Story Start—’Tired Old Man’

He walks alone through a small town on a bitter cold night in January. He marches slowly down the sidewalk, dragging one leg, pulling a luggage cart full of objects that look just as worn out and ready to die as he does.

He wears a dingy wool cap over oily, lifeless, dirty blond and grey specked hair. Strands of his beard stick out sideways, seemingly unaffected by gravity. He wears the standard uniform of the street native. Overcoat. Ripped pants, couple sizes too big. Fingerless gloves, used to be one color, now several. Tired old work boots.

Back when he was a young man, in the time when Jesus walked the earth, he used to enjoy the company of people. He’d sit for hours and talk story, laughing so loud people a quarter mile away would ask him the next day what was so funny.

Those days are long gone. After two thousand plus years life has lost a little of its succor, its zest, its willingness for him to be part of it. Which is why he has to find the boy, his final payment for freedom from this earthly cage, one last job before he can finally feel the welcome embrace of death’s warm hands.

Alright, your turn! Who is this guy? Where’s he at? What’s his mission? Who’s the boy (or girl, or dog, or whatever)? I’ve got my theories, but I’d love to hear yours.


My Best Hours

An interview with Heather Ebert, a writer who dropped out of the corporate world and took the plunge into a freelance digital life.

Heather Ebert is a freelance copywriter and editor, an insightful blogger—mostly on the topics of creativity and writing, and the founder and editor of a non-profit called Redemption Stories. She’s also a very prolific tweeter. Heather is based in Nashville, and, as you’ll read, she’s planning to spend the spring in Paris. Here’s my recent (and long-overdue) interview with her (using my patented Lazy-Interviewer’s-Five-Question-Formula®).

Heather Ebert

When did you decide to make writing and editing your career?

The desire to live and work as a freelancer dates back to 2004, but I didn’t have the maturity or credentials to do it successfully at the time. Almost five years ago I joined a small tribe of women who encouraged each other toward creative awakening, and by spring of 2010 I was emboldened to plan big changes. I wanted autonomy over my best hours so that I could tend to an intensifying writing impulse.

The corporate job I had back then was so soul-crushing that I was finally willing to give up a healthy paycheck to be free. So, I juggled that full-time job, a live-in job, and freelance projects for nearly a year to get out of debt, and then I let go of the corporate position in April 2011. Not a day goes by that I’m not deeply grateful for the freedom I have to live and work the way I do now.

Why do you do what you do?

Honoring the writing impulse is faithfulness to my true self. What I’ve been doing these last three or four years is what I should have been doing all along. I spent most of my young adulthood reacting to circumstances rather than being proactive about what would be most fulfilling.

Henry David Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

That sense of desperation finally propelled me past the fear of financial insecurity that had stood in the way. I don’t have a lot of money. I don’t buy many clothes. I drive a beat-up old car. But I feel extremely wealthy because my time is my own.

How do you like to work—what’s an average workday look like for you?

As long as I don’t have anywhere to be, I like to ease into the day. I get up around 8 a.m. (maybe one day I’ll be more of an early bird). I show up to my desk with fresh coffee and first start with a devotional and Scripture reading. Then breakfast, after which I’ll work on either a personal essay or a freelance project, depending on deadlines.

A few times a week I practice yoga midday and then sit back down to work in the afternoon. If I’m having trouble concentrating I’ll work from a favorite coffeehouse. I try to stop by 7 p.m. for dinner and not do anything else work-related after that. An ideal day ends with a block of time to read before bed, a precious part of my routine.

I’m also trying to reestablish weekend boundaries because it’s easy to spread freelance tasks over six or seven days a week. But my mind needs time off, so I schedule personal tasks and leisure activities on Saturday and Sunday to balance out the weekly rhythm.

What advice do you have for people who want to do what you do?

If what you want is to work independently, then I recommend doing whatever it takes to get out of debt and simplify your living expenses. Building up a business or freelance income can take several months or even years, depending on how many clients you’ve secured by the time you set out on your own.

Independent workers are the future of the American economy. By 2020, 40 percent of American workers will be freelancers, independent or temporary, according to a study by Intuit. So, dive in. Come join us.

If you want to be a writer, you don’t necessarily have to quit your day job. Countless writers, even many established novelists, write their blogs, books and essays during their off hours. I quit my day job, but now freelance writing is my “day job.” Personal writing projects are still something I pursue in addition to professional work.

