two weeks in san francisco

I gotta give it up: 2014 has been an amazing year of travel for me. Being able to work from wherever I wanted was one of the major reasons I became self-employed to begin with. Two years into my freelance life, I’m racking up plenty of frequent flyer miles.

I started out 2014 with a trip to SXSW Interactive to write for Roll Call about the many members of Congress who were making appearances there. Then I headed to Greece to speak at the World of Crafters conference, a wonderful one-day event in Athens. Three other foreigners came from the U.S., Australia and Germany to speak, and we bonded over local wines and so many cheeses. I turned 32 while I was in Athens, and I was surprised by the ladies of with a profiterole cake at the speakers’ dinner. On my way back to Cincinnati, I stopped off in Paris and spent a few days there with an old friend I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade in a sunny studio apartment in the 3rd arrondissement. Many more cheeses and much more wine. In June I went to New York and D.C. for 10 days, crashing on friends’ couches and writing a story about the design unit of the United Nations and finally meeting my Roll Call colleagues in person. I hate hot weather, but July found me at YxYY, an unconference at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, where I spent three days making friends, making buttons and making the saltwater pool my home.

And now I’ve just spent two weeks in San Francisco. Initially I intended to spend a long weekend there to attend my good friend Jason‘s wedding, but then I found out about a longform nonfiction journalism conference happening at Berkeley and extended my stay, opening up the possibilities to see even more amazing authors and artists while I was in the Bay Area. Here’s what went down:

William Gibson.


William Gibson reading from “The Peripheral” in Corte Madera, CA.


I’ve been reading William Gibson’s work for almost 20 years — I bought a chunky copy of “Idoru” when it came out in 1996, probably after reading about it somewhere like Sassy Magazine, and I’ve read it many times since, along with his many other novels.

He just so happened to be making appearances in the Bay Area the night I arrived and the day after, so I took a commuter bus up to Marin County to attend his signing at Book Passage. Gibson read from his new book “Peripheral,” cracking himself up at times, and then entertained many questions from the audience. I asked him how he builds a new world — considering how visually rich they are, I was imagining that he perhaps uses a sketchbook to collect imagery, or constructs a wiki or something. But he said he actually doesn’t take any notes at all. He just keeps thinking about everything, and if he forgets something, it probably wasn’t all that interesting anyway.

Chris Ware and Marjane Satrapi.


Chris Ware and Marjane Satrapi in conversation at Stanford.


Both Jimmy Corrigan and Persepolis are books that I have and will continue to read annually. Seeing either one of them would have been reason enough to take the CalTrain down to Palo Alto, but seeing both of them at the same time? I would’ve gone anywhere. The event hosted by the Stanford Storytelling Project began with canned questions, but as the writers/artists got comfortable on stage, they started interacting with each other more and telling great stories.

I was able to ask the final question, based on something they’d both talked about earlier: how oppression and depression can be a catalyst for creation. I asked, “How do you work through your depression?” Marjane was quick to reply: “I didn’t work through my depression, the depression worked through me.” She then explained how when she is depressed she has spells of not being able to breathe. During one of these attacks, she called an ambulance, and then changed her mind about going anywhere once they arrived, trying to tell the medics that it was a mental problem, not a physical problem. But they strapped her to a gurney to take her down the stairs from her apartment anyways. The stairs made a tight turn, and as they tried to tilt her to get around it, they dropped her down the stairs and she ended up busting her head open, requiring stitches. And then she wrote “Persepolis.”

Chris Ware said: “I imagine that you’re asking this question because you’re a writer or other kind of creative person who is dealing with depression.” I nodded from my fourth-row seat. He said that being depressed often causes you to see things more clearly than you would like, and the only option is to work with it. And to get used to it, because it’s probably not going away.

