Google Doc that consisted of potential section headings and raw notes and anecdotes. We really hit a creative flow when we began composing the piece simultaneously on separate computers on different sides of our writing room. 

Be forewarned that this is not for the faint of heart; this was the third time we tried this technique and the first time it worked. What we learned this go around was to work on different sections, and to actively avoid writing in the same graf, as to not step on each other toes. We also learned to trust each other’s edits and additions.

It is freeing when you can let go of your voice and find the voice that fits the piece—and it was a beautiful thing to watch the story get fleshed out in real time, revisiting a section and seeing it develop, returning to a sentence and suggesting a better wording. With a trust in one another, disagreements over phrasing or flow reached a new level of constructive criticism as we were reminded that we both are good at this, and it helped our mutual respect shine.    

Know when—and how—to share a byline

Joan Didion wrote of her collaboration with her husband, author John Dunne: “I never had to finish sentences because he would finish them for me.” Yet they rarely, if ever, shared bylines. 

One of the many satisfactions of being a published writer is reading your byline on the piece. Be it print or online, seeing your name and/or a short bio gives a sense of pride in your accomplishment. Your byline can also encourage readers, and perhaps editors and publishers, to look you up, send feedback, and/or approach you with other story ideas.

Similarly, reading your names together as a co-authored byline shows a mutual respect and satisfaction. 

However, you need to extend that respect to your clients as well. For the aforementioned Shower Curtain Board story, Hart pitched the story, and Noelle both edited and wrote many of the lines. Even the concept of the shower curtain board was a shared idea. 

The piece went live with Hart’s byline. When we asked Nicole to add Noelle’s byline to the story as well, Nicole was happy to do it—but let us know that we should have told her it was a collaborative work during the initial pitch.

Lesson learned: Be upfront and clear with the editor from the get-go. As long it doesn’t affect the agreed-upon pay for the piece, this shouldn’t have any negative effect. In fact, the editor is getting two writers—and if they have a following, two sets of readers who follow the writers’ work—for the price of one, which is a win-win. 

There’s some gray area when assigning credit in the byline when one of the collaborators serves more of an editorial or “second set of eyes” role. 

We requested an “additional reporting” credit for the EGM piece, for example, because Noelle played a more heavy-handed role in the editing process and was less of a co-author. But if you want to work on a story together from the beginning, pitch it to the editor that way— and if it turns out one person does the brunt of the work, do your best to avoid conversations of who did what. The field of creative collaboration is littered with failed attempts at assigning authorship, and as a romantic couple, it is of the utmost importance to not get bogged down in such conversations. (If you find yourself arguing over who contributed more, it is a good time to rethink future creative collaborations.)      

While we are most definitely not a “power couple,” we are a couple that writes both independently and collaboratively. Being a collaborative couple is not easy. It takes work, just like the romantic part of our relationship. There will be conflict, that is for sure. But regardless of whether you’re reading your partner’s byline, editing your partner’s work, or sharing a byline together, working creatively with someone you love can give you a twofold sense of pride. 

The Gathering and The Shaping

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the second in an ongoing column about the creative practice.


I miss my book. I mean the one I’m supposed to be writing

I don’t miss the manuscript I completed last year. That one’s alive on its own now, finding its feet, and doesn’t need anything from me at the moment. Plus I’ve finally untangled my identity from it, after months of intense conversation, late nights, and needing to be together all the time. Writing that book (well, shaping it—we’ll get to that) was a lot like falling in love. I can’t live like that for long without exhaustion.

Which is precisely what it’s earned me. 

I had a second manuscript already in the works, so it seemed reasonable, thinking about goals for this year, to say I’ll finish it by the time midwinter returns. All I really want to do though, this year so far? Is read.

