Turning Interviews into Kids’ Books with Erica Swallow

15241180_1144296242344899_7164375719047770981_nThis month in the Inspiration and Perspiration series, I tracked down Erica Swallow, co-creator of a non-fiction picture book stemming from Erica’s real-life interview with kid entrepreneurs. I met Erica at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, where, in our first chat, she asked, “Is there anything I can do to help you with your project?” I was later shocked to find her on a panel discussing social media for writers. I had no idea she was a panelist instead of just an attendee! With a giving, humble spirit like that, I was thrilled to discover she’s also a powerhouse of creativity and innovation.

I talked to Erica about what inspired her project.

Tell us about your current project and how you got the idea for it?

I just finished my first picture book series. It’s called Entrepreneur Kid, and it’s a four-book series about real kids with real businesses, written by myself and illustrated by my good friend, Li Zeng, a very talented graphic designer and design professor I’ve known since moving back to my home state, Arkansas. We’re self-publishing the series on Kickstarter and just launched today. It was been an absolute whirlwind adventure learning how to be a publisher!

The whole premise behind the series is the idea that kids can do anything they set their minds through. The books feature the stories of four kid entrepreneurs from across the U.S., from sock designer Sebastian Martinez (CEO of Are You Kidding?) and barrette inventor Gabby Goodwin (CEO of GaBBY Bows) to lacrosse equipment maker Rachel Zietz (CEO of Gladiator Lacrosse) and electronics reseller and recycler Jason Li (CEO of iReTron). These kids have done amazing things… sold their goods all over the world, figured out manufacturing, partnered with non-profits, and achieved so much while so young.

I’ve been seeing more and more young Gabbyentrepreneurs popping up around the country, and I started researching what kids are achieving today. I couldn’t help but be inspired.

While I’ve been a journalist for a while now, I thought this was the appropriate set of stories to launch my career as a debut children’s author.

The illustrator Li and I have been collaborating on projects since early last year, mostly educational programs focused on inspiring the next generation of thinkers and innovators. She and I got serious about Entrepreneur Kid in September, and we’ve been rolling ever since.

What is it about entrepreneurship that you find inspiring? Is there a connection with your own life to that world?

Yes, 100% – there’s a huge connection. I’m a small business owner, and I’ve worked with countless entrepreneurs throughout my career in journalism and marketing. I started my career as a marketing consultant at The New York Times in 2009, right out of college. That’s where I developed a love for storytelling, as well as a love for entrepreneurship. After all, you can’t lead social media at the world’s paper of record without falling in love with brilliant storytelling.

Part of my job was to collaborate with startups like Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare, and I really loved how they believed in moving fast and breaking things. It was so exhilarating working on campaigns with people like Tristan Walker, this spunky business development all-star who led Foursquare partnerships at the time, while still pursuing his MBA at Stanford. He’s now the founder and CEO of Walker & Company Brands, which makes health and beauty products for people of color. It’s entrepreneurs like Tristan who make me excited to keep growing and learning. I want to work with people like him who are trying to build things that make the world a better place.

That’s what entrepreneurship is to me – it’s making the world a better place, through your creativity and ingenuity.

What’s been the hardest part for you as you’ve developed this series?

15000800_1113898918717965_3619267930297421633_oWriting for kids! It sounds odd, but I’ve been writing for adults for the past… forever!

My bookshelf is now full of picture books, because I had to learn how to structure the story. It wasn’t until this past December, though, that I realized writing picture books isn’t so different from writing a news article. I was at the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Winter Conference, and legendary picture book author Andrea Davis Pinkney – who has a background in journalism as well – said of how she uses her journalism experience in book writing: “Use a compelling lede.”

I was stunned, because for some reason, I had never considered my writing experience of relevance to children’s books. I went back to my manuscripts and did some tweaking. I’m definitely going to think journalistically for my next book, and the lede is going to be out of this world!

What’s been the biggest triumph so far?

Besides finishing the series and launching the Kickstarter, we’ve already received great feedback from the industry. We were a finalist in the Children’s Book category of the San Francisco Writers Conference writing contest, for “Sebastian Creates a Sock Company,” the first book we wrote in the series. Just prior to that, I was honored with a Highlights Foundation James Cross Giblin Scholarship to continue my writing in nonfiction children’s literature.