Hearing these thoughtful answers from people whose work I admire so much makes me feel less alone with my own depression. I don’t like to talk about it much, because when I’m in the pit of it, I don’t think that anyone wants to listen to me anyway, and when I finally get out of it, talking about it seems self-indulgent. I assume people will ask what I have to be so sad about. And the answer isn’t anything in particular — that’s the whole deal and why it’s so terrible. A common uncomforting response from people who don’t deal with depression is “Well, at least you aren’t [other horrible thing or situation].” And that’s not really the point. Marjane actually said when talking about living through war — the every day realities are so stressful that you deal with it through humor. People can be dealing with depression in any situation. It has nothing to do with your place in the world and has everything to do with how your brain is processing information.

On a lighter note, earlier Marjane talked about how her parents gave her Russian comics about dialectical materialism when she was 10. Then Chris said that he thought her writing was quite like Tolstoy, which made her laugh. And Chris said he had given his daughter a copy of Persepolis when she was 9; his daughter read it and told him that she thought it was really inappropriate for a child.

Chris said there’s a parabola in every artist’s life — where you start wanting to make stuff but you aren’t making a living from it, but then when you become successful you sometimes wish you didn’t make a living from it. He wondered what it would be like to have a job he hated, to just go into work for eight hours and then go home and be done and not think about it anymore.

A student asked what their weirdest fan encounters were — Chris said it was a man in Holland when he was signing books with Dan Clowes. They spotted a large, sweaty man in line, who, when he got to the front of the line, he put down a piece of paper that had 16 pictures of otters on it, but two were cut out. He said, “I would like you to draw me an otter.” And so they did. (At the end of the night when they were about to sign books, the director of the Stanford Storytelling program said that the artists would not be able to do any drawings because of time restraints, but Chris said they would make an exception for otters.)

Marjane told a story about how she was in a Midwestern airport, and a lady sitting next to her told her basically her entire life’s story within 20 minutes. She asked where Marjane was from, and, not wanting to go into the whole story of her exodus from Iran, she said that she’d just come from France. “I have a question,” the lady replied. Marjane waited for an uncomfortable or overly personal one. She asked: “Can you see the moon from France?” Not wanting to have to explain a lifetime of science education to this 52-year-old Midwesterner, Marjane replied: “No.” “See?” the lady said. “That’s why America’s the greatest country on earth.”

And finally, a quote for the ages without context: “The Iranian government, they don’t like the book. That’s OK, I don’t like them either.” — Marjane Satrapi.

Narrative at Cal.


Along with getting to travel more, I’ve been able to be more picky about the writing assignments I take on. What I really want to write are the kinds of stories that take up residency in your brain for months or years. And then when you finally finish reporting them and writing them, they get to inhabit the brains of the people who read them. This conference at Berkeley was full of people who do just that. It was an intimate gathering — just about 85 people who maintained rapt attention for Jake Silverstein and Sewell Chan of the New York Times, Adam Gopnik and Daniel Zalewski of the New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jacqui Banaszynski and many other incredibly accomplished journalists. Like so many conferences, the socializing in between sessions was just as good as the sessions themselves. Narrative at Cal inspired me to continue my research on a couple of back-burner stories I’ve been working on, and it made me a few great new friends. (Above is what happens when you invite Jacqui B. to get dinner with you.)

And art stuff.

"Every one of us is a potential convict." Ai Weiwei

“Every one of us is a potential convict.” Ai Weiwei

Some friends and I took the Alcatraz ferry to see the Ai Weiwei exhibit on the island. The biggest thing I took away from seeing the installations is that I am a coward. You’ve got to see it for yourself. It will be up through April 2015.

The artist Lisa Congdon just created a bunch of new things for 826 Valencia, and I was able to stop by a party she had there. I am proud to call Lisa a friend, and she’s an amazing example of what happens when you focus on doing good work, not on achieving success. Her many interesting projects — borne of love and curiosity — have gotten the attention they deserve and let her make a living from her art.

