Monday, May 24, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Kelly James-Enger is a Five!

Kelly James-Enger's name ought to be familiar to most freelancers. She's the author of the freelancing bible Six-Figure Freelancing and a prolific freelancer in her own right. She's been a full-time freelancer since Jan 1, 1997 and is the author of Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money, in addition to Six-Figure Freelancing.

She also blogs about making more as a freelancer at Deadlines and Dollars. I asked her to talk about her own path to professional confidence. Here's what she had to say.

When you started freelancing, where would you place your professional confidence level, on a range of 1 (who me? I'll fade into the wallpaper over here) to 5 (I'm great! Let me tell you more!)? Why?

I’d say it depended on the day. I was fairly confident starting out, but that was because I’d had early success early on, selling my first two articles to national magazines. I had *no clue* about how challenging full-time freelancing would be, and even less of a clue (if that’s possible) about how I would actually approach it. I’d say, though, that I was a 3 or 4 most days, 1 on plenty of others…usually coinciding with receiving more than 1 rejection on that particular day.

Where would you place your professional confidence now, on the same scale?

With all modesty, I’d say 5 simply because I’ve encountered and overcome multiple challenges (e.g. having stories killed, losing steady clients, dealing with an unstable economy, having books going out of print). I really believe surviving those kinds of things has made me much more confident. For example, if a query gets rejected, I never think it’s because my query isn’t good enough (something I would have automatically thought early on). Now I just figure the editor didn’t like it, had something similar in inventory, or just isn’t smart enough to work with me. (Kidding!)

What parts of your professional life still cause you the most insecurity?

I think it’s having the time and drive to keep up with our changing industry. I’d resisted jumping on the social media bandwagon until quite recently… simply because I didn’t want to take the time to learn how to do it. Setting up my blog took me about 10 minutes. I’m not joking. I’m a luddite at heart but I know that to thrive as a freelancer, I have to embrace technology and know how it impacts my business and the publishing industry as a whole. And that’s always something I’m working on.

My premise for this challenge is that all creative people are insecure at some level. Agree or disagree?

I totally agree…and actually I think probably all people are insecure at some level. I think being a creative person, however, you’re taking a risk of putting yourself out there, whether it’s through a painting or short story or photographs, whatever. I can say that I am much more insecure (and take criticism much more personally) with work that I wrote for myself (I’m a published novelist and have published essays as well) compared to the work I do on assignment for editors. The latter is what I do to pay my bills. I’m much more attached to, for lack of a better word, the former.

If you could offer any two suggestions for beginning writers on how to increase their self confidence, what would they be?

Fake it ‘til you make it. Seriously. When you act confident, people think you are confident. Even when I’ve had my biggest slumps career-wise, I didn’t post on message boards or blogs bemoaning my existence. (I did vent to my husband and close friends, but I didn’t put it “out there.”) It’s really important for freelancers to remember that they’re running their own businesses, and clients want to work with people who are confident and successful.
Oh, and another tip—keep an “inspiration file.” That’s what I call a folder I have of happy notes from editors (e.g, “you did a great job on this piece"), “fan mail” from readers, awards, whatever. It’s a reminder that I am good at what I do, even when I doubt myself (which again everyone does sometimes!)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: When you are not the genius

And just for a fun Sunday afternoon, enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert's brilliant take on genius. It has everything to do with confidence. After all, we put pressure on ourselves to be the genius. But what if we weren't. Gilbert is amazingly articulate and compassionate. That's reason enough for a revisit of this post.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Practice, practice, practice

Yesterday, novelist and writing craft coach Elizabeth Stark shared the basics of her creative and professional confidence. Today, she'll share the ways she teaches her clients to build confidence.

It's my theory that all creative people are insecure--it's the nature of putting something that really matters with you out into the world. How do you feel about that? Is that true for you, and if so, how?

Yes--I think you are right. It's amazing to work with successful writers. Of course, success as a label is so whimsical, so dependent on a bit of a particular kind of luck: Your film gets picked for a festival, your book gets published, reviewed, noticed . . .

The recent awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to a book which could not find a mainstream publisher is a perfect example. Paul Harding is categorically a success--even though many folks reading this blog probably still haven't heard his name. But who cares? He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book! Yet no writer says to herself, I just wrote and published this great book. I can really trust myself going forward.

Instead, writers are constantly reinventing themselves, imagining ways to change themselves into something better.

When you're working with writing students, what are the areas in which most people lack creative confidence?

People lack confidence every step of the way:
  • How do I begin?
  • Is what I have to say worthwhile?
  • How to I organize a bunch of ideas, images, characters into something as large as a book?
  • How do I write it?
  • How do I silence the critic who keeps telling me how bad every sentence is?
  • How do I know if the book is good enough?
  • How do I approach agents and editors?
Even after a book is accepted for publication:
  • How will I make sure my book is noticed?
  • Will it sell?
  • What's next?
This is why I've created The Book Writing World. We all need a team. Olympic athletes have a team and coaches. No need to go it alone.

