This week’s feature in the Creative Career Interview Series is Daniel Swensen. Daniel is the author of the short story Burn and the full length novel Orison which is set to be released this year through Nine Muse Press. Thank you Daniel for sharing your journey with us!
Name: Daniel Swensen
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1. Tell us a little bit about your career.
I write for a living. Right now, my first fiction novel, Orison, is in final edits at Nine Muse Press. On a daily basis, I write articles for SEO companies, which is not particularly sexy money, but it pays the bills, and it’s something I know how to do. And I get to learn something new every day. That’s not something I could say of most of my jobs. It’s some of the easiest work I’ve ever had.
2. What’s an average day look like for you?
I work from home, so I have certain luxuries. I’m up every day at about seven-thirty. I take some time out to read and meditate before I tackle anything. A little quiet time helps my focus tremendously. Then make breakfast and coffee. I spend about an hour on social media, and then I try to get to work.
I don’t have perfect discipline, so sometimes it’s the afternoon before I really hit my productive rhythm. I try to get my fiction done early in the day, since my creative juices are often tapped out by the time I finish my paying work. Ironically, it’s the directly paying work that comes second, but that’s only because that’s the stuff I can do after the creative part of my brain burns out for the day.
3. Did you set out on this path intentionally or stumble upon it?
Every career move I’ve ever made has been a stumble. I was told growing up that nobody could make money writing, so I just never bothered trying. I went to college with the intention of going into teaching, but dropped out when I was offered a cushy web design job. I did IT for about fifteen years before realizing I didn’t like it anymore, and got into SEO and marketing when a friend offered a chance to go into business together. After that failed, I asked some well-connected friends if anyone reputable needed a good copy writer, and it turns out they did.
So one stumble after another led me here. My first writing job, which was ad copy for cell phones, just came to me out of the blue because a friend read my blog and happened to know someone who needed a writer. So the lesson there is, be on the lookout for happy accidents.
4. What are some challenges you’ve incurred – past or present?
When you’re working for yourself, discipline is always a big one. I hear people talk about how they’d love to have the luxury of working from home, and it definitely has its perks, but it also has its pitfalls. One the up side, there’s no one breathing down your neck to keep you motivated. On the down side, there’s no one breathing down your neck to keep you motivated. It’s up to you to set and meet deadlines, and to avoid goofing off.
Just as important, though, is actually learning that some goofing off is necessary. When your work environment and your home environment are the same place, it can be easy to get into this “always-on” mode where, in your mind, every waking hour becomes either work or wasted time. Especially if you’ve missed or are coming up on a deadline. If you’re a workaholic, that creates a very specific set of problems. If you’re a type-B personality and love to avoid things (like me), it creates a whole different set of problems. Lost productivity can create this guilt spiral and make everything worse.
I also suffer from clinical depression, which means I can, and do, lose hours or days dealing with that.
5. How do/did you move past these?
I structure my day as much as possible. I use Trello to make a list of to-do, doing, and done items, and Google Calendar to set and remind me about deadlines. I try to account for every day and, within reason, every hour I have to work. This method is far from perfect, and frequently goes to hell, but when I start getting off-track I just refer back to the list, reset myself, and put myself back on track. It also helps me clearly delineate my work time from my play time. An unstructured day is almost universally disastrous from a productivity standpoint.
Depression still knocks me back from time to time, but I work hard to manage that instead of letting it rule my life. The terrible thing about depression is that for me, unlike a conventional bad mood, there’s generally little I can do but ride it out and wait for it to pass. But knowing that, and keeping it in mind, keeps me from making it worse with self-blame. That kind of mood will just feed itself.
6. What keeps you motivated?
My wife Gina. She’s my biggest fan. She inspires me, believes in me, pushes me when I need pushing, holds me up when I need a hand. She’s always there for me when I need it. I feel very fortunate to have someone like her, who not only has my back, but who also loves what I write. I think everything in my life would be a lot harder without her.
7. What’s the best part of your career?
Being responsible for my own successes and failures. I don’t have any co-workers or petty office politics or long commutes. I also love the simplicity of my job. Yeah, writing and editing can be challenging, but I don’t have to keep up with cutting-edge technology and revise or dump my entire skill set the way I had to when working IT. The written word is downright static compared to information technology.
8. If you could do it all over again, what would you change (if anything)?
I would get started sooner. Early in life, my dad gave me the old line about how writers don’t make any money, how tough it is to make it, and so on. I believed him because I thought he knew something I didn’t. The truth is, he spent his whole life starting and failing at businesses, was terribly unhappy, and pretty much the last person I should have been taking life advice from. But I let his words haunt me for nearly twenty years before I finally gained the confidence to start taking some chances.
Funny enough, when I recently told him that I was making a living writing, he was pleasantly surprised. There was no “gotcha” or moment of catharsis, because I’d long ago decided that his advice simply wasn’t relevant to my life. I just wish I’d been able to come to that realization within days instead of years.
9. Do you have any advice for someone looking to embark on an unconventional career path?
My main piece of advice is a horrible cliché, but it’s also really important: believe in yourself. Don’t let what other people run your life. Don’t let their nay-saying, no matter how well-intentioned, keep you from doing what’s important to you. You’re the one who has to live your life, not them — so live the one you want, not the one they want.
Mistakes are inevitable. Learn from them and move on. Learn by doing. Get in there and screw up. Don’t lose faith in yourself because you stumble, because everyone stumbles. The difference is whether you give up at the first sign of trouble, or keep going. And sometimes those moments aren’t big dramatic failures. They’re small frustrations that can nudge you away from what you believe in.
Be willing to learn from others, but also be skeptical. Only one person knows what works best for you, and that’s you. In a career like writing, there are any number of people lining up to tell you how to run your life, and the list of Things Not to Do can get paralyzingly long. To paraphrase from one of my favorite movies (Big Trouble in Little China), “take what you want and leave the rest, just like a salad bar.”
The only other thing I would recommend is: create a process and revise it every once in a while. When you’re carving out your own career path, learning what doesn’t work is as important as learning what does work. Being in business for myself has taught me that you should constantly be refining and developing your process, so you can work more efficiently, balance your work and home life, and keep yourself from stagnating or burning out.
10. What else should we know about you and your career?
Probably the most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t do something like this alone. Reaching out to other people, not just for networking, but for friendship and mutual support, is one of the most important aspects of a creative career. As writers, what we do is kind of naturally isolating — a large portion of our lives is spent in front of a screen or at a piece of paper, interacting with no one. There are real benefits to sharing your experience with people who understand you, and helping each other.
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