I also was able to check out Renegade San Francisco with some crafty friends before I left town. Renegade is really the only indie craft show that’s managed to sustain itself in multiple cities (and countries, even, with the addition of its London show). The thing that surprised me most about Renegade was how homogenous craft trends have become across the country. I saw much of the same styles in San Francisco as I do in Cincinnati — but that’s a discussion for another post.


The view from Renegade San Francisco.


eleanor beardsley in paris (pledge so hard)

If you love song parodies and NPR and “Watch the Throne,” boy, are you in luck:

This video is almost two years in the making — I wrote “Eleanor Beardsley in Paris” originally in 2012, and when I heard that Carl Kasell was retiring this spring, I realized we had to make the video a reality.

Fun fact: I’ve written song parodies since I was a teenager, but always just performed them for friends. I hope this video will get me one step closer to my dream of becoming the heir apparent to Weird Al.

I gotta give shoutouts to Jay and ‘Ye for writing the song this is based on, MaryKate Moran for being the Jay-Z to my Kanye, Matthew Luken for doing the camera work, Vicky for being the camerawoman on the ground in Paris, and Pat Jarrett for editing this whole deal better than I could have ever done.

a magazine pitch that totally worked

manischewitz matzo newspaper ad circa 1930

Back when I was a baby freelancer, pitching felt like a mystery. I knew in theory how to write an article pitch, sure, but they were usually half-baked. I usually didn’t know what the what was yet and wanted an editor to tell me what to do.

In the last nearly two years as a full-time freelancer I’ve come to appreciate how much research and tailoring needs to go into a pitch if you want to place an article in a major magazine. Not only do you need to know why you’re pitching the story to a particular editor at a particular magazine, but you need to have a convincing case as to why they should care. This takes a ton of time to prepare, but when all those elements align, you’ll have a much better success rate.

When you’re just starting out as a journalist, it’s also hard to find good examples of successful pitches. So I thought I’d share this recent successful magazine article pitch of mine:

Hi, [editor’s name],

I’m a freelancer here in Cincinnati, and [mutual acquaintance] suggested I get in touch with you about this story I’m working on.

A man trained as a kosher butcher emigrated from Lithuania in 1886 to serve an orthodox Jewish congregation in Cincinnati. Behr Manischewitz eventually became the patriarch of a mechanized matzo empire that led the world in matzo production — and ruffled rabbinical feathers. The family’s history illustrates the story of Jewish life in Cincinnati: Like many Jews, they settled in the West End in the late 1880s and moved to Avondale as they became more affluent in the 20th century. Eventually, the Manischewitz headquarters moved to New Jersey in 1930, and Cincinnati’s matzo fame waned. But Behr and his wife remain buried in Covedale.

I’ve done extensive research on the family in local archives and would love to tell the Manischewitz story for Cincinnati Magazine. There’s a wealth of interesting historical imagery and maps to go with the story, and I have a few ideas for interview subjects.

My writing credits include Wired, HOW, Family Tree Magazine and other national publications. This story could be great for April 2014 to coincide with Passover. What do you think?


A few details for context:
  • I had already done about three months of research by the time I wrote my pitch.
  • This was a cold pitch — I had never worked with Cincinnati Magazine before.
  • I sent this pitch in June 2013, proposing it for the April 2014 issue. That might seem excessively early, but I got a call back within a week and sold the story. It was due in January 2014, which gave me even more time to research.

You can read my piece about the Manischewitz family in Cincinnati Magazine’s April 2014 issue.

the sound of one man networking

Back in August, amid moving and other craziness, I got a last-minute invite to talk at Weapons of Mass Creation in Cleveland. It was one of those moments where against better judgment I said YES, and it worked out great. They just posted the video of my talk, so I’m posting it here! (I sound a little like I’m hyperventilating because I was SUPER caffeinated.) It’s kind of based off of my earlier blog post about networking, but with way more Top Model screenshots.

