Today I’m talking with Lisa Congdon about the creative process as a visual artist, the myth of overnight success, getting over self-doubt about our work, and the importance of multiple streams of income for anyone wanting to be a full-time creative.
In the intro, I talk about my trip to Spain (photos here) and lessons learned from Picasso’s body of work and the agricultural seasonality of the Alpujarras region and how this can influence our own creative journey.
In publishing news, I mention Wattpad Studios and Amazon Video Direct; the recent SPP show on applied intelligence, Intellogo and Trajectory; IPR License and Frankfurt Book Fair, and Kobo’s launch in Turkey.
The corporate sponsorship for this show pays for hosting and transcription. This podcast episode is sponsored by 99 Designs, where you can get all kinds of designs for your author business including book covers, merchandising, branding and business cards, illustrations and artwork and much more. You can get a Powerpack upgrade which gives your project more chance of getting noticed by going to: 99Designs.com/joanna
Lisa Congdon is a fine artist, illustrator and creative entrepreneur. She’s also the author of a number of books including Art Inc: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career As An Artist.
- The myth of the ‘overnight success’ and Lisa’s journey from absolute beginner to full-time artist.
- How to deal with imposter syndrome.
- The bravery required to put our art out into the world.
- How to choose what to create next and dealing with feeling uninspired.
- The similarities and differences between Lisa’s visual creative work and writing books.
- What the ‘editing’ process is like for a visual artist.
- On the variety of different income streams in Lisa’s creative business.
- Balancing running the business with creative output, and embracing marketing.
- What creates long-term success in creative businesses.
- Lisa’s latest book is The Joy of Swimming, which she wrote and illustrated based on her own passion for swimming.
You can find Lisa’s art and books at www.LisaCongdon.com.
Transcript of Interview with Lisa Congdon
Joanna Penn: Hi, everyone. I’m Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com, and today I’m here with Lisa Congdon. Hi, Lisa.
Lisa Congdon: Hello.
Joanna Penn: Great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction, Lisa is a fine artist, illustrator, and creative entrepreneur. She’s also the author of a number of books including “Art Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist.”
Lisa, you came later to art, how did you make that move from a real job as a project manager to becoming a fulltime artist?
Lisa Congdon: Well, it took many years, and it happened at least initially sort of on accident. When I was about 31 years old, I decided to take a painting class just for fun. I had a fulltime job, as you mentioned, working in education non-profit here in the United States, and I felt the urge to do something creative.
I took a painting class, and I fell in love with painting. I was not very good at it, but this one class changed my perspective about spending time making things. I started taking more classes in particular from this teacher, this particular teacher who I took that class from. And then started taking some drawing classes, and I set up a little studio in my kitchen table, but I had no aspirations to become a professional artist, this was purely for enjoyment, which is, I think, always how one should start the creative process.
But eventually I started sharing my work on the Internet, and it was around the time that the Internet was becoming a place where artists, and writers, and people who were experimenting in creative processes were sharing their work for the first time with people who they didn’t know. Previous to the Internet, there was no way to do this except if you had an agent or got published.
I was one of those people who were sort of an early adopter of blogging, and sharing images of things on Flickr, and things like that.
Eventually I built a community of people or I met a community of people who were doing similar things, and people started asking me if they could buy my work. I said, “I’m not an artist. I’m just a person who draws and paints.” But then I started to think differently about it because I was drawing and painting all the time, I was getting better and better at it, and then I thought, “Well, maybe I could do this thing all of time because I do absolutely love it.
Joanna Penn: How long did that take from that sort of first tentative course to actually leaving your job? Because a lot of people think it’s like an immediate thing because you are suddenly a genius.
Lisa Congdon: I always like to say there’s no such thing as overnight success.
Even people who have what we call overnight success usually have something that they were building upon before, even if it happened rather quickly. I started drawing and painting in about 2001. By 2004 I was starting to post it on the Internet, and by 2007, I left my job, and by 2011 or ’12, I started to make a fulltime living as an artist.