Writing also takes courage. Even if you quit your job and you have all day long to craft and create, actually sitting down to write is a challenging habit to cultivate. There’s always something that feels more urgent than writing. In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield calls this repellent force “Resistance.” I encounter it every time I decide to put to paper any swirling thoughts and ideas.

Writing is a bold practice, but a worthy one. Showing up consistently is the most important part of that practice.

Which project are you currently most excited about?

In my professional life, I’m working toward a gradual transition from general copywriting to editing and ghostwriting books of various lengths. My hope is to take on fewer, larger projects instead of juggling lots of smaller ones. Plus, I love the intellectual challenge that authorship poses.

In my personal life, I’m going to live in Paris for three months this spring. I visited Europe last summer, which included a week in the City of Light. The magic and beauty of the city rekindled my sense of wonder. I knew I had to return as soon as possible, so I came home last summer and started packing. All my belongings are in storage until I settle back in Nashville. My creative energy is never as refreshed and vibrant as it is when I travel.

You can learn more about Heather at her website,

Cover photo by Linh Nguyen.

On writing: Whatever you have to do to get through

Photo: Mike Baird -
I am writing a novel.

Do you know how many times since I was a teenager I have been ‘writing a novel’?

I have four novels ‘in the works’. All 10,000 words or less. Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day. He could have written all four of my novel-starts in two weeks. Two weeks!

That’s okay, though. I don’t need to be fast. I don’t even need to be good. What I need, for my own personal well-being, is just to finish. Something. Anything.

So here’s my new philosophy on writing. One hundred words a day. Just 100 words. I can usually get 100 words down in a half hour or less in the morning after feeding our five month old breakfast.

If you didn’t pick up on it, I’m a slow writer.

Actually, I’m a perfectionist. Which is both a horrible curse and a wonderful blessing. A perfectionist will always be their own worst enemy, but their work, if it’s ever allowed to see the light of day, will be amazing.

Often I go over a hundred words in my writing session, which is like a free bonus. Some days I miss entirely, but I don’t focus on those days. As long as I’m making some kind of progress every week, I feel like I’m on the right track and doing good.

This is good for me. I find I do better working on lots of things in small chunks than focusing all my energy on one big thing.

So how do you keep making progress even when it seems like you’ll never finish? (And how many words a day can you crank out? Don’t be shy.)

Photo: ‘2 of 3 Coast Guard 47′ Motor Lifeboat performs storm exercises in wild surf at Morro Bay’ by Mike Baird

Blogger-stylist-fashionista extraordinaire

In the rapidly evolving world of style blogging, Janis Galloway of Dress Me Dearly Styling has made it clear that she’s here to stay. Not content to exist in a bubble of online interaction, Janis is an enthusiastic contributor to the arts and fashion communities in her hometown of Edmonton, Canada, both on- and off-line. Here’s our interview.

First and foremost, what inspired you to get into the fashion industry? When did you decide you wanted to be a stylist?

My own personal style blog and the fashion network around me really inspired me to get involved in the fashion community in Edmonton. I started my blog on a whim one day, and once I realized I had a dedicated following I knew that what I had to say mattered. That’s what is incredible about blogs. It breaks through the barriers of the fashion world and creates an equal platform for people who just love fashion and want to share that.

I always thought I wanted to be a stylist, but never thought I could. I took a chance and entered a styling contest in 2010 and met other stylists who were already working in the industry. They encouraged me to just go for it, and gave me the confidence to just get out there and try. That’s exactly what I did. Continue reading “Blogger-stylist-fashionista extraordinaire”

Un-couch’d: Maybe i am insane

‘Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.’
Henry David Thoreau

I first read this quote on a photograph that was given to me by my friend Julie Anna back in 2008. The photo was taken atop a hill overlooking the New Zealand countryside. It brought a rush of excitement that made me want to take dynamic inspirational photos and video of other countries and cultures. It reminded me of what I was really passionate about and what I really wanted to do. However, for the next year and a half that photo would hang on my wall while I played video games and watched countless movies.

Growing up I’d always wanted to be in the movie business. It started, of course, with watching films such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. The real desire came when I saw the movies FX and FX2. I knew that becoming a special effects artist was my calling. Little did I know as a kid, in order to achieve that goal I would need to learn a lot about chemistry, physics and be quite handy with tools. While I’m not completely mechanically inept, I wouldn’t say I’m a guy who can get things fixed. After all, that’s what money is for. Pay someone else to do it, right? So with this new information, I decided that maybe becoming a special effects artist wasn’t my calling. Continue reading “Un-couch’d: Maybe i am insane”

Dan Cloutier: Folk Hero

I’ve known Dan and his wife Kalina for two years now. When I first met him, I found out about his full-time job working with individuals with disabilities at the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center in Hopkinton, Mass, and I was impressed. Then I found out about his part-time folk music career when he gave me a copy of his cd, ‘Bottles and Seeds’, and I was more impressed.

