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Gathering the People with Sarah J. Bray

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Have you ever heard the advice that you need to start spreading the word about your creative work even before it’s finished? Have you wondered how to do that elegantly, effectively, and with integrity?

If so, I direct you to Sarah J. Bray’s new book, Gather the People: a simple, honest approach to creating work that people love, buy, & share.

Sarah is a writer and strategic designer, and I have been following her work for years. Sarah knows how to be helpful and also very personable and immediate, whether she’s writing about having hot dates with your website, building a community around your work, or her passion for toast.

In January I got an email newsletter from Sarah in which she announced that she had just been laid off from her new and beloved job with &yet and that she was going to throw herself into finishing a book she’d been working on for two years. Sarah’s courage and skill in telling her community about such an earth-shaking event as it was happening took my breath away.

True to her heart and enthusiasm, Sarah finished her book in just a few weeks, and you can now pre-order Gather the People at a $10 discount until February 25 (that’s Wednesday! Don’t put it off!).

And here’s why you would want that book: Sarah knows oodles about how to create in a way that makes people care. She’s been doing it for years with her design and marketing clients, and also with her own work. Sarah has a fantastically responsive “nation” around her because of the way she talks about, shares, and tests her work as she creates it.

I had the honour of reading a few early chapters of Gather the People, and I’m anxious to get the rest so Sarah can guide me as I continue to build a nation around my own book, Pilgrimage of Desire. (In fact, she inspired me to start a series of posts on Facebook about crafting systems.)

Here’s my conversation with Sarah where we talk about getting one’s writing done and talking to one’s nation at the same time.

[Interview transcript has been edited for clarity and readability.]

Alison: You have just been through a big change, being let go from your job and having to adjust and regroup.

One of the things I love about you and the reason I open your emails the second I see them in my inbox is that you are able to share what you’re going through with your work almost in the moment, really raw and present. I’m curious about whether that’s something you’ve cultivated or whether that’s just your way of doing things, and how you’ve learned how to refine it and make it serve you.

Sarah: Like most of us who’ve been blogging for a while, you try a lot of different things. You try the super-organized editorial calendar thing, where you say, these are the topics that I need to write about, and I’m going to write about them on these days, and you try lots of different things.

But for me, three years ago or so, I started thinking about what made some things feel really good when I was writing them and feel really great when people were reading them, and I’d get a response that was positive, and other things just fell flat. I wasn’t satisfied with the thought that, well, sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. I tried some different things, and one that has stuck with me forever and has made my writing life so much easier is asking myself, “What is the most true right now for me? What is really going on in my life right now, in my work or whatever it is?”

Sometimes that’s a problem I’m trying to solve or something that’s in my head. Maybe I’m frustrated because I’m not making time for my friendships. Last year my best friend did something that hurt me a lot, and out of that came my Hello Month project. But I’ll ask myself that question, “What is the most true for me right now and sometimes to get there I’ll just start writing, “The truth is, I really hate what I’m writing right now, it’s  boring, and what I want to write about is dah dah dah.” And I just go to that place. You don’t have to worry about running out of things to write because there’s always the truth. And you don’t have to worry about what you write falling flat because the truth is never boring. Even if it’s something that’s been said a million times, if you say it in the way that’s true for you, then it’s never boring.

Alison: And when you’re doing that, do you have your readers or your audience somewhere in your mind, shaping the truth that you’re sharing?

Sarah: I believe in the cross-pollination of ideas; that’s what makes creative work special. Just because something isn’t about the work that I’m doing or about the thing I’m making or the idea I’m trying to get across, that doesn’t mean it’s not related somehow. I know that it related because everything is related.

So I pay more attention to what’s going on that’s true for me, and I try to think about what feels like it would be true for other people as well. I’ve posted some things that were true for me, and I’m pretty sure they were not true for anyone else, but I just put it out there. And that’s when you end up feeling really raw and vulnerable. But most of the time I do keep others in mind, mostly as a checkpoint. Is this something that would also be true for other people and helpful and good for them?

