Today, we have a special conversation with Azul Terronez. Our chat was originally recorded for Azul’s podcast, Born to Write.
In our conversation, we talk a lot about the hurdles that aspiring authors face. The biggest of these might just be fear, and we discuss just how debilitating this can be. Azul believes that overcoming these fears is essential in accessing the vulnerable and valuable part of our humanity and sharing our ideas with the world. We hope that through our conversation those wanting to write — but struggling with some of these obstacles — might find solace in solidarity, and see the commonality in our experiences.
Key Takeaways From This Episode:
- How Charlie and Azul got into writing
- The value of writing as a platform for empathy and communion.
- Personal perspective and how individual experience is expertise.
- Dealing with negative feedback and the fear of rejection.
Why Charlie Got into Writing
Azul Terronez: Did you always have a sense that you wanted to be a writer or that you had it in you?
Charlie Hoehn: I never wanted to be a writer. I still don’t necessarily want to be a writer. It’s more of a necessity and the fastest way to create.
I think of myself as an ideas person, and it’s the best way to materialize those ideas and give them shape. The fastest, most efficient way to do it is through writing.
Whether that’s putting out a thoughtful article or an essay of some sort or a collection of some ideas that I see taking shape in a different industry, or even if it’s just writing a comedy sketch that I end up filming with my friends.
“Writing clarifies your thinking and allows you to communicate ideas with another individual.”
I think even faster and more efficiently than when speaking.
Azul Terronez: What’s the story underneath? Because that’s the part that interests me the most.
Charlie Hoehn: That’s how we’re hardwired. You want to tell a story and you want to hear a story, you don’t want to hear somebody’s advice.
Speaking is not as efficient because you have all these obstacles that you’re having to deal with in real time. You’re having to deal with your own internal emotional state while you’re presenting your ideas. You have to be good at judging your audience and making sure that they’re on board with you while you’re communicating. It’s way harder.
But when you’re writing, all you have to do is communicate the idea or the story well, and then whoever reads it is listening to you. They’re actually giving more weight to whatever it is that you’re saying. It’s building empathy and compassion for people through writing.
Relating to Storytelling
Azule Terronez: I think that’s a little bit about what writing does, right? You step through the lens of other people.
Charlie Hoehn: I got in a heated argument fairly recently, because someone said fiction books are kind of a waste of time. How could you possibly say that?
Fiction is not only exercising the imagination—every movie basically comes from a fiction book first, and all of us love fiction movies. More importantly, you are still gaining compassion, empathy, a new perspective on the world.
“Even if it’s fiction, it still comes from a human being and it’s grounded in their reality.”
We’re not talking about completely non-fictional aliens that don’t have feelings. We’re not writing fiction about bacteria who have no idea of the human world around them.
We are writing about people and their feelings—always. Even if it’s fiction, you’re still learning about another person. I remember feeling my blood boil when he said that. It was such a poorly formed opinion about fiction and storytelling.
Azul Terronez: To me, it’s the complexity of understanding the humanity, the qualities within somebody or in others really to make a story resonate.
Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, I don’t even necessarily think it’s likability. It’s relatability, identifiability.
“This is actually the number one rule of screen writing—the audience has to identify with the character.”
A great example of this is Marty McFly in Back to the Future. He starts the movie as the coolest kid ever. He plays in a rock band and he’s good, he’s dating the most beautiful girl in school, he skateboards on the back of cars, that’s awesome.
But he’s got low self-esteem. He gets picked on by the principal and his dad and his family, his dad’s just kind of a wuss and a pushover. He lives in kind of a house where things are a mess and whatever. You just identify with him.
It’s the same with Walter White, who is not a likeable character. He is an identifiable character. He’s somebody who gets diagnosed with cancer and he realizes, man, I’m in over my head. I don’t want to tell my family about this, we don’t have enough money.
When his wife in that first episode is like, “You used the wrong credit card, we only do this on this credit card.” It’s some like minor expense, only like 10 bucks or something. It’s just like, gosh, how many people can identify with this.
You don’t necessarily have to even be likeable. You just have to be somebody that people identify with.
Telling the Play it Away Story
Azul Terronez: Do you think you could retell the story of Play It Away but in fiction? Does it work the same as nonfiction?
