Last week, My friend Katie and I set aside five days for our own personal writing retreat. We’d been reading and editing each other’s novels for several months, and couldn’t seem to finish. With a new goal in mind (new endings, submissions in February), we decided to get together and dedicate a solid work week to revision. Project Writing Week was born.

This was on the heels of my visit to the Morris Museum of Art, where I was invited to speak about “Books as Art Objects” to a group of museum patrons at a luncheon. It was a fantastic visit, with one of the most welcoming crowds I’ve ever had, and it was the first time I really felt like I was received as an expert in my field. There was euphoria, and then there was exhaustion.

This is me, after a week-long marathon of driving, presenting, and rewriting (thanks Animal Life. Nailed it).

Katie and I, in our home-grown writing retreat, spent most of the day in various diners and cafes in town, fueling ourselves with coffee and nachos while plowing through our revisions. On one particular day, while we sat in a place called the Dead Mule, I was rewriting a scene with a dog. While I was working on it, a dog appeared at my feet under the table. “Okay,” I said to Katie, staring at the dog. “Now I’m going to write about my dreamy hero and see what happens.”

The dog came back. Massive universe fail. 

It was just another reminder that the things you want and hope for don’t just fall into your lap on command. You have to hunt them down. Sometimes I need that reminder, and the universe is happy to oblige.

letterpress wood type

To that point, we had a conversation about freelancing and wearing a dozen different hats, the way many freelancers do. Katie and I both taught in universities. We both found it exhausting and walked away to pursue working for ourselves. Katie’s a successful freelance writer with a slew of articles under her belt for the Huffington Post, The Toast, and The Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae, among others. She’s published a number of legal writing books. She has databases and spreadsheets and is a social networking genius. 

My freelancing has gone a different route. In addition to being a writer, I’m a letterpress printer and book artist. I love illustration, handmade books, printmaking, and storytelling. I travel to teach workshops in all of the above, give talks and presentations about book arts, and am constantly making new work to send out to shows and book fairs. But my question has always been this: How do people who juggle so many different pursuits manage to complete all these tasks and stay sane?

Last week seemed unusual at first––but then I realized that it’s actually quite representative of my day-to-day life. I’m half artist and half writer. I have a seasonal job that involves neither. I’m split most every day, torn between making art and revising a book. Most days I feel a little crazy, trying to balance so many different activities, but talking to Katie made me think what I really need is to get organized. So here are some ideas we tossed around (and a few that came to me on sleepless nights wen I was agonizing about the hero in my novel and the late-night emails I kept getting from my guy who wanted “to take a break,” which made me wish my hero could just step off the page and into my room already):

1. Spreadsheets will save your life. Katie’s got spreadsheets for everything: where she’s sold articles, which books have brought royalties lately, which articles have been tweeted, which agents have reviewed her novels. I have zero spreadsheets and nearly had a panic attack last week when I couldn’t remember where a $400 artist’s book had landed after a gallery tour. Believe me, I’m starting a spreadsheet immediately.

2. Your website should probably show more of what you do. When Katie looked at my existing website, she said, “Where’s your writing? Where’s the list of places you’ve done talks?” I’d been under the impression that I needed a separate website for each of my identities––my art website should just include my art, right? Then she sent me this article by Aubre Andrus. There was a lot of nodding as I read it. If you are your brand, and you are marketing yourself (which includes your plethora of skills and talents), then shouldn’t your site reflect that diversity? As Katie said, “What happens if I want to hire you as a writer and then I learn you can make the whole damn book from start to finish?” It makes sense that if people want to learn about what you do, then you should probably include more facets of yourself. 

3. Make time for social networking, but don’t fall down the rabbit hole of distraction. I’ve been trying to sharpen my social media skills, but not have that moment where I realize three hours have gone by and I’ve tweeted one quip about my day and have learned what everyone on the planet ate for breakfast. So how do I leave bread crumbs on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Etsy, and do it before I’ve finished my morning coffee? How do I make useful connections? After more heavy reading, I’ve decided the majority of posts should do the following: a) share useful information, b) show a glimpse of a work in progress, c) engage a specific audience, or d) make someone laugh. (I know the point is that posts should be engaging, but I can always make room for humor.)

4. Actively submit work and proposals, even if it’s fifteen minutes a day. Katie is constantly sending queries. I fall off the wagon in predictable patterns. But with so many databases available to gather contact information for galleries, agents, upcoming shows, residencies, and workshops, there’s really no excuse for not approaching at least a couple of these people every day, hustling your wares. I’ve been keeping a (weak) calendar for upcoming deadlines for residencies, workshop proposals, and gallery shows, but it’s time to up the ante. Now it’s time to start dedicating half an hour a day or one half-day a week to finding opportunities and sending work out. Submittable, the Alliance of Artists Communities, and Publishers Marketplace are a few of my favorites, and if I subscribe to their newsletters, I get deadlines delivered). I have six months out of the year to travel, teach workshops, give lectures, and attend gallery openings, so my new plan is to fill that time by casting a lot of lines in the water.

Do I sometimes wish I had a steady job with a paycheck? Sure. My seasonal job is great, but it reminds me that I’m better when I’m working for myself. The slow times are hard, and this is the first off-season that I’ve really filled the time wisely, balanced between teaching workshops, finishing my own writing, and submitting work to shows. I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Thoughts on Writing” that got me fired up about creative pursuits again and reminded me of why I took the path that I did. So was the writing retreat a success? I nearly finished that novel, but this week was also a call to action for me to keep doing what I’m doing––times fifty. 

Want to share your freelancing advice? I’m always looking to hear success stories! Share your thoughts in the comments below.