About this time last year, I was making an effort to get back into the habit of loving reading. I think of myself as a reader, but I’d fallen out of doing a lot of actual, focused book-reading. I got better. But I was so busy falling in love writing! It’s now, when love writing has wrung me out, and left my usual defenses crumpled, that my re-made reading habit has moved in—insistently—to take its place. The place of lots of things, actually. Movie watching, multi-hour walking, and meetings for committees I care about quite a lot have also been victims of my pure exhaustion. Instead of them, I read.

It’s glorious. It also puts my current manuscript mentally across the room from me, lounging on the rug against the scrolled arms of my loveseat, eyebrows raised. 

I do know that the writing process is circular. Every artist needs to lie fallow periodically. You’re not less of a creative person for doing it. It’s just that I miss my current book. I’m excited about it; I want to fall in love again. And I am completely incapable of shaping that love into something beautiful, something outside my own self, right now. 

Which brings me to the difference between this part of the process I’m feeling nostalgic for—I call this The Shaping—and the part I’m inhabiting now, the much quieter Gathering. These are, as far as I can tell, the two distinct phases of my own writing process, once of which feels much more like “writing” than the other. And therefore feels more legitimate.

The Shaping is the being-in-love phase. It’s a furious round of writing up outlines, work-dreaming poetry, debating line breaks, revising revising revising, scrapping whole poems for parts, and changing my mind a hundred times about what order the pieces go in and what the sections are called. It’s the part that gets me to a definable end, a goal achieved. 

It’s also the part that drops me right off that end like it’s a pier, with the water down below cold and rough and deep and full of unknown creatures. It’s tiring, swimming to shore through all of that. And here I am chafing to run headlong off that pier again, as soon as possible. 

The phase that comes before this violent intensity of love is gentler altogether, and ambiguous as a cloud. It gets nothing at all “done.” I call it The Gathering, because it has that feeling of wandering about, not aimlessly but not focused on a goal either, and questioning, investigating, enjoying what you run across. It’s made up of daydreaming poetry, vague notebook scribbling, writing prompts, and joyful drafting; also literal wandering, journaling, dancing, deliberately putting myself in the path of new skills or ideas that have nothing to do with writing. And also reading.

Ah—reading. So I can say that right now I’m in The Gathering phase. If I’m being generous, which I want to be, so I will: lying fallow is a first part of Gathering. 

(You should keep in mind that I’ve made these terms up to articulate some learning from my own experience. Also that past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. You should ask yourself what the heck I know.)

Here’s another thing I don’t: when will the present (wool)-Gathering resolve into The Shaping? And if that’s a mystery, how do I know I can write another book of poems in 2020? 

Maybe annual goals written in January are something in the nature of a first draft. Maybe they clarify what you value, and then hold it up to the harsh light of what you need. 

***

Besides a writer, and a reader, I define myself as a contemplative. “Contemplation” sounds passive, but it requires a lot of discipline. I’m so tired lately that sometimes I think I’m not rested enough to be a good contemplative. I get enough sleep, but I’m still trying to drop off during my morning silence-time. Contemplation seems to require space, by which I want to mean “not having a bunch of pressing demands on your schedule,” and by which I more sustainably mean an inner sense of spaciousness and time. 

The same thing poetry requires, in fact. 

The Gathering is a spacious season. You need it, or I do anyway, to invite depth and surprises and Mystery to participate in The (eventual, unsummonable) Shaping. 

I think The Gathering is about play, as much as anything. Mary Oliver has a line about “letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.”* I’ll sleep too, I guess, and read books like I used to: constantly, playfully, with no thought of what they might teach me or how I might use their knowledge. 

I’ll wave sometimes across the room at my manuscript, who is actually fine over there alone, maybe Gathering too. 

We’ll have so much to talk about when we get back together.  

***

*It’s from her poem “Today,” which for me is maybe something more like “This Month,” or maybe “This Quarter.”

Learning to Trust the Circular Nature of Writing

Kimberly Lew is a published playwright and writer whose work has appeared online on websites including The Washington Post, Real Simple, Fodor’s, The Toast, and The Billfold. Learn more at www.kimberlylew.com.

