I had a rough 2015. My estranged father died (on his way to rehab), all of my camera gear was stolen (just after I hired 3 people and started a production company), and I had two friends pass away – sigh, my heart just hurts thinking about it. I’m so ready for 2015 to be over and 2016 to begin.
So I started my annual mind-map-project-plan thing that I do to get my head sorted out:
Here are some of the big themes that came up for me:
The only thing that has saved me from total financial ruin was our conscious decision last summer to move to Oaxaca where it is super cheap to live (cut expenses) and to expand our workshop/course offerings (increase income) to fund the projects we want to do. It’s like having two full-time jobs, it’s not easy, but when things go south and I lose months of time/salaries plus equipment, it just means we wasted money. That’s it. Then we keep rolling. It looks something like this:
I just realized after uploading this image that a) you probably can’t read it and b) you’ll know that I’m using my own workshop materials for my planning. That kind of makes me look like a dork, but okay, if you want this spreadsheet, it’s on Google docs. Forgive the We Create branding, that’s my workshop/course hub.
Anyway, the basic formula is this: I do freelance writing and photography (plus income from this blog) to pay the bills (about $1500-$2000/mo – including private school for my kids, yay Oaxaca). Then I teach at We Create and all of that income goes to the Cultures & Cuisines site. It might not seem like much, but at Cultures & Cuisines we pay writers $200/post, plus I have a project manager, a video editor and a cameraman. If you’ve ever launched an online magazine, you know that it’s almost impossible to make any money on it. Ad rates are just slightly higher than what it costs to run my server (i.e. not worth it), and we just started a new shop, but you make $2 or so per order, which means it would take thousands of orders a month just to break even. Of course, there are other options, but you sort of have to be established to do them. Maybe we’ll publish an anthology of the best food writing. Maybe we’ll sell the rights to a video series. However that’s three or more years down the road (unless we’re lucky). Look at Roads & Kingdoms… they just put out a book but only after being invested in by Anthony Bourdain and producing content for a few years.
Anyway, that’s a bunch of behind the scenes stuff to simply explain: bootstrapping is awesome. If I had borrowed money or had investors for Cultures & Cuisines, I’d be really hurting right now, sitting here with no gear and several months behind schedule. Instead, I’m sucking it up and regrouping. Way less stressful and gives you a wide berth for error.
MAKE THE SPACE FOR YOUR ART
I hesitate to use the word “art” but it’s just a shorthand for anything you create. I spent my first few years trying to break in – but the problem is that in the beginning you’re just not ready. At least I wasn’t. And I see it all the time now on the other side of the inbox, looking at pitches for Cultures & Cuisines. I can almost guess whether someone will have big name bylines in their signature before I get to the second sentence. When you’re new, you just reek of newness. You don’t know how to frame your story, you’re not sure what people want to hear, it’s all grasping and awkward. And that’s okay. Just make things. If the space doesn’t exist to take your work, make one. If you’re not ready, create things anyway. It’s the only way to learn. That’s why I’m so pro-blogging – even though it’s hard – it’s just good practice. And for me, Cultures & Cuisines is another place I’ve created with the sole intention of learning. I want to write more about food and culture, but the outlet didn’t exist. It took me $12 to buy a domain. Done.
THINKING IS PART OF YOUR JOB
I’m seven years into my career as a writer, and I’m just starting to get this. I always have so much going on, so it’s easy for me to get swept up in the daily push to complete tasks. It never ends. I have 108 unread emails in my inbox. I’m behind on everything. Always. Still, I have to stop, take time off and just contemplate what I’m doing. Anyone can churn out copy. The only thing we have going for us as creatives is our unique perspective. To put that stamp on your work takes time, you have to form an opinion, weigh everything, ponder endlessly. And ultimately, it’s super easy to write when you’ve done the mental work first. I’m not sure what the exact formula should be, but somewhere around 25% of my time is my goal for 2016.
