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10 Years Of The Creative Penn Podcast. 3.2 Million Downloads In 215 Countries

Today marks the 10th anniversary of The Creative Penn Podcast. The first episode went live on 15 March 2009 and there are now 422 episodes with over 3.2 million downloads across 215 countries. In today's show, I reflect on the development of the podcast and my own creative journey. 

The Creative Penn Podcast 10 years widePodcasting is such a big industry now that there are lots of courses on how to do it and lists of best practices and how to launch and a lot of detail that can seem overwhelming. A bit like writing a book really!

But like writing a book, or self-publishing, you can learn as you go, adding to your process over time and outsourcing as you start making income.

Also like writing a book, many people will start the journey but very few will continue for the long-term.

I recorded the first episode in the spare room of my house in Ipswich, Queensland, Australia. I phoned my interviewee, Rachael Bermingham, on a landline, put it on speakerphone and held my MP3 recorder next to the phone to record it. Rachel was the co-author of 5 Ingredients, one of the first breakout self-published books in Australia. She was all over the news so she was basically famous and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but I did it anyway.

I’m so glad I took that first step because my podcast is one of the best things I’ve created in my life. It is an important part of my creative body of work.

supportonpatreonToday's show is sponsored by all the wonderful listeners who support the show on Patreon. Thank you! Your support makes it clear that you enjoy the show, find it useful, and want it to continue. You can support the podcast for just a few dollars per month and receive the extra Q&A audio per month, plus the audio backlist. Just go to www.Patreon.com/thecreativepenn

What have I discovered in 10 years of The Creative Penn podcast?

In this article, I’ll take you through a journey of the development of the show and share tips along the way, and then talk about my next 10-year slow pivot. The tips are relevant for anyone who wants a long-term creative business, not just specifically if you want to podcast because the principles are essentially the same. I hope you find some interesting ideas for your own author business!

March 2009 – First episode. I started by doing everything myself!

I started podcasting in 2009 as a way to build my author platform. I was still in my job as a business consultant and I wanted professional speaking work as well as a way to sell my non-fiction books and courses. I was determined to build multiple streams of income so that I could leave my job and become a full-time author-entrepreneur. I knew I needed more than books to make a decent income (and I still believe that’s true for most authors).

Joanna Penn 2009

With some of my early books in 2009 (no longer available in those editions!)

I self-published my first book, How to Enjoy Your Job, in 2008 (later rewritten as Career Change) but I had only sold around 100 copies even though I’d made it onto national TV and radio, so I decided to put all my energy into online marketing which looked to have better results.

My mentor, Yaro Starak, had a podcast and it was one of the main ways I learned about entrepreneurship. Yaro has been on the show several times, most recently in episode 406 to talk about long-term success and he continues to be a great model of sustainable online business and living a happy life. [Check out his Blog Profits Blueprint here.]

I listened to a lot of audio from bloggers in the US at the time and realised that it was a fantastic way to reach people with a message and I also bought products from people I listened to, so I knew it worked as a marketing funnel. There were very few authors producing podcasts (and it’s still rare) so I thought it might be a way to differentiate myself and build an audience over time.

I wanted to learn and share my journey, as well as help other people. I also wanted to connect with other authors.

I was deeply lonely in my little town west of Brisbane, Australia. It was a cultural wilderness and I wanted to meet other creative entrepreneurs. Interviewing them seemed like a good way to connect, especially as many of them lived in the USA.

TIP: Only start a podcast if you are doing it for more than the money. It has to be intrinsically rewarding first before you ever make a dollar from it.

Podcasting takes time to grow.

For about six months, it was like howling into the wind. No traffic, no listeners, no nothing. This was back when self-publishing was still a dirty word, but as the Kindle took off, things began to change, at least in the USA and the podcast began to gain traction. I started to get listeners and I started to connect with people. I even made some (online) friends!

Technically, I did everything myself.

Learning by doing is one of the most important principles for the independent creative entrepreneur. Stop talking about it and get on with it 🙂

I still think this is important. In fact, I have a note pinned by my desk based on Steven Pressfield’s books, Turning Pro and Do The Work.

“When we turn pro, everything becomes simple. Quit the monkey mind. Do the work.”Click To Tweet

Sept 2011 – I left my job to be a full-time author-entrepreneur

I was able to leave my job because I made an income at that point from multiple streams of income. I’ve been through this in my books, How to Make a Living with your Writing, and Business for Authors, in more detail, but basically, I was bringing in money from book sales, speaking, consulting, course sales, and affiliate income. Marketing my business and services was all based on content marketing, so people found me through the blog and the podcast.

TIP: Podcasting is a form of indirect marketing.

Joanna Penn making videos

Making videos at the British Museum, London – just part of the job!

You can give calls to action with specific links which you can also include in your show notes, but podcasting is really more of a brand-building exercise over time.

People can’t click on a link as they might do with ads or a blog post because they are listening at the gym or driving or while they’re doing other things, but they might go looking for you later if they connect with your message.

I can’t point to a specific percentage of my income that has come from the podcast, but over the years I’d say that it’s responsible for the lion’s share of my creative business because it has led to so many opportunities and has enabled me to reach an audience directly — without advertising.

This is another reason I’m so passionate about content marketing, especially at a time when authors are obsessed with paid ads. I’ve never paid to advertise my website or podcast. It’s grown organically over time through search engine traffic, social media shares and word of mouth.

It’s creative, sustainable, long-term marketing which suits my personality much better than focusing on paid ads.

content marketing for fiction[If you’re interested in specifics around content marketing for fiction, check out my mini-course, Content Marketing for Fiction.]

Jan 2013 – I started doing an introduction ahead of the interview

After four years of interview-only podcasting, a listener emailed me and suggested that I talk about what I found interesting in an intro before the show.

I didn’t think anyone would be interested, but it turns out that many of you tune in for the intros and not always for the interviews 🙂

So, I’ve expanded it over the years to include more segments — news, futurist things, my personal update and anything useful like webinars, and I’ve realised how powerful it is to be able to communicate so personally. I try to share openly about my creative journey and sometimes it’s these little snippets that seem to connect the most.

Voice is powerful for connection. People do business with people they know, like and trust.Click To Tweet

Always make sure you’re connecting with your audience in some way. It’s important that people get to know YOU, not just your guests. This is how you build up a trusted brand over time and foster a real connection with your listeners.

June 2013 – I started doing transcripts for search engine optimization

Joanna Penn Guardian Masterclass

I was teaching Guardian Masterclasses on self-publishing in London by 2013

Up until this point, I made detailed show notes myself during the audio editing process but it was more of a round-up, not a transcript.

If you want organic traffic for a podcast, you need transcripts for SEO (search engine optimization)  purposes because audio is not (yet) searchable.

This costs around $1 per minute, so a 45 min show is $45. I use www.speechpad.com but there are many other services. You still have to edit and format the transcript for your website, which I did myself initially and then my VA, Alexandra, eventually took over that job. That kind of help might add another $20-$40 per show, depending on how long your interview is. There are also services that will do everything for you, including all the audio tech, but they cost a lot more.

I’m glad to have transcripts for accessibility purposes, and because many people prefer to skim the text rather than listen, but I do it for the traffic. That means transcripts are not for everyone. It’s got to be worth the investment.

TIP: You need to be a business powered by a website to make effective use of transcription.

Words on web pages bring people to your site through search traffic, but what do they do when they get there?

blueprintI have books and courses you can buy, my free Author Blueprint and tutorials that lead to affiliate income, as well as an email list you can sign up for that has more products within. I turn traffic into revenue every day.

Most podcasts don’t have an associated business model, so they fail to capture the benefit of transcripts and therefore most don’t do them anyway, which also means they don’t get enough traffic to justify paying for them. It’s a chicken and egg situation.

Podcasting is content marketing.

I get organic traffic of over 700,000 uniques per month and many thousands of the words on this site are generated from podcast transcripts. They produce long-tail traffic and may even be more effective in an age of voice-first search because the language is natural and spoken, rather than written.

[More on content marketing in How to Market a Book, and also my Content Marketing for Fiction mini-course.]

Feb 2014 – I decided to give up the podcast

Joanna Penn Bella Andre High Howey 2014

With indie superstars Bella Andre and Hugh Howey, London, 2014

Yes, I really did think I was going to give it up!

By this point, the podcast was taking a LOT of my time. Since I was still doing everything myself, each podcast took around 5 hours each week.

The downloads had begun to creep up which meant more people were listening, but it also meant the show was costing me more money. I use Amazon S3 hosting which is cheap and scalable, but the costs go up as downloads increase and I was paying over $100 per month on hosting, on top of $60 per week on transcription. If you factor in my time, the podcast was getting pretty expensive.

Was it really worth it?

I was still getting the benefits I’d aimed for — connection with other authors, learning new things, brand-building and indirect sales, but at that point, I was not earning a big income from my author business. I had not hit six figures and I wanted to, so something had to give.

It was you guys, my listeners, who convinced me to continue — and who still keep me coming back every week. So many people told me that the podcast was useful that I decided to monetise it. I would double down, instead of giving it up.

How to Make a Living from your Writing 3DTIP: If something isn’t working, why isn’t it working?

Do you hate the topic, or have you run out of ideas, or does no one care?

OR/ do you have an audience but you just need to figure out how to make it pay?

What is your business model?

[For more on this, see How to Make a Living with your Writing and Business for Authors: How to be an Author Entrepreneur.]

May 2014 – The first corporate sponsor, Kobo Writing Life, joined the show

Thanks to Mark Lefebvre who believed that supporting the podcast was worth it, and to Chrissy Munroe for continuing to support the show even though it is a lot more expensive now as there are so many more downloads every week 🙂 

kobo writing lifeOver the years, I’ve welcomed new sponsors, all companies who I work with for my own books and can therefore personally recommend. I’ve turned down a lot of offers from companies I don’t work with as it’s important to me that I only promote useful things.

Thanks to all the sponsors: Kobo Writing Life, Draft2Digital, IngramSpark, and PublishDrive.

TIP: If you want a sponsor, foster relationships with companies who want to speak to your specific audience.

Don’t pitch too soon. Wait until you have a decent audience so you can put together download figures.

Only work with companies you can authentically recommend. Your reputation will always be the most important thing for a long-term business.

August 2014 – I started using Patreon

patreonI felt terrible about asking for patrons at first because the podcast had been free for so long. But a few things changed my mind.

