Online publishing and content creation is a full contact sport, complete with black eyes, shattered hopes, and dislocated egos.
Pam Slim is a fearless writer, speaker, and martial artist, who dropped by The Writer Files to share her experiences in the ring.
She is the award-winning author of Escape from Cubicle Nation, a book that offers readers the tools and training for finding a meaningful career in this “new world of work.”
Ms. Slim took time out of her busy writing schedule to talk to us about her techniques to beat writer’s block, the merits of coffee, living inside of a Stephen King novel, and her solution to all of life’s problems.
Let’s flip through the file of Pam Slim, writer …
About the writer …
Who are you and what do you do?
I write, speak, and coach about early stage entrepreneurship, as well as the bigger picture of success and happiness in the new world of work.
What is your area of expertise as a writer or online publisher?
I fell into my writing career as a naïve yet enthusiastic blogger in 2005. After blogging for a couple of years, I realized that I loved writing. I found blog readers, and eventually my publisher Penguin Portfolio approached me about doing my first book, Escape from Cubicle Nation.
In the last seven and a half years I have used my blog as the primary driver of new business for my coaching and consulting business.
My area of expertise as a writer is building a relevant, sticky, and significant body of work through writing and publishing online. I also talk a lot about the connection between online and mainstream publishing, including going from blog to book.
Where can we find your writing?
The writer’s productivity …
How much time, per day, do you spend reading or doing research?
I spend about two hours a day reading or doing research. When writing a book (like now), that jumps to three or four hours a day.
Before you begin to write, do you have any pre-game rituals or practices?
I work best when I have a clean desk, a fresh cup of hot coffee and some good music playing. So I get those things in place, crack my knuckles over my keyboard (it makes me feel like Bruce Lee) and get started writing.
What’s your best advice for overcoming procrastination?
Work in tiny chunks. When I was writing my first book, Escape from Cubicle Nation, I got in a horrible procrastination-infused writer’s block that had me shaking in front of my computer, not writing a single word.
I called my friend Martha Beck, who talked me down off the ledge and encouraged me to commit to a teeny, tiny bit of writing, like 15 minutes a day.
It should be such a small block of time that it is almost insulting to you.
I got off the phone, wrote 15 minutes of blather for a day or two, then those 15 minutes turned into hours. In the last couple of months of writing the book, I wrote up to 14 hours a day.
What time of day is most productive for your writing or content production?
I write best in the morning, when the first cup of coffee halo is still firmly over my head. If I get on a roll, I can do well until lunch. Then I get another surge of writing energy about 4pm.
Do you generally adhere to a rigid or flexible writing system?
This is a bit of a tricky question, since I actually think I would work better with a more rigid writing schedule, but I usually don’t create one, unless I am writing a book.
My life is full with small children and a lot of client engagements, so I find that I have to fit writing in to my schedule as opposed to fitting my schedule around my writing.
I do make sure to block off Mondays and Fridays for writing or research, so that client work doesn’t distract me.
It is hard for me to switch gears from being immersed in the ideas of my client’s business, then have to dig back into my brain for my own ideas. So compartmentalizing the nature of work I do on different days of the week has been helpful.
When I am in the home stretch of a book, I fit everything in my life around my writing. My husband pitches in to whisk the kids away on the weekends so that I only focus on getting my writing done.
How many hours a day do you spend actually writing (excluding email, social media etc.)?
Normally, I spend about two hours a day writing. When I am writing a book, it is more like six, and on some days, ten.
Do you write every day?
No, I don’t write every single day. Some days I reserve for coaching sessions, teaching webinars, interviews, or in-person events.
The writer’s creativity …
Creativity is expressing your ideas in a full-contact, full-color way.
It is using as many senses as possible to express an idea. It is the zone from which great, useful things are created.
Who are your favorite authors, online or off?
Dan and Seth have a way of making complex business ideas simple and accessible. Nancy is meticulous in her research and visual organization of ideas. David and Anne make me weep with laughter. Gabriel and Isabel light up my imagination with their magical realism. Brené and Martha blend great, accessible storytelling with humor, academic research, and useful self help tools.
Can you share a best-loved quote?
How can we remember our ignorance, which our growth requires, when we are using our knowledge all the time?
– Henry David Thoreau
Do you prefer a particular type of music (or silence) when you write?
I am a huge John Legend fan, and wrote my first book to his Evolver album. I think I listened to it more than 100 times.
If I get stuck with writer’s block, I put on his music, and it reminds me of the flow I felt when in the final stretches of Escape from Cubicle Nation.
While I like lots of music, I tend to write well to R&B. Classical music makes me anxious and nervous. Weird, I know.
How would you personally like to grow creatively as a writer?
I would like to learn more about the craft of writing. I would like to spend more time reading great books.
Mostly, I want to write more.
Do you believe in “writer’s block”? If so, how do you avoid it?
I am intimately familiar with writer’s block. I recognize it when it wraps around my chest, constricting my breathing and choking my words.
As soon as I feel it, I do one of two things:
- stay in the same place and fall into its deathly grip,
- or physically remove myself from in front of the computer and avoid it.
You would think after struggling with it so long that I would always choose to avoid it, but unfortunately sometimes I choose to torture myself instead of seek relief. I believe Lady Gaga calls this “Bad Romance.”
Who or what is your “Muse” at the moment (i.e. specific creative inspirations)?
When in a big writing project, I focus on my inner creative environment. I get inspired by moments in my past when I have written things I liked, or accomplished something brave and truthful.
If I compare myself to other great writers, I get angsty. If I read too many blog posts about writing hacks, I feel terrible for being such an undisciplined failure.
