What happens when you want to be more than one thing? What happens when your mind wanders and your heart leads you down two separate paths?

That’s what I’ve been dealing with for the last few months and it took me a while to figure things out. Now, before I go any further, no, this is not about my marriage, my family or even my day job. This is about writing.

I grew up writing non-fiction. I love writing memoir and self-improvement books, books that involve history and adventure. It calls to my better angels and draws upon my experiences as a journalist. But last year, I published my first book for middle readers and, apart from being exciting, it confused me a little.

Not only did I not go through a publisher (I went the Kindle Direct route) which allowed me to own the process and the proceeds, I wrote fiction from my son’s perspective. It was exciting. And since then, I’ve completed four more manuscripts for similar books, which is great… if it weren’t for the nagging feeling that I have more things to write for adults and every minute spent typing for kiddos is a precious moment lost toward that big, long list of other projects I want to do.

The grass is always greener, right?

I know this sounds like a lucky guy who gets to write for part of his living complaining about having too many ideas and creative energy for his capacity, but it’s not. Instead, I think what’s bothered me about the seeming conflict between my writing interests is that it goes against so much of what I see, hear and read about 21st century branding and success.

Everywhere I go, I hear people talking about being singular and identifiable. I read blogs and listen to talks about focus and purpose. I feel inundated with the idea of mastery. And it all feels a little misleading. It makes it seem like success can only be found by focusing on one thing, which is true to a point. But as a person in the audience, a person who sometimes struggles with direction and a sense of purpose, all the talk about singularity creates inner turmoil.

Or, at least, it did.

I came the realization a few weeks ago, that I was parsing the needlessly parsed. True, I don’t have a ton of time to pursue every single interest (not with work, family, a baby on the way, a dog in need of walking and all the youth sports), but that doesn’t mean I have to be monolithic. Writing can be my one thing, but it doesn’t have to be only one thing.

As a writer, I’m supposed to be worried about my craft, but in reality, I spend more time worrying about my audience. Publishers want reach from their writers before they buy books – which is very chicken and egg to me. And if you go the self-publishing route, you need an engaged audience to try and get yourself off the ground. Writing about more than one kind of thing for more than one kind of audience means worrying about that times at least two. This was what was behind my crisis in confidence these last few months. I thought, in order to be successful, I needed to pick a path and stay on it. But how could I do that with so many projects outlined and ideas bursting out from every corner? How could I kill half the things I wanted to do for the sake brand clarity?

In the end, I decided not to. I decided to focus on my craft and be honest about where I was going and what I wanted and hope that there is an audience out there that might be as interested in reading about Creative Productivity as they are about the adventures of Harrison James, Monster Hunter; who might be as interested in reading about History as they are about Thaddeus & Chuck, junior high detectives; who might want to read about my tiny adventures as they are about my Adventure Books series.

I had an identity crisis there for a while, but in the end, I’ve realized it wasn’t my identity that was fuzzy, it was yours and that the only thing I could do is pursue work that feels honest and true to me, stories that I want to tell and do my best to bring you along for the ride, which is focused enough for me.

I’ve been pretty far off track on this blog lately. Over the last five weeks, I’ve written four posts – a far cry from the five times per week goal I set for myself. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. I have. A lot, actually. It’s just that I’ve been writing books and I thought I’d take today to give an update on that and to ask for help from you.

By the end of this month, I will have complete two ghostwriting projects this year. The first, which is due tomorrow, is a project with an architecture firm that specializes in designing and constructing schools. It’s a cool project about changing the way we think of education from being a specific activity reserved for a limited and specific time in our lives to a life-long pursuit. This firm has been building schools for more than a century and is changing its business model to facilitate life-long, individualized learning, effectively changing the way we think about education from the macro (percentages of students who pass standardized tests) to the micro, finding ways to make individualized learning a whole life pursuit. It’s been a lot of work, but the project has opened my eyes to a lot of aspects of education I had never before considered. I look forward to sharing the book once it is available. If you have kids or an inkling of interest, I think you’ll find it fascinating.