I read The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer (I’m one of her patrons now!) which is a great book that essentially says that people want to help the creators they love, so just ask. I also had a discussion with Jim Kukral about his book, Go Direct, (episode 191)  where we discussed artistic patronage and how creatives have always been supported by people who love their work. So I started asking.

In Sept 2014, I made $15.88 from patrons. In Jan 2016, it ticked over $100 a month, so it was definitely slow growth. Now it’s over $2000 a month, so you guys make the podcast financially viable alongside the corporate sponsors.

Joanna Penn Mark Lefebvre Kobo 2014

With Mark Lefebvre at Kobo HQ in Toronto, July 2014

Basically, I will not stop doing The Creative Penn Podcast because I have people who demonstrate practically that it is worthwhile and it is an increasingly important part of my income.

A huge thank you to all of you who sponsor the show on Patreon. There are 644 patrons right now and of course, the number goes up and down every month as people join and leave. It means an incredible amount because you can obviously listen to the show for free, but it’s evidence that you enjoy the show and want it to continue. You also get the extra monthly Q&A audios as well.

If you'd like to sponsor the show, go to: www.Patreon.com/thecreativepenn

TIP: If you want to use Patreon for your podcast or your art, it’s easiest if you have an audience already who you already deliver value to in some way and who want to support you.

Only a small percentage of your audience will join your Patreon. The Creative Penn Podcast gets 12,000 – 15,000 downloads per week, and with 644 patrons, that is less than 5%. That return will differ per niche, but it’s all a factor of numbers, so do you have a big enough audience to justify a Patreon setup?

Patreon is just one part of how the podcast makes income but it is directly measurable, as is the amount that comes from sponsorship. In 2018, my direct podcast income was 10% of my total business revenue, but there’s no way that is the only financial return.

Indirect sales are a huge part of the podcasting business model.

There’s no way of knowing how many of you have bought one of my books or courses, or clicked through one of my affiliate links, or signed up for my email list, or purchased something I’ve recommended because of this show. The frustrating thing is that you cannot ever pin down the financial value of a podcast. That makes it hard on sponsors as well, because it’s more about brand building than direct income but it’s also the pride and satisfaction of creating something new in the world every week that helps people.

August 2014 – Outsourced transcript formatting

My virtual assistant, the wonderful Alexandra Amor, works with me on a lot more than the podcast, but up until this point, I had done everything myself for the show. Plus, I was still writing fiction and non-fiction, as well as speaking, blogging and more.

To free up more time, I passed over the formatting of the transcripts to Alexandra and she created the first draft of the show notes with accompanying images made with www.canva.com .

Business for Authors 3DTIP: If you want to step up your income, and move from being an author to running a business as an author, you need to leverage your time.

That means hiring help.

Most of us work with professional book cover designers and professional editors, but if you want to take your business to the next level, you might need a virtual assistant, a bookkeeper, perhaps tech help, and even marketing help, if you can justify the outlay. If you’re podcasting, you might need transcription, formatting, or audio editing help.

For tips on outsourcing, check out this interview with Chris Ducker on how to work with personal assistants. I also cover outsourcing as part of my Productivity for Authors mini-course.

TIP: Create a content schedule so you can plan in advance. I didn’t really do this until I started working with Alexandra as my VA. When you outsource, you need to plan, which helps you organise content. We use a shared Google Sheet with months of interviews scheduled in advance.

June 2015 – Moved to a weekly show

Prior to this, the podcast was pretty much every two weeks or ad hoc as I recorded interviews and not necessarily published on the same day.

TIP: In order to make listening a habit, it’s best to release the show on the same day on a regular schedule e.g. weekly.

I only moved to weekly because The Self-Publishing Podcast (now The Story Studio Podcast) was catching me up in terms of number of episodes because they were weekly, and that annoyed me!

Joanna Penn Dubrovnik 2015

Book research in Dubrovnik, June 2015

But I discovered going weekly at a regular time dramatically impacted the number of subscribers and downloads. It was definitely a game-changer, but also mid-2015 was when podcasting started to take off so there may have been more listeners around in general.

The same is likely true of our books. I’ve never managed a regular production and release schedule but authors who publish on the same day, or send a newsletter on the same day, seem to have better engagement than those of us who are more ad hoc.

Oct 2015 – Outsourced video editing

My husband Jonathan left his job in Sept 2015 and started working with The Creative Penn. He took over the video editing for the podcast, adding the interviews to YouTube.com/thecreativepenn 

Interestingly, the YouTube listenership is a different audience to the audio feed and not one I engage with so much.

I have a lot of shorter videos on YouTube as well, but it’s not my favorite form of creation. I’m more a written word and audio person.

TIP: Only do a video podcast if you love the medium and consume video as part of your daily life.

I’ve been doing YouTube videos for over 10 years now, but I’ve never enjoyed the platform myself and will be phasing this out over time. The same goes for any platform e.g. I don’t use Facebook personally, but I do love Instagram so prefer to use that nowaways.

jfpennauthor instagram[I’m www.instagram.com/jfpennauthor if you want to follow my pictures!]

November 2016 – Outsourced audio editing and production

I was still spending time each week with audio production, but finally decided I’d better outsource that as well. I started working with Dan Van Werkhoven to do audio editing and processing for the podcast, which freed up even more of my time.

At this point, my work became the parts only I could do: finding and connecting with interviewees, researching and preparing questions, conducting the interview itself and then finalizing the interview blog post and also recording the introduction every week. This is a truly sustainable way to create for the long-term but there’s no way I could have afforded this at the beginning.

NARRATE YOUR own audiobook wideI also relish the skills I have developed around audio which help me with audiobook production as I move more into that arena. [Check out episode 418 on 7 Reasons to Narrate your own Audiobooks for more on this].

How the podcast works now

Since then, the podcast production has been a slick operation:

  • I plan the show 3-5 months in advance and schedule guests into the Content Schedule, a Google Doc shared between the whole team where we track the status
  • I interview the guest on video Skype and upload the audio to Speechpad for transcription
  • Jonathan edits the video and loads it to YouTube and uploads the edited audio to Dropbox for Dan
  • Alexandra receives the transcript and formats it into a blog post with appropriate images and links, saving as a draft in WordPress
  • I record the intro and load it into Dropbox
  • Dan edits the intro into the interview, formats the file and uploads to Auphonic to add the metadata, then Amazon S3 for the hosting and then adds the MP3 URL into the Blubrry plugin on the blog post
  • I edit the final version of the blog post, check the audio and schedule for the Monday morning slot
  • The show goes out on a Monday morning UK time and you download it on your device 🙂

Howtopodcast[More detail including technical equipment in my article, How to Podcast]

A huge thanks to Dan, Alexandra, and Jonathan for making the podcast production so streamlined and for making it easier for me to continue with the show.

TIP: Start by doing everything yourself and then outsource the parts that you want to as you begin to earn money.

As with publishing, there are companies who will do all this for you, but you will pay for it.

March 2019 – I’m still here!

Podcasts for authors have come and gone over the years, but I’m still here. In the same way that authors come and go in a niche, or give up writing altogether — and I have seen a lot of those in the last 10 years too — podcasts are mostly short-lived.

In fact, I have a rule now that I don’t do interviews with shows that have less than 30 episodes, because most don’t last. Harsh, but true. It’s the same in any creative industry.

TIP: Consistency over time is critical if you want to build a loyal audience, people who know you, like you and trust you enough to do business with you.

Consistency in creating over time is critical if you want to build a loyal audience.Click To Tweet

You have to love your topic.

You have to have so many ideas that you never tire of creating.

You have to want more than an income because podcasting is only about making money if you design a sustainable business model around it (in a similar way to an author business). You have to find the process intrinsically rewarding or you won’t be able to sustain it for the long-term.

My podcast reaches a larger market and helps more people than my books … and that’s OK 🙂

Humbleworks stand up desk topper

My podcast setup

The Creative Penn Podcast has now had over 3.2 million downloads across 215 countries.

I have not sold a million books yet and I have ‘only' sold books in 86 countries, which is still pretty awesome, but nowhere near 215.

In terms of demographics, the US makes up 60% of downloads, with UK, Australia, Canada, Germany and New Zealand coming in next — but there are also downloads from Japan and India, Korea, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, the Russian Federation, Israel and Iran among others. Creatives, we are a glorious United Nations of a show!

I used to want my books to be everything, but in this busy world many people prefer to listen, or read with their ears, than to read with their eyes.

You can sometimes change someone’s life more effectively through a podcast or an audiobook than through the written word and that’s OK. Getting your message or your story into someone’s brain is the point.

Words do not have to be written. They can be spoken.Click To Tweet

My podcast is an important part of my creative body of work, just as important as my books, perhaps even more so.

Many of you have told me that you find the show useful, or that some nugget of information or inspiration has helped you or made you money, or just made life easier. As someone who always wanted to be in the self-help industry, a British Tony Robbins, this makes me super happy 🙂

The podcast is also an asset that drives revenue for my business and I love doing it. So The Creative Penn Podcast is not going anywhere. I am committing to at least episode 500, so that’s two more years and then I’ll review again.

But it’s also not enough for me anymore.

Books and Travel Books and Travel: Announcing my next 10 years of podcasting

A lot has changed in the author community since March 2009, when the international Kindle had not yet launched and there was no such thing as KDP Select or Kobo or BookBub or ACX or Vellum or many more of the tools we take for granted now.

I’ve changed too and I’ve pretty much shared it all publicly on this site over the years.

I started writing my first novel in November 2009, I left my job in September 2011, I started making six figures in 2015 which is probably when I finally had the confidence to say that I would make it long-term as an author-entrepreneur.

Which brings me to now, March 2019.

When I think about my next 10 years, 2019 – 2029, I know that a lot more will change, but I also know that I still want to be an author and a podcaster.

These things are part of my creative DNA.

But I’m ready to share more of my J.F.Penn side, which I have talked about over the years but never doubled down on. I want to share the personal stories behind my fiction and also talk to authors about the places that inspire their work.

I want to use content marketing to bring people to my fiction and I have some non-fiction in mind for that brand, too. I want to build something new, a destination site for people like me.

Books and Travel PodcastIntroducing www.BooksAndTravel.page, my new website and podcast for people who love books and travel.

Escape, curiosity, inspiration. Unusual and fascinating places alongside the deeper aspects of travel.