Charlie Hoehn: It’s close enough to fiction, in a way. The lifestyle I was living I think was kind of extreme and at the fringes enough that people are like, “Wow, this is crazy.” But how I got to the point that the story begins was something that is very identifiable with people who struggle with anxiety and burnout.
“It’s describing how I felt the physical symptoms and what it was like internally day to day.”
Then, the second chapter is about what was going on outside, the conditions that led to that internal state.
I think it would actually be pretty easy to do that, because all I’d have to do is make the outside world even louder or make it a different character. But the feelings are the same.
Azul Terronez: Did you feel like it was hard to relate to other people?
Charlie Hoehn: I was locking myself up in my apartment, isolating myself from my friends and other people because I didn’t want them to catch my contagious energy. Constant worrying, sometimes paranoia, there were physical symptoms of rapid heart rate.
It was constant dread, basically.
Anybody who has experienced it knows it’s really not fun, especially if you’re having panic attacks. I quietly, secretly suffered through this because I was really embarrassed and ashamed to go through it.
“I didn’t fully understand why I felt this way.”
On the outside, I had a dream job, working with Tim Ferriss for years. That had gone really well for a long time, and then all of a sudden I was dealing with this stuff.
Externally, there were other factors that came into play. On one weekend, a family member died, a close friend attempted suicide, and a deadline for a huge project we had got pushed back several months and I was in this very prestigious position.
I felt like, man, certainly no one in my peer group fully understands what I’m going through. They couldn’t possibly have felt the way I feel—which is horrible.
It feels like you’re living in your own internal hell.
I tried everything. Nothing worked. But the one thing that unlocked my way to my own personal cure was to play. Both the way I thought of the world and perceived things that were happening—to actually incorporate play into my daily routine.
Books Connect us to Each Other
Charlie Hoehn: Since that book was published, I’ve talked with thousands and thousands of people who have experienced the exact same feelings.
They hold back for the same reasons I held back. They’re ashamed, and they think no one must understand what they’re going through.
There’s a stigma. They don’t want to end up on addictive pills. They don’t want to be put in a hospital or go through all this intense expensive treatment in some cases. That’s why I wrote that book.
I was desperately searching for the type of solution which was natural, free, common sense, didn’t require any dangerous or expensive therapies—that sort of thing.
A friend of mine, she opened up to me because she was the assistant to the CEO of a Fortune 10 company I think. One of the biggest companies in the world.
“She read my book and said, ‘I’m going through the exact same thing.'”
The reality is, anybody who is going through this stuff will understand you. There are millions of people struggling with this stuff.
It’s super common, and it’s something I am not afraid of at all happening to me again. If it does, I know the cure, I’ve seen it cure.
On Being an Expert
Azul Terronez: Experts don’t have a lot to say that they’ve experienced themselves.
Charlie Hoehn: Two women in particular came to me after either a speaking gig or wrote me an email and said, “I’ve been on high dose anxiety meds for twenty years. I incorporated play into my life and it dissolved, it was gone. Nothing else had worked.” No bullshit, they actually were able to overcome it.
It works for pretty much everyone. Obviously, I’m not a medical professional. I’m not a doctor or a licensed therapist or anything.
“I’m just a guy who was desperately searching for that information.”
I found a massive gap both online and in books that no one was talking about. Which was this approach that was grounded in how we evolved and what we’ve just gotten away from.
I was speaking actually at an association for therapy through humor. Everybody in the room was a medical professional or licensed therapist. So I came to this thing and I was like, gosh, all I have is my story. These guys have all this research and stuff.
First, none of them had published books or if they had, they were pretty dry. Second, none of them could really present on the topic in a way that was identifiable.
Experts are in their field doing studies and looking at patients and talking about their patients’ experiences and not theirs. Just because you don’t have a piece of paper telling the world “this person paid a lot of money to be called an expert” does not mean you are not an expert.
“If you have experienced life in a way that others have not or overcome a problem that a lot of people struggle with, you’re an expert.”
You offer a unique perspective. And in that, there’s value.
Dealing with Negative Feedback
Charlie Hoehn: One of the first messages I read this morning was somebody who commented on a recent article that I wrote. I did not expect this to happen—I’ve been writing online for 10 years, written hundreds of things. But this article went viral and I didn’t see it coming.
The overwhelming response to this article was positive. But I had this one lady who wrote to me this morning and said, “You don’t even have a degree in psychology or criminology” or whatever.
