Episode 1: Getting Started

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On this episode, I talk about how to get started on your creative work: getting past excuses, making tradeoffs, setting boundaries, and finding a support network.


Here’s what I discussed on this episode:



You’re listening to How to Be Creative, a podcast about what it means to be creative across different disciplines, industries, life circumstances, and career structures. You’ll learn tips for fitting creativity into your daily life and hear from a bunch of different people about how being creative has helped them reach goals, open doors, and live a more rewarding–or at least more interesting–life. I’m your host, Kat O’Leary, and I’m excited to introduce you to some of my favorite creatives, as well as to the tools that help me get my most crucial work done.


Hi, and welcome to How to Be Creative. So this is the part where I try to sound super peppy and upbeat, despite the fact that I am recording this alone in my apartment with no company except for my cat, who is staring at me like I’m a lunatic. Also, I discovered when I went to pull out my podcast mic earlier that the a stand for it is apparently broken. So I now have to record this entire episode holding the mic in front of me and I really feel like I’m on like Star Search or American Idol or something. But welcome to How to Be Creative, which is a podcast about living a creative life. For the first episode I thought I would talk a little bit about what to expect, and then we’ll get into some tips on getting started.

First of all, the format of this podcast: I will be alternating between solo episodes like this one, where I talk about the different tips and tools that have worked for me in getting my creative work done. And then on the off weeks I’ll share interviews with creative people. And so that can mean a lot of different things. So the first few episodes we’ll probably feature what you would think of as traditional creatives–so artists, writers, etc. And then later on, I hope to expand that to include people who are using creativity in fields that maybe you wouldn’t necessarily associate with being creative. So programmers, civil engineers, mathematicians, maybe some accountants (maybe we can get my dad on here!). Really my goal is to reinforce the idea that everyone is creative and everyone can live a creative life and it doesn’t have to be this massive undertaking.

It doesn’t have to be how you spend your nine to five hours. There’s just a lot of opportunity out there. And I think in a lot of cases we kind of psych ourselves out by feeling like creativity is this thing that either you have or you don’t have. And I really think it’s like anything else; it’s a skill that can be developed. So that is kind of my goal in bringing this to you, in addition to hoping to introduce you to some people whose work and perspectives may not be already familiar with. So a little bit of background on me. My name is Kat O’Leary. I live in Brooklyn, New York. I have a day job in digital communications and I also have another podcast about Hallmark Christmas movies with my best friend Nicole. That podcast is called Business Christmas and you should definitely check it out.

We post episodes year-round despite the Christmas theme. I’m also at work on a couple of novels, one of which I’m in the process of polishing up to pitch to agents. So that’s a big goal for me by end of year 2019. Note that my goal is not landing a literary agent, because that is something that is outside of my control. The goal is very much to do the work of actually polishing this thing up and pitching it out. That is something that I can control. So I’m very much a work in progress in terms of actually making money from my creative work. But the thing I have figured out is how to actually do the work in the first place. So that’s something I can share with you. Today I’m going to talk about getting started. My assumption is that if you’re listening, you probably have something you want to do: something creative.

And I want to start this section of the podcast with a disclaimer that yes, I understand that some people are in fact too busy to add anything else to their lives. So any advice I offer is probably not going to be relevant for people who let’s say work, you know, 15 hour days at a big law firm or who are working multiple jobs to support their family. Right? So some of these things are, you know, especially the one, the first thing I’m going to talk about is getting past excuses. I obviously maybe not, obviously I acknowledge that there are people who are not making excuses. This actually the reality of their lives, that they do not have time to do anything big. And for those people, I think my advice would be to think about what is the smallest possible way that you can make a change.

And maybe it’s just listening to this podcast while you are trapped at your desk at work or on your commute or another podcast about creativity, just to kind of expand how you think about things. Maybe it’s taking a different route to work. Maybe it’s stopping to meditate for even a minute or two. The wisdom seems to be, oh, you need to meditate for at least 10 minutes or 20 minutes, and I don’t think that’s true. I think any time we can kind of pause and just be present in the moment, that has value, even if you’re not able to do it more than for more than a minute or two. With that said, okay, so I’m going to start by talking about getting past excuses. So in my experience, excuses are usually driven by either fear or resistance. Fear that if you make finally make space to do the thing, it might not be good.

