From Chaos to Creativity: Productivity For Writers With Jessie Kwak

How do you balance your time between what you have to do and what you want to do? How do you decide what’s most important to work on? How do you make the most of the time you have for writing? I talk about productivity for authors and writers with Jessie Kwak.

In the intro, Penguin Random House owner Bertelsmann to buy Simon & Schuster in a $2bn deal [The Guardian]; some of the regulatory challenges ahead [Publishers Weekly]; Audible/ACX adjusts terms for authors based on returns [The Guardian], but it’s not enough. More transparency around reporting is needed [Publishing Perspectives]; Distribute audiobooks directly through Bookfunnel; How to make a fiction podcast [Podcast Host]; Amazon is in talks to buy podcast producer, Wondery [Wall St Journal].

It’s been a very productive month of lockdown for me here in the UK! Your Author Business Plan is out this week (+ Workbook Edition), along with Tree of Life, ARKANE thriller #11. Plus Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, and Virtual Worlds is now out in paperback, and my German book, Mindset fur Autoren, is (finally) out in audiobook. Today’s show is sponsored by ProWritingAid, writing and editing software that goes way beyond just grammar and typo checking. With its detailed reports on how to improve your writing and integration with Scrivener, ProWritingAid will help you improve your book before you send it to an editor, agent or publisher.

Check it out for free or get 25% off the premium edition at

Jessie Kwak is the author of gangster sci-fi supernatural thrillers and nonfiction. She’s also a freelance ghostwriter and editor, copywriter, and content marketer. Her latest book is From Chaos to Creativity: Building a Productivity System for Artists and Writers.

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

Show Notes

  • What are effective writing systems and how do we design one?
  • The importance of figuring out what to say no to
  • Using a calendar to organize and plan creativity
  • Creating a productive environment
  • Suggestions for useful productivity apps
  • Differentiating busy work and creative work
  • How to decide what’s important and what isn’t

You can find Jessie Kwak at and on Twitter @jkwak

Transcript of interview with Jessie Kwak

Joanna: Jessie Kwak is the author of gangster sci-fi supernatural thrillers and nonfiction. She’s also a freelance ghostwriter and editor, copywriter, and content marketer. Her latest book is From Chaos to Creativity: Building a Productivity System for Artists and Writers. Welcome, Jesse.

Jessie: Thanks for having me. This is fun.

Joanna: It’s great to have you on the show.

Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and all the different kinds of writing you do because you’re pretty prolific.

Jessie: I’ve been writing since I was a kid, writing fiction. I like to tell stories to my sister, and I wanted to write things that would scare her. And so that followed naturally, that when I went to college, I decided to get an English degree, thinking I would write. Well, you know, it was kind of a literary program.

So there was the idea of the great American novel, but I just wanted to write ghosts, and space pirates and fantasy and things like that. And so part of that was as I was getting that degree, what I kept hearing about, how you make money as a writer is you finish your English degree, then you go to an MFA program, and then you make a living as a writer by teaching in an MFA program. And I was like, “Hmm, I don’t know. That’s not really what I want to do.”

So I wandered a little bit after college. I traveled a bit, I waited tables, but I was always working on my fiction and trying to figure out how to make that work with the rest of my life. So I guess how I got into copywriting was I was waiting tables and one of the regulars at this bar that I was working at was like…I was getting kind of dissatisfied with the table waiting gig.

And so this regular was like, ‘Have you thought about copywriting? I know you have an English degree. I used to be a copywriter, I loved it. If you want, I could coach you through how to get a job as a copywriter.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds fun.’

So I ended up landing a job with a children’s catalog company and writing about frilly dresses, and shoes that were shaped like dinosaurs and light up and things like that. And I loved it. I realized there were lots of ways to make a living with your writing, besides teaching in an MFA program.

So after that, I got more into freelancing because I loved the writing but hated sitting at a desk in somebody else’s office. And as I was freelancing, I brought into my scope from product copywriting, to blog posts and case studies and more content marketing stuff.

But, of course, when you’re running your own writing business, it’s suddenly much harder to find time to write your novel. So I got into freelancing with this, like, ‘Oh, I’ll have a much more varied schedule, and I’ll be able to be more in control of it.’ But what I found was I was having less time to write fiction.

So that struggle of trying to figure out how to manage my day job work and my fiction work, which were the same creative writing brain, that actually kind of got channeled into this book, From Chaos to Creativity.