Alison: One of the things that I struggle with in writing in the context of my business is that I’m now dealing with the emotions and practicalities of publishing a book. But my audience may not be in that same space. So do I try to relate what I’m doing now to the message of my book, which might be a few years behind where I am now?

Sarah: I think all of us are so different. One of my weaknesses is thinking about the past, so I have to use the present to talk about anything I’ve learned. Anytime I write about something that happened in the past, I have a really bad memory, and I don’t remember the past me very well.

But to answer your question, I think that it’s awesome when people can step back from what they’re going through now and talk about the things they’ve learned in the past. But in order for me to do that effectively, I have to relate what I’m going through now. I feel like everything that we go through is so universal and applicable to different things. I may be going through something while homeschooling my kids but that is totally related to collaborating with your community to create something that people love. Somehow it all ends up being related. So I don’t know! It may just be a quirk of me that I can’t talk about the things that I learned two years ago because I don’t even remember what they were.

Alison: This is what I see in your work, that it is so very much you, and you have found ways to embrace and accept the way you do things and make it work for you. And I’m not going to be able to do things the way you do and have it work for me.

Sarah: But I think that as much as people doing what works for other people doesn’t work, learning the principles behind what they’re doing helps us create our own way of doing it.

So I think that’s useful for me, to learn from you. One of the things I’m struggling with right now in my book is illustrating the principles that are in it with things that I’ve learned. I’ve worked with so many clients, I have hundreds of people I’ve worked with that I could get stories from, but I can’t remember them at all. I know that sounds terrible, it’s not like I don’t remember the people, it’s that I don’t remember the stories that would really illustrate my points very well, and so I struggle with that a lot. As you’re writing your book, how do you deal with that? And maybe knowing that would help me apply it somehow, maybe in a totally different way, and a way that would work for me.

Alison: As you’re describing that, I’m thinking about a book that I wrote for a client and how I interviewed a whole bunch of his people and got their stories and fit them into the themes we were working on. I guess that’s something that I know how to do …

Sarah: Exactly. So you take that process and you’re more present. You’re not thinking, “I’m going to remember what this client I worked with seven years ago,” but “I can interview people and get those fresh stories.” Is that what you’re saying?

Alison: Yes. For further back in time, I have my journals that I used a lot when I was writing my memoir to refresh my memory, and sometimes I could recreate a whole scene or dialogue because of what I’d written in the moment. 

Sarah: That’s awesome. I write every single day, and when I look back over that stuff, I see that I didn’t write what happened that day! I’m realizing that now, I didn’t write what happened, because it already happened and for some reason I don’t think that way – I think of the future. I think of the possibility of what could happen, of what I’m feeling, of what I’m going to do next. So I don’t even do that. Maybe that’s a discipline I should get into, writing down the basics of what happened so I can remember.

Alison: One of the big themes of my book is desire and how what we want to do and be is a through-line that pulls us forward to being happy and healthy. In your work, you’ve called that force enthusiasm and you have really learned to follow it and jump on it. Can you talk about how enthusiasm is serving you right now in this period of upheaval and change?

Sarah: Absolutely. A week before I got the phone call about my job (which was horrible), I was recording a podcast with my friend and business partner Brooke Snow. We were talking about the concept of life balance and whether or not it exists, and especially about making time for the things that are important to you.

I was asking her, “What do you do if maybe you literally do not have time for what you want to do? I had been working on this book for the past two years, and I was so frustrated. Now I realize it probably wasn’t a matter of time, I think it was a matter of just fear, but I was saying to Brooke, “This year, I am not going to write this book. I’m just going to give myself permission to not deal with this book anymore.”

Then the next week I got the call about the layoff, and the first thing, besides being terribly sad, was this little beam of sunlight that went through my heart, “I can write my book!” In that moment I was incredibly compelled, and the path before me was clear, and I knew exactly what I was going to do and how I was going to do it. And the next day I told you and everybody about it, and that enthusiasm is an example of how I know that this is completely what I needed to be doing right now.