There are four episodes available on the Books and Travel podcast as this goes out and it should be in your usual podcast app. Click here for the episode list and subscribe buttons.

I’ll be doing a mix of solo shows and interviews.

As this goes out, I have solo shows on Lake Malawi, Jerusalem and Bluewater Sailing: The 3 Trips That Shaped my Life, as well as Escape, Reinvention, Curiosity, Challenge: Why Travel?

I’m going to write a travel memoir in public over time and eventually, that will become a book. I’ll also be starting on the shadow book since so much of my darker side emerges when I travel.

It’s a very different side of me and even if you don’t read my fiction, you might find it interesting.

Incarnations-of-Jo-Frances-Penn

The many incarnations of Jo Frances Penn!

I’ll also be interviewing fiction and non-fiction authors about places they’ve traveled that inspire their writing and also on specific topics like walking, or grief and death travel and basically, anything that interests my J.F.Penn side.

I will NOT be talking about the craft of writing, publishing, book marketing or creative entrepreneurship on Books and Travel 🙂

I have interviews available right now with literary fiction writer Orna Ross on Ireland and historical thriller author David Penny on Granada and Cordoba in Spain. More interviews to come with fiction authors on the places that inspire their stories, as well as non-fiction authors on travel and related topics.

If you listen to the show and think you might be an appropriate interviewee, then please use the Contact form on the site, www.BooksAndTravel.page/contact

Books and Travel will be bi-weekly for now because of time constraints but I’ll see how it goes over time. I’d like to go weekly at some point. There is an email signup for a Monthly Reading List because everyone loves book recommendations!

If you want more behind the scenes information about why I’ve chosen to go this way for content marketing and tech setup details, check out my course on Content Marketing for Fiction as I go into much more detail there.

J.F.Penn-escape-reinvention-1024x254

From the early response from Patreon supporters and my Content Marketing course members, it is much more personal than The Creative Penn Podcast. If that piques your interest, I hope you’ll check it out and I’d really appreciate a review on your favorite podcast app, especially iTunes, as that helps with discovery.

OK, I hope you’ve found this useful and that it gives you some ideas for your own creative business. I’ll be back next week as usual with The Creative Penn Podcast and I hope you’ll also check out Jo Frances Penn on the Books and Travel Podcast!

Please do leave any comments or questions or thoughts below and join the conversation. I'd love to know what you think!

This story originally appeared on The Creative Penn

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AI And Creativity With Marcus Du Sautoy

Artificial Intelligence will usher in a new era of what it means to work and create over the next generation, but does this mean that writers and creatives will be made obsolete? In this episode, Professor Marcus du Sautoy discusses the developments in AI creativity and why our stories could be the very thing that helps train AIs to be more human.

AI creativity wideIn the introduction, I talk about Chirp, the new audiobook promotion tool from BookBub; plus, my writing update and my latest self-narrated audiobook, The Dark Queen.

Plus, join me and Mark Dawson for a webinar on How to Get your First (or Next) 10 Book Reviews. Thurs 21 March 4pm US Eastern / 8pm UK. Click here to register for the live event or the replay.

ingramsparkToday's show is sponsored by IngramSpark, who I use to print and distribute my print-on-demand books to 39,000 retailers including independent bookstores, schools and universities, libraries and more. It's your content – do more with it through IngramSpark.com.

marcus du sautoyMarcus du Sautoy is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He's a prize-winning Professor of Mathematics, a fellow of New College, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He's also the author of several prize-winning books and his latest is, The Creativity Code: How AI is Learning to Write, Paint, and Think.

You can listen above or on iTunes or your favorite podcast app or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • Why creativity is at the heart of a mathematician’s work
  • creativity codeHow AI is moving from learning about games to creating art and music
  • Development of AI: Alpha Go beat Go champion Lee Sedol [BBC], Alpha Zero [Smithsonian]
  • How humans and AI switch back and forth from being creative to being critical or making corrections
  • What happens when AI becomes conscious?
  • Copyright implications when AI gets involved in creating art
  • On AI translations between languages

You can find Marcus du Sautoy at simonyi.ox.ac.uk and on Twitter @MarcusduSautoy. The Creativity Code is available now.

Transcript of Interview with Marcus du Sautoy

Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com, and today I'm here with Marcus du Sautoy. Hi, Marcus.

Marcus: Hello.

Joanna: Thanks for coming on the show. Just a little introduction.

Marcus is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, quite a mouthful. And he's also a prize-winning Professor of Mathematics, a fellow of New College, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He's the author of several prize-winning books and his latest is, ‘The Creativity Code: How AI is learning to write, paint, and think,' which is a super exciting topic.

Marcus, why is a maths professor writing a book about creativity? I know some people might find that difficult.

Marcus: I think usually the words maths and creativity don't go together if you're not a mathematician. But if you're a mathematician, actually, it's a very important part of our work.

I think it goes to the heart of the fact that we're making a lot of choices, actually, when we're creating our mathematics. We don't want to just create mathematics that's true because quite often that's boring. We're trying to choose mathematics which takes the people who attend our seminars, the people who read our papers, and our journals, on a kind of emotional journey.

We want to transform them, to change them, to make them go, ‘Oh. I didn't realize those two things were connected.' And so in charting out that kind of journey, it requires a lot of choice, aesthetics, and creativity because you're having to go to places which are new.

So, what is creativity?

I defined it in this new book as something which is new, but that's not just good enough because that could be very boring. So it's got to be surprising and it's got to have some sort of value. It's got to kind of be worthwhile in some way.

And I think that's what a mathematician is trying to do, create new kind of truths about numbers, geometries. But it's got to be surprising, it's got to kind of move you in some way. And if it's got value as well, then that really wins the biscuits.

Creativity is something which is very important to me as a mathematician, perhaps more than a scientist. Scientists have to be quite creative, but they're bound very often by the physical universe that we live in.

As a mathematician, I've got much more freedom to be imaginative in my world, create new worlds that perhaps aren't physical, and I think that's much closer to being an artist than a scientist.

Joanna: I love this emotional journey of mathematics. And your book does that really well. I'm not someone who reads mathematics books much, but this crosses the boundaries, which is fantastic.

So let's come to AI, because I really discovered AI in a big way when AlphaGo beat the Go world champion. And I read in your book that that moment was pivotal for you as well. So let's just revisit that.

Why was that such a big deal in 2016?

Marcus: It was a big deal, especially for me as a mathematician, because I've always used the game of Go as a good analogy for doing mathematics. I think a lot of people thought chess was quite a good analogy and a computer beats the world champion at chess in the mid-'90s.

But I think why Go is more closer to being a mathematician is that you're not quite sure why you make certain moves. It requires a little bit of intuition, pattern recognition, a bit of creativity.

And so for me, I'd always use that game as a kind of protective shield against the idea that AI could do mathematics. So I watched this game with a lot of angst and existential angst. But for me, the most significant thing was not just that this computer managed to beat a world champion at this very complex game.

There was a moment in game two where the computer made a move, it's move 37. And I talk about it in the book because I think this is a kind of a pivotal moment, when all the commentators went, “Whoa, it's made a mistake,” because it was doing something that you're taught as a Go player never to do, which is to play on a kind of particular line on this 19 by 19 grid.

But as the game evolved, we realized that it wasn't a mistake.

It was a deeply insightful move. It was incredibly creative because it was new, surprised us, and it had value because it, ultimately, won game two for the AI.

So I think for me, that was one of the most exciting things. It enabled us to see how to play the game in a completely new way. So it was being creative, but not only that, the way this thing had been programmed was significantly different. And I think this is why there's a real kind of phase change in AI.

It's like water going to steam boiling. Because the program hadn't been written by a human and the human knew what it was doing. The human had written the program so the program could learn, adapt, and change.

And so, ultimately, by the end of all the training it did, we actually didn't know how it was making its decisions, why it was making its decisions. And this new AI, which we call machine learning because it learns how to program itself. It's a bit like a child who's born and in the past, the child had nowhere to kind of learn on, but suddenly, we've got this new AI, a child, which can learn by interacting with its environment, change and become something more than its parents as it were.

Joanna: And then what happened after that AlphaGo beat the human with the next iteration, Alpha Zero?

Marcus: In some ways, AlphaGo had been given the rules of the game, and had been given human games to play on. So it learned from what we'd done as humans. And so you feel, “Okay, well, it's extending our intelligence and creativity.”

But then, DeepMind, who developed AlphaGo, developed something called AlphaZero, where they just gave the computer the 19 by 19 grid, the pixels, and a score, and it had to learn how to play the game, the rules of the game. And so this was a kind of tabula rasa learning.

It didn't know anything. By the end of its evolution, it was actually better than the AlphaGo that had beat Lee Sedol. So this is genuinely exciting because it didn't have to learn from things we'd already learned. It started from zero.

That's almost true creativity; something from nothing.

It's very interesting it was able to do that. I'm quite surprised that without any sort of guidance that it reached such a phenomenal level.

And actually, it even learned to play chess in an afternoon and beat all the computers that are programmed to chess, and also kind of a Chinese version of chess. So this is exciting and, perhaps, a little bit scary for some people.

Joanna: Some people will now be listening going, “Oh, yeah, but it's still like a game, it's still Go, it's still chess.”

Give us some examples of how AI is also creating in music and writing.

Marcus: Yes, I agree with you. It looks a nice closed environment, the game of Go, and it is. And I think that's why it was a good place to start.

But now, this AI, if it can learn, well, why not expose it to other things, not just games of Go, but the art that we love, the novels we like to write, the poetry, the music?

Music is an interesting one because it's also quite a self-contained environment. If you think about it, it's got notes on page, certain frequencies, that's why there's a lot of connection between maths and music. So AI learning on what we've composed in the past and extending it has been very successful.

Somehow, AI always starts with Bach as the composer. They try and make more Bach, and partly because Bach is very algorithmic in the way that he writes his music. And I think that's one thing I wanted to illustrate in the book, that artistic creativity isn't as mysterious as we think it is. That actually there's a lot of kind of structure, pattern, almost algorithm in the way that we do our creation or pieces of art.

The book is partly showing why, actually, we're responding to things in the artistic realm because they've got that hidden structure that we're trying to unpick. So if we can understand that, then maybe the AI can go and extend that into other realms.