As I was sorting that out, I was like, ‘Well, I’ve got a system that works for me, maybe I can write about this.’ So that’s essentially how I got into or how I’ve always been into writing but got into the variety of writing that I do now.

Joanna: I know that a lot of people struggle to balance that sort of more day job writing with the — let’s not call it creative writing — but the fiction certainly is a kind of the same brain, you’re producing words, but quite different kinds of words.

So you say in the book, that creative success comes from an effective system and a productive environment. And let’s start with an effective system because the word system can seem a little bit kind of engineering or technical in some ways.

What do you mean by an effective productivity system and how can we design one?

Jessie: I was really inspired when I was struggling to figure out how to be more productive and come up with a system that works for me. I got really inspired by books like Getting Things Done by David Allen, and these other kinds of like corporate productivity books that are out there that have been popular for decades.

Except that what I found was they were very kind of, like, corporate…this is how you manage people and sit through meetings and do your tasks and your to-do lists. And they didn’t work very well with my creative brain.

So I think I picked up the idea of creating a system from this sort of corporate productivity world. And so essentially, a system, like you said, it sounds very kind of engineering and like, non-creative, but what it is, is a structure around what needs done, your tasks, that helps you organize them and sort them and get them out of the way so that you can make both time and mental space to do your creative work.

The basics of a good productivity system is tracking what needs to be done, figuring out your priorities, and then doing what needs to be done effectively.

I think we’ve probably all have had that feeling of like, ‘I should be writing,’ when you’re doing something else. And then when you’re writing, you feel like, ‘Oh, I should be doing something else.’ And so you have this, like, constant confusion of…or maybe pool of priorities, a constant pool of priorities.

When you have a system that tracks what needs to be done, you can see there that, okay, these are all the things, I’m not missing anything. What needs to be done right now is for me to be writing. And then when you’re done writing, you could say, ‘Okay, this is the thing I need to do now.’ So it helps eliminate that panicky feeling of like, ‘Gosh, am I missing something?’

To really briefly explain my system and the book From Chaos to Creativity, I started out as like, ‘Here’s my productivity system, it’ll work for everybody,’ and quickly realized, it won’t. So it turned into a kind of choose your own adventure guide to coming up with a system that works for you based on real basic principles.

I essentially use Evernote for everything. I use it to have my brain dump there of every little thing that’s bothering me, and that I’m thinking about, whether it’s about my life, or my day job stuff, or my fiction. It all goes into Evernote, where I’ve got kind of a master list of things that need to be done.

And then I regularly go through those to make sure that the biggest priorities are the ones that I’m focusing on. Because there are things on this list that are like hemming the curtains, like that’s not a priority, nobody cares about that.

Joanna: I don’t have that on any list!

Jessie: I don’t know why it keeps popping onto this list. I keep being like, ‘Oh, no, I should probably do that.’ And I’m never going to. And that’s the other thing about having a productivity system that your brain cannot distinguish something like hem curtains from something like plan for the launch of my book next week.

Your brain is like, ‘These two things are equally important. And I’m going to yell at you until they get done.’ But if you write them down, and you can get them out of your brain and into these corrals where you keep all these to-do lists, your brain will be like, ‘Oh, good, she’s got this. I don’t have to think about it anymore.’

So I don’t have to think about hemming the curtains because it’s written down somewhere where I’ll never do it.

Joanna: Before you carry on I use Things App, which isn’t as big as Evernote but I love it. And I do exactly the same thing. And then there might be stuff like order an 18-kilo kettlebell because I’m doing a lot of stuff from home. And that’s like an easy thing to achieve, right just go on Amazon and order one and that’s done.

But then I also have things like, I know, in the past, I’ve just written this one off completely, but rewrite my screenplay or go on a training course for developing AI tools or something. I put a to-do date on. So normally, it might be six months ahead or three months ahead, and then it will pop up and it will give me time to consider it. And then I’ll be like, ‘No,’ and then I delete it. So either way, you think, ‘Yeah, I might do that again,’ and I’ll just change the date to a few months ahead again.

Or I just go, ‘Yeah, I’m never going to do that.’ And then I just click Done or, you know, Logged so that it disappears off the list. So I find that quite effective. But that sounds similar to your use of Evernote.

Jessie: I have a folder set up for projects and anything can be a project, like working on a series of books or going through a course. And so I have here’s the three to five projects that I’m really focused on right now.

