I've been going through a slow patch with the scientific editing this last couple of weeks. Usually one or two manuscripts come in each week or so, but for the last four weeks, nothing. Now this is not unique: I've had slow patches like this and times when the work was coming in way too thick for my liking in the nine years I've been doing this. But whenever I get a dry spell like this, I am always sooooooo grateful that it's not all that I do.
I'm also grateful that it's not work I want to do for the rest of my life, and if it slowly starts to peter out, that's fine with me. What I do need to do, however, is be mindful that that income needs to come from somewhere, and push myself to ramp up my other work to pick up the slack. This is the tricky bit, because we all get comfortable in our lives, and recognizing that you need to ramp up the hours you're spending doing something is much easier than actually making that shift.
Now next week three or four manuscripts could very easily come in: that's how it works, randomly, and so I might need to ramp back down the expectations for my other work. This randomness is a bit of a pain, in other words. But it's also just part of the deal. I have the same randomness with my Christmas tree farm, in that people show up or not, often for personal reasons that have nothing to do with me. New customers come and go, and there is an overall trajectory that you can see from a distance, but the particulars are pretty random.
One of the things I love about my model of taking orders for spoons and running a wait list is that it serves as an antidote to this randomness. It's the opposite: a list of work waiting to be done. I can speed it up or slow it down within reason, and it feels like money waiting to be made. That is a comforting backdrop to all that randomness in the rest of my income.
What's random about your own income? And what can you do to create a backstop for that?
It's February, a hard time of year for inspiration in work or photography. The blush of winter has worn off, but the truly cold weather has showed up, and we are still a month at least away from the possibility of warm fronts teasing us with spring. It's also a time for me with relatively few personal encounters. I don't tend to do much teaching in January or February because the weather can be bad and makes planning a bit of a headache, especially since my outdoor space is a hoophouse, so nice when it's sunny but cold when it's cloudy.
All of this sets the stage for a bit of an energy slump in these months, as we all just wait for spring to bring some excitement into our step. I'm not a skier, nor do I much enjoy hiking around in snowy woods. I'm a putterer, and putterers suffer in late winter.
What does help is having a solid wall of work lined up, something I've been lucky enough to have this year. Last year I had some, but each day I was asking myself to do only about half of what I'm doing this year. This year I am asking 7-8 hours each day of carving/axing/shipping etc. While this can feel a bit hectic at times, it also keeps me pushing forward, through the slump.
I don't suffer from Seasonal Affected Disorder, but I can totally see how it works. And I'm no psychologist, but I suspect my approach of keeping busy is a good one. I don't have to ask myself what I'm inspired to make each day: I merely need to ask what is next.
The one tricky thing with keeping busy is that there is a certain discipline still required to not let the work get out of balance. I need to make sure I'm still pushing ahead with all the pieces of my plan, not just the paid work, or I will regret it down the road, having let things slip that I intended to continue. Like this blog, for instance.
The best way I know to make sure that stuff happens is to do it first in the day. So the kids get on the bus, and I do the podcast. I do the blog. I do the other things that I am doing for the future me. Then I do the day's work.
Otherwise I'd just slump around and panic at the end of the day.
Usually when I wake up I get dressed and grab my phone just before going downstairs. I slip it into my pocket unread but then start to check in as I make coffee, lay a fire, open the curtains. But not this morning. This morning I left my phone upstairs.
I did all those other things in a remarkable quiet frame of mind.
Now I usually hate when people get all philosophical about technology use. Especially when it is the technology and their use of it that allowed their success. And I am keenly aware that I lean on technology and my phone for community, interaction, validation, marketing, engagement, posturing and flag waving. It brings a lot of good into my day and it allows me to earn a living doing what I love working for myself. And for that I am grateful.
But this morning, as I sat near the open woodstove door, the fire just starting to crackle on the hearth and dawn creeping slowly down the windowpanes, I was reminded that while social media and connection can invigorate and excite, challenge and inspire, it cannot lead me to that quiet place in my head where I feel calm and centered and ENOUGH. How could it? It lives and breaths more, more, more.
This morning was an exercise in less, and the balance that can bring to everything that follows.
Okay, so. I was teaching a spoon carving lesson and I found myself saying the same thing a lot, that I was doing the opposite of what most people do. In fact, I found myself saying this so many times that I took notice, and it gave me pause.
I carve my spoons differently from the way most professional and established carvers do. I start differently, I do different things along the way, at almost every step I'm doing it in a manner both unorthodox, and to my mind more efficient.
