Interview with a Barefoot Writer: Mary Jaksch
“My desk has moved from a veranda looking down on a Thai beach, to working in Germany in between mountain biking, to doing some writing in India. So one of the things that I absolutely love about this lifestyle is that I can do it from anywhere.”
— Mary Jaksch, writer and owner of the hugely popular Write to Done blog
One of the things I love most about the writing business is how often you come across other writers who encourage you in a fresh and interesting way. Mary Jaksch is just such a person. Her story inspires and her advice is spot-on for any writer looking to overcome doubts and settle into a comfortable lifestyle.
I spoke with Mary on a Friday afternoon from her home in New Zealand. Not only did this fourthdegree black belt and Zen master relate her tenacious tale of going from zero to running a sixfigure writing business, she also shared profound insight on how to overcome those doubts that plague even the most prolific, well-paid writers.
These days, Mary’s hugely successful blog, Write to Done, boasts over 100,000 monthly subscribers. Read on for valuable insight on how to address the limitations of your own mind, the smart way to establish a joint venture, and the single most important thing you can do to become a better writer. Mary also shares a powerful message about why you don’t need every step mapped out for you right away — and what you need to recognize instead.
How did you first get involved in Zen Mastery?
When I first came to New Zealand, I felt quite a bit unsettled because it’s difficult to leave your home country and your family and start life in a new country. So one of the things I did was to start karate. I’m actually still a karate student after many years — a fourth-degree black belt. Anyhow, in my first class, I was just amazed at the Zen meditation used within this style of karate — Zen Karate, it’s called. You start and finish each very intensive class with silent meditation. And I loved it so much, I started practicing Zen. And then I went deeper into that and started working with a Zen master in Hawaii and Australia. And after 20 years, I was invited to become a Zen master myself. So it’s not really a fast road to success; it’s a long training. But I reckon it’s helped me to focus and to be quiet within myself, which really helps to develop my creativity and not to get swamped by negative thoughts and so on. It’s been a life-changing experience.
You have a lovely accent — where are you from originally?
I come from mixed parentage. My mother was British and my father was a German-speaking Czech, so we moved from England to Germany. I was raised there, so I’m bilingual, but my favorite language is English. That’s the language I really enjoy writing in.
A common question we get from members is about which language to write in if they’re bilingual. What would you recommend?
I think English is more playful. German is more straightforward and logical; it doesn’t really lend itself to playfulness, and so I enjoy English much more for writing. But it is a problem for many bloggers who are bilingual or not quite sure whether they should write in English or whatever other language they speak. My sense is that they need to choose a language they enjoy writing in, even though that might mean a smaller audience. I know if I wrote in German, I wouldn’t enjoy it and that would really kill the joy of creativity.
You’ve called yourself an “accidental blogger,” since you discovered blogging after your son suggested you look into it. What was it about blogging that appealed to you and made you want to dive in?
I have to say, I had no idea what blogging was about. I mean, I had never seen a blog in my life when my son suggested I start one, so I just came from zero. When I researched it a little bit, I found that there were some very attractive things about blogging. I liked the concept of getting to create an audience for my writing and my ideas and to kind of share my ideas and have a conversation. Because blogging is really a conversation. It’s a public conversation where people comment and then you can comment back a reply to their comments, but it can also become a very lively conversation and I really love that.
The other thing was that at that time, I was very deep in debt and I had no idea how to work my way out of it. My son said this might be something that, in time, would help me get out of that. I could see the potential. I couldn’t see how to do it, but I could see it had real potential, and so I kind of went in with a trusting heart and with courage. Because at that time, I couldn’t find any course or anything. I had to work hard to understand even the tiniest tasks of blogging. It was a real learning curve, a steep learning curve. But I’m so glad I persevered. I could have given up but I’m like a little terrier you know, show me a hole with a rat in it and I will dig and dig and dig.
I think it was Martin Luther King who said, “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just the first step.”
And I think you also have to choose the right staircase.
Good point! You also jumped on the opportunity to establish a joint venture with Leo Babauta, the original owner of Write to Done. Can you share advice on how to recognize a good opportunity for partnership?
The first thing you need to do, if you have something like that in mind, is to be helpful. For example, when I first started interacting with Leo, Leo at that time was running the blog, Write to Done. I loved the blog — he’d only written a few posts, but I loved it. I could also see that he was overwhelmed and was writing less and less. So I wrote to him and said, “Look, would you like me to write some posts for Write to Done because I love this blog and I don’t want to let it go.” And so then I suggested a topic, he agreed to publish it, and I started becoming a guest poster on Write to Done.
Then, when it was clear that Leo just didn’t have the energy to continue with this blog, I said, “All right, I’m happy to run it, I can see you’re overwhelmed, I’ll do my best, and then at least we can keep it going.” But that was without thinking of any ulterior motives, so to speak. I just wanted to be helpful. So then I started actually running the blog as the Chief Editor, which was very nerveracking because I was still quite a new blogger. But I stuck at it and worked my way into that blog and into that job as Chief Editor and eventually, Leo actually gave me Write to Done. He passed it on to me completely, which was really lovely.