We've now got examples, for example, a jazz improviser, trained on another jazz musician's riffs, the AI learned those riffs but then extended the sound world of this jazz musician. And what's interesting there is the jazz musician said, ‘Look, I recognize what this AI is producing. It's my world, but it's doing things I never thought were possible.'

I think this is an example of the exciting role that AI can play in a creative's life because it's as if that jazz musician was stuck in a corner of the room with just a small light on, didn't realize that they were sitting in a huge great big hall, and the AI has turned the lights on and showed, well, look at all these other places that you can go to with your sound world.

Music has been an exciting progress. The art world, where there are some curious things like a new Rembrandt was painted because the AI learned what Rembrandt had done in the past, his use of light, the sort of faces that he likes to paint, and by it taking that information was able to produce something which I think is pretty convincing as a Rembrandt-esque painting.

Joanna: It was sold at Sotheby's, right, as well?

Marcus: Yes. At Sotheby's…or think it was Christie's actually, it was the first AI piece of art. And I think this is, again, interesting because Rembrandt, we've already got fantastic Rembrandts, we don't need anything new there. So I think, what we want is AI to take us somewhere new and exciting, not to reproduce the old.

This piece of AI that was sold at Christie's I think it was, it was created, actually, by making art into a bit of a game because it was using something called a Generative Adversarial Network or a GAN, and this is taking two algorithms which kind of compete against each other.

One algorithm is creating art which it tries to make new and not derivative, but not too new that you just don't recognize it as a chaotic mess. The other algorithm then says, ‘No, I spot that, that's very Picasso-esque,' or, ‘No, you've now gone into a realm that's not art.' And the two competed against each other and created something which was kind of a new sort of art, and that's what went on sale at Christie's.

Joanna: And that's the bit I think, is just like writers. I don't know about maths, but I think there's this generative, as you say, which is the creative mind, which is, ‘I'm back in first draft, that's a first draft thing.'

And then the adversarial, which we would call critical voice or the editor is the bit that goes through and kind of says, ‘Oh, no, that's not so great or that needs fixing,' or whatever. So that, to me, almost sounds human-like.

Marcus: I agree with you. I have quite a few quotes from people in the book, the painters especially, and a poet, Paul Valery, who talks about the fact that you need two people in your mind, one being super creative and throwing out ideas, and the other one being critical and making choices about, ‘No, that's not good. That is good.'

And certainly I do that in mathematics, and very often I will do that in partnership with somebody else. So we have a lot of collaborations and I have partners across the world that I create my mathematics with.

Sometimes I'll be the good guy, suggesting loads of mad ideas and then my colleague in Germany, he's the one who shoots it down, or I have a colleague in Israel, he's the generative one and I'm the adversarial one in that context.

So I think that we do use this paradigm quite a lot. I think it's interesting that AI has latched onto it as a powerful way to make new things.

Joanna: What about writing then? Because I hear my audience saying, ‘Yes, but an AI hasn't written anything.'

Tell us about the poetry, automated insights, and what's going on with writing.

Marcus: Your writers will be encouraged to learn that I think of all the arts that I looked at in this book, that I think writing is still the furthest away from AI being able to achieve anything like humans can.

But there have been some examples. People might remember a story about a new ‘Harry Potter.' So again, this is machine learning because what the AI took was the seven volumes that J.K. Rowling has written, saw the sort of sentences she writes, the sort of connections she likes making, and then produced kind of the beginning of an eighth volume.

But actually, here's a warning about AI because I looked under the bonnet of this piece of AI, and actually ran it on some of my own books to see whether maybe I could put myself out of a job or get the AI to write my book for me. And what I understood was, there's still a lot of human creativity going on in an exercise like that.

So the algorithm offered me, at each point, 18 different choices of words which could follow the word you've just had. And I had to choose which of those that I would write.

And this is a warning because I think a lot of the news stories love to say, ‘AI has painted a new picture. AI has written a Harry Potter.' And it doesn't make a good news story if you say, ‘Human writes with the aid of a computer,' and so the human gets kind of put to the side and it's sort of celebrated as a piece of AI.

Actually, I heard Demis Hassabis, he said a nice thing, he was the creator of DeepMind and AlphaGo. He said it's like in the turn of the century when everybody was just putting .com at the end of their companies to hype their value.

At the moment we've just got everyone putting ‘Made with AI machine learning.' So be warned that not everything is always AI.

But that's not to say that there are roles that AI can play in creative writing. Poetry has been a very interesting place because it's quite a constrained environment. Sometimes you're almost putting rules on yourself to push you into new ways of thinking.

I think that's often why I quite enjoy writing poetry because I have to think of something that matches what I've just done if I'm trying to keep a particular rhythm going. So, there have been some interesting examples.

And I suppose they're more successful because poetry has always had a gnomic quality. You're never quite sure what on earth this means. And so I think AI can get away with a lot in this environment because it can write something which you can think, ‘Well, that sounds kind of weird,' and it could easily be sort of human going off on some weird kind of path.

So I referenced a little exercise that you can do, which is trying to spot whether something's written by a bot or not, and it's somebody who puts forward some different poems composed by humans which actually sound quite machine-like, and vice versa.
Some of your writers might have been involved in the November Writing Month.

Joanna: Yes, NaNoWriMo.

Marcus: NaNoWriMo, exactly. My mum has done a couple of NaNoWriMos. But somebody came up with a cunning idea. So this is to write a novel in a month, really disciplined, pump out the words, but this was a kind of variant on that idea, which is, ‘No, just write a piece of AI, write a bit of code that will make the novel for you.'

So you spend the month not writing but coming up with code that will do the writing for you. So there've been some very interesting examples of that. And most of them, again, are quite derivative. They're taking things like ‘Moby Dick' and running it through a Twitter filter.

But I thought one of the most interesting was won by somebody called thricedotted, that's her pseudonym. And she wrote something called, ‘The Seeker.' The AI takes wikiHow, which if anyone's gone on wikiHow, it's how to ask a girlfriend out on a date or how to bake bread.

The code has thought, ‘Well, I want to learn what it's like to be human. So I'm going to go through these pages of how to on wikiHow and learn what it is to be human.' And the algorithm generates responses to the wikiHow pages.

Now, for me, this is most interesting because I think this is where creativity and AI is going to be richest, which is when an AI becomes an entity in its own right, and it wants to try and communicate with us, and we want to try and understand its world.

Why do we write novels? We write novels because we want to get inside the mind of the other or to share our minds with others. I think it's trying to solve the whole problem of consciousness, that we can't know what it feels like to be you or what it feels like to be me.

Our novels are almost like an fMRI scanner, reading into the brain of the other. So I think this will become most interesting when AI becomes conscious. And then we will need to hear their stories in order to understand what it's like to be that machine.

Joanna: People are going, ‘When AI becomes conscious,' which you know, I wasn't going to get here so fast. But there are lots of people who worry about AI becoming conscious, obviously, Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, famous names, dystopian sci-fi writers.

You mentioned that story might be the answer to the evil AI. So maybe just talk about that a minute.

Marcus: Yes, because I think it has been a little bit too dystopian, and I'm hoping this book is actually a more positive take on AI and how AI can be a useful tool but perhaps go further.

If it does become conscious, then we're going to need it on our side. We're going to work together. And there was an exercise which…it took the idea of how to tell a story.

And actually, many of your writers might have watched ‘Bandersnatch' just recently, the ‘Black Mirror' on Netflix, where you get to make choices along the way about what the characters do. Of course, this is a very old idea, books I used to love as a kid, where, you know, ‘Turn to page 37 if you go through the left door or…'

What this research team did was to train AI on the way that humans tell stories. We tell stories which aren't too dystopian most of the time, or at least we tell stories about what it means to be human.

And then the AI, having trained on this, was let loose on a tree of possibilities of a story to tell. And what was encouraging was because it had learnt how humans tell stories, it chose a pathway that was more human-like, wasn't horrific choices which weren't emotionally involved. It took a pathway that humans responded to.

I think that if we can train the AI that's emerging, in a sense, to be empathetic by reading our stories, by understanding our art, and therefore, being sympathetic to producing something similar, then we might have an empathetic AI will not be one that will, hopefully, wipe us out.

I actually put the quote by Ian McEwan, whose response to 9/11 was, if those hijackers had been able to put themselves in the minds of the passengers on those planes, would they have been able to carry out the act that they did? And I think this is partly why we have art is to be able to share our different ways of looking at the world, and to try and to mix minds, and not separate minds.

Joanna: I love that. I love that story might be the answer to the whole AI thing. I just love it.

I want to ask you some technical questions that I think authors are really concerned with. So the first one is the copyright question. We have a new quote, ‘The macaque selfie, the monkey selfie,' which I'm sure everyone can remember. It was an item created by a nonhuman cannot be copyrighted.

What does that mean if we're using AI as a tool? If I feed the AI my 17 novels and it spits out something I can use, what happens with copyright?

Marcus: Yes, I think this is still a very gray area, and it's partly why I spent a couple of years on a committee at the Royal Society in London, looking at the impact that machine learning is going to have on AI on the future.

I think these legal issues are ones we just are not quite sure about yet. I think fundamental things like driverless cars, if it causes an accident, who is to blame? Is it the person who programmed the car? Is it the driver who owns the car? So I think similar issues come up with copyright.

If somebody writes a piece of code, but they take a material that the code is learning on which belongs to somebody else, and so the result is then a product of, say, your novels, but a bit of code written by somebody else, and so who owns the copyright there?

I think this is really interesting because I actually start the book with something called the Ada Lovelace Challenge. Ada Lovelace was one of the first programmers that was interested in the idea that this analytical machine that Babbage had made might be able to do more than just mathematical calculations, and she suggested music could be one of the things. But she cautioned and said, ‘Look, this will never be able to do more than the programmer who wrote it.'

And so that's the challenge of the book. Is that really true anymore? Because these things seem to be really creative. So if it's going beyond the person who's coded the thing, it seems to be creating things which are not what the coder expected. Is that still the coder's property?

Or should it start to be something else? If you think about the way movies are made, just generally the ownership of a movie, because there are so many people involved in that, it generally has to be owned by a company. So it's not actually a person, it belongs to a legal identity, which deals with the fact that there are many creative processes going in, and you just couldn't pull this thing apart, if everyone said, ‘But that line was my line'.