CREATIVES NEED TO CROSS-TRAIN TOO
Can you tell I’m something of a workaholic? It’s kind of my secret sauce slash the worst thing ever. I get hyper-focused. I see it in Cole too, my child is turning six this year but he can sit for hours and just focus on whatever it is he’s working on. It’s in my genes. It’s something of a marvel for my husband to witness, who struggles with ADHD, to see how powerful genetics can influence you. Anyway, my goal for this year is to spend more time doing other stuff.
Here’s my theory. Just like cross-training for athletes, filling at least some of your time with things other than your job (I know, bear with me, this is obvious to everyone but me) makes you more well-rounded and improves your work in general. The hour I spent with my daughter chopping peanuts and flash frying chiles de árbol was more important than “getting stuff done.” It makes me a better writer. It resets my palette. It’s part of the job too.
FOCUS ON THE POSITIVES
After our camera gear was stolen there was a huge fall out. It’s not just losing the gear. It’s the emotional damage it does. My husband was stressed out. The camera guy who had the gear when it was taken was distraught. My staff was looking at me for answers and I just beat myself up. I felt like I was disappointing everyone. It took some time but I had to regroup. I had to remind myself of the great luck and joy of being able to live this life and do the kind of projects we get to do.
More than that, the loss meant time to think through our game plan. We didn’t have cameras anymore, so I had plenty of time to think about the series we were filming. And you know the crazy thing is that it was good for us. When we were filming this fall I kept interviewing people and finding out that they had already worked with Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, the Discovery Channel. Oaxaca might seem like a small, unknown town, but it’s actually pretty well covered. It’s a foodie hub. Did I really want to produce a show that had the same chef or the same pre-hispanic food expert that showed up when Bourdain was in town? Not really.
So all of this changed my thinking. I started looking at what we did have: we live here, we know the area, we have our own connections and stories. What if instead of trying to create some glossy show we did something a little messier? A little more real? Something that tied directly to our lives here? What if we created for the web first and waited to see where that took us? We could film on almost anything for the web, even my iPhone will do HD. It changed the entire direction of the series, because the lack forced me to think about the assets. We could do something even with nothing. It might even be better for it.
The biggest breakthrough for me this year was just realizing: I burn hot. Then I burn out. Which is OKAY. You know? At some point you have to just give in to however it is that you work. Every year I do crazy things… if you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ll know that last year at this time I was planning three months across Turkey, sans husband, with kids, and finishing the final edits on my book. During their naps. Between schlepping across Turkey. It was insane.
So this year, I’m planning my burn-out. I know I will have to write my little ass off this spring, filling my days with Op/Eds and sassy essays across the interwebs to promote my book. It’s going to be brutal. I have this blog, We Create, workshops, Culture & Cuisines, plus an entire slew of essays that I have to compose with an eye on highlighting my delightful worldview/readability so I get a chance to write a second book. I will burn out. I will. But instead of trying to smudge my home with sage and pretend like a few hours a week of yoga will save me, I’m just giving in to it. I am extremely lucky that my publisher chose my book. I’m lucky that I get to live in Mexico. I’m beyond lucky that my biggest problems in life is too many awesome things to do in a day. I get it. But also, when that burn-out comes, I’m ready. I have the entire summer blocked off to do “something interesting.” I will work way less. I will actively let my life fall apart. I will ignore emails (sorry guys). I’m preparing myself to not feel bad about the inevitable moment where I have to skip town, and find some random spot to hang out in (please let it be Japan, I’m so in love). Will I actually get there? Will I get to the point where I don’t feel bad at all about ignoring my responsibilities? Probably not… honestly… I just know me. But that’s the goal. Responsible irresponsibility in 2016. I can do this.
TOO LONG CHRISTINE!
I know. Sorry. I never really get into this much detail about the inner workings of my life and apparently I have a lot to say about it. The one thing I know is that whatever any of us plan, it’s that deep sense of possibility that moves us forward. I love this time of year. ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE! Oh god, I sound like an inspirational poster now. Listen, do yourself a favor and write it out. Find your truths for 2016. Go!