When I was younger, I loved arts and crafts but was low on patience. I had a lot of creativity and maybe some artistic talent, but I needed instant gratification. If I did a sketch, I expected it to look exactly the way I wanted it the first time around — I was not a fan of erasers. When learning to sew, I expected to turn around ready-to-wear garments and accessories. There were many lopsided purses and pillowcases I insisted on using because I couldn’t admit that I needed to practice my stitching or measure my materials a little more carefully.

Writing was a nice outlet for me, especially in school. I used to love being able to write something during journal time and volunteer to read it out loud, getting to see my classmates’ reactions to my stories and ideas. Then, when all was said and done, I could close the journal and move on to the next thing.

But the more I started to learn about creative writing, the more I realized how important the revision process was. It was tricky to be able to filter through the noise of feedback, to tiptoe along the line between my original vision and the advice of others. As I started wanting to work on longer projects, the idea of how long of a journey it can be to see something through, all so it might just sit in a drawer or on a hard drive, became incredibly daunting. I stopped writing for a while, because it didn’t feel productive when there wasn’t necessarily a visible finish line — or anything else that would give me the same feeling as seeing my classmates respond to my work.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the lack of writing was still a part of the writing process. In the first long break I took from writing with any kind of frequency, I traveled, living in Georgia, then California, then studying abroad in London. I reconnected with family that I hadn’t been able to spend time with. I got my first job and made my own money for the first time. By the time I started writing again, inspired by a writing course I took in London to help fill out my class schedule, I had a lot more life experience to draw from, a lot of new perspectives of the world to explore. Since then, I’ve gone through a lot of different phases where I’ve come in and out of writing, and I’ve learned that those times can be as important as the ones where I’m fully committed.

I used to believe that writing was a linear journey; that you had an idea and then you put that idea onto paper and then you tightened that idea through editing and then you got that idea published. There were two finite points, a beginning and an end, for every project, and to take stock of one’s work would be to lay out every line, sorting them into two piles: those were that complete and those that still needed to be finished.

Over time, I’ve come to see that writing can be more like intersecting circles. Every piece can be a representation of a particular moment, while intersecting with different stories at different times. And every circle, while complete in its own right, does not exist in isolation.

One of my most prized pieces I’ve ever had published is an essay about my grandfather. It was born out of a short piece I wrote when I visited him one summer, basically a journal entry scrawled on loose-leaf paper as I tried to come to terms with my feelings about his living with Alzheimer’s. It lived in a purse for a year and then eventually became the inspiration for an essay I wanted to submit to Longreads, which was not accepted, and then shortened to send into Modern Love, where it was also rejected. The piece was sent to a few other places before I set it aside completely for a few years. 

When I finally resurrected it, a lot of things had changed. I had written a full-length play inspired by my grandpa and Alzheimer’s that had a reading in New York City, and I had sadly lost my grandpa more recently. Using this piece that I had revisited every so often over many years, I wrote a new personal essay that reflected new discoveries and experiences. Eventually, that piece found a home where it was edited and published, and I completed one of many circles that got a passion project where I needed it to be.

While treating writing like a discipline is important, I’ve also found that sometimes an idea needs time to develop — and even if you put it on a shelf, it has a tendency to come back around. Sometimes bigger works require multiple versions, lots of notes and revision, and research. Sometimes the darlings we’re told to kill have a second life as an important puzzle piece or totally new thing. Sometimes a piece doesn’t make sense until you have the life experience to understand other people’s critiques.

Learning this has allowed me to put less pressure on my writing. I used to get worried — especially when I wrote something I was immensely proud of — that I might never feel so inspired again. But time always helps, and I keep getting the opportunity to look at the body of my work and all its many circles, making new connections and rearranging them into new configurations. As long as I want to write, I not only have the potential to create something new, but also a whole foundation to build on to get to the next thing.

