NOTE: In 2018, I started recording interviews with creatives (writers, filmmakers, podcasters, photographers, editors, etc.) in the adventure world. I’m publishing the highlights of those interviews monthly in 2019.
When she’s filling out a form that leaves one line for “occupation,” Anna Brones types “writer.” But if you want the long version of her resume, you might see things like “film producer,” “artist,” “publisher,” and even “culinary creator” (which I think is accurate, but I’m not sure is actually a job title). She’s based in Washington state, is a cyclist, runner, and backpacker, and speaks three languages.
Anna has written six books, including Hello Bicycle: An Inspired Guide to the Two-Wheeled Life, The Culinary Cyclist, and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. She curated, edited, and published Comestible, a quarterly journal devoted to real food, for three years starting in 2016, and has worked as a producer on several films that screened at film festivals around the world: Voyageurs Without Trace, Ian McCluskey’s journey to retrace the 1,000-mile first kayak descent of the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1938, Mending the Line, the story of 90-year-old veteran and angler Frank Moore’s return to Normandy to fish the terrain he saw as a soldier in World War II, and most recently, Afghan Cycles, a documentary feature about young women in Afghanistan who use the bicycle as a revolutionary tool.
In 2018, Anna began her Women’s Wisdom Project, a collection of 100 different papercut portraits of inspiring women, which she creates by hand using quotes from historical figures and contemporary inspiring women. And in 2019, she’s started a monthly newsletter, Creative Fuel, a creative kick in the pants for subscribers.
I first met Anna in 2011, and have always been impressed with her creative output—in quality, quantity, and authenticity. A few years ago, she told me in a conversation that “I feel like most of what I do is hustle.” So I wanted to record one of our conversations and ask a little bit about how she makes it all work.
ON BEING A WRITER
When someone says, “I want to be a writer,” there are so many ways that you can be a writer. Do you want to write poetry? It’s a little bit different than writing cookbooks, right? Those are two different ball games. And there’s so many types of writing. I do non-fiction-related stuff, and some of it is a little bit journalistic in nature, some of it’s a little bit lifestyle in nature, so I have a pretty specific thing that I do.
I think no matter what you’re doing, you just have to do it. There’s no easy way into anything. People have very different paths of coming to the places that they’re at. Talk to anyone in any industry that they’re in. I love hearing what people do for a living, mostly because it’s always a reminder that there’s so many weird jobs out there that you didn’t even know existed. And if you want to write, the best thing that you can do is write.
ON THE POWER OF DIY BOOKS
I do a lot of self-published stuff, and I’m such a big fan of the ‘zine revival—producing small, super-low budget publications in the 80s, kind of this punk scene, that that’s coming back—is so cool. Because it’s this platform where you can write something, print it on a piece of paper, and then photocopy it, and pass it out to your friends. It’s why I like writing books. It’s why I like making work that’s tangible, because there’s a value to that, an emotion that comes with that that is really amazing.
ON SELF PUBLISHING, EDITING AND ENTITLEMENT
If you want to do stuff [like be a writer], you start doing it. Now that’s not to say that if you decide that you’re going to start writing and self-publishing, that you’re going be an overnight success. There’s a lot of hard work, and both you and I know that when we’ve done self-published stuff, it also requires some input from other people to help you get it to shine, right? So it’s not to say that you just get to vomit your work all over the place and it’s automatically going be successful.
Platforms that are available nowadays make that a lot easier than before. Even though that does mean that the market then has more people in it. It can be very oversaturated sometimes. But yeah, there’s really no trick besides doing the work.
ON THE MYTH OF BOOKS AND MONEY
I think non-writers, or people who haven’t published books, are like, “Oh, you got a book contract?” And sort of immediately see dollar signs in their eyes, but I just don’t want anybody to be under an illusion that having a book contract means that you’re rolling in tons of money.
ON INTERVIEWING “NORMAL” PEOPLE
Every story is important. Everybody has something to tell. It doesn’t mean that you had to live through the most horrendous accident—everybody experiences things, and I like the projects that focus on the shared human experience. The second you talk to people, you’re reminded of your similarities and not your differences. I think it’s almost easier to relate to those types of people, because they’re quote/unquote “normal” people.
I’ve thought a lot about the wisdom we have to offer each other. Because often we turn to famous people for wisdom, or famous writers, for that kind of thing. But I actually think there’s so much wisdom to be drawn from our counterparts, if we just sit down and have a conversation. So now I’m shifting to doing short interviews with friends or acquaintances in various industries to get their perspectives on things.
ON CALLING YOURSELF AN “ARTIST”
It’s interesting, what we allow ourselves to call ourselves. The license that we give ourselves to say, “I’m a writer,” or “I’m an artist.” Or, “I’m a producer,” “I’m a filmmaker.” What is the point that we have to get to to feel comfortable saying that? So many people say, “I would never call myself an artist.” I ask them, “Why?” “Well, I’ve never sold anything.” “Well, does money justify you calling yourself a thing? Do you do the thing?”
There’s a great Virginia Woolf quote—”Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.” It’s so interesting, in our culture, that if you sell something, people will be like, “Yeah, good job.”
I think the important part about creative work is the fact that you did the work.