And resistance to the hard work you’ll actually have to commit to if you make time for whatever it is you’ve been saying you want to do. So with fear, the fear that if you finally make space to do the thing, it might not be good. An example of that is writing for me. I spend a lot of time writing by myself and don’t show it to anyone. That’s kind of a safe space for me. Right? Like I can hold onto this idea that my work is good because I haven’t done anything with it. I haven’t put it out there, I haven’t gotten any feedback on it. But if I actually, you know, finished something and then have to, say, pitch it out somewhere and the feedback I get is negative, then I might have to reckon with the fact that my work is either not as good as I think it is, or I have farther to go in getting it to the point where it’s publishable than I might currently think, just writing alone in my apartment. And then with resistance…

So I think this podcast is a good example for me to use on this. So one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, and I think this may end up being a future solo episode, is figuring out the difference between things I don’t want to do and things I don’t feel like doing. So things I don’t want to do are like projects that maybe made sense at one time, or it was just an idea I was throwing out and hadn’t fully committed to. And then I realize, wait, this isn’t where I’m at, this isn’t what I want to do or how I want to spend my time right now. Whereas things I don’t feel like doing are kind of the less interesting or fun parts of projects that I am truly passionate about. I talked to my friend Theodora who is actually a future guest and we were talking about podcasting.

She also has a podcast, it’s called This May Be Oversharing. It’s really great. You should check it out. It’s a series of conversations with people about kind of the things that we most need to be talking about but aren’t talking about. So she and I were talking about podcasting and we were saying that, you know, we like having a podcast, we like recording episodes, and then we don’t like all of the other stuff that goes along with that. Things like having to sit down and edit the podcast or having to write the podcast description or name an episode or whatever it is. So for me, those are things I don’t feel like doing. And sometimes those can feel like things I don’t want to do and I’ll just have this idea of like, oh, maybe I don’t want to commit to this project because if it were really how I wanted to spend my time, I’d feel good about it all the time.

And that’s just not true. There’s this idea, I don’t remember who said it, but it’s something like, “Do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” That concept has seen a good deal of backlash lately, and I think it’s for good reason. The idea that just because you’re doing something that is what you truly are meant to do or you’re on the right path, that doesn’t mean you’re never going to have days where it’s a struggle to do literally anything. So just thinking about those things that you don’t feel like doing can end up leading to resistance to do your work.

Next, be honest about the time you do have and what you’re willing to give up. So the thing about making time for creative work is that time is a finite resource and it has to come from somewhere. If you’re saying you want to write for half an hour every day, well to find that half hour you have to trade something, right? So it may mean waking up half an hour earlier. It may mean hiring a babysitter if your kids are home with you during the day. And it’s a challenge to find time to write. Outside of that, I kind of turn into a hermit from time to time and I turn down social invitations and stop watching TV. Lately one of the things that I’ve sacrificed is getting exercise regularly. So actually this morning I just chopped six inches off my hair, because I wanted to make time for distance running again without giving up any of the time that I’m spending on my creative work. And as I mentioned, I have a full time job, so at least eight hours of my day, or more if I’m not working from home, is taken up with my day job. And that’s kind of a best case scenario. You know, there are busier times at work where I might work a 10-hour day or even more when things are super busy. So yeah, the thing that had to go for me was my hair because until this morning I had pretty long, pretty thick hair. I still have thick hair, but at least this way, you know, it’ll be an hour start to finish to do my hair versus two hours.

On the positive side though, I think one of the great things about reprioritizing in order to put your creative work front and center is that this also gives you an excuse to get out of things that are really other people’s priorities. Social engagements that you really weren’t that excited about, maybe a friendship where you’re fine with seeing the person maybe once a quarter and clearly they want more than that from you.

