Writers I Read: Aaron Mahnke

2011.07.22 Update: Aaron’s new book — Destiny: A Fairy Tale — is out. It is about a young orphan discovering his true heritage. Go buy it now.


For this interview in the “Writers I Read” series, I got the chance to talk with Aaron Mahnke. His name should be familiar to at least some of you, as he is the man behind the Read and Trust Network, Wet Frog Studios, a self-titled blog about writing and a collection of some fantastic works of fiction.

Stephen: Aaron, thanks for taking some time to chat with me. You seem to keep busy with your design firm and novel writing. Can you fill in the lovely readers about what you do?

Aaron: Busy is one of those words that doesn’t seem quite equipped enough to describe my life. I’ve brought it upon myself, but I couldn’t resist — the kinds of projects I’m involved in are so exciting and rewarding. They do, however, keep me moving from place to place without much rest.

What is it that I do, then? Well, to many people I am a curator. At the very end of 2010, I launched the Read & Trust Network which is a gathering of some of the very best writers on the internet. These amazing writers touch on topics such as minimalism, technology, politics, writing, software reviews and productivity, and honestly, I’m just in awe every day that I get to offer them a tiny bit more exposure and connect them to other great writers. So that’s part of who I am and what I do.

I also run a graphic design shop in the Boston area called Wet Frog Studios. It’s what pays the bills and keeps me busy most of the time between 7am and 5pm. I’m one of those self-taught, self-motivated designers who decided to hang my own shingle and start my own business, and the last three years have been humbling. I’ve watched my business grow by leaps and bounds, and have been able to work with some amazing clients. A lot of what I do is brand-related; I have a passion for crafting a brand and the materials that support it. And as a result, I’ve had the chance to design logos for some top-notch sites you might have heard of, like MinimalMac, The Brooks Review, Bridging the Nerd Gap and Idea Cafe.

And lastly, I write. I do a small amount of blogging over at aaronmahnke.com, but most of my writing is published fiction. My fantasy novel The Hand of Andulain is currently selling extremely well, and is the first in a series that I hope to write. I also have a new novel hopefully releasing in July called Destiny: A Fairy Tale, and I’m really excited about this one. It reaches back into the core of myth and story to touch on the basic elements that we all resonate with. These things challenge me; writing is both the most difficult and the most rewarding thing I do.

And there’s my long-winded answer to your simple question!

Stephen: Hey, I’ve got no issues with being long-winded when someone needs to be. Let’s walk through this stuff, bit by bit.

Read and Trust is a fantastic network. My favorite writers are members, and I’ve gotten to know several of them better through this series (including some interviews that are in progress). What drove you to start something like this?

Aaron: Thanks for loving Read and Trust. I’m so glad it’s proven to be a great resource for you. How did it start? Man, this is where I get all meta on you … hold tight!

I’m a learner. I love to learn. But as the years tick by I’m starting to notice that I have another passion grafted onto the learning thing – sharing. I love to share what I’ve learned, and that can manifest through conversation, posts on my blog, or projects I start up. Read and Trust is one of those projects. See, back when I was first going solo with my design business I started gathering resources to help improve who I was and what I produced. I turned to RSS feeds and twitter, and in the process did what a lot of us do. I would follow a site, then time would go by, and eventually I’d find that I was either connecting on a deep level with the writer, or not. If so, they became a “favorite,” and if not, they got cut. This went on for a long, long time. Rinse and repeat, you know?

Fast forward three years. This past November I cracked open my RSS app and it occurred to me that I had amassed quite the collection of trusted blogs. They all exuded quality and passion, and I had even begun to connect with many of the writers through Twitter. So Read and Trust honestly was just a project birthed from that desire to share the resources I had collected. It helps answer that question, “I wonder what other writers my favorite writer reads and trusts?” So for that person who has discovered Shawn Blanc and really digs him, they can now explore a whole list of other writers that Shawn reads regularly, trusts for quality content and has no problem recommending to others. And that’s a cool thing.

So now, what took me years to gather, connect and quality-check can be discovered in a matter of minutes by a newbie to the scene. That’s something I’m very proud of. I get to work closely with some of the best writers on the internet, and bring enrichment into people’s lives by introducing them to someone they’ve never read before. It’s really a rewarding project.