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ON A CREATIVE CHILDHOOD
I grew up in a fairly, we’ll call it “alternative” home. You know, we weren’t living in a commune, totally off the grid or anything like that. But my parents built our house. It’s still not 100 percent built, because that’s what happens when you build your own house.
I grew up in the forest and ran around barefoot most of the time, and didn’t have any siblings, and had this different type of experience than a lot of kids do. I ate a lot of healthy food. Definitely wasn’t able to trade my sandwiches at school for lunch.
I wasn’t allowed to watch “Sesame Street,” because my mom thought that they yelled too much. So I only watched “Mr. Rogers,” and “Captain Kangaroo.” And I was only allowed to watch public television.
My mom is an artist, and she’s a weaver and does a lot of other stuff. So I grew up in a household with a pretty modest income—we were a single-income family, but the one thing that I did have growing up was all kinds of art supplies. Until I was 13 or 14, I just thought it was normal to have all those things at home. And then I would go to friends’ houses and be like, “Why do you only have five crayons?” I guess I was always doing those creative activities—that was such a part of the normal experience. And then I guess I always wrote.
ON GETTING STARTED AS A WRITER
After college, I went and taught English in the Caribbean, in Guadeloupe, and that was the point where I started writing. It was a hard experience, and I started writing as a way to sort of work through some of those emotions, with feeling like I was in a different culture, and that was kind of at the beginning of the internet becoming a hot spot for travel writing and that kind of a thing. So that’s when I start submitting articles. I did some stuff for Matador Network, I found them on Craigslist or something. I actually think the first couple pieces weren’t paid, but then there were a few that were like $10 or $15. About a year after that I started writing for a travel blog called Gadling. I wrote for them for a long time. It was like 10 bucks a post or something.
I also did an essay that was published in a book called, “A Women’s World Again.” It was a compilation of travel essays. So this was in like 2008, 2007. I wrote this article called, “Pineapple Tuesday,” and it was all about living in this small town in Guadeloupe. Guadeloupe is a French overseas department, so it’s like France except it’s in the Caribbean. It was hard because the living situation was bad, the work situation was bad and the friend situation was bad. I often feel those are the three things that, if one of those is bad but the other two are pretty decent, you’re good to go. But if the three of them suck, then it’s a hard time.
So every Tuesday, after I taught, there was a market, and I would go. There was this lady who would sell pineapples. She came from a totally different background than I did. Born and raised on this island and was a farmer, and from totally different experiences, but it just became this social exchange that every Tuesday I’d go and buy these pineapples from her. So I wrote this essay about it. It was this sort of thing that felt was a grounding experience in the midst of what didn’t feel like a great experience. And so that was that first essay that I had published in a book.
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ON THE LINE BETWEEN CAREER AND LIFE
I read this Cheryl Strayed quote the other day, as I was prepping to interview her, and it was something along the lines of, “Don’t spend so much time focusing on your career. You don’t have a career, you have a life.” And I thought that was such a good point. Culturally, we put a lot of value on career, and I think it’s a little bit different for people who do creative things, because, obviously, there’s a lot of crossover between personal interests and professional interests. Those lines become kind of blurry sometimes. And often, the things that you do for fun can sometimes turn into work.
ON THE UPS AND DOWNS OF A CREATIVE CAREER
I sometimes feel like I’ve been very bad about creating a sustainable career path for myself. I sometimes look at my bank account and think, “Well, this is all well and good, as long as you’re healthy and able to keep doing stuff.”
And that can often feel like a failure. One day you’re like, “Fuck yeah, I got this, I’m so stoked on what I’m doing and I’m so excited about this project and feel great about the thing I did.” And then the next day, you’re practically curled up in the fetal position on the couch, just bawling. Like, just talking about how terrible you are and … you know, that’s a reality.
I struggle a lot with imposter syndrome, which a lot of people do. And I’ve been trying really hard not to. Or to acknowledge it and then kick it in the pants and tell it I don’t have time for that that day. Because that ends up holding us back sometimes.
ON GROWTH THROUGH CREATIVITY
Something important to keep in mind is that the dollar amount you make off of something is not the end-all, be-all. Now, of course we need to pay rent and eat, and if you’re working in a creative field, and that’s how you pay rent and eat, you do need to think about making money. However, if there’s a work that you feel needs to be in the world, you just do that work.
And it’s important, particularly in personal work, to try to separate ourselves from the end result. Because often we give so much value to the end product, and usually it’s the process that is the important part. You’re doing the work because the work itself makes you feel a certain way, and you get energized by it, even in the moments where it’s hard. There’s so much that’s in that process that’s important, and we often forget that because we’re so focused on the end result.
ON THE VALUE OF WORK
There’s a lot of pressure to have all this value to the work that you do. Often, I’m like, “I want to do a thing that’s meaningful and impactful.” But what does that even mean? And where are the areas that you can have impact in your everyday life? Impact happens in very small ways, usually.
A few times in the last year, I’ve had people that I don’t know reach out to me and say, “I love your work,” or, “You’ve brought so much lightness to me this week,” or, “Yeah, I had totally not thought about that thing that you talked about, thank you for bringing it up.” I mean, I realize, that doesn’t pay my rent, but those are the kind of comments that make me continue to do what I do. And I’m under no illusion that I’m going to change the world. But I think having a positive impact on the people around me is really important.