The kid’s lit community has certainly been welcoming. I don’t think I’ve ever pursued a project that’s been welcomed so overwhelmingly so early on. We’re really grateful for that.

What advice would you give to a budding entrepreneur or writer?

Do your thang. That’s all. Just keep going. 15241429_1145555655552291_2580009388373791058_nWriting is tough. Starting a business is tough. You just have to persist. Get it done. Keep going. End of story.

Tell us about your Kickstarter and where to find it!

Yes, yes, yes. We launched the Kickstarter this morning to fund the first print run of the Entrepreneur Kid book series. You can find the project easily from our website or directly on Kickstarter. You can back the project and choose from one of 11 rewards, which include getting a simple thank you on our website, a single book, the full book series (in print, digital, or both forms), multiple sets of the series, or an author or illustrator visit (U.S. or international). There’s something for everyone. Well, if you like stories about kid entrepreneurs!

We are so grateful for all of the people who helped make the project itself possible. From the entrepreneurs who we featured to our early readers, there have been so many helpful people along the way. Adding to the equation are our backers. Thank you to everyone who supports us over the next 30 days. The project closes on April 27th, at which point, we’ll put our order in for 2,000 books if the campaign is a success. Fingers crossed! 

If you had to describe what inspires you in one word, what would it be?

Humanity.

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Erica Swallow is a status quo wrecker, entrepreneur, journalist, and debut children’s book author. Her thoughts have been published in ForbesFortune, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. A first-generation college student, she was raised in Paragould, Arkansas and believes education is the key to opportunity. Erica holds degrees from New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is the founder of Southern Swallow digital strategy consultancy.

Find behind-the-scenes photos and more at www.facebook.com/entrepreneurkid.

Check out and consider supporting this project by clicking here: Entrepreneur Kid Kickstarter.


Want more interviews that pick the brains of creative people? Check out Art Modeling and Creating Art with Krystal Becker or Travel Photography and Journalism with Megan Snedden. And keep an eye out for the next entry in the Inspiration and Perspiration series by following the blog! Just find the “Follow” feature at the top right of the page!

Travel Photography and Journalism with Megan Snedden

1.jpgNext in the Inspiration and Perspiration series, I talk with Megan Snedden, travel photographer and journalist for publications like BBC, USA Today, and National Geographic Traveler. Every time I talk to Megan, I leave our conversations inspired to conquer the world. She’s overcome tremendous obstacles to create a career out of what she loves and makes the people around her feel like, with a dash of adventure in their souls and a willingness to take a risk, they just might be able to follow in her dancing footsteps.

What inspires Megan isn’t really a mystery. Who among us isn’t drawn to far off, exotic places? But to turn that inspiration into a career takes some serious work.

I interviewed Megan about her experience.

When you do something creative as a career, there’s often an assumption by outsiders that you’re getting paid for a hobby, and that anyone could jump in if they wanted to. In reality, what kind of work goes into making a career out of travel photography and journalism?

It’s funny to me that people have no idea what’s happening behind the scenes. There is so much hustle going on in order for your career to not only take off initially, but to stay afloat and relevant. In order for stories to get published, I’m always coming up with new ideas and developing pitches. When you’re in this freelance world and you’re pitching editors ideas, not everybody bites at what you think is going to be a great story. It depends a lot on what’s happening at the publication. Magazines release public editorial calendars with what they plan to write about months before an issue comes out, but a lot can change in that time. Even online magazines and publications pursue different verticals (niche content) at different times based on how stories on their website are performing. So you might send them a story about Cuba and they say, “Oh we’re so over Cuba right now, no thank you.”

Also you can’t just approach it like, “Oh I went on this awesome trip, here’s a story!” You have to come up with an angle you might call a, “Why now?” You’re essentially a salesperson when it comes to getting your work published. You develop pitches and contact editors and keep those relationships healthy so that if you’re freelancing for one publication and you switch and start freelancing for another, that you still could go back to the first one. Sometimes you’re funding yourself, other times you’re collaborating with PR people to get a trip to happen, then write stories about their clients in the travel and destination industry. It’s all very fascinating, but there is so much more legwork behind it than, “I went on a vacation and took a few photos and just want to write.”