You’ll notice that there were a few years there between leaving my job and making a full-time living as an artist. I was eating a lot of ramen, and living off of savings and things like that. So it took between 2001, when I first picked up a paintbrush, to 2010, 9 years. And I think I could have done it more quickly than that had I had schooling, had I had a guide to show me how to do it. It’s not like it necessarily has to take that long, but for me, that’s kind of the way it worked.
Joanna Penn: Do you think that time also reflects your apprenticeship as an artist? Because clearly over 10 years you’ve become a better artist, and therefore people are more likely to pay you for what you do.
Lisa Congdon: Yes, and I think most people go to school for at least four years and study art, and that’s sort of the beginning of their apprenticeship. But even if you do that, it’s a really good idea over a period of years to just draw and paint every day or whatever your medium is, if you’re a writer to write every day.
There’s something about getting your hands dirty and just doing the work every day, practicing, experimenting, trying things, putting it out into the world.
So that period of time was my schooling in a way or the continuation, my schooling plus, plus, plus, plus. Over that period of time I certainly developed my voice as an artist. And developing your voice as an artist or even a writer is only possible if you do it often. It doesn’t magically happen, you have to really work at it.
Joanna Penn: In the book, which is great, and it’s about visual art, but I think it applies to any artist.
You talk about how hard it is for people to say, “I’m an artist.” It’s so funny because it took me a long, long time to say, “I am creative. I am an author”. I had that affirmation for years before I actually was able to say it out loud or actually become that person.
How can people overcome that sort of difficulty in saying, “I’m an artist,” or, “I’m a creative”?
Lisa Congdon: Well, there’s this thing that I came to learn existed, it’s called impostor syndrome. So there’s a name for that. Really I think it’s especially true for those of us who maybe started writing, or painting, or making things at an older age, it’s not something that we necessarily studied in school or maybe when we were younger aspired to do, but discovered that we might want to do it.
When we start doing it we feel like an impostor, we feel like if we have success at what we’re doing, we don’t really deserve it, that eventually someone’s going to call us out for being a fake because we don’t really belong to this club that we want to be part of.
Once I understood that there was a name for what I was experiencing, it made me feel better because that made me realize other people were going through it as well. So every time I hear a story like yours, it’s very affirming. And what I learned also is that even people who studied art in school or had very prestigious jobs in the creative field also often feel like impostors in the world. We feel like somebody else deserves it but not us.
I think it’s particularly true in creative fields. So I started recognizing that all of this insecurity I was feeling about calling myself an artist or putting my work into the world, even though I was doing it, it caused me a lot of anxiety.
Once I realized that there was a name for it, I started thinking about the fact that it was really unhealthy for me to be feeling that way. And I recognized it as something that was self-defeating, and that if I was ever going to experience success, I had to really own my identity as an artist and stop feeling like I was inferior to other artists.
Just because I was self-taught or started later in life didn’t mean that my work wasn’t just as important or significant as anybody else’s.
So I just one day declared, “I’m going to own this.” I really had a breakthrough moment. It wasn’t like immediately I was confident, it took a lot of practice and a lot of reminding myself when I did feel insecure that my work was valid.
It was interesting, when Chronicle Books approached me to write “Art Inc.,” which is the book that you referred to earlier, I said, “What? Me? Who am I to talk about how to make a living as an artist?” And they said, “Well, you’re doing it.” And I said, “Yes, but I didn’t go to school. I’m not from the inside of the art world, I came from the outside.” And they said, “In fact, that’s why you’re the perfect person to write it because the book is really for other people who are on the outside of it and want to be on the inside of it. So you maybe you can demystify their world or the illustration world for them.” So, again, I had this moment where I had to own that.
While I was writing the book, my editor said, “You need to be more authoritative.” Because I would say, “Well, this worked for me, but it might not work for you.” And she said, “No, what worked for you might also work other people, so you need to just say, ‘This is how I achieved this success. Here’s some suggestions for how you can do it.'”