The second ghostwriting project is one I’ve been working on – off and on – for the last three years. It’s a book I’m writing with Boyd Tinsley, the violinist for the Dave Matthews Band. I met Boyd through a convoluted and improbable set of circumstances that I’ll explain at a later time, but suffice it to say that working with a guy who has sold millions of albums and done more than 20 world tours has been eye-opening to say the least. I’m really excited about this project because, unlike other books by famous musicians, Boyd is not the hero of this story. It’s not a self-serving autobiographical list of accomplishments, but rather a non-fiction look at creativity and love, two forces that have influenced his life more than others and, quite literally, saved him from the cynicism and evil that often follow people of his stature. It’s called “We Come From the Heart: a journey of creativity and love in a mad, crazy world” and we’re hoping to have it released in early fall.

I’ve also completed a young reader book, “The Red-Eyed Monster Bass,” the first chapter of which I published on this blog a month ago, and a young adult novel, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” My plan with both of these is to publish via Amazon – Monster Bass on the 16th of this month and Wouldn’t It Be Nice on the 16th of next month.

I’ve also begun working on two adult series that I’m looking forward to sharing. The first follows Luke “Lucky” Bauer, a former Army helicopter pilot who earns a reputation as a man who can find things in civilian life. Think Clive Cussler meets Indiana Jones. The first book, “Diamond Rough,” takes the hero across continents in his 1947 Grumman Goose in search of a family heirloom with its own checkered past.

The second series follows Det. Jenn Houston, a rookie homicide cop who, in the first book “The Muirfield Incident,” finds herself immersed in a world of sex, social politics and murder in the quiet suburbs. This was the book I cooked up for the James Patterson co-author contest, which I did not win, but I liked the story so much that I’m going to write it anyway.

I have plans for three more books this year – another young reader, another novel and a non-fiction book – which means I’ve got a lot of writing to do.

Which, brings me to my request. As I’ve been writing, I’ve been getting occasional feedback from family members and that feedback has been extremely useful. Writing may be a solitary endeavor, but creating and telling stories is a group activity. So, I’m looking for readers, people willing to take unedited Word documents, read them and provide feedback. I can’t offer compensation, but I can tell you that I will consider all feedback earnestly and appreciate your effort beyond measure.

There are no qualifications necessary. You just have to be willing to read something, give me some notes and promise not to pass the document on. Ideally, I would have at least a couple of readers for every book and those who do will get a special gift from me when the book is published.

If you’re interested, please send me an email at letterstocraig(at)gmail(dot)com and put the word “reader” in the subject line. If you have a preference of genre – YR/YA/AF/ANF, please let me know in the body of the e-mail.

Thank you in advance for your help. I look forward to hearing from you.

Eighty-four days. Fifteen times a day. In total, I have written the phrase: “I, Craig Heimbuch, will iterate success” in my morning journal more than twelve hundred times. Every day this year, except the last two. Yesterday and today, I’ve written something else. A new mantra. A new combination of words to hypnotize myself in the morning and get me focused for the day.

I, Craig Heimbuch, will be a best-seller.

What was the impetus for the change? Well, I started the year wanting 2016 to be a more successful year than any of the others I’ve spent schlepping this big blue pebble. I wanted to manage success through small, iterative decisions taken every day. No big sweeping efforts, just a bit of work every day with the cumulative effect of achieving some goals and becoming more successful.

I suppose I started off intentionally vague. I told myself I would iterate success, but I didn’t really define what success would look like. And it seem strange that it would take me over a thousand repetitions to realize how indefinite ‘success’ is, but it did. So I began asking myself what it was, how I would define a successful change in behavior. I started thinking about the things I want – more financial stability, a better car, a shelf full of books with m name on the spine, a feeling of accomplishment, a sense of mastery, even more agency as it relates to time. I considered all the outcomes and looked for that moment of inertia, that achievement that might enable those kinds of results and, after a lot of thinking (and, yes, praying) I came up with being a best-selling author.

I know, big stretch, right? The author wants to be a best-seller. But it wasn’t always that obvious to me. In fact, I used to reject the idea as not being worth aspiration. But I’ve changed my tune. I have the right to do that right?