And then other things say, remodeling the backyard, that’s going to be a finite project that will get done. That’s what we’re working on right now. So everything’s going into that folder in Evernote, and then once I’m done with it, it’ll be moved to the archived folder, so the information is still there.

Smaller projects or ideas of projects, if I was to put that in my Evernote as something, ‘Oh, I’m really interested in this,’ and I finally decided not to, I just put it in archived. So it’s still there, it’ll spark my memory, if I go through that folder, which I never do.

Joanna: Exactly.

Jessie: I’m that sort of person that I keep the cut file from my fiction stories that are 50,000 words at the end of it, because I’m like, ‘I can’t get rid of anything.’

Joanna: I’m the same. I kind of think that it’s a bit like the idea of Inbox Zero, with your email, which I do, not every day, but you know, I keep my inbox pretty tiny; see it once and deal with it. And I do change my dates and move them forward. But if it just keeps coming up, and it never, ever happens, then I just know it’s not going to happen, and that I don’t care enough about it.

So that probably comes to your doing what needs to be done in this pool of priorities idea. In the end, we have to be honest about what we value. And we will keep doing the things that we are really, really interested in or want to do.

And then we’ll stop doing or we won’t even start the things that we just don’t care about. So maybe we need to outsource those things, or just delete them from the list.

How do you manage that pull of priorities with all these projects?

Jessie: I am one who likes to bite off way more than she can chew. Everything sounds interesting. And I pile it all into my to-do list. As far as like trying to figure out what needs to actually be a priority, I have slowly trained myself that I cannot do everything.

There’s two exercises that I really encourage everyone to do to help with this. One is write down. If you got an extra day a week, like an extra full day, you can do whatever you want, what are the top three projects that you would do? Definitely pick the top one. For me, it would be work exclusively on my next series. So pick those top three priorities.

And then once you’ve got that narrowed down, and that could be really hard, it’s hard to choose only three out of all of the like amazing things you want to do.

But after you’ve got that, then write a list of 10 to 15 things you’re going to start saying no to. And that’s also going to be really hard because saying no is difficult.

Coming up with 10 to 15 things is even more difficult. But there’s a reason that those lists are those sizes. You can only have a small amount of priorities. And you probably should be saying no to way more things than you think you should.

If you can just start saying no to a few of those things on your list, you’re going to free up time for those things on your priorities list. So that’s one tool and one exercise that I recommend for helping you see okay, this is serving me, this is not serving me.

Joanna: And just on that because I constantly have struggled with this. Every year, I think I take a step further towards understanding this for myself. And I try and, like you say, corral myself into one area. But I do have a few things on my wall.

I have, ‘Create a body of work I’m proud of.’ That’s on my wall. I mean, yes, we all have to do email, like we have to do accounting, we have to do the things that we do have to do to run a creative business and also the things that we do in our life.

But if I’m weighing up a couple of things and one of them clearly feeds into this phrase ‘Create a body of work I’m proud of,’ for me, that includes my podcasts as well as my book, I’m like, ‘Okay, yeah, that is more important than this other thing that doesn’t feed into that.’

Are there any overarching principles that can help people make decisions about what to do and what not to do?

Jessie: I think that’s a really good one. Pick a phrase or a theme and say like, ‘At the end of my life, what do I want my actions from today to have contributed to?’ I actually have a similar list up on my whiteboard of these are the things that I want to work on this year. And the top of that list is write amazing books.

Below that is double down on my core fans. So as I’m looking at what is my priority? Is it to write new words and create new books? Yes. Is it to work on my email list and my Patreon? Yes, is it to do my accounting? I guess that needs to happen.

Actually, so I lied a little bit where I said that number one was write amazing books because I’d recently added a zero above that, which is to say no to things that don’t serve these goals.

Before we got on the call, I was just saying, I’m finishing up a period of really heavy client work, where I said yes to too many things. And it’s a good reminder for me of, okay, one of my priorities needs to be saying no.

Joanna: I think that’s really important. And also, one of the things you do say is you need a calendar, not a to-do list. And we’ve been talking a bit, I guess, about lists, but I really agree with this calendar idea, and it fits exactly with what you’re just talking about.

The reality is that we will have phases of things and seasons of things. And finishing your client work to make X amount of money so that you can have more time off during the holiday season.

Or, for me, I’ve got two books coming out in a couple of weeks, and everything is heading towards that. And I’ve got some big podcasts I want to do but I’m in lockdown. So I’m going to work really, really hard as we record this at the end of 2020. And I have a vision of next year of having some bigger chunks of time off.