I learned to be more authoritative when I wrote the book. Now it’s been several years even since I wrote the book, and I feel like every year that passes I get a little bit more confident. But it really was just a lot of positive self-talk, and maybe writing about it on my blog also, and understanding that was a universal thing that people experienced, this not being able to claim their identity as a creative person.
Joanna Penn: I just put out a book this week as well, I know you have and we’ll come back to that. But I still have a fear of judgment, a fear of people will read it and go, “Oh, my goodness, she thinks those things?”
Do you still have that fear of judgment around your artwork or fear of criticism, that sort of still feeling that you are the person who is within that artwork?
Lisa Congdon: Yes, absolutely. I’ll sometimes say to people, “On a certain level, you have to separate yourself from your work, so that when people don’t like it or might criticize it, it’s not that they don’t like you, it’s maybe not their thing.”
But to a certain extent, it also is personal, as creative people, we are…everything we make and create, whether it’s words or pictures, is an extension of us. So it’s really hard not to take it personally. It’s easy for me to say that, but it’s a really difficult thing to separate yourself from the criticism as…your worth as a human being from potentially any criticism that you may receive.
Every time I post something or submit something to a client if I have a job and I’ve been given an assignment, every time I send off that first piece of artwork that I’m delivering, I have a tremendous amount of insecurity and anxiety that they’re not going to like it. Or that if I put it on Instagram, especially if I’m trying something that I don’t normally do and I’m experimenting, I do still have a lot of anxiety because it is very personal, it’s something potentially that I’ve worked really hard on and that I believe in.
I don’t think that ever really goes away. I used to think that eventually as a creative person or as an artist I would “arrive,” and I put that in quotes. And what I mean by arrive is that someday I would get to a place where criticism didn’t bother me, where I felt very confident, where everything I put into the world felt easy, and where my life had a certain, my creative process at least, and my putting my work into the world had a certain flow.
I realize know because I’ve been doing it for so long now that that’s never going to happen, like it doesn’t really change, and that that’s not actually a bad thing.
Our vulnerability as creative people is actually part of what makes us make good work. And if we had no feelings about a vulnerability, we wouldn’t be able to be creative people.
I watched this wonderful documentary about painter Gerhard Richter, it’s called “Gerhard Richter Paintings.” And what I love about that film is he’s this preeminent painter in the world, and he paints both very abstractly and photo realistically, he’s enormously talented. He’s at the apex of his career, his work is in museums all over the world, and yet in this film, you see that he’s super insecure. He makes a painting, and then he can’t look at it for like five days because he thinks it’s terrible, and he goes to art openings.
He’s obviously really awkward about talking to people because he’s really shy, and I thought, “Okay, here’s this guy who most artists would kill to be, and he still hasn’t arrived.” He still has a lot of angst about his work, and he’s not super confident. That actually instead of making me feel worse, it made me feel better.
It made accept that putting your work into the world is always going to be a little bit nerve-wracking and requires a lot of bravery.
But the world wouldn’t be what it is if people didn’t do that. So I feel like I’m just, I don’t know, contributing to something bigger than myself I guess, when I put my work into the world, and I hope that other people feel that way too.
Joanna Penn: I agree with you in terms of the writing as well, and I was also thinking about why we keep driving ourselves to do more. To me, it’s kind of like when we’ve finished a piece of work, when we say, “It’s finished,” there’s always an edge of, “That’s not the end, that’s not actually the best I can do,” or, “It’s the best I could do on that piece, but that’s not…” There’s always this need to do something further.
Is that something you feel as well? Is that actually inherently what drives us to create more?
Lisa Congdon: Yes, I think so.
Every now and again I would say of every 200 pieces of art that I make, there’s 1 that I think is pretty darn good, and I don’t feel like I need to change it much, but that’s less than 1% of the time.
Most of the time, either I’m a tight deadline and I’ve got to do the best I can do, or I just feel like I’m maxed out on a particular piece. And I know it’s not perfect, but I don’t quite know what to do to make it better, or I’m afraid if I try I might mess it up more. And that goes for my writing, and my paintings and drawings. Sometimes I just say, “This is good enough,” and I leave it be, and then I turn it in, or I put it out into the world because you have to do that.