I wonder whether we're going to get to a similar sort of situation where we will have to recognize maybe some legal status for AI which will incorporate the creativity of the coder, the creativity of the things that are being learnt on. But I think we're going into unexplored territory here.

Joanna: I also wanted to ask about translation because this is something I'm really super excited about. Because just last year, a translation AI translated a nonfiction, and that's important, a nonfiction book, 100,000 words in 30 seconds into Mandarin, from English to Mandarin, and then an editor took a week to clean that up.

It would have taken six months, apparently, to have translated with a human. So I wonder about that because in that case, surely the AI did the first draft, which is normally what an author does, and therefore, that just really confused me.

I'm very interested in what's going to happen with translation with AIs. What are your thoughts on that?

Marcus: Language translation has been very successful, and it is a great thing for machine learning to work on because, in the past I suppose a translation would be top-down coding where you would say, ‘Okay, well, you've got a dictionary, you translate things'.

But very often subtlety of sentences means that just a simple translation of each word using a dictionary doesn't capture it. And the language tools now are being very effective at really capturing the meaning of a sentence because they learn on the way that we use language, but they still aren't perfect.

That's where you said a human had to come in and tidy it up. And I think one of the things I kept on hearing when I did my research for this book was the words, ‘Good enough,' that the AI can produce music which is good enough for, say, a game or a corporate video, but isn't going to be performed in a concert hall.

Again, when it came to translation, the translations were good enough to communicate the message that somebody was trying to write in one language, but if you really wanted the full subtleties then you needed a human to come in.

There's an interesting guy that I've always been very interested in called Douglas Hofstadter, who wrote the book, ‘Godel, Escher, Bach.' He's actually been looking at AI for 50 years or so, but he's very down on AI as far as translation goes.

He produced some very interesting examples which just throw a computer because they just don't understand context. Things between languages, for example, you know in English, we don't have…words don't have a masculine or feminine form, but in French they do.

That can cause real problems when you start translating because if you say something like, ‘His car and her car, his house and her house, his book and her book,' that translates very difficultly into French.

And you've picked up on one thing which I think is quite exciting that, although computers are very good, humans are also very good. And actually, it's going to be the combination of the two which is best.

If you go back to the game of Go, which we already talked about, if you combine a human with the AI, then together they can beat, certainly a human, but they can also beat the AI on its own.

We've seen this also in medical research as well. AI, one of the big things it's being used for is in health care. It's able to scan pictures and pick up tumors, for example, which are being missed by human radiographers.

But again, the combination of a human and the AI seems to be better than both of them. So I'm hoping that's the future, that we're going to use this as a very powerful tool to speed up translation, but it won't ever be as good as a human in picking up the subtleties of use of language that the AI is just missing.

Joanna: Fantastic. A bit earlier you said it's a bit like when everyone stuck .com on the end of everything and of course, then you're probably talking 1998, '97, '98 to 2000, you know, that kind of .com boom. But of course, we are now, gosh, nearly 20 years later, and you and I are talking over the internet, I run a business on the internet, you're collaborating over the internet, and we all are in a .com world.

Marcus: Yes, yes.

Joanna: Are we talking really fast change? Are we talking 20 years? What did you conclude? Are you out of a job? Am I out of a job and how fast?

Marcus: I think speed is very important here because people are comparing this revolution to something like the Industrial Revolution, which had a massive impact on work and people's lives and caused a lot of poverty.

But the Industrial Revolution happened over a generation. It was your son or daughter that didn't get the job that you had. I think the speed of this revolution is way faster. And I think that what we're doing now, 10 years time, we will have to be doing something completely different.

We have to be ready for change. We have to know how to learn new things, which I think is exciting. I enjoy the challenge of not getting stuck in my ways and having to do something new. But I think that's where AI is gonna help us. I think that too often we get stuck in our ways.

And actually, we end up behaving more like machines than the machines because we just keep on churning out the same sort of things. We get stuck in certain formulas for the way we write or the way we think. And AI is being able to analyze what we're doing and suggest to us new pathways. Oh, maybe you could try this, maybe you could try that.

We might not like all the suggestions but some of them may resonate and take us off into a new direction. So I think that's the really exciting, positive side of this AI, that it's going to open up huge possibilities in our creative process that are kind of sitting there ready to be ignited, but we didn't know were there.

Joanna: I'm excited too and that's why I wanted to talk to you, I was like, ‘Yay, someone else who's excited about our future.' So thank you so much for your time.

Where can people find you and your book and everything you do online?

Marcus: Well, all my books in the UK are published by 4th Estates, who are a wonderful publisher. I've loved them and stuck with them all the way. And I have a website… So I'm the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, as you said, quite a mouthful. So I have a website where I put a lot of the activities that I do, radio work that I archive, television work, and also my books. So that's www.simonyi, which is spelled, S-I-M-O-N-Y-I, .ox.ac.uk. I'm also on to Twitter, where I kind of use as a microblog, so that's @marcusdusautoy.

Joanna: Thanks so much for your time, Marcus. That was great.

Marcus: Yeah, real pleasure.

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Creativity: 3 Ways To Cultivate Discipline In Your Writing Life

Finding the time and discipline to write is a challenge for many authors. Nathan Wade shares three easy ways to make the most of your writing time each day.

Creativity 3 Ways To Cultivate Discipline In Your Writing LifeDoes creativity strike when you’re messing around and having fun?

Does being laid-back and disorganized spark the most creative masterpieces?

Many people believe that creativity is a product of the scattered brain. Some experts even argue that there’s research to support this theory.

While the archetype of the mad genius is a common one, the truth is that the most successful creatives are actually extremely disciplined when it comes to their work.

Unlocking creativity isn’t about sitting back, goofing off, and waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s about meticulously curating the right conditions to foster creativity.

[Note from Joanna: For more about how to make the most of your creative time, check out Productivity for Authors.]

The Myth of the Sloppy Creative Genius

Even if you aren’t familiar with his theory of relativity, you’ve probably heard of Einstein. Albert Einstein was one of the most innovative thinkers in history. The disheveled scientist is the poster boy of the messy genius archetype.

Daily rituals how artists workEinstein’s desk was famously photographed on the day he died. The picture reveals a chaotic landscape of papers and books.

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign of?”

But behind Einstein’s messy desk was a regimented mind. In Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, author Mason Currey records the daily schedules of the world’s most creative people. In his book, Currey refutes the belief that Einstein had a hectic or disorganized life.

Einstein’s schedule was actually regimented around his work. As a rule, Einstein worked at home after dinner to finish up anything he didn’t complete at his office.

And his shaggy bed head served a practical purpose: he kept his hair long to avoid barber visits.

Einstein was disciplined, and he’s not the only one. People like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos didn’t succeed by fooling around until they struck gold; they each worked within the confines of a routine that helped them to be creative.

The Need for Order

Creatives, freelancers, and entrepreneurs all share a unique problem: lack of order.

Most creatives don’t have a traditional job with scheduled work hours. They don’t have bosses or coworkers to hold them accountable. They don’t need to be anywhere at any specific time. Some don’t even have concrete deadlines for their work.

The consequence is that creatives need to foster self-discipline. This is much easier said than done, especially for absent-minded types.

Without discipline, creatives may find themselves doing nothing all day.

war of artThe hardest part of any task is getting started. Steven Pressfield writes in his acclaimed book The War of Art, “It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.”

Here’s how you can find inspiration, be more innovative, and unleash the power of your creativity.

1. Make a schedule and stick to it.
If you’re a struggling creative, chances are you don’t have a schedule. Or maybe you do have one, but you don’t follow it. In order to maximize your creativity, you need to have a schedule. More importantly, you need to stick to it.

Many creatives make the mistake of over-correcting here. They create a minute-to-minute blueprint for their day. This can result in fatigue and emotional exhaustion. Instead of taking this unrealistic approach, simply map out the flow you’d like your day to have.

Maybe you want to exercise, work, eat lunch, do some more work, and call it a day. Once you understand what your ideal day looks like, nail down your schedule by attaching times to each activity and follow that plan the best you can. And absolutely do not forget to sleep.

Planning is easy, but executing a plan (especially a daily plan) requires a good bit of willpower. If you want to work from 9AM to 1PM, you need to work for those four hours. Plan in some breaks if you feel that you need them, but remember to work consistently.

2. Separate your workspace from your living space.
Another problem that gets in the way of creatives is their environment.

messy deskWhere do you work right now?

Many creatives lack designated workspaces and that’s a big reason why so many of them struggle. It’s hard to shift gears between work and play when you work from home.

If you work from home, you need to create a separate work area. This way you can shift into work mode more easily. Ideally, you should use a separate room as an office—but even setting up a work area in the corner of a room can do the trick. Do not place your office in the middle of your living room.

It’s critical that you don’t use this space for anything else. That means no browsing social sites at your desk. By creating a space that you deem solely a workspace, you’ll be able to get into the zone faster and get your creative juices flowing.

3. Set a dress code for yourself.
It’s not only where you work, but what you work in.

It’s a cliché that freelancers work in their pajamas. If you want to be creative and productive, you might want to toss that advice in the trash. What you wear has a direct effect on how you perform.

Donning a hoodie and sweats every day encourages you to be a little lazier.

Create a dress code for yourself during your work hours. You don’t need to wear a penguin suit or ball gown, but you should choose clothes that encourage professionalism. That may mean a crisp button-up shirt and slacks or a pencil skirt and blouse.

Find what works for you. Just don’t get too comfortable. Remember: you’re at work.

Cultivate A Habit of Discipline Today

For most creatives, developing discipline is the largest obstacle in their way. Using a work checklist can also help to stay on the right track.

Sure, you can search high and low for a new source of inspiration—but why not tap into the potential that’s already inside you?

If you’ve exhausted yourself sitting in front of a blank screen or canvas, give these techniques a try. You might be surprised at what you can achieve with a little order.

How disciplined are you about getting your writing done? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Nathan WadeNathan Wade is the Managing Editor at WealthFit. He's previously worked as an attorney in entrepreneurial law and venture capital.

[Messy desk image courtesy Ferenc Horvath and Unsplash.]

This story originally appeared on The Creative Penn

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Creativity, Symbolism And Writing With The Tarot With Caroline Donahue

Symbolism can add depth to our writing, turning characters into real people, and developing nuance in scenes. In today's podcast interview, Caroline Donahue explains how to use Tarot cards to delve into symbolism and give your unconscious mind some fuel for creativity.