We don’t make exactly the same decisions every day. But it is, as you say in the title, ‘From Chaos to Creativity,’ you have to plan and I use calendars — I have printed ones on my desk and I use my Google Calendar as well — to almost control those periodic cycles of the different work we have to do.

How does that feed into the cycles and shifts and seasonal calendar-based things?

Jessie: I’m a really big fan of working in a quarterly timeline. And I think maybe for everybody, the timeline that works best with your brain is a little different. But for me, that 12-week timeline is something where I can know what fits in that time period.

Whereas, if you give me a year, I’ll be like, ‘I can definitely write seven books,’ which I can’t. But if you tell me 12 weeks, I’m like, ‘Okay, well, yeah, that makes sense.’ I know what I can do in 12 weeks.

And so there’s a great book actually, The 12 Week Year, by Brian Moran and Michael Lennington, I believe. And again, it’s a very like corporate-style productivity guide, but they talk about basically shrinking down the amount of time that you give yourself to do a project into this 12 weeks period, and checking in regularly once a month and saying, ‘Am I still on these goals? Am I still on track?’

Breaking it down into ‘Okay, if I want to write a book in 12 weeks, how many words is that a day? When do I need to be finishing my outline? When do I need to be done with the first draft?’ That sort of thing.

That’s one way that I like to use a calendar as this plotting out, ‘Okay, if I want to finish this amount of things in this year, let’s actually look at it in a 12-week period and break it down from there.’

And like you said there’s kind of a seasonal aspect to, all right, this is a couple of months where I will be heavily focused on client work so that I can then be focused on outlining my book, or the first book in my series next month, so I can start writing it in January.

I do like to look at maybe every month in that 12-week period as like, here’s the theme for that month. November has been client work, December will be outlining, January will be drafting.

Joanna: I print out one A4 page per month from And I print them out. I’ve got on my desk right now, I’ve got 14 months’ worth of these one pages, and I staple them all together. And then I work in these more annual things.

But what inevitably happens is it changes. So that’s why I like these printed pages because I literally will just print them out again. This year, 2020, as we record this, most of it went out the window. And it became something else because the other thing that you have to put in.

I feel like it’s like you said, ‘Oh, yeah, I can write seven books next year, I’m just going to work really hard.’ And then you realize that you haven’t put in any sort of family things, health things, other life things. It’s not all that you’ll be spending that whole month on your book. There’s other things to do.

And I find we stretch out the period of time that we think we have, but it goes past so fast, doesn’t it? So I like your idea of having one focus per month. And I definitely do that too.

Another thing I do is I don’t usually, well, I never write more than one novel at a time or one fiction project at a time.

And I’ll usually only work on one book at a time.

Because I just can’t deal with the shift in brain. Do you have the same thing?

Jessie: It’s definitely tough to switch between big creative projects like that. I have less of a hard time with it, I think because that is what I’m doing all day long for clients. I’ll go from okay, I’m writing this really detailed, technical white paper to now I’m writing thought leadership articles for small business owners things like that.

I have an easier time saying, ‘Okay, this is the time that I am thinking about this right now.’ And that has kind of folded over into my fiction as well as I’ve done more freelancing where it’s like, ‘All right, well, I guess it’s time for fiction, I’ve got 20 minutes and let’s get into the brain.’ So that’s definitely a copywriting superpower that I did not have eight years ago when I started.

But one of the things that you brought up earlier about remembering that you have all these kind of life obligations as well. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Charlie Gilkey from the Productive Flourishing?

Joanna: He’s been on the show.

Jessie: Oh, has he? I must have missed that one. I love Charlie. But he’s got this idea of you can only have five projects going on at a time. And he’s constantly having to remind people that, ‘Remember that caring for your family is a project, recovering from an illness is a project, living through COVID is a project’.

So you have to keep that in mind, as you’re planning your week, as you’re planning your month. You can’t do five big things, because you already have some of these kinds of hidden obligations.

Joanna: I think it’s interesting. Coming back to the original statement about effective system and productive environment, this productive environment thing has also become a challenge for everybody, I think.

Even if we were used to working from home, which I think you and I were both used to working from home, before the pandemic, but it has, for many people, they’re suddenly working in an environment that they don’t consider to be associated with work. It might be the corner of the house, or it might be the family at home and being noisy or, like me, I wasn’t able to work in the cafe anymore.