I think a lot of people who are not very productive creatively are maybe very smart and creative people inside, but aren’t productive creative people, are usually people who are perfectionists and refuse to put anything into the world because it’s not perfect, and because they know it’s not perfect.
I think that’s what separates people who are productive creative people and people who are not, is just this willingness to put something into the world that they know is not perfect. And what is perfect, right? Anyway, that’s a whole existential conversation.
I think that for me, there’s sort of this period where I’m working really hard on something, and I’m trying to get it to be as good as it can be, but then there’s a period where I just have to let it go and move on. And you’re right, that after I’ve put that baby out into the world, I have to start creating another one.
I think it’s partly generated by this need to continue to improve or do something even more fantastic than we did before, but it’s also partly because we have new ideas, or we’re sort of bored with what we were doing before and we want to try something new. Unfortunately there’s lots of different things that fuel us to keep going and putting things out into the world.
Joanna Penn: Absolutely. And that’s actually another question I had for you which is when you start being a productive creative like that ideas are never the problem, as in you have generally so many ideas, there are lots of options as to what to create next.
Apart from having a job from a client, how do you know what you’re going to create next? How do you decide between all of those ideas?
Lisa Congdon: A lot of what I do is client work, but a lot of what I do is actually very self-generated. Even the books that I create, I have a lot of artistic freedom from my publishers. And I do a lot of personal projects, so I make work on a regular basis that’s just for me, or in my sketchbook, or for a personal project that I’m doing.
I come to the inspiration to create those things in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s through travel, I’ll travel somewhere and my eyes will be opened up to a culture that I’ve never been part of or some art design that I’ve never experienced before that I find really inspirational. I also am sort of an avid reader or looker at visual history of cultures, things like folk pattern, and architecture, and even nature in particular parts of the world and how those things influence things like graphic design, and art, and folk pattern in a particular culture.
I’m sort of like a visual junkie, and I collect a lot of visual imagery, and sometimes in my travels, and then sometimes just by looking at books and at the Internet. I’m constantly collecting inspiration that way.
I think in this day and age of the Internet, especially for visual artists, we’re sort of in this slippery place, because on the one hand, the Internet is where we get our inspiration, but on the other hand, it’s dangerous to get too much inspiration from the Internet because then your work becomes iterative or just like everybody else’s.
There’s always this internal fight to open yourself up to being inspired by what you see, but also doing your own thing and making your work uniquely yours.
There are trends in art, and design, and illustration, and it’s great to be part of those trends and to be a leader in those areas, but at the same time, you want to make your work stand out as being different, or at least I do. So gathering visual inspiration on the Internet can often feel overwhelming, but it is where I do see a lot of things that inspire me, including the work of other artists, and I think it’s hard not to do that.
People ask me a lot about creative block, and I do have it sometimes, periods when I’m not inspired and I don’t know what I’m going to make yet next, but I know that I need to usually take a break, that means I’m pretty burned out and that I need to step back and not try.
Sometimes just taking a break and not forcing yourself to make something, or draw something, or paint something is the way to go.
I’m doing a project right now where I’m making a painting a week outside of my regular art practice and posting it on the Internet every Monday on my blog. I usually make them on Saturday or Sunday. And there are Saturdays and Sundays when I don’t really want to be in my studio, I just want to be outside or I want to be at the movies, but I’m forcing myself to do this personal work. I sit down and I’m, “Ugh,” but then once I get started, I get really into it. So sometimes it’s just forcing yourself to push through that moment of angst like, “What am I going to make today?” or, “I don’t really feel inspired.” It’s complicated being a creative person.
Joanna Penn: I think everyone listening understands that, but I wondered because you’re primarily a visual artist, you’ve also got a lot of books, lots of books on lots of different things.
I wondered what are the similarities and differences between your visually creative work and your written creative work.