The other piece of the puzzle isfiji-3 that most people I know in this line of work don’t invest everything into one bucket. We’re working on several different types of creative projects all at one time. It might be advertising, branding, or social media work for other companies that still incorporates writing and photography. It’s not all travel journalism all the time. I mean, it is for some people. I know people who’ve gone the Instagram Influencer, build-your-own-blog route and they have such big audiences of their own that they can do that. But when you’re a writer—the journalist photographer type—you really have to balance a lot of different kinds of creative work.

When your job demands the constant production of ideas, do you ever struggle with feeling inspired?

It’s not so much feeling uninspired because I’m a curious person. It’s more that I can sometimes get overwhelmed because when you’re thinking of the context of the world, there are so many directions you could go. I can very easily end up down a rabbit hole researching one thing before realizing I need to switch gears. So it’s mostly a matter of keeping myself organized. I keep an idea boneyard in Google spreadsheets. I read a lot of news and when I read stories and go, “Oh, it would be interesting to do a spin off of that,” I put it into the spreadsheet. Later, when I’m trying to think of ideas, I can look through and go, “Oh yeah, let’s research that idea and see if I can develop a pitch.” I also keep calendars, timelines, and other spreadsheets that organize what I’m doing. I’m not only pitching ideas and looking for work, I’m also doing the work at the same time so I have to split my day between the two.

What trait do you think makes someone good at what you do?

You really have to be tenacious. 4You get a lot of rejections. Rejections are not necessarily personal. They more or less say something about where the publication is at and what they’re looking for. But when you pour your heart and soul into a pitch and you send it to an editor and they respond with, “No, we’ll pass,” it can be really bone-crushing, especially when you’re at a moment where you’re like, “I haven’t landed any stories in a while and I really need to.” But you do get these incredible wins and all the work ends up paying off. Sometimes you end up in a flow. And you have to be able to meditate through that process and really stick to your guns and keep on keeping on no matter what happens.

You also have to be a bit of a risk-taker. Someone who is willing to go 100% all out on something. That entrepreneurial spirit.

What’s been your most rewarding experience as you’ve pursued this career?

It’s many, many things that keep me going. In terms of travel photography, you have these amazing, soulful moments that you get to share with people all around the world. I went to Uruguay by myself and met this woman who lived there. I just struck up a conversation with her and before I knew it I was shooting portraits of her. I left that day and looked back at the pictures. They were so beautiful. It just felt so good to relate to somebody in that way. If I didn’t do what I’m doing now, maybe I wouldn’t have talked to her and had that interesting connection and learned as much about Uruguay in that hour that I spent with her as I did. There have been other major, “Pinch me. Is this my job?” moments. I went on assignment to Fiji for ten days for the International Business Times and standing in that lush, tropical environment surrounded by people who were so warm and happyFiji 4.jpg and so loving, to be embraced by the locals, I just felt really lucky. It was also fascinating to be in such a small and remote and mysterious part of the world, looking around and going, “Nobody really knows where I am right now. My family and my friends kind of know that I’m traveling but they have no idea what’s happening in my life.” It’s a freeing feeling. 

If you had to describe what inspires you in one word, what would it be?

Regret.

I know, that’s such a weird thing to say but oh it’s so true! It’s such a strong motivator for me. At the beginning of this whole journey, I had this moment when I was planning my first trip to South America by myself, wanting to get away and having gotten a gig writing about it for a small, local newspaper. I was young, like twenty-two, and I wasn’t necessarily supported by the people in my life about the choices I wanted to make. They were like, “This is so crazy and dangerous!” I was also hung up on things like the fact that I’d just graduated, we were entering an economic recession, and I was feeling the pressure to get a “real” job.

But when I really sat with the idea, I asked myself, “If you were to fast-forward five years and look back on this moment, how would you have wanted to respond and what would you regret the most?” And I really felt in all of my heart that, man, even if it was going to be rough trying to convince other people, I was doing the right thing for me. Sometimes you’re not going to have the support. It sometimes feels crazy and scary and like a huge leap into the unknown, but I would never have it any other way. And had I gone five years later and looked back and not have done that, my life would have taken a totally different trajectory. I always would have regretted that. So I’m always sort of framing my life that way. When I’m in a position of making an important decision, I go, “Okay, well, I know this is insane, but what am I going to regret? Doing it or not doing it?” I think that we all have the capacity inside of ourselves to handle anything that comes our way, so hit the road!

What are you working on now?