Writing With The TarotIn the introduction, I talk about the ghostwriting + plagiarism scandal sweeping the romance community #copypastecris, referring to Courtney Milan's original article and what to do about it, plus Kris Rusch's in-depth analysis. I explain the difference between ghostwriting and co-writing, as well as why ghostwriting is a normal practice in publishing [Reedsy examples], but plagiarism is most definitely not acceptable.

Productivity for AuthorsToday's show is sponsored by my Productivity for Authors mini-course with lessons on saying no and setting boundaries, finding time to write, making the most of your writing time, co-writing, working with author assistants, dictation, tools I use personally, and thoughts on health and mindset. Find all my courses at: www.TheCreativePenn.com/learn

Caroline DonahueCaroline Donahue is an American author and writing coach living in Berlin, Germany. She's also the host of The Secret Library podcast. Her new book is Story Arcana: Tarot for Writers.

You can listen above or on iTunes or your favorite podcast app or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • Common misconceptions about tarot
  • Ways of using the tarot to think about character motivation and inner landscape
  • story arcanaCrossover between Jungian psychology and the tarot
  • The three types of archetypal journeys a book, its author and its characters go through
  • Doing tarot readings with authors to discover what may not be working in a book
  • Why you don’t need to know what the cards mean before working with them
  • Why your subconscious matters when working with tarot
  • On interviewing authors and noticing what they have in common
  • On the changes a new city and continent have had on Caroline’s writing

You can find Caroline Donahue at CarolineDonahue.com and on Twitter @carodonahue

Transcript of Interview with Caroline Donahue

Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com and today I'm here with Caroline Donahue. Hi, Caroline.

Caroline: Hi. It's so nice to be here.

Joanna: Oh, it's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.

Caroline is an American author and writing coach living in Berlin, Germany. She's also the host of ‘The Secret Library' podcast which is fantastic and I've been on it, so go listen to that.

Caroline: You've been on it twice.

Joanna: It's amazing. Today we are talking about her latest book ‘Story Arcana: Using Tarot for Writing' which is super cool and something I have definitely done over my creative lifetime.

Caroline, start by telling us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.

Caroline: I think it's one of those things where it's difficult to say when it started because it was kind of always there. I have these memories of being a little kid and taking stacks of paper and folding them in half and stapling them and making books, like, at a compulsive pitch.

Then the problem was is that I may have been an early compulsive bookbinder as much as anything else, at which what my mother pointed out, ‘You might actually want to write in them before you make another one.'

But I was the kid who was hiding under the piano in the corner of the classroom and reading and I pulled my first all-nighter I think when I was in third grade, third or fourth grade, reading ‘Bridge to Terabithia.'

It started very early the obsession with books and my mother used to say that I ate books, which I think is fairly accurate. I'd rather give up food than books probably.

And so with this intensity about books, there was always an interest in writing. And I was fortunate in that my family was not the kind of family that said, ‘Oh, that's a terrible idea. You'll starve to death and die,' or the things that people say, and I got to go to some creative writing camps. There were some writing classes early on in school and I was really supported in that enjoyment.

Now, the funny thing is, I didn't end up getting a degree in creative writing at school. I studied art history and then I ended up studying psychology which has actually been a better degree for writing in some ways because just getting into the way people work and the way that they think has continued to engage me.

I find that actually being into books is the best possible way to handle this because every book can be different. You can write fiction and nonfiction. Writing has been a way for me to stay engaged with many different interests, and yet appear to have a cohesive career.

Joanna: I love that.

Caroline: That's why it's really worked in the long term.

Joanna: I totally get that and I think that works really well. I feel the same way. We can do our research however we like. I have a second degree in psychology and also art history come into a lot of my books as well so obviously you and I have a lot in common. We always talk about this.

Caroline: Totally.

Joanna: Let's get into the tarot. I blame Hollywood, I blame the media for making it sort of only gypsy fortunetellers or satanic rituals use tarot cards.

Tell us a bit more about what tarot is and some of the misconceptions that might be out there.

Caroline: One of my favorite sort of debunking statements about the whole kind of, ‘Is it a satanic tool?' is a friend of mine, Susannah Conway always says, ‘Well, they're just bits of cardboard with pictures on them.' That's what they are.

There are a lot of tools out there that are used for communication and exploration and I think people thought the telephone was kind of a satanic tool early on because it allowed people to communicate over long distances in ways they wouldn't normally be able to do.

So I think the tool itself is actually quite neutral and I think that it depends on how you use it. Some people use it and claim to use it to be able to predict the future and that's not how I'm working with it and I don't think I've actually ever studied with anyone who claims to be able to predict the future.

It's more that, from my background where I studied, expressive arts therapy and psychology is the relationship that the unconscious mind has to imagery, and the mind abhors a vacuum. So if you present a brain with a picture that looks like there's something going on in the picture and then you try to say to yourself, ‘Okay, well what's going on here?'

Your mind will start to fill in the gaps. It just happens naturally. We are storytelling, meaning-making beings. It's how we've made sense out of our lives as long as people have existed.

The tarot is a system that's been around for hundreds of years. It was originally started as…there are mixed kind of thoughts on it, but the greater consensus is that it was started as a card game and that some fortunetellers kind of co-opted the card game and then started to use it for fortunetelling.

It wasn't even intended as a fortunetelling tool from the beginning but because it's had this long association, a lot of people get nervous and freaked out about that, and there are some relatively scary pictures on it.

People get scared of the devil card or they get scared of the tower, they get scared of death. They're not light topics but life isn't light either if we look at it below the surface. It's not like life is puppies and kittens and flowers everywhere and we never have to deal with anything dark.

In many ways I feel like the tarot is a more honest representation of our experience as people because it does include dark imagery, and good books include dark stuff. They're not just sort of, ‘La, la, la, everything is beautiful. The end.' We might want to write one of those sometimes because it'd be kind of a relief but I don't.

Joanna: Neither do I.

Caroline: No, you definitely do not. And most of the people that I know who read books don't want to read those either.

Joanna: I agree with you. I think there's something on that deeper level. You just reminded me there of ‘James Bond: Live and Let Die' I think ‘The Hangman' and the voodoo stuff coming out from the grave and it's been associated with stuff like that, but actually, as you say, I love that, just pictures on pieces of cardboard. That's fantastic. I love it.

Caroline: Bless you Susannah for that one, but it's true. They're neutral. They're an inanimate object. There's no power inside of them that's going to change or control your life. It's a way for you to trick your unconscious to giving you information that's not readily available.

Joanna: No, it's almost like a writing prompt when we're talking about writers.

Caroline: Exactly.

Joanna: So the symbolism of tarots.

Pick a card, any card, and talk about how the symbolism of a card might help us access that unconscious mind.

Caroline: The one that I've focused on, because there are 72 cards in the deck and I have only focused on the first 22 in this book because I feel like they're a set.

The major arcana is traditionally looked at as a set, and for those who don't know much about the tarot there's the major arcana and there's the minor arcana, and the majors in all decks they have big pictures on them and they have big names and they are big types like ‘The Hermit' or ‘The Fool' or ‘The Magician.'

Anyone who's Googled tarot sees that yellow picture from the Rider-Waite with the guy with his arms outstretched and the symbols around him. That's sort of a standard image. So that's the major arcana and they represent major turns in the road, big changes, and the minors are more everyday incidents.

And then within that, there are the court cards, which are people. And so I'm planning to write about those later in terms of plot and the court cards I think are more about character development so I'm going to play with those later.

I don't know if anyone has this issue. I have this issue sometimes when I'm writing a character, it feels a bit forced or it feels like I'm kind of the characters mouthing what I want them to say or they feel a bit like a puppet and there has to be some kind of unconscious motivation going on.

Maybe that the character isn't even aware of because we do things all the time not realizing why we're really doing them and you want your characters to feel more like real people.

So sometimes asking a question like, ‘Well, what are they hiding here? What are they maybe hiding from themselves?' And then pulling a card and seeing what comes out, then you can start to turn it into a puzzle.

Say you have a character who's a really, really friendly, helpful, kindhearted character and then you pull a card and the card underneath it's hiding from them it's something like ‘The Hierophant' hiding underneath, and ‘The Hierophant' is about institutions of thought. It's also about the sort of institutionalized religion, organized thinking society and that sort of thing.

You might have a character who appears to be extremely helpful but if you look at their underneath agenda, they're really trying to push a system. They might be trying to convert somebody. They might be trying to put them in a box or have them make sense.

It's a way to make the dynamic just a little more sophisticated, and often it doesn't take that much to make a scene just a little bit more interesting or dialogue just a little bit more realistic.

Because if you have a scene that's like, ‘Hi, John, I've just been to the store. They were out of milk.' And he says, ‘Well damn, I'm really sad that they were out of milk.' That's not going to be that interesting, but if what's really happening is it's a man and woman and he thinks she hasn't really been to the store. He thinks she's been sneaking out to see her lover.

If you find that underneath. If you pull ‘The Lovers' and see maybe somebody thinks there's something else going on then the thing about the milk can be pretty dynamic.

Joanna: I love that and it's really interesting. I told you this earlier, but at several points in my life's journey, I've pulled ‘The Moon' and ‘The Hermit' and amazingly ‘The Moon' especially has come up for me again and again.

I haven't done my own spread that often in my life but at major points where I just don't know what I'm doing with my life, I pulled ‘The Moon'.

In case anyone is interested, what do you think that says about me?

Caroline: I think ‘The Moon' is about intuition.

The moon comes out at night and it's illumination that happens at night and it's also on many decks. I think you said you had a Rider-Waite, but if you look at a Rider-Waite moon, you'll see this crazy lobster crawling out of the water. There's a lot of weird stuff going on in ‘The Moon.'

There's a wolf howling and there's usually this lobster coming out. I think that ‘The Moon' to me represents looking at the unconscious and seeing what comes up from the depths if you really pay attention to that. So if you're working with ‘The Moon' it's not all going to be out in the open.

It's not like ‘The Sun,' another card, where everything will be really obvious, upfront, everything's good. It's easy. But ‘The Moon' is you have to wait until it gets dark out, you have to wait until some light comes out and then the stuff is going to start coming out of the depths and then you'll be able to see what's really going on.

To me it's about patience, it's not being afraid to find inspiration in the darker portion of your exploration and it's also about trusting your intuition and trusting yourself and not expecting it to be all out in the front with a blaring sign like, ‘Here it is.' It takes a bit more patience to work with ‘The Moon.'