Lisa Congdon: I feel like when I approach writing, and I’ve been writing on my blog, I used to write a lot more essays and long form pieces than I do now because I’m so much busier as an artist, you know, working with clients and whatnot. I feel like when I sit down to write something, I have sometimes a much harder time getting started.
You have the blank page as a writer, and you have the blank canvas as an artist, and I would say with paint I know that I can layer over something. If I paint something and I don’t like it, I can start over or paint over it. So it’s not that hard for me to start over.
With writing, I will often stare at the blank page and not know, it’s like you have to start, you have to type that first sentence, and that’s often the hardest. So I find writing much harder, but I also don’t do as much of it, and perhaps if I did more of it, it wouldn’t feel as intimidating like throwing paint on a canvas doesn’t feel intimidating to me.
I bet you a lot of your writers listening will probably feel the opposite because they are maybe more used to writing, but then when they make something with their hands, it might feel harder because they’re just afraid of messing it up or they’re not as comfortable with how to start.
But I do find that once I get into writing, and I’m writing about something that feels important to me, whether it’s a story, or I’m expressing an opinion about something, or I’m teaching somebody some new knowledge, I enjoy it so much and it flows out of me I could spend the entire day writing. Getting started at writing is harder for me, but once I get into, it I really do love it, and I wish I had more time for it.
Joanna Penn: That’s really interesting because I was just thinking then the thought of having a blank canvas, and I really like the color blue, and I’m like, “Well, what if I put a big blue smudge in the middle of the page, on the canvas,” and that’s going to look really crap, and then, “What to do next?” That kind of fear of it looking bad. But like you’re saying, you could then paint over it or whatever, I could give it to you, you could paint over it.
I was wondering about that as an editing process because, of course, the writing process, you write your draft, and then you probably edit it, and then you give it to an editor.
Is there an equivalent with your visual art, do you have an external editor or are you the editor of visual art?
Lisa Congdon: In my personal work I’m generally the editor, and I will often, especially if I’m having a show or doing something public with my work, I will often get the opinions of people I trust, typically other artist friends, to come over and say, “Do you think this painting is done? You think I need to push it a little further?”
I work by myself in my studio now, I have a studio manager, but she’s not an artist. But I used to work in a big studio with lots of other artists, and so I would just call them over and say, “Hey, guys. Do you mind giving me a little critique right now?” But that was my choice and something that I invited.
But with most of my illustration work, it is very similar to working with an editor if you’re publishing a book or a magazine article.
Usually you start with a sketch so that you don’t get too far down the road, they’re like, “No, that’s not what I was looking for. That’s not going to work.”
I’m about to start a book cover for Simon & Schuster, and I’m going to get on the phone next week with the art director. She’s going to say, “This is what book’s about. I’ve sent you the manuscript, maybe skim over it. Here are some ideas for what could be on the cover.” And then I’ll sketch about six different ideas very loosely in pencil, and I’ll send those off, and then she will say, “I really like this one. So why don’t you push this one a little further? Here’s how you might change it. Can you make it a little tighter?” Then eventually the sketch gets approved, we call it a rough sketch, and then you’re allowed to move on to final artwork. So at least the form of things is set, and then you add color, and take it and make it look like it’s going to go on a cover of a book.
And even then at the end of that process it’s also possible that they say, “Oh, those colors don’t work,” or, “You might have to step back or even start over.” But in the world of illustration, we try to design the process so that you don’t get to the end, and then…writing is really much easier to edit than artwork.
Because we have Photoshop now where a lot of people do work digitally, it’s much easier to change your artwork than it’s ever been, but generally speaking, it’s typically harder and more time-consuming than editing writing.
We try to create a process where there are fewer chances that you’re going to turn something in that your client isn’t going to like, and you’re going to have to start over by taking baby steps and checking in along the way, as opposed to just turning into final thing and saying, “Do you like this?” It rarely happens that way, so that’s the good news.
Joanna Penn: That’s really interesting. And of course there you mentioned designing a book cover for a client. You have a ton of different income streams, you’re an entrepreneur as well as an artist which is so brilliant.