I’m really excited because I’m going to be hosting a free webinar on Monday, April 3, 2017 about how to essentially do exactly what I do and get published in mainstream media outlets. I’ve hosted online courses before on the topic, but this is the first time I’ll be offering a free hour and a half training. It’s going to be live and it’s going to be really fun! Learn more here: www.megansnedden.com/mainstream

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Megan Snedden is a travel storyteller and photographer whose words and photos have appeared in publications like BBC, USA Today, and National Geographic Traveler. She helps creatives get their work published in mainstream media outlets.

Website: www.MeganSnedden.com

Add beauty and adventure to your Instagram and Twitter feeds by following Megan on social media:

www.Twitter.com/MeganSnedden

Still intrigued? I interviewed Megan in depth about her journey to her career and the personal obstacles she faced, from frightening health concerns to a family tragedy, that ultimately led her to where she is today. Megan’s Spotlight Interview

You can also check out the first interview in the series with art model and artist, Krystal Becker.

Art Modeling and Creating Art with Krystal Becker

16244815_10212811651832955_1751613662_oWhere does inspiration come from? Ask the ancient Greeks and they’d point you to the muses—goddesses with the role of inspiring artists, writers, and scientists.

Today we meet Krystal Becker, a modern-day muse (or art model) and an artist herself. Meeting Krystal in person, you’d be unsurprised artists are drawn to her. Her retro features and style are stunning and one gets the sense that she has somehow emerged out of a different time. But despite having been the centerpiece of paintings and photographs, Krystal is somehow completely grounded, even modest about her past, with an offbeat humor she used to write a zine about how to get abducted by an alien. Seriously, how can you not be inspired by this person?

I asked Krystal to share some thoughts around the topic of inspiration.

How did you get involved in being an art model? What was the experience like?

In my mid-twenties, I decided I didn’t want to only be an admirer of pictures, I wanted to live in them as well. Most of my art modeling was in collaboration with fine art photographers. The thrill of going on adventures with these brilliant artists, and having them reveal themselves through me, was intoxicating. When I see the photos, paintings, or film I’m in, I don’t quite recognize myself. I mostly see the artist. It’s interesting, I remember an artist that I’ve worked with more than a dozen times telling me that he could never seem to create an image that mirrors how he sees me. I think that’s because he would see an amalgamation of him and me in the photograph.

Edith Lebeau in particular often uses your image her art. What is that relationship like?

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Edith is a beautiful human and an absolute pleasure in every way. Because we live far away from each other, I cannot physically sit for her, so we improvise. She tells me, or shows me through images, which poses she’s searching for and I’ll provide photographs of myself in that pose. A few weeks later, I’m presented with an amazing painting. Again, the paintings, for the most part, reveal Edith, not myself.

What do you think artists get out of working with you or other art models? Do you think that the inspiration comes from a model’s look, personality, or something else?

I’m not really sure as I don’t work with models. I think it may just be a simple thing like they’re attracted to that model. It’s all very magical if you think about it. All throughout your life you’re attracted to different people, falling in like with them without even speaking with them. Then it turns out, once you get to know them, that they were perfect for you. That’s been the case in every artist/model relationship I’ve had. They’ve all been gifts in my life.

What was your most interesting experience as an art model?

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There are so any! I’d have to say when a photographer [uncredited per request] put me in a men’s tuxedo. I had never crossdressed before and I found it exhilarating! The photos from that photo shoot are still my favorite photographs of me. They remind me of Alfred Hitchcock film stills.

You are an artist yourself. Where do you find inspiration?

That changes all the time for me. Currently, I find it in shapes and color. I’ve just finished a series of abstracts. I had never worked like that before: with zero premeditation. The paintings painted themselves really. I found it incredibly freeing. There wasn’t the pressure that realism evokes.

Do you ever struggle with feeling inspired? What do you if that happens?

Yes, of course. I just show up consistently. I play and experiment when I don’t have ideas. I’ve found that some of my favorite works were born in that in-between time. I also think it becomes more and more difficult to return to creating after long hiatuses. So yeah, always show up.

What advice do you have for a young or new artist?

Just enjoy it and have fun, don’t take art or yourself too seriously. I heard a great line the other day. It went something like, “Life is two numbers with a dash in the middle. Make the most of your dash.” Don’t spend your dash being hard on yourself or comparing yourself to others or sabotaging your own creative exploration with self-loathing.