“She literally said, ‘Who the hell do you think you are?'”
For any message like that, I try to wait 24 hours. I want to give some thought to it. I don’t want to react to it and say something I might regret. But I was just thinking like, “I can’t really hear you over all the positive feedback.”
If I hadn’t been motivated enough to put out my unique perspective, who knows? I had so many positive messages come out of writing that article, and so many people were deeply touched because I put my heart out there on a topic that I cared about.
People sense that.
“You’re always going to get a little bit of riff raff to anything that catches a little bit of fire.”
I’ve gotten pushback on telling my story about going through anxiety. Literally at least five times, people have been like, “You’re just trying to take advantage of the anxiety market and trying to capitalize on it.”
I was like, first of all, you could take a look at my bank account if that were true, I would be living very differently. It’s just nonsense.
People have their own emotional issues with whatever that they bring to the table whenever they’re arguing with you. Whenever they’re really pushing back on you, it’s more about them, it’s not as much about you.
For every 100 positive things that people say about the book, there will be one critic. Usually the person who takes the time to sit down and write out the critique is a little bit of a nut job.
Know When to Listen
Azul Terronez: I think the biggest mistake that people make is not sharing their truths, and they try to share too much. They don’t want to be thought of as not knowing enough, and it gets lost.
Charlie Hoehn: I see so often authors who are like, “The book is not finished. I have to keep including all of my wisdom.”
“No. Just stick to the one thing. You have more than one book in you. Chill out and nail this one.”
Stop talking. There’s confidence in quiet. When you know to shut up, that is a good thing.
It’s important to talk about tactically what can you do when you do get a negative review or a harsh comment.
This viral post that I just published, when I started to realize, “Oh damn this thing is going to take off really quickly,” I was glued to my computer moderating the comments.
For the positive ones I was like, “Sweet, cool.” I didn’t really reply to those. For all of the negative ones that started coming in, Tim Ferris taught me this and it has served me really well: Always start a response to them with thank you.
“‘Thank you for this comment.’ I said, ‘This is a great perspective,” and I would often agree with them.”
I thought the article was flawed. To be honest, I cranked it out in about an hour and a half because I have been writing about this for years. I just didn’t expect it to take off.
So I knew it had some problems, and I was taking in those negative comments like, “I agree with you. I’m going to make some changes based on this.” And then I would invite them, “Do you want to help me fix this up, because I value your input?”
For one person, I can’t remember what they criticized me on, but I said, “I just want to be sure that we are not misunderstanding each other. Feel free to turn this down. But if you want to hop on the phone or email me just to make sure we’re on the same page, I’m more than open to that.”
And that set the tone for all other negative comments or for any of them who saw that I was not here to fight. I was here to introduce a new perspective rather than to say, “Let’s argue about guns,” or the common thing that happens in every other form.
So I think saying thank you for the insight, hearing them, listening to them to what they have to say, and then offering to be a teammate and to collaborate.
Collaborate with Detractors
Charlie Hoehn: I put together this 10 day email sequence for people struggling with anxiety. So it’s a free sequence, and it’s just like, “Hey for the next 10 days, if you focus on these areas, you can cut your anxiety in half pretty easily.” So one of the emails talks about diet and talks about the things that you’re eating.
And the focus is mostly like, “Look a lot of the times you’re nutrient deficient in a few different things. And if you cut out these certain foods and eat these ones, over time, you can start to replenish those nutrients and you will feel better.” And this guy wrote to me and he was appalled that I had such a strong emphasis on protein and meats and he was like, “Look I am not a vegetarian or a vegan but there’s a lot of research on plant-based diets.”
“He was kind of mean about it.”
So I wrote back to him and I said, “Thank you so much for doing this. I actually agree with you. I wrote that email years ago, and I’ve read the books that you are talking about. It’s true, and I just have not gotten around to revising that email to shore it up and have a stronger emphasis on plant-based diets. Would you want to work with me and collaborate and fix up this email?”
And he immediately did a 180. He was like, “Yes, let’s do this. Thank you so much for the privilege. I would love to participate in this.” He did a fantastic job helping me re-write that email, and I incorporated his feedback.
He and I still work on stuff together.
He is going through all the comments that I got on the Vegas article, he put together a spreadsheet of the most valid critiques and how many times people criticized my article. Based on that, we are working on a revised article together.