Then I went to the recording of his second cd, ‘Live at the Masquerade Ball’ which was also a live show (he likes to live dangerously). Not long after that he started talking about co-starting a record label which became Birch Beer Records. Next thing I knew, he and co-founder Kim Jennings had signed a new artist, Levi Schmidt, and were working to put out Levi’s first album.

Then I hear about this whole ‘I Support Local Music in Massachusetts’ Facebook page, which has almost 8,000 fans. Now there’s a blog ( and no telling what Dan Cloutier and friends might do next. That’s just the kind of guy he is. I sat down with Dan at his home a while ago to talk about this stuff. Here’s a little bit of our conversation.

How did you get into music in the first place?

I got into music primarily through the alternative rock movement in the early 90s when I was in junior high school. I felt really good listening to all this teenage angst music. I felt that was really important at the time.

Is that when you started playing guitar and writing music?

Yeah, I started writing poetry first, and my friends played the guitars. My mom had a beat up acoustic guitar. My uncle showed me some chords. And I didn’t start learning other people’s songs. I just started writing songs. They were awful. Just, like, absolute drivel. It took me, I don’t know, like ten years to write something that was quasi-coherently decent.

It’s just like any writing, it takes a lot of practice. I started right off the bat writing. It was even like a couple years before I could really begin to play other people’s songs.

It’s interesting because you hear stories about Bob Dylan, and Dylan did the opposite. Dylan learned thousands of songs when he was in his late teens and twenties. All the old folk songs, Woodie Guthrie, etcetera. All those people. He played all those songs so when he began to write songs when he was like 21, he had a thousand songs under his belt. He began to write brilliantly immediately. It took me a long time to begin to write okay, because I didn’t learn the craft of other people until much later on.

Besides music, what are the other things in your life that you are passionate about?

I’m passionate about traveling. I love to travel. I like to travel to kind of strange, extreme places. When I get my mind set on traveling to a place, I get super focused on it. I do all this internet searching on it. I go to my libraries and rent books and movies about it.

I’m passionate about my family. I’ve got a wonderful family and a wonderful wife. I’m passionate about my job. I work with people with special needs. We have a great time. I’ve been working there full time for almost eight years.

You went to seminary right?

I went to Gordon College. I went to undergrad. So I didn’t go to official seminary. I got my bachelor’s degree in biblical studies and ancient history and I was able to live in Jerusalem for six months studying the bible and studying that kind of ancient history. It was very interesting to study and has a huge influence on my songs.

It was interesting because while I was studying it I had a feeling that this is what I was supposed to be doing, but at the same time I think I was just being ignorant and not thinking at all about future. I was just very in the moment. I definitely didn’t give myself all that many options.

There was a time that first summer that I graduated that I was just– it struck me just how much some people have prepared for this moment, the real world, and how little I had prepared for the real world. It was a very important awakening. And a couple months depression.

(Laughing) I can relate.

I wrote some of my best songs out of that. It was the first time I was really writing good songs, like consistently. The first time I began to write songs that are still in my repertoire now were that summer that I was struggling through the depression and figuring out what the heck I wanted to do with my life.

So do you think artists have to go through a dark time if they want to bring anything good out of their art?

I think maybe people have to go through a dark time if they want to bring anything good to this world. Maybe not everybody. Maybe there’s people who get away with it, but the people who did a lot of changing for the good in this world went through a lot of suffering. I think they run hand in hand.

You mentioned this, but as an artist, how does the song writing and music writing process work for you?

The inspiration for each song is different. A song is an interesting thing. It’s a process.

There are songs where I’ve written the lyrics first and I knew how it sounded in my head. There are songs where I wrote a guitar part, worked on it for a year trying to force lyrics on top of it. There are songs that I’ll begin to write lyrics and I have no clue what the lyrics are really about, then eventually by the end of the song they mean something to me. There are songs that I want to write a song about this specific situation and I’ll write a song about that specific situation.

