Being a writer doesn't mean you have to go through life struggling, suffering, and broke (or that your work will only be appreciated posthumously). Just ask Clare Herbert. She's an Irish writer and entrepreneur currently living in Brooklyn. Clare has a passion not only for cultivating her own skills as a wordsmith but also for helping other writers discover how their passion can translate into full-time, sustainable self-employment.
I recently took photos of Clare (click here to view the gallery) at a local neighborhood restaurant, Olivier Bistro. She was gracious enough to chat with me over lunch before the shoot and share some of her thoughts on the challenges (both internal and external) that presently face creatives, how thinking like an entrepreneur is important to getting your work in front of an audience, and how writers can take that next step toward making a living doing what they love.
When did you first realize that you loved writing?
I think I've always loved it, even when I was very small. I remember getting a stamp set when I was about four years old and making my own newspaper with these teeny-tiny stamps. I adored it, and I played with it for ages. I think [writing] was the first thing I wanted to do.
When I was in my late teens, I took a trip to Zambia. That really ignited an interest in the non-profit world. I kind of wandered off my path. I was always writing, but I really focused my career on non-profit work. I worked internationally: India, Africa, the United States. It's only really within the last two years that I've accepted that writing is what I love to do, and it's my natural inclination. A lot of my non-profit work was good, and I enjoyed it; but it was kind of driven from the idea that you have to "earn your place on earth". I've come to realize that what I create--and I'm still growing into this--is valuable and important too. To just do that is also valid. I love it.
Why do you think so many creatives struggle with that conflict? Many people I've met have said the same thing: that deep down inside, they had wanted to be an artist, writer, etc. but they took a different career path. Why do you think they struggle with that so much?
I think that there's probably an internal struggle. For me, writing comes so easily (not to say I enjoy it every single day), you're almost waiting for the other shoe to drop. You think, "It can't possibly be this easy. I was three when I decided I wanted to do this!"
There's an external tension as well. If you go to a party and say, "I'm a writer!" and people say, "Oh..." it's very different from when you say, "Well, I work for a non-profit," and they say, "That's amazing!" You can get hooked on that high. Also, you have bills to pay and the industry is very changeable. You really have to be an entrepreneur if you want to make it work as a creative these days.
But when you know, you know. At the right time, I think people listen to that knowledge and take their true path.
What is the most common question or comment you get from other writers and entrepreneurs that seek your advice?
"How do I make money writing?" and "How do I make money writing about the things I want to write about?"
People want to find work that feeds their soul and also pays the rent. Maybe it won't pay 100% of your rent today, but to be on that path working toward that is the overall goal.
It can be really difficult, but I advise writers to also develop their entrepreneurial skills and test their ideas, to make offerings to people, to try and find ways to build an entrepreneurial slant into their work.
What have you found is the most difficult entrepreneurial skill for people to effectively execute?
Probably going back to what we were talking about with the acceptance of being a writer and [acknowledging] that it's a valid career. Marketing is a challenge because you need to claim some space and say, "My ideas are important. What I think is important. You, as a reader who has 50 million options, should give me five minutes of your time to read my version or idea." I think that really feeds into how money amplifies your art, that if you inject money into the equation, it raises the bar. So that tension between marketing something and making money from it but also being creatively honest and fulfilled--that's a really tricky sandwich.
What has been the biggest obstacle in your own personal journey as a writer, and what do you think you next biggest challenge will be?
My biggest obstacle so far has been what I've mentioned--that idea of claiming space and saying, "This is my idea. This is important and worth reading."
I'm at an interesting point. I make some money writing, some money doing strategy sessions with other writers on improving their skills, but I'm not making a full-time income. So for me, I'm balancing my own creative expression with helping other people to develop their entrepreneurial interpretation of their work. It's that money versus art tension.
I'm interested in fiction, journalism, memoir style, I'd love to write a script...that's just four projects I've named! I have unlimited creative bandwidth. There's a lot of ideas, but there also needs to be a bit of acceptance that this is where I am right now. This is what I'm making today, this is what I made today, and that's going to be enough for me to keep going. And who knows where that's going to take me?
What does your ideal work situation look like?
What I would love in the next couple of years is to be full time writing, strategizing, workshop speaking--to make that my full-time thing. That's as much an entrepreneurial struggle as it is a writing one. That's the next step before I can see where I can go beyond that.
Some days I think I want to go to Hollywood and write movies. Some days I think I want to open a writer's retreat and work with them there. Sometimes I think I want to be the editor of a big newspaper or start my own magazine. But the next big goal is to be a full-time, 100% self employed entrepreneur/writer/speaker/workshop leader.
That's interesting because some people frame their goal as "I want the apartment on Park Ave" and that's when they know they've made it. And other people, like yourself, speak more about the opportunities.
I had read that the greatest dream of all is the ability to dream. I really believe that. The opportunity to be able to dream and do what I want--that's gold. I have that today, and I hope to have that more in the next couple of years.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given? Conversely, what's the worst piece of advice you've ever been given?
Let's start with the worst: the idea that if you just work hard enough, it will get you there. I don't think that's accurate anymore. I think that you need to be smart and strategic. Your network is important. Your own sense of self, how you talk about yourself, and your work is important. I'm a hard worker, and I had really clung to that idea. Hard work is a big component to success, but it's not everything.
The best advice I ever heard--there's an Irish woman who invented a substance called sugru (which is like the 21st century version of Blu-tac), and her motto as she was creating this was, "Start small and make it good." So even if you can't do everything today, start small and make it high quality. Word spreads, you get a bit of traction, and you have a sense of pride in your work. I have that tacked up on my wall.
What's been the most surprising thing about being an entrepreneur?
When I started as an entrepreneur, I knew that it would be challenging to juggle my money, get clients, and perform for clients. But I underestimated how difficult it would be emotionally to have that kind of permanent uncertainty about my life: income, which projects were important, which clients I should take, etc. That type of emotional uncertainty exhausted me. That's why in the last year I've taken a full-time job that enables me to save up my creative bandwidth for my other projects.
Sometimes there's this mentality that if you have a day job, you're somehow failing in your other work. I don't think that's true at all. It can enable you to do quality work and to have a life! It's very difficult to be creative if you're stressed.
What's you're favorite thing about New York City?
There's something for everyone in New York City. Anyone can come here and find a place to fit and belong. Even if it's on your own, you can say, "This is my little corner, I fit here." I love that.
Many thanks to the gracious management and staff of Olivier Bistro for accommodating us during our shoot, and I encourage anyone that happens to be in the Park Slope area to try their delicious fare! Olivier Bistro, 469 4th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215