PS: Me and Ann Friedman totally met up and got hot dogs the next day.

PPS: The shine theory should be co-attributed to Aminatou Sow.

freelance financial transparency

profit! freelance budget spreadsheets

This piece in the New York Times yesterday about writers getting asked to work for free reminded me about the ongoing struggle freelancers have to get paid.

I’m a big believer in fiscal transparency — to the point where I’ve been known to ask people questions about money that I later realized were super awkward. But for real: If freelancers don’t talk about money, we’re all less equipped to negotiate for ourselves and value our own work properly. (Margo blogged about this last month in a post on financial habits.)

Creative freelancers, I know you deal in images and words and concepts, not math. For everyone who doesn’t feel adept at crunching numbers, I am here for you. Though I haven’t taken a math class since high school, that last one I took was honors calculus. I was a straight-up mathlete, y’all. The business side of creative enterprise is endlessly fascinating to me, and spreadsheets are like my catnip.

Without further ado, here is my freelance budget spreadsheet template for your fiscal enjoyment. Feel free to download it to your Google Drive or desktop, and tweak it and make it your own. It includes three tabs: The first is a year-at-a-glance budget projection sheet. The second is an invoice tracker that lets you see what invoices are unpaid and how much you’re bringing in per month. And the third tab is a time tracker that you can duplicate for every one of your clients to keep track of time and invoicing.

I developed these spreadsheets in my first year of freelance life, and I’m sharing them with you because every freelancer should be the captain of their own finances. I hope it helps you get ready to make 2014 your most successful year of freelancing ever!

BONUS! Here are some of my favorite freelance business books:

grazing + finding creative inspiration

put a mustache on it handmade card, portlandia parody

A consumer packaged goods expert recently divulged to me that she never, ever looks at her competition. That really took me by surprise, because I always over-research everything. (My local branch librarians know all about me and my extensive interlibrary loan requests.)

Instead of looking at the competition, she told me, she examines parallels. What else do people in the target market desire? [Related: this customer profile worksheet from my book.] How can she make the product remind them of those other things, or draw on the best qualities to incorporate into her own design? For a high-end chocolate product, for example, she might look at Sephora’s prestige cosmetics packaging for inspiration. She pays no mind to Hershey and Nestle.

She confirmed what I’ve been thinking lately, that the best ideas come when you’re looking where no one else is. I love trolling through old books and magazines. You might love hiking in the woods or beachcombing or looking at art or gardening or visiting factories. All of these places are rife with things that could inspire you to make something you’ve never made before. Chris Glass refers to this as grazing. Cows do nothing but chew on grass all day. It doesn’t seem like they’re doing much of anything. But if they didn’t graze all day, they couldn’t produce milk. It might not feel like you’re working when you graze, but without taking that time to browse and nibble and ruminate and digest, you can’t make anything of value. This video of Chris Glass’s talk from Creative Mornings Cincinnati (which includes his bit about grazing) is 43 minutes of awesome:

I know a lot of writers, artists and designers who straight up don’t read blogs about their industries. When you spend a lot of time “keeping up” it can start to feel like an echo chamber. There’s a difference between keeping up on the news and falling into a state of obsessed self-flagellation. This is even applicable to journalists. Sure, there are lots of interesting blogs about the journalism business, and it’s important to follow your competitors to make sure your coverage is on point. But staying inside your bubble of contemporaries isn’t going to help you find great story ideas. Lisa Congdon recently illustrated this quote from Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Hunting down your inspiration should also help with avoiding committing plagiarism and following trends. Craft trends bug the hell out of me. It’s not that I hate mustaches (except that I totally do) — my problem is more with the idea that some crafters feel like they have to jump on a bandwagon to be successful. It’s much better to be a trendsetter than a trend follower, and to do that, you have to look outside your field. If you’re a crafter, stop scrolling endlessly through Pinterest. When you’re trying to develop a new product or design, look at anything other than other crafters: grocery store displays, florists, flea markets, old magazines, architecture books — whatever gets you going.

