Aaron Mahnke is the writer, producer, and host of the hit podcast Lore, and the author of Indian Summer, Consumed, and Grave Suspicion — all supernatural thrillers. Born and raised in Illinois, he now lives with his wife and children on the historic North Shore of Boston, where he is at work on his next novel.
Tell me about what you do?
Sure, so you've kind of caught me standing on both sides of the fence right now. For the last 8 years I've been a freelance graphic designer, I do artwork for print, web and mobile apps - things like that. I've always dabbled in fiction writing but that's been more of a hobby, not anything that's ever provided any kind of income to be a job. In March, I think I was giving up on the hobby stuff, I needed to put more effort into the design business and just wasn't seeing a lot of results from fiction writing. I decided that I would give it one last stab and I made some efforts to do something that ended up becoming Lore and so since then my time has been split, but it's been slowly ticking it's way towards the Lore side of things. I'd say 80% of my time I'm writing fiction and writing Lore and I've still got some design projects, but I can be picky now because Lore is covering some of the income on the other side. I've still got some design jobs but they're the ones that I really, really want to do and that's a good place to be.
How did you get started doing Lore, and how long ago was that?
It all happened really fast this past March. I'd been trying to get the book sales to move and read a lot of helpful, or the intention of being helpful articles that said "you should build a mailing list, email is where it's at, build a mailing list so you can let people know when you get new books available." So I looked at my mailing list - I had maybe 70 people on it - and I thought well maybe I can give people something to give them an incentive to sign up. I was going to write a PDF, I don't know what you call it a white paper? Just a give away of some kind. A PDF of my 5 favourite New England myths, because I live in the New England area, and there's just a lot of really cool stories in the area.
So I thought, you know why don't I just put together this list of my 5 favourite myths and in the process of writing that I realized how long it was going to be and that if I had been given it I wouldn't have time to read it because I barely ever get time to read anything that's text on a screen these days. For me it's mostly digesting things in audio format, whether it's podcasts or audio books, I do a lot of audio books. I'd been doing this podcast called Home Work over the last three years with a buddy of mine named Dave, it's that typical two white dudes talking with no script for a half-hour to 45 minutes and it had given me a little bit of experience with some aspects of podcasting. I knew enough about the microphone that I could at least record the audio for this and maybe give that away. I thought that maybe I could give people a zip file full of mp3's of these 5 favourite myths just read aloud by me and well I like to do things as well as I can. So I put a little bit of time into the production of the first one and I sent it off to a friend and I said "hey, what do you think about this as a giveaway for an email signup thing?" And he said, "you've got a podcast here, you should really just release this as a podcast". That took me completely by surprise, I had no idea that's where it could go. I would say within a couple of days everything was done. I bought the domain, branded it, built the website, got the hosting, set up the podcast, got it all out and then it just kind of took off.
I know - sometimes it upsets people to hear that a show that's been doing so well was really an accident. I mean I put a lot of effort into the quality of stuff but I really did throw it together very quickly.
You know though, it's the process of how you got there too that takes time and effort as well.
That's true. I've got three years behind the microphone doing the Home Work podcast on 5by5 which taught me at least how to plug my microphone in and to wear headphones while I'm talking and things like that. I'd never used Garage Band before to produce any sort of audio or anything and so I muddled my way through that. I'd never done hosting for podcasts, it's all been handled by 5by5 for me on the Home Work podcast so I never really had to get my hands dirty with any of that. Yeah - I picked up what I could and figured it out, I'm still learning as I go along but that's kind of it. Lore is like a happy accident if there ever was one.
I know you're mostly focused on the Lore podcast and some design work now but I'm curious to know in the past how you managed working on writing, design work, a second podcast and various other side-projects?
