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On Being a Writer

Last week Gwen Bell wrote a really interesting series on what it means to be a professional writer. In her daily letter, she asked readers specific questions about writing and reading. I responded to all of her questions and to my surprise Gwen emailed me back and asked if I’d be willing to go a little deeper.

The result? A really fun interview! We talked about going from blog to book, what it means to be a professional writer, and more. I hope you enjoy the conversation . . .

Gwen: If you’re making a living, or part of your living, writing – how have you done it?

Tammy: I’ve been self-employed for about two years and I’ve made a living through my ebook sales, freelance writing gigs, a tiny bit of consulting work and a book advance. With that being said, I’m not making a lot of money. I grossed about $20,000 in 2010 and I’m on track to make the same this year. And that’s fine with me because my expenses are really low and I have purposely built time into my schedule to volunteer. As a writer, I have to be out experiencing the world. If I’m not, I don’t have anything interesting to say. Volunteering is one way I experience the world and it grounds me.

Gwen What does a day in the life look like for you, as a professional writer? How’s your time divided between caring for your tiny home+feline friends, volunteering and writing?

Tammy: Logan (my husband) and I get up around 7 or 7.30, have coffee together, play with the cats and pick up the house. Then Logan saddles up on his bike around 8.30 and zips down the hill to his day job. (He’s a scientist at Oregon Health Science University).

Then I take a look at my calendar, write down the three most important things I want to get done that day and then get to work. Typically, I devote three or four hours to writing. Sometimes I write in the mornings and other times I write in the afternoon. It depends on what my schedule looks like. For example, every Thursday afternoon, I volunteer in the Living Yoga office. In addition, to that volunteer gig I help plan Portland based events and I do a lot off informal mentoring as well.

My schedule sounds busy, but right now it’s perfect. I have the time to write, practice yoga everyday, hang out with friends, read in the evenings, and sit on my front porch.

Gwen: What does it mean to you to be a professional writer?

Tammy: This is a question I’ve been pondering for the last year. In short, it means doing the work everyday and actually publishing content either to my blog or the letter. I set a goal of publishing once a week to the blog and letter. And if I do more, it’s a bonus for me and readers.

Over the last year, I’ve found that writing to letter subscribers is a joy. I don’t know what it is about the letter format, but I feel safe and willing to share in a different way. As a result, I’m thinking of moving away from blogging and sending out letters to readers. The medium of blogging isn’t sitting well with me anymore and I’m trying to figure out why.
In addition, writing means reading a lot, noticing small details, and keeping a close circle of friends. I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you. 🙂

Gwen: I’d love to hear more. Especially about the “close circle of friends.” I think I’m similar in that I don’t socialize that much, and when I do, it’s with people I trust/have known for years. Is this an active choice you make? What’s the impact?

Tammy: I have a close circle of friends who I trust deeply. Those people include Logan, my mom, and a few girlfriends I see every week. They know the intimate details of my life. So yes, this has been an active choice. The impact? I know I can trust these people. They don’t care about my following online or if I’ll help them promote a product, they want to hang out with me because they care about my wellbeing, not what I can do for them online.

Also, I do much better in small groups or one-on-one. However, I’m married to a charismatic, outgoing man. Logan has pushed me to go out into the world more. We don’t go to bars or parties a lot, but he encourages me to attend gatherings with friends and that’s been a really good thing for me. If I was single, I think I’d spend more time by myself, snuggled up in my loft reading.

Gwen: What do you want out of the writers you read?

Tammy: I want to hear personal stories, told from experience. I learn the most from stories and how other people navigate the complexities of life. I don’t feel like I need “tips” incorporated into an article because every story has a lesson embedded within.

Gwen: What do you give to the writers you read?

Tammy: My time and money.

Gwen: How do you support the work of the best writers you’ve read?

Tammy: I buy books, enroll in classes, and share their work with my readers and close friends.

Gwen: If you could have one wish come true from your favorite/most beloved writer, what would that wish be?

Tammy: I’d love to go on a coffee date (or skype) with some of my favorite authors and talk about what it means to be a writer.

Gwen: I’d like to hear more about going from blog to book deal — to blank slate! I know you blank slated (more or less) this year with Align…and I’m wondering what the process has been like for you?

