Janet Riehl helped to shepherd me through the release of my middle grade novel HUNGRY in 2007. She explained blogs, web pages, and podcasts to me one day as we walked the paths of Anderson Marsh State Park in Lake County, California. Janet now lives in St. Louis where she takes care of her 96 year-old father Erwin A. Thompson. Janet is a multifaceted artist, musician, and storyteller. She maintains her lively blog-magazine Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century, writes for Story Circle Network , and creates doodle art on her smart phone that is causing a sensation at her Facebook page.
Janet traveled across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where she initiated and directed development projects, provided training, and taught. Her cross-cultural focus continued upon her return to the U.S. in her work with Native American pueblos, inner-city African Americans, Latinos, and—perhaps most foreign of all—the California computer industry. Janet was also the recipient of a three-year leadership fellowship in international development from the Kellogg Foundation.
Janet is probably best known for her poetry book Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary and the audio book Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music. Sightlines is a memoir told in story poems of the year following her sister’s death when Janet returned to her childhood home on the bluffs above the Mississippi River. It’s a frank portrait of her family coming to terms with its grief, while celebrating its past and difficult present.
Janet’s essays and poems have been published in numerous national literary magazines and her work appears in several anthologies. She was twice selected as finalist for Poet Laureate of Lake County, California.
The following is from a conversation Janet and I had via both Skype and cell phones on July 8, 2012. We discussed the effort it takes to maintain an active Internet presence, the advantages of “micro-blogging,” and her new passion of Doodles made on her smart phone. I interviewed Janet previously in 2009 for Suite 101: Part 1: http://suite101.com/article/janet-rhiel-healing-grief-with-poetry-a234962, Part 2: http://suite101.com/article/janet-riehl-creativity-and-community-a235067
You started to build your website after Sightlines was published in 2006. Tell us how you began and how that grew in the six years since.
First, I set up a website geared completely to Sightlines. I’ve had several web designers and tech people help me on my sites as they’ve morphed over the years. This first one was put up very inexpensively by my internet service provider near where I lived in Northern California. We met face-to-face. Later in 2006 I signed up for a promotional package from Author Marketing Experts (AME). The cost was a real stretch for me. And, frankly, I’m not sure what concrete results were achieved from the promotional campaign. But, I did learn a heck of a lot, made connections, and started my blog Riehlife at the moment blogging was going mainstream. This one was also designed inexpensively by a man in Florida whom I never met. I’ve learned that site techies come and go. From first internet site to the current one, I’ve worked with five. At that time, too, I’d become one of Amazon’s star book reviewers.
Rather quickly these various contacts, a supportive network started to grow around the country and even internationally. Some of these blogging and internet buddies—most of whom I’ve yet to meet–remain strong colleagues six years later.
Gradually other vehicles opened up on the internet and I followed the trends as best I could. I tend to hit these at medium maturity.
What are the top tips you could give someone starting a blog or website?
Approach it like any project. No matter who you hire to help you, remember that you remain the project manager in charge of goal, budget, and timeline. Know what you want to get out of it. Keep in touch with your family and friends? Teach, help, and change the world? Promote and make money? Personal expression and having fun?
Everything else flows from your purpose: name, mission statement, look and feel, audience, and how intense your relationship is with your blog. As you name your blog and formulate your mission, bounce these off people you trust.
Download and study the 4th edition of “Blogging for Dummies,” by Susannah Gardner and Shane Birley. This handbook demystifies all the seemingly arcane stuff like “trackback links.”
Blogs must be fed to continue to engage readers, and generate reasonable traffic. If you want to try it out to see how you like it, go on a group blogging site like My Opera, Typepad, WordPress and so many others. Don’t jump into creating your blog as a standalone website. Then, you’re like the dog that caught the car, and you have to keep ahead of it.
How did you come up with the name for your blog-website?
My last name is Riehl, of course, and I liked the play on words of Riehlife. The tagline “Village wisdom for the 21st Century” came from a testimonial for Sightlines by Clive Matson (whom I like to refer to as my “writing mother).
Your mission for Riehl Life is to create connections through the arts and across cultures. What does that mean for you?
Over the period of my professional career(s) I’ve done so many different types of things that I’ve discovered that it’s my job to make sense of it all. The through-line has always been “creating,” “connecting,” “cross cultural communication,” and working in every branch of the arts. Gradually it became clearer to me that this was as good a mission statement for my life and work (and therefore my blog) that I was likely to come up with.
One of my biggest concerns was having a large enough playing field to express the range and depth of my interests and my penchant for synthesis. That’s worked well over the life of the blog and drawn many fascinating and nurturing colleagues to me. Offhand I’d guess that at least 300 writers and artists have been guests on Riehlife—through interviews, stand alone posts of essays and commentary, blog duets (a tem I coined), having their creative work appear on the site.
I ran across a comment by Susan Tweit, the author of Walking Nature Home, who wrote that Riehl Life is a journal “where the sense of thought provokes imagination.”
I couldn’t be more thrilled by Susan’s comment. That’s precisely what I’ve sought to create: a place where I could both express my personal views, work, and life while reaching beyond that. I wanted to create a “Riehlife Village” and I’ve done that.
You’ve mentioned your changing relationship with your blog—and, indeed, with the internet in general. Can you trace that?
As a creative person I’m a “Generator”—someone who’s good with ideas, motivation, and enthusiasm—towards the beginning of a project. I work best with “Realizers” who help me bridge ideas into action, keep focus, and sustain my energy level. I learned this from Carol Lloyd’s book Creating a Life Worth Living. It’s by far one of the best books on creativity and life design I’ve ever read. As a generator it can be hard for things to hold my attention, and I’m more of a sprinter rather than a marathon runner. I typically stay with a project between 1-5 years. So, around 2010 (the fourth year), my energy flagged as I became disillusioned with what I was getting back from the site.