Well, what I've learned over the years is that I can only work on one writing project at the time and I tend to like to weave myself back and forth between writing fiction and writing non-fiction. I recognized early on that my mind liked that rhythm. I would get done writing a novel and I just wasn't in the fiction mood, but give me a topic that I could write about like how to manage your productivity as a freelancer - something that I felt I knew something about. That sounded fun to write and then when I was done with that, I was really done with that and I wanted to move on and write fiction again. I watched myself move back and forth with that. So, the one way to harness that rhythm is that Lore is essentially both. There's a lot of history and technical writing, it's a term paper in a lot of ways. I'm footnoting and finding references and writing a 3000 word, 7-8 page paper every couple of weeks. It seems to meet both of those needs in my brain for creating fiction and non-fiction.
Frictionless was my side-business of tools for freelancers and e-books for freelancers, it was an attempt. I've worked for myself for 8 years, I work out of my home and I've got a lot of freedom. Freelance work is an ebb and flow, there's feast and there's famine and some months all you have time for is to do design work and some months you realize that you've got about 25% of your time free to work on whatever you want. So I've created little projects here and there over the years and Frictionless was one of them and I still sell a handful of tool orders every week, which are index cards and notepads and things like that. As Lore takes off that's probably a business I'm going to get out of just because of time.
When they don't require a lot of your time you can have a bunch of little projects going on, but as one of them balloons and grows you have to start cutting things. In the words of Stephen King when he talks about editing I'm going to have to cut my darlings, kill my darlings. Frictionless might be one of the things that has to go to the wayside.
What do you find the most rewarding about what you do?
I would say the writing, especially writing the episodes for Lore. I get to write what I've heard are compelling stories. I mean I don't go into them and say "yeah, that's compelling!" but people love what I'm putting out. I really love writing something that connects with people emotionally. Stories that make people feel things. It's thrilling. I find that a rewarding part of what I do, I love exploring these forgotten and obscure bits of our past and bringing them back to life. I feel like we forget so easily and that maybe as a culture we suffer because of that. I like helping people remember these things, so that's what I do, I sit down and I write stuff out and I really, really enjoy that.
What do you find currently to be the most challenging about what you're doing?
Oh man. I think there's a good number of people out there that think that running a podcast is easy. They beg me to do the show weekly, I've had people ask me to make the episodes longer and some people ask for both. I've even had people ask me to do the show daily. To be honest, this show is insanely difficult to pull off, I must pour about 30 hours into each 20-minute episode. So if somebody said "you should do these for an hour long," that's 90 hours of work that's going to go into something every two weeks and I just couldn't pull that off. Sometimes it's the research that's the hardest part, on another topic it might be the writing that's the hardest part and then sometimes it's both. Then there's the production side of things and the technical side like getting the content posted and then transcripts - I mean you know all this from creating your interviews and managing the website and all that - there's just a ton going on.
I have the transcripts available for my Patreon supporters, I produce 2 different versions of that so there's a little bit of design layout involved in both of them, I manage the website, getting episodes posted and links and all that, I even spend half an hour to an hour everyday responding to listener email. I get a lot of people who write in, it's kind of crazy. Then, over the last couple months there's been the sponsorship side of things. I couldn't spend this much time doing this show if someone wasn't paying me some money to recoop my time. I'd have to work design gigs and then I wouldn't have time for Lore. So rather than charging my listeners for a podcast - which would never fly, people don't pay for content - I'm giving sponsors a chance to be on a show and then their money funds my work. Again, that's all hard to manage, I've got meetings with sponsors and requirements to meet and contracts to sign - there's the business-y side of things. So I guess the most challenging thing about Lore is absolutely everything and that's probably the worst answer ever.
No, I think that's the most honest answer. I can certainly relate, I mean I love doing these interviews but there's a hundred other things that go along with managing a project like this. Those can take up so much time and take away focus from all the fun stuff.
Yeah, there are and then there's distractions and there's always a hiccup on something. I mean, if you love what you're doing it becomes fun. I think loving what you do, even if the part you love only represents 20% of what you're doing, it helps you make it through the other 80%, it gives you that fuel to trudge through the boring stuff.
What are some of the tools that you use regularly?