This is maybe the time to kind of set that boundary, which is actually the next thing: Set boundaries with other people in your life. So let’s just be clear that there are a lot of people who have boundary issues and a lot of those people will steamroll over you and your priorities if you let them. So it’s important to protect yourself, not just protecting your time, which I think is a key piece of this, but there are some other ways that you’re probably going to need to protect yourself in order to get your work done, especially if you’re early on in whatever you’re doing, whether it’s writing, painting, starting a side business. There are unfortunately probably going to be people in your life who aren’t supportive. These people may be people you love. They might be your siblings, some close friends, and also some people who are maybe used to your life being about them and their needs, which sounds like a thinly veiled description of children, but I swear I’m actually talking about adults with boundary issues here.

So I think a key thing, and this is something that I really didn’t understand until probably a couple of years ago, is that you don’t have to tell everyone what you’re working on. It is not dishonest to not tell every person in your life everything about your life. If you have the sense that someone is not going to support your work or is going to say, you know, a comment that will discourage you, especially if you’re early on in doing your work and you’re maybe on kind of shaky ground. You definitely don’t need any form of discouragement. It’s very easy to let that kind of snowball in your head and prevent you from moving forward. So, I mean, protect yourself to the degree you can. So instead of telling them what you’re working on, what can you stay instead?

Fortunately, we have a bunch of excuses that are considered appropriate reasons to be unavailable to people. So you can just kind of borrow one of those, regardless of whether they are true or not. So I think the easiest is to say you have to work. And the good news is, for those of you who are pathologically honest, this one’s not even a lie. Just don’t say what you’re working on because honestly work that doesn’t yet earn you money is still work. In order to get to a point where you are bringing in money from your creative work, if that’s your goal–and it doesn’t have to be–you need to actually do the work. So really you are setting yourself, your future self up for success and yeah, success can mean a lot of things I think in a capitalist society and I think that’s actually why this excuse works, right?

Because everyone values work. Work is important. Work is something you are fully within your rights to spend your time and energy on. But I think also the intersection of art and capitalism is an interesting question that I think I’ll probably tackle with a few of my future interview guests. But your creative work has intrinsic value. It’s not only valuable if it’s a means of earning money.

Okay, so another excuse: You have other plans. You can make something up. That’s one that’s really hard for me. I spent a long time feeling like it was never okay to tell a lie. I have kind of changed my mind about this, especially because people who don’t respect your right to allocate your own time, honestly, they kind of deserve to be lied to. Sorry. And then another thing you can just say, sorry, I’m not free then.

And actually you can pretty much drop the, sorry; you don’t need to apologize for not being free. So just say I’m not free. This is an advanced-level excuse because it takes a lot of emotional work before you can get to the point where you’re even comfortable saying it out loud and not elaborating. And then if, if you drop this one on someone and they ask you for more information, like, “Oh, what are you doing?” You can always decide to say that you would rather not talk about it and you’re fully within your rights to do so. And then here’s another one. Set boundaries with yourself. So the good news is I think this is a little bit easier than setting boundaries with other people because it doesn’t involve the feelings of others who are maybe used to engaging with you in a specific way that might be shifting slightly as you prioritize your creative work.

So some ways that you can set boundaries with yourself: Block out time on your calendar and treat it as a commitment like any other. This sounds very simple, but I think it’s also very easy to glance at your calendar, see that you’ve blocked out, I don’t know, two hours to paint or whatever it is, and then feel like, oh, that’s not a real appointment. Those aren’t real plans. And then, you know, let someone else have that slot on your calendar. That’s a really great way to ensure that you never get your work done. And it’s probably wrapped up in some of that fear and resistance that we talked about earlier.

Also, set clear goals and milestones, and then attach them to hard deadlines. And in doing this, make sure you’re being reasonable about what you can accomplish so that you’re not always missing the mark, which can be discouraging and may prevent you from even trying to commit to getting stuff done in the future.

