Interview with Gayle Johnson from Red Tree Writing
Read how, rather ironically, Gayle Johnson left a role in the University Careers Service with no idea what to do with her life. And how she eventually found her calling as a writer with Red Tree Writing.
What’s your career background?
I worked in a University Careers Service for a decade before having children. Ironically, given a careers service is supposed to help people figure out their direction, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I relished the challenges, projects and promotions along the way, but never really thought about why.
How did your career change after having children?
Parenthood woke me up. Maternity leave shook me out of my office-corridor-strategy-report-writing existence and into the world. Yes it was a world of nappies, and night feeds and exhaustion, but it was also a world of people living, and working, in hundreds of different ways. It made me realise that, for me, success and fulfilment wasn’t to be found deep inside university administration.
As my daughters grew, I became uneasy about my career. I’d fallen out of love with my work long before. I wanted to do a good job, I wanted to get it right, but it sucked the soul out of me. I’m a recovering people pleaser, so middle management was a CRIPPLING place to be. I toiled through the week and lived for the weekend.
And I realised if I wanted my daughters to learn that work was a way to contribute to the world, to use your skills and strengths, to be a source of happiness and fulfilment, then I had to model that. I had to show them that work was fun, interesting and rewarding. And so I set up my writing business.
Where did the idea for Red Tree Writing come from?
When I was agonising over how I could make my escape, I asked friends and family. What was I good at? What could I offer the world? ‘Writing’ was the answer that came back every time. And it felt like the pieces of the jigsaw were falling into place.
I’d always been the writer – at school I wrote plays and stories, at work I wrote the strategy proposals, reports, funding bids. At home I’d written my way out of misery with regular journaling. Words were my thing.
How did you move from idea to actual business?
I researched, invested in training, built a website and launched as a copy and content writer. Not with a big bang. Slowly, building up courage and experience one client at a time.
My first client was sub-contracted from another writer, and I was thrilled to be paid to write (even if it was a lousy $15). Then I got the subject matter through. I was writing for a gynaecological cosmetic surgeon in the US, and my first ever paid piece of freelance writing, to my eternal shame, was titled ‘Should I Choose Labial Sculpting’.
Short answer, in my book – no! No you shouldn’t to sculpt your labia!
That experience taught me a huge lesson about choosing who you work with, and what you work on.
What’s your USP?
Every single one of my clients says I ‘get them’. I’m all about compassionate copywriting – that means I work with values-driven people and help them be kind to themselves (unpack their message and believe in it) and be kind to their reader (get it across effectively).
Metrics, testing, formulas – all that stuff is helpful and some copywriters live for it, but the bit I love is seeing people light up when we’ve written something that perfectly encapsulates their story, who they’re here to help, and how.
Who’s your target audience?
I work with people who have a big message to share. People who are in business to help others and are driven by their values. They tend to be solopreneurs or small businesses in the personal development or wellbeing worlds, but not necessarily.
I’ve worked with people in financial services who care deeply about doing the right thing for their clients and want to shout about it.
How do you spread the word about what you do?
Social media has been an amazing tool for me. I spent the first year in business like a ninja – and not in a good way! I’d pop up, put something out there, and disappear again. Actually, in some ways that wasn’t a bad tactic – targeting and researching who I wanted to work with, and approaching them directly with a tailored pitch got me some brilliant clients, some of whom I’m still working with.
But social media has helped me connect with so many more people who care about the things I do, and who want what I can offer.
What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?
Me! I’ve held myself back in so many ways – thinking I’m not good enough, that I can’t make it work, that ‘anyone can write so who needs a copywriter?’. I’ve made progress the slow way – one happy client at a time, proving to myself I CAN do this. And, just as importantly, I absolutely love it.
And your proudest moment so far?
Quite unexpectedly, I got asked to ghostwrite a book! It was a total joy – I got handed an outline, bags of books and research links, and got paid to read and write. Then when it was done my client loved it so much she got out of her mediocre publishing deal to get a better one!
That was a huge turning point for me, realising that the only blocks in our way are those we put there. I’d always wanted to write a book and written it off as a pipedream. It pretty much took a gold-plated invitation to see that pipe-dreams don’t have to stay that way. Now I’m planning my own book on the underrated genius of sidekicks.
Why is work so important to you?
As I mentioned before, I see work as a way we contribute to the world, sharing our strengths, talents and joys. I firmly believe in doing more of what you love.
And I desperately want my kids to have that approach to work – I don’t want them to see parents living for the weekend or killing time in the evening in front of the TV because they’re so wiped out they can’t summon the energy for anything else.
I think exploring your ideal work unlocks so much more in life, there’s a huge ripple effect. I believe in it so much I’ve started running ‘reboot your worklife’ workshops in pubs in my spare time!
Who inspires you?
Brené Brown’s message and storytelling is phenomenal. I love how she is a servant to her research and findings – it’s all about what she’s learned and how she can help people.
My sister inspires me. She’s a clinical psychologist in the NHS, so massively overworked but doing something she believes in. As well as being one of the most thoughtful and generous people I know, she’s also introduced me to Acceptance and Commitment Training – a mindfulness based approach to working and living according to your values. It’s something I now incorporate into my writing and message-unpacking work too.
My girls inspire me daily, of course. My seven year-old wants to be a film maker so she create a film about The Faraway Tree. She’s asked me to show her how to start. I love how simply she has set her direction and moved towards it.
How do you balance Red Tree Writing with your family?
We home educate our girls so it’s all a bit of a blend. Sometimes we all work together if I’ve got behind the scenes admin I can get on with while they’re writing/drawing/crafting.
I have time to myself on Wednesdays, Fridays and weekends, and that’s when I get a lot of client-facing and deeper project stuff done. And it’s just a case of prioritising and getting organised – I faff about on Facebook a lot less now. As far as possible I try to follow the motto ‘wherever you are, be all there’. So if I’m with the kids, I try (and often fail, to be truthful) not to check my emails/messages etc. It’s a work in progress.
What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?
1) Trust yourself
I’ve spent years inside my head talking myself down, beating myself up. I’ve always depended on others to back me – offer me the job, tell me I’m good enough, give me a push. That won’t work when you’re running your own business. You need to develop a compassionate faith that you can do it, that if things go wrong it’s a lesson not a failure, and that you are most certainly good enough.
2) Have a runway
If you’re going from employment to self-employment, leaps are good, but do it in a way that suits you. You might need to develop your business alongside your job for a while. You might be a big bang launch person, or like me a ‘slowly but surely moving forward’ type person. Know who you are and what you need.
I’m an introvert so I spend a lot of time in my head. I also spent years being told I was good at strategy, and thinking that meant having all the answers and planning for every single eventuality before setting foot out of the door. Not all answers are found in your head. It takes some imperfect doing, some playfulness and some exploring too.