I first 'met' Anna Asphar in my car, in the parking lot of an health food store where I bagged groceries, a few miles down the road from the house I grew up in (while I was living in, yes, the house I grew up in, even though I had graduated from college). I had snuck out from my shift to call the Director of Human Resources at a big-deal, internationally acclaimed art museum because she wanted to talk to... me! Oh my gosh. I was sooo nervous. Apparently that conversation went well enough because she invited me to Boston for an interview, and that must have gone OK, too, because I got the job. I worked as her assistant for a few years before going on to a bajillion other positions I held in my 20's.
Those few years I had with Anna made a huge impact on me. I was so young and learned so much: really technical, legal HR stuff; not-so-technical but at the time, jaw-dropping HR stuff (people actually negotiate their salaries?); how to get a sense of a person in an interview (trust your gut); how I wanted my house to look when I was a real, grown-up person (colorful, eclectic, worldly, yet fresh and minimalist at the same time. I have no idea how she pulls off this look, but she does.) But the one thing about Anna that made the biggest impression on me: she was a kind boss. A reeeeally kind boss. She put people first, always and every time. (It's easy to overlook such grace, but it's impossible to overlook the opposite of this. You know. We have all had the other kind of boss.)
Fast-forward a decade. It makes perfect sense to me that Anna now runs a company where she produces books about the stories of people's lives. These are gorgeous coffee table books that capture the history and work and contributions of people like you or me. It's a genius idea, and it brings a smile to my face knowing she has carved out the space in her life to do this important work.
I had to, of course, ask her all of the things I have been dying to know about her relatively new life as a writer, designer, and business owner and how she manages it all as a mom to an almost-teen and a wife to a fellow creative....
Catch me up. What is picture life books?
picture life books is a writing, graphic design and publishing company that is in the business of capturing stories of our lives to preserve them for us and future generations. We work with clients to document anything from a baby’s birth and life to multigenerational family histories, birthday tributes, weddings—stories and photos, really.
What made you decide to launch Picture Life?
My family had a rich tradition of telling stories around the dinner table and I wanted to preserve the intimacy and sense of belonging of that experience because it's something that has helped me provide context for where I fit in the world. The connections we make through sharing our past encourage us to step back and think about who we are and what part we play within our family and community. Creating these books also is a good way to document stories that might otherwise go missing.
After leaving my career in Human Resources to figure out what was next, I took a little time to make a book for my mom’s 80th birthday. The experience opened my eyes to how important her stories were, and how sad it would have been had I not captured the small, every day things that end up making a life, and in turn affect the lives of the people she touched. Not only were all of her grandchildren curious about her story, I left with a better understanding of why I am the way I am. I decided I wanted to help other people do this by providing a service and a means for actually recording the stories before they were lost. Many of us have the intention of doing so, while few of us actually get around to completing a project like this.
What is your role at the company? Is it just you or do you work with a team?
I am the founder, so I run the business, do all of the marketing, much of the interviewing and writing and all of the layout. I work with some incredibly talented people who also help with interviewing, writing, editing and proofing.
Most of the time I work alone, but I do depend on some very accomplished professionals. I’m currently working with a woman who, prior to having kids, was an editor at The Atlantic magazine. She has been doing research on Eben Jordan, the founder of Jordan Marsh department stores in Boston, a great civic leader, and philanthropist. She has done an incredible job of creating a compelling story out of disparate facts gathered from all sorts of odd places. Jane, who does all editing and proofing, keeps me in line on every book I create since I’m not a detail-oriented person.
What is your background?
I spent many years in Human Resources, and was motivated in my work by finding that point of connection with people, whether an applicant, boss, hiring manager or employee. Using that skill is one of the things that helps me create compelling books that really convey a feeling of the “subject.”
I wrote plenty for my HR work, and have been an active 'morning pages' writer (an exercise from Julia Cameron's book, The Artist's Way) for almost 20 years. The process of writing 'morning pages' has helped me learn how to convey own voice while giving me the opportunity to empty the clutter out of my head every day.
Design has always been an important part of my life, and finally having a job that has a design component has been very freeing.
What is your typical day?
I am not so good at sitting still, so I usually schedule my day in 2 to 3-hour chunks. I might start with replying to emails (I tend to turn off everything while I’m working), then work on paid work (a book) or something related to marketing or administration. I’m currently reworking my website and have been spending a lot of time on InDesign laying it out differently,
My daughter comes home from school at 2:30. On days that she doesn’t have an activity, she’ll often do homework while I continue working (though it’s a different, not quite as concentrated sort of working). On days that she has after-school activities that I need to bring her to, I’ll try to use the time to creatively day dream about work-related things—I usually take myself outside, no matter the season.
How do you stay motivated, especially since you are doing a lot of solo work?
I love what I do; the variety of interviewing people (social), and writing, editing, and design work (solo) works well for me. I tend to work in fits and spurts that have more to do with accomplishing certain parts of the project than following a strict schedule. It's more difficult for me when I’m trying to build my client base. I have so many ideas, I sometimes am not sure which to pursue and can get a little frozen.