Can you just gives an overview of all the different things that you work on that make up your creative business?
Lisa Congdon: Sure, and I’ll probably forget at least one because I do so many that every time somebody asks me this question, afterwards it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I forgot that one thing.”
The main source of income for me now is books, book illustration, and that includes making my own books. I’m working on my seventh book now. My sixth book just came out this week, and then I’m in contract for eight and nine already, although I won’t start those until later this year.
I also illustrate other people’s books, either cover and interior, or just interiors, or just cover, so I do a lot of that.
I do a little bit of editorial illustration and surface design illustration like wallpaper, notecards, wrapping paper, stationary, that kind of thing. So illustration writ large, including my own books, other people’s books. And my own books I also write or edit, so if other people are contributing things, then I edit and collect that information. Right now I’m working on a book that has interviews and essays with other people in it, it’s not just my writing. So that’s a big chunk.
I also teach, mostly online classes. I teach through a few different online forums, Creativebug being the main one. I teach just very easy art classes for people who aren’t necessarily professional artists or don’t even necessarily aspire to be, but want to have more creativity and learn how to draw, things like that.
I do some public speaking, so I travel all over the world to give keynote addresses, and talk at colleges, and at creative conferences, and blogging conferences. In fact, I’m coming to London in June just to give a keynote address. I haven’t been in London or Great Britain since 1998, so I’m very excited.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, London is a lot better.
Lisa Congdon: Everybody tells me, “It’s changed so much.”
I also have an Etsy shop, so that’s my online shop that I’ve had for almost 10 years. I sell prints and signed copies of my book, things like that. I get through a lot of these things like licensing my work, which I consider illustration, my books, the classes I teach, I make royalties or percentages of the sales of things.
A lot of my income is very unpredictable because while I do get flat fees for things and advances that I can count on, a lot of my income just depends on how well something has sold that has my artwork on it or how well a class that I teach is doing out in the world. But those are really the main things. I enjoy all of them a lot, and so I continue to do all of them.
There’s somethings along the way that I don’t do as much of, like I’m having a show I think either this fall or next year in New York, like a fine art show, selling original work not reproductions of things, and not books.
That’s something I used to do a lot, but it’s very time-consuming to make a big body of work, and then you don’t really make as much money selling it. You work really hard, and then you can only sell your paintings for a certain amount of money, and then it just depends on somebody being willing to buy them, but I do love that. So I don’t do it as often, maybe once every two or three years I’ll have a big show. So that’s also happening, but I don’t consider it a major contributor to my income, it’s just more something that I do. There’s a lot of things that I do that fall into that category. They’re not income generators, but I do them because I love to do them. And I do a lot of pro bono work for organizations and places that are raising money for causes that I believe in as well.
Joanna Penn: Which is great because I think some people consider full-time artist in the same way they consider full-time writer, you’re just sitting in a room creating art over and over again or sitting in a room writing, writing, writing, but it’s a lot more than that, isn’t it? I wondered, you also said in your book that promoting your work can be just as creative and fulfilling as making the artwork, which a lot of people would go, “No way, no. I want to just be a creative and create.”
How do you balance that, running the business, the marketing, and the creative side of things?
Lisa Congdon: For many years I did it all by myself. Now I have an employee who helps me with all of that. But my business has grown so much, and the opportunities that come my way, they’re so much more fruitful than they used to be.
That’s what happens as your career grows, your opportunities grow, and your potential to do well financially grows.
I do have a lot of support, but my time is still very much divided between the sitting at the drawing table, as you say, which is I think what people envision that I do eight hours a day. And some days I do get to do that eight hours a day, but most of the time there’s a lot of sitting at the computer and working. Now my assistant answers a lot of my e-mail, but I still have to field things for her, I still have to tell her how she should respond to things, so there’s a lot of administrative stuff.
And then marketing is really important, and part of the reason my career has become successful is because I got comfortable really early on with putting my work into the world.