I’ve been taking a Masterclass with James Patterson. It’s an online course that leads you through 16 lectures and a workbook featuring Patterson and I’m kind of surprised I signed up for it, to be honest. I was never really a fan of his work. I didn’t hate it per se, but I was just enough of a snob to think it was beneath me. It’s only been by learning about his process, understanding his motivation and then researching the results that I’ve come to really admire him. Seventy-six best-sellers and living the dual-pane life of work and freedom that I, selfishly, aspire to. What’s not to admire about the guy?

But it wasn’t just Patterson. It was also a change in how I wanted to think of myself. I’m a decent writer. Not great. Not bad. I do okay work. But I’ve never had a lot of confidence in myself, even though writing is a large part of how I’ve supported my adulthood and family. Even with great successes- and I’ve been pleased to have had some memorable moments as a writer – there has always been an undercurrent of low-grade deprecation that’s gone along for the ride. I’ve always sort of put myself down, even when there are things worth celebrating. I’ve never given myself the permission to be excited to be a writer, even though it is my most favorite thing.

So that’s why I changed the definition of success. Not a bunch of results, but one scary, ambitious goal that will force me to find confidence, force me to sit down every day and punch the keys, force me to push for better.

Yesterday, I bid farewell to ambiguous definitions of success and began to focus my intention on a single outcome – being a best-seller. Will it work? I don’t know. What’s it going to take to get there? I have a rough idea, but no real clear plan. The thing I do know is that I’m holding myself accountable to something nearly impossible.

And that’s worth writing fifteen times every morning.

Tony always hugs my wife first. Then he gives the boys a high five and hugs my daughter. He always calls her ‘beautiful’ and, every once in a while, he adds in ‘princess.’ He slaps me on the shoulder, asks how me how work is, chastises me for not coming in enough. My wife brings the kids for lunch sometimes when I’m at work. He notices when I’m not there.

We’ve been going to Aponte’s Pizzeria – ‘Tony’s’ as my kids call it – for the better part of a decade, since he was just starting out and it was in a smaller, dingier location. He makes Jersey style pizza – big, flat, the kind with the floury crust that you have to fold to manage. At the time, it was a novelty, something different from the massive chains to which we were accustomed. Eventually, the novelty of the style of pizza wore off, but we kept going back. Why? Because of that moment, when we would first walk in and Tony would make us feel like his best customers; when he would remember us, treat us like we were special.

He treats everyone who has been into his place more than once that way. To watch him work the room, greeting guests, slapping backs, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, is to see that, for Tony, there is no line between being a business owner and being a person – a member of a community he loves and which loves him back.

He reminds me a lot of Tom.

Tom was a barber my dad would go to when I was a kid. His shop was in a small town a half hour from where we lived but near where my dad worked. Sometimes, on Saturday mornings, I would go to work with my dad. His office was in an old school building that still had a ‘Hoosiers’-style gym. I would shoot baskets or whack a tennis ball against the wall while he got caught up on the paperwork he neglected during the week. My dad’s style of management was to deal with people and their needs during the week and catch up on the things he could do alone on the weekends or in the evening. He has never been one to close his doors at work when there might be someone who needed to come through it.

When he was done, we’d go visit Tom for a haircut. I don’t remember ever having to wait too long. It always seemed like Tom had a chair for my dad and I. And when dad sat down, it was as if they picked up the conversation where it had been left the last time they met. Tom remembered things about Dad’s life. He remembered things about mine – a tennis tournament, a basketball tryout. He wanted to know how things were going. He seemed genuinely to care.

Freshly trimmed and shorn, we’d go to Nancy’s, a diner on the other side of the small town. I remember her. I remember looking at the menu once and lighting up when I saw she offered a fried shrimp basket. Then I remember her asking if I wanted the shrimp every time I walked through the door and bringing Dad a cup of black coffee without needing to be asked.

Rose was the woman at the men’s store. She knew dad would come in twice a year for suits. By the third visit, she had things waiting behind the counter. She helped me pick out my first sport coat for the homecoming dance freshman year and every year after that. She came to my high school graduation and kept my picture – and those of dozens of other young men that she had dressed into maturity – on a board in the back room. I even invited her to my wedding.