Now I didn't do it this way to thumb my nose at people who had gone before me. I did it because I was figuring stuff out for myself. When I started carving there was relatively little information online about actually how to carve spoons, so I pieced my information together from scraps tossed out here and there in blog posts and instagram captions, and developed my own method in response to making mistake after mistake after mistake.
What I ended up with was a process that allowed me to do things in ways that no one else was doing them. I haven't kept any of these ideas a secret, instead choosing to share them all as freely as I could. But what I've been thinking about lately is the importance of all of us, going our own way, learning things we wouldn't know otherwise.
A discovery is when you start of in a direction that everyone else scoffs at. By definition it is a risk: there is often nothing fruitful in that direction. But if you, if WE, all keep experimenting and sharing and trying new things, we will be in a better place as a community than if we trod the same footpath deeper.
Obviously this is a tricky catch 22, right? In teaching our methods, we fail to promote the very thing we found so beneficial, namely the experimental spirit. So perhaps a better way to think of it is that each of us stands on the shoulders of all the others, each lifting the group higher and higher, seeing new lands and new possibilities. I have become more conscious of celebrating and actively promoting the innovations my students bring to the table, and try to distinguish between fundamental truths and the truth as I practice it.
So if you find yourself going your own way, if you are worried that you might be doing it wrong, remember that every person who discovered something worth discovering was doing it "wrong", was flying in the face of how other people did things, and that ultimately, through their exploration, our world changes.
I've been doing a lot of thinking about teaching lately, in part because I'm about to start up this next round of the Virtual Apprenticeship Challenge (VAC). Unlike the first VAC, which was free and involved prompts designed to help people build their business and brand, this VAC costs money and is designed to help people learn to carve spoons. When I put out into the world that I would be offering two different tracks for this next round, one to again do the business side of things and one to learn spooncarving itself, NO ONE chose the business and a bunch have signed up for the spooncarving. Lesson one: most people don't want to start a business.
But that's not the point of this blog. The point of this blog is to ruminate a bit on how my teaching has changed over the two years I've been offering spooncarving lessons. Because it has definitely changed. Like a standup comedian trying and failing and trying and failing and getting a little traction and honing and trying and failing again, I've shaped how I go about teaching in response to what did and didn't work from the dozens of people I've taught before.
It's a bit of a moving target, because each student shows up with a different history, skill set, tool sense, goal for their time, and dynamic with me. I do my best to adjust our flow as we go along to make sure they get out of it what they want. But I also make sure people go home with safe habits and a sense of empowerment to do the things that are needed for lasting success carving, particularly sharpening their tools.
In order to adjust flow, I need lots of arrows in my quiver (forgive the mixed metaphors here, just roll with me). I need more than one way to explain things. I need more than one choose your own adventure. What makes sense to one person leaves another person blank. Sometimes it's that they are just not wired to get it that way. Sometimes I need to come up with a better way to describe the thing I'm trying to communicate.
More than anything, I need to keep my eye on the clock and push, tactfully, to keep us on schedule. This is not a trivial thing. I have quite often run over time because I failed to do a good job with this. So much so, in fact, that I increased the length (and cost) of one of my lessons and I will likely do so again in the near future. It's a lot to pack in to a single day.
I recently decided to try inverting a portion of how I teach, to see if it would help the flow and making sure that people left with the right skills and experiences. I had been walking people through the process starting with a log and ending with a finished spoon. But I tried instead starting with a pre-made spoon blank, carving and finishing the spoon (yah!) and then finishing by walking through the process of axing out a blank. The thing I like about this is that they go home with a spoon blank ready to carve, and we can go right from sharpening into carving. The axe work (which should honestly be learned in a whole course in its own right) is kept to a minimum, and more emphasis is placed on the knife work, which is what most people want to engage with, particularly if they haven't done much carving.
Now I obviously am happy to teach people whatever they want, and I've done whole lessons on axe work, and these are fun variants of the basic lesson. But this one flip, the switch from thinking of the lesson as following the same path as though I were sitting down to carve a spoon, and instead being able to think about it in a more fluid way, has been helpful.
So as I start up the next VAC in two days (still time to sign up, it start January 10th, send me a DM through Instagram!) I'm keeping this lesson in mind. The cohort is all at different places in their spooncarving journey. They all want different things from the experience. It's a lot of time that we have, which is a luxury. I will be making videos (all of which I plan to make publicly available on IGTV, what you won't get is the dialogue on the DM list) on all sorts of topics, and sharing every little thing I know.
And you know what? Next month, when I do it all over again, I'll make new videos. Because I will be a better teacher. And the information will be slightly different, refined, reworked, tweaked. And I don't believe in making a definitive video on any topic. There is only the best you can do at any given moment. And if you structure the process right, your best gets better over time.