I think it’s very important to establish a really good connection with the person you want to work with. Show that you’re willing to put the effort in. Because everyone needs help; no matter how successful they are, they need people to support them. Then, when you really want to put something forward, you need to make it a win-win situation and start contacting them in a supportive way. For example, through commenting on a blog post they write or by connecting on Twitter. You need to create a connection. But that has to happen long before you put in a pitch. If someone pitches me cold, I don’t even look at it.
So it sounds like being genuine is crucial, as opposed to just looking at the immediate financial gain or credibility boost.
Yes, creating real connection is important. And we need to be good human beings, dare I say. Online or offline, what really makes a difference is that you are sincere, and that you sincerely want to help others. And not just look out for Number One. That might get you somewhere for a shortterm, but in the long-term, I think it’s not worth it.
Your mantra for Write to Done is that “Everyone can learn to write well.” What’s the single most important thing that someone can do to become a better writer?
Practice writing. I was actually reflecting on this recently, because I’ve been through three intense trainings, two at the same time — karate training and Zen training, but I originally started off as a classical musician — a flutist. And so all of these three pursuits have one thing in common: the key thing is to practice. You can’t do any of those things without practicing. And with writing, most writers don’t practice. It’s not something that’s accepted as really important. But I think for writers, that makes a good writer. To practice writing.
What kind of practice writing exercises do you recommend?
I think just to leave time each day — even if it’s just 10 minutes of free-writing — is a good thing. A good way to do that is to have a notebook — one that you like. I mean, I like notebooks but I’m quite specific about which notebooks I like. I have to enjoy handling the notebook. And I open it and then for 10 minutes, I just free-write. I start with an empty page. And it really doesn’t matter what you put in it. If you’re feeling blocked, you might just repeat one word for a whole page — it doesn’t matter. But at some stage during those 10 minutes that you write without stopping and without correcting, something will come out of you. You will start to associate and your creativity will wake up and suddenly there will be words on the pages and you will be surprised. It’s a very simple way to practice.
Do you feel that practicing by longhand is more effective than using a keyboard? Or is it just a matter of preference?
It’s a matter of preference really. You have to see what works for you.
You’ve also written that “our only limitation is in the mind.” How does that apply to writers in particular, and what can they do about it?
The limitations in the mind are often the doubts surrounding your capacity. And this is something very particular to writers. I mean, it took me ages to call myself a writer — although I already had a book published in England and America. I was a published author, it was translated into seven languages. I once even traveled to Brazil, arrived at the airport, and saw a bookshop where there was this pile of books and I thought to myself, “Huh, that’s my book.” But even then, even with all of that, I somehow didn’t think I was a real writer for a while, you know? And that is something I think we all suffer from. And so then I decided to look into that, and I just started saying something really simple to myself: a writer writes. So if you write, you’re a writer. A writer writes.
So when I’d have those doubts — am I good enough? — I would just say, “A writer writes.” And that kind of fixed that problem. I began to think, “Of course I’m a writer, I write.” Because being a writer isn’t about writing well. You know, we all sometimes write well and sometimes not well. That’s not the point. The point is, a writer writes. So I think the limitations in the mind are really about how we perceive ourselves. And I think we’re always so nervous about what other people will think of our writing. But it doesn’t matter. We are on a path of writing and we need to remind ourselves of that: this is a pathway.
You’ve also written that true joy emerges independent of life circumstances. What can new writers do to stay joyful as they navigate the road to getting paid and published?
I have a very, very simple tip. It’s so simple, you won’t believe it, but the effect is amazing. All you need for that is an elastic wristband. I call it the positivity band. You start wearing it, let’s say on your left wrist. And whenever you notice that you have a negative thought in your mind, you take the positivity band and put it on your other wrist. And then you carry on, and suddenly you notice yourself thinking “I’m not cut out to be a writer.” You take the positivity band and change sides again.
So every time you notice a negative thought or negative voices in your mind that undercut joy, you need to change that wristband to the other side. And what it does, is you become aware of those negative voices and you learn to actually let them go. Because that is what kills joy — all those nasty little internal voices we have. And they’re often just a reflection of what has been said to us when we were children. It may be something parents said about how you just haven’t got what it takes. Or it could have been something at school — you know there are so many things that we store up, those little negative voices we store up. And they intrude into our minds all the time. So this positivity band is a very simple thing that actually teaches you to be aware of your thoughts and to let them go.
Brilliant — can’t wait to try it! Now, tell us how do you take advantage of the freelancing lifestyle and getting to be your own boss?