Mom used to love talking to another woman named Nancy. She was a retiree who worked the morning shift at McDonald’s. Sometimes mom would take me there early before school for breakfast. Nancy knew all about me when I walked in. She hugged mom. She stood by our table and talked for a few minutes at a time, telling us about her family, asking about ours. Mom would walk the dog to McDonald’s in the morning after the kids were at school for coffee, yes, but also just to see Nancy.

Frank- not his real name – is a flight attendant who works the flight from Cincinnati to Paris, the only daily direct flight to Europe from where I live. We got to talking the first time I took that flight alone. He remembered me a month later when I did it again. Last time I flew with my boss, he poured us Champaign to toast her birthday and told us all about how he spends his layovers in Paris, Amsterdam, New York. He remembered our business, asked about our kids.

Tony, Tom, the Nancys, Rose, Frank, dozens of other people who could go about their business, who could look at customers like cash registers but choose a different way of doing things; who choose to make business personal– these people understand that it doesn’t matter how many customers you have, what matters is the one standing or sitting right in front of them. It breeds a particular kind of loyalty, one built on connection and empathy; one that weathers the tests of prices and discounts choice and distraction. For them, loyalty is the natural result of treating people with dignity and respect, with humanity and compassion. It makes me want to be their best customer. It makes me want to eat their food, buy their clothes, take their flights and go out of the way for a haircut.

We have an artificial line in our minds; a line that separates work from friendship, business from personal, 9 to 5 from things that matter. But when was the last time you wanted to go back to a place that treated you like revenue? When was the last time you felt loyal to a company that wanted your ‘engagement’ instead of your life story?

Normal Maclain, author of A River Runs Through It once wrote: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

Well, for me, there is no clear line between business and people. Treat me like a person and you’ll get my business. Treat me like a business and I’ll find other people.

I work in an industry in love with the means. That is to say, advertising, in general, is all about the campaign, the execution, the tagline, the :30 second spot. And there’s plenty of historical and industry reasons for that. Advertising is the medium of the masses. It grew out of new technology – the newspaper, the radio, the television – all of which were revolutionary in terms of achieving reach and all perfect opportunities for the best messages (read: means) to thrive.

But all of these technologies were necessarily and practically disconnected from the end-goal. It has always been hard to tie something as specific as sales to something as broad as a Super Bowl commercial. The result is an industry built around means to an end, rather than the end itself.

I know I’m certainly not alone in my uneasiness with statements like one I recently overheard from the creative director at a big agency who said, “the insight comes from the idea.” Basically, he meant the idea, the execution, the means is king. Everything else comes after.

Maybe it’s my inherent Midwesterness, perhaps it has to do with being raised in an engineer’s household, but I’m uncomfortable with action without a direct correlation to outcome. The idea of correlation instead of causation irks my better demons.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

After, therefor because of.

That’s the way my industry works right now. I make a kick-ass campaign. I make it live. A month later, sales are up. Must have been because of my campaign, right? After all, the increase in sales followed my executions, there must be a correlation, right?

Maybe. But in a world where a person can experience a pre-roll add, check my brand out in social, search and on Amazon, but something and, possibly, write a review all in the palm of their hand, all while waiting for a latte, is maybe good enough? Is it good enough to be correlative? Is it good enough to be in love with the means when the end has never been more measurable?

I realize I’m probably shouting into the void here. I know there’s lots of talk about Big Data and new ways of measuring in the world and in my industry. But it seems to me that advertisers are communication designers. So often we design communication around an idea and hope we can measure later. But what if we began designing around the end and let the idea come from there? What if we put what we are trying to achieve ahead of how we want to achieve it?

What if, as an industry, we changed the way we work and the things we love and finally started to care more about the end than the means?

Adam is one of my closest friends. We don’t live near one another – he’s on the West Coast, I’m in the Midwest. We don’t see each other often – the last time was before Game 3 of the 2014 World Series (#weareGiant). We don’t speak regularly, but when we do, it’s as if no time has passed at all.

Adam bought and edited my book, And Now We Shall Do Manly Things. It was a very personal book and the relationship between writer and editor can often be very intimate. Lucky for me, we hit it off well and have remained close long after the book has disappeared from the clearance bin.