If you had to describe what inspires you in one word, what would it be?

Beauty.

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You can find Krystal’s artwork and get linked to her Etsy shop where you can find her zine, “How to Get Abducted by Aliens” at krystalbecker.com. You can also follow her on Instagram at krystal.becker.

If you live in the Ventura, CA area and want to see Krystal’s artwork exhibited, check out, Back to the Future—on display at the NAMBA Arts Center from Jan 21 through Mar 5, and Defying Doyena collection from a small group of contemporary artists on display at Atrium Gallery from Jan 27 to  Feb 28 (formal reception: Fri, Jan 27 from 5:30-7p).


Next up in the series, many of us get inspired by taking photos of travel, but actually turning it into a career takes a whole lot of work. I interview Megan Snedden, a travel photographer and journalist for publications such as National Geographic Traveler, BBC, and Huffington Post. 

To learn about the Inspiration and Perspiration series, check out Where do ideas come from?

Share your thoughts below or follow the blog to get notifications of future posts.

That’s a wrap! Until next time, nerds.

Collecting and Connecting – Two Years of Interviews

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Alumni Spotlight Panel: Click the pic to watch!

I not only tell stories, I collect them. I interview people about their complicated career paths and publish the articles once a month. After two years, I’ve found there’s a key factor that separates the interviews I find interesting and the ones I get fully sucked into, head first.

But before I talk about other people’s stories, I need to rewind to one of my own.

When I graduated college a year early, a proud and eager honors student, I shot out resumes into the job market like I’d gotten a hold of a t-shirt cannon.

Imagine those t-shirts fluttering to the ground of an empty stadium while a sad hotdog wrapper tumbles by. That’s a pretty dead-on metaphor to how my job search went.

So there was a lot at stake six months in when I finally got a call for an interview. In the brand new business dress my mom had bought me, I nervously walked through an active construction site to my “marketing” interview. Only, as I asked deeper questions about the odd terms the interviewer was using, it struck me–it was a pyramid scheme. The interviewer saw the dawning on my face and cut things short. It wasn’t going to work out.

I walked off, dazed. My only interview had been a scam. That I got rejected from. Obviously, I had gone terribly wrong somewhere. I’d missed something critically important that kept other people from launching themselves into the world and thwacking into a mud puddle.

I sat in the parking garage, numbly hugging the purse I’d borrowed to carry my resumes, utterly alone.

I would continue to struggle for a few years in a lot of ways I’m sure to talk about later. But flash forward to 2014, with a stable career in advising, I pitched a feature where I’d interview alumni who graduated into or after the economic crash exploring how they got into their careers. It would be educational. It would be human interest for the college. 

Secretly, it was a postmortem. I needed to know what crucial piece I’d missed all those years ago.

I’d missed, it turns out, the stories themselves.

Maybe it was because I approached potential interviewees with my own awkward account first, maybe it was the mission of helping young people, but I started getting the real stories, not the polished social-media ones. Not all of the interviewees shared with me times when they felt like they’d crashed or made a wrong turn or taken a step only to find the ground drop away beneath them, but a lot of them did.

 A National Geographic photojournalist shared the moment a doctor handed her a handicap placard and told her she’d never lead a normal life. A speech therapist laughed with me about applying for a nighttime bike assembler position at Target and getting turned down. One person called me after reading the draft of her feature, stunned that I’d made her sound cool. I was surprised she didn’t see herself that way already. 

The thing about those stories that get vulnerable, when they get to the triumphant parts, they make me clap and grin (yes, sometimes literally). With those people who are brave enough to share their weaker moments, I feel as though I’ve known them for years instead of, as is often the case, being in the middle of our very first conversation.

The power in our stories doesn’t come from the proudest, glossiest, Instagram moments. The power comes from the vulnerable parts. The parts we’re afraid of showing each other.

We all want to feel connection in those places where we feel most alone.

I can’t speak for the people I’ve interviewed, but for me, talking to others who say, “While you were in that parking garage, I was out there too somewhere, feeling the same way,” moves me in ways that the white-toothed smile, LinkedIn-ready stories simply don’t. 

So to writers of fictional stories or people just looking for more connection to the people in their lives…my suggestion? Take the risk. Get vulnerable. Show off your humanity. And stick close to the people who give you those things in return. 

You can read my interviews with these amazing folks at UCSB’s College of Letters and Science page

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