It’s an interesting question. It all comes down to this concept of– an artist would usually call it the muse. How does the muse speak to you? It’s almost more like we’re fishing. You know, where you can be out there fishing for a long time and never catch anything, but you need to kind of know when to reel in when you have something good. You need to know when whatever that idea is is a worthy enough idea to write down.

How did the label come about? How did that get started?

It’s called Birch Beer Records. It started about a year ago. I was recording a live cd, my second cd, of thirteen brand new songs. One of my good friends was working on it with me. She was a piano player and a singer on that album. Her name is Kim Jennings and she was coming out with her own album later that fall. So this was in the spring, and I knew that my album would probably drop around the fall too, so we sat down together after the show in May and we were like, how do we go about getting this music out to the people? Like, what needs to happen?

When you’re a solo independent artist, the first thing most people say is well you need a record label to do anything. So Kim and I decided let’s make our own record label. And the more and more we talked about it, the more and more we became determined around the idea that people who are small, independent artists really don’t have a good shot, because all the big labels aren’t in Boston anymore.

We originally thought this idea for a record company was just to promote our two albums, but about three months into it we decided we’re just going to take all our proceeds from our albums and put it into the company so we can begin to sign some other people and begin to get this thing off the ground and begin to try to change the way the local music scene is looked at.

There’s a value to having somebody in your town you might want to see play. The way it works now in America, there tends to be like the fifty acts that get played on the radio and they just kind of roam from town to town, but there’s a beauty to that concept [of local music] just as there’s a beauty to the concept of like, you know, locally grown produce, locally grown stuff.

If there’s people out there who you could talk to who are wanting to get started in the music business, either just locally playing shows or they want to go all the way and make it huge, what would you recommend, you know, in 2010?

I’ve learned an awful lot the past few years. The most important thing is to be true to your craft. I still hold to the same thing I held to a year ago. Play a ton. Write, write, write. Listen to great artists of whatever genre you’re listening to.

But is that going to get you signed or even get you fans? No, probably not. There’s so many people doing it. Two years, three years ago, the way I was playing, for me to have real success at music I needed to win the lottery. That’s the position I put myself in. I needed to have somebody at some show who’s really important see me and love me, which is just– the chance of that is like finding a diamond in a sea of sand. There’s so many other people who are great.

You need to do things differently. You need to think outside the box. You need to promote yourself. You need to think about how you can help the greater community. You need to work your tail off in terms of promotion, and it’s not for everybody. That’s where it’s completely fine to be an absolute brilliant songwriter and have, like, your ten friends and the people at your local open mike know who you are. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But, if you want to do [music] full time, seriously, you need to almost have a business degree. Even if you stand way out you need to have that business sense of having the good websites, doing the good promotion, talking to the right people, playing as much as you can, playing four times a week, doing it that way. That’s how you slowly build a fan base and then people will try to give back to you.

I’ve had a lot of success with doing this Birch Beer Records thing. I started this Facebook page called ‘I Support Local Music In Massachusetts’ and there’s 7,000 people associated with it now. A newspaper might be interested in what I’m trying to do musically, but also I’m trying to do these other things. It just gives you greater options and greater resources. It’s more interesting.

There’s a lot of singer-songwriter troubadours, there’s a lot of people who are great bass players, a lot of people who are great piano players, but what are you doing that’s different and interesting? What’s your purpose? What’s motivating that? Why should people pay attention to you?

If after hearing this people are wanting to get more involved in their local music scene and try to support that, whether they are musicians or just fans of music, do you have some good ways they can begin that process?

You gotta find some people who are local, brilliant locals, and when you find somebody who’s local, then you need to be their big supporter. They need you. You know, telling your friends about them, inviting them to shows, and trying to get them as excited about it as you are excited about it. It’s important.

And go see more shows.

Images courtesy of Dan Cloutier.

Finally start writing your screenplay

When a movie trailer comes on TV, something in the back of your mind switches on. As you see movie posters in the mall, a feeling passes through your gut. Any mention of the Oscars, Sundance, or Cannes moves your heart a little.

You have a Big Idea, and you ache to see it written, revised, bought, cast, shot, edited, and projected onto a big screen in front of an audience. And you believe that your job is Job #1: put the Idea on paper. You want, or dare I say, need to write a screenplay. You are compelled, and if you’re the Believing type, you believe that it’s the will of God in your life. Simply put, it’s your dream.

However, dreams aren’t easy to achieve; otherwise they’d just be chores. So you frequently ask yourself: Continue reading “Finally start writing your screenplay”