Evernote - I knew early on I needed some sort of a system to contain research notes, whether it would be content for the website, outlines that I'm typing up, images, PDFs, whatever. So I've leaned on Evernote heavily for this and Evernote is where a lot of Lore lives. I use it on my Mac, my iPad, everything is in sync and my notes are there.
GarageBand - This is a pretty obvious app that I spend a lot of time in just because of the production of the episodes.
InDesign - I create a magazine-quality transcript that some Patreon supporters gets, I spend an hour or two in there every episode.
Squarespace - I spend a lot of time in that if you want to call it an app. Not only am I managing posting new episodes but I've also got a store on the site now so I post items and have to handle orders for books and things.
Mail - I spend a lot of time in the email app. That's on both sides, I spend time on there communicating with listeners who write in with questions or comments. I email with sponsors who have legal documents or ad reads they need me to get, I'm asking questions, I'm communicating with at this point 3 different places for live events which is pretty cool. I've got a couple of events coming up in October, potentially one in November, so just this morning I added a live shows link to my website so people can find those. So, I spend a lot of time in email because that's where it all happens right?
How do you manage to stay on top of all the email?
Does alcohol count? Just kidding - I don't have any alcohol in my office. I mean, doing freelance design work for the last 8 years I've had to build quite a system. When you're working on 7 projects at the same time things can get a little complex. I don't know if there's a name for this kind of system but I use a three-folder system in my email app.
My inbox is the first one - that's where all my emails land obviously.
Once I've read an email I either need to act on it now or act on it later. If it's now I flag it and I leave it in my inbox and I'll do it that day. I'll usually add a task to ToDoist which is the task manager app I like to use.
If I have to act on it later I'll flag it still but I'll move it inside folder number two which is called 'Hold' and that's where things live until they're done. If I have completed the task then I move the email to folder number three which is 'Archive'.
I opened my wife's inbox the other day and it had I think over 1000 emails in it. For some people the Inbox is where they store things but for me I look at the Inbox as a to-do list. If it's in my inbox I have to act on that. My goal is to get rid of the things in that. That's kind of how I manage it.
I've picked up a couple tools over the years, I use a plugin on the Mac called 'Mail Act On', basically it adds some hot-key functionality to Mail where I can file things away with a couple of keystrokes which is nice. Then I've got a bunch of special Inbox rules, in Mail you can set up rules if an email comes to a certain address and it's got these keywords then move it to this folder. So I have things like order emails from Squarespace get pushed into a folder and they keep their unread badge so I know if I have any orders to fulfill. Stuff like that helps keep the inbox a little less crazy. I'd say I check it about 2-3 times a day, if really urgent stuff comes in I'll take care of it right away.
What does a typical day look like for you?
The first thing I always do is email and then little things. When I invoice clients for my design business I invoice them through a system that uses Stripe and Stripe fees are tax deductible so every Friday I do things like log my Stripe fees into a spreadsheet and take care of email and all the little stuff. Coffee obviously. Then I'll do any design work that's on my plate to get the design out of the way and the rest of the day is mine for Lore. I research and I write or maybe it's a recording day. Instead of the old days where it's just design all day long and it's always production, I felt like I was always in the same phase of just creating something and sending if off for feedback. Now, somedays are digging for material and the next day is writing about that material and the next day is production of an episode - so there's a little bit more variety to my day and I like that. I like that Monday will look very different than Thursday, but essentially the rhythm is to take care of all the daily important stuff first and take care of client work and then I can take care of myself and that's Lore and writing.
What is the best career advice that you've received or that you go by?