Setting goals publicly is a key to success. Deadlines. Guidance. A feeling that practicing is worthwhile. Writers are the only artists or athletes who think everything we do should be the show-stopping performance. What about rehearsals? Muscle-building? Of course, I tell brilliant writers these things every day, and then when I sit down to my own work, it's hard to remember them . . .

What would you say are the biggest barriers to creative confidence in the craft of writing?
How do you help your students face and overcome them?

The biggest barriers to creative confidence in writing are the blank page and the fact that we are not taught to enter the void and fill it. It never gets easier, in certain ways. Our job as writers is to ask ourselves questions whose answers we do not know--questions that matter to us deeply--and then to answer them. That's it! Who wouldn't be terrified?

In a way, if you are not terrified, you probably aren't tapping a vein. Conversely, you have to take these brave and daring actions not when the mood hits you, but habitually, every day. It's hard enough to jump blindfolded into your own imagination. And it's hard enough to commit to a daily practice. But a daily practice of jumping blindfolded into your own imagination? That's a lot to ask of yourself.

On the other hand, (to paraphrase Mary Oliver) what else do you want to do with your one and only life?

Friday, May 14, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Are you faking it or are you giving up?

It's one thing for me to tell you that all successful journalists and writers are insecure. It's another to hear it from their high-achieving mouths yourself. So I've asked some writers I love and whose work inspires me to answer some questions about professional confidence. We start with Elizabeth Stark, a novelist and writing craft coach whose online writers community, Book Writing World, just launched. This is just a preview. Elizabeth had such amazing things to say that I'll continue her Q&A tomorrow.

I chose you for this q&a because you are a successful novelist--or at least I would qualify you as such: You've written a book,
Shy Girl, that I loved and that was nominated for two book awards. You have an MFA from Columbia and have taught writing and continue to teach creative writing through your site, Write Angles. From the outside, I'd guess that you're very confident in your craft and your career. How true is that?

This is going to be a more challenging interview than I originally thought. My public persona (authentic but only one part of a contradictory whole) is confident. And I would say that I am most confident as a teacher. I've practiced editing, responding to and guiding writers more extensively than I've practiced my own writing, and as a result, I've become most confident in those areas.

No matter what, creative practices are harder to master. I strongly feel that I am always a beginning writer. When I wrote my first book, the novel Shy Girl, I told myself that this was my "learning-to-write-a-novel novel." Imagine my surprise when it turned out that each book must be imagined from scratch, and learned from the beginning.

This is the curse (and blessing!) of creativity: you can't rest on your laurels, your experience or your knowledge. You have to flail around. So just like everyone else, each day I face the blank page, I face the terror that I do not know what I'm doing, that I will fail. And in a way, a first draft must fail, so there is no escape, no reassurance. You build upon the failure, improve the mess . . .

I find that I am less confident when I am in the middle of writing--but I am happier. The distance provides a veil; I can remember a set of skills without putting them to the test.

What parts of your career are you most confident in?

See above: I feel good about my ethics and principles in how I respond to others' work and guide them through the process of writing a book. Of course, even here I have moments of doubt, because, again, the creative process requires adherence to a set of guidelines ultimately created from within. I cannot dictate these for other people. With publishing in crisis and a million writing courses out there, I want to be sure I am offering something valuable and meaningful to my clients and students.

Where do you feel like you need more confidence professionally?

I've just undergone a radical shift. For a long time, I would say, "I don't want to be a Julia Cameron." She's the author of The Artist's Way and many other books to guide creative folks along the path. I had this idea that to be known as a teacher rather than as a creator was a sort of failure or carried some sort of shame associated with the crass world of popular success. Hmmm . . .

At any rate, I looked more deeply and learned that Julia Cameron is actually a very productive writer of plays, fiction, screenplays. It's the fault of the market that her teaching books are more widely read than her other work--but she is living a balanced life. And also, now that I have kids, a family to support, I feel like I'd be incredibly lucky to make an impact like Julia Cameron has made.

This shifted my confidence. I used to feel impatient that my work as a writer seemed to inspire others to jump into the fray. Now I acknowledge that this is a gift. And I am learning more about outreach, about marketing--for my own business and to help all my writers to promote their books. My biggest challenge is fitting in my own writing with the nurturing of The Book Writing World (my business) and taking care of my kids. Juggling. I need confidence to say I am doing enough in each area, when each one could happily demand all my time and attention.

What has increased your confidence as a writer and an instructor?

Practice, practice, practice. You really do have to do anything that's important to you every day. Writing. Reading. Teaching. Being with your kids. There are successful writers who do not write daily--but very few.

I think it was easier for me to take myself seriously as an instructor much earlier than I took myself seriously as a writer. When you take yourself seriously, you make time and put in the practice.

You take the next step--practice and promotion.

You ask to be taken seriously, by people in power, by your family and, most importantly, by yourself.

You ask not only in words but in actions.

Now I'm creating an online membership site for writers: coaching and craft for folks writing book-length narratives (fiction, non-fiction, memoir). This is a giant step. I am also writing what my writing group (and secretly, I, too) thinks will be a "break-out" book. It's big and ambitious and risky and exciting. I have had the idea in mind for fifteen years! I've been too scared to just do it. Now I've committed to write this big book.

