Posted by: Liz Massey | November 7, 2009

The Artist @ Work: Amanda Hirsch

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Writer, performer, blogger and web content strategist Amanda Hirsch

Today I post the next installment in my “Artist @ Work” series, an interview with writer, multimedia producer, improv/performance artist and blogger Amanda Hirsch.

I came across Hirsch’s work through her Creative DC blog, which has functioned since 2006 as a lens for focusing all that is cool about creative efforts in the nation’s capital. Before launching herself into the freelance world, she worked producing web content for PBS, and still posts to that organization’s P.O.V. blog, which discusses issues related to documentary filmmaking.

After 10 years spent living in DC proper, and three-and-a-half years authoring the Creative DC blog, Hirsch and her husband, Jordan, moved this past week to New York City. It will be interesting to see how she transforms that cultural landscape!!!

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Amanda's blog about creative community in the nation's capital, Creative DC

Tell us about your creative pursuits, paid and unpaid.
My whole life is a creative pursuit! But more specifically: I’m a writer and performer. I’m also a blogger – an art form unto itself, I’ve realized lately. I have an impulse to curate things online…

What is your business model for your writing work?
I’m new enough to being a published writer that I am more concerned with exposure at this point than financial compensation. I do get paid for one of my writing gigs, but it makes up a fraction of my income. Still, when I submitted a book proposal earlier this year, as part of demonstrating my “platform,” I could say that I write a column for so-and-so. For someone at my stage of the game, that’s worth quite a lot – being able to show that not only do you reach a large audience, but also trusted organizations have published you.

All of this is to say that I don’t rely on writing to pay the bills. I primarily earn a living as an independent consultant, helping indie media companies and nonprofits strengthen their web content. I work for myself, at home, with my husband (also a freelancer) and dog (a lazy, but adorable, hanger-on).

Who makes up your customer base?
I do a lot of work with public media – I worked at PBS for over six years before I made the leap into freelancing, so they’ve been a natural client, and I’m on my third project now with NPR. I believe passionately in the importance of non-commercial media to our democracy. I’m actually working on a new project called Public Media Girl that leverages my knowledge of, and passion for, public media – for now it’s primarily a Twitter feed, but I’m fundraising to create a complementary blog – kind of a daily digest of the best content in the public media universe.

Outside of public media, clients include the Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television and Radio) and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

How does your improv/performance art work dovetail with your writing and consulting? Is this a labor of love only, or are you being paid for your work in this area?
One of my writing jobs pays, and I’ve been paid for a handful of performances over the years (primarily improv-as-corporate-training gigs), but for the most part, writing and performing are labors of love – necessary ones, though, since when I can’t perform, I get antsy, and when I can’t write, I get morose.

What are your financial and professional aspirations in each of the creative fields that you work/perform in?
I would love to live in a world that valued my contributions as an artist as much as it values my contributions as a web content strategist, but unless Lorne Michaels falls in love with me (for example), I think I’ll have to rely on my web skills to pay the bills for the foreseeable future. That said, I am working to generate more of my income, incrementally, from my own creative projects. For example, if Public Media Girl is funded, that will be work I genuinely love, that someone is paying me to do … versus consulting on someone else’s project. I am fortunate to work with clients whose work I deeply admire and support – but at the end of the day, it’s still about supporting their organizations. I increasingly want to fill my days working on things that are mine…

Ultimately, I’d love to earn a living solely doing things I love to do – “love” meaning, things I’d do even if I were independently wealthy: writing, performing, blogging. I took a workshop this summer with an artist and educator in Washington, DC, Laura Zamwho emphasized the importance of naming your unmitigated dreams – only then can you take actions that get you closer to those dreams. My dreams, unabashed, are to write a nationally syndicated column, publish my book and be cast on Saturday Night Live. Of course, once I’m on SNL, someone will notice my potential as a dramatic actress and cast me in their independent film in the role of a lifetime. Meanwhile, I’ll continue living a creatively and spiritually fulfilling life that involves good food, travel and a lot of yoga.

I’ve learned that you don’t snap your fingers and wake up to the life you’ve imagined … you take steps, each day, and gradually your life shifts. Or, as I said in my one-woman show, Brushstrokes, “Time is my paint, each day is my canvas.”

There’s a great debate at the current moment about the price of web content and the ability of content producers to be able to “sell” anything online. As a consultant in this field, what’s your stance on marketing and selling writing or other creative works on the web?