Tammy: Sure! In the summer of 2010, I poured myself a steaming cup of coffee, sat down at my writing table and logged into gmail. I was scanning through reader requests when I noticed an email from Stephanie Rosenbloom, a reporter with the New York Times. In the email, she said that she was doing a story on happiness and living with less and wanted to interview me. I was shocked that she wanted to chat. I said yes, tentatively. I figured the story would be buried in the back of the paper and that it wouldn’t be a big deal. I was wrong.

The story ran on the front page of the Times’s business section and the piece went viral on the Web. Looking back, it still shocks me. As a result of that single article, I was contact by a dozen literary agents and a few publishing houses too. I’ve always dreamed of writing a print book and so I signed with an agent I trusted and we went from there. It took about 6 months to craft the book proposal and then my agent spent a few months pitching publishing houses. We received a lot of rejections, but I was ecstatic when New World Library wanted to sign me. I love their work and my editor was the same person who worked with William Powers on Twelve by Twelve (it was my favorite book of 2010).

In 2010, I started to rethink the nature of blogging and how my website looked. I’ve been following your work for a while and when you decided to blank the slate I was intrigued.

Then you offered Align Your Website, which was perfect timing for me. The course caused me to question everything about my site, including the design, my archives section, and how I sell my ebooks. I also realized that my website will never be “done.” For instance, you prompted me to dig through my archives and delete all the crap. I let go of 1,000 posts and kept about 200. Although, I’m thinking of going through another purging process.

Just like my writing, I see my website as a work in progress and that’s a good thing because as I evolve as a person I want that change to be reflected on my website and in my writing too.

Gwen: Do numbers matter to your publisher/agent or is it more like – you do great work, the numbers will follow?

Tammy: It’s a little bit of both. If you’re producing crappy work, I don’t think people will read your writing.

However, if your are thinking of publishing through a traditional publisher they will want to know your reach. For example, when my agent pitched my book proposal to publishing houses they wanted to know how many subscribers I had, the number of unique visits to the blog, Facebook fans, twitter followers, and all about traditional media coverage too. With that being said, numbers aren’t everything. I think agents/publishers have an intuitive sense for good and bad writing. And the type of stuff that will sell.

Keep in mind, I got a lot of rejections before we had a few publishers show interest in the book idea. Toward the end of the pitching process, I wasn’t sure if anyone would take me on. I feel very very lucky!

Gwen: What difference did the NYTimes piece have on you? Was it a huge confidence boost? Did it change the course of your life?

Tammy: The article reaffirmed how important words are. I think that’s easily forgotten on the Web, particularly when it comes to hateful comments on news sites, blogs, etc. I do my best to be thoughtful when I post anything to the blog and to the letter. I can’t control other people’s reactions to my writing, but I don’t want to come off as judgmental or as a “know-it-all” because I’m still learning too. My end goal with writing is to be helpful, not hurtful. So that’s been the biggest difference for me, really cementing that philosophy into my daily life.

Did the article boost my confidence? Not really. I’ve always struggled with sharing my writing on the Web because I don’t consider myself to be “a good writer.” Even with all the media attention and the growth of my blog, I’m still not very confident. Every time I push the publish button I’m little nervous.

The NYTimes piece changed the course of my writing life. If it weren’t for that single article, I wouldn’t have signed on with a literary agent or with New World Library.

In addition, the article created a little media whirl-wind for a few weeks and we ended up on The Today Show, CNN, MSNBC, among other media outlets. It was a great way to connect with readers and I’m extremely grateful that I was part of the article and subsequent media coverage. However, it was exhausting. When the NYTimes article went out into the world, I had 500 emails waiting for me at the end of the day and they kept coming. I pride myself on being able to respond to all my correspondence, but this was beyond my capacity. So Logan helped me out.

I was grateful for the peace and quite after we left the news cycle. I can’t imagine how famous actors, authors and politicians handle that type of attention. It would be a huge distraction from getting work done.

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Note: The photo above was taken at Winter Fishtrap. I had the honor of meeting a lot of incredible writers there, including Winona LaDuke and Charles Goodridge.

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