Well, I just had a really interesting example of that, because I spent the last six months traveling. And so my desk has moved from sitting on a veranda looking down on a Thai beach, to working in Germany in between mountain biking, to doing some writing in India. So one of the things that I absolutely love about this lifestyle is that I can do it from anywhere, and I take full advantage of that because I love adventure and I love traveling and so for me it’s just the ultimate that I can work from anywhere and I’ve got the means and the time to travel and I can work while I travel at my own pace. I can get up early and write three hours and then go out and mountain bike or I can write all day, or I can just write the one hour and carry on in the afternoons and go swimming in between. It’s just a freedom that I absolutely adore.
And I imagine it helps with creativity, getting to see so many places and go to so many new sites.
Yes, it actually triggers something within us when we are put in new circumstances that are different from our normal ones. Because we can get kind of set in our ways and that’s not very good for creativity, whereas new impulses and new things we see or do, and new understandings that we have or that we get about how other people live and what life is like, help us appreciate so much more what we have.
Let’s talk about success. How do you measure your own success?
There are two different measures, I think. One is external and one is more internal. I mean obviously, I’ve made a living writing, I’ve got a sixfigure business, and for the first time in a long time, I feel really comfortable — I don’t have to worry about money issues. Which is absolutely wonderful. So that’s like an external measure.
But there is also something else, and that is the connection that we talked about. For example, right at the moment, I’m in the middle of launching a new program for bloggers called Kickstart Your Blog. And so I wrote a post on aliasblogging.net, called What exactly makes bloggers fail? And the conversation is just so wonderful — we’ve had over 260 comments and it just became such a lovely, warm, interesting conversation, that I was really heartened by that. I just felt that what I was doing was worthwhile because I think there is the external success maybe through getting things published and so on, but there’s also the internal success of meaning. Our work has to have meaning. Anyhow, it does for me. That’s my internal measure of success. I feel this is meaningful, I’m really being helpful, this is changing what people are doing, and it’s changing their lives.
What career advantages have you encountered as a blogger?
The interesting thing about having a blog is that opportunities come to you. You don’t have to run after them. For example, I got this email a couple of months ago from a woman I didn’t know. She just contacted me through my blog Good Life Zen. And she said, “We’ve got this magazine called Psychologies and we would like to have you write an article. We’d like to publish it.” But at the time, I got this whole thing totally wrong. First of all, I thought it was just a little magazine and obviously just a free gig, but I was happy to write something for them. So I put it on the back burner because I was traveling. Then it turned out I was actually going to be paid US $500, so I thought, “That’s not too bad, I should get a move on it.” Then I got to England and I arrived in the airport and went to the bookstore. I asked, “Do you have this magazine Psychologies?” The clerk kind of looked at me in a strange way, and led me around the corner and there was a whole pile of them — these huge, glossy, beautiful magazines. It was a flagship self-development magazine in England. So I thought, “Oh my God, I must get on and write it now. This is a big gig!” And they liked it, and it’s been published as a lead article for one of the issues.
But all of that came about because I have a blog and they found me. So it’s just a way to really put yourself out there and get the opportunities. Because I would never have approached them to write for them. It wouldn’t have occurred to me. But it just came to me. And even though I got it wrong at first, I worked really hard to come up with something that they were really happy with.
Inspiring! Now, can you tell us what tools and habits you use to stay on top of all these projects that you have?
The specific software that I use for writing, which I find really excellent, is Scrivener, a software that’s used for both fiction writers and nonfiction writers. Because what you can do there is kind of create small parts of a big writing project and then you write these smaller parts individually and you can put them together like a jigsaw puzzle. Because writing is not a linear process, and any tool that is linear isn’t really helpful. Scrivener is a tool that allows you to write any point of your project without losing where you’re at or losing a plot, so to speak. I use it for blog posts, I use it for novels, I’ve used it for e-books. It’s just excellent.
And then I recommend something that is very simple, which is a little notebook. And the reason I recommend that is because, like many writers, my life is very full. And I hardly ever get the luxury of leaning back and thinking, “Now I’ve got two hours to write, how wonderful!” It’s not like that at all. I start, the telephone rings, somebody comes in, I remember something I haven’t done. It’s quite scattered. And so I’ve devised a way of writing in odd minutes. I have this notebook by my side all the time. And if I have even a short bit of time, let’s say to write a blog post, I’ll write a little bit of that blog post. Then, if I can’t go on to finish, I just put a little note in my notebook with the idea that is next in my mind. Because I think otherwise what happens — or at least it just happens to me — but I think it happens to more people as well — is that I spend so much time trying to remember what I was going to write next that I lose some of the flow of the piece. But this way, I look in my notebook, and the next time I have 10 minutes, I say, “Oh yes, this is what I wanted to write and this is my next idea,” and then I write that idea. It’s a way to be creative without having to stick at writing for an hour or two or more.
And then I imagine you never struggle with writer’s block because you always have somewhere to pick up.
Are there any words of wisdom you’d like to pass on to other writers?
Remember: a writer writes. So never doubt yourself — you are a writer. Writers write.
This interview was previously published in the November, 2013 issue of Barefoot Writer. To read more interviews from fellow Barefoot Writers be sure to check out The Barefoot Writer's Club.
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