So today marked an interesting, welcome but also somewhat uncomfortable transition that happens every year, when I go from working flat out at the trees to all of a sudden time opening up, and being able to shift to other projects.
It's welcome because I have been working every day since October 25th with only Thanksgiving day off. It's uncomfortable because after working that long and that hard, I feel funny doing other things, like I'm constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop and to realize that I forgot something.
And it's interesting because in that transition lies a lot of opportunity.
I can use the shift to make big changes, clear up messes and spaces I've been letting fester while I dealt with the pressing present moment. My office, for one, is almost impassable.
But the chance to see systems clearly and change them is also evident for non-physical systems: how do I handle my bookkeeping (poorly); would I be better served by a more educated approach to my website development (undoubtedly); what's my broader strategy for the year ahead?
This coming year is an exciting one for me on a professional level. My book is coming out in May, the magazine will hopefully start to feel more like a fluid, understood process, I'm lining up teaching gigs both in person and online (for more on that, read the previous post). I'm booked two months out at a daily quota 3x that of what I was booking per day this time last year, and I'm looking forward to working with some new wholesale partners.
It's also a year in which I will be deliberately pushing myself to engage on more platforms than I have thus far been willing to do. Instagram remains the pillar app for my work, but I have the podcast, and the Spooncarving Collective on Mighty Networks (if you don't know what this is there is a blog post about it too), and I'm gently exploring what Facebook, Linkedin an Twitter have to offer. I'm taking seriously the fact that we are living in a moment where attention on these platforms is as easy to get as it's ever going to be: it will only get harder. So I'm pushing myself to make the long term investments in these platforms that will hopefully pay off in years to come.
Transitioning also means spending more time with my family. I'm going to have lunch with my grandmother tomorrow (who is out of the nursing home finally) and muck out her study. We're planning an extended family visit to the Boston Science Museum at the end of the month. And I've gotten on top of my portion of the presents for this Christmas.
But the transition comes with the end of a simple, straightforward pattern (go to the farm and do as much as possible until it gets dark, every single day) and the start of a more nuanced, murky expectation that asks me to balance professional and personal values and goals. This can be sweeter than just pushing and pushing, but also more confusing.
Either way, like so many things in life, I don't get a choice. Here it is, and the best I can do is to try to navigate it with as much grace as I can muster. Wish me luck!
First of all, I would like to thank everyone who took part in the Virtual Apprenticeship Challenge. It has been a wonderful opportunity for me to figure out how to communicate these topics and ideas, and it has been gratifying to see the community springing from the groups.
I've decided to take what I've learned from running this program and use it to create two new, paid courses that I'll be opening enrollment to now (yep, you read that right). So of the 90 people who signed up for the first round of the VAC, probably only 30 took part in a way that was obvious to me. There was greater enthusiasm at the beginning that dwindled throughout the weeks, leading me to think that a one month course would be a more appropriate time frame than the six weeks that this round was, and that by charging money I can get people to stick to their guns a bit more and also winnow it down to the people who really want it. I also saw that there were really two tracks: those who wanted to learn how to push their business to the next level and those simply wanted to push their carving to the next level (and these are not mutually exclusive).
The DM list function within Instagram is limited to 30 people, so that's my limit. Part of the problem with having three groups of 30 this time around was that I found it tedious to have to repeat each message three times, so I didn't communicate as much as I might have. My goal is to interact enough that everyone's needs are being met.
So. Each track is limited to 30 people. It will be one month long, with weekly prompts and check ins from me several times a week.
Each course costs $50. The way to sign up is to let me know through Instagram DM or email and I'll send you an invoice to pay. To take part you must be on Instagram (sorry, that's just how it goes).
This first round will start Saturday January 12th.
The Virtual Apprenticeship Challenge will be the course on spooncarving. We will work on all aspects of spooncarving, broken into weekly topics to focus on, but also working specifically to address your unique concerns.
The Virtual Journeyman Challenge will be the course on business development. It will be a condensed version of this initial run of the VAC, so you can read previous blog posts to get an idea of the topics.
And just to be clear: everything I will be sharing is stuff I've already given away for free . It's out there if you consume enough of my content. What you get for the fifty bucks is direct and unlimited access to me, a community of others going through the same experience, and the structure of the course. If you would find this helpful, I hope you will be in touch to sign up.
And for anyone who took part in this first round of the VAC, please let me know what worked and didn't work for you! I value any feedback you'd care to share. Thank you for your trust and enthusiasm.