I agree with the maxim that “information wants to be free.” That’s the culture of the Internet, and the Internet is increasingly the engine driving all media, not to mention culture. The finer points of strategy will vary, of course, by company/individual, but generally speaking, just because content costs you something to produce, doesn’t mean people will pay for it. Which sucks for anyone who spends serious time or money creating content. But if you want to be competitive, you need to let go of worrying about what you’re “owed,” and focus instead of delivering something people want to pay for. If it’s not your content, maybe it’s an experience you create, or a service you provide. It comes down to creating real value for people online, and earning loyalty – that’s how you get people to support your company/product/brand. The trick is to really understand that value proposition, and deliver on it.

For artists, creating value often means being accessible and transparent to your online audience — people start to like you, to feel like they know you, and then when your album (for example) comes out, they want to donate to the cause, even though they could download it for free. The other day, at a Paid Content conference, Shelly Palmer said, “The brand is not the publication but the author in 2009.” The author is the brand – think about that. It’s very empowering. Because it’s the brand that ultimately sells content/films/paintings/etc.

The flip side of this is that it can be a burden to artists, all the time they need to spend interacting with their audience. I think it must really be a challenge for introverts, or people who find that much audience interaction disruptive to their creative process; for me, being on Twitter and Facebook — it’s like performing, in a lot of ways.

I really recommend a book by Scott Kirsner called Fans, Friends and Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age; it addresses these issues very effectively.

One of your ongoing gigs is writing a blog for PBS related to documentary storytelling and the web. What can web content producers learn from documentarians in terms of funding their work and finding a receptive audience/customer base?

To be honest, I feel like the web is influencing the work of filmmakers, more than filmmakers are influencing work on the web. For example, I know a few examples of filmmakers using the MoveOn.org approach of incremental fundraising – raising money during each phase of a project through direct audience outreach, versus writing a lengthy proposal for a foundation. And of course many filmmakers are realizing the grassroots marketing power, not just of the web, but of social media – I’m seeing more Twitter accounts pop up for indie film projects, and I’m hearing from a lot of documentary filmmakers using Facebook to engage with supporters throughout the filmmaking process.

In your experience, what is the biggest challenge for artists related to integrating making art with making a living? Any advice for how to tackle that challenge?
I think an enormous challenge is cultivating your energy, so that you can bring your best self the creative process. My advice is to know yourself, and know your limits, and try to arrange your days accordingly. For me, office life was incredibly draining – being “on” all day, constantly interacting with people, navigating office politics… I came home exhausted every single day. By contrast, freelancing from home, in my sweats, with my dog, is so much more relaxed, and I find that I can really focus on the work and do it well…then, in the evening, I’m ready to go out and rehearse, perform, etc. I tend to do my best writing first thing in the morning or last thing at night. So if I want to get a lot of writing done on a particular day, I arrange my schedule accordingly.

How will your move to New York City affect your livelihood and/or art-making?
I will become rich and famous, of course! But in the near-term – professionally, it will mean opportunities to meet and work with different kinds of cultural organizations and nonprofits, I hope. Artistically, it will mean that I’ve got a whole new infinite set of stimuli to get my creative synapses firing, and the opportunity to perform with new people, in new settings, for new audiences…

Do you have any advice for serious hobbyists or part-time artists on balancing the “day job” and their art work?
There’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for how to manage the balance between earning a living, and pursuing your heart’s desire. For some people, these things are one and the same; for others, their art is best served by keeping it separate from thoughts about a bottom line. No one can tell you what’s right for you – you need to rely on your own self-knowledge and intuition. So if you’re feeling out of touch with yourself, step one is opening up the channels that let you hear your truest, inner voice. Step two is learning to trust that voice. Step three is taking action – sometimes big (like, my move to NY, or when I left PBS to make the leap into freelancing), sometimes small (like when I decided I wanted to take an acting class to supplement my improv work).

These steps are the work of a lifetime, and they’re also steps that you repeat over and over again, I find. I’ve had big breakthroughs, periods where I’m completely satisfied with the balance between my professional life and my artistic life… and then periods where I start to feel “off,” or weighed down, and I realize further tinkering is needed. You can’t do this if you don’t take care of yourself though – for me, yoga and journaling are critical tools for staying in touch with myself. And I have to give a lot of credit to The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron for setting me on this path in the first place – anyone struggling with these issues who hasn’t read that book owes it to themselves to pick it up. I also highly recommend a book called How to Find the Work You Love by Lawrence Boldt.

Is there anything else on this topic we haven’t covered that you think is relevant?

I’d just say that as you navigate the balance between earning a living and making art, it’s important not to get overly serious. One of my favorite quotes is from Howard Thurman, who said, “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.” Joy is in the journey, not just the destination. If you’re grinding your teeth over what kind of life you want to live – get out there and try stuff that sounds like fun; it’s the best way of identifying your heart’s desire.

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What will the future hold for Amanda in NYC?

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