Now, if I get into the weeds of a project and find that it’s not working, I don’t feel pressure to mold it into something it’s not or to feel the need to salvage it out of pride. Instead, sometimes I step back and tell myself that I’m completing the circle for now, that I can let go. Maybe there will be a chance to revisit it in the future — to pull it out of a drawer or a hard drive and reacquaint ourselves, like old friends.

Goals and The Scatter: Cultivating a New Year of Creativity

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the first in an ongoing column about the creative practice.

In the past year, I’ve gone a bit sour on cruising the internet, and gotten back into curated newsletters. (Side note: if you have favorites, please share!) A friend of mine, the lovely and thoughtful San Francisco Bay Area poet Allie Rigby, publishes a monthly one called The Herd. In this month’s issue, while admitting her ambivalence about New Year’s resolutions, she encourages her community to think about what they want creatively in 2020—and to share one intention with the group. “There is magic,” she points out, “in sharing a goal.” So I’m going to do some magic right now; you’re my witness. In 2020, I’ll write my second book.

Also, I’ll get the first one in front of a series of publishers I think are right for it, until one of them agrees. Plus, I’ll do some serious vocational discernment, work daily with a plan I’m designing to mitigate the frightening ways my body handles stress, and spend a full day, once per month, in silent retreat from all tech and to-do lists.

I was going to share just the art-specific goals with you here. But that contradicts something I’ve been learning for years, which crystallized in 2019: everything you do feeds—or eats, or a little of both—your art. Maybe also this: your life is your art. 

I wrote my 2020 goals while driving up the central coast of California on my winter holidays. During those same holidays, I interviewed for a new job, then received the news that they want me to start this month. Change has been coming in this department for some time, a distant storm I’ve been feeling just over the horizon, charging the air. I’m relieved to feel the rain falling. The inevitable thunder and lightning both excites and worries me: a new employer and colleagues to learn, a project I’m helping to invent as we go along, some travel, work dreams, changes to my daily routine. And as all of that whirls around me—oh right, I’m writing a book and managing my stress so it doesn’t kill me.*

Most creatives don’t live by our art alone. Writing is a full-time job, for which I need another such to pay the rent and take vacation and buy good wine and feed the cat, et cetera. I suspect I’m preaching to the choir right now: you read a blog about the art and finance of a creative life. You know this is a balancing act. So how does one actually balance?

I don’t know. But following my earlier bit of magic, I’m going to set in motion another. I’m going to tell you about The Scatter, and how I’m using it to build a creative life that aligns with my goals and my values, while respecting my limits and also the essential mystery of being human.** And I’m going to let the shared statement of that intention roam free in the world, and see what good work it can do. 

You may already recognize The Scatter. It’s that daily frenetic task-switching from article to email to work to laundry to existential worry. It’s the inability to focus on knitting or reading or going for a walk—just that, and only that. It’s the compulsion to check Twitter again, or your email, or your stats, even when you lack any specific question or interest, just because you have a free half-minute burning a hole in your brain. It’s the need to check eight things off your to-do list today, and the feeling after you’ve done them that you could really do more. It’s the way you question your competence and worth when you realize how exhausted you are, and the way you still think you can get all of that done tomorrow. 

My Scatter started to show when I took a job that couldn’t provide the intellectual challenge I need to focus for eight hours a day. Humans are great at adapting to non-optimal situations—I got my work done, and well—but all such decisions exact prices, produce side-effects. I did this job for some time, and it afforded me many things, including quite a lot of bandwidth for writing. It also brought The Scatter, dropped on my kitchen floor every day like a critter the cat dragged in, and I have to clean it up. 

I told my (wonderful) therapist recently that I couldn’t find time to do all the things I need. I had already edited out of my life so many things I liked or valued but just couldn’t keep saying yes to without exploding; why hadn’t that solved the problem? She asked if I’d considered not trying to do every important thing every day. Maybe some things are weekly, she suggested, or monthly. 

