About this column
Abby (Chief Voice Bureau Officer) says:
Voice Notes is a regular Voice Bureau special feature, in which we take our readers behind the scenes of an online brand presence we want to learn from — and into the professional life, creative lifestyle, and personal gestalt of a brand creator we admire and appreciate. Through a host of evocative questions and sentence starters, our goal is to portray the idiosyncratic, private approaches behind doing one’s excellent work in the world. (Abby’s note: I think of these Voice Notes Q&As as Paris Review-style author interviews. I hope you enjoy reading our contributors’ responses as much as we enjoy asking the questions.)
Esmé Wang, Writer & Mental Health Advocate
→ Connect with her at EsméWang.com.
How do you like to introduce yourself, professionally? How do you want to be known?
In person, I like to say, “I’m a writer. I work to make the world a less lonely and more passionate place.”
If the person I’m speaking to doesn’t then turn and run away, I keep going. “Writer” is such a broad term — I currently think of my writing as existing in two broad strokes, with one incorporating literary fiction and nonfiction, and the other incorporating editing and copyediting for visionary entrepreneurs. Specifically, I write novels and short stories, freelance pieces in places such as Jezebel and Salon, and pen all of the work on my site — especially the essays, which have a focus on mental health advocacy. In a former life, I was a copywriter and editor for a fast-rising startup company; at the moment, I’m building out services for 2014.
I’ve also begun to establish myself as “the Radical Sincerity person,” which started when I was first profiled on someone’s blog as someone who’s known for her radical honesty. I ended up drafting and editing The Radical Sincerity Manifesto not long after. Primarily this speaks to my determination to speak frankly about living with the severe mental illness of schizoaffective disorder, which is something like a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder; talking about this is especially important in a society that still bandies about terms such as “psycho,” and is deeply entrenched in stigma about mental illness in general. But Radical Sincerity, as a concept, also speaks to broader issues that I see both online and offline, including an increasing sense of isolation due to carefully curated portraits of ourselves. I’ve written a little book about this that is available on my site for free.
How long have you been in business for yourself, in total years? How long as this entity?
I applied for an EIN and went to City Hall for a business license in August — and I might even be overestimating that time frame! It’s been a steep learning curve, for sure. Although I’d been writing online since 1998, I’d also been surreptitiously reading entrepreneurship blogs for years, completely unsure of why I was doing so. I even brought this up with a friend at the time, and she suggested that I might be “into” reading about entrepreneurship the way non-horseback riders might be into reading about dressage, despite never intending to get near a horse — but here I am. I suppose I was practicing for doing insane things like launching my first product, an e-course, in my second month as an official business.
What’s an important difference between you and other brands who offer something similar (AKA your clients’ other alternatives)?
I think it has to do with my perspective, niche, and personality. (I snagged those three criteria from a business book I read recently, but I’ll be darned if I can remember which one.) I’ll take the example of my first and current product, although this could apply to the products and services I have on the docket, as well; the product is a journaling e-course called Rawness of Remembering: Restorative Journaling Through Difficult Times. There are plenty of journaling courses out there — “journaling” has its own category on SeekYourCourse.com — but mine specifically says, “I journal because I’ve been through difficult times, and I dealt with it through writing. If you take my course, you’ll not only get a community and a very involved instructor, but you’ll also get techniques specific to restorative journaling.” I’m competing with some journaling courses taught by instructors who are much more publicly established than I am, but I’m also trying to get at a different aspect of journaling because of who my audience tends to be comprised of, and of who I present myself as.
Similarly, I’m currently developing editing services, which are in chrysalis form at the moment.
What would we typically find you doing at 10:15 AM on a Tuesday morning? How about at 4:30 PM on a Friday afternoon? We want the real deal here, not a gussied-up version of events. ;)
At 10:15 AM on a Tuesday morning — well, I don’t blog on Tuesdays, so that’s probably not on the docket. I tend to start working around 4:30 or 5 AM, so I’ve been awake for a while by then. I’m probably working on one of my bigger tasks; today (Tuesday) I was doing some web development and course content for my e-course.