The hard part for me is after the adrenaline wears off, which for me was after I wrote the first draft in six days. I already had 35,000 words written for this book, but when I went back over it all, I realized this wasn’t the book I wanted to write again, because I’d rewritten this book so many times. But I decided to write the first draft as quickly as I could, and I did nothing but write for six days.

When I got through with that and went to the second draft and re-read it, I started losing that enthusiasm. That has been a theme for me: how to keep going even when you don’t have enthusiasm because you’re full of doubt or fear or whatever. But this time, instead of quitting, which I’ve done every other time, I actually kept going. Even though I’d only given myself three weeks to write this book, one-third of that time I was completely in the pit of self-doubt and not even sure if I could make anything that I would like, much less anyone else. But I kept writing and finally came through on the other side with enthusiasm when I got more clarity on how to fix the things that I didn’t like.

So I was proud of myself! For the first time I actually stuck with the book through the part that  was hard and through the part where I didn’t know if it was actually going to be good or not until I got there.

Alison: I think you said something about how you connected with your desire to write this book, the why of it? That came through more clearly for you this time around?

Sarah: Yes, it totally did, and I don’t know what that was. Because I’m kind of a spiritual person, I thought, “This is God, this is definitely what I’m supposed to do.” And even when I lose that voice, I have to remember the first time that I heard it and keep going.

Alison: I always think that you can’t get from A to C without going through B. If you hadn’t had that two years of frustration and setting the book aside and not feeling it, maybe you wouldn’t have been ready to jump on this opportunity  and see it through.

Sarah: Yes, that’s true. And I’m a completely different person than I was even nine months ago. That’s the interesting thing about following your enthusiasm: you learn and grow very quickly. Sometimes that means you have to pivot very quickly in your work, and that’s okay. But yes, I agree, I don’t think I would be able to have had that clarity if I hadn’t spent that time slugging through it.

Alison: Let’s talk a bit about the daily experience of writing, because I know this is something you’ve thought a lot about. There’s your post about your 90-minute work day, and you have many things going on in your life, including children and homeschooling and work. Tell me how you’ve navigated getting stuff done and looking after yourself at the same time.

Sarah: Looking after myself is probably the hardest part. Right now my job is to write, and I found that pretty simple in the beginning, it was just: write, take a break after 90 minutes, and then write some more, and then take a break. But obviously that’s not sustainable to do that from morning until night every day. I was just riding that tide of initial enthusiasm and sometimes I ride it for way too long and then I get tired.

I have so many different approaches that I’ve taken over the years. The 90-minute work day is definitely one of them that’s stuck around for a while. But I actually wrote this book that I never showed to anyone else about how to choose how to work today. I never gave it a title. It was  one of those books that you write on a plane ride. Actually it was on a train ride; I was just coming from Virginia, going up to New York and I was taking a train the whole way, so I decided, I’m going to write a book while this happens. It ended up being a very confusing book, which is why I never shared it with anyone. But it was basically saying, based on your situation right now, one of these approaches should work for you. And I have 25 of them. So I really do believe that a different approach is called for at different times of our lives.

Right now, I’m playing with an idea of rewards [laughs], little-kid type rewards. I have a subscription to Oyster, which is like Netflix for books, and I was reading this book called Write.: 10 Days to Overcome Writer’s Block. Period. It was really in your face. I don’t have writer’s block but I was wanting to procrastinate by reading a book about writing because I thought, sometimes books like Bird by Bird and On Writing really motivate you and you want to write for days after you read them. This wasn’t really that kind of book, but one of the things she talked about in getting over writer’s block was recording how long you actually wrote and giving yourself a reward for the same amount of time that you wrote.

I have thought about rewards before. Donald Miller has this great approach to organizing your day where you have three blocks of project time – the first block is for the thing that requires the most energy, the next less than that, and then finally the last one, when you’re about brain dead by that point. But after each one he has a reward, and you fill in what you’re going to give yourself.

And I’m really terribly bad about giving myself rewards. But I liked this way because it’s an actual amount of time. So this morning I woke up and I wrote for 50 minutes, and I didn’t tell myself how long I would do it, I just got in the flow and it lasted for 50 minutes. Then I wrote down that my reward was 50 minutes of playing Settlers of Cataan with my family. I love that game, and we just bought an expansion pack, so there’s a version now that I can play with John and we don’t need three people!