Spending three to five years on any project seems like a big commitment to me. I’ve always been amazed at your versatility and the depth of feeling you put into both your writing and your art.
Thanks, Alethea. That means a lot to me. My pay-off has been affecting lives and having that come back to me as affection. I need to feel that I’m making a difference in the world. Responsiveness and energy coming back from my readers feeds me which in turn feeds my work.
My audio book based on the Sightlines book came out in 2009, and I ran an extensive blog tour. In 9 weeks I visited 30 blogs—drawing on the network I’d created up to that point. I ran all of the logistics, and wrote original posts for each site. Usually on a blog tour there are several boiler plate choices with perhaps a minimum of customization for your site. My web mistress sent out messages to my readers promoting the tour—along with my activity on Twitter and Facebook and referral sites like Digg.
The big disappointment here was that after all that work, I gained lots of accolades, but hardly any book sales—way short of paying for the time, effort, and money I’d invested. The practical results I’d hoped for were pretty wan. My intense focus in the blog started waning after the tour. Rather than being the home room for my creative life, I began drifting towards Facebook. I gradually posted less. In 2011 I stopped my monthly Riehlife email messages for blog subscribers. I just didn’t have the energy, and these can be seen in the number of posts and the traffic stats. Here’s the report card for 2006-2007 that gives you an idea of where I’d built it to that point. There were over 400 posts, I had good traffic, good response rates, and—most rewarding to me—Google ranked Riehlife with a number 4 in importance on a scale of 10 (with, of course, Google being 10). The strongest sites by regular people typically don’t go over a 5. http://www.riehlife.com/2008/01/13/riehlife-report-card-year-one/ By 2010 I’d gone down to 220 posts. By 2011 there were only 80 posts. And in 2012 so far? Maybe only 30. Naturally my traffic stats have dropped dramatically. I can’t get Google Analytics to give me a yearly report, but clearly my readership is down. Energy in = Energy out
Like so many of my creative endeavors, Riehlife has been a labor of love. Love in = Love out. It’s given me a lot and also given those who wrote for it and read it a lot. It feels odd to be so detached from it. In these Labor of Love projects the artist must receive some form of pay. If not money, then emotional, intellectual, social, and creative satisfaction. For many years Riehlife did all that. It was enough to make something beautiful for God.
I don’t want to let go of the blog, or completely park it. So much of my life’s work is there. I’ll do my best to sustain and maintain it. Will I be doing it into my 70s or for that rest of my life? Likely not. My attention is turning to harvesting my work and bringing it together. We’ll see where that leads.
As a multi-talented person you have the luxury of choice. I’ve seen you slip from poetry and writing projects to visual art exhibitions to community theater during your time in Lake County. As you step back from so many of the activities that used to absorb you—like blogging and presenting at conferences—what’s the current leading edge in your creative life?
Quite by happenstance (happy accidents are a staple in determining direction) I started making digital art on my smart phone using an app called “Doodler,” and then immediately post them on Facebook. That has given me a built-in audience with encouraging feedback beyond my wildest dreams. I now have close to 700 Doodles as I build a body of art work. As you said in your introduction the Doodles are getting great response on Facebook—I would go so far as to say I have a Doodle Fan Club. This audience keeps pointing out that the Doodles are legitimate art and also have commercial possibilities. Right now I love having them in this free-open-play space. They bring joy to me and those who see them. Commercial? Maybe, down the line.
I’m working to get my music back—claiming it as my own. In spite of coaxing myself, I’m still dragging on practicing my violin. Luckily a friend and I are now playing together once a week with a modest goal to hold a recital for friends at her place. Stay tuned!
I’m part of a blogging consortium for Story Circle Network’s “Telling Her Stories.” My monthly Creative Catalyst column draws comments which lead to satisfying dialogue.
As my focus shifts away from Riehlife, these three projects keep me in touch with visual art, music, and writing. Having completed every conceivable practical preparation for my father’s death, I’m now working at getting back on my creative horse. No hope of riding like the wind, but just ambling along is okay with me right now.
Ah! The creative connection! I enjoyed reading about the process of making your Doodles on your last posts in Story Circle Network .
Underlying what we’ve been discussing is “What is success?” I feel each of us defines and accesses that in different ways. Perhaps the idea of what success is shifts during our lives. What are your thoughts on this?
Ah yes, success. America is so results-oriented that our culture sees success in any field equated with what can be quantified. For instance how many books have you sold? How much money have you made. In Europe, it’s not like that. When I’ve met Europeans and told them I was an artist and writer, they were very interested and immediately jumped to the content and form of the work itself. In America the first questions are: “Would I have heard your name or the title of your book?” Or, the old stand-by: “Can you make money doing that?”
In art school a speaker framed the question nicely: “Do you want your art to support you? Or, do you want to support your art?” Your entire creative practice will flow from your answer. I decided that I wanted to support my art. That meant—as it means for most people in the arts—that I needed a day job. Carol Lloyd’s “Creating a Life Worth Living” is tremendously helpful on figuring out some combination that will work for you. I found myself consulting, substitute teaching, running after-school art classes, coaching writers, and directly a family literacy program for migrant farm workers.
I’ve made little money from my years of creative production. But I have made meaning for myself and others. Meaning, love, and adding to the life of the world—these have been my rewards. When I suffer from a meaning crisis (see Eric Maisel’s work for more on this term), then everything takes a dive. My job is to keep focused on what my work means to me—to affirm that “I matter, and my work matters.” This is a tough job, and only we can do it.