This idea of a productive environment and disruption of that is quite jarring in many ways.

For example, I want to say one of my really big tips is turn off notifications on your devices. I put everything into an airplane mode. That’s a big deal. I hate it when people’s notifications are just pinging all the time.

What do you mean by a productive environment? And how can people improve that?

Jessie: You’re right. It’s both the physical environment, but also your digital environment. And there are definitely things that you can control.

And obviously, there’s going to be stuff that’s out of your control that you can try to mitigate. So to start with the digital environment, because you brought up notifications, yes, please turn off your notifications, especially when you’re in the middle of a writing session.

I love the app Freedom. It allows you to just block the entire internet or block certain sites like Twitter, for me, is a big draw that I have trouble staying away from. So Freedom is a really good app for that.

Forest is another one that I love that you plant a little tree either on your phone or in like, I think it’s a Chrome extension. And you plant for a certain amount of time. And if you check your phone, or if you go online before that time is up, then the tree dies, and you maintain this little forest, that you grow these trees and the dead trees stay in your forest. And for some reason, I find this incredibly motivating. I will not kill these little trees.

Joanna: So you set an amount of time that makes it easy, like 20 minutes. I know that’s not easy for some people. But if you manage it for 20 minutes, the tree stays alive. But if you don’t, it dies?

Jessie: Yes.

Joanna: Okay, cool. I’m going to try that, because that’s really good.

Jessie: It’s a really fun one. And it’s like, there’s all sorts of different cute different types of trees, it’s fun.

Another good tool that is actually relatively inexpensive is the Alphasmart Neo, which I know a lot of people are starting to get into using. So maybe you’ve heard of it before.

It was designed to teach kids typing skills in the ’90s. And it’s not connected to the internet, but it saves whatever you type, and then you can transfer it to your computer later. And it’s got a little screen on it that only has like four lines of text. So it keeps you really, really focused in on what you’re actually writing in the moment.

You can’t really edit on it very well. So it’s super good for fast drafting, and there’s no distraction. And you can find them on, like, eBay or Amazon for like $35. So they’re really inexpensive. Let’s see, I think those were my main digital distraction tips.

And then in terms of kind of your physical environment, that’s obviously going to be very different for everybody. I’m really blessed right now to have an actual office where I can shut the door. And I can have some sort of privacy for my husband who’s working in the room right next to me.

But before the pandemic, I would often travel with him because he’s in sales and he drives around the Pacific Northwest for work. So I would find myself working in all sorts of places, hotel rooms and coffee shops and in the passenger seat of his car. And I realized there were some times that I could work really well and some times that I couldn’t.

I started cataloging what those times were and figuring out what those blockers were and trying to find a tool that would help me with that. For example, I realized I get really antsy about writing if somebody is sitting next to me and can see my screen.

Joanna: Oh, definitely.

Jessie: Sitting on an airplane or in a coffee shop, or on a couch next to my husband or something, I was just like, ‘I can’t concentrate.’ So I bought one of those privacy screens that just stick on your laptop screen. And now, I think people can’t see it, but it doesn’t matter because it’s a mental trick that makes me feel like, ‘Oh, it’s fine.’ I can write this gun battle and probably nobody can see it.

Noise-canceling headphones. I highly recommend noise-canceling headphones. I’ve got an app that makes rain noises and I just pop in my noise-canceling headphones with these rain noises and I can’t hear anything.

Joanna: Yes, that’s me too. And in fact, I find as an introvert and very sensitive to sound, that I wear them, for example, when I’m flying. Even if I’m not writing now, I get really stressed in airports and some of your American mega things where there’s so much noise and lights and flashing and I’m just like, ‘Ah,’ and my husband, you know, just says, ‘Put the headphones and close your eyes.’

It really helps with the kind of calm and anxiety. So it helps with writing, it helps with anxiety and people say, ‘Oh, but they’re so expensive.’ I literally think it’s the best couple of hundred dollars or pounds that you’re going to spend because it helps so much. So I’m with you with that. I have Bose, what do you have?

Jessie: I also have Bose. I have some of the in-ear ones. I love them.

Joanna: I have the over-ear ones. Brilliant.

Jessie: And I found mine on eBay, brand new, for like 50% of the retail price. So they’re not as expensive as you think they are. But even if you buy them full price, they’re incredibly worth it. Highly recommend.

One thing that most people are dealing with right now is people, the other people in your household.