I also kind of hate pre-packaged “inspiration” for crafters, designers and artists. The idea that someone can hand you a pile of stuff to be inspired by seems counterproductive. It just keeps the same aesthetics and motifs circulating. (I also really really have no patience for step-by-step craft books. Partly because I hate following directions, but also because I don’t see the point in making something to look exactly like something someone else made. You feel me?)

washi tape weaving

We recently had an Etsy #craftparty here in Cincinnati, and as people were arriving, I made examples of what people could do with the materials we had. But I wasn’t making things for people to imitate or really following the provided instructions at all. I let myself go with the flow and make whatever felt right at the time. Being truly inspired is allowing yourself to be in the moment and do what you feel. And all of what you’ve seen and read and digested before helps you find your way.

never network alone

Q. Do you have any tips for networking? I’ve debated asking a fellow freelancer about getting work, but I’m afraid of stepping on her toes.

A. When I started freelancing, I thought that meeting other freelancers was the best way to get gigs. They get gigs, and I want gigs, so they can give me some of their gigs, right? But I quickly realized that other freelancers aren’t the people I should be hitting up for work. (Those are the people who control the budgets — editors, project managers, publishers.)

Networking with other freelancers is a great idea, but you should just approach them human to human. We all have people who we would like to be when we grow up — and the dream networking situation with them would involve porting all their knowledge and connections straight into our brainmeats. But play it cool. If you’re desperate for work and approach everybody as a conduit to finding work, yes, it can be awkward. (Grilling strangers for work leads is never a good look.) Networking, when you’re doing it right, feels like making a new friend — or at least pleasantly interacting with a coworker you like. And when you’ve shown them that you’re cool (even if you’re freaking on the inside), they’ll be much more likely down the road to potentially share leads or introduce you to other people.

The best way to avoid feeling like you’re encroaching on someone’s territory is to realize that we’re all in this together. You’re a freelancer, I’m a freelancer: Let’s get together and dish. An email to a fellow freelancer might look something like this:

Hey, [awesomely successful person]!

I’m a freelancer also living in [your city], working on [whatever you do]. I really loved that project you did about [an awesome thing]. Could I buy you a coffee some time? It’d be great to meet up and share war stories!

Recently I set myself a goal of meeting one new person a week, whether it’s by going to a networking event or reaching out to a specific person. My trick is that I don’t only aim to meet people who I might get work from. Sure, I love to meet editors and publishers, but I’ve also met other writers, marketing people, tech entrepreneurs and nonprofit folks.  I love going to networking events where editorial freelancers are in the minority, because meeting people from other fields is really interesting. And as a bonus, I’m likely also a curious specimen to them.

[Tangent: Don’t be that guy who gives his business card to literally every single person at a networking event, even people he didn’t talk to. One deep connection is worth more than 100 shallow ones.]

An acquaintance here in Cincinnati seems to know everybody and frequently offers to help me like it’s no big deal. At first I was like, what’s your game, friend? Who offers to help without expecting something in return? But then I read “Never Eat Alone” and totally got it. Networking is about focusing on what you can give other people. She’s a connector of the highest order. She helps people by meeting everybody and learning what they’re working on, and then she connects the dots by introducing the right people to each other at the right times. As one of the recipients of her professional matchmaking, I can tell you that I have frequently introduced other people to her. The song never ends. (Related: Ann Friedman’s Shine Theory)

By saying that networking is all about giving, I don’t mean to imply that good networking involves divulging all your proprietary info and personal contacts to anyone who asks for them. (I protect my best editorial contacts with all the power of Xenu.) When you connect successfully with a fellow freelancer, what you walk away with might not be a job but a rec of a must-read blog or a referral to another person you should meet or just a new lunch buddy. And when you meet a freelancer in need, you share alike. You’ve been there.