Around this time, I also discovered that I can do about one thing a day before my body starts throwing stressed-out signal flares. I had to say this out loud to realize its truth, and then I had to figure out what I actually meant by it. 

Every day, I get out of bed and perform the rituals of bathing and dressing. I do some kind of contemplative practice, I do whatever my current project is, and I walk or I dance. Most days I also work (tech Monday through Friday, writing Saturdays and Sundays.) I’m doing, by a conservative estimate, at least five things. 

Outside that baseline, I’ve got one free square in the middle of the day’s game board. So if I want to draft an essay, or submit poems, or volunteer at my library, or have dinner with a friend, or go to the DMV to renew my drivers license—that’s my One Thing. 

So I made some lists. First, every activity I require and/or value. Then I crossed some of those out. What could I edit? I did. (Now I just have to stick to it.) 

Next, I placed those activities into four columns: Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Yearly. (Very quickly, I started writing this out as DWMY.) Daily is my baseline. I make time for each thing on the Weekly list at least once a week. The idea is the same for Monthly and Yearly.

  • Weekly includes items like writing sessions, naps or baths, housework, email correspondence, movie nights, errands and incidentals. Yep, those are all things I used to try to fit in daily or every other day. 
  • Monthly is for volunteer work, therapy and discernment time, silent “sabbath” days (see my 2020 goals, above), manuscript development, submitting individual pieces for publication, outings with friends, seasonal projects, less frequent incidentals like medical appointments, and freelance writing pitches or assignments. I was previously trying to do most of these every week. 
  • Yearly is things like theater, travel, craft workshops, personal or writing retreats, and social visits with out-of-town friends and family. And yes, you guessed it, I was trying to fit all of these in much closer to monthly. 

I’ve been practicing with my DMWY list for about a month—half of which I spent on vacation; that part doesn’t count. So I don’t know yet how effective a tool it will be. I do know some important things already, which suggest this can help me both to control The Scatter, and to work effectively and joyfully toward my 2020 goals. 

First: when I’m feeling The Scatter, I can know that I am doing enough, and doing good things, if I put a mental checkmark by my Daily baseline items, plus one item from my Weekly, Monthly, or Yearly list. This is already helpful, although it’s going to take time to accept that I may simply get less done. Which is ok. 

Second, when I’m feeling exhausted, or having a lot of stress symptoms, I look at my lists: how many extras did I take on today? Yesterday? How does the week ahead look? Soon I’ll be able to ask myself things like: What’s my pattern this month? If I’m feeling unbalanced, I’ll be able to look at my lists for Weekly or Monthly items I’ve been neglecting.

Last, and perhaps most importantly in the long term, DMWY builds unscheduled free time into my day, and reminds me that such time is crucial. Building a valuable day around Baseline+One Thing means there’s almost always time left over. In the past few years I’ve tended to fill that uncritically in the moment: an hour of writing here, a half hour catching up with online articles there, an extra errand, a cat nap, bouts of Twitter. And still I felt I was “getting nothing done.” DMWY has already helped me identify what I truly need and want to accomplish, and set limits on the daily exercise of that accomplishment based on experience of my own traits and limits.

The rest of my day? That’s for play. For “boredom,” which is great for creative life. For refusing to define, or schedule, or quantify or try to “use” every minute of my time.  

I am, of course, capable of doing more than One Thing, and many days demand it. Life is complex and doesn’t often cede authority to my personal plan. But the limit of One Thing is just true for me, and hard-learned. DMWY is an experiment: (how) can I best align my actions and values and limits, and accomplish what’s most important to me in the short and long term? I imagine this will take time. And In spite of my regular feelings to the contrary, I have nothing but.  

***

*I just said something possibly wise and possibly crap about your life as your art. I guess now I get to find out which adjective applies. 

**This is going to sound a lot like another 2020 goal. I don’t think of it that way because I started it in 2019, but keep reading and see if it doesn’t just dovetail right into my Official 2020 Goals. Calendar years aren’t objectively real anyway.