Again, even though it was intimidating, and even though I knew it wasn’t perfect. I just didn’t wait for it to be perfect or to feel comfortable, and I decided that I was going to embrace the process of promoting my work. So, “How can I make this fun for myself?”
Until Instagram came around, I was mostly using my blog, and then I would tweet about whatever I wrote about. But since my work is very visual, it’s important for there to be a place where people can actually look at it. And I suppose for a writer there needs to be a place for people to be able to read what you wrote and for you to talk about it.
I use my blog in that way a lot to drive people to a place where they can see what I’m talking about or read the words that I’ve written.
As a creative person, every few years I’ll change my blog design. And I’ll get someone, I’ll hire a graphic designer to help me rebrand and make the space where people come to look at my work really inviting, and interesting, and easy to access all the information about me that they want to know, like where they can buy something, where can they come hear me speak, what’s my e-mail if they want to ask me a question.
And then on Instagram, which is the social media platform that I use the most, I use that to mostly share what’s going on, what I’m making, what I’m working on, if I’m having an event coming up, I’ll post a little image and a description.
I post tidbits from my personal life, pictures of my cats, or if I travel, which I like to do, I’ll take pictures of the place that I visit and the things that inspire me. But it is very much a feed that is dedicated to the visual look and feel of my business, and to me, that’s just really fun.
I do understand that marketing is really not fun for everybody. But my advice is always, “Think about how to make marketing fun for yourself and do it that way, because it will feel the most authentic and the least sales-y and inauthentic if you really are doing the stuff you love, and talking about the stuff you love, and sharing the stuff that you love to share. As opposed to sharing things that you think you should be sharing or doing it in a way that you think you should be doing it.”
Joanna Penn: Yeah, and that being authentic is kind of the only way to do this long term. I wanted to ask you about that because at the moment in the writing communities, a lot of people here are saying that they just can’t sustain the pace of the indie writing world which has kind of sped up the writing process.
What do you see separates the long-term successful, productive creatives who are still happy and creating to those people who kind of burn out and fade away?
Lisa Congdon: I think what’s really important, and one of the reason I haven’t burned out and faded away is that I work really hard to take care of myself.
Occasionally I work 10 hour days, but most of the time I just work 8 hours a day. I try to not work at night. I try to keep regular daylight hours. I know some people work better at night, and there’s actually I think a stereotype that writers and artists only like to work at night, that we’re sort of weirdos.
Joanna Penn: Drunk.
Lisa Congdon: Yeah, and that we’re drunk. So if that works for you, fine. But For me, I feel like I’ve tried to abandon this idea that I need to struggle or that being an artist should feel hard.
That creative people are just as entitled to feel happy and to have an abundant life as anybody else. So I take breaks, I take vacations, I make sure that I get regular massages, I get out and walk around, and run, and enjoy my life and my friends. And of course there are periods where I do feel burned out, and where I say, “Oh, why did I take that project? It’s putting me over the edge. If I had only not said yes to that project, I’d be fine.”
But inevitably I get through the project, and I learn from the experience. I’m really trying to have more boundaries around the amount of work that I take. It’s sort of like when as creative people, when we start out, we dream of the day that our work is in demand. That’s where everyone wants to be, in the place where their e-mail box is flooded with requests, and they have choices, and people want to work with them.
But I’ll tell you, the minute that that happens, it becomes even more stressful and overwhelming. And if you don’t figure out a way to manage that and to detach yourself from that, because you have to say no a lot because you can’t say yes to every opportunity.
If you don’t figure out a way to manage that, you will burn out, and you will shrivel up, and feel angry and tired most of the time instead of feeling joyful and grateful for what you have.
I’m always trying to strike that balance. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I work really hard at taking care of myself and my relationship, and making time for my family, and making sure that if I do go through periods where I’m working all of the time that it’s followed by periods of time where I’m not working very much at all. I’m getting better and better at that the older I get. So that’s sort of how I deal with that.