At 4:30 PM on a Friday afternoon, I’m probably doing something light, because my brain shuts down at around 3. I might be answering emails, editing photos for future blog posts, or reading. I wouldn’t be tackling anything too taxing at 4:30 PM on a Friday, so I’d probably be writing fiction — which is taxing in its own way, but not on par with sweating over CSS.
What’s Your Myers-Briggs type?
Your audience probably thinks that this whole Voice Notes thing is rigged, but . . . I’m an INFJ. [Abby’s Note: Not surprised!] Not only that, but all of the descriptions I’ve read about INFJs fit me completely.
What’s your Enneagram type?
I’m an Enneagram Type 4.
What’s your astrological profile? (Sun/Moon/Rising Signs, if known)
I’m a Gemini Sun, and my Sun is in the Sixth House. Moon in Taurus. Capricorn Rising.
Where in the world do you live? And why?
I live in San Francisco. I like that it’s a city, but it’s a small city; big cities like New York freak me out, although unfortunately for me, almost all of my friends now live there. I grew up in Northern California, so I’m accustomed to things like not having seasons except for rain and not-rain, and being able to get amazing produce no matter what time of year it is.
Show Us Your Voice Values
MY TOP 3-5 VOICE VALUES ARE:
Intimacy, Legacy, Helpfulness, and Transparency
(Abby’s Note: Discover your own Voice Values when you subscribe to The Voice Bureau’s Insider Stuff e-letter. Look for the sign-up box in the upper righthand corner of the site.)
Which of your Voice Values made you say, Oh, duh. Of course that’s me. And why?
I’d say all of them, really. They were all things that I either personally associate with my business, or that are really openly associated with my business and branding.
Choose one or two of your Voice Values & tell us how you can see these showing up in the way you communicate with readers/clients/customers, or in he way you run your business.
Intimacy is a big one for me, especially in the blog. It’s tricky because I started out — like I said, back in 1998 — as a personal blogger, so transitioning to being a microbusiness that values its Intimacy value, and yet requires a certain degree of professionalism, is a fine line that I’m constantly walking. I don’t do purely diaristic entries anymore, although they might seem purely diaristic to ProBlogger types. Any diaristic-type posts that I do have intent behind them, even if I don’t conclude them with an obvious, capital-L Lesson.
That intent, to get to another Voice Value, is Helpfulness. I post to be helpful. Sometimes it’s obvious that I’m working to do so, such as when I describe self-care techniques, or advise people about key things to consider when applying for creative writing grants; my e-course is another obvious method. I also write about the mental health advocacy I do that has nothing to do with revenue generation. But I discovered, not long after beginning the blog, that Intimacy and Helpfulness were more closely tied than I’d realized. Copywriting and copyediting are services that are more directly helpful, but I see myself as being drawn to working with people who are equally interested, or based, in the Voice Value of Helpfulness.
Do you notice that your especially Right People clients seem to be drawn by one of your Voice Values, in particular? How can you tell?
Well, I’d just mentioned that Intimacy and Helpfulness were tied in the way I look at my clients, or my audience. The thing I tend to hear most is, “Your blog, and your site in general, helped me to see that I’m not alone, and that it’s possible to live a fulfilling life even with major limitations such as mental illness.” My Right People have the same aims that I do — they have big dreams, whether that be entrepreneurial or otherwise, and they want to do their utmost to get at those dreams despite the challenges in their lives. How far along on that journey they are may vary, but the core is there.
Among your close friends, you’ve been called the girl who . . .
decides to do something, and doesn’t stop until it’s done.
What do you love to do or where do you love to go that would surprise us?
I’m incredibly hermetic, but I love this particular bar-slash-restaurant here that I call The Good Time Place. I keep the name of this establishment closely guarded, and I only bring my favorite people there. Unfortunately, I’m probably going to find out a year from now that they’ve been shut down for putting illicit chemicals into their cocktails, because I can’t think of another reason for why I’m always so cheerful there.
Finish this sentence: I can never get enough . . .
white or light pink chiffon dresses. I think I have about ten, most of them vintage.
What’s the biggest misconception you imagine people have about you?