And then, find a support network. This can be hard depending on where you live, which people you’re surrounded by most of the time. But the good news is it can look like a lot of different things. I just wanted to talk through a few different ways to find that. One is, think about who you know, who is working on something. Rewind back to, I don’t know, about a year or so ago, and I thought I didn’t have an artist community. And then I had this idea of, Oh, you know, I’d like to, I’d like to have a creative circle, because I felt like that was something that was lacking in my life. And so, as I was thinking about how to do this and how to find people, I realized I already knew writers, visual artists, activists, photographers, zine makers, filmmakers–all these people who were kind of hiding in plain sight, maybe because most of the people I know are doing something else in their nine to five jobs.

But chances are high, you know, at least one person with even just a cool hobby that’s meaningful to them. Something they do outside of work, whether it’s fishing or knitting or really anything. The key thing is to find someone who is passionate about something. Yes, it would be easier if it’s kind of an indoor sport like writing or photography or some other crafting or some other kind of creative pursuit where maybe you can set up some kind of accountability together. That’s probably easier. But you know, at a bare minimum, try to find one person who is doing something outside of how they earn money that they’re passionate about. And this also might mean that you have to open up about your own work. Let’s say you’re looking around, you’re not finding that person, maybe dip your toe in and mention to two or three people some of the things that you’re working on. That might be the space that other people need to feel safe in revealing their own projects or side pursuits.

And then, look for things to join in your town or city. So there’s an organization called Creative Mornings. It is in, I want to say, 200 plus cities worldwide. If you’re in a larger city, you may have access to that. It’s a monthly breakfast event for the creative community. And they also have started doing some FieldTrips in some major cities in the U.S. and Canada. So those are things you can look into as well. Your library probably offers some kind of programming that you don’t even know about. Here in Brooklyn, our library offers things like meditation, Tai Chi, philosophy talks in the nearby park. So look into that and see if there’s something there. Also bookstores tend to have a lot of events. Obviously in, in a city like New York, it’s kind of an embarrassment of riches, the degree to which we have things like this, but even in small towns or small cities, there are definitely arts centers and bookstores that will offer things like this. So bookstore events, whether they’re readings or other things, classes, and then looking on Meetup, Eventbrite or other event sites for things that are happening in your neck of the woods. And then if you’re not really finding what you look you’re looking for, you can always start something. You can start a Meetup or post an event on Eventbrite or teach a class in a subject you’re an expert in. You could start a craft circle. There are endless possibilities, but you actually have to sit down and think about them, and it may take a little bit more legwork in a smaller city or town.

And then let’s say you’ve looked around, you’ve tried to find the community that you’re seeking and you’re not finding it. The good news is the Internet exists. You either can lean on existing social media friends, and that might include people you’ve known in real life throughout various stages of your life who’ve become social media friends. Maybe you don’t live in the same city anymore, but in general, online friends are awesome. And in a world where most people are meeting their partners online, we can maybe finally be okay with the fact that it’s cool to make friends online as well. Some of my closest in real life friends began as online friends.

One great example of a way that I’ve built creative community online is my accountability partner Ivy, who’s a filmmaker based in Europe. She and I originally met through a Facebook group, became friends on other social media channels, and when I was looking for an accountability partner, she immediately came to mind as someone that I would love to work with. And so she and I have had this partnership for a little over a year and a half now. We’ve become really good friends and honestly, if I didn’t have any of the other creative communities I’ve built or the access to events that I’ve had, I would definitely feel less alone as an artist just by virtue of having Ivy to lean on.

So those are just a few ways to get started. If you have any questions or if you need some additional motivation, feel free to find me on social media. I am @katoleary or you can email me at kat.oleary@gmail.com. So next week I’m chatting with Kimberly Enjoli about the intersection of art and activism. I’m really, really excited about this interview. I learned so much from my conversation with Kimberly and I suspect you will learn a lot as well. Just in the couple of conversations that I’ve had since I recorded that episode, the response to the things that she talked about, the feedback that I’ve gotten on the topic, everyone has been like, “Oh my God, I wanted to know about that too.” So I’m really excited to bring you that conversation next week. In the meantime, you can check out the show notes at howtobecreative.org for links to the things I’ve discussed during this episode, and I will catch you next time.


So that’s this week’s episode of How to Be Creative. As always, you can find show notes, including a complete episode transcript and links to everything discussed at howtobecreative.org.

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