- by JoAnn Grote
Judy Baer is a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach with a Master of Arts in Human Development which focused on writing, coaching, faith and spirituality. She is the author of 75+ published books, primarily novels.
Judy, how long have you been coaching, and what made you decide to become a writing and creativity coach?
I began coaching in the year 2000 and have certifications from three different coaching schools and have attended a fourth. I began as a personal life coach but found it was often writers who showed up as my clients. When I began my master’s, I wanted to combine my love of writing with my love of coaching. My final paper involved developing a new model of coaching for fiction writers who were struggling with character development. This was also a time when I developed a way to use coaching skills to vision and develop non-fiction books. Although I didn’t initially intend to coach writers in particular, it was a very natural client group to relate to. After as many books as I’ve written, I doubt there’s an experience, hang-up, excuse or block that I haven’t suffered myself. As one of my clients tells me, “You never let me get away with anything.”
What are some examples of problems you’ve helped writers resolve at different stages of their careers?
We start wherever a client wants. Sometimes it’s writer’s block, sometimes new writers simply don’t know how to begin. I have non-fiction writers come to me with an idea they’ve had but they’re not sure how to work it into a marketable book. That’s when the visioning process is very helpful. Oftentimes the book a writer thinks she or he wants to write is very different from the book that they actually produce. We refine and define ideas together.
Where one starts isn’t always where one ends up. One gentleman came to me to write his book, decided to truly become an expert on the topic and is now getting his PHD and using his original idea as the jumping off point for his thesis. If an audience member wants to learn more on a subject, they can purchase a book for a more in depth look at the speaker’s ideas. That’s fun because, although the client might not be a professional writer, they are very well educated in the area they want to write about.
I’ve coached people through writer’s block, organizing their offices, confidence issues and just about anything that stands in the way of becoming the writer they dream of being. I’m not an editor but I work with the client’s ideas, emotions, roadblocks, etc. That’s a pretty general answer but coaching is a very agile, flexible thing and we hone in on issues whatever they might be. People can resolve their own issues, certainly, but what I know about coaching is that you can resolve them much faster with a coach walking along side you.
Do you find a multi-published author finds it more difficult than a beginning writer to admit he/she might benefit from the services of a writing or creativity coach?
I love working with multi-published authors — they’re so smart about writing and so eager to get moving again that they make the coaching process much easier. My role with them is just to help them lay out the information and wisdom they already have, put it into a plan that makes sense, support and hold them accountable for their work. Some people just want accountability, others are looking for someone to process with them, others are in more need of planning skills and carrying out the tasks they set before themselves. I want the client to tell me what they hope to get from the coaching journey and that’s the goal we set.
It can be the same with new writers. Sometimes however, they want to ask questions that fall more into the realm of mentoring. Then I have to remove my coaching hat. Mentoring and coaching are closely aligned but yet very different.
Does a client usually know what their problem is when they contact you? If not, how do you help a client clarify their problem?
In the intake or initial session we have a conversation about expectatons, goals, issues and problems. A coach is one who asks a lot of questions. I have confidence that each client already knows the answers to their questions and that they are creative and have the ability to meet their goals. It’s my job to draw that knowledge from them so they can apply it. Curiosity is the hallmark of a good coach. Being able to ask the right questions can be powerful. I know personally that sometimes I need to verbalize my thoughts and hear myself say them before I’m actually sure what it is I know to be true. In coaching, a client answering a question can be a gateway to greater creativity.
How long does the coaching process normally take?
I normally coach with clients for 45 minutes once a week but writers I often handle differently. I like to design a plan with the writer that will work best for the client. Maybe it’s two hours the first time and once or twice a month thereafter. Maybe one session is all someone needs. Or perhaps someone wants weekly accountability during the writing process. I also tell my writer clients that they can call me to make an appointment whenever they need to. I like to have a solid plan and some regularity in the schedule, but we all know that writers don’t necessarily function that way (Plotters vs. Pantsters, I guess.)
I have a client who is having a launch party for her book in Washington, D.C. next week. She worked with me for two years. Sometimes just a few hours will do it. We design a plan together and then revisit it occasionally to make sure it’s working for the client. If something isn’t working, I ask the client to tell me immediately so we can make adjustments and go at things from another angle. I can ask questions but I can’t read minds and we need to be as transparent and honest with each other as we can in order to be a good team.
Are many writers contacting you because they are stalled or blocked due to fears regarding the changes in today’s publishing world?
I can’t say that they have. Writers are a brave bunch. They’ve been working in a business with lots of ups and downs, changes and hiccups. Publication can be a roller-coaster and most have just learned to hang on for the ride. I do think, however, that this is a reasonable place for coaching. The fear of no longer being able to write because of changes outside one’s control is real but there’s no use allowing that to get in the way of one’s creativity or everyday life.
What are some questions a writer should ask when selecting a writing or creativity coach?
I think that a writer should ask about qualifications, certifications and experience. I’m a big believer in a coach being certified in at least one coaching model, particularly by a school that is recognized by the International Coaching Federation. That’s where a coach learns skills and gains experience. It is a different process than simply encouraging someone although sometimes it may have that feel. Coaches learn to hold people’s toes to the fire — in fact, that’s why clients hire them! How many years has the individual been coaching? This is a pretty young profession so someone who has ten or more years under his/her belt is considered quite experienced. The third thing to look at when hiring a writing coach is how much experience the coach has had with the publishing industry. Coaching creativity is part of the equation but if you want someone to help you with some of the landmines you might encounter as well, experience helps.
I think of my clients as choosing me, not vice versa. Good ideas are good ideas. All I want is for people to fulfill their dream of writing and have it be as graceful and pleasant a process as possible. The coaching is always about the client, not about me.
What is one thing you wish people understood about writing or creativity coaching?
It can be a very useful process that can get a writer unstuck, give her or him new perspectives and ease the writing process along. I personally have a life coach because I believe that in order to coach well, I must also be coached. It sharpens me for coaching others. Coaching can smooth the bumps, help one to make decisions more quickly, give clarity and make one feel less alone in a sometimes lonely business. It can be used to make characters come to life, vision the book you want to write, act as a tool for propping up a story’s sagging middle, help you clean or redesign your office, make you think outside the box or address whatever is bugging you and aid you in getting past it and on to other stories.