The only great writer that makes me want to delve more into my own writing is Anne Lamott. When I wrote Escape, I kept Bird by Bird next to me at all times, and opened it to random sections if I started to feel stuck. It really helped.
There is one person who motivates me to keep writing this book. My son’s nine-year old best friend is named Matthew. He was at our house the other day and said, “Miss Pam, how is your book coming along?”
“Great, Matthew, thanks for asking!” I said, lying through my teeth.
“Well, I want to be the first to read it,” he said while looking straight into my eyes with a big smile on his face.
I want to write a great book for Matthew.
Would you consider yourself someone who likes to “take risks?”
I love to take risks with things like travel and adventure. In high school and college, I lived abroad four times (Switzerland, Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil).
I am not afraid to talk to anyone from any background. I walk dangerous streets alone.
I start big, creative projects without having any idea how I will get them done. I train mixed martial arts with large, ominous, sweaty men.
I am less risky when it comes to sharing my writing, and opinions. I fear judgment and avoid conflict. I am working on that.
What makes a writer great?
A great writer is committed to the process of writing. S/he is more interested in highly effective language and clear ideas than ego, or on some days, sanity.
The writer’s workflow …
What hardware or typewriter model are you presently using?
I use everything Apple. At the office I use an iMac, at home an Macbook Air and iPad.
What software are you using for writing and general workflow?
I just started to use Scrivener to write my book. I love it. I was a Microsoft Word girl for many years, but finally realized that I needed a more visual layout for my book ideas.
Do you have any tricks for staying focused?
When I get overwhelmed with ideas, I lay out my ideas on post-it notes on flip-chart pads on the wall. Seeing the flow of ideas helps me get grounded on the thing I need to accomplish next.
The other thing that focuses me immediately is an external deadline. Without a deadline, I get nothing done.
Have you run into any serious challenges or obstacles to getting words onto the page?
Writing blog posts is like a picnic on Stinson Beach with a light breeze and a really, really good turkey sandwich.
Writing a book is like being the protagonist in a Stephen King novel.
I don’t know why I make writing a book so hard, but I do. Some days I don’t have ideas. Other days, everything I write seems bland and pedestrian.
Then, without warning, I have a day when ideas come together and I get so excited it feels like the white light, near-death experiences you hear people talk about on the Internet.
Everything appears sharp, and in technicolor. God whispers sweet nothings in my ear. I want to tap dance down the street like Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. I live for those days.
How do you stay organized (methods, systems, or “mad science”)?
I hired a full-time assistant a year ago, and it was the best thing I ever did. I talk through my priorities with her on a daily basis, and she helps me batch them into actionable chunks. I am what they call an “extroverted thinker,” so I need to talk things through out loud in order to make sense of them.
Once I have my priorities straight, the key is to have just one or two main things to accomplish in any given day. If I try to do too much all at once, I get overwhelmed and scattered.
How do you relax at the end of a hard day?
An ideal work day ends with physical activity like Bikram Yoga or Mixed Martial Arts, then a shower followed by snuggle time with my kids.
A few questions just for the fun of it …
Who (or what) has been your greatest teacher?
Martial arts have taught me so much about the process of learning, mastery, discipline, and character. The lessons I have learned in the couple decades I have studied martial arts have applied directly to business, parenting, and writing.
There is such beauty and power when you learn how to coordinate high-level awareness with physical movement and creative flow.
What’s your biggest aggravation or pet peeve at the moment (writing related or otherwise)?
I am pretty happy at the moment. I get annoyed with myself if I have an open, clear day ready for writing and I squander it by messing around on Facebook.
So my pet peeve is my own fear of creation.
Choose one author, living or dead, that you would like to have dinner with.
I would love to have dinner with Brené Brown because she is an amazing conversationalist and a great thinker. I think we would laugh a lot.
Do you have a motto, credo or general slogan that you live by?
Live a full-color, full-contact life.
What do you see as your greatest success in life?
My greatest success in life is to be able to concurrently truly love what I do for a living, and be fully present to raise my two children.
I love that they see me and my husband (who is also a business owner) embrace our work, and take responsibility for the good, bad, and difficult parts of our business.
My Dad is a photographer and community activist. I have spent my life watching him get true joy and meaning from his work.
He is 78 years old, and still gets excited (and nervous) when he submits a picture to a client. This is the greatest gift he has given me, and I hope to pass it on to my kids.
If you could take a vacation anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go (cost or responsibilities are no object)?
I would take my family to Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa.
What would you like to do more of in the coming year?
I would like to take more time off to travel with my kids next year.
Can you offer any advice to writers and content producers that you might offer yourself, if you could go back in time and “do it all over?”
Don’t spend too much time in the planning stage.
Experiment with shipping small projects.
Surround yourself with smart, compassionate, and motivated friends who will encourage you to share your gifts.
Avoid anyone who uses your fear and weaknesses as a way to control you.
Please tell our readers where they can connect with you online.
I would love to hear from you! Find me at:
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
If it isn’t absolutely clear from my answers to this interview, I am not a neat, disciplined writer. There are days when I want to smash my computer in a field, the same way that Peter, Michael and Samir did to the printer in Office Space .
But I will never, ever stop writing.
Creating things is the solution to all of life’s problems.
Never let your struggle with creation be confused with your absolute right to make meaning and contribution to the world.
We need all of your gifts.
And finally, the writer’s desk …
Sometimes the most remarkable thing about a writer’s habitat isn’t the desk itself, or even the tools with which words are wrought.
It is the seat the writer takes.
It makes perfect sense that Pam Slim, writer, warrior, would choose an exercise ball to help strengthen her core as she types away.
I just sat up a little straighter.
Thank you Pam!
Photo courtesy of Ivan Martinez Photography
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Now crack your knuckles and get back to work!