So I’m playing that concept of giving yourself a reward that is a time-related reward; however long you spend, that’s how long you get to do whatever it is. I’m doing that for things that I just don’t like to do. I don’t like to do is get dressed and ready. I don’t really like showering that much. That’s just disgusting but I don’t go anywhere so I actually have to make a concerted effort to get dressed and ready.

I have this childhood memory of me being in the shower, and I had forgotten my towel, and the shower was over, and the water had run out. I was cold, and I didn’t know where any towels were. I must have been eight or something, and instead of calling out for help or running out really fast and trying to find a towel, I stood there shivering and crying and covered in this cold water for a long time! And I think that is where I really have a block toward taking showers. So I was giving myself reward time for taking a shower, so however long I spend getting dressed and I actually dry my hair and all of that stuff (because I did get ready for you, you know, just in case this was a video thing. My hair’s fixed, make-up on …), I gave myself that much time for reading whatever I want.

Right now I’m just treating myself like a little kid, but I think there are a lot of ways that we can make things work for us, and if one thing isn’t working for us one day, we have the freedom to choose a different way, to choose something that’s gentler if we’re struggling and it’s hard to make ourselves sit down and do our work. Or to choose something that takes advantage of the fact that you are riding the tidal wave of enthusiasm and you’re just going for it. I think we need to have different approaches; we need to be ready for those different times.

Alison: That managing ourselves and how we get things done is as much a creative enterprise as the actual work itself.

Sarah: It is! That is so well said. You should tweet that!

Alison: When I’m trying to work or write and my kids are in the house, they will come into my office and bug me, bang on the door, say “I’m bored, I don’t know what to do.” Have you figured out any ways to manage this?

Sarah: Well, a little bit. I do warn them if I’m recording something, like right now, not to come up here. I don’t know if you heard this, probably not because my microphone is good at not picking up ambient noise, but just a few minutes ago, my littlest came up the stairs and held out her iPad for me to put in the password for it. So one thing is, have a really good microphone when you’re on a call that doesn’t pick up that voice.

Because right now, honestly, I can hear them. I can hear them shouting. My kids are the loudest kids in the universe. I don’t know how, because John and I are both definitely introverted, and I don’t know how they got to be so loud. I tell them not to bother me, and the other two kids are good at listening, but my youngest isn’t.

Unfortunately my office now doesn’t have a lock on the door. It’s on the third floor of our townhouse, and the lock doesn’t work. So that’s how the little one gets through. But when I did have an office door with a lock that worked, my kids would slide me secret notes under the door and I would keep a marker right there and answer their notes. I would be on a conference call with a client with seven other people and the kids would put a note under the door, they would do the secret knock so I would know it was there, and I would just nonchalantly go over and write my answer and slide it back. That always worked really well because they thought it was cool and secret and nobody ever knew the difference.

Alison: I love that. So this image I have of your household where the kids sit perfectly at the table and do what they’re told when you’re working is not real.

Sarah: No, it’s not real, not at all real.

Alison: Thank you so much for talking to me, Sarah. It makes me happy.

Sarah: I’m know! I’m happy too. It’s like, yay, internet friends are real!


And now that you’ve read to the end, go check out the preview and pre-order your copy of Gather the People!

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Laureen Marchand February 24, 2015, 8:53 am

    Hi Alison,
    I’m a Sarah J Bray fan too, and this was lovely to listen to. The two of you sounded so relaxed and conversational. But mostly I’m an Alison fan. You ask insightful questions and listen to the answers in an interview just as you do in a client session. It would be great if you did more podcasts. It was wonderful to hear your voice. I remember when I first heard it, I was almost despondent about not being in my studio and not making art. Our telephone conversations gave me the beginning of a new direction. Today I listened to this podcast as I painted at my easel, developing a new body of work for the gallery that now represents me, and looking forward to expanding that further. I cannot thank you enough.
    Laureen xo

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