Well, you made it to the last week of the Virtual Apprenticeship Challenge (or quite possibly you are not taking part but just reading along). You've committed to carving every day. You've stepped up your social media game and made some tough choices about handles and bio photos. You've started the process of building a website or worked to improve the one you have. You've done all the silly bureaucratic things you need to do to be legal and official. You've taken steps to help build a community and a culture that you want to be a part of.
Now to put it all together.
Putting it all together means coming up with a comprehensive business strategy. Not a plan (I haven't found those helpful the few times I've tried to make them), but a gameplan that you keep in your head and that you shift around as needed.
Here's what mine has looked like: when I started off carving, my plan was to sell at my Christmas tree farm to people coming to cut their own trees. This was all I focused on for three years. Then I got a phone and hopped on Instagram and thought I'd build up a base of wholesale customers. I worked very hard at this and failed. But in the process of doing that I built enough of a community that I tentatively started to sell to individuals instead. I also attempted and failed to gain traction at local markets.
Then I realized I could use low prices to generate more business which would force me to carve more than I otherwise would, and that this process would be a positive feedback loop pushing my skills forward. So I dropped my prices and it worked. I started selling briskly, built up a waiting list, and got much, much better because I was carving three or four times what I had been before.
Along the way I've learned that my customers usually have all the good ideas. Customers got me to start making spoon blanks (now accounting for 50% of my revenue), and customer requests got me carving coffee scoops, long scoops, teaspoons, camping spoons, flour scoops, miniscoops, flippy spatulas, baking spatulas, kid spoons, pocket spoons and ladles, all forms I now take for granted. These were not my own ideas.
I began offering lessons from my home, then set up a whole season of larger workshops, only to pull in my horns when I realized I liked teaching smaller numbers and one on one more.
I started collaborating with Matt White, first on tool handles, then the blades themselves, then on the @spoonesaurus account and Spoonesaurus Magazine. I started exploring finishing tools and collaborated with Adam Reynolds and Cynthia Main to produce the porcelain burnisher and broomcorn polisher that we now offer to fellow spooncarvers.
Lately I've been exploring sharing what I know through this Challenge and through my new podcast Emmet Audio and have taken the community I've seen being born from this and used that as inspiration to start the Spooncarving Collective over on Mighty Networks.
It's a lot, right? I get exhausted just writing it all down. So how are you going to compete?
You're not. You're gonna do you, and in five years you'll be able to exhaust yourself with a list like this too.
The point is, I started out with one thing. I knew I had a captive audience at the farm, who were already there to buy from me. That was my promising kernel. But when I'd outgrown the thirty spoons a year that this would sell for me, guess what? I floundered around for awhile, trying and failing to get any momentum.
This is normal. Ultimately, you will need to have a track record of success to have anyone trust you enough to buy from you. It's not about the quality of what you are carving, it's about your reputation and the sense people get that you're not so new to this that they aren't sure what they're getting. This is a bit of a catch 22: you need the experience to get the order, but you need the order to get the experience. What are you to do?
What you need are examples. So start selling at markets, if you want. Or start carving spoons to donate to a soup kitchen. It really doesn't matter what, so long as you are documenting the process. I suggested to Chet Flynn that he start giving away spoons to people and take portraits of them and learn their stories to start a whole project called #humansandspoons and through that project he would generate the interest and develop the track record that would lead to sales.
You will need to decide what you want to pursue, inperson sales or online, commissions or selling batches of work, wholesale or retail. My basic advice is to try all of it. Depending on where you live, your temperament, timing, skill level, luck, a host of factors too numerous to go into, some stuff will work and some won't. But I can tell you that trying lots of things and then pursuing the ones you like most/the ones that work out will slowly, slowly, lead you to a place of success.
As you get more successful, I want you to push yourself to diversify what you do and how you do it. Imagine the economy crashes tomorrow (this is definitely coming sooner or later so it's not an idle exercise). How would your current business fare? What could you branch out into that would be slightly more secure or just different? I don't mean more products, don't get this confused. I mean if you are making stuff, also start teaching. I carve spoons for people who are not spooncarvers but who want a nice handmade spoon. That's one sort of audience. I also make spoons and blanks and tools for spooncarvers, a different constituency. I also teach, and now apparently consult, and advise. And spooncarving is just one of three businesses I have, that are spread out across the globe and across industries. The editing is global and intellectual and academic, the tree farm is intensely physical and local. The spooncarving is all of the above. So my mix of businesses is diversified enough to mitigate the risk of it all going sideways. What's going to be your mix?
You don't need three different businesses, you just need enough diversity within the one business to achieve this. And you don't need it right away, but it should be on your mind as a goal.
