NAME: Todd Henry
CLAIM TO FAME: Todd is the author of The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words and Herding Tigers and is the creator and host of The Accidental Creative Podcast.
WHERE TO FIND HIM: On his website, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook.
WHY WE’D PICK HIM IN 10 WORDS OR LESS: Todd is a self-described “arms dealer for the creative revolution.”
Let’s start with the basics: What time of day do you start writing? Is it easier for you to write early in the morning? Late at night?
I typically write in the morning, usually between 8-10am. It’s much easier for me to get the bulk of my writing out of the way before any unexpected curve balls are thrown my way. If I’m working on a book, I have a daily word count that I aspire toward, and I don’t do anything else until I hit it. Once I do, I feel like anything else I accomplish is icing on the cake.
Do you listen to music when you write, or do you prefer silence, or something else in the background?
I have listened to the same soundtrack while writing all four of my books: Deep Meditation Experience by Ambient Music Therapy. It’s nothing but white noise and drone sounds, but it helps me to block out all distractions and it gets me in the mood for writing. At this point, I think my body has a chemical reaction the moment I hear the first sounds of the album, because it’s been a part of my writing routine for years. It’s like a signal to my brain that it’s time to get moving.
Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits?
Before I begin, I look at where I ended the previous day’s writing session. I always end each day knowing exactly where I’m going to pick up the following day, because getting started is the most difficult part of the writing process for me. Several years ago I determined to “end with the beginning in mind,” meaning that I stop each session at a place where I have clear momentum and can easily pick back up the following day. Once I get moving, things tend to flow pretty smoothly. I never write until my ideas are exhausted, because I’m only deferring the pain of “what next?” to the following day. I always know exactly what I’ll work on when I start typing again.
You’ve written The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice. Tell us a little about the idea of being an accidental creative—how can writers harness those concepts and apply them to their own writing process?
The Accidental Creative is largely about building an environment and a set of practices that increase your odds of making brilliant creative connections. For example, many writers are not purposeful about the kinds of stimulus they put into their minds. They don’t have a regular study habit, they don’t think deeply and intentionally about their experiences and what they mean, they don’t seek inspiration in the environment around them, and they stick too closely to their routines and thus are rarely out of their comfort zone. They fail to seek out relationships with people who challenge them to think differently. They take on so much work that they lack the energy necessary to bring emotional labor to their writing. By establishing a set of rhythms, or practices, to help you deal with the pressures of creating “on demand,” you are treating yourself like a human being and not like a machine.
What was the best money you ever spent as an author? What did you do with your first book advance?
The best money I’ve spent as an author—by far—is purchasing Scrivener, which is the software program I write in. I know that tools are often over-discussed, and that I could technically write my books with a pencil on the back of a napkin or in Microsoft Word, but Scrivener has a set of tools that make long-arc writing projects super easy. I am a non-linear writer, meaning that I often write books from the inside-out, and Scrivener allows me to tackle sections of the book at a time and move them around later instead of having to work through the project in linear fashion. It also helps me stay on track by giving me a daily word count that keeps me on-course for my manuscript target.
I saved my first book advance. All of it.
In your latest book, Herding Tigers, you discuss the challenges of being talented and creative versus leading talented and creative people. What leadership tactics would writers benefit the most from implementing?
The first thing is to realize that there are two things you primarily need as a creative pro: stability and challenge. Stability means that you have a predictable playground and clear boundaries within which to exercise your creative craft. You know that you’ll have the resources you need and that the expectations aren’t going to shift mid-course after you’ve already put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears on a project.
Challenge means that you are being pushed out of your comfort zone, that you’re growing in your craft, and that you feel a little like you’re in over your head from time to time. You don’t have room to get comfortable, because if you do you’ll drop the ball.
As creative pros, we need the right balance of stability and challenge in our work. Too much stability (and too little challenge) and we grow bored. Too much challenge (and too little stability) and we grow angry or frustrated. So, as a writer you need to (a) learn how to diagnose what you need at a given moment, (b) communicate that to your manager or to the powers that be, and (c) make sure that you are not falling into the trap of over-extending yourself or over-stabilizing to the point that you can’t function. This is especially true for writers working on their own. Too many writers grow stagnant because they’ve figured out “the drill,” and they’re just cranking out the same things over and over. There’s no longer any challenge in it for them. Or, they take on work without thinking about the consequences, and their life is utter chaos because there’s no stability. You need to adjust both dials so that you’re in the sweet spot. (And, if you lead others, you need to keep your finger on the pulse of their work so that you can give them what they need.)
Everyone says that the first step to being a good writer is to read good writer’s’ writing. What do you read? How much do you read? Do you have a favorite author, perhaps someone you try to emulate?
Yes, I agree completely with this idea. I used to read a few books a week minimum, but have slowed my pace over the past few years. Now, I read just a book every few weeks because I want to really absorb, think about, and apply what I’m reading. I’d much rather read fewer books with more thought and application on the back end than just cram more ideas into my head that are poorly-considered.
I do take a daily walk in the middle of my day, however, and during that time I listen to audiobooks. I find that I can work my way through a number of audiobooks a month during my 5 mile walks.
I read in themes. I typically choose a few themes at the beginning of the year, and read books that fit within them. Right now, I’m reading books by contemplatives Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton, and I have a few business biographies queued up. Strangely, I don’t read a lot of pop business books, except by people I’m interviewing for my podcast.
What does literary success look like to you? How has that changed over time?
I am thrilled to have the chance to keep writing books. I honestly, truly, with all of my being don’t care about bestseller lists or having everyone know my name. The people I’ve impacted know who I am, and I’m satisfied with seeing my ideas echo through the lives of people I’ve touched. That is sufficient for me.
I’m also fully committed to growing a life with my family that is focused around freedom, love, and multiplication. So, for me literary success means continuing to be able to make choices freely about where I spend my time and resources, using my talents to make things I love for people who will love them, and multiplying my efforts through the people I serve. As long as those three things continue to happen, I will consider it all a success, regardless of the scale.
In addition to everything else you run an amazing podcast. How has your podcast helped your writing? How has your writing helped your podcast? Are there lessons you’ve been able to take from both paths and apply to the other?
The podcast has opened the door for me to talk with some incredible achievers and artists. I’ve learned a lot from the conversations, and I’ve also honed the skill of distilling ideas into digestible chunks, which makes writing much easier. In fact, many of the ideas that end up in my books begin as a podcast episode in which I’m exploring a hunch. In some ways, the podcast has become a test tube for ideas that I might want to elaborate on or research in greater detail later.
Plus, podcasting is just such a great way to connect personally with people. It’s like a direct line to their mind, which is so helpful when your ambition is to influence and change lives.
If you were thinking back to your younger literary self and give some advice, what would that be? What are common traps you see aspiring authors fall into?
Recognize that success comes in layers. There will be moments when you think, “This is it—the big break!” and you’ll realize that you’ve really only rolled up to a new starting line. You. Must. Be. Committed. To. The. Craft. If you are writing for the ancillary benefits, or to be called a writer, or just to point to a book with your name on it, then seriously re-consider. There are a ton of easier ways to get your name on something. However, if you are truly committed to the craft, you’ll discover deep passion, meaning, and long-term purpose through going clickety-clack on the keys, and you’ll change a lot of lives in the process. Mostly, your own.