“Tim taught me, ‘The people who are your most vocal critics can become your most vocal fans if you know how to play it right.'”
Viewing those with some excitement as this is an opportunity to gain a fan rather than digging your heels in and trying to butt heads with them is the way to go.
Azul Terronez: I totally agree. I wish I would have thought more like that when they – I just wasn’t prepared for negative reviews because I didn’t think anybody listened, to be honest.
Charlie Hoehn: No one is, and here’s the irony. So when you write something, people give it a lot of weight. They don’t know you. They just are reading this thing. We have this bias that if you hear somebody say something it might be true, but it’s probably not. If you hear more than one person say something, yeah, it’s probably true. But if you read it, it’s true.
That’s our bias.
The irony is that’s still playing in our heads when we’re reading YouTube comments that are written by twelve-year-olds who have zero life experience. We’re like, “Geez this person really has a point.”
“You don’t even know who is on the other end of that comment.”
It could be somebody trolling you, it could be somebody who is just pissed off at that moment and you caught him on a bad day. That maybe their stress relief for the day. They just want to take their stress out on somebody, and it happens to be a stranger on the internet.
Writing Isn’t About Celebrity
Azul Terronez: I think it has a lot to do with our obsession about numbers in general. What does that really mean? Oh you want to be wealthy? Then probably you should do something other than being an author.
Charlie Hoehn: I tell authors sort of in jest, but when they start listing off, “It would be great to sell a million copies to be on the New York Times bestseller list, a Wall Street Journal bestseller list and to be on Oprah’s couch” blah-blah-blah…
As soon as they start saying that stuff, I’m like, “Look, you know what would actually be easier for you to do is six months of therapy and then publish your book. You have some issues going on, and you want something other than all those accolades. You are going to get those accolades and you’re still going to be disappointed.”
I know multiple people who have gotten those things and lost the money, or they’re still unhappy, they are still chasing.
“There are deeper emotional issues at play if you want to be a celebrity in the author world.”
It shouldn’t be the goal. It should be a byproduct of having done a lot of things right for a long time. Maybe capturing what the culture is going through at that moment that all of a sudden this book is the only book that tons and tons of people have been searching and waiting for.
It says something that is unconventional, it defies conventional wisdom, it makes people feel really strong feelings, it makes them feel awesome to brag about it, whatever.
It’s not something you aim for. It just happens, and it only happens to one or two of thousands and thousands and thousands of authors every single year.
Connect With Charlie
Azul Terronez: What book are you reading now that is striking you or that you want to read that?
Charlie Hoehn: I am reading the Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, and it’s really good. So that’s on my mind. And then I can’t remember the title of this other book I’m reading.
I heard it recommended by Ray Dalia. He said this brilliant Pulitzer prize winning historian tried to make a comprehensive book of the entire history of civilization and condensed it into a 100 pages. It sounds awesome, because I get so bored with history.
I know a lot of people love history, I just always find it dry and painful the way that authors tell it. It was mostly because of the memorization of dates and like the Boston Tea Party. Even when I was in high school I was like, “This is bullshit.” We are not hearing the other side.
“I realized that, oh, the winner writes the history books.“
That’s what I actually like about this other history book. They acknowledge that upfront. They’re like, “Look this dynamic exists, so is there any point to history?” They go through all the arguments against history at the beginning, and they kind of irreverently say, “Still, we proceed.”
There’s an author, I cannot remember their name, but they write books on just like salt. So they write about one particular type of food, like cod, and they will dive super deep on the history of that food and how it’s impacted the world.
Another great one on the history of the food that is really told in a really fun way is a book called The Fish that Ate the Whale, which is about the history of the banana.
This one entrepreneur basically made the banana into one of the biggest fruits in the world, which is an incredibly difficult thing because it’s got such a short shelf life. Back then, they were carrying bananas on trains and stuff through very difficult conditions.
So history can be made fun. It just so rarely is. I think I still have this aversion to it as an adult because it was so conditioned into me that this is a boring, painful topic.
Azul Terronez: If people wanted to learn more about you Charlie, where would they goto find you? How would they connect with you?
Charlie Hoehn: Head to my website, charliehoehn.com. I’m also on Amazon so if you want to grab a copy of my book that’s thumbs up from me. Thanks for having me on, Azul. This was great.
Brick and Mortar Isn’t Dead: Jason Wilson