So as you go into this final week, you need to come up with ten different ways you can start your business proper. A typical list should have you trying local markets, online sales, wholesale, etc. throw a whole bunch of stuff at the wall. None of it will stick. Keep throwing. Don't stop. Even when some stuff sticks throw some more where it didn't and do. not. stop. This is you. In the trenches. Playing the game.
Okay, so I did an episode on my new podcast, Emmet Audio (find it anywhere you get your podcasts), about just this. About the need to build a community rather than amass a following. In the episode, I said that the community is what really matters in the end.
So for this second to last week of the Virtual Apprenticeship Challenge, I want you to come up with a community building project that will create value or others. Here are some examples of ones I have done:
The @spoonesaurus feed on Instagram, which, while it did not live up to me and Matt's original vision of a community project, nonetheless created a valuable resource for fellow spooncarvers.
Gathering and shipping spoons to send to a fellow spooncarver who had lost a daughter.
The free Spoonesaurus Gatherings that Matt White and I host twice a year.
Spoonesaurus Magazine, even though it isn't free, has the goal of strengthening and enriching the spooncarving scene.
This challenge itself, which I have seen foster connections between people and a shared sense of purpose and support.
I am excited to announce the most recent of these projects, which is the Spooncarving Collective, a network on the Mighty Networks app. There is a link in my Instagram profile, please check it out. Basically, Mighty Networks allows users to create communities that people can join and then mess around in. My thought was that the Spooncarving Collective could provide a permanent home to these threads of connection and advice sought and given that currently live in my DM lists on Instagram, and which are limited to the max number Instagram allows.
Am I asking you to download yet another app and figure out how to use this new-to-you software? Yes I am.
Because I think it can be a space that we can organize to provide the ultimate resource for other spooncarvers. I think we can together create the community that we all want, that right now lives in a very diffuse way because Instagram puts such a heavy focus on each of us presenting our lives. Don't get me wrong- I think that's important. But what that misses, and what the Spooncarving Collective can provide, is a place for us to all gather and be seen and heard.
So go check it out. I have spent basically no time on it because I'm crazy busy these next few weeks with the Christmas trees, but I've established some topic threads for people to add to, including a suggestions one so you can let me know what else you want to have in the space. I'm really excited to have this space that we can all add to.
Also, if you are doing the challenge, I want you to think about what other community building project you can start. Remember that you don't need permission. Remember that it might as well be you. Remember that it can be small, local (host a spooncarving gathering) or giant and grand (start a non-profit to send a cooking spoon to every refugee family). Build your community by reaching out to people, and by responding to every comment someone makes on your work. Build a community by actually caring what someone thinks. Build a community by being brave enough to share your truth in your posts, and taking the time to actually contribute something meaningful.
So, to recap. You should be carving every day. Because getting good at this thing you want to do is the only way to get where you want to go. You should be posting every single day to social media, and scaling that up as you can. Read my blog post a long time ago about what I think is important in balancing out an Instagram feed. You should be building a website to give you a home base on the internet that is yours and can never be taken away. You should be registered with whatever government entities need to know you exist and have established bank accounts and bookkeeping processes to support this. And now I want you to give back.
Because the more you give, the more you get. But you have to give first. That's how it works.
So there's this moment when you are starting a business when things start to feel very real, and it's not when you get your first customer, or hang the sign over the door. Nope.
It's when you register with the state and town and open a bank account.
I know, sexy, right?
But the thing is, even if you are operating under your own name, you will need to do these things because that's how you fit into the social fabric.
I don't know how things are done in any state but mine, and I certainly don't know how things are done in other countries. Heck, I barely know how to do things here. But at least in Massachusetts you need to register with the state, who issues a taxpayer identification number (search for how to do this online), and you take this number to the town clerk who registers you with the town (or city), and you then take both those things to the bank to open the business accounts. Oh it's scintillating stuff.
You then need to get some bookkeeping software, and here's where my knowledge gets really sketchy, because I only know one system and that barely. But unlike your personal money, you actually need to keep track of your orders and expenses and collect sales tax as appropriate and pay that to the state each month. You might need to pay taxes quarterly. You might need to hire an accountant or a bookkeeper to at least help you get set up.
Don't shy away from this, because if you do, you will never transition your business from more than a way to earn money to buy more tools. You need to embrace these dry, boring, confusing things, and it is best to tackle them now. Do some research on Google. Figure out what you want to use as a system. Figure out what you are required to do. Understand all that because understanding it is the foundation of your business.
You might be carving spoons, but keeping books is keeping books. You can't get out of it. So get into it.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.