Stephen: In my interview with Shawn Blanc, we’re talking about people’s desire for quality content. Clearly, Read and Trust fits into this quite neatly. Do you think people have a newfound desire for such content, or that the market (for lack of a better word) is just starting to respond to it in a clearer way?

Aaron: For sure, quality is king. But I think the new push for quality content is not a result of people intuitively deciding they need it. My opinion is that it’s a direct response to a realization that much of the content out there is just not that valuable.

Shawn just touched on the pulse of a growing issue recently in his piece about RSS and twitter. Behind all the stats and survey results it’s clear that people are overwhelmed with all of the content being tossed at them daily. Whether or not there is guilt about not reading through it all, I think it is very common for people to spend all this time reading through their feeds and walk away feeling like they wasted their time. We are assaulted regularly by posts on rumors, fleeting topics, materialistic masturbation. And people are feeling a bit empty.

I think it’s in our nature to create, and to strive for quality. And so when we pull up a chair and dine at the table of fluff and garbage, we walk way hungry for something deeper. And there are very few writers and sites out there who are committed to producing content that satisfies. I think what we’ve done with Read and Trust is to gather a good majority of them together in one place. You can point to that directory and say, “Look, here’s a list of top-notch writers who will respect your time and attention, and offer up only their best stuff.”

Perhaps the best way for Read and Trust to grow in the future is to bring in writers of that caliber who touch on topics and passions that aren’t from the tech/Apple/GTD/design/developer family. I’d love to see the very best food writers, the best sports writers, the best fiction writers all gathered together. People need—and deserve—better quality content without all the hassle of discovering it on their own.

Stephen: I really resonate with what you said about walking away empty from RSS, Twitter, etc. I am trying to be more deliberate about what I read, because honestly, most of this stuff isn’t worth time out of my life.

When I was outlining what I wanted to ask you about, I was having trouble linking this subject with your fiction writing and design work, but I think we’ve been talking about it all along. I am loving reading The Hand of Andulain, and am excited about your future books. Likewise, Wet Frog Studios is producing quality work all over the place, it seems. How do you go from writing to design work and back again? Or is there just a natural link between the two for you?

Aaron: I totally agree regarding time. You’re in the same place as me right now, with a young family. Our two girls are absolute joys to be around (most of the time!), and I’ve been fighting this war with my iPhone for two years. It’s easy to allow all of that digital distraction cut in and steal time from the things that matter most. Most people think it’s normal, though, and that’s sad.

I’m coming to realize that the internet in all its forms (my computer, my devices, even the television) is simply a place. And I can only be in one place at a time. When I’m sitting in a room with my 2 year old daughter who wants to read a book and I’m checking my phone every five minutes, I’m not in that room. So my goal is to be as fully present as I can, all the time, no matter what I’m doing.

Glad to hear you are both reading my novel AND enjoying it. When you create something there is always that innate fear that it will be rejected or judged unworthy. I hope I’m not the only one who feels that on a pretty regular basis.

Creating is creating for me. So whether I’m crafting a logo and brand for a business or blog, or settling in to tell stories that other people will read, I have to force myself into the same “place.” Part of that place involves removing distraction, and another part involves adding inspiration. Music is a big part of that for me. And the place I’m sitting or standing.

But there are a ton of similarities between how I run my design life and my writing life. The biggest is that I’ve had to make a commitment to a “capture system” that works for each. My design life is mostly digital, so I capture things like tasks, inspiration and notes all with digital tools. Apps like Simplenote and Notational Velocity, LittleSnapper and OmniFocus are pillars that hold up the rest of my work. Without them, everything falls apart.

For writing it’s a Field Notes book tucked into my back left pocket along with a Fisher Space Pen (because I can sit on it and it will never, ever leak). The notebook looks pretty ragged at the end of its life, but I fill it with ideas, plot, names and timelines for my stories. My goal with anything it to make the act of capturing the things I need to keep around as frictionless as possible. The less friction a system has, the more likely you are to use it and keep it.

Of course, all of this does a great job of explaining the connectedness, the how and the what of my design and writing. But none of it touches on the why.

Stephen: So, why do you do what you do? That’s the real thing I’m trying to get to with this chat.

Aaron: That really is the best question, isn’t it? Some people do what they without a “why” and they tend to burn out or lose interest. For me, design and writing is all about the creation. Bringing order and beauty and life onto an empty page. Adding value to the world around me, and making something that others can take enjoyment from.