Joanna: I love that and I think it's been quite comforting for me to have ‘The Moon' and also ‘The Hermit' which just represents the writer's life.

Caroline: Totally. It's like, ‘Don't hang out with people. Just go write. Go write. Just go do it, basically.'

Joanna: Exactly.

Let's talk about archetypes because again, we both studied psychology. I've written about Carl Jung. I know you're also really interested in Jungian psychology.

How are the archetypes represented between Jungian psychology and the tarot?

Caroline: I think that there are several layers going on. It's easy to talk about with the major arcane, which again is the focus of the book for this stage, because it not only talks about types that you see like ‘The Empress' is a mother figure, a very maternal figure. You see that in every society.

‘The Emperor' is a paternal figure that's a male energy that's really in charge and can handle everything, and then those are the sorts of archetypal images that you see in every society one way or another.

But the other layer of it is that from the beginning of the major arcana with ‘The Fool' all the way to ‘The World' at the end there is a journey that is happening, and the archetype of a journey is something that's present in most societies.

You see it in ‘The Odyssey'. You see it in cave paintings, you see people going out to hunt trying to solve something and then coming back, and all of these stages of what can happen in the journey are present in the major arcana.

You have the little guy at the beginning of ‘The Fool' who's got a backpack on, he sets out. You get to ‘The Magician' he's got a sense of, okay, I'm feeling a sense of mastery and he goes through all of these stages leading to the cards that scare people and that everybody wants to throw back in the deck whenever they pull them like ‘The Tower' which is everything falls apart, and ‘The Devil' which everybody thinks just means the worst possible thing happening. I don't, but we can talk about that if you want.

And then also, ‘Death' which is sort of an ending things that have to be. And that can be a literal death or it can be a metaphorical death where a relationship dies, something in a storyline dies, something happens.

‘Death' is pretty much primal an archetype as you can get. And then it comes out the other side with things like ‘The Sun' and ‘The Moon' and ‘The Star' which is a bit of hope and moving forward into a sort of reckoning with ‘Judgement' and then you get to ‘The World' which is sort of like, ‘Okay, now we've come full circle, literally like a globe. We've come full circle.' And then you start over.

One thing that I focus on in the book that I think is important is that there are three levels that go through this major arcana journey which is an archetypal journey.

You have your characters in the book will go through their own journey, figure things out, learn things, maybe not learn some other things and they will reach a point at the end.

The book itself will go through its own evolution. Points where the book is working, when the book is not working, when you want to throw the book in the garbage, feeling like this was a stupid idea, ‘I shouldn't have written this book,' and then, ‘Oh, wait, I've figured it out.'

You get through the ‘The Tower' part where the book is terrible and then you have some hope and then you get to the end and you get to ‘The World' and there's your book.

But it's also for the writer because anybody who writes knows that part of the reason that what you want to write is that we want to be transformed by the process as well.

If it was we were exactly the same as we were at the beginning every time we write a book I mean that would get pretty boring for me. So those three layers are happening and you can follow those archetypes through the journey of the major arcana in the tarot.

Joanna: Wow. It's so interesting, and this is the truth about writing, isn't it? You can go all these different layers and levels and like you say, it can be our journey as writers, it can be the journey of the characters. It's just fascinating.

There's so much in your book. It really is jam-packed amazing stuff, but I'm interested because of course you also do readings for other people. You do readings for other writers.

Caroline: I do.

Joanna: If people want to do their own reading with your book, how would they do that or how do you do it for other people?

Caroline: The way I started was basically that, like you, I was getting the same cards all the time for myself.

I would go through phases, and it does change, I would use a different deck. I would change. Nope, you're still getting whatever it was. You're still getting ‘The Hangman' right now. You're in limbo, too bad for you.

And so I said, ‘Well, there's cards I'm just never drawing so I want to learn.' So I decided I was going to do a 100 readings one summer and I just told anybody I'm doing it by donation. I really just want to build more of a relationship with these other cards that I never pull.

And then I ended up doing one of those readings for someone who was working on a book and they said, ‘I don't really need a reading for me. I feel okay about me.' But I'm really stuck on this book.

So we looked at what was not working with the book, where was the stuck point with the book and then you start to ask questions and pull a card and then look at the card and like we discussed earlier your subconscious will start to fill in answers.

You can ask questions and it's best if they are who, what, when, where, why kind of questions. ‘Why' is really good. ‘How' is pretty good. ‘What's missing' is good. You don't want to say, ‘Is this book good? Yes or no?' That's really not going to work very well with the tarot. They have to be a little bit more like prompts where you would want to do some journaling after you do it.

But I do put a couple of spreads that are examples of ones I've created especially for writers in the book. One is which is like working with dialogue. So if somebody is having a conversation you can pull a card for each character and then you can pull another card underneath each character to say what are you really trying to talk about here.

No one ever talks about what they actually talking about in a book or they shouldn't because otherwise, you get things like, ‘Oh, George, we must run forth before the explosion happens because it will kill us all and this is not expository dialogue at all.' You don't want that.

There has to be something going on underneath. Picking something for your surface level and then picking for something underneath is really helpful.

Another thing that's helpful is if you get into this situation. I don't know if anyone else has this happened. It happens to me all the time where my character is in location A, I need to get them to location B and they don't seem to want to go to location B. It just feels unnatural or it's like, ‘Oh, I've got to get them there but it feels really far.'

I used to live in Maine for a while at one point and one thing that they like to say is like, ‘Oh, you can't get there from here, because the roads are constructed in such a way that it's very difficult to get to a place that looks very close by.'

So I had a spread in my head that I called the ‘You can't get there from here.' You pick a card for where the character is now, you pick a card for where they're trying to go and then you pick another one for in between and then start saying, ‘Oh, the people in there are…'

You don't have to know what the tarot means. I would hate people listening to feel like they have to go buy a bunch of tarot books and study it and learn it. It's not like learning a foreign language where you can't interact with it if you don't know what the words actually mean.

Because they're pictures, you can look at the picture and it's more important that you decide what that picture looks like to you. So if you see something like the five of ones and there's a bunch of people trying to poke each other with long sticks and you say, ‘Oh look it's like they're in a fight it's not going well.'

Maybe if she got in a fight with somebody then she'd want to leave and then she could go to this other location.

It's more important that your unconscious kicks in when you're looking at the cards so that your associations and your understanding of your story is what allows it to mean more and to give you some aha moments.

Joanna: I love that. I love the idea of the two levels of the dialogue and then what's actually going on underneath. That's a really good tip. I love that. I'm going to try that. It's fantastic.

Caroline: Yes, it's fun.

Joanna: Let's talk about the decks because you're in art history and I love visual images. I've looked at a lot of this stuff and the interesting thing is there's not one tarot deck that everybody uses. So there might be one card called ‘The Moon' and such but if you buy a Native American deck versus the Rider-Waite as we've mentioned is the kind of maybe the best known.

We've also got the Thoth deck in our house which my husband likes and I know you've got other ones.

Tell us about the deck or decks you prefer and also does it matter? And why the image is so different?

Caroline: First of all, I will say it does not matter what deck you get as long as you like it. If you respond to the imagery and the imagery feels really exciting or rewarding or it connects to the kind of thing you're trying to work on then I think it's completely fine.

There's no one deck to rule them all. I don't think that exists, especially now when there are new decks coming out all the time.

The Rider-Waite-Smith is sort of become one syntax. So there are a lot of decks that will take the illustration that Pamela Smith originally did and I think that was the first deck to have illustrations not just for the major arcana but for the minor arcana.

In many decks, before that, it used to just look like playing cards where you'd have symbols that were the number of symbols for that. There would be five ones in a picture and that was it. There would be no scene. So she's the one who came up with all of the scenes and the scenes have fairly consistent things that happen.

You'll see a lot of decks that have different styles of art and it's fun if you're a big nerd like me where you're like, ‘Oh, oh that's so clever how they placed that a little differently than this.'

But there's always going to be a lobster with ‘The Moon' in the Rider-Waite-Smith convention. The Toth is a completely different sort of syntax. It's like that one is a different language. So if you're really into that, that is its own kind of system if that makes sense to you.

So for somebody who's looking to build a relationship with the tarot, it's kind of interesting to pay attention to which one that is. You don't have to get an actual Rider-Waite-Smith deck if you don't respond to the imagery. Some people love it. Some people are just like, ‘Well, I'm not into it.'

But there are so many out there that there's a deck for you somewhere. There are so many. And a really good place to start is there is a site called, I never know how to pronounce it, aeclectic.net and you can look up tarot decks and name for most decks that have been published with the exception of some independents that are on Kickstarter and so on and not yet indexed, but they will have pictures of most of the deck.

I think that one thing to guard against when you're buying a deck is that sometimes you'll see a picture of a deck and there's a picture on the cover of the box and then you may see one or two others and think you're really into it and those three are the ones that you love and then the rest of the deck leaves you flat.

It's like when the single on the album is amazing and then the rest of the album you're not into it. That can happen with tarot.

So the more you can see as many cards in the deck as possible before purchasing or even better if you can go to a shop and see them then that will help. Often if you buy things off Etsy or an independent site or Little Red Tarot in Europe is a great source.

Those places will have pictures of lots of the cards so you can make sure that this is really something you're responding to.

I had a giant card catalog file filled with decks before we left the U.S. in the fall. I had to cut it down. Hilariously, it was culling to down to, like, 50 decks. It was not culling down to two. So there was somewhere I was like, ‘This is cool.' I gave them to friends who are interested, but I still have probably 40 or 50 decks.

Joanna: What did you write the book on for example or did you just kind of use them all?

Caroline: I tended to use groups because I didn't want to be writing from just one deck because I felt like I would be really leaning on that card's imagery and I wanted someone reading the book to be able to use the deck that they loved and not be kind of wedded to it.

I played with using imagery from cards in the book but then I was like, ‘No, I don't want to have a particular deck that people feel they have to respond to.' And I have different decks.

If you go on Pinterest, it is a great place to find tarot spreads. If you search for a question that you have and say tarot spread then they will appear. There's one that's called a deck interview which is kind of fun.

So when you get a deck you can interview your deck which is really fun, because if you go down the rabbit hole like I did if you're into you will end up just get a cabinet. Just get a cabinet and you're going to have all your decks in there and it's going to be fine.