About 18 months ago Adam, a born and bred New Yorker, got married, left publishing and moved to the other side of the country. He was run down by the rat race. He was tired and cynical. He needed a change. And for the last year or so, he’s been fully embracing the Northern California life. He teaches karate – a lifelong passion – in Marin. He does freelance editing work. He’s found a bit of sunshine in his life.

Adam called me last night to talk. He needed some advice and, after more than an hour of the kind of catching up that happens in friendships like ours, he asked me what he should do for a living. His wife – vastly smarter, more talented and better looking than he – is a foreign rights editor and is very successful. Its been a benefit to his restoration, but now he wants to find his thing, to contribute to the family larder more consistently and take ownership of his work.

There’s just one problem.

“If you look at my resume, I’ve spent my whole life in publishing,” he says. From his perspective, it’s a liability. A decade and a half in one industry, a very specific industry, an incestuous industry where people are born, grow and die. He’s afraid the only thing he’s qualified to do is work in publishing.

I asked him about writing. Adam is a great writer, has a degree in journalism and has an innate sense of story that leaves me jealous. He said he’s started a bunch of proposals, but finds holes in them. He’s started a lot of things, but his deep knowledge stops him short.

Adam, it seems, knows too much.

I think we all do this. We all, at some time or another, pen ourselves in by expectations, perceptions and the kind of thinking that leaves you focused on all the reasons something won’t work instead of finding the reasons it will. I certainly think this way. I’m the kind of person that sits down to do something and am already envisioning two paths – one that leads to glory and success, the other to necessary and inevitable failure.

But I’ve learned a couple of things from very smart, successful people that have helped me tame my self-doubting beast and calmed me down considerably.

The first is the Really-Really. The really-really is a way of looking at a situation and deconstructing it to its component parts; of reframing an experience or opportunity around a sort of base definition. Take Adam’s resume for instance. He looks at it and sees nothing but publishing. If he were to take the really-really approach to it, he would break down the publishing into its component activities and redefine it through that lens. He sees ‘editor’ and believes it to be limiting. The really-really would define what an editor does: project management, contract negotiation, story design, production design, financial forecasting, industry and retail strategy.

When you break down something with the really-really, you see it not for what you think it is, but what it actually is. I do this with clients all the time. They come in saying they have a certain challenge, but when we spend time breaking it down with the really-really, a different, more manageable challenge often comes to light.

The second thing that has helped me is the practice of Selective Naivete. This is all about removing the long-term, two path thinking that people experienced in one area tend to do and instead reframing something in smaller steps. Take Adam’s writing for example. He sits down to write a book proposal and immediately sees all the reasons it won’t work. If he were to practice selective naivete, he would put his best ideas into a proposal and ask someone else how they could see it working. New-agers and self-helpers call these limiting believes, this notion that we stop ourselves from doing something before we even try. I like to think of it as a shift in perspective – from ‘why I can’t’ do something to asking someone ‘do you think I could.’

If I had known more about book publishing before I began working on the project Adam eventually bought, I would never have written it. A memoir about hunting in a divisive gun culture written by a suburban white man doesn’t exactly jibe with industry trends. But I didn’t, so I pursued the project based upon a hunch and my own desire. I asked questions. I asked for input. I didn’t allow my own doubts to get in the way because I didn’t have them. It can be very difficult, but choosing to ignore doubts and instead ask questions and respond to feedback is at the core of practicing selective naivete.

Time will tell which path Adam goes down. You may even see his byline on some posts on this site. My hope is that he figures out how to get out of his own way, reframe his experiences and allow his curiosity and instinct to overcome his vast knowledge. The world will be better with more of him in it and I truly believe, he will be happier for it.

 

 

 

The last couple of days, I’ve been writing about work. I’ve written about how sprints help me do my best creative work and about the meditative benefits of more process-oriented tasks, which got me thinking about the way I work and the rituals I find myself going through in preparation and execution.

Writers are creatures of ritual. From the (most likely apocryphal) standing ritual of Hemingway to Elmore Leonard’s long-handed scrawl on legal paper, it seems like every famous writer has an equally famous ritual. Why are writers so closely associated with ritual? Well, it probably has to do more with the solitary aspirations of would-be writers than of the writers themselves. But people who put words together for public consumption are by no means the only ones. Pick up almost any business culture magazine – Fast Company, Inc., whatever – you’ll find article after article on productivity highlighting the work rituals and habits of successful people.