The Artist's Way asks you to look at the various parts of your life to make sure you’re paying attention to all of them—physical, social, financial, spiritual, professional, and family. I do my best to stay on top of that, I’ve always been a big believer in balance.
A thing that is a challenge for me is dealing with the intersection of creativity and pragmatism; they sometimes don’t play so well together for me. My company would certainly not exist were it not for my creativity, but I also need to set sales goals and try to maintain them. When I focus my efforts in a business-oriented direction, the creative part of me tends to shut down. And then it requires more work for me to get back to that creative place.
I remember you telling me about the meet-ups you participate in with other women who are creative business owners. Can you tell me about how that works?
The most important thing that has helped me stay motivated is my tribe I’ve found. I have a friend in a similar business and we talk once a week, almost as though we’re partners. Once in a while we’ll take an 'artist date' day and go to a museum and then have lunch. Sometimes we do some solo writing and goal setting, and sometimes we just chat. We always feel guilty for taking the time but end up delighted with the results. Without fail, we get clear on what we need to do in our businesses.
I’m also part of two groups. ‘Creative Entrepreneurial Women’ meet once a month to talk about challenges and victories in our businesses. We offer advice, give feedback, and general support. The other group is eight women who all want to make some sort of a change in their lives. We meet every other week for two hours and one person takes the floor for an hour so we can focus on her challenge. Again, both groups take time that I don’t have, and I most frequently go into the meetings wondering why I committed to listening to others, but I come out of every meeting feeling so lucky to be part of a group of like-minded women. Being an entrepreneur takes vision and determination, and for me, I can only maintain those two with the support of my tribe.
How do you stay focused and avoid distraction?
I need a lot of exercise and socializing to stay sane, so I combine them: I play tennis in the summer and paddle tennis in the winter. This helps me to feel centered. I also check in on my personal mission statement. I ask myself: Why am I on this earth, what am I meant to do? How am I going to do it? How will I define success? How will I tell people about what I do? These questions are like a touchstone and they help me make sure I’m going in the right direction.
What tools do you use to stay organized?
Every Monday morning, I take out a piece of paper and make a few different headings: (1) Books I’m working on, (2) Administrative/Marketing work, (3) Leads I’m waiting on, (4) Things I need to think about and (4) Personal stuff. I try to look at it every morning but am not so good at that. But doing it every Monday helps to keep it all in my brain. I also think doing my daily morning pages helps me to get the clutter out of my head so that I can focus better.
How do you find clients?
Mostly word of mouth, though I am now doing some work on my website to make it more SEO-friendly. I’m never too busy for a referral!
Where do you work? What do you like about your space?
My husband, 12 year old daughter and I live in a two-family house in Brookline, Mass. We live on the second and third floors. My husband is an architect and has an office on the second floor; mine is on the third floor, facing north and overlooking the park across the street. I have two skylights, which help me get through winter (unless they’re covered with snow—using a hairdryer to try to melt the snow, sadly, does not work). I love the size of my space, the light, and the wide pine floors. I also love my monster Mac. I like working near my husband, which allows us occasional time to chat or ask advice of each other. It’s a five minute walk to the Village to UPS, my gym, and plenty of cafes and restaurants.
As a wife and mother, how do you maintain work/life balance, especially since you are not working in a traditional profession away from the home?
After working in a traditional nine-to-five when my daughter was little, this seems like a walk in the park. My daughter is old enough now that when she comes home after school, she has a lot of homework. Sometimes we work side by side, sometimes not. When she was younger, I would plan for a friend of hers to come over after school to buy me a little time. For me, one of the hardest things is the frustration I feel when I think I’m going to create something, but other things get in the way, so I am careful to only do my most important work when I am confident I won’t be interrupted. For moms of younger kids, it is very hard, I’m sure. All I can say is that it gets easier. And nothing’s perfect.
Who or what inspires you right now?
- A neighbor, Nick Nixon, makes beautiful photographs.
- I also love some of the older photographers: Diane Arbus and Eugene Atget come to mind straight away.
- I love Vivian Maier’s eye, and hope to see an exhibit of her work at some point.
- David Sedaris’ books. People think of him as funny, but he’s also a really talented writer.
- Venice, California
- I have a friend named Chuck, a realtor, who is the most focused, can-do person I’ve ever met. He helps me to believe that everything is solvable, and that all I need to do is set goals and achieve them.
What is your advice to someone who is launching a creative business?
Write a personal mission statement in order to understand in all parts of your being why you're doing what you're doing. For me, this process has informed better decision-making and has helped me to keep going when I’m not at my most confident. And my other piece of advice would be to find and nurture your tribe. I can’t emphasize this enough!
What are you looking forward to?
I’m excited to see how the Jordan project comes out. As well as creating a book, we’re going to be giving a tour to all of his descendants. We'll be telling them about his life while pointing out places around town that are the result of this man’s generous work. Can’t say I’ve ever given a tour before…
I have been thinking for a while about an online, interactive and visually compelling website that allows families to share their photographs and stories. I’m waiting for the right web person to come along to collaborate with me. But I have been doing a fair amount of thinking about that.
How can people contact you or follow your work?
All photos via Anna Asphar and picture life books.