Design is all about solving problems and communicating. In some ways, design is storytelling. When I build a logo for a client, and go through those research, creation and refinement stages, I’m hopefully making something that tells the story of the company or person it represents. I was obsessed with Egyptian hieroglyphics as a kids, and I think it was because of all the words, meanings and legends built up inside one simple little iconic shape. I aim to provide that to my clients every day. Layout design is similar. I’m guiding people’s eyes across all the elements and building a message.

Writing, even though it isn’t what pays me bills and thus isn’t where most of my time gets spent, is where my heart finds total peace. I have memories of being eight and nine years old, scribbling out short stories and telling people I was going to be a writer someday. And I’ve written ever since. Why? That’s a deep question…something I’m probably going to need a psychologist to really figure out. But I have a feeling it stems from a need to communicate and share things I create.

And now, with the ability to write and publish my own books quickly and without waiting on a middle-man or giving up most of my rights and royalties to a publisher, I have found a freedom I’ve never felt before. I can write and share it. And if a few hundred, or a few thousand, people decide to pay me a little bit of money to enjoy what I’ve created, then I think we both win out.

Stephen: I think the middle-man is going the way of the dinosaur, in many ways. We can self-publish, be self-taught and work at home, not to mention companies like Amazon putting places like local book stores out of business. As a creative, what do you think about this shift?

Aaron: For sure. It’s amazing what we can get immediately these days. Etsy has revolutionized a market that once was the realm of consignment shops and boutiques. I remember going to auctions with my father when I was a kid, and those days are gone as well now that you can run one online at eBay and reach millions of additional buyers. Yeah, the middle man, and a lot of the obstacles to “shipping” are gone now.

I’m going to miss local bookstores, personally. I love browsing through those stores. I’m sure a few will hang on, but our kids aren’t going to grow up with the same experience with these big-box stores that we did. It’s sad, but I see the benefit of the progress too.

I think the shift is going to introduce a few things to consumers. First, get ready for a ton of crap. Really. Because when you no longer have a tiny little gate guarded by the Big Six publishers, all manner of written word is going to become available for purchase. A lot of it will be great stuff the publishers just didn’t have the time or resources to discover and print. But most, unfortunately, will be crap. Have you seen the way kids text these days? It’s not even English! Now imagine buying a novel written like that, and you’ll see what I mean.

But there are going to be benefits to this change. I read a great book a few years ago that has become foundational to how I view a lot of the world, called A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. Without giving away the cookies before dinner, he basically makes the case that the world is transitioning into a new Age. There was the Industrial Revolution, and then the Information Age, and now, he thinks, we are entering into the Conceptual Age. Specifically, he claims things like design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning are beginning to take on the most value in our economic system.

So now, I think, all these independent creatives like myself and so many people we know, who write and paint and build and draw and program and bake and design, are watching their potential audience grow. You can’t mechanize creativity. You can’t write a program that can spit out novels. These things are what people are going to value more than anything else in the near future.

Stephen: The more digital our world becomes, the more we crave real, hand-crafted, human-made content and goods. I think this thread is pretty strongly evident throughout your various work. Anything else you’d like to add before we wrap this up?

Aaron: I often get asked for advice by people who are trying to get more done in their day and tackle those side projects, like Read & Trust or my fiction writing, that seem to spring up out of a hectic work schedule. They want to know how I can be a husband, father to two small kids and run a full-time design business, while still finding time to create. And it’s a hard question to answer. So how about a collection of cliché statements that I honestly believe to be true:

Remove all the friction from your life:

  • Find those frustrating systems in your day, work or personal, and push yourself to find ways to get them done easier and with less friction. The smoother the process for a task gets, the less likely you are to forget it.

Capture everything in the moment:

  • Just imagine how many great ideas—ideas that could make you money or grow your skills—you have thought up and then forgotten through the course of the day. Find the best way to capture ideas, tasks, notes, etc in as short of time as possible.

Find a way to pay your bills doing what you love:

  • When your “day job” is something you care deeply about, you walk away with more energy at the end of the day. And that’s energy you can pour into side projects. Do whatever it takes to get yourself into that kind of a situation.

And that’s that. I hope this email dialogue went according to plan. And thanks for the opportunity to babble to someone besides my wife!