I have discovered my rituals by observation, not design. I never set out to plan the way I work, but I do tend to do the same things over and over, especially when it comes to writing. There’s nothing magical about them, but all the recent thinking about work got me to notice things in a new way. Here’s a list of some of my rituals.

  1. Laptop, not pen. I write my daily journal long-hand with a fountain pen. I like a medium nib, something heavy. And I like non-ruled notebook paper. When I write, I do it on a laptop, never the desktop down in the basement. I like the idea of being able to move around, even if I never do. I write in Apple’s Pages, but back things up to Evernote. There’s just something about Word… it brings back memories of past stress.
  2. Coffee to my right. It doesn’t matter the time of day – early morning or late at night – when I sit down to write there is always a fresh cup of coffee about five inches from my right pinky. No real rhyme or reason here, just habit. Every time I put the coffee down on the left, it feels misplaces. The coffee can be from anywhere – home, the office, Starbucks or a gas station (I’ve drank a lot of gas station coffee). I may not even drink it, just the odd couple of sips. But it is always – and I mean always – there.
  3. Music directly in my ears. I wear a pair of earbuds because I won’t notice the weight. I listen to the same albums over and over. Every book, every article, every blog post or white paper, it’s one of three albums: Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue,” Bon Iver’s “Bon Iver” or Andrew Bird’s “Armchair Apocrypha.” Not only are they my favorite albums, I have listened to them so many times I can ignore them. Plus, I’ve listened to them enough that I fall into the rhythms of the songs. I need noise when I’m writing. Silence makes my mind wander. I also need focused noise. I’ve tried listening through speakers, no dice. Ambient noise isn’t predictable enough. I need regular noise.
  4. First sentences first. Sounds obvious, but my early training as a newspaper reporter ingrained in me a need for a solid lede. If I have a first sentence in my head, everything else just flows. If I only have an idea instead of an articulated beginning, I’m all over the place. I need a first sentence. It’s the basis for all that follows. I spent more than a year researching my first book and tried writing as I went along. It wasn’t until that first sentence solidified that I could really get to work. It sets the tone, focuses the perspective. It’s vital. The first sentence of that book about Oliver Hazard Perry and the War of 1812? “I should have rented the golf cart.” Yeah, what follows from that is pretty true to that first idea.
  5. Lean in. When I’m writing and writing well, I’m hunched over the keys. I’m at the front of the chair, feet crossed below me, elbows leaning on the desk. I’m as into it as I hope the reader will be when they sit down.
  6. Notebook and pen nearby. Never used, but I like having them there just in case.
  7. No research. I know a lot of writers who research as they write. They listen to interviews, reference written materials, check notes. I can’t do it. It all has to be done ahead of time. I am a  creature of habitual groove. I have all the research in my head when I sit down to write, I’ve memorized the quotes, I know the facts. If I get tripped up, it’s time to stop writing and do more homework. I can always check things when I’m done.
  8. No editing on the fly. I don’t edit when I write. I write. I don’t go back and read what I’ve written the day I’ve written it. I might fix a typo or fill in a missed word, but, for me, writing is a head-down run up the middle. No time or sense in looking back until the play is over.
  9. No talking. When I’m writing, I need focus. It’s reason I write in sprints. Don’t talk to me, I’ll probably ignore you. If I’m lost in my mind – as I need to be in order to write – I become oblivious to the outside world. I don’t mean to be a dick, but if I do stop to talk to you, I’m done. The folks at work laugh about this. They joke that they can tell when I’m in the office in body only. They’re right. I can’t help it. It’s just the way my brain works. When I’ve finished a thought, I’m more than happy to chat with you. I love people. But if I’ve stopped in mid-flow, I’m done and I feel like a failure for the rest of the day.

That’s about it. I don’t have many rituals, but these are things I find myself doing or needing when I write. Do you have habits? I’d love to know. But, please, spare me the Hemingway story. If he did write standing up, it was probably just because the room would start spinning if he sat down.