That I’m not funny. It’s an imagined misconception that I hold because I write about serious topics, but I was a class clown of sorts in high school. I also auditioned for the oldest sketch comedy troupe at Yale as a sophomore; I didn’t get in, but I made it to callbacks, where I improvised a monologue in which I pulled a tapeworm out of my mouth while reciting the alphabet. I also discovered that I can do a passable Russian accent.
Process & Atmospherics
Tell us about your creative process in your business. What does it look like?
It looks like me lighting a soy candle and writing, preferably with a lot of coffee available. Almost all of my best thinking is done through writing, whether by hand or on the computer; I once tried to dictate ideas into my phone, which turned out to be an entirely fruitless endeavor, and not to be repeated.
How do you get yourself creatively unblocked, if/when you ever are?
I either go for a walk or read. I don’t actually think when I go on walks. I have a brilliant mathematician friend who walks for miles while thinking through proofs, and I’ve read about Virginia Woolf musing entire scenes and plots while walking. I’ve always admired that kind of ability, but when I walk, it’s impossible for me to think about anything intelligently, so the walk’s purpose is actually to get away from the computer and be in the presence of fresh air. Reading is a more reliable method of inspiration. Nothing inspires me more than reading something brilliant, perhaps because it appeals to my competitiveness. Even reading good sales copy gets me fired up.
Give us your faves
Candle to burn for olfactory ambition: I’m obsessed with using scented candles while working. They have to be soy. They can’t have any hint of spice or citrus. Right now, I’m into Sydney Hale Co. candles from Etsy, which have double wicks and intriguing scents such as Sea Salt + Bay Rum. [Abby’s Note: Thanks for the tip, Esmé, from one candle junkie to another.]
Thing to wear for ultimate working comfort: I dress up and wear makeup when I work; it helps me feel more pulled-together. I do indulge in a pair of ultra-comfortable slippers, though, which I discovered at a convenience store. They look uncannily like ballet flats, which is a bonus.
Pet to have within arm’s reach: My dog, Daphne. I cuddle with her when I need regeneration.
Branding & Biz Dev
What iteration of your website/business/brand are we looking at? (If you can remember!)
I’m constantly tweaking my website, but the general design and template have been around for most of 2013. Jo Klima of The Darling Tree developed and designed it, and I absolutely adore how it turned out. The business and branding are absolutely new, and I imagine things will be shifting and changing on a daily basis — Jo and I are currently working on a redesign that has a tentative launch date of March 2014.
What does being a values-based business owner mean to you? How does it show up in your business/brand?
I couldn’t run a business without being values-based — that’s probably my tendency for Legacy showing up. I want my business and brand to be remembered as much for its commitment to ideals such as Radical Sincerity, which is slowly becoming more of a visible emphasis, as it is for amazing products and services. The day I made the Radical Sincerity Manifesto public, #radicalsincerity became a Twitter hashtag — and I didn’t create it. That sort of thing truly makes my day.
What does empathy in marketing mean to you?
Empathy in marketing is what takes the sleaze factor out of the whole endeavor. Meaning: understanding my ideal customer to the degree where I know what his or her “pain points” are, and can create content and copy accordingly without stomping all over those pain points. It also means creating copy for others with the same considerations.
What big mistake did you make (maybe more than once) in your business that, in hindsight, really held you back?
I’d originally said something about launch timing and strategy, which is for sure an actual mistake that I’ve made. (Hint: Don’t launch over Labor Day weekend.) But I am forgoing that in favor of talking about something else: the mistake of equating my value as a human being with the success of a big project, whether that be my first product, or the novel I spent five years writing and editing. I am not my projects. I’m a human being who’s doing the best that she can, and I have a fulfilling life that looks a lot like being loving and loved by those closest to me.
What business, productivity, or creativity book — or two or three — has been a revelation to you?
This was The Year of the Business/Productivity/Creativity book for me. Although there were some real stinkers, a few that I derived value from were Blog, Inc. (Joy Cho), which gave me insight though I’d been blogging for years; Breaking the Time Barrier (Mike McDerment), which is pay-what-you-want and rocked the way that I think about pricing and value; finally, Small Business Bodyguard (Rachel Rodgers and Ash Ambirge), which was definitely a wake-up call in terms of business and legalities.
Do you have a business Achilles heel? If so, what is it and how do you work around it?