Joanna Penn: I think, as you say, it’s a permanent rebalancing of what you’re doing. I’ve just come back from Austin, and then I did London Book Fair, and as an introvert, speaking is very difficult, so I was like, “Okay, I shouldn’t have done back-to-back.” And I know that, I just overbooked myself. It’s kind of the lessons we learn, but all of that was fantastic. We’ve only got a couple more minutes.
I wanted to ask you about your latest book which is “The Joy of Swimming,” which is kind of an amazing title. Tell us about that book, and why write a book on swimming?
Lisa Congdon: Well, it happened in an interesting way. It wasn’t an idea that I necessarily had packed away in the back of my brain for some time like, “I always wanted to make a book about swimming.” I published a book a few years ago called “Whatever You Are, Be a Good One,” and there is a fairly long essay in the beginning, but most of the book is hand-lettered like literary quotations that I love. The book’s done very well, it’s sort of my bread and butter right now, it won’t be forever.
Anyway, when it started, it was doing well, and a lot of people were buying it. My editor said to me two things, “I’d like to make a sequel,” which we did, which of course, isn’t doing as well because, as writers know, second books never do as well as first book that have done well, or maybe they do, but generally not. But then she said, “If you could make a book about whatever you wanted, what would that be?” Of course at first I was like, “I have no idea.”
I started to think about all of the things that I could make a book about and all these ideas that I had, and swimming is definitely one of the things that I’m passionate about. I’ve been a lifelong swimmer. And there aren’t a lot of illustrated books about swimming, but it was the one idea compared to some of the others ideas for books that I entertained that I felt like could translate well into an illustrated book. So my editor thought it was a great idea. I wrote up a little proposal about what might go in it, and started the process of brainstorming and organizing my ideas. My publishing house, the one that I work with most often, is called Chronicle Books. They loved the idea, and I set to work on it.
I started swimming when I was a little kid. I started swimming competitively when I was eight years old, and I swam competitively through high school. I didn’t swim in college, mostly because I didn’t have the discipline required. Being a collegiate swimmer or a collegiate athlete of any kind is an incredibly intense experience. And then when I was in my 20s I started swimming again in Masters Swimming, which is like a worldwide organization for adult competitive organized swimming, and I was a coach. Swimming really changed my life, it helped me get through a lot of very hard times in my 20s and early 30s. The swimming community in San Francisco where I used to live was a community that was really near and dear to my heart.
When I started making the book, I was researching all kinds of things, like the history of the swimming pool, and the history of competitive swimming, and the history of the bathing suit, like how was the bikini invented. I got really nerdy about all these different aspects of swimming that I knew nothing about. I had a real natural curiosity which I think is important when you’re making a book, especially a non-fiction book, that you actually are genuinely interested in the subject matter.
The book is a kind of mishmash of profiles of swimmers. Some of them have pretty incredible stories, illustrations that are very nostalgic in nature, some infographics that talk about swimming pool culture in different countries, and the science of swimming, and the history of the swimming pool, all those kinds of things, and lots of hand-lettered literary quotations which I love. It’s very colorful, and there’s, oh my gosh, over 100…every page has an illustration on it except for a couple of pages in my introduction, and the book is 144 pages, so it’s very colorful, and I’m really excited to have it in the world.
Joanna Penn: That’s brilliant. Where can people find “The Joy of Swimming,” and “Art Inc.,” and your artwork, and everything you have online?
Lisa Congdon: The first place to go is my website which is lisacongdon.com. And on my website, there are links to my Etsy shop where, depending on stock, because I’m not Amazon, I can’t have like 10,000 books in my garage, depending on stock, people get signed copies of my books. Of course Amazon, all of the Amazon affiliates out in the world, Amazon UK, all of the online venues like Barnes & Noble, etc., sell all of my books. Most of my books are in bookstores all over the world as well, so if somebody wants one and they can’t find it online, just go to your local bookstore and ask. You can also buy my artwork and some of my products that are out in the world through my website as well, so if you’re looking for something in particular, you can just browse.
Joanna Penn: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Lisa. That was great.
Lisa Congdon: Thank you so much for having me, Joanna.