It's not so much that I have more confidence--I'm just committing to take myself and my occupations seriously, to "fake it until I make it." I think even people with a ton of success have that feeling of faking it often. The difference is: are you faking it or are you giving up?

More tomorrow!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Confidence and cash

I asked many of my favorite freelancers to tell me how their professional confidence grew. Katrina Ramser-Parrish, a friend of this blog and of this blogger, shared the following:

For me, my professional confidence grew when I said 'no' to a particular freelance job offering payment far less than what I felt was acceptable or what I was looking for. It was a very nerve-wracking, face-to-face situation with about four employees from the owner to the head editor (and just one of me).

When the team dropped the price for the long-term assignment they had just spent an hour describing to me, I countered with a number that doubled the amount. Complete radio silence followed. They stared at me like I had horns growing out of my head. Instead of recoiling or stammering -- my former negotiating behaviors -- I realized something wonderful:

We both had different ideas about my worth. And that is was nothing to be embarrassed about. Or that anyone had the right to convince me of different or make me feel bad because I wanted more.

I really needed that job, too! But it set the bar for me and I went on to land great assignments with great clients at the price I wanted. It is nothing for me now to say 'no' -- it just means a match isn't there.

Sounds easier said than done, doesn't it? It doesn't have to be.

The point is that your professional confidence can only grow in accordance with how much you believe your work is worth. When I started freelancing, I was earning 15 cents a word on publication and was happy to have it. But if I had stayed there, I wouldn't be happy or confident in my work now. It was taking the risk to query a $1/word publication (then a $1.50/word and then a $2/word publication) that built my professional confidence.

Having work builds confidence--but not if you're shortchanging yourself. It becomes an unpleasant negative feedback loop: You work for less, you feel more hurried, you do sloppier work, you feel worse about it. And when you get the check, you feel even more discouraged.

The good news is you have the power to interrupt that cycle at any time. You have the power. Take it.

Photo by bigburpsx3.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Confidence Killer #3 Avoidance

You may have noticed that this space has been blank for a few weeks.

That's because, much as I love this blog, I've been wading through the deep muck of avoidance.

You know the feeling: Those urgent matters, or at least the important ones, are tickling at the edges of your consciousness. But with all your considerable brain power, you're focusing on.... Facebook. Or email. Or your child's dance recital costume. Or that story that's easy. Or those emergency edits.

What you're not doing is taking care of the stuff that needs taking care of. What you're not doing is building confidence.

Why do these go together? The best explanation I can give is to answer that question with another question:

When you've been practicing avoidance, how do you feel at the end of the day? Heavy, right? Lethargic. Maybe a little ashamed. And usually very overwhelmed with the growing to-do list you'll have to tackle tomorrow.

Now switch it. When you've done the scary stuff and faced down those tasks you were avoiding, how do you feel at the end of the day? Chances are, you feel lighter. You feel energized. Strong. Proud. Confident.

This week, my goal for each day has been to face the tasks I've been avoiding. It's painful sometimes. I'd really rather surf the web than work on a story assignment that's more idea than angle. Trudging through the embarrassing and sometimes demoralizing process of narrowing down an amorphous idea into a sharp, concise story isn't high on my priority list, especially when I'm already feeling down. So how do I make myself do it?

Get aware
The first part is always coming out of the fog of avoidance and into the stark and sometimes uncomfortable reality of awareness. Maybe you've sunk into Facebook so far you can't see your email list. When you come out of that denial, expect to feel overwhelmed, ashamed and stuck. It won't last, but remember the feeling. Want to avoid feeling that way? Avoid avoidance!

Accept it
What most of us naturally do is start berating ourselves for losing a few minutes, hours or days to avoidance. How could we be so stupid? How could we have fallen into that trap again?

Well, we do it because we're human. Lighten up on yourself. If berating yourself worked, you'd be winning Pulitzer Prizes and accepting that Nobel Peace Prize right now. It doesn't. All it does is make you so uncomfortable that, guess what? You slip right back into avoidance.

Skip that whole trap. Just practice telling yourself, "I accept that I lost X minutes/hours/days in avoidance. Yep. I did it again. This is part of being self-employed." Like the weather, it comes and goes. Try not to turn it into a referendum on your worth or professionalism.

Take action
Welcome to the hard part. That stuff you've been avoiding? It's staring you in the face. Choose one of those things. For me, it was email yesterday. I used to be so good at clearing out my email. I was an inbox-zero girl. Yesterday, I had 355 emails in my inbox. Overwhelmed? Oh, sure.

So I just started. I sat down and spend some time clearing them out. I found an email from an editor that needed replying to. I sent her three story ideas. I started feeling better about myself.

Let it snowball
I kept going. I found some news reports on subjects my editors follow and forwarded them as a courtesy. I got bolder. I followed up on an outstanding invoice. That felt so good that I sent three invoices that needed sending. Finally, I did the big thing I'd been avoiding for a week: I called the source I needed to call for a story I'm working on.

Don't ask why I was avoiding it. I don't know. The important thing is that I did it. I went to bed feeling better about myself, feeling in control of my life and my business, and confident that today could be just as good.

And you know what? It has been.

How do you fight avoidance?