I’m often tempted by “resource purchases,” especially if they promise results that I feel vulnerable around — right now, that’s anything that says I can grow my mailing list by leaps and bounds, because I’ve been feeling insecure about the size of my list. I fight the urge to spend money on betterment products willy-nilly by bookmarking whatever it is that I’m tempted to buy, and coming back to it later, sometimes over and over again. Doing research on whoever it is that’s selling the product. Checking out their testimonial sources.
Why are you on social media? How do you use it?
I’m on a number of social media platforms, but I’m still figuring out how to navigate them. Some, like Pinterest and Instagram, I’m on for mostly personal reasons, although I have been looking into how to integrate them more strategically. I think that you (Abby) are the best example of incorporating Pinterest into a non-design-based business that I’ve seen. Choosing to create boards for each Voice Value is absolute genius. Twitter seems to be the platform that I’m the most comfortable with; I like the conversational aspect of it, as well as its immediacy.
What’s the one system or process you’ve implemented in your business that you’re proud of?
Installing rest into my day. Easy to forget or ignore, but easier still to completely fall apart from exhaustion. Or grow resentful and cranky without knowing why.
What two or three software programs couldn’t your business function as well without?
Unsurprisingly, Evernote. I first started using it when I was working at my 9-5, and I’ve continued to use it for everything — planning classes, outlining and preparing freelance pieces, recording compliments to look at later when I’m feeling lousy, and so forth. I’m also a new fan of Lightroom for photo editing, especially with VSCO’s film emulators.
Who’s your secret business mentor or inspiration, or two, or three? What do you appreciate about these brands?
I really respect what Jess Lively is doing with her business and blog. I first discovered her through the inspirational site Spring (now defunct), and recently rediscovered her site, With Intention. She’s got something like fourteen years of business experience, and emphasizes good design and intentional strategy in a way that I admire. I also think Tara Gentile is brilliant — I’m doing her 10 Thousand Feet mastermind this year. We have the same haircut, which I think is a good sign. Finally, Paul Jarvis is someone whose somewhat unconventional approach to business I find refreshing.
What’s the weirdest compliment you’ve ever gotten that’s business or branding-related?
Quote: “Just from reading your blog, I’ve been a little inspired to reach out to people I’ve cared for in the past to just tell them how I had/have loved them.” I’ve never directly written about that subject, but it heartens me to know that a reader had that experience as a result of my writing.
I used to think I had to be X or I needed Y to succeed in business, but now I realize that’s not true. What’s X and/or Y for you?
I used to think I had to be extroverted to succeed in business, but now I’m realizing that’s not necessarily true (said the couldn’t-be-more-introverted-if-she-tried introvert).
Right People Rules
Give us one or two traits you really appreciate or value about your Right People readers and clients. What makes this type of person such a good fit for the way you deliver value?
I appreciate hope and work ethic in my Right People readers and clients. It might seem like a strange combination, but I think I most appeal to, and work best with, people who remain optimistic despite their struggles. And I have little tolerance for people who aren’t willing to work for what they want, probably because I have little tolerance for laziness in myself.
What’s the best compliment you’ve ever gotten from a client?
Oh, gosh. I actually keep these in an Evernote document (shout-out to Michelle Ward, who inspired this practice), so — this is one of the best ones I’ve gotten: “I have to tell you that you are so brave, and doing good that benefits all of us. Even if you never wrote another word, or published another work. I just overwhelmingly felt that by writing — beautifully and honestly — about your struggles, you’re helping to change the tide of how these things are viewed. You are a comfort to people that find your words. You are a bright light in the darkness.”
What sorts of joint venture or collaborative opportunities are you open to in the foreseeable future? What sorts of people or businesses are you looking to link up with?
I’d love to try and do some sort of collaborative in-person workshop. I’m not sure what form that would take, but I’m interested in nontraditional writing experiences. I’ve taught creative writing in the standard college environment, and that holds absolutely no interest for me. As for potential collaborators, bring on the kind-hearted, the fiery-minded, and the almost unreasonably ambitious.
In the comments, we’d love for you to:
Say hi to Esmé and let us know what really resonated for you in this Q&A. We’re listening and looking forward to saying hello.