Joanna: Why don’t they all just disappear?!!

Jessie: Right. And I mentioned, my husband used to travel a lot for work. And so even though we don’t have kids, and we have our own office workspaces, I used to have long periods of time where I just got to set my own schedule, and I couldn’t hear him talking in the next room, and he wasn’t walking and being like, ‘Oh, look at this cool mountain bike video. Don’t you want to watch that right now?’

Joanna: I know how you feel.

Jessie: And I would be like, ‘Aren’t you working? Because I am working.’ So we had to have a lot of conversations at the beginning about like, ‘All right, this is what I need right now. If my door is shut, I’m unavailable. If your door is shut, you’re unavailable.’ And we had to negotiate that.

And that can be really hard. Especially if you’re dealing with like kids, or everybody’s got a lot of extra responsibilities right now. But it is good for your relationships, in general, to be able to learn how to have those conversations about what everybody needs, and to be able to respect and honor those.

So I highly recommend, even if it’s a hard conversation, to learn how to do it with the people in your household because it will be a valuable skill for you down the line, as well as giving you the time you need now.

Joanna: I think that’s really important. And as part of that, you have to identify what you need and come up with a creative solution. I totally agree.

For example, the noise-canceling headphones, I resisted for so long, because I thought just putting in normal earbuds, for example, would be enough. But my husband was the one who bought me a pair and it made such a difference. But you have to identify what the issue is.

And for me, that example was too much stimulation. And how do you reduce that? And as you say, you have to figure out what you need, and then come up with something that will help you sort that out, that might not impinge on someone else’s life.

That’s the other thing because you can’t just make everyone shut up. That’s the reality of the world. So it’s like, ‘Okay, how do I change my own behavior? And how do I change the way I work so that this is sustainable.’

We definitely have to mention physical health here. I had a lot of back pain. You can’t be a productive writer without sorting out your pain issues, if you can. I’m standing up right now, and I stand up a lot during the day and work a lot standing up. And that’s a really important part of my productivity because, without my health, I can’t do this. [More tips in The Healthy Writer!]

The Healthy Writer

That can also help with what’s going on in your household as well.

It is tapping into what you need, and then figuring out how to solve it, isn’t it?

Jessie: I definitely wanted to touch on ergonomics. So thank you for bringing that up. Having a good workstation, trying to figure out something that will be comfortable in the long-term because, right now, it may not feel that uncomfortable to be sitting on your couch and typing on your lap. But over the long-term, your body is going to tell you that they didn’t like that.

I’m a cheapskate and like I don’t want to spend money on anything I don’t have to. And I finally have been like, ‘Okay, I need to invest in my own workstation.’ I’m also standing right now. I got a split keyboard so that my wrists can be a bit at a better angle because I’ve always suffered from typing wrist pain.

Obviously, like walking and dictation, you’ve talked about that before, that’s a great way to get yourself moving, also hopefully get out of the house and maybe away from some distractions if you’re in an area that you’re able to.

I am lucky enough to have my own office purchase, but I got a walking treadmill that goes underneath my desk so I can type and walk. Because I get really fidgety and distracted and that like my body is doing something so my mind can focus. That has been such a help for me to be able to find that the thing that lets me fidget, but also write.

Joanna: That’s great. We’re almost out of time. But I did want to ask because you have a great chapter on shadow work and willpower. Now, I’m pretty obsessed with the shadow. So I was loving this. And you said, ‘Doing creative work is difficult. Busy work is an easy substitute.’

Steven Pressfield obviously talks about the shadow career in The War of Art. And for people like you and me, where our day job, I feel like my nonfiction is almost my day job. Not in a bad way, but in the sense that it does sort of bring in the bulk of my income, and it’s separate to my fiction art as such.

But I find that, as you say there, it’s easy to do stuff that you know is going to produce work and paid work in the world. And it’s much harder to go deeper into that sort of other part of you.

How do you tell the difference between shadow work and ‘true’ work?

Jessie: That is something that I’ve struggled with my entire life. The idea that what I want to do, which is to write space pirate adventure stories, is that important enough? Or should I be instead of doing this kind of the content marketing day job stuff that I do? Which actually legitimately helps small business owners and is hopefully, making a difference in the world.

I have that in my mind constantly as I’m like, ‘No, I’m going to sit down and write about space pirates.’ And part of my brain is like, ‘Is this important? Is this as important as doing work that, A, pays you a lot more money and provides for your family?’