But there are different decks that have very different imagery. I have one that's called the Bohemian Gothic that's hilarious and it's like old-fashioned, crazy, Dracula kind of stuff. I'm not going to use that to write a romance scene necessarily.

Or if you're writing a romance novel you may not want that deck. But if you're writing an adventure suspense plot you're not going to use the cat tarot of which there are many.

I think that you can have different decks that work for different situations and one of the things in this deck interview spread is you can say what are your strengths, what are your weaknesses…you pull cards for this and then it says what should we work on together.

You could look at maybe this deck is really into dialogue or maybe this deck is really into character development or it's really into crime novels and maybe you have another deck that's really, really into romance novels. And maybe you have another one that's really into literary fiction.

It's tough to say. But I like the idea that they all have their own personalities and they're really into different kinds of subjects just like we are. And that the art will activate different parts of your brain that will work well for that. That's all that really matters is that you like it.

Joanna: When I was reading your stuff I was like, ‘Oh, you know, I should look at some other decks.' and I fell, like, into the rabbit hole as you said.

Caroline: Oh, boy.

Joanna: Oh yeah, and I was like, ‘Okay, I'm backing away now because it's…'

Caroline: Yeah, you gotta back away.

Joanna: It's so cool but it's also very intimidating. So I'm back to my Rider-Waite, but it is definitely beautiful as well.

I think this is really important like to stress that this writing prompts can so often be written. Writing prompts are written, whereas this is almost a writing prompt from something visual and I'm a visual writer.

I'm often looking at visual stuff to prompt my writing. So if people listening are in that phase then that really works.

Caroline: Definitely. I think it's helpful to have different kinds of prompts. You can even just say I feel like writing something, pull a card and see…like, okay well, look at this picture and say, ‘Okay, what would a circumstance be surrounding this scene?' And just start writing that and see what happens.

Joanna: I want to ask about your podcast, ‘The Secret Library' podcast, which is amazing and you interview some seriously famous writers, a lot of literary fiction, a lot of kind of prize winners and really interesting guests.

I definitely urge people to check out ‘The Secret Library' podcast.

Because you have interviewed so many super successful authors, are there any commonalities that you see in those writers that you've kind of learned over the years.

Caroline: I think so. I've thought about this a lot but one of the things I've noticed is that just in speaking to them there isn't this point where you're a prize winner or you've won an award for your book or something and then writing suddenly becomes this really easy process where there are no doubts or fears or concerns or you never get stuck.

What I've learned from talking to them is that they're not superhuman. It's kind of like when you get to the age when your parents were when you were a certain age and frustrated with them and you thought you're an adult, you're supposed to understand everything and then you get to this age you're like, ‘Oh, no, they had no idea what was going on.'

It feels a little bit like that, which is not to say these writers don't know what's going on, it's just that I think that for many years I thought when I was trying to write books that when I got really stuck and didn't know what to do that that was an indication of my lack of skill or that it was an indication that I didn't know what I was doing.

In talking to so many authors who hit that point and yet worked through it and continue that that point of feeling like I don't know what I'm doing right now is not an indication of failure, it's just part of the process.

And I think author after author after author that I talk to has had that experience and even the ones who are really big and have hit it really big have often written like four or five books that they tried to sell and nothing was happening, there was nothing keeping them going.

I think of Donal Ryan who is a fiction writer and he just tried and tried and tried and tried and tried and he said, ‘The only reason I kept going was because my wife just said, ‘You know what? It's good and you should keep going.”

And as soon as he published he was shortlisted for a prize but it took years and he could've given up at any moment if there hadn't been somebody saying, ‘No, this is worth it, what you're doing.'

I think that seems to be a consistent theme is that there was some force that convinced them that how terrible it can feel at certain points was not an indication that they shouldn't be writing or that writing wasn't for them.

Joanna: That's interesting you picked that one because you're also writing a novel right now, aren't you?

Caroline: I am.

Joanna: Do you think that's the thing that you personally are taking in or what else are you taking in into your writing process from what you've learned?

Caroline: It's probably the one that's with me today because today I have a library that I go to. I'm a member of a library here in Berlin which I love and it is like my zone and I was running a little bit late this morning.

It's a very popular library. You have to be a member but I got there and there were no desks and it completely threw me off my game and I wrote nothing this morning. So I think having heard this from all these writers I'm like, ‘Oh, good. This is not an indicator that the book is not going to get finished. It's just a hiccup in the routine and I have to just go back tomorrow and it will be fine.'

But the one that is the most consistent and not even today and not even when I was really hardcore working on the book. I was always present with that and always with clients, but I think the other thing too is that there are points when you have to let go of control of the book in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable.

I can think of several people, one in particular, the most dramatic by far, was Patricia Park who was working on a book called, ‘Re Jane' and it was a Korean retelling of ‘Jane Eyre'. She was working in her uncle's shop in New York in one of the boroughs and she hit this point where it's like, ‘Oh, this book is not working. I can't believe it.'

She got a Fullbright to go to South America and kind of spend a lot of time researching the Korean community in South America which is quite large in Argentina. And she got into there and she was really in it and she was starting to develop something and then she realized that the character she was developing was actually a B character in her original book that she had decided was not working.

Not everybody is probably going to get a Fullbright and go to South America and research and realize it's still the same book, but she thought she had a whole new book and it was still the same book.

I think the other one that really stands out is that I have had every single person who has mentioned the length of time it has taken them to write a book has been irritated at how long it took and none of them have said, ‘God, I really wish it had taken a little bit longer. If this book could've taken me another six months, that would've been great, but no it just happened so fast.'

Nobody ever says that. It's always like there's something about it that was inefficient or difficult but also that they gained insight that they needed to have through the process of it being inefficient and difficult and that they were grateful for the insight but they just wish it hadn't taken quite so long.

Joanna: That is super interesting. So I also want to ask you about Berlin because you mentioned the library there and you've been there a few months now, I guess. Six months?

Caroline: We've been here for four.

Joanna: What has Berlin done for you in terms of your life? And what has it changed up about your life? And how does changing place help you change your state as well?

Caroline: Oh, definitely. We had been thinking about this for a few years. We lived in Los Angeles for many years. I was there for 12. My husband was there for 20, and we were at a point where it was time to break up with Los Angeles.

And part of that is how expensive that city has gotten. I want to be writing, I don't want to be sitting in the car which is what you have to do a lot there. There were just a lot of things that we just felt like it wasn't suiting what we wanted.

So we got rid of 80% of our stuff. We moved here. We went from an 1800 square foot, 3-bedroom place with 2 bathrooms to a 440 square foot apartment with one bathroom in which we have three cats and a dog. It's a very, very interesting dynamic.

This is a temporary flat. We will be in something larger before long, but I think we just wanted to cut away all of the distractions and all of the things that were keeping us from doing creative work.

My husband is an artist. He is an illustrator, animator, designer and then I'm writing and I just felt it just takes forever to get anywhere in LA. There was just a lot and it with just all of those things were taking away from the writing.

And also a majority of the book I'm writing right now is set in Berlin. So it turns out it's quite difficult to write a book that's set in Berlin when you're in Los Angeles because they're not very similar.

I think some of it is being in the location of the place that I'm writing about is a huge support and I think that just the European sensibility was one that we have always been interested in and supported.

We just couldn't do the 10 days off a year anymore in America. You have to make a $150,000 to $200,000 to even consider having significant savings that like just to pay for your life and all of those things were like that's just not sustainable, and it's not sustainable doing creative work unless you want to work 80 hours a week when you put your creative work and your day job together.

We just wanted to pull the plug on all of that, which has been wonderful, and to be somewhere where the prevailing value system is not that people should be ground into dust by their work lives.

I'm feeling extremely liberated by that. I'm feeling very grateful to be here. I'm very grateful not to have to have a car anymore.

Joanna: It's a big thing, isn't it?

Caroline: Oh, it's amazing.

Joanna: You can just walk places.

Caroline: We have bikes, you know. We bike or take the…

Joanna: The tube?

Caroline: The public transit which is here and functional.

But the other thing about that that's really good for a writer is I sit on the train on the way to the library, every day that I go to the library and I see a new character. I see someone, I get to watch them and see what they're doing, what are they're wearing, how are they fidgeting. That can go straight in the book.

If I'm sitting in a car on a freeway in LA, I don't get that interaction. I don't get to hear their voice if they're talking to their kid or if they're talking to their friend. All of those details go right in a city like Berlin or London is the same.

There are many cities that have good public transit and everybody is out on it. New York is the same. We were not built for New York. You really have to want that one.

Being here and being able to be a part of that. And the other thing too is as an American things are different here. They look different. The sidewalks look different, and I love that. So I enjoy gobbling all of that detail up.

Joanna: I lived New Zealand and Australia. I was away 11 years and I'm a European. I feel like that and I missed so many things about Europe. So I'm really excited about your book when it eventually makes it out there, your Berlin book.

And also you've got another podcast coming, haven't you? If people are interested.

Caroline: I do. I have a really good friend who is also an American and she took the leap from Boulder, Colorado. She and her family felt like they need a change, she and her husband and her son, and there's been a tech boom in Dublin and she's worked in that field for ages.

So they went to Dublin and they've been there for two years now. we decided based on so many conversations that we would have with people that are like, ‘Oh, that's amazing that you've moved. I couldn't ever do that. That's really amazing what you've done.'

We've both been project managers so we're like, ‘Well, it's just a series of practical steps that you can follow. If you know what they are, it's really not that bad. So we wanted to do a series of episodes of just short kind of actionable, this is how we've done these things. And that the ‘GTFO' podcast that will be coming…

Joanna: What does that stand for?

Caroline: It stands for ‘Get the feck out.' We're going with the Irish ‘feck' rather than the other.

Joanna: Fantastic.

Caroline: So that we don't get kicked off of iTunes.

Joanna: That is a good idea and this is a clean show and that word is clean.

Caroline: Yes, I know.

Joanna: That's fantastic. Where can people find you and everything you do online?

Caroline: They can find me at carolinedonahue.com and then they can find the show at secretlibrarypodcast.com and there are links to everything. I'm on Instagram and Twitter and everything but all of those are on both of those sites.

Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Caroline. That was great.

Caroline: Thank you so much. It was such a treat talking to you, as always.

This story originally appeared on The Creative Penn