Oh man. I once started a Twitter account called Honest Life Coach and if you ever want some really, really sarcastic advice you should browse through that. When Lore took off I realized I can't do two things at once, so I stopped posting there but I think there are a ton of platitudes out there and most of them are super unhelpful. People are told to chase their passion and do what you love for a living, but you shouldn't sacrifice everything to chase your passion. Not all passions are marketable. Not everyone can get paid to do their passion - if your passion is blogging about bowling tournaments I really doubt you're going to be able to support a family on that. I could be very wrong, there might be some guy or woman out there who is supporting a family writing reviews of some regional tournament for bowling - I don't know. Not every passion is marketable - that's just it. I think the key is just to be normal. Get a job that pays well and gives you some free-time to have a hobby and then use that free-time to do things you love. I like to find ways to make my hobbies pay for themselves. A micro business. If I can at least find a way for my hobby to pay for itself then I can start from there. Maybe if I succeed at making it pay for itself then maybe I can find ways to increase that income, if that succeeds now I've realized that I can move the needle on it and maybe I should start thinking about how I can get that hobby income up to where it's half of what I make from my job or replacing my full-time income. That's how I've always moved from one thing to another.
It does come down to do what you love though. That's the key. Whether it supports you and your family or not, at least you'll be doing something you love. A lot of people think that they have to be doing the day job as what they love but I think it's enough if you can get through a boring day job to do what you love in the evenings and weekends. Not every one can escape the boring cubicle job.
That's the other thing, we talked about the boringness and the admin side of things, some of the stuff that's not as sexy as writing a cool script and recording it and posting it. The grass always seems greener. People think "man, if I was just doing X, Y, Z for a living I'd be so happy." They forget that even something as fun as what I do - I'm basically podcasting full-time now - it comes with monotonus boring tasks. Yeah I'm writing and producing a podcast for a living - that's awesome - but I'm also managing a business. I spend hours each week in email and meetings with sponsors - tomorrow I have a meeting with a potential sponsor, it's right in the middle of an afternoon when I could be writing, it's going to break my rhythm, it's not fun but I want to partner with these people so that they can help me talk about their stuff better. It's a mix. Sometimes doing what I do isn't unlike a cubicle job. I just think there's some rosy-coloured glass expectations of what doing your passion for a living really looks like. It's still hard work, there's still some boring work. So that's my mixed bag of life advice.
Why do you do what you do? What makes everything worth it?
Part of it is because I've always told stories and I can't seem to get it out of me so I have to roll with it. I'm a storyteller. I have memories of being a fifth grader in the back of the van on the way to the mall with my mom and she's got a friend and the friend's daugther is a classmate of mine the back seat and we're ready to go hang out at the mall and I've got a notebook with me and I turn to her and say "I'm gonna be a writer someday."
As early as fifth grade I knew that love was there. I remember writing some short story about Halloween and pumpkins were pulled up and there were bones inside because the pumpkin patch was in a graveyard - I don't know - it was some creepy kid story. It's what I love doing. I watch my oldest daughter right now and she's 6 and half and she's constantly telling stories and I really think that some of this stuff is just hardwired in to you. You do what you do because that's what you do.
Why do I tell stories on Lore? I think because I have to, it's part of what I do. If it's not Lore someday, I'll probably be telling these stories in a different way and a different format, I think it's always what I'll do.
If I step back and I look at it the other pleasing aspect of this is I get to work from home. I'm with my wife and my two kids, they're always nearby. I'm separated enough in the house that they don't create a lot of noise but I get to eat every single meal each day with my family which is fantastic. I get to take an hour long walk every single day, sometimes in the middle of the work day, or go work somewhere fun. I can skip work sometimes if I don't have a lot on my plate and just do stuff. Take the kids to the park or do a day trip somewhere. I like that aspect of it, my day job doesn't suck my soul out through my nose. I love what I do and I get a lot of freedom from doing it for myself from home and I guess that's what makes it all worthwhile.
Who is someone that you'd want to see on Ways We Work?
I thought a lot about this. There's a lot of people that would be cool to see interviewed but a lot of them have probably been interviewed a lot. I thought of Merlin Mann but I feel like everybody interviews Merlin Mann, although if you want to talk about email productivity and not platitude life advice he's full of that kind of stuff - he's fantastic. So, I thought who haven't I seen a lot of interviews from and I would say Roman Mars, if you can land him that's awesome. So go and book him right now.