Knowing the difference between the two, A, like I already know it. I know what is the shadow of what my main love is. But it’s very hard to set that aside and say, ‘No, it’s fine for me to work on this other thing over here.’

I came across a quote the other day that I absolutely love by a theologian and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman. And he says, ‘Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.’

I now have that written beside my computer, because what makes me come alive is writing fiction. And that’s what the world needs more than they need another content marketer. So I think maybe one way to find that for yourself is ask yourself a question.

If you didn’t have to earn money doing this other thing, what would you do instead?

I’m very fulfilled by my day job. But if I didn’t have to earn money, would I write thought leadership articles for tech companies? Or would I write space pirate adventure stories? And in heartbeat, I would just write fiction.

So then, I guess, that’s the way to help find that for yourself. But it’s going to be a challenge every day to say, ‘Is what I’m doing the work I should be doing? Or is it a shadow of it?’

Am I producing my amazing body of work? Or am I doing things around it that are maybe necessary but shouldn’t stand in for the work networking with other authors? And when I’m on Slack with my writer friends, is that writing? Something like that.

Joanna: This is really difficult. So as a multi-passionate creator myself, I do consider this podcast, for example, to be part of my body of work and particularly I think the solo episodes where I put a lot of work into them.

You said thought leadership there, I feel like that is an important part of my body of work, especially around as we speak. I was saying to you earlier, I was at the Wired online conference and I’ve been learning about AI and future technologies and it really fires me up.

[Since recording this, I published Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, and Virtual Worlds!]

If you talk about coming alive, I feel really alive after a day learning about exciting things like that. But I also feel differently about my fiction, and I love creating things that help people. So we’re not saying at all that nonfiction is less value, or that fiction is less value. What we’re saying is you have to tap into what makes you feel that way.

Jessie: Absolutely.

Joanna: That’s different for everyone. But also it’s allowed to be several things. For example, I mentioned screenwriting before. I love the idea of screenwriting. I’ve been on courses, I’ve written some drafts of screenplays, but it is not something that makes me come alive. I don’t want to do that job.

As much as I sometimes flirt with the idea of getting back to it, it’s on that no list. It’s ‘No, don’t do that.’ Similarly, professional speaking, I’m only allowed to do one a quarter really, in-person.

I say allowed, I allow myself because it’s not what brings me alive. But I also like coming to America and meeting people like you. We met at a conference. And so there were reasons to do it sometimes. And even though it might not make you feel like, ‘Yeah, I love this,’ but it’s might still fit into your life.

So for people listening, we know this is really hard. You have to weigh everything up.

Jessie: It’s really a balancing act of here’s something that I love that makes me come alive, something that I feel like I’m adding value, something that is furthering my goals, even if it doesn’t make me come alive. I mean, there are definitely things that are building your website, or marketing your books, those need to happen in order to give your work flight.

But I think the danger lies where I was talking about earlier of deciding you should do something because it feels more important or more societally acceptable and it’s adjacent to what you love doing even though it’s not quite what you love doing.

And that tension I was talking about with feeling like maybe it’s more societally acceptable to be a content marketer and a copywriter, than throwing all of my caution to the wind and just writing fiction full-time and focusing on my passion. And that feels very dangerous. But it’s also desperately what I want more than anything.

And so looking at those two things, okay, yes, I’m fulfilled by my day job. But am I using that as a crutch so that I don’t have to dive into the scary place of telling stories? Honestly, it doesn’t matter what kind of stories you’re telling, your soul is buried in them. And that can be very scary.

It’s a very personal journey, trying to decide whether you’re doing shadow work or not.

Joanna: Absolutely. These are some big questions that we’ve got into. And I think that’s important, because at the end of the day, people get so focused on productivity tips, and we did a few of those at the beginning. But you can have all the list, tools, and technology you like, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what you really want to achieve.

Jessie: Right.

Joanna: The balance of tips and tricks and deeper, meaningful questions is necessary. And of course, you have lots of that in your book From Chaos to Creativity. So tell people where they can find you and all your books online.

Jessie: is my website where it’s kind of my hub for everything. I’m on Instagram and Twitter. And I have a Facebook account. But I love connecting with people on Instagram and Twitter. I’m the first 10 pages of Google results for my name, so I’m very easy to find.

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

Jessie: Yeah, thank you. This is so much fun.

The post From Chaos to Creativity: